Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Jason Collins’ ex tells her story and forces us to face the truth-he’s an NBA center, he’s black; he’s gay and, he is a liar.

“Too real is this feeling of make-believe. Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal.”

Lyric from: The Great Pretender from the album The Great Pretender
Written By: Buck Ram
Performed by: The Platters

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

We should really be ashamed of ourselves.
A couple of months ago, we squandered away a perfect opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about one of the uglier side effects of homophobia.
And no, I’m not talking about the gay slurs, the judgmental ignorance or religious superiority born of the confusion that people assume while trying to fathom the idea that some men and women would prefer to experience love and sex with a person of the same gender.
In this story that appeared in the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins came out of the closet in grand fashion. It is a beautifully constructed piece written by Collins himself that literally and figuratively opens the door on his journey to self awareness and on his decision to live a more authentic life.
In the article, Collins talks about the effort that he put into deceiving himself having realized at age 12 that he did not identify with his twin brother Jarron's attraction to girls and how he suppressed his impulses through his high school years.
He goes on to say he felt pressure “to live a certain way, to marry a woman and raise kids with her”. He writes that he dated women when he was younger and that he “even got engaged” as part of that deception.
In the time since he went public, Collins has been celebrated as a hero and, we have learned that Carolyn Moos was the woman to which he had been previously engaged.
Moos shares her side of the story in the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. You can read the article here.
In it she talks about the pain of finding out that Collins was gay at the same time as the rest of us-when the SI article came out. She had been clueless about his homosexuality, only then piecing together that it must have been the reason why he called off their wedding in 2009 after eight years together.
Moos wants to tell her story now to help other women.
“My inbox exploded with emails from women saying the same thing happened to them,” she told the magazine. “I’m sharing what I’ve learned from my experience in hopes that it might help others.”
Thank goodness she’s getting the discussion started since no one else has been willing to.
Or maybe it’s just that no one else remembered to.
We were so busy trying to prove that we were okay with Jason Collins being a gay player in the NBA (which we all are, right?) and commemorating his courage that we forgot to consider how much pain his previous cowardice and deceit might have caused his loved ones.
In his big announcement, Collins glosses over his eight-year engagement and references how miserable it was for him to live a lie. He doesn’t say much, however, in the way of acknowledging how much his lies may have hurt other people.
I do not pretend to know how difficult it was for Collins-or any other gay man for that matter-to come out of the closet. Nor am I in a position to make any judgments about the timeframe in which they choose do so.

But I can’t imagine the devastation of learning that the man you’ve loved and shared a life with for eight years was nothing more than a compliant poser, using the relationship as a disguise until he built up the nerve to reveal his true identity.
We’ve all heard the stories about how this type of covert homosexuality temporarily destroys families and ruins marriages as loved ones try to make sense of it all. And we don’t usually honor the newly un-closeted gay person at the center of all that destruction for their bravery.

We gave Jason Collins a pass on that because we were ready to reach this milestone in a major sport, because he’s a “pro’s pro” and; because he seems like a genuinely good guy.

But with that pass, we threw away a chance to have a more complete dialogue-one in which we concede that the effects of homophobia are far reaching. Gays are backed into a corner by our bigotry and their loved ones become unavoidable casualties.

We should have asked that Collins paint the entire picture, talk more openly about the pain his pretenses have caused along the way and the remorse he must feel about that. He was the perfect guy to demand that our society move more quickly toward true acceptance of gays and lesbians not only for their sakes but for the sakes of the “other side of the story” victims who get trampled in the wreckage of intolerance.

As he took center stage to make his announcement, we should have seen fit to offer a compassionate nod to all those sacrificial lambs he encountered on his path to self discovery.
Instead, we only shouted Bravo!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

At the End of the Day, Black NBA Fans Take Issue With Kobe's Blackness, or Rather the Lack Thereof

“Started from the bottom now we here.”

Lyric from: Started From The Bottom from the Album Nothing Was the Same
Written By: Aubrey Graham, Noah Shebib and Michael Coleman
Performed by: Drake

Photo courtesy of @kobebryant/Twitter

Kobe Bryant can't catch a break.

And no, I'm not talking about his recent Achilles injury that has sidelined him for the playoffs, possibly part of next season and maybe even for his career.

