From Superman to Bizarro? Dwight Howard has become the sports media’s newest “villain”
Villain /vilen/ n. 1. a person capable or guilty of great wickedness. 2. any African-American athlete that is not weak-minded or reliant upon the establishment. Syn. wretch, evildoer, malefactor, scoundrel, cur.
Who was allowed to set the narrative for the African-American athlete? Was it set by those that sought to find the uneven parallels when looking at how certain athletes are viewed? Or is it manipulated by those who think with an outdated mindset.
I’m sure you know what the answer is.
The term “villain” seems to be the sexy term among sports enthusiasts. As white athletes are given the benefit of the doubt by media, (both black and white) and a good portion of white fans, Black athletes are given less wiggle room and are levied with a swift and harsh sentence. In the end, our Brothers and Sisters can only hope that their forgiveness package doesn’t contain the black ball of ostracization.
The struggle of African American athletes is a correlation to the African-American struggle in the United States. Understand that the unwarranted vilification of some African-American athletes is nothing new. It did not begin with LeBron James nor will it end with Dwight Howard. Throughout the history of competitive play, African-American men and women have sought a level playing field while either advancing their sport or dominating it altogether. What they found was racism and sexism endorsed by the hypocrisy of “liberty and justice for all.”
“Black cat is bad luck, bad guys wear black. Musta been a white guy who started all that.” – MC Serch – ‘Gas Face’
Jack Johnson was who the white man feared most in the days of Jim Crow – a Black man with a cuss on his lips and hatred in his heart. The Constitution declared the black man and woman to be three-fifths of a human. But to anyone who witnessed his craft, Johnson was one-hundred percent ass kicker. An inner storm raged inside of Johnson as evidenced in his ring prowess, but he saved a little extra for those of a fairer complexion. If it were not for the sport that allowed him to channel this fury, Johnson would’ve surely ended up at the end of some Klansman’s rope.
Johnson’s dominance in the boxing ring was only surpassed by his prominence outside of it. During his reign as heavyweight champion, Johnson was a walking Black Renaissance and traveled the world as if he owned it. He congregated among those who despised him — on most occasions with a white woman on his arm just to deepen their vexation. Johnson had no problem entertaining the public in the States or abroad. Everyone was enamored by his charisma — it didn’t matter if it was singing, dancing or destroying the white man’s Hope.
Those in control couldn’t beat Johnson and he wouldn’t join them. So the plan of action was to systematically persecute Johnson with petty crimes, which only fueled his hatred for the racism surrounding him his entire life and ultimately led to his shocking death.
Before President Obama was elected into office there was nary a peep (besides John McCain and Pete King…boxing fans who have introduced Johnson pardon resolutions since ’04) in regards to a pardon for Jack Johnson. Today legislators have implored Obama with requests to pardon Johnson, requests that were never placed at the feet of the over two dozen presidents that preceded him.
The spark to Ali’s flame
Nearly a half century later, a young man who studied the ways of Jack Johnson would become the symbol of today’s African-American athlete. Cassisus Clay was the lone gold medalist for the U.S. boxing team at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. The filth of segregation stained Clay’s medal, propelling him on a personal self crusade for knowledge of self. His quest for freedom, justice and equality for all men would elevate him to the status of a world leader in the eyes of the globally oppressed. Whereas in the United States he was viewed as nothing more than a loud-mouthed, rabble-rouser who needed to be put in his place.
As the youngest heavyweight champion in history, Clay would join the Nation of Islam, changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali would march, join sit-ins, and oppose the Viet Nam War as a conscientious objector. As a result of his view on the war, Ali would give up his heavyweight championship and nearly spent time in prison. Ali would draw the ire of Americans who felt that he should be indebted to a country that would not allow him to eat or drink where he wanted but demanded that he risk his life in the name of a liberty he has never experienced.
For nearly four years Ali was left to stew in the juices of uncertainty until the Supreme Court finally ruled in his favor. In March of 1971, Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier, winner of the tournament to claim Ali’s vacated championship. The reason for this fight was simple; Ali had not faced a high-caliber contender in years. Ali returned to the limelight as a challenger who many wanted to see knocked out. Frazier, who won the endorsement by then President Richard Nixon nearly pulled off the feat with a knockdown of Ali in the 15th round.
