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Jason Whitlock on the NFL Color Lines

White Noise

by DAVE ZIRIN

Jason "Big Sexy" Whitlock has told me to "mind [my] own damn business" when it comes to his mission to lead a new Civil Rights movement against "black idiots". But whether you are talking about Whitlock or someone hanging a noose on a tree, there is a problem when you say, "Just ignore it and it will go away."

Whitlock’s latest on Fox Sports, titled, "NFL buffoons leaving terrible legacy" takes it to even another level. It’s an ugly clarion call for athletic ethnic cleansing. He makes the case that the NFL is getting whiter, all thanks to black "hip hop buffoons" who are alienating owners, coaches, and fans. He writes, "African-American football players caught up in the rebellion and buffoonery of hip hop culture have given NFL owners and coaches a justifiable reason to whiten their rosters." Justifiable: meaning it is a process he both defends and understands.

His evidence for actions that "justify whitening" lie with flamboyant Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson and Chiefs running back Larry Johnson [no relation]. He believes that both men consciously undermine their coaches, Marvin Lewis and Herm Edwards, two of the few black head coaches in the NFL. To even the casual football fan, even those who favor Whitlock’s politics, the argument should make no sense. Larry Johnson, a coach’s son from a middle class background, is the Chiefs’ captain. He certainly has a reputation for being enigmatic and sulky, but his Chiefs, picked to finish last, are now standing at a surprising 4-3.

Chad Johnson’s Bengals have been a disaster at 2-5, with so many arrests they are referred to as Cincin-Attica. But one of their few players who have brought game every week, played at a pro bowl level, and stayed out of trouble is Chad Johnson. In the "No Fun League" he delights fans by being a bleached-blonde libertine.

Once again: Larry Johnson: middle class and sulky. Chad Johnson: extraverted and blonde. The only thing these players seemingly have in common is their last name and All-pro skills.

But Whitlock sees another commonality: the color of their skin. They are "bojanglers", buffoons, and symbolic of all that is wrong with "black athletes in thrall of hip hop/prison culture."

But perhaps sensing the transparency of his argument–and the fact that we’ve heard this song from him before, Whitlock isn’t done. He also writes, "[The whitening of rosters] is already starting to happen. A little-publicized fact is that the Colts and the Patriots–the league’s model franchises–are two of the whitest teams in the NFL. 47 percent of Tony Dungy’s defending Super Bowl-champion roster is non-African-American. Bill Belichick’s Patriots are nearly as white, boasting a 23-man non-African-American roster, counting linebacker Tiaina "Junior" Seau and backup quarterback Matt Gutierrez."

There is no end to how irretrievably stupid this is. No demographic evidence exists that the NFL is becoming "whiter." Yes, more players of Latino or South Asian, Pacific Islander, or even African heritage are playing the game. That speaks far more to the dominance of football in an increasingly multicultural United States. In other words, his example of Junior Seau and Matt Gutierrez don’t exactly point to the whitening of the league.

Also, as the Battery Chucker Blog points out, even the Colts and Patriots are seeing their seasons rise and fall on the success of their African American players. "Outside of Manning, Brady and Bruschi, the major components of both teams are men like Moss, Harrisson, Freeney, Maroney, Samuel and Wayne. Yes the rosters for both teams are nearly half white, but the majority of the players carrying the load are black, some with corn rows, dreads, tattoo’s and big cars and it certainly isn’t have an effect on the teams success."

The Patriots example is a particular head-scratcher. This year the Pats took a chance on the ultimate poster-child of "hip hop athletes", Randy Moss, and the results have been spectacular. Three years ago, they rode the back of another disgruntled, corn-rowed "head case" Corey Dillon, to a Super Bowl.

But none of that is what makes Whitlock’s article wrong. The worst part about it is that it is racist: pure and simple. It’s racist because Whitlock is cheerfully willing to justify "whitening rosters" because of the actions of a few. Yes, there are pro athletes–in every sport of every color–who are narcissists that believe the world spins at their command. Stop the presses. This is the way it has always been in our hero-worshiping, sports obsessed culture. Ty Cobb beat a paraplegic fan for heckling. Ted Williams gave the finger more than once to the Boston faithful. Mickey Mantle went up to the plate hung over and would cuss out young starry-eyed reporters. In football, Whitlock’s good friend, quarterback Jeff George was a career head case. When a rookie named John Elway spurned the Baltimore Colts for the Denver Broncos, he was derided as selfish. The difference is that when these athletes acted in such a manner, no one railed about a "crisis of the white athlete" or the "buffoonery" of "white culture." No one said, after Bret Favre admitted to a pain killer addiction, that maybe teams should take a chance on more reliable black quarterbacks. But Whitlock strains to provide ideological cover for every fan freaked out by a bigot’s definition of "hip hop" and any owner looking to jettison problem players. Instead of building bridges, Whitlock uses his platform to burn crosses.

The worst part of the column is when he writes, "You know why Muhammad Ali is/was an icon? Because he rebelled against something meaningful and because he excelled in an individual sport. His rebellion didn’t interfere with winning. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc. rebelled with dignity and purpose."

Don’t believe this self-serving sound bite for a second. It’s as convincing as George Bush giving Ali the Congressional Medal of Freedom and calling him a "man of peace." Find a column where Whitlock has anything good to say about athletes who have taken a stand against war or the criminal justice system. He mocks athletes who have stood against the war in Iraq and for the young men in Jena. The young Ali, Brown, Russell, and Kareem would have regarded Whitlock like something beneath contempt.

If Whitlock was around in the 1960s, he’d be more an ally of Carl Rowan, the prominent African American columnist who said upon Malcolm X’s death, in the New York Times, that Malcolm was "an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler who became a racial fanatic." Whitlock is on a side that believes the number one problem facing black America is black America–and he’s using sports as a vehicle to advance his case. It’s a debate that falls apart in the face of every crumbling school, prison, and hospital in any-city USA. It’s also a position that, in the current climate, emboldens all the wrong people.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of "The Muhammad Ali Handbook" (MQ Publications) and "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com