It’s a common trope of sports discourse to hear talk of “entitled” athletes. Often, I find this talk particularly irksome. In part, that’s because the folks complaining about others’ entitlement are often themselves endlessly so. As one illustrative instance among countless such episodes, several years ago I wrote about the way Mike and Mike once groused about Stephon Marbury. These days, Mike and Mike indulge much less in this kind of racially unself-aware grievance than they used to. I don’t know whether that was a conscious decision, a reflection of some of the changes that have taken place in the media landscape since the dark days of 2007 or a certain mellowing/learning. In any event, “entitlement” talk remains ubiquitous in sports. After the “decision” in 2010, when LeBron became widely despised, there were regular references to his bad conduct as an outgrowth of his lifelong “entitlement.” That one always particularly struck me. James’ biological father abandoned James’ sixteen year old mother before LeBron was born. His mom then took up with a boyfriend whom James considered a father figure in his early life. That man ended up in jail when LeBron was a small boy. He grew up in a poor, violent part of Akron, Ohio. As ESPN reported last year, during fourth grade, a pivotal year in James’ life, LeBron missed 100 days of school and moved at least six times.
Eli Saslow recounts:
HE BEGAN THAT fourth-grade school year the same way he had begun so many others: sleeping on a couch in a one-bedroom apartment that belonged to another of his mother’s friends, where parties continued late into the night and police were sometimes called to investigate noise violations. His mom, 25-year-old Gloria, had recently quit a job at Payless Shoes, according to a friend. She was living on welfare. She liked to go out, friends said, and sometimes left LeBron to supervise himself. Often, he chose not to go to school, spending his days immersed in video games, shuttling between the apartment and a corner store where his mother’s food stamps paid for his snacks.
By then, James had already spent two-thirds of his life essentially without a home, moving every few months with Gloria from one apartment to the next. She gave birth to him in 1984, when she was 16, and for the first few years they lived with four generations of family in a big house they owned on Hickory Street, a dirt road bordered by oak trees and railroad tracks near downtown Akron. Gloria went back to school; her grandmother and her mother, Freda, watched LeBron. Her grandmother died a few months later. Then, on Christmas Day in 1987, Freda died suddenly of a heart attack, and all family stability disintegrated.
That’s some entitlement.
I touched on some of these issues earlier this year in discussing Michael Sam and questions of “character.”
All of this is preface for trying to think about how to think about Jameis Winston. Dave Zirin wrote yesterday about the Heisman Trophy winner who sports a 25-0 record as a starter for the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles. Winston, incidentally, did not grow up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and is evidently a bright young man, though still subject to the same stereotypes typically pinned on black athletes. He’s also accused of committing a terrible crime. Zirin rightly notes that “The Winston case stirs strong emotions because it brings together two of the ugliest strains of Americana: the history of false accusations of rape leveled against black men; and the systematic—and deadly—slandering of women who dare accuse men of sexual assault.”
So, we have a very high profile black athlete, accused of raping a white woman, but receiving the kind of counsel and presumption of innocence not typically afforded black men who are not star athletes or celebrities. Winston, then, represents an exception that probes the rule. Or more properly, is part of a class of exceptions that probe the rule. Young black men are presumptively guilty before the eyes of American society in ways those of us not so judged can scarcely imagine. But when they serve a useful purpose, that changes – specifically the purpose of indulging the fantasies of white guys who pour their hearts, souls and, in the case of well-heeled boosters, their wallets into the well-being of their favored football team. In a week in which we are being reminded in the starkest possible terms how much the American legal system disfavors African American men, Winston seems, indeed, to embody the “entitled” athlete. (And his insulting and absurd statement defending himself against allegations of sexual assault, including his assertion that being falsely accused of rape is the same thing as being raped has been rightly hammered). Because he is of great value to people in positions of power in Tallahassee, Florida, he (alongside too many of his teammates) appears to be the beneficiary of legal entitlement.
In Scoreboard, Baby, the searing and often sickening account of the intersection of privilege and exploitation in the football program of the University of Washington under Rick Neuheisel at the turn of the millennium, Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry show in depressing detail how a cloak of legal invincibility shrouded key players on the Huskies’ football team because their value to the University of Washington football program outweighed whatever harm some of their members were apparently doing to people in the community, including women.
I’ll never forget the depressing spectacle of a Nebraska booster – a guy who was a hang-’em law-and-order type in every other way – defending Lawrence Phillips’ nauseating assault on a girlfriend and insisting on second chances. This was in the mid-1990s and the booster was at least sixty at the time. I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet money pretty confidently on the proposition that this booster was not at the forefront of the civil rights movement thirty years earlier. Phillips served a purpose. Thus, dragging a woman down a flight of stairs by the hair was just a mistake in “judgment.” A circle of privilege was drawn around Phillips because of the value of his body to those who matter. None of that should obscure our understanding of the vastly larger space outside that circle in which many blacks live, a space more akin to a military occupation than a middle class American idyll.
The legal scholar Derrick Bell has used the term “interest convergence” to posit that “the interests of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when they converge with the interests of whites.” What matters about Winston is that he can help FSU win. And so he gets to experience a privilege readily denied many other black men. Entitlement and exploitation are not mutually exclusive here. They are two sides of a coin in a world in which equality before the law, far from coming close to fruition, looks increasingly like a punch line to a joke.