The buildup to the fight was a divisive point once again for blacks and whites. Blacks became divided as the house negro and field negro analogy was brought into play. While both men were gold medal winners it was Frazier who won the American public over by stating that if he were in Ali’s position he would have enlisted.
Frazier would retain his title on a 15-round decision, but it was Ali who would ultimately win back his heavyweight championship and the American public at the expense of Joe Frazier. Ali’s words were bitter and insulting, infuriating many African-Americans who felt that Ali was displaying self hatred in speaking of Frazier’s strong facial features.
Ali would come full circle as he became the symbol of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Nearly three decades after he was considered a draft dodger among other things, Ali stood as a torchbearer, symbolic of the light that he had been to millions.
“So we ask why should we run in Mexico City only to crawl home?” – Harry Edwards
Forever linked: Norman, Smith and Carlos
The Olympic Games have always been a barometer for social and political climates in the world. The United States boycott in the summer of 1980 and the tragedy of the 1972 Games in Munich are prime examples. The 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, Mexico were the most politically charged since the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany.
In the year of 1968, the world was turned on it’s ear, by the time the Olympics rolled around the world had seen the U.S. forces weaken in Viet Nam, The Prague Spring where Czech students challenged the Stalinist tanks, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. causing uprisings in urban cities across the country and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. In Mexico City, ten days prior to the start of the Olympics, Mexico security forces massacred hundreds of students occupying the National University Tlatelolco Massacre (there has never been an accurate number of deaths). International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage decided to move on with the Games, despite a less than peaceful environment.
In California, Harry Edwards had ideas of his own for the Mexico City Games. Edwards was a student athlete, turned activist who had grown weary of the hypocrisies of the United States and its relationship with African-Americans. From this concept the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was founded one year before the Mexico City games.
The OPHR had three central demands:
1. “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.”
2. “Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee.” A known white supremacist, Brundage sealed the deal that allowed Adolf Hitler to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
3. “Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia.” This was to express a consciousness with the Black freedom struggles in these two apartheid states.
Only the third demand was met.
Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in the 1936 Games in Berlin advised Smith and Carlos not to make any type of political demonstration during the games. In the ’36 Games all Owens had to do was run and win to silence Hitler, but the same enemy awaited his return to America. Owens returned to the United States a hero before he became a pawn in the IOC’s game. In 1968, running and winning wasn’t enough anymore, had it been enough in 1936, Carlos and Smith would just be running to be winners and not immortals. To read of Jesse Owens making an attempt to stand in the way of progression is shameful. I saddens me greatly to speak of him that way. Running and winning in Mexico City was the foundation for a larger platform all Carlos and Smith.
Just make it to the medal stand and the rest would fall into place.
On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meters in 19.83 seconds (a world record), Australia’s Peter Norman claimed the silver and John Carlos won the bronze medal. Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless, but wore black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Carlos had his track suit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” All three athletes wore OPHR badges after Norman, a critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. Both U.S. athletes intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said,
“If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Edwards would watch the games north of the border in Canada. Edwards had been the target of death threats and was told by the IOC that his safety could not be guaranteed. In the wake of their protest Carlos and Smith were stripped of their medals and suspended by IOC president Avery Brundage. The U.S. Olympic Committee refused to suspend them but where threatened with the suspension of the entire U.S. track team. Ultimately, Carlos and Smith were asked to leave the Olympic village.
Brundage’s view on the protest was as asinine as it was contradicting, describing the actions of Carlos and Smith as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. He argued that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the athletes’ salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable. Brundage had been one of the United States’ most prominent Nazi sympathizers even after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Being back on home soil brought no relief to Carlos and Smith. They were denied endorsement deals, became the subject of abuse by the media as well as targets of the F.B.I. They were ostracized in the sports community and were the target of death threats. John Carlos ex-wife sadly committed suicide. Brent Musberger, who at that time was a writer for the Chicago American referred the two track stars as “Black-skinned storm troopers” in response to their protest in Mexico City.
Life was no better for Peter Norman, who was openly reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee and deemed an outcast by the country’s media. The most severe blow came when Norman was left of the 1972 Summer Olympic team despite qualifying for the team with a third place finish. Norman passed away in 2006. Forever brothers in arms, John Carlos and Tommie Smith served as honorary pallbearers.
