By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2009 7:21PM
I'll never forget when these two little renegades tried to jump me and steal my bike about 20 years ago. One kat was riding on the back of his boy's bike when they rode up to me, rammed my back tire and tried to knock me off balance. But that's when I shifted gears on those lames, zoomed around the corner and made it safely back to the crib. I saw this same dude at The Boys Club a few weeks after that, and we both acted like we didn't know each other, like this crud had not just tried to get me for my 10-speed earlier that month. We happened to get picked on the same that day, though. I hit him with some slick bounce passes, he found me for a few baseline jumpers and -- presto! -- we became Boys Club buddies.
Well, just like Common said in "It's Your World": "Same n-----, same block, same sh-- they on." My old Boys Club buddy is still a hoodlum. I bumped into my old enemy-turned-friend a few weeks ago, during one of my periodic trips back to the old barbershop in my old hood. After I got my cut, we stood outside the shop talking for a quick second. I told him (in jest) how his failed bike-jacking reminded me of how the Carl Landry assailants initiated his incident by side-swiping his truck. On a more serious note, I mentioned how I wanted to write about Carl Landry and the emerging epidemic of athletes being targets of violence. Although America seemed quite cool with moving on after it was clear that Landry was not seriously harmed, I was not ready to drop the issue.
We both agreed that there was something odd about the Landry incident, that it seemed like more than a random criminal act. "You know how the goons get down," he said. "They probably knew that was his whip and thought he had some jewels on him or something." Landry is just sports most recent victim. Sean Taylor is dead. So is Darrent Williams. Eddy Curry and Antoine Walker were held at gunpoint, in their homes, during robberies. Some goons fired on Jamaal Tinsley's Rolls Royce a couple years ago. Black on black crime is nothing new. In fact, a large section of America might even yawn at it, provided they keep that element in the ghettos. But this trend of black criminals scheming on rich black athletes is new.
My man made a comment about the athlete-criminal relationship that stuck with me: "Those dudes can stunt all they want, throw around they dollars, talk reckless, pop they bottles and all that. But they better not get caught sleepin'. The goons are just waitin' for those dudes to slip up."
That, people, is a shift in landscape. Athletes used to be idols, now they're prey. That's why Robert Gadson, the director of security for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), calls the young men making up this criminal element predators. "Some guys will ride around all night looking for a target," he said. "Or they have people at [popular hang out spots] that tip them off. Some of these guys spend as much time looking for targets as us regular folks spend looking for a job."
Forget the wild incidents at an unhinged nightclub. How did we get to the point where jocks aren't safe anywhere? Not even in their homes? How did we get to the point where athletes are prisoners of a criminal element that looks just like them? Young black men that should applaud ballplayers escaping the ghetto and reaching the good life. Instead, they're plotting ways to take what they've earned.
Dr. Harry Edwards is a renowned author, sociologist and critical thinker. He's best known as the architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, via which he choreographed Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. He's been working with athletes for about 40 years and has seen the relationship between ballplayers and many of the young black men in the hood go from exempt to contempt.
How did we get here? Edwards blames what he describes as the "one-way, selective integration" that took place during the '60s and '70s. The black middle class, he says, was the foundation of the black community. They were the tax base. They were the entrepreneurs that provided jobs. They were the foundation of the churches and schools. The black middle class was the economic institution and moral compass. When they fled into the "peripherals of white society," Edwards asserts, nothing filled that void. An underground world and economy developed. Gangs. Drugs. Failing schools. And a recycling of young black men in and out of the penal system.
"The community became infused with prison values," says Edwards. "It's not who or what you are, it's who you're affiliated with. Now it's not just disrespect for athletes, not just envy -- but contempt. They have means to things -- cars, women, jewelry -- that you have no access to. Now, [athletes] are a target. Now they have to roll with their crews for protection. Now that invites even more attention. Now maybe they get caught in the crossfire. The limo door opens up and he catches the bullet." Gadson and the NBPA frown upon athletes carrying firearms and would rather they invest in trained security, but it's this very real threat of violence that often prompts some of these athletes to strap-up. The same way inmates MacGyver-up shanks.
Think about that. Think about a community's moral code resembling that of a prison and its economic structure best described as "underworld." This is where many of our athletes come from, and their ascension creates a tension between them and those they've left behind. Jealousy and envy arise. This is exacerbated by "stuntin'." We used to say "flossin'," now we say stuntin', or showing-off. Some -- though definitely not all -- athletes love to stunt. The fly women, the souped-up cars, the Mr. T starter kits, the wads of cash; there is a distinct flaunting-culture that can turn envy to anger. Dr. Edwards calls the mass stunting "Jim Dandy minstrelsy."
Victims or not, athletes don't escape blame. After the Tinsley incident, Alonzo Mourning was quoted in the Associated Press giving this frank advice: "You've got to understand that we all are vulnerable when it comes to putting ourselves in situations where the public has access to us. And if we go out and flaunt and expose our luxuries, there are some jealous people out there who want it and put us in a position where we're targets. I'm not saying you've got to hide it, but don't be flamboyant. Don't walk into a club with a crowd of people wearing a $250,000 chain around your neck or pull out a wad of hundreds for everybody to see. Pull out a credit card instead. I mean, you're asking for attention and you're asking for trouble."
Gadson says they preach smart decision-making during rookie training. No one expects these young men to become hermits -- although circumstances increasingly point to that option -- but, as Dr. Edwards says, ballplayers need to "get wise." Yeah, it's fun to stunt at clubs. It's an ego boost. But what might that invite?
And then there's us. Where's the outrage? As encouraging as it is to see a black man presiding over this country, I still can't help but feel like, as a young black man, my life is worth less than any other ethnic gender in America. There have been about 5,000 American casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. During that same time, close to 30,000 black men have died by gunfire -- not by all means, just gunfire alone. Almost 30,000! And it is usually black men pulling the trigger. Yawn.
The criminals get this. They feel like they can get away with victimizing other black men because it won't incite the appropriate reaction from the community, the media or law enforcement. On the title track to Ice Cube's socio-cultural touchstone album, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, he rhymed: "I think back when I was robbing my own kind/the police didn't pay it no mind/but when I started robbing the white folks/now I'm in the pen with the soap on the rope." The ugly truth is that, in many cases, black on black crime is almost treated like it's not a crime at all.
When Landry is shot in what appeared to be an attempted robbery, it's initially striking, until a few days pass and the issue dissipates. After all, says Dr. Edwards, "It's just some more violent black men."
I'm not comfortable with how all this is going down. And although I am not a sociologist or an activist, I do know that we at least have to get past the unease with addressing these topics that Attorney General Eric Holder touched on when he called us a nation of cowards. The frightening truth is that Landry isn't close to being the last athlete fired at, burglarized, preyed on or murdered. And it's just a high-profile microcosm of a larger issue that politicians, police, parents, journalists and supposedly concerned citizens don't seem too concerned with.
Where's the outrage? Where's the action?
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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