It’s now the hottest commercial since Clara Peller looked beseechingly upon the world and asked us for the location of “the beef.” Thanks to Budweiser, the buzz is all about “Leon”. “Leon” is Bud’s big joke parody of the modern professional athlete. “Leon” won’t do interviews unless his special dimple is on display. “Leon” is far more concerned about looking “pretty” than playing well. “Leon” is egomaniacal, lazy, and all about the bling-bling. “Leon” only speaks in the third person. Oh by the way, “Leon” is Black. Well DAVE ZIRIN thinks that the “Leon” commercials are pure unfiltered racist crap, and DAVE ZIRIN is going to tell you why.
“Leon” is supposed to be a harmless caricature, but of whom? Some say he’s Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. But Owens, for all his celebrated end zone hi-jinks, is an MVP candidate who hasn’t taken a play off since he entered the league. Others have suggested Minnesota Vikings wide-out Randy Moss. The same Moss who has made multiple pro-bowls and led the Minnesota Vikings to two NFC championship games? Those cleats don’t fit either.
So who is “Leon”? To ask the question is to come close to the answer. Pro sports play two primary roles in our society: they reinforce “values” like discipline, hard work, and patriotic obeisance and they also stand as a massive global cash cow–to the tune, according to Business Week, of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Players like Michael Jordan–who CNN once called “the ultimate global marketing tool”–have brought corporate values and profits together in one smiling red, white, and blue package. But in an increasingly polarized country, the symbiosis of profits and the public’s acceptance of corporate values are coming apart. We live in the sports age of the “anti-hero”. Young people are increasingly identifying with athletes that seem to tell everybody to go to hell. When Terrell Owens takes over the game with his bizarre touchdown choreography, risking thousands of dollars in fines, he is bypassing the No Fun League to make a direct connection with the fans. When Barry Bonds starts his own web site to stick it to reporters and “communicate directly with the people who support me”, he earns popularity at the same rate he loses endorsements.
The Tale of AI
But the ultimate anti-hero–the postage stamp of corporate America’s frantic quest to rectify “values” and wealth, is the Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson. Iverson’s nickname is AI but there is nothing artificial about him. When AI was a rookie, he schooled Jordan on a crossover dribble and said afterward “Jordan is not my hero. None of my heroes wear suits.” As interest in the whip-fast, charismatic guard exploded, Corporate America both drooled and recoiled. To this day, they love the way Iverson’s jerseys and sneakers fly off the shelves, but can’t stand the “baggage” that comes with him. They love his pedigree as a star Virginia high school quarterback and basketball guard but they hate his teenage prison stint for his involvement in a bowling alley “race riot”. (His conviction held such a taint of “southern justice” that it was highlighted on 60 minutes and the Governor eventually pardoned him.) They want him on the cover of their programs and magazines, but despise his multitudinous tattoos so much they have been known to airbrush them right off his arms.
But the fans love AI’s every transgressive move–especially because it walks hand in hand with his style of play. Iverson has been voted year in and year out, one of the toughest guys in the league by his peers. He weighs 160 pounds soaking wet, and wouldn’t be six foot tall in a pair of Mahnolo Blahniks but never shies from contact, getting more bumps, bruises, and floor burns than any player alive. Yet for all his on-court efforts, he also thinks nothing about blasting “practice” as a waste of time. Saying to hell with “practice” is a shot at the very hard work, discipline and obedience that leagues try to push as the road to success.
“The Malice in the Palace”
But corporate America’s unease with selling sports anti-heroes is reaching new heights in the wake of the Pacers-Piston Fans brawl now being called “the Malice at the Palace”. Discussions are raging across ESPN and the talk radio spectrum asking if “the NBA should disassociate with hip hop” (whatever that means) and whether the influx of players straight out of high school has led to a “thug life” mentality in the league. Of course no one is saying that seventeen-year-old Yugoslavian players like Darko Milicic shouldn’t be adopted (I mean drafted) by teams–just players named Qyntel, Kwame, and LeBron. Like so much in this barely coded discussion of athletes, fans, and violence, it comes down to race. When Yankees pitcher, the very Caucasian Jeff Nelson and utility infielder Karim Garcia pulled a heckling special-ed teacher out of the Fenway Park stands in the 2003 playoffs and pummeled him, this was a “brawl”. When Roger Clemens threw a splintered bat at Mike Piazza in the World Series, this was explained as Clemens being overly competitive and “wound too tight”. But when Black athletes are throwing the haymakers, all the language changes. The Pacers/Piston Fans brouhaha becomes–as ESPN is now routinely calling it–a “riot”.
The intrusion of race is most tragic in the case of the person at the center of the brawl: Ron Artest. As league commissioner David Stern and his corporate backers now try to kick the dirt on Artest–saying he will need to reapply to even rejoin the league next year–fans are starting to show up in stadiums with Artest jerseys. This stems from the anger in the air: anger at racism, anger at poverty, anger at the general hypocrisy of values that cry out against violence on the court while imprisoning millions at home and bombing cities to the stone age abroad.
So who is “Leon”? “Leon” is corporate America’s gob of spit in the face of modern Black athletes and anti-heroes. They are striking not only the players themselves, but also us–the fans-for embracing them. We shouldn’t accept that. Let’s load “Leon” on a bus with Stepin Fetchit, Mammy, Charlie Chan, and that damn Taco Bell Chihuahua–and push it off the pop culture cliff. Until “Leon” goes, Guinness will suit me just fine.
DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out, What’s My Name, Fool: sports and resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books) comes out in spring 2005. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail email@example.com.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org