“I am pleased the Lord made my skin Black. I wish he had made it thicker” – Curt Flood
No one sacrificed more for sports than Curt Flood
The next time your favorite team reels in a top flight free agent, thank Curt Flood. Flood was a gold glove center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who decided that no team should have control over a player’s career. Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause and was cast aside by baseball and ultimately lost his battle in the U.S. Supreme Court. Although Flood never saw a dime in free agency, his fingerprints are on every contract signed by players around the world – an impact that can never be measured.
“Sometimes I feel like a guy not exactly living – but being chased through life, you know?” – Wilt Chamberlain
No athlete Black or White has been more scrutinized than Wilt Chamberlain – no one. Whether it was losing to North Carolina in triple-overtime by one point or being blamed for going soft on Willis Reed in game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Chamberlain might has well have written the NBA record book with erasable ink. Chamberlain’s in-season and career records will never be approached again. The basketball purists’ appreciation for Chamberlain gets lost in the glare of Bill Russell’s eleven championship rings.
Stories of Chamberlain’s accomplishments are explained more like a Paul Bunyan folktale and not a testament to his immense talent. Chamberlain was berated as someone who faded late in games and for not commanding the ball when moment called for it. Chamberlain coming up short on championship hardware isn’t from lack of effort. The Philadelphia 76ers were a formidable challenger to the Boston Celtics, but Red Auerbach could march out two starting fives each night, formulating dozens of effective combinations.
The Lip meets The Dip
Next to Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain was the most visible person on earth in a time when African-American athletes were bonding together for a cause greater than contracts or endorsements. Chamberlain steered clear of being in the mix with players like Jim Brown, Russell and Ali. Chamberlain was supportive, however from a distance. In the biography titled Wilt, Larger than Life, Chamberlain reaffirmed his stance on the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The people who are setting the fire and throwing the stones are only punching out. They are definitely opposite of what Dr. King preached and they know it…I’ve been upset because I have friends that believe in Black Power. I don’t think they want to hurt white people, but the thing that disturbs me is that they don’t believe in the unity of people. I believe in people power — the human race. I don’t care if they’re black, white or whatever color they are…The reason why I have a great deal of respect for all people is because I believe what Dr. King was trying to perpetuate in his life. It [is] a way for fellows like myself, in a small way, to help what he was trying to do. He was exemplifying a life where people have respect for each other as human beings…He stretched out his hand to all mankind. It had nothing to do with pigmentation.”
Chamberlain’s numbers scream of dominance, but in today’s bling driven society, coming up short on rings unfairly pushes Chamberlain to the back.
His entire career was a catch-22. He faced criticism for not being as aggressive or dare I say even more dominant than he was. While what he did in his career seems dismissive to some because his early competition was largely composed of smaller white men.
So was Babe Ruth’s.
”By not pretending to be a goody-goody, it’s actually been easier on me…. And in a sense, I’ve beaten the game.” – Jim Brown
The legend of Jim Brown is two-fold. As the prototype for power backs in the NFL, Brown remains the measuring stick for durability and toughness in a sport that requires it. Off the field Brown has been at the forefront of nearly every African-American cause, from the Civil Rights Movement to organizing a peace treaty between the Bloods and Crips in South Central, CA.
Together, Brown and Welch would make cinema history
Brown has done this things his way for his entire NFL career and for the greater part of his life. While Brown drew criticism from time to time, he refused to be played by the system. His defiance to the demands of Browns owner Art Modell in the summer of 1966 resulted in Brown abruptly ending a stellar nine-year career. Once in Hollywood, Brown would break ground as an actor in the movie 100 Rifles starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. Brown and Welch would come together to do the first interracial love scene in American movie history that didn’t have an “X” rating.
In later years, Brown was criticized for questioning Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and other prominent athletes of color for their lack of involvement in attacking social issues, especially those in the African-American community. Those that remember Brown from his playing days are quick to point out his womanizing and an incident that he is still explaining some 40 years later.
In the late 1960’s, Brown was dating German model Eva Bohn-Chin. During a domestic dispute at Brown’s apartment, someone called police. Brown explains what took place after he slammed the door in a policeman’s face during a New York Times interview, ”Eva kind of freaked…. She climbed over the top of our balcony, and then fell, and rolled underneath it.” Bohn Chin to this day states that she fell on her own.
The former Lew Alcindor found an inner peace as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In the late 1960’s and into the 70’s many African-American athletes and non athletes embraced the teachings of the Islamic faith. Most notably were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), Ahmad Rashad (Robert Earl Moore) and Jamal Abdul-Lateef (Keith Wilkes) all three were able to enjoy productive and even Hall of Fame careers but of course there were whispers about their conversions and what it would mean to their teammates. Where these guys revolutionaries, what was their purpose? All drastic estimations made by many Americans looking for a story.