The Mamba was, again, home last night as his Lakers tried and failed to even their series against the Spurs but; in his absence, LA just couldn't make the kind of timely offensive pushes that happen when you have a player that can get his own shot from anywhere on the floor. 

And poor Kobe couldn't even tweet his frustrations...

His Lakers...his absence...his frustrations...

It's the kind of use of a possessive pronoun that tends to make people uncomfortable when it comes to Kobe.

And that's just the type of discomfort that makes Kobe's tweets about a game he's watching just as big of a deal, if not bigger, than the game he's tweeting about.

Depending on who you ask, Kobe's live in-game tweeting is either a) part of his maniacal plan to pilfer all of the attention away from the game since he's not playing, showing a complete lack of respect for his teammates and his coach whose game plan he undermined by writing that Gasol needed to get in the paint or b) what you get when a guy who loves to compete can't compete and turns to Twitter to share his thoughts and blow off steam like the rest of us.

Sadly, the polarization of Kobe Bryant doesn't stop there.

Kobe's pursuit of a sixth championship is either a) part of his all-consuming, life-long obsession with Michael Jordan or b) what you get when a guy with five rings loves to compete and wants to win as many championships as he possibly can.

And this jewel of a debate from this season-Kobe's willingness to dish out dimes is either a) part of his unyielding need for fans' approval and as such he needs us to give him credit as a willing passer but all the while he hopes that we will secretly wish that he shoots instead of passes therefore proving that we really do like, nay prefer, his ball hawking ways or b) what you get when a guy who loves to compete decides to play whatever role his team needs him to play in order to get the win.

I've spent the last few days, since Kobe's tweeting raised such a stink after game 1 in this Lakers/Spurs series, trying to think of another player with such indisputable talent and verifiable greatness who has had such a polarizing effect on fans.

Only one name comes to mind-but perhaps with a lesser degree of venom- Larry Bird.

The Hall of Famer and 3- time NBA champion's impact on the game as a 13-year member of the Boston Celtics is the undeniable stuff of legend but, the question of whether or not the color of his skin played a roll in how we perceived his greatness is as much a part of the Bird discussion as his versatility and his superb outside shot.

For many, the narrative on Bird will always come down to how good he was "for a white guy".

Isaiah Thomas once infamously declared that if he had been black, Bird would be "just another good guy".

Larry Legend himself was not unaware of this mostly unspoken, save for Thomas, strategically and figuratively-placed asterisk denoting his ability. Bird has talked openly about being bothered when another white player was assigned to guard him. Unable to change his skin color, he knew that the next best thing to that in the NBA might be proving himself against some of the league's best black players night in and night out.

Kobe's conundrum is certainly not identical to that of Bird's but, it may not be altogether different. 

Even as a black superstar in a league full of black players, Kobe's likability has gone the way of his ability to prove to black fans that he is black enough and, he has been fighting a losing battle.

I can already feel the dirty looks.

I know, I know. Many of you think he's selfish and, reject his sense of  notion that the Lake Show is his to lead. You may not wish that to be so but, he 's earned it with his dominance.

Additionally, for many people, the biggest issue with Kobe is his Jordan-esque style of play. I even shared my thoughts about his game's resemblance to the great #23 here.

But to that as a justification for disdain I say let he who did not spend a good chunk of their childhood watching, memorizing and rehearsing "Come Fly With Me" cast the first stone.

And finally, I know that a rape charge, even a dismissed one, is not easy to forgive.

But it is people's reaction to what Bryant was rumored to have said in his police interview about wishing he had handled things the way that Shaq handled things that seems to tell a deeper story.

A caller on our radio show recently put it this way, "He doesn't understand the code. He wasn't supposed to snitch on Shaq. He didn't know that though because he didn't come up in the hood."

And there you have it. 

Long heralded as the voice of Black America with its ear to the streets, hip-hop's evolving landscape might provide a bit of perspective as to Kobe's uphill struggle to win over black fans. 

In the year that Kobe was drafted, the 1996 releases of "Reasonable Doubt" and "All Eyez on Me" made powerful statements about the changing aspirations of black youth.

As Jay-Z and 2Pac told their stories of poverty, absentee fathers and of their grind to make it from day to day, they were also speaking for a generation of black kids for whom it seemed privilege would never be a reality.

