WHEN I was a kid, I was clumsy. I loved to play basketball, but I felt awkward and unsure of myself on the court. One day at camp, when I was coming off the bench in the closing minutes of a losing game, I heard a teammate remark derisively, ''Here comes Roth. Watch him trip over the foul line.''
He was right. I knew it, and so did everyone else on the team. But I worked hard, and after months of practice shooting balled-up socks into wastepaper baskets, I learned to make the right moves on the basketball court. I was never a star, but I knew the game, its rules, and what my team expected of me.
Today, politicians and journalists are tripping over another kind of foul line. Ethnic, racial, and religious slurs have become almost commonplace in the game of politics. In a country where so many people proudly trumpet their cultural heritage and share it with others, people in the know ought to know better.
When Jesse Jackson recently referred to Jews as ''Hymies,'' he violated the rules of the game, but it wasn't the first time. His comments stung, not just because of the words he used, but because they underscored what many Jews had feared for a long time. Jackson's action said he didn't want Jews on his team. Americans, yes. American Jews, no! He had washed us out of his rainbow.
People who are born into a group beset by misfortune are both vulnerable and testy. Jews are that way.
Blacks are that way too. In last year's Chicago mayoral election, Republican candidate Bernard Epton tripped over the line of decency by what he failed to do. His campaign wrote off 40 percent of the city's electorate by assuming there was no way he could appeal to blacks and figuring it was unnecessary to do so. His greatest failure lay in thinking he could run the city after demonstrating no sensitivity to one of its largest ethnic groups.
Journalists, the great communicators of our age, have also stumbled over the use of stereotypes.
Two years ago Mike Royko wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times describing Korean women as ugly. What he didn't know, but should have, is that our society is filled with contrary stereotypes about Asian women, brought home by American GIs who fought in three Asian wars. Many Asian-American women picked up Royko's not-so-subtle message that they are attractive only when they can look ''Western.''
Korean-Americans in Chicago were upset by the column, but at least in this case Royko was tripped up by his own teammates. At least one West Coast editor refused to run Royko's column, understanding better than he that the paper's Asian-American readership would be offended by such an awkward attempt at humor.
Even mainstream Catholics have been the targets of official clumsiness. In a recent Senate debate over tuition tax credits, South Carolina newspapers quoted Ernest Hollings saying that ''the bishops were running around the hallways of Congress. It was a disgrace.'' Chicago media reported that Mayor Harold Washington questioned the commitment of some Illinois legislators to the city's public schools because of their Catholic school education.
A conspicuous example of media misrepresentation appeared in a Feb. 29 Chicago Tribune political cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, which showed two Hassidic Jewish men addressing a contrite Jesse Jackson with the words, ''Well, just see that it doesn't happen again. Okay boy?'' MacNelly's cartoon may have been intended to reproach Jackson for his ''Hymie'' statement, but instead it succeeded in offending both blacks and Jews. MacNelly was guilty of committing a flagrant foul; his negative stereotyping inflicted pain on two groups who are currently struggling through a difficult transition, in which their fears and legitimate differences are being distorted by bigots in their own and other communities.
Today, the media is the major interpreter of America's diversity. Journalists have a responsibility to portray accurately what happily distinguishes us from one another. Politics is the art of imagemaking. Imagemakers, schooled by the media, are hired to make over politicians, who then use the media to convey their message. With such power concentrated in the hands of so few, opinionmakers are charged with the task of setting reasonable standards of behavior.
Politicians and journalists who mishandle ethnicity, race, and religion haven't practiced enough. When the game is played, they must know their roles and stick to rules. Many are embedded in our cultures. Expertise flows from these cultures. It is made up of compassion and experience, and it enables ethnic, racial, and religious groups to produce leaders who shape policy. These leaders, our politicians, and journalists will become more skillful when they apply to their profession what they have learned from their own backgrounds.
David Roth, the American Jewish Committee's national ethnic liaison, came in second as the 1955 all-around camper at Camp Idylwold, N.Y.