National Football League Hall of Famer Terrell Owens started it; then, actor and game-show host Nick Cannon piled on.
The beginning: In November, quarterback/pariah/social justice warrior Colin Kaepernick participated in undoubtedly the most scrutinized workout/audition in pro sports history. Kaepernick essentially had been de facto banished from the NFL since 2016 for his leading role in the kneeling-during-the national-anthem movement.
Then, the dam broke.
Stephen A. Smith, the unabashed talk-show co-host of ESPN’s lively “First Take” program, uttered the five memorable words about Kaepernick, “He doesn’t want to play.” Smith, who is black, followed that with six more, “He wants to be a martyr.”
Smith appeared to side with the NFL.
Adding Fuel to the Football Fire
But Max Kellerman, who is white and is Smith’s co-host, blasted the NFL, saying the league’s motives were shamefully disingenuous. He outwardly raised suspicion regarding the NFL’s audition arrangement for Kaepernick, while boldly proclaiming, “I will ask those questions.”
Enter the mercurial Owens, who added fuel to the football fire when he shockingly stated on ESPN: “Max almost seems blacker than you, Stephen A.”
Later, Nick Cannon doubled down on Owens’ assertion. When TMZ’s videographers approached Cannon as he entered a big, black SUV one night, he’s asked about Owens’ “Max is blacker than Stephen A.” comment. Cannon clearly responds, “He is.”
Just last week, after the messiness of all this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declared of Kaepernick, “It was a unique opportunity — an incredible opportunity and he chose not to take it. And we’ve moved on.”
But there’s residue.
Three Memorable Points
This is familiar territory for prominent Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. On March 14, 2016, Gates appeared in Washington with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, along with moderator Michael Fletcher of “The Undefeated” website, at a luncheon in the National Press Club. The topic: race relations.
“I teach a very large and, thank God, a very popular course at Harvard,” offered Gates, who is black. “It’s got the simple name of ‘Introduction to African-American Studies.’ The whole course is about how black people have been arguing with each other since the 18th century about what it means to be black.”
Buttigieg Was Accused of Spouting Racial Paternalism
Perhaps, there is a contemporaneous parallel to the backlash against Stephen A. Smith — in the political world. A 2011 speech video of presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently resurfaced. And, of course, today’s tribal atmosphere took hold.
The hackles among some observers raised up in reaction to one particular segment of a Buttigieg speech during his 2011 mayoral campaign. The part when the mayor said there were “a lot of kids” from “especially low income, minority neighborhoods” that didn’t know someone personally “who testifies to the value of education.”
For that, Buttigieg, as he enters this week’s debate, was accused of spouting racial paternalism.
Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter penned a brilliant essay essentially defending Mayor Pete in The Atlantic magazine. McWhorter wrote: “The nut of the issue is that there are other reasons inner-city kids fail to graduate or go to college, such as funding disparities, unequal curriculum resources, and violence.”
However, he added, by not mentioning those important systemic ills doesn’t mean “Buttigieg was inherently denying their existence.”
Also, note there’s an army of concerned black advocates who constantly pound the drum about the importance of black role models and black male teachers.
The conclusion here: To avoid a racial backlash when issuing comments on the state of black folk, it is mandatory, rightly or wrongly, to cite racism, front and center. (Mayor Pete could have done that.) Then pivot to the usual mantra: societal inequities, racial wealth gaps, government corruