Sunday, November 28, 2004

Ron Artest, American

The past few days have been difficult ones for Black athletes to say the least. First there was the vaguely O.J.-esque image of a naked Nicolette Sheridan leaping into the arms of Tyrell Owens. It is a testament to how far we’ve come as a country that Mr. Owens wasn’t killed shortly thereafter. We were later pulled away from that kumbaya-campfire thanks to the antics of a few fans in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Sandwiched between both incidents was the soccer match between England and Spain with the Spanish busy re-writing the book on racial epithets complete with imitations of monkeys.

While only the soccer incident was overtly “racial”, you needn’t be on the business end of Ron Artest’s fist to realize the full bloom of a racial moment that seemed to loom ever larger with each beer hurled from somewhere deep in the American subconscious. For a brief moment the curtain had been pulled back and it was clear that the erstwhile amiable, cuddly Black athlete who had been safe enough to seduce on Monday Night had unilaterally decided by Friday that he needed to re-write the script.

All of which is to say that this country continues to have a tortured relationship with Black athletes. It is at once both attracted to and repelled by the image it encounters on television or in the arena in much the same manner that it is similarly conflicted with Black popular culture. America likes it rough but then not too rough because this is, as Larry Brown offered up, really about what we teach “the kids”. Failing that, it is most definitely about market share and ancillary revenue. No doubt the kids will figure this out if they have not already.

The curious thing however was watching the commentators put their own spin on melee. They were, for the large part, careful to sidestep the racial element; quick with a ready background sketch of Mr. Artest that included the requisite “troubled past.” Having signed this troubled past to a multiyear contract, the NBA felt the need to distance itself from it if only temporarily, as if one needed a “troubled past” to charge someone after they threw a drink in your face from a distance of a few yards. Maybe this is what they teach you in the suburbs where all the kids aren’t left behind but something tells me Artest and those that fought with him learned differently.

As David Stern, the NBA commissioner, stepped in to lay out the punishment, it was an attempt to stuff the cat (rather ceremoniously) back in the bag; to show to those frightened suburbanites, fearful that not only had Tyrell Owens absconded with their wives but that there could possibly be a beat down attached to it, that order had indeed been returned from chaos. In short, the Negroes would be maintained and the games would continue. The revenue stream would go on unabated; the natural order would be reaffirmed.

Yet as I flipped my screen between a “civil” war in Detroit and the real one in Iraq, it dawned on me that given the same set of circumstances, wouldn’t the current administration have charged into the stands as well? Didn’t Osama hurl a drink into our national face as we lay restive and unaware, secure in our comfortable pre-911 mindset? Wasn’t our latest Latrell Sprewel simply bringing U.S. foreign policy to a level we could all understand? For the kids even? Namely, you mess with me and I’m coming after you. Didn’t we have an election about this a few weeks ago? Never mind that Artest got the wrong guy; that he heightened a situation that was by all accounts cooling down, when Artest charged the stands, he was doing so in the full spirit of Bush Administration.

And therein lay the hypocrisy of the much televised hand wringing. The myths we tell about ourselves on television are at odds with how we live our lives. In order for the system to work (and by work I mean generate profits) we must all pretend that these millionaire athletes spring forth (from the head Zeus if need be) fully sanitized for public consumption, otherwise the toothpaste and Viagra won’t sell. But of course, they do have a history and no amount of salary is going to scrub it clean, nor should it. This is the way things are and the good often comes intertwined with the bad. Sometimes the Marine will shoot the unarmed adversary at close range; sometime the athlete will charge the belligerent fan. This is life and the kids need to see it because after all isn’t really about them anyway?

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