As those rappers became superstars of superhero status-post mortem for Pac-the kids who most easily identified with what they had overcome re-imagined a new black success story, one with its legitimacy rooted solely in origins of a hand-to-mouth existence and hardship. 

Then those kids grew up to be vocal sports fans.

And in the new, narrowly defined parameters of what would be henceforth considered a "real" journey to the top, Kobe didn't stand a chance. 

Speaking his multiple languages, growing up in Italy and coming from a middle-class family proved anomaly enough and, then, the Shaq slip sealed his fate.

Had Kobe come into the league a few years earlier this likely wouldn't have happened to him. In the years preceding his arrival, the success of the black superstar player in the NBA was celebrated, for the most part, without any overt bias. 

Grant Hill went 17 years in the league without having to address the pink elephant, only forced to pen this response to Jalen Rose in which he refused to apologize for his  "two-parent, middle-class" upbringing after Rose said in his 2011 ESPN film "Fab 5" that Duke only recruited players he considered to be "Uncle Toms".

But the wide-ranging and varied reactions to both Jalen and Grant's viewpoints indicate that we are long overdue for a serious conversation on this matter-as does ESPN's not so long ago firing of Rob Parker for his comments about Robert Griffin III being a "cornball brother".

I would like to believe that the outrage that followed Parker's comments is a signal of a changing of the guard, a sign that maybe one no longer has to be great against the worst odds in order to be respected. I'm hoping it's a sign that blackness is no longer being defined by whether you had two parents or one, whether your parent(s) had decent jobs or not and whether you grew up in a suburb or the projects.

But that would be foolish of me. 

Because in reality many, many people agreed with Parker. In reality, that was probably not the first time RGIII had been mocked in that way and; unfortunately it won't be the last.

Because in reality, we now celebrate the beauty of a hard fought trip the mountaintop at the expense of the beauty of a less eventful one. 

We owe it to our kids to make sure that both paths shine equally bright and getting really mad at Rob Parker was only the first step.

As for Kobe Bryant, I'm hoping that history will be kinder to him. In past tense he will no longer be burdened by his presumed lack of blackness. The highlights and the numbers will tell the unbiased story of his awesomeness.

But now the NBA belongs to LeBron James. He is truly the face of the league and its fans, in more ways than one. 


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Was Convinced That Paying College Athletes Would Fix the Problem and, Then I Realized I Didn't Know What I Was Talking About

“And I said I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need. And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me."

Lyric from: I Need a Dollar from the album Good Things 
               Written By: Leon Michels, E. Nahaniel Dawkins, Nick Movshon, Jeff Dynamite
                                                                                                    Performed by: Aloe Blacc

Photo of Ben McLemore courtesy of Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This story in USA Today on Jayhawks freshman guard, Ben McLemore, had me at the words "fights through poverty".

McLemore, KU's leading scorer this season, will no doubt play the part of chief choreographer this month as the no. 1-seeded squad heads to the big dance in pursuit of its second NCAA championship in five years. 

The team also earned the no. 2 overall seed in the tourney behind top seeded Louisville and will face tough competition in the South region on the road to a potential second consecutive Final Four.

And it will be peanuts compared to the challenges McLemore faced as a youth growing up in St. Louis.

As the second youngest of Sonya Reid's six children, the All-American would sometimes go one or two days without eating since, from time to time, his mom was burdened with the unenviable choice of whether to buy food or sell the food stamps to pay bills.

Even as a young boy McLemore saw basketball as a way out of poverty for his family and worked on his game at a local court but admits that the hunger pangs were a distraction. 

"It's hard to play basketball when nothing's inside of you," McLemore told Eric Prisbell of USA Today Sports.

If ever there was a narrative to support a move in the direction of paying college athletes to play, McLemore's story indeed makes a strong case.

When I read that profile piece a couple of weeks ago I immediately took to twitter in a rant that argued for a review of the NCAA's stance against paying players and their hard line regarding the cash cow that is amateur sports-most specifically basketball and football.

But today I'm not so sure that paying players is the answer and, it feels almost irresponsible of me to have assumed such an uncomplicated solution to a complex issue.

The foundation for this discussion seems to have changed in recent years.

