The site was the historic Morehouse College last week. The panel discussion was hosted by famed film director Spike Lee. The subject: the black athlete and the reporters who cover him. And as a bunch of notable figures in sports sat on this panel - Alonzo Mourning, C. Vivian Stringer, Jim Brown and myself included - bantering about issues stigmatizing African American athletes and the communities they come from, the one inescapable thought turned out to be the most appropriate - and the most uncomfortable.

We still have not recovered from the O.J. Simpson trial.

It's still too easy to blame the media for images created by the actions of the modern-day athlete. It's convenient to point out the lack of positive information draping the front pages of news outlets throughout this country. Meanwhile, we learn that Pacman Jones visited a strip club the night before he was suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the 2007 season in part because of such habits.

Reports are swirling that dogfighting was taking place at the Virginia residence of Michael Vick. We're being inundated with headline news about how Ricky Williams will not be reinstated due to yet another positive test for marijuana.

Oh, did I forget to mention that kids are paying attention?

The fact is, so is white America. Meaning corporate America. Meaning all the head honchos who influence the retaliatory actions of Mr. Goodell, NBA commissioner David Stern, and anyone else in a position to halt the negative impact of a few idiots tainting the jerseys they wear.

The truth is, any boss would be stupid if he or she didn't pay attention.

The Goodells and Sterns of the world understand something black America had better comprehend quickly: Any athlete resembling O.J. Simpson will happen again over white America's collective dead body.

You don't have to be accused of murder to kill a generation of people. You can kill someone's soul or spirit, their hopes and dreams, even their sensibilities. You can do this with misogynistic lyrics, with juvenile behavior. But mainly, with the slightest perception that these athletes are operating with impunity, enabled by the very individuals assigned to enforce justice and decency while making sure our games are played.

Spike Lee's panel in Atlanta was supposed to focus on discussing this reality, or, put more bluntly, debating "the pervasive problem within this black youth hip-hop/prison culture" and the collateral damage it's causing. At least that's how it was conveyed to my respected colleague and fellow panelist, Jason Whitlock, who wrote about it in the Kansas City Star.

Regardless of what anyone thinks, Whitlock was correct in intimating the panel focused entirely too much energy and ire on him - even if he deserved it because of his comments questioning Stringer's intent in the aftermath of the Don Imus fiasco. The typical keep-our-business-in-house mentality is not going to alleviate the problems in the black community. Or the concerns of those who are witnessing our deterioration, fearing it will plague them eventually.

Mourning, as charitable and sensible as an athlete comes these days, kept talking of how the "media's negativity" contributes heavily. Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards piggybacked on that, saying if the press focused more on exemplary works like that of Mourning's foundation and others, image wouldn't be a problem in the NFL or the NBA.

But there would be no problems if players were not getting arrested for domestic violence. USA Today wouldn't have the faces of 39 arrested African American athletes (out of 41 total) plastered on the front page of its sports section if it wasn't forced to visit the nearest precinct. And while it could easily be pointed out how little emphasis was placed on the death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, who died in a car accident after having an alcohol level nearly double the legal limit, and how this came in the aftermath of his manager, Tony LaRussa, getting arrested after being found asleep behind the wheel with too much alcohol in his system, that still doesn't solve the problems existing in the black community.

Economics is an issue. Education is an issue. And so is leadership. The world has learned we're devoid of it because the athletes who are clueless and insensitive speak the loudest for us. Even when they can barely speak at all.

It's time for them to wake up, to recognize their actions serve as the perfect excuse to stigmatize a generation.

I left the panel discussion hoping the few athletes there would use their long tentacles to make sure their contemporaries got that message. They had better get it quick because time is running out.

The powers that be couldn't get the man jumping over suitcases in those Hertz commercials.

So any ignorant fools will do.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.