It’s Gotta Be the Ink: Crime, Athletes and Tattoos

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Updated: July 5, 2013
john-wall-tattoos-instgram

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sports media is often a place ripe with racial, class, and gendered meanings; it often is a site where stereotypes and profiling are articulated; where bodies, particularly bodies of color, are subject to scrutiny and examination, ridicule and demonization.  Sports media, especially when the coverage moves beyond the game, is often dominated by generalizations and grandiose arguments that spill over outside of the arena and playing field.  This has been evident with two recent columns about John Wall and Aaron Hernandez, both of which extrapolate meaning and pathology from tattoos – or better said the meaning in an inked body of color.
In a recent column, Jason Reid cautioned the Wizards (he provides clarification here) against signing a contract extension with Wall because of his decision to get and unveil his tattoos:
Posing shirtless recently for an Instagram photo, Wall revealed several tattoos. Wall’s interest in body art is surprising, considering he previously said he did not have tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons. Many NBA players do have tattoos, and Wall isn’t breaking new ground in sharing his ink with fans through social media.
But not every player flip-flops on a topic in such a public way. Factor in that Wall is expected to receive a huge payday from the Wizards next month, and the timing of his tattoo revelation raises questions about his decision making. For a franchise with a history of backing the wrong players, that’s food for thought. . .
Reid makes clear that Wall’s decision to get tattoos leads him to question his mindset, his character, and his priorities since he previously stated that he wasn’t getting any tattoos because of a potential reaction from fans and the organization.  Yet, now he has them, causing Reid to wonder about Wall’s focus on the game and the fans.  It’s gotta be the ink.
Reid’s effort to read meaning into Wall’s tattooed body is nothing compared to Jason Whitlock’s recent column, which is disturbing even by Whitlock’s standards.  Amid the many troubling points of “analysis” that nostalgically pine for popular culture and a sports world of yesteryear, Whitlock uses the arrest of Aaron Hernandez as an instance to pathologize and demonize today’s athletes, and accordingly goes in on tattoos:
Athlete covered in tattoos is linked to several violent acts, including “accidently” shooting a man in the face. Modern athletes carry guns. They do drugs. They mimic rappers and gangster pop-culture icons.
Athletes want street cred, and they costume themselves in whatever is necessary to get it. Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc., were the first to recognize the importance of authentic street cred when it came selling product to American youth.
Sadly Whitlock was not done:
When he stood in chains before a judge at his arraignment, in a white T-shirt and his arms decorated in ink, Hernandez did not look out of place. Guilty or innocent, he looked like someone who had prepared for this moment. He didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like an ex-con…
We can no longer distinguish bad from good. We no longer even aspire to be good; it has considerably less value. That’s what Aaron Hernandez represents, to me. Popular culture has so eroded the symbolic core principles at the root of America’s love affair with sports that many modern athletes believe their allegiance to gangster culture takes precedence over their allegiance to the sports culture that made them rich and famous.
There is so much wrong here that I am not sure where to start but let me unpack a few arguments.  (1) He seems to argue that America’s crime problem (despite declining crime rates) is the result of its faulty values. Popular culture is the teacher to blame. The celebration of Jay-Z and Tony Soprano (and I am not fooled by the inclusion of Tony Soprano to obfuscate from the racial arguments) has created a culture of criminality, as evidenced by Aaron Hernandez.
Whitlock writes that Hernandez, “stayed true to his boyz from the ‘hood. He mimicked the mindset of the pop-culture icons we celebrate today.” While acknowledging the costs and consequences of “a 40-year drug war, mass incarceration,” Hernandez is a product of “a steady stream of Mafia movies, three decades of gangster rap and two decades of reality TV have wrought: athletes who covet the rebellious and marketable gangster persona”—a  little nostalgia to go with Whitlock’s simplicity and reductionist linear narrative.
In amazing level of erasure of history, of violence, Whitlock, who clearly plays a sociologist, psychologist and media studies scholar on both TV and the Internet, pontificates how to thwart crime and violence: revamp the television guide and top-40.   Yes, it’s got to be the television.  Rather than address structural realities, it is time for politicians, activists, and communities to address the real menace: popular culture.  If only he was kidding.
(2) I wonder if he or others who like to blame rap and popular culture for everything invoke these arguments in other cases or just those involving people of color.  I must have missed an examination of the listening habits of Adam Lanza or James Holmes?  I wonder what sort of influence hip-hop and Allen Iverson had on the Boston bombers, Catholic priests, or Wall Street executives.  Clearly, it is time for Whitlock and others to listen to Michael Franti’s “It’s a crime to be broke in America.”
They say they blame it on a song When someone kills a cop What music did they listen to When they bombed Iraq? Give me one example so I can take a sample No need to play it backwards If you wanna hear the devil Cause music’s not the problem It didn’t cause the bombin’ But maybe they should listen To the songs of people starving…
More than reminding me of the scapegoating of music which truly masks the criminalization and demonization of bodies of color (nobody has made issue of George Zimmerman’s tattoos), I recall a response to David Whitley’s piece about Colin Kaepernick because sadly I can just remix this “Dear Mr. Whitlock” because same message different day.
***
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness  (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited withLisa Guerrero.

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