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Modell's Hitler comment should be laughing matter


ART MODELL, WHAT in the wide, wide world of sports are you apologizing for?

On Monday, Modell said that "if Hitler came back, I'd take him" as the coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Folks at ESPN -- the cable sports network -- found the quote so significant they included it and Modell's apology on one of their telecasts. And sports fans thought as many people as possible were trying to forget the Ravens' season.

It was a slip of the tongue, Modell said, a "stupid misspeak," a "flippant" remark.

"I apologize to anyone who might take offense," Modell lamented.

Did you get that, folks? Modell apologizes to anyone who might take offense. In other words, he apologized before anybody even had a chance to be offended. He obviously felt the country's Thought Police closing in and remembered that this is the America of the 1990s where everybody gets offended by nearly everything.

Modell, who is Jewish, made the kind of Hitler crack only a Jew could make. If he's troubled that he's alone in engaging in such repartee, he shouldn't be. I plead guilty to making a similar hyperbolic crack, albeit not as publicly.

Several years ago, I was driving through Northwest Baltimore, watching the black drug dealers who had taken over all too many corners in the community. I noticed their smugness, their arrogance, their reluctance to get out of the streets so the law-abiding members of their community could go about their business. Then I remembered all the innocent folks -- especially the children -- who had been killed in their deadly cross fires.

"Where's the damn Ku Klux Klan now that it's really needed?" I muttered to myself.

Soon, I found I had a kindred spirit: comedian Chris Rock.

"Where do I sign up to join the KKK?" Rock asked in one of his routines about urban life. His audience roared with laughter. The blacks laughed, the whites laughed. They all knew what he meant. Rock offered no apologies for his routine, nor should he have.

Modell, however, can't take any chances. He's too male, too white and too damned rich to be able to say what he pleases without consequences. Hence his rush to apologize for a remark that he can't even be sure offended anyone.

Modell has a right to use hyperbole -- "exaggeration for effect and not meant to be taken literally," according to Webster's New World College Dictionary -- whenever he feels like it. In the case of his Ravens, hyperbole was appropriate. He watched the team every game this season. If anybody has the right to crack wise about his team's performance, it's Modell.

Rather than apologizing, Modell should have urged Americans to reacquaint themselves with hyperbole, satire and other forms of humor. Chris Rock got away with his witticism about the KKK because his audience realized he was continuing a long tradition of African-American self-pejorative humor. For years, black comedians have told jokes about "an Italian, a Jew and a Negro" in which the black guy is always the butt of the punch line.

One black comedian who devoted almost his entire routine to Italian-Jew-Negro jokes closed his act by saying, "If I've offended anyone with this routine, I don't give a [expletive]."

Hope you're reading this, Art. Here's another example, from a reader, of humor that might be considered ethnically or racially offensive but is downright funny. I don't know if the reader is black or white, and frankly I don't care. I'm just glad he or she shared this joke, because it came in at just the right time. (This particular reader has made it known in the past that he's not your biggest fan, Art, but please read it anyway.)

"Due to overloading, the jet pilot had to order all luggage thrown out. The plane was still not light enough, and he had all the seats dumped into the air. But the plane was still not light enough, so he told the passengers that even though he hated like hell to do it, some people would have to be put out. And to make it fair, the people would be thrown out in alphabetical order by nationality.

"He asked if any African-Americans were on board. Nobody said a word. He says: Any Blacks on board? It was suddenly very quiet. He says: Are there any Colored folks here? Complete silence, except for a little girl sitting with her mother in the back of the plane. The girl says: Mom, we're Colored, ain't we? Her mother says: Hush, my darling, today we're Negroes."

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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