by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Bruce Kimball killed two people earlier this month when his car swerved out of control and plowed into a group of teenagers. He had been drinking. He was taken away in handcuffs. Now, like any other American, he is awaiting his trial.

This would not attract much attention under normal circumstances. Auto-related deaths, even those involving drunken driving, are too common in this country to grab many headlines.

But this case has grabbed headlines, for this reason: Kimball, charged with manslaughter, is a world-class diver. And today he will try to make the U.S. Olympic team.

“Horrible,” some people cry. “How can they let him do that?”

“Think of the victims’ families,” others add. “Should they have to watch this guy?”

Critics say he should be banned from trying out. They say he doesn’t deserve to represent this country — and even if he makes the Olympic team, he should be refused participation for what he did.

To which I say: wrong.

Few people have come down harder on drunken driving than I have. And I do not equivocate. Drunken driving is foolish at best and deadly at worst; it is, to me, an unarguable issue.

But there are other issues, too, and one is due process and another is civil rights and another is that in America you are innocent until proven guilty. And these issues have been around longer than platform diving and they are the reason, however painful, that Kimball must be allowed to dive — and if he makes the team, he must be allowed to participate.

Even if we don’t like it. Kimball has right to work When Kimball stood before the press last week, reading a statement, his hands shaking, he said that diving “is my work. If I were in the work force, I would go back to work.” And that is true. His day in court will not come before December. If he were a plumber, he’d be back fixing pipes, awaiting his justice. And few people, if anyone, would care.

Well. Just because Kimball’s work happens to take place in front of millions of critics doesn’t mean it is any less valid. It simply means that, unlike the plumber, he will not be so easily ignored.

So the burden falls on us. Now, I suspect that Kimball — who is, by most accounts, a decent kid — is going through a private hell, as are the families of the dead teens and the six others who were injured. But when we see Kimball on that diving board, we must not see hatred or forgiveness or our own bloated sense of self-righteousness.

We must see principle.

Sure, what happened that night in Florida is an unspeakable tragedy. Sure, it is almost disgusting to think that Kimball can fly through the air, receiving applause, when everyone knows he was involved.

Perhaps Kimball should withdraw out of respect to the victims. But if he chose not to, there is little anyone can or should do about it. He is not breaking any rules by competing. He is still innocent until proven guilty. That is the law in this country.

There was a time, six years ago, when Kimball stood on the victory stand, having come back from a terrible accident himself — in which the other driver was drunk — an accident that fractured his skull, ruptured his spleen, lacerated his liver and crushed every bone in his face. He had made it back, through courage and determination. As he climbed to that platform, many fans broke into tears.

At that moment, Bruce Kimball’s presence represented more than just athletic competition.

And so it does today.

Today it represents a man’s right to justice. Athletics is what matters Please understand this: No one is condoning what Kimball did. It was a horrible mistake (and I say mistake because I honestly don’t believe Kimball went out looking to kill anyone). Just the same, there are groups of protesters at the trials today, circulating petitions to ban Kimball’s participation in Seoul. I can share their emotion. But we do not live in a country where any outside group — or even the government — picks and chooses who will look best in our colors at the Olympics. Thank heaven.

When we send someone, it is because he met the athletic standards. Contrary to popular belief, not every athlete represents you or your way of thinking — even if he or she does wear the American flag. As long as Bruce Kimball is not violating any laws, he must be permitted to compete, just like anyone else. You needn’t root for him. But hating him doesn’t make you patriotic.

Why is there such anger over this issue? I guess people feel it is another case of an athlete getting preferential treatment, and that allowing him to compete will somehow lighten the fist of justice. No. That would be truly unforgivable. Kimball should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of his crime
— when that day arrives. He may be sent to jail for years.

In the meantime, his critics don’t want him representing this country. What they miss is that his case is all about this country: It is more than a flag on some diver’s swimsuit; it is freedom and equal treatment and due process.

Today will not be an easy scene for the families, the friends, or the athlete himself. But after all the anguish, and the unending spray of public hatred, if this is what he chooses — then so be it. Bruce Kimball can take a dive. The principles of this country cannot.


Bruce Kimball


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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