It used to be that heartbreaking stories like that of Ben McLemore stirred us to action. As sports fans we couldn't bear the thought of our favorite college athletes having to balance the pressures of schoolwork and elite level play against the backdrop of worry over whether or not his family's basic needs-food, shelter and clothing-were being met back home.

Complicating the matter was our belief that education provided the one true path to prosperity and, we were disappointed to see a kid have to sacrifice his degree for the promise of millions at the pro level even if all the food, clothes and houses money could buy along with a worry-free existence was part of the deal.

We decided in the meantime that it was best to look the other way while boosters did what universities couldn't, all the while dreaming that athletic departments would one day find a way to legitimately make these kids whole.

Then we woke up.

We realized that most of these kids, being ill-prepared for college and with no real desire to make any effort to be prepared, couldn't care less about a degree. 

And then the bottom fell out of the economy and, we got mad.

In the last seven years people have lost homes, jobs and their grasps on the American dream at record levels. As the gap between the have and have nots in this country has widened tremendously, all talk has turned to corporate greed and the business of college sports has not been spared in the blame game.

Athletic departments rake in tens of millions for a single bowl/championship game. College coaches at the top programs are millionaires. Conference commisioners make upwards of half a million dollars annually. While the student-athletes who make those numbers possible toil away in exchange for free room, board and education.

That doesn't feel like enough. The kids don't want the education anyway so why should we expect them to be okay with that as compensation?

But here's the thing, why are we okay with them finding so little value in their education?

In 2007 I had the pleasure of hearing Charles Barkley speak at a charity dinner here in Memphis. 

That evening he urged parents to consider the fact that their kids "have a better chance of becoming a doctor or a lawyer than going to the NBA or the NFL."

It's simple math really. Five Hundred or so spots in the NBA and around 1300 in the NFL. That's it. That's where league rosters cap out but, no one's limiting the amount of folks who can be lawyers next year.

Most of these kids won't have a professional team waiting with bated breath for them to declare for the draft.

If a college team has more than one kid that makes it to the league in a year that's the exception not the rule.

So allow me to look at Sir Charles' words from a more dreadfully sobering angle.

A talented college athlete who has spent most his life being told he's the best thing since sliced bread who doesn't earn a degree has as much of a chance to end up working at Wendy's as any other kid who blows off school.

There's no separation there.

With that in mind, how dare we concede that it's okay for a free education to be taken for granted.

In non-athletic circles when we see someone struggling financially or wasting away under the weight of a dead end job the first thing we do is encourage them to go to school and, when we don't think they're prepared for the classroom we insist that they get prepared.

Why let our college athletes off the hook?

Meanwhile, this piece detailing long time opponent of paying college athletes, Big Ten Commissioner, Jim Delaney's recent threat of a de-emphasis on collegiate athletics in response to the proposed use of TV revenue sharing to compensate student athletes did little to help enhance the public's perception of conference big wigs.

He offered those remarks in a declaration filed last week in federal court in response to Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA.

Delaney wrote that such measures would cause Big Ten Schools to "forgo the revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity of their athletic programs."

Delaney's threat is despicable-mess with our money and we'll take away your joy.

But the revenue sharing proposal is a curious one. 

In the harsh, cold reality of adulthood, many of us spend most of our time working a job to make ends meet. A company hires us to perform a job for which we are paid a salary that usually pales in comparison to the revenue that our job's function contributes to the organization. 

A friend of mine recently reflected on the fact that for his role as head honcho of an $11 million arm of business within his company he was being compensated at less than 1% of that revenue.

Ultimately a role is assessed a value by the powers that be. When we accept that role, we accept that valuation and; apparently we do so with very little pushback since, according to this article on salary.com, most people don't negotiate salary due to fear.

My point is this, a college athlete's role in the success of his or her university has been valued at a free education with room and board. That may not seem equitable but it sure is a lesson on being a grownup in the real world and coincidentally, the real world is exactly where most of these players will end up-far far away from the shores of the NBA and NFL's islands of fantasy.

But what of the struggling families back home?

For Ben McLemore, those struggles are likely over. A strong showing in the tournament could possibly cement his selection as the no. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft and as such his family will no longer have to choose between food and heat.

As for the many heartbreaking stories like his to come, I can only admit that I don't know the right answer.

