Divine forgiveness

Updated: December 27, 2004, 3:36 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Reggie White's passing was the proverbial bolt out of the blue, and brought with it the expected flood of tributes from all corners of the football world. He was, for his contemporaries, the be-all and end-all of what an admirable football player ought to be.

He was strong, and fearless, and generous, and devout, and all but taught Barry White how to hit that low note.

Reggie White
On the football field and off, Reggie White was a man of conviction.
But there was that one day in the Wisconsin state legislature when he disparaged homosexuals and uttered some offensive ethnic remarks in a speech to the pols during his heyday as a Packer. It was a one-time public misstep, and it caused quite the stir in what we now euphemistically and often erroneously call the blue states.

It was the sternest test of his public life. It caricatured him and his beliefs, and it was the only time we know when he blurred the line between the locker room and the big room.

And here's how he passed that test. He apologized. It cost him a network TV job but he never gave in to bitterness or reneged on that apology, showing if nothing else that the apology was as sincere as the rest of his life.

And he moved on, never looking back, and more importantly, never going back. He was a man of his word, again. He'd offended people, he acknowledged it, and he never repeated the offense.

It's what good people do when they speak harshly, even inadvertently, about others. And Reggie White was by every account a good person. A human being, prone to the errors of humanity, and making amends.

This was the briefest slice of his life, a moment in time that came and went quickly. And the reason it came and went quickly can be attributed to White's essential decency. He wanted to speak to an issue that was in reality a third rail in American life, one in an increasing number of third rails that get in the way of people reaching out to those with different opinions.

And no, this isn't going to be a forum for homosexual rights, or ethnic stereotyping, so save your outraged e-mails either way. You get to believe what you like as long as you bring harm to nobody else, and that's as far as we're going here on Proselytizer's Corner.

This is about one small piece of a large man, and how he dealt with it. This is one more reason why Reggie White deserved the flood of tributes, one that has nothing to do with his ability to stand on Steve Young's chest and then smile as he helped him up.

You see, public apologies are pretty cheap these days, and rarely sincere. They are designed largely to quiet critics, or lessen punishment, or to enhance job opportunities. What they are not, usually, are sincere, because they keep happening, again and again and again.

What makes White's apology interesting, though, is that it wasn't meant to do any of those things. He didn't ask for people to stop talking about the issue, he didn't send his agent to get the TV gig back, and he didn't ask anyone to forget that it happened.

He apologized. He acknowledged his humanity by admitting his mistake. He hoped that the people he'd hurt would forgive him. And that was it.

You'd like to think that was good enough, even though for some people it wasn't, and would never be. We don't judge them here. We have enough problems getting the cable guy off the porch.

But the fact is, by any measurable standard, Reggie White meant that apology, and he stood by it. That seems to meet all the reasonable standards for decent human behavior.

And though it may not have made the same impact as the church he built, or the people whose lives he changed, or the football franchise he saved, it counts, too. You see, the measure of a man who played football extends beyond the tentacles of NFL Films. It is also in how he handles his own errors, and while you can argue what constitutes a great man, it seems clear that he was a good one when it mattered most -- when he had to admit he failed.

And that counts for as much as the hundreds of football stories. Maybe even more.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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