A Double Fault On Defending The Indefensible

On Friday at Sports by Brooks, I wrote on Justin Gimelstob, who turned a career as an unremarkable tennis player into an equally unremarkable career writing columns for Sports Illustrated‘s web site and occasionally working as a TV analyst, and his much too frank comments on his feelings about Anna Kournikova and opinions on the pulchritude of several up-and-coming female players (of course, all said on D.C. sports talk radio, unfortunately, WJFK’s archive has purged this segment of the Junkies due to age since it aired on June 18th.)

I didn’t expect anyone at SI to address the matter; the usual modus operandi is to sweep these things under the rug and/or handle it internally, while sneaking out a small note about the matter. But, the mag’s lead tennis writer, L. Jon Wertheim, brought it up in his “Wimbledon Midterm Grades” column, yet I think he’s only managed to make it worse by admitting it was indefensible — if only to then excuse it.

Justin Gimelstob: Dozens of you referenced his unfortunate remarks. The full disclosure, of course, is that Justin has been writing for si.com, which makes this all the more awkward. The remarks themselves are thoroughly indefensible. But let me say this in his defense: he’s always been a beacon of candor, one of those athletes who speaks honestly, regardless of whom he might offend or what collateral damage might arise. This doesn’t, of course, give him license to say anything, but — and I feel similarly about Charles Barkley — it tempers at least some of the outrage when he crosses the line.

I don’t ever recall Charles Barkley on TNT ever saying he wanted to hit someone — never mind a woman — with a ball, and saying that if he didn’t do that, he hadn’t done his job. That’s really awful moral equivalence, and it serves to distract from the offenses. Barkley has talked shit about entire cities, about backwards-ass people in his home state, various other things, but I don’t recall him talking openly about how much he hated someone; so much so he expressed a desire to hurt the person physically.

Never mind Gimelstob’s comments about maybe letting his “stud” brother take a run at Kournikova if she offered to screw him.  I got a bit of a slimy feeling just listening to it as I waded through the audio on Friday, and I’m fairly crass myself. Gimelstob has had to apologize, of course, but it’s probably not that sincere, and I’d say if he’s still keeping those views of the women’s tour, maybe he shouldn’t be paid to write or analyze it, because he may not be entirely capable of doing so fairly and with respect.

Gimelstob comes off as a self-involved frat boy, bragging about nailing Martina Hingis, and talking about Kournikova, Tatiana Golovin, and Alize Cornet in such pleasant “sexpot” terms. It’s one thing to do it when you’re an average Joe viewer (I’d be lying if I said I never gawked at Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, or Ana Ivanovic, to note a few) but it’s quite another when you are a former player and current analyst of the game, never mind a member of the ATP board of directors.

Wertheim’s “not really a condemnation” is also insufficient because it doesn’t detail the remarks; it presumes everyone has heard them, which I’m not sure is actually the case. So, once you frame it as something regrettable and indefensible, you can make the excuse that it’s a candor-based mistake without quoting or linking to any parts of what he said.

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Reuters