Poverty is a dastardly epidemic in this country, one that for a very gifted college athlete is not so easily remedied by a four-year salary. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Don't Care if Manti Te'O is Gay and Don't Let Them Fool You; In the End, NFL Team Officials Probably Won't Care Either

"And oh, how do I trust you? How do I love you? When you lie to me repeatedly."

                                      Lyric from: My Petition from the album Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2  
Written By: Jill Scott, Andre Davis and Vidal Davis

                                                                                                    Performed by: Jill Scott

    Photo of Manti Te'O courtesy of Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports

I'm no fool. I don't expect everyone to think like me. 

But I must admit that I am a bit shocked that the biggest question we are left with after the whole Manti Te'O fake, dead girlfriend incident is whether or not he is gay.

I would think that the bigger question, particularly for NFL teams and coaches, would be whether Te'O is a pathological liar with delusions of grandeur who makes up stories to get attention and play on people's sympathies.

But I guess in Rock, Paper, Scissors: the NFL Prospect Edition, the risks associated with drafting a guy who hooks up with guys outlasts concerns over psychosis and irrationality. 

Alas according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, Te'O's sexual preference is the proverbial elephant in the room at the combine this week.

"It's just that they (NFL team officials) want to know what they're getting," Florio said on the Dan Patrick Show on Monday. "They want to know what issues they may be dealing with down the road."


Yes, having a gay player in the locker room might make some guys uncomfortable. I'm not saying it's reasonable but, that reaction is a possibility. 

And yes, the first openly gay player in the NFL will be at the center of a media circus and, by association, his team and teammates will be forced to rub elbows with him there. And that will be a distraction for sure.

But on the heels of a season in which a player killed his teammate while driving drunk and, another player killed his girlfriend-who was also the mother of his child-and then drove to an NFL team facility and killed himself in front of his coach and his GM, I think it shameful that the question of gay or not gay is even on the player evaluation radar this week. 

Tyrann Mathieu is also a big story at this year's combine and very much like Te'O, he arrived with extra baggage, except it has nothing to do with homosexuality or a well publicized "catfish" scheme. 

And in another glaring dissimilarity, he says he hasn't been asked much about those bags since he's been in Naptown.

Mathieu, who failed multiple drug tests because of marijuana use on his way to a dismissal from the LSU football program and who was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession on Oct. 25 after a stint in rehab, says that the subject hasn't really come up in his interviews.

"Not too much about off the field. But it's more about on the field, do I still have it," he said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

And with that, the NFL continues to feed its own hypocrisy beast.

In a league where team officials label a maybe gay player as a potential "issue" to be faced "down the road" but don't question a guy with documented off the field issues about off the field issues, it's pretty hard to believe it to be a non-discriminatory entity and even harder to believe that the entity regards high character as a top priority.

Be sure to file those claims alongside the one about the NFL's concerns over the long term effects of repeated head injuries and the one touting their commitment to hiring minority head coaches.

For his part, Mathieu says honesty is his best friend now. He doesn't expect teams to trust him but, he wants an opportunity to prove that he has indeed changed.

And the prospect formerly known as the honey badger is certainly putting up the kind of numbers that help a guy jump start his image rehab, which is more than we can say for the former Notre Dame standout whose stock has plummeted this week.

With unofficial hand times of 4.43 and 4.5 posted in his 40-yard dash, Mathieu will likely get his chance at redemption.

I, for one, am sincerely hoping he can turn it around, making his way onto the straight and narrow path. But I couldn't care less about whether Manti is gay or straight.

And ultimately an NFL team won't care either as long as the math holds up. If one talented, gay player helps improve a team and, along with the other parts, adds up to equal one Super Bowl championship, the organization will be more than happy to embrace their place in history as trailblazers as well as the Lombardi Trophy.

All hail the first team to welcome an openly gay player into their macho, super-testosterone charged locker room.

They will say it wasn't about the numbers but, it won't be true.

And it won't be true in a couple of months when the team that drafts Mathieu says that more than his numbers at the combine, they were impressed with the way the young man has handled himself since all of that off the field "stuff" happened.

They won't be fooling anyone but, their feeble attempt at this deception is the most egregiously offensive part of this whole thing.

Because winning is the only thing that truly matters.

After all, players may lie; team and league officials may lie but, championships don't.