A sensitive issue is very much on the forefront of sports reporting in contemporary America: the interplay of culture and the tragedies and travesties that have plagued professional sports of late. The question squarely presented is: does hip-hop/rap culture have any discernible, meaningful negative impact on the ways in which African-American athletes (and, more broadly, athletes that are racial minorities) conduct themselves and their lives? If one accepts the premise that hip-hop/rap culture is having a demonstrable adverse impact -- and unfortunately I now do -- the next leap is assuming that what unfolds in professional sports is a microcosm of what is happening in larger society and reflects the pathologies that impact us as a country.
The topic is, of course, extremely controversial and sports writers who choose to address the subject risk being pilloried by their own communities. Case in point: I was shocked recently to read a recent Sports Illustrated issue that included an article on the relationship between Michael Vick and the childhood friends who turned on him; not by the article itself, but by the short explanatory blurb that appeared at the front of the magazine that seemed to come close to apologizing for the piece and, at the same time, make clear that one of its authors was African-American. Thankfully, other sportswriters have been relatively fearless in expressing their concerns. Jason Whitlock, for example, has passionately argued that something has spun horribly out of control. LZ Granderson also recently wrote an eminently personal, persuasive piece for ESPN that was not nearly as inflammatory as Whitlock's piece, but equally meaningful. Michael Wilbon added his thoughts in a controversial column for the Washington Post. Predictably, Whitlock's piece found favor in the commentary of white conservatives that rail about all things largely irrelevant to them, but useful for distracting from the increasing inequality and deteriorating opportunities for economic mobility in the country. Just as predictability, Whitlock has been hammered as a sell-out in screeds notable only for their venomous illogic. Wilbon similarly has come under fire.
Whatever type of sellout it makes me, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the celebration of violence in some of our nation's sub-culture and have been laid low by the absurdity of where we find ourselves. Scoop Jackson's two part series on his relationship with "LaTravis Hawkins" (part 1, part 2) is a strident reminder of what is at stake here: our future. Around my way, we struggle with the impact of the glorification of MS-13 and violence and misogyny in inane Reggaeton anthems that pimp Latin-American culture to the financial benefit of some large corporations that proliferate this bullsh*t. And the consequences cannot be denied, as we keep losing kids. While this should be perceived as a national tragedy regardless of one's politics, the reality is that where once we were told that "a mind is a terrible waste," most of us can only stand by and watch minds, minds that might have made a positive contribution to our communities, wither away.
For whatever reason, the recent death of major league baseball's Joe Kennedy brought these questions home to me -- not Sean Taylor's homicide, but a touching piece on Joe Kennedy written by Jeff Pearlman. I came out of the same lower-middle class neighborhood as Joe and we went to the same junior college. In El Cajon, there are poor kids that live in apartments and poor kids that live in trailers. I used to think that despite the gangs and violence that characterized my neighborhood, I was luckier than those living in the trailers. Now I'm not so sure. Kennedy capitalized on his athletic skills, pulled himself out of the trailers and, yet, according to Pearlman remained close with those back home. He, in the vernacular of the day, "kept it real."
There is no way I would go back. Athletics kept me somewhat protected from the predators that controlled the barrio. Fundamentally, however, I understand that those who gave me a pass were the same people who created the environment that would have caused me harm. And I fear that Angel, who used aluminum baseball bats swung at the craniums of teenagers to impose his will, has been replaced by someone who, bolstered by the fictional war stories that spill out of my radio and my television, believes himself to be truly bad *ss.
These thoughts probably make me a sellout. They probably diminish my standing within my own community -- certainly some of my friends vehemently disagree with me -- and they probably provide fodder to racists who believe that minorities can never be considered the equals of whites. But I hope those who have thoughts like mine continue to express them, without fear and with greater urgency.