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America: Lessons from the Panic over Rashard Mendenhall's Tweets


By David J. Leonard and C. Richard King | With thanks to NewBlackMan

Sunday, May 08, 2011.

It has become almost cliché to condemn and demonize contemporary black athletes for their purported lack of political activity.  Celebrating the courageous stances of athletes like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Curt Flood, it is commonplace to see contemporary praise alongside of the demonization of today’s ballers.  Here are but a few examples of the ways in which the modern athlete, defined and represented through the black athlete, are ridicule for political cowardice and apathy.

Jaymes Powell Jr., in “Severed from the Struggle,” argues that, “many athletes of African-American descent haven’t embraced activism the way previous generations did.  They say there are no modern-day counterparts to Jim Brown, Tommy [sic] Smith, Arthur Ashe, and former N.C. A & T quarterback Jesse Jackson, athletes who took leading roles in the battle for civil rights” (2007).  Similarly, Greg Mathis in “Where is Today’s Muhammad Ali?” concludes that sports no longer generates activism, “fall[ing] victim to the slave mentality of ‘take the money and shut up.”  He notes further, “From athletic shoes to sports drinks today’s major athletes can and do hawk everything under the sun.

Unfortunately, when it comes to political and social issues, these celebrities are uncharacteristically silent.  It was not always that way” (2004).   Greg Jayne agrees, arguing that today’s athletes, unlike Smith and Carlos, Curt Flood, or Ali, have turned their backs on the tradition of athletes taking a stand.  “They’re wealthy, they’re prominent and they’re alternatively revered and reviled for their uneasy position as role models.  Athletes are among the most visible members of society.  Yet along with the riches and the fame and the status as style-makers, there is a wealth of silence” (2003).  Scoop Jackson in an effort to highlight the efforts Etan Thomas to speak truth to power, put it this way:

We live in the era of the soundless athlete. An era in which the highest-profile figures in sports not only say nothing about the condition of the sociopolitical landscape their fan base resides in, but worse -- they have nothing to say. They'll speak of love and hate in Nike commercials, they'll save women falling from buildings in Adidas spots. They'll dunk cantaloupes in carts in grocery store isles, they'll chase Afro'd dolls through parties trying to get a Sprite. They'll put tats on their bodies proclaiming love for loved ones and those they've lost; they'll go on “Oprah” or “Jay Leno” and shed tears about their past and how they were lost; they'll do one-on-ones with chosen sportscasters to promote their CDs; they'll form opinions about dress codes. Saying nothing.

And, bottom line? Ain't none of them wrong. That's what they are supposed to do. Their silence has emancipated them. Taken them places past their American dreams. Made them our heroes. Some our leaders. To them we look for answers; answers we find in their silence. We applaud their performances, make sure our kids always choose them on "NBA Ballers”; Live '06 them, Xbox them, DS them, PSP them. All the while accepting their silence (2006).

While many commentators see the silence as organic, as a reflection of the dysfunction of today’s (black) athletes, as their refusal to accept the baton of their forbearers, and even the changing economics of sports, they, like so much in the media, ignore the mechanism that discipline and punish (black) athletes for speaking up, for challenging the status quo.  As Scoop Jackson notes, “And, bottom line? Ain't none of them wrong. That's what they are supposed to do.”  Better said, it is what is required of them: “Shut up and play”!

To grasp the power of this equation, we need look no further than the current frenzy and the denunciation surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who in the wake of the announced killing of Osama Bin Laden and national celebrations, took to his twitter page, where he offered the following:

What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side...

@dkeller23 We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skaaaaaaaaaaaaayscraper down demolition style [USA Today reports that this has been subsequently removed]

I believe in God. I believe we're ALL his children. And I believe HE is the ONE and ONLY judge.

Those who judge others, will also be judged themselves.

For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell and piss on his ashes, I ask how would God feel about your heart?

There is not an ignorant bone in my body. I just encourage you to #think

Not surprisingly his remarks have triggered an avalanche of criticism.  Art Rooney II, the Steelers’ owner, publicly condemned his comments, seemingly questioning his patriotism, going as far to link his comments to support for the troops.  "I have not spoken with Rashard so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments. The entire Steelers' organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon."  Others followed suit focusing on the one conspiracy tweet to depict him as a crazy, ignorant, and otherwise out-of-step with reality.  Described as a “meltdown,” “Football's Newest Villain,” as someone whose “mouth and tweets are simply disrespectful,” as someone who “sounds ridiculous (again),” as irrational and not presently on earth, as sympathetic to Bin Laden,  as a defender of Bin Laden and another “dumb jock.”  Much of the discourse focused on his questions that fit with those conspiracy theorists and not on many other tweets about the meaning of and celebration of the assassination.

