The Black Athlete’s Image

By Troy A. Sparks, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: February 17, 2011

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MILWAUKEE (BASN) — It’s very clear that today’s black professional athletes are driven by money and attention.

Sometimes they forget about past athletes who paved the way for them to achieve rock star status and national recognition. Their image is shaped by their actions on and off the field or court.

On the 25th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Jan. 17, ESPN held a “Content of Character” panel discussion at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the image of the black athlete.

The panel discussion included Robin Roberts from “Good Morning America” and Bob Ley from ESPN, filmmaker Spike Lee, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, former University of Miami football coach Randy Shannon, ex-Olympian track star Marion Jones, former NBA player and commentator Jalen Rose and sportswriter Michael Wilbon.

Lee said money is the driving force between black professional athletes of today and those from a generation ago. Calipari was honest when he said he doesn’t know what the young black athletes in his program go through every day.

Jones said the current athletes feel that they are entitled to privileges and benefits they receive in exchange for their exceptional talents. Shannon thought the young men he coached were out of touch with the black athletes of the past. He showed some of his black players a picture of Jackie Robinson and asked who he was. They didn’t know.

Most of the discussion was focused on LeBron James, who used leverage and control to his advantage. When James became a free agent last summer, there were teams jockeying for position for his services.

They cleared some salary cap space in anticipation of his arrival to whatever team he chose. After James made the announcement that he would take his talents to Miami on ESPN in a prime time special program, all hell broke loose.

Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert was so upset that he turned a letter to fans into a full page ad. He told fans to give James the rough treatment when the Heat comes to Cleveland to play the Cavaliers.

James is already catching heat for the way he made the decision without talking to his former teammates and team management. Jesse Jackson took offense to that letter when he talked about James during an appearance on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

“Here’s a young man who honed his skills. He used the market that the (Cavaliers) used to get value and chose the team of his choice in free agency. LeBron decided that he, along with Dwyane Wade would do a different kind of deal.

And the owner of the team, comparing LeBron James to Benedict Arnold the betrayer said, ‘We will turn the fans against you.’ (Gilbert) had really endangered (James’) life.”

Lee said that Charlotte Bobcats majority owner Michael Jordan would not have written a letter like that because he’s a black owner. Jones said the city of Cleveland and its fans thought that James belonged to them forever.

Lee said it was James’ right to offer his services to any team he wanted because he was a free agent. The panelists agreed that James didn’t go through the proper channels when he made his decision.

During the discussion on James, Lee and Jones had this exchange:

Jones: “It’s just like when you buy a house. You pay a lot of money for that house, right? And somebody, the IRS, whomever, tries to come and take your house. It’s a problem, because you have paid money for that house. And I think a lot of people might agree with this idea that you pay somebody millions of dollars and they’re yours.”

Lee: “Not for life.”

Jones: “No not for life.”

Lee: “He’s a free agent.”

Jones: “It’s all well and good, but you can understand where the city of Cleveland could have seen that he was theirs? They paid a lot of money for him.”

Lee: “But Marion, can I ask you a question?”

Jones: “Uh-huh.”

Lee: “How much money did he make for the Cleveland Cavaliers?”

Rose thought that James made a “man’s decision.” “No one influenced him,” he said. “He controlled his own destiny, which turned people off.”

Someone should remind James and other athletes before him that the credit should go to people like Curt Flood, the late Reggie White and many others for taking risks to avoid being obligated to the same team by management and offer themselves to other teams who were willing to pay more money for their services.

The young black athletes who become instant millionaires once they sign their first professional contracts are victimized by the friends and relatives who are jealous of their newfound financial status.

“The reality of it is, it’s virtually impossible because a lot of times, some of the people that you try to take care of, some of the people that you try to help guide and navigate end up being the type of people that resent you the most,” Rose said.

“They didn’t get it all from you. They didn’t get a chance to establish their dreams through your accomplishments.” Rose also said that the private lives of professional athletes are on blast every day.

In the era of social media, people want to know what they’re doing around the clock. Some of them make the situation worse when they put their business out in the open on Facebook or Twitter.

These young athletes train for their profession at a major college or university. Rose acknowledges that college athletics is a business. “I know that you call them student-athletes, but I call them semi-pros,” he said.

Coaches are within their rights to add or drop athletes in their programs because athletic scholarships are good for one school year at a time. For every athlete who takes advantage of leaving school early and turning pro, there are others who never get that chance to cash in on their talents because they’re not good enough for the next level.

Lee thinks that the college athletes should get paid. He said being in a Div. I program is like a job. The college athletes go to class, watch film, lift weights, practice and compete in games.

He was told by some black college athletes that they are discouraged from taking classes that are too hard in order to stay eligible and make money for the universities and the coaches.

The treatment and misjudgment of character of black athletes today by the media continues to be a problem. If you could imagine how much crap Michael Vick had to go through after he served his time in prison for his role in running an illegal dog fighting operation and returning to the NFL, it would be more than the average Joe could take in the public eye.

To his credit, Vick keep his emotions in check, even as people still dog him about his past.

On a scale of 1-5, with one being the kindest and five the harshest, the media gave Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a 1.6. He was accused of sexual assault at least twice.

He didn’t serve any jail time, was suspended for some regular season games and allowed to come back to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV. Roger Clemens received a 2.3 rating for his illegal substance use and lying incident.

By contrast, former NFL receiver Plaxico Burress, he of the weapons charges, got a 3.5 rating from the media. Barry Bonds, another illegal drug user, clocked in at a rating of 3.6. It was Vick who was treated the harshest by the media. His rating was 4.8.

Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between the races of most athletes in football and basketball and the sports media. Jones thought the media treated her fairly during her rise to track stardom and her fall for using drugs and getting prison time and was stripped of her records and medals.

In a study by Richard Lapchick, Director of Institution for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, an overwhelming majority of sports journalists are white. That includes 94% of sports editors, 88% of columnists and 87% of reporters.

Most of the white media members never grew up in the inner cities of America and will never understand the struggles that young black men and women had to endure.

After all, wouldn’t you expect black professional athletes to see the world a different way after making some money for their skills if they couldn’t afford decent shoes or equipment to compete in or if their families depended on them through their talents to get them out of poverty?

Another thing that stood out by Lapchick was the gap in college graduation rates between white and black athletes. Among basketball players, the gap is 28%. In football, it’s 20%.

Shannon, a former Miami player who was on a national championship team, was asked if the graduation rate is more important than winning games and if both can be achieved at the same time.

“I think the thing that you have to be careful about is, what are you trying to get done first,” he said. “You either go for the winning standpoint, or you go (for) what’s best for the kids.”

When Shannon was asked how much time is needed to accomplish the goals of winning and graduation, he said, “It depends on what’s expected by that university at that time.”

It was clear what was more important at Miami University: winning games. And since Shannon didn’t win enough games by the Hurricanes’ estimation, he was fired. His departure from the sidelines reduced the number of black head coaches in Div. I to 16.

Wilbon served on the NFL Hall of Fame Committee in 1996. There were 37 white members on that panel. He was the only black member. If it wasn’t for then commissioner Paul Taglibue offering him that opportunity, he would have been left out. He also pointed out that white media members dominate the locker rooms.

That will always be the case.

One positive that can be taken from the NFL in reaching out to minorities in head coaching positions is the “Rooney Rule.” All teams that have head coaching vacancies must interview at least one black candidate.

They aren’t obligated to hire that black candidate. We saw two black coaches in the Super Bowl in Chicago’s Lovie Smith and former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy.

That was progress, but we still have a long ways to go. Maybe one day, we will see more diversity in front office positions and more minority owners in all major team sports.