Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sardines for dinner

With the Darrent Williams shooting, the hood has poked its unwelcome nose into a world of hack columnists, fantasy leagues and over-unders. Once again, the uncomfortable and messy underside of the American experiment has come to disrupt the marketing and categorization of sport- charging into your living room and defying you to reconcile heaters and flankers, TANF and RPI. As Joe Buck so often says, the pressures are complicated when you're "young, black and famous with money hangin out the anus." No, Joe Buck didn't say that, because, like so many, Joe Buck doesn't, and never will understand.

Many professional athletes live on the margin between the most visible and most invisible realms of American society. Their faces are on trading cards and they get bought and sold in office fantasy pools. They come into your living room every night. They are part of a product being sold for your consumption. Many are also nominal ambassadors of another nightly television staple- the hood. In the hood, as many of you may have forgotten, people get shot, live in substandard housing, have little access to jobs, banks, public services and basic necessities, can't afford health insurance, can't take out loans, probably don't have two parents. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Henry and the like are, for lack of a better term, moving parts- and problematic ones at that.

Woe be it for me to tell anybody that there are at least two Americas. Periodically, something happens to drive that point home- Selma, Newark, South Central, Ninth Ward. However, inherent in the definition of a "period," interest and awareness rises and falls. When Kanye said W "doesn't care about black people," some folks were fucking shocked. The story of the perpetual underclass is a pretty old one (500 years at least), and it doesn't sell any papers. Jay Marriotti probably doesn't spend a lick of time in East St. Louis after a Rams-Bears game. Chris Berman usually doesn't stop for a beer in Newark when he's going to catch a flight. And these guys are barely journalists, they're sports journalists- accustomed to reporting the most formulaic and programmed "news" where the same shit happens 99 percent of the time (The blogosphere's typically ironic, pithy style doesn't really provide much depth either). Professional sports are diversionary, brought forth in England as a baron's best remedy for labor unrest- bread and circuses. How are the ringmasters supposed to handle this?

When Darrent Williams gets shot or Len Bias ODs, it's a "tragedy." When Stephen Jackson licks shots in a parking lot or Chris Henry yacks 'yak out of a car, it's "young black men behaving badly." But is this all the same story? (I know Bethlehem Shoals thinks so.)

Waliy Abdur Rahim (better known as Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell), who Jason Kidd and Gary Payton both describe as (my words) "way, way better than me," held up a video store. His friends and acquiantances (including Brian Shaw and Antonio Davis) went to the NBA. The line is thin. Very thin. Perhaps there is as much Hook Mitchell in Gary Payton as the other way around. Gary Payton, Darrent Williams and the like did not evaporate from the ghetto ether when they got their mugshots on an ESPN player card, which has a text field for "born," but not one for "died." They invisibly went on living the life they had before in parallel with the life they earned through their physical talent and hard work. This fact may have been subtly acknowledged in a United Way PSA. We all know living in the hood is more about trap-or-die than it is about reading Dr. Seuss with Tiki Barber, but we damn well don't want to think about it.

Just weeks ago Jay Mariotti was absolutely skewering Tank Johnson for holding heat. If it were Tank dead in Denver, would we be saying something to the tune of (sarcastically)
How surprising that someone actually would harass Tank on the dance floor, prompting [housemate Willie] Posey to respond in the bodyguard role and wind up taking a fatal bullet in his chest.
Could we deign to say that the dead man or Johnson "asked for it?" Did he fuck up by hanging around with people that he grew up with? Should you just ditch everybody you knew back in the day because you "made it?" Would you do that? If not, did he fuck up by being born black in the hood?

I don't know much about Tank Johnson or Darrent Williams personally, but I know some people who may have grown up in very similar circumstances, and live in them still. It's dishonest to leave dots like this unconnected, but it's much easier to sell ad time if you do. Sports are games, but they employ real people from real places, with a wildly exaggerated focus on human resources, relative to other businesses. Some games, like football, employ disproportionate numbers of people from some of the more dangerous and forgotten places in our country, and market them to audiences who are scared out of their minds to so much as drive a car through those places. In the process the leagues require a lot of assimilation from their employees in the name of marketing.

I am not an apologist for bad behavior on the part of athletes, but I have some qualms about exactly how we define "bad behavior" and how we suggest that it be addressed. Perhaps the way to save the next Darrent Williams is to address the issues which confront young, black athletes in a more pragmatic and thoughtful way. The first step is to stop pretending Williams has nothing in common with the 400-odd people who got murdered around my way in 2006, and start believing he has everything in common.