Rick Chandler seemed to capture the sentiment and animosity best with his column:

“Last night I had a very vivid dream. An elite team of Navy SEALs flew two Blackhawk helicopters into Rashard Mendenhall’s residence. After encountering token resistance from the dog (neutralized by Snausages), the elite special forces team located the Steelers running back in an upstairs bedroom, where he was in the process of tweeting a friend (not a euphemism). The SEALs confiscated his cell phone — and all others in the house — and then departed as quickly as they had arrived.  So, hopefully, there will be no further retarded tweets such as this.”

On Foxnews.com, comments consistently questioned his intelligence, calling him a “moron,” an “idiot,” “a clown” and “garbage” who couldn’t have gone to college.  One poster made clear the power of white racial framing, noting, “Gee, and I thought the NFL only harbored rapists, murderers, and dog killers.”   Many who posted on the site called for his release and/or a boycott of the Steelers.  Similarly, on ESPN.com (and on Huffington Post there was more support for Mendenhall especially regarding the condemnation of celebrations of death) which as of Tuesday had elicited over 8,000 comments, he was referred as a “moron,” a “terrorist,” “an idiot,” and someone who just needs “to shut up.”

Several commentators also linked his tweets to his past comments about the NFL and slavery.  Responding to comments made by the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, Mendenhall stated, “Anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other."  In posts and in comments, his remarks about 9/11 and the killing of Bin Laden are connected to his comments about the NFL not only in an effort to demonize him as a radical but to reduce him to yet another ungrateful black athlete who spits on his profession and country.  Columnist Gene Collier epitomizes this rendering of Mendenhall as he openly mocked him and his intelligence in a recent diatribe, lambasting the running back for his lack of understanding of sport management, structural engineering, and history.

Last I checked, no one was dodging the NFL draft by fleeing to Canada. No one is forced to play football, Rashard. This must have played well in Dublin, where the United States ambassador to Ireland is only the man after which the Rooney Rule is named, only the first-born son of The Chief, one of the first NFL owners to have African-Americans on his roster.

In short, Collier and seemingly countless others find Mendenhall to be ignorant and ungrateful, laughable for his lack of common sense and easily dismissed for not knowing his place. As Collier quipped, "It's better to remain silent and thought a fool than to tweet and remove all doubt."  In other words, shut up and play; don’t trouble us with your thoughts, especially when they run counter to conventional wisdom, challenge the white racial frame, and upset management and the fan base.  As Collier concludes, refiguring the star athlete as a terrorist, “As an American, Mendenhall has rights. Because it's a great and confounding country, he has a right to his mouth just as he has a right to an AK-47. How 'bout don't go shootin' 'em off.”

Mendenhall is not alone in feeling the public wrath’s for not only being politically vocal but for speaking out in away that challenges dominant assumptions and ideologies.  Carlos Delgado, Toni Smith, Josh Howard, Steve Nash, and Etan Thomas (see Dave Zirin for more discussion), among others, have also been targeted for their outspoken challenges to imperialism, war, and systemic violence.  It is not a politically active athlete that is undesirable, but one who challenges the conventional wisdom, especially when said athlete is a young African American.  

Dave Zirin, in “Shut Up and Play? Patriotism, Jock Culture and the Limits of Free Speech,” reminds readers about the historic blindness in today’s celebration of activist-athlete of year’s past: If you look historically at athletes who today are admired for their courageous honesty—people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell—they were all told by the sports columnists of their day that they should button their lips and just play.”

This conclusion raises a troubling question: What exactly does the nostalgia for political athletes of the past mean today? Sadly, it may mean that those selected for celebration fall on the right side of history, presumably with “us.”  Their once objectionable observations now resonate with common sense assessments of race, justice, and society. In celebrating them exclusively, while remain silent about, or worse attacking, objectionable expressions by athletes today, encourages both a confirmation of the status quo and a demonization of those few who do speak up.  More broadly, the panic around Mendenhall’s tweets further underscores the deep entanglements of sporting spectacles and national narratives.

Few complaints were heard when the NFL (to take but one example) amplified its inculcation of patriotism following 9/11.  In fact, franchises profited; fans felt good; and the war on terror thrived unquestioned. In contrast, the passing comments of one player questioning how the public responded to the killing of Osama bin Laden and accepted accounts of the events he set in motion sparks a firestorm of controversy.  In such a context, one cannot hope for sport to liberate, inspire, or transform.  Indeed, the Mendenhall affair may confirm Noam Chomsky’s observation about sport: “it occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter” (2002, 99-100).  By extension, nostalgic celebrations paired with contemporary demonization further turns our attention away from what matters in sport and society.

***
C. Richard King is the Chair of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman and the author/editor of several books, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy and Postcolonial America.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman. His next book (SUNY Press) is on the NBA after the November 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game at the The Palace of Auburn Hills He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums.





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