LETTERS NOT ENOUGH FOR SMITH TO LEAVE

MINNEAPOLIS — Drop dead. I hope you die. You are trash. You are scum.

I get letters like this all the time. So do most journalists I know. And most politicians, civil rights leaders, talk-show hosts, and movie stars. Just about anyone in the public eye can scoop through the mailbag and come up with a few juicy gems about how “your type of people” should take the next boat to Russia, Africa or hell — depending on who was offended.

Usually you ignore these letters. The rule of thumb is if it’s not ticking, don’t worry about it. There are a lot of sick people out there with a lot of free time. What are you going to do?

And most athletes follow this philosophy. At least those who bother to read their mail. Bruce Smith bothered to read his — and he didn’t like what he saw. This has turned into a mini-explosion here in the land of Super Bowl madness.

Smith, the gifted and outspoken defensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills, got some nasty letters last year, a year in which he missed 11 games while recovering from knee surgery. Oh, he got more than 1,000 pieces of positive mail, people saying get well soon, he’s the greatest, they adore him.

But there were these negative letters, he says “around 10 of them,” letters that referred to his skin color. They used racial epithets. Said he should go back to Africa. Although most black celebrities have received this type of mail for years, these letters bothered Smith, enough that he complained about them, first in Buffalo, then Tuesday during the first round of interviews here for the Super Bowl. What bothered Smith most was that one of the letters was delivered to his house.

“I can deal with it when it comes to the stadium,” he said, “but at my house, that’s an invasion.” His frustration understandable Now, I agree with Smith on this part. There is no “acceptable” amount of racism, and it is scary when even a drop of it stains your home — even via the mailbox. But I’m not sure I agree with what Smith says next: namely, that these letters are enough reason to make him want to leave Buffalo.

“I will be exploring other options,” he said Tuesday, although he has two years left on his contract. “Once this Super Bowl is over, I’ll consider what to do. Too much has happened in Buffalo that I just can’t forget. Ninety-eight percent of the people are wonderful, great, but at the same time, it’s that two percent that are really disappointing.”

As a person who receives hate mail, I understand Smith’s frustration. But think about those numbers: 98 percent? If most public figures had 98 percent acceptance, they would leap in the air and holler, “THEY LIKE ME! THEY REALLY LIKE ME!” Mel Gibson doesn’t get 98 percent. Michael Jackson doesn’t get 98 percent. Mikhail Gorbachev — at his best — never got 98 percent.

But Smith says the 2 percent lunatic fringe is enough to bug him. When some of us wrote about it Wednesday — USA Today put it atop the front of its sports section — suddenly Smith was a hot interview. Why did he say it? Did he want to be traded? Wasn’t he overreacting?

“How was I overreacting?” he said. “If the letters were sent to a bunch of Jewish journalists and they said something, would they be overreacting?” No justification for trade OK. Wait a minute. Before this gets out of hand
— as most things do at the Super Bowl — let’s understand a few things about Bruce Smith. He has never been afraid of attention, not a guy who wears sunglasses indoors and who “guaranteed” a Super Bowl victory before this season began. Smith once told the world he was “better than Lawrence Taylor.”

He celebrates so wildly after making a sack that he has been officially warned by the NFL. Four years ago, he was suspended from the NFL for violating the drug policy.

None of this makes him a good or bad person; it does make him — like a Deion Sanders, Kirk Gibson or Charles Barkley — the type of athlete who is going to stir a lot of reaction. Including mail. And because there are a lot of sick people out there, some of that mail will hate him for his skin color — the same way he’d be hated if he were Mexican, Chinese or Albino.

Does that justify a trade demand? Would he really do better than 98 percent someplace else? Warren Moon, a more reserved star in Houston, has received plenty of racist mail there. Doug Williams, a class act and former Super Bowl MVP, received a watermelon in the mail while playing for Tampa.

So why would Smith, NFL defensive player of the year in 1990, turn 10 letters into his exit papers? True, he has admitted, “It’s hard to get attention in Buffalo.” But I would hate to think he is using this incident as fuel to get to a bigger, richer marketplace, where he could be more famous.

Because that would be wrong. As wrong as those idiots who fill the mailboxes with hate. I agree with Smith about the letters. I think he should read them aloud, hold up the mirror, let people hear how ugly they can sound.

But fight it. Don’t flee it. Not if you really believe in change.

I don’t know why people spill hatred into a letter. I don’t know how they can lick the stamp and drop it in a box. But I do know this: You won’t stop these folks by leaving town to escape from their poison pens. On the contrary. You’ll only encourage them.

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