Peace in the midst of chaos
Chris Jackson was a two-time All-American at LSU, Jackson was a scoring machine who evoked memories of another Bayou great in Pete Maravich. Jackson would become the third pick overall of the Denver Nuggets in the 1990 NBA Draft. Jackson would change his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1993 after his conversion to Islam in 1991. During the 1996 season Abdul-Rauf would refuse to stand for the national anthem before games. Abdul-Rauf would state that the flag is a symbol of oppression coupled with the United States long history of tyranny and standing would conflict with his beliefs. On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf, but the suspension lasted only one game. Adbul-Rauf and the league were able to work out a compromise. Abdul-Rauf would stand during the playing of the national anthem but could close his eyes and looking down (as if he’s being shamed). He usually silently recited a Muslim prayer during this time.
In a blatant show of disrespect towards the Islamic faith, four employees of Denver’s KBPI radio station were charged with misdemeanor offenses related to entering a Colorado mosque and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a bugle and trumpet in response to Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. If I ran into any synagogue disrespecting the Jewish faith, I would be brought up on charges for a hate crime. Why wasn’t this mosque protected in the same manner?
The NBA ostracizing Craig Hodges was inexplicable at best, while the rationale for being blacklisted were crystal clear. Hodges was a key contributor on two of the Chicago Bulls championship teams in the early 1990’s. One the Bulls second visit to the White House in 1992, Hodges, ditched the suit and tie and appeared in a dashiki with a letter for the President George H.W. Bush. The letter expressed Hodges discontent with the Bush administration for its treatment of the poor and minorities. Hodges would later challenge teammate Michael Jordan and other well-known athletes to use their influence to make a difference in poverty-stricken communities. But it was his association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan that led to Hodges’ exile from the NBA. Look no further than NBA commissioner David Stern who is Jewish as the man behind the controls. Hodges at age 32 was still an effective player who did not receive an offer from one NBA team. Hodges filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the NBA. In recent years the NBA and Hodges have reconciled.
These are just some examples of what has occurred throughout the history of the African-American athlete. Others include: Paul Robeson, Fritz Pollard, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, Larry Holmes, The Williams Sisters, Kobe Bryant, Doug Williams, Deion Sanders and Tiger Woods among countless others.
LeBron James made a financial decision that would be a benefit to him as well as his family. Why does he deserve vilification? Dan Gilbert pollutes a player/owner relationship with a slavemaster mentality and he gets off easy in the press. Anyone in Cleveland with full knowledge of the situation would’ve jetted as well.
Stan Van Gundy has repeatedly scolded his own players in the press, but he’s now a victim when Dwight Howard allegedly called for his head?
Today’s message to the African-American athlete is simple: It’s okay to scratch with the chickens, as long as you remember you’re not a chicken.
Josh Hamilton is far from a villain, but he is a great example of white privilege and their forgiveness. If Hamilton relapses seven times he’ll be forgiven seven times. Michael Vick has expressed and shown remorse for his deeds on top of a jail sentence. Vick has resurrected his career and turned his life around. But he will never be believed or forgiven by the majority of whites. Josh Hamilton is doing more damage to the lives of his children than Vick could ever do.
Hamilton suffers from an addiction and speaking as the son of a former alcoholic, I know the damage that it can do when Dad says he’s quitting but can’t. I’m not knocking Hamilton by any stretch but as they get older, Vick’s children may never remember their time away from him. Hamilton’s struggles have become that of his wife and children before the Texas Rangers even enter the scenario.
Today, the reputation of the African-American athlete sits on a razor-thin line, it can fall either way depending who’s at the end of the pen. African-American journalists who stick to the cookie-cutter outline of journalism and are afraid to step out a box that doesn’t exist are just as great a hindrance to progression. There is no electric fence, this is writing. Pen to paper. Thought to fingers. Fingers to keyboard. Use your opinion, if it’s controlled by fear of being labeled, you’re nothing more than a puppet anyway. When the situation calls for it, we have to protect and defend our own when necessary. The days of leaving it up to someone else to dictate the narrative of our athletes and their future are over.
And for those who chose to continue to portray non-deserving African-American athletes in a negative light, I keep an eraser handy for such an emergency.