I’m Not Quite Following This Theory

I’ve not written a whole lot, if anything, about LeBron James’ Vogue cover, but we had a fairly intense discussion about it at work yesterday, whether it portrayed the King Kong imagery that has been written about by both D-Wil and the Starting Five folks, as well as ESPN’s Jemele Hill. One of my friends sent me Jason Whitlock’s latest piece on this, and I essentially got him to side with me by explaining why it didn’t fly — the thesis was so faulty and the evidence so poor that it couldn’t pass muster at all.

Before I get into Whitlock’s deal, I’ll say flat out: this was a poor cover choice. You can fault a lot of folks here — James and his handlers for not knowing about the imagery and enough history to see the parallels; photographer Annie Leibovitz for the loaded shot; the editors at Vogue and the higher-ups at its parent company, Conde Nast, for either missing the suggestions of the image and/or ignoring it, thinking it controversial (the latter is obviously worse) when they had plenty of decent shots in the mag that would have been much better choices.

I agree with LeBron. The photographer captured him exactly as he is. You know, when he covered his body in tatts years ago, mimicking a death-row inmate, LeBron invited people to jump to the conclusion that he’s dangerous. Yeah, that’s the way the image-is-everything game is played. Ink is a prison and gang thing. Don’t act like you don’t know the origin of the current fad.

Vogue put a mirror in our face, and we’re complaining about the reflection. Half the black players in the NBA take the court each night in front of white audiences tatted from neck to toe like they’re shooting a scene for Prison (Fast)Break.

Wait. So because he got tattoos, which have roots as markings for religious, memorial, sentimental, and rite-of-passage reasons in many societies — but only have that criminal association because white Western society deemed them to be so and finds them unacceptable to the norm, LeBron James is asking to be portrayed as a beast and a thug, and so is every other black athlete with ink on their skin? (I’m not gonna come out and deny that certain tattoos and those who get them have criminal associations, but this is like saying that 1 + 1 = 3.)

When David Stern insisted on helping these players with their image by implementing a dress code, many of the players and their media groupies screamed racism. You see, showing up to work in a white T and iced-out (heavy jewelry) was their way of showing loyalty to their boys in the ‘hood, a shout-out to the corner boys and girls.

Possibly, or maybe it’s just more comfortable than a suit. You never know. Might want to ask somebody before you go to the whole “white man benevolently ‘helping’ the players by forcing silly restrictions on them.” The NBA dress code is not a horrible thing to me, but the way he phrases it, as if the big man in the suites is somehow helping his players who don’t know better — blech.

And any time someone with common sense points out that athletes are making fools of themselves and feeding negative stereotypes, he or she is shouted down as a sellout, racist or out of touch.

Just look at how much heat the NFL takes for trying to stop Chad Johnson from bojangling. This is why a handbook to clear up the confusion is so necessary. When Johnson slaps in his gold teeth, dyes and cuts his hair into a blonde Mohawk, dances a jig in the end zone and makes life absolute hell on his black coach, that is fun and good for the game.

Gold teeth, blonde mohawk, and comes to play every goddamned Sunday. It’s not his fault Marvin Lewis, defensive genius, has coached sub-par defenses every year he’s been in Cincinnati. And given the way the NFL (Not For Long) operates with respect to how you can be cut in a New York Minute, Chad Johnson is well within his right to speak up and say that if the organization and the media can blame him for the Bengals’ problems, he wants out. This isn’t bojangling — it’s standing up for yourself in a league where teams can be done with you when they feel you serve no purpose any more.

Would we be having this discussion if LeBron struck the same pose on the cover of Ebony while holding Selita Ebanks? Think about it. And if we wouldn’t be having the discussion, what does that say about us? Are we only bothered by negative images of black men when the primary/sole consumer of the image is white people?

Faulty premise. The outcry has to do with a specific fear in society — black man with white woman. There is no Ebony equivalent here. We would not have that discussion because the outcry over the way LeBron is portrayed would not exist. It’s not the same thing at all. (He then goes on to Tyler Perry’s latest movie, Meet the Browns, having unsavory characters in it and opening to $20 million as an example of stereotypes being sold to black folk.)

LeBron James is a kid, and his talents as a basketball player and absence of a father allowed him to “grow up” rather than be “raised.” His stated goal is to be one of the richest men in the world. Like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, he is a child celebrity interested in increasing his fame and little else. He’s in very good and very deep company when it comes to being unconcerned with and unqualified for the job of representing black men in a positive light.

Has absolutely nothing to do with the outcry over the cover. Yes, James is a Conveyor Belt creation — sped up since he went straight to the pros out of high school — and isn’t exactly going to be speaking out a la Muhammad Ali, ever. I’ve given up on the idea of athletes being too socially aware or relevant any more in a bigger sense; we don’t teach history well enough in this country any more to our kids — the difference between when I graduated not even a decade ago to now is staggering. So, I can fault James, and I do. But to suggest that LeBron invited to be portrayed by the mass media as a thug because of body art alone and supposed criminal connotations is irresponsible. Do we know what LeBron’s tats suggest and why he got them? Don’t suggest unless you can prove it.

The more I read and the more I write about it, I keep thinking that Vogue‘s editors did this on purpose, not out of any sort of outright racism or need to denigrate LeBron, but to get the world talking about a fashion magazine. We’re still talking about whether this is racially loaded; the issue has been on the Today show. Every bit of press you can get is good press, right?


7 Responses

  1. Good stuff, I need to make it a point to stop through and comment on other blogs that support TSF.

  2. Good post but it’s the fatigue factor. I’m an old dog and I gets tired (ebonics alert) of fighting the same battle over and over. I just have enough energy to point them out to my 14 year and explain why I think it’s important and why he should be well versed in history. He has a lot more years left of this crap than I do. I wish it were otherwise but change is slow and slower.

    The real problem is these so called experts, pundits, columnists (aka clowns) don’t really want to illuminate or discuss issues. They demand that you see the world in a way that negates your own experience and existence.

    I’m like so “whatever, dude”. No time anymore.

  3. … and if it is contrived for the reason of “any press is good press” they are even worse people that any one of us could think. To use racist imagery to make money? Golf Week move over, there’s a new chief in town….

  4. Good points, S2N.

    I wish LeBron had not have done the cover in this way. Where was “Wise” LeBron and “Business” LeBron? Not being smarmy, I’m being real about this.

    I was expecting more when I heard he’d be on the cover. I didn’t expect a non-descript all-black uniform and a scowl on his face, that’s for sure.

    As for the King Kong subtext, I didn’t think about it, really, but would it have killed LeBron to tell his handlers and Conde Nast: “ummm…guys, remember that John F. Kennedy thing that Tom Brady had going on in GQ? Why can’t I get my Barack Obama on up in herre?”

    It is rare to see an African-American on the cover of Vogue. Jennifer Hudson made the cover after her debut in “Dreamgirls” and that was BEFORE she won the Golden Globe, SAG and the Academy Award. Can anyone else remember who else made the cover other than LeBron and JHud?

  5. TBR – thanks for coming by.

    des – I understand. My folks have the same impulses.

    D-wil – scary thought, isn’t it? But it’s probably not as far-fetched as we think. I want to give Vogue and Conde Nast the benefit of the doubt and say they were just ignorant.

    Phil – for someone whose every movement and utterance is so thought out, LeBron and his people whiffed on this one. That’s what gets me. But so many of us (no matter what the background) expect him and others to have a better handle on these things. I guess I just shouldn’t be that surprised about it any more.

  6. S2N,
    LeBron is discovering that when you try outwardly to cultivate an image and be “just so,” it doesn’t always work out the way you want. Ask A-Rod about how he used to slurp Cal Ripken about carrying himself “the right way” and how to sign a baseball for a fan “the right way.”
    A legacy is a funny thing: you can spend an entire life building it up like a credit report and then one or two very bad months and your name is mud.
    I don’t think LeBron did the cover to be controversial. I think his handlers did him a HUGE disservice of No Limit Sports proportions. If I were handling LeBron, I want to take him out of sweatsuits and gold chains a la Jordan. Armani. Cohiba cigars. Gulfstream like the pro golfers. The gold standard. That’s what everyone needs to see. LeBron does things the right way, is humble but still has that supreme confidence in himself. THAT’S what makes him successful.
    I believe his handlers jumped too quickly at the chance to be on the cover of Vogue. Go back and look at the Jennifer Hudson cover: respectable, clean-cut, beautiful smile. Look, Allen Iverson is one of my favorite players, and his persona will never get him on the cover of Vogue. But if he did, we know there’d be some drama with Annie Iverson not having her white zinfandel and a straw at the photo shoot or someone asking the photographer to run to the store for something for A.I. Madness. But that’s what we LOVE (and some of us hate) about Iverson: but what you see is what you get. If Iverson were trying to cultivate a refined image, the baggy jeans with a stack of hundreds balled up around an expired driver’s license is a dead giveaway that he’s just a work-a-day cat with a gift.

    I enjoy your site. Good luck with it. I might have to start my own now.

  7. Good piece S2N, thanks for taking Sh!Tlock to task.

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