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

By A.F. Cook
Updated: December 24, 2007

VIRGINIA — I’m not a baseball addict, so my interest in the Barry Bonds story is more cultural than sports-related. Bonds was routinely trashed by the sports media after journalists conveniently got a hold of Bonds’ grand jury testimony contradicting his own denials of steroid use.

This was before the Mitchell Report came out and pointed to steroid use by baseball’s golden boy Roger Clemens, among others, which caused untold consternation in the white boys’ clubhouse.

Suddenly, Bonds’ crucifiers were forced to put down their whips and nails, as they reluctantly did some overdue soul-searching on their own rush to judgment of Bonds as MBL’s poster child for steroid use.

I wonder what lessons the sports press — especially its average white guys — are really going to learn: guess we’ll see next time the opportunity comes around to hang a noose of bad publicity around the next black athlete’s neck.

Bonds’ attorney suspected the U.S. government had intentionally leaked Bonds’ testimony as part of a “smear campaign” when its prosecutors failed to indict him. That the sports press bought into such a campaign is my real concern.

Whatever happened to the concept of press objectivity?

Here’s my suggestion for all the purists out there who seem to be in denial about the pressure placed on athletes to entertain the masses and make a boatload of money for sports franchises in the process: Why don’t you start a movement to create two separate-but-equal sports leagues — one for the pure and one for the impure?

Then, as it works in America, the “land of the greed,” let the market decide which will survive. Put the onus on sports fans to either support the game that is pure and unadulterated by performance-enhancing substances, or the game that is chock full of home runs but is played by chemically-altered athletes.

I’m curious to see who is truly prepared to sacrifice the new era of hyper-entertainment for the less glamorous concept of strict integrity. Call me when you find enough fans willing to buy into that tradeoff.

Vick’s Icky Shtick

Michael Vick is an amazingly talented athlete with really bad judgment — that’s pretty much the unanimous verdict handed down not only sports pundits but America at large after the Falcons’ starting QB was busted for running a dog-fighting operation out of his back yard.

The bottom line was that Vick made some really bad decisions — in his personal associations, his unwillingness to be straight with Falcons owner Arthur Blank and others about what he was up to (and maybe get some much-needed advice in the process), and his less-than-honest dealings with the authorities who would ultimately decide his legal fate.

Former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter, a presenter at NFL seminars designed to steer players away from unsavory people and situations, has suggested that Vick’s bad judgment had a cultural basis. Some black parents have “preached a philosophy of ‘You can’t trust the white man in America,'” according to Carter.

Because that distrust is ingrained, “guys hold tight to friends who always had their back.” That philosophy may well have doomed Vick, who faced automatic supporters (mostly black) along with hostile crowds (mostly white) outside the Richmond, Virginia, courtroom where he was tried.

As I told radio host Mark Gray in a recent interview, I don’t believe Vick’s 23-month sentence automatically signals the end of his NFL career. This is because the NFL brotherhood generally holds out the prospect of redemption to fallen heroes who “man up” — take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes.

Only time will tell whether doing time for extreme animal cruelty will result in a better, more humane Michael Vick — and whether those changes will make for a second chance at an NFL career.

Sean Taylor: the Miracle We Hardly Knew

Sean Taylor was fatally shot during an invasion of his home in an upscale neighborhood outside Miami on November 26. He died several days later from loss of blood: the bullet that killed him severed a primary artery in his leg.

The incident was tragic on a number of levels — his youth; the fact that his girlfriend and baby daughter were in the room; the fact that, by all accounts, Taylor was in the process of shedding something of a thug image for mature manhood; and, of course, his talent.

Strangely, Taylor’s shooting and death did not meet with unanimous, unadulterated sympathy. What they did bring was a lot of speculation among the press and his own peers about Taylor’s potential ties to the perpetrators thanks to the player’s own troubled past.

Many of us initially speculated that the murder had been a “hit” by former Taylor “associates.” How could people even consider such a sinister scenario? For one thing, Taylor had pleaded no contest to assault and battery and was stripped of his right to own a gun, after he brandished a weapon while trying to determine who had stolen some of his all-terrain vehicles in 2006. (This is why he had a machete rather than a gun to protect himself the night he was shot.)

Another factor contributing to the perception of Taylor as the victim of his own past: the University of Miami, Taylors’ alma mater, is known in some circles as “Thug U.” Arizona Cardinals defensive back Antrel Rolle didn’t help dispel perceptions of links between Taylor’s past associations and his own death when he suggested Taylor had been targeted by former peers jealous of his success.

Taylor’s house had apparently been targeted for robbery by four young men who exemplify, above all, one terrible mindset associated with minority-on-minority crime: the lack of conscience.

If only one of those kids, who were between 17 and 20 years old at the time of the crime, had either been able to talk the others out of the mission or had gone to the authorities beforehand, Taylor might still be with us. Here, more people should consider the culture of “not snitching,” which has become a negative badge of pride in ‘hoods across America.

That code of behavior may be one part of the terrible legacy of mutual hostility between cultural minorities and police, but if that code is not broken, tragedies such as Sean Taylor’s and so many more we never hear about will only continue.

Washington Post columnist and co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Michael Wilbon, caught flak from some people for expressing his lack of surprise at the way Taylor died, which coming as it did so soon after the athlete’s death seemed a bit brusque.

“The issue of separating yourself from a harmful environment is a recurring theme in the life of black men,” Wilbon said. “To frame it as a sports issue is as insulting as it is naive.”

Many blacks who grew up in big urban communities “have to make a decision at some point to hang out or get out,” Wilbon asserted. With that decision comes an all-or-nothing proposition: “Cut off anybody who might do harm, even those who have been friends from the sandbox, or go along to get along.”

Wilbon’s timing may have offended people for whom that reality is just too painful to admit — especially in front of what Wilbon calls “mainstream folks,” his “code word” for white people. This is important, because I disagree with Wilbon on a key point: he seems to think whites see the travails of black athletes trying to separate themselves from negative associations as specific to particular individuals.

In fact, most of us know it’s a problem for black culture as a whole. So the cat’s out of the bag, folks. The white-dominated sports media surely needs to be more balanced in its coverage of athletes of different races, but the issues plaguing black culture cannot be disguised from the media lens, and we must confronting those hard truths together if they are to be overcome.

So, here we stand on the eve of 2008, hoping for fewer tragedies and more triumphs in the coming year. The goal for black athletes and their supporters should be equal respect, both on the field and off it. Sean Taylor showed the world that any one of us can change. Michael Vick showed us that “change you must, or fail you will.”

Barry Bonds showed us that, if you wait long enough, more will be revealed and the playing field will be leveled once more. And Randy Moss showed us that, ultimately, the best gift is to appreciate and be appreciated for one’s individual achievement within a collective of individuals, regardless of race and cultural background, who share the same vision of excellence.