The victimization of Latrell Sprewell has started to lose its steam. Efforts to cloud the central issue, to deflect blame, to organize boycotts, to inject the red herring of racism have thus far failed.
Unless Sprewell was trying to cause P.J. Carlesimo to turn blue, the choke hold he applied to his coach Dec. 1 was not primarily about color. It was, and is, about conduct. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible. Which, of course, is where Johnnie Cochran comes in.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson isn't buying Sprewell's spin, and no one else should, either. The man who lays hands on his boss upon being told to put more ''mustard'' on his passes, and repeatedly declares his intent to kill him, waives the benefit of the doubt and the pretext of provocation.
What Latrell Sprewell did was indefensible, even by the lax defensive standards of the National Basketball Association. If he worked in most other businesses, the combustible guard of the Golden State Warriors would not only be out of work, but very likely behind bars.
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, racism is sometimes the first reflex of a reprobate.
''Not every confrontation between a black man and a white man constitutes a civil rights issue,'' Rev. Jackson writes in this week's Sports Illustrated. ''To suggest that the Sprewell case does diminishes the real civil rights issues that the U.S. has faced in the past and faces still.
''Not every incident like this sheds light on the state of race relations in American life. To suggest that this case does diverts us from the challenges we must confront across the racial divide.''
Lord knows the sports world is a long way from color-blind, but some problems run deeper than skin depth. Respect for authority is in decline across racial boundaries, and the tendency to resolve petty disputes with violence is on an alarming rise.
''If the Sprewell episode has a larger implication,'' Rev. Jackson argues, ''it is found in a sports-entertainment industry that tells athletes at a very young age that they may play by a different set of rules than their fellow students, that coddles them and spoils them and showers them with rewards out of all proportion to their contributions to society.''
If a cultural gap contributed to the Sprewell-Carlesimo rift, it was in the same sense that a raindrop contributes to a glacier. The two men had failed to find common ground for a variety of reasons unrelated to their races. Carlesimo can be demeaning and dogmatic. Sprewell can be arrogant and selfish. The Warriors were consistent losers. Tension was high. Conflict was probably inevitable.
Yet there is an enormous difference between a shouting match between player and coach and an attempt by one to throttle the other by the throat. Those who have suggested NBA Commissioner David Stern was unduly harsh in suspending Sprewell for one year should consider the consequences of strangling their own supervisor.
A stronger case could be made that a double standard was at work in the National Football League's dealings with Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski this week.
Romanowski, who is white, spit in the face of San Francisco receiver J.J. Stokes, who is black, in one of the more disgusting episodes in the history of Monday Night Football.
No one has alleged Romanowski's actions were motivated by anything but the heat of battle and the player's own savagery. Still, the league's penalty was so puny (a $7,500 fine and no suspension) that Romanowski's own teammates wondered whether a black player would be let off so lightly.
''I probably would have been thrown out of the league,'' said Broncos receiver Willie Green. ''I would be home right now, probably holding a press conference saying how sorry I was.''
Justice can be firm, but it must be fair. Otherwise, there is anarchy. Otherwise, the Latrell Sprewells of the world win.