The Blue Eye: Black Athletes In 2007 (Part One)

By A.F. Cook
Updated: December 23, 2007

VIRGINIA — What can any of us add to the discussion of the drama swirling around black athletes in 2007? Some stories have offered good news; others, some of the worst news possible. I’m just an average football fan, but I’m also a student of American culture and racial politics. That is the lens through which I view the world of sports in general and football in particular.


A Rolling Moss Gathers No Stones

Let’s look at the good news first — what could be called the “sports rebirth of the year:” the rejuvenation of wide receiver Randy Moss’ career after he joined my home team, the New England Patriots.

As a young talent, Moss gathered negative publicity for a range of relatively minor incidents on and off the field during his time with the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders. During his first six seasons with the NFL, Moss made the Pro Bowl five times.

He also earned a reputation for being “difficult,” and the sports press was all too happy to buy into the conventional lack of wisdom in that storyline. Why? Because the media makes a lot of money from people who make news, and as we know, bad news is often “sexier” than good news.

What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that Moss is, and always has been, an artist. Artists are strange and special people who bring unique talent to their trade along with a strong anti-authoritarian streak. They are mold-breakers, so what do you expect? The trick to getting the most from an artist is to help him fulfill his divine mission on Earth by allowing him to excel at what he does best.

For that, you need mentors and colleagues that offer him mutual respect, trust and discipline. Moss is also an Aquarius , which if you’re up on your astrology means that he’s ahead of his time and likely to be misunderstood — and so it has gone with the sports press, fans of the losing teams he played on and his teammates and coaches on those teams.

Remember, artists are special people; they not only have special skills but they often have a very fine-tuned sense of humor. During a playoff game in 2005, Moss pretended to moon Green Bay Packers fans who were known for actually mooning the buses of opposing teams.

Moss’ point went sailing over the head of uber-white guy, Fox television announcer Joe Buck, like a badly overthrown pass. Buck, who we might call “Mr. Blond,” called Moss’ gesture “a disgusting act” on air. Moss was fined $10,000 by the NFL for “unsportsmanlike” conduct for his fun-loving “taunt.”

You’d think Green Bay’s Cheeseheads could handle a fake mooning. I wonder if Buck would have judged Brett Favre as harshly had the Green Bay QB done the same to Vikings fans.

Apart from clueless sports commentators, Moss also sustained criticism from his Vikings teammates, most notably quarterback Daunte Culpepper, for leaving the field with two seconds left in a regular-season loss to the Washington Redskins.

Maybe Culpepper should have criticized the NFL cameras for focusing on the incident, making an ongoing mountain out of a two-second molehill. The vindictiveness of the losers in Moss’ professional life has been palpable. After Moss was traded to New England, former Raiders offensive coordinator Tom Walsh told the press that Moss’ skills “are diminishing, and he’s in denial of those eroding skills.”

He also said Moss “lacked the work ethic and the desire to cultivate any skills that would compensate for what he was losing physically later in his career.” So what do I hear in those remarks? Cheap shots and lack of accountability — two traits that, unfortunately, are not unusual in white men discussing the characters of black men.

Moss said he was “unhappy” in Oakland and “not too much excited about what’s going on. He admitted that his “concentration and focus level tend to go down” when he’s in a bad mood. Kind of like how most of us would feel in a similar situation.

Moss was simply stating out loud what every coach, player, fan and pundit in football knows to be true: “Losing sometimes can get contagious.” What some saw as his lack of investment in the game of football may simply have been Moss’ own sense of self-preservation at work as he struggled to maintain his love for the game while stuck in a losing franchise.

Timing is everything. What the Patriots got in 2007 was a mature Moss, an artist entering the most productive — meaning effective — performance years of his career. Moss was destined for the Patriots. As the 2006 season drew to a close, the Pats were in need of a marquee wide receiver.

I was hoping the team would realize Moss was their guy. Judging by the season the Patriots are having, Moss turned out to be the right man for the right team at the right time. Yet many in the sport press never saw that greatness coming. They expected the “old Randy.” So much for that.

As recently as November 2007, some sports pundits were still looking for excuses to dismiss Moss’ talent and dedication. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski on Monday Night Football accused Moss of sitting out on some plays in the Patriots’ tight regular-season game against the Philadelphia Eagles the previous Sunday. But Patriots quarterback Brady sent a shot across the bow of the sports media when he reminded members of the press that “what somebody says outside of this locker room means nothing.”

Brady commended Moss for his mental toughness and expressed disdain for those who had criticized Moss “since the day he got here.” Brady had one takeaway for the press about Moss: “He’s been nothing but a positive influence on this team, on this locker room, and his performance speaks for itself.”

Moss renegotiated his contract with the Patriots downward so that he could, for once in his life, know what it felt like to play on a team that met his own standards of performance. After helping the Pats score winning points on the field, Moss showed up for one postgame press conference in a sanitation-worker shirt with his name embroidered on it. “I picked up a little bit of trash in my day,” he explained.

Did he mean getting trashed by naysayers as well as collecting trash? In any case, Moss seemed to be reminding anyone watching that he knows where he came from, where he is now and where he’s going. Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s weekly menu of “humble pie” doesn’t seem to bother what could be the game’s most talented receiver of the new millennium — not one bit.


There was quite a bit of bad news for black athletes in 2007, especially in the NFL. As Commissioner Roger Goodell observed at the memorial service for Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, the League lost four young, black players in the past year — two of them from gun violence.

Other incidents included the season-long suspension of Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for finding himself a little too close to a shooting incident at a Las Vegas strip club and the eight-week suspension of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who had been arrested four times in 14 months.

When it comes to coverage of black athletes, I don’t pre-judge the sports press for training its lens on bad actors. What I judge sports journalists for is the special zeal with which they go after black athletes who fail to live up to their ideals. This tendency was most obvious in the press’ treatment of Major League Baseball slugger Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

But we could also see that double-standard scrutiny in the unfortunate stories of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and the Redskins’ Taylor. Each of these stories contains similar aspects: most notably, the underlying perception of the black athlete as ne’er-do-well whose ingrained character flaws are destined to catch up with him.

NEXT: More on Bonds, Vick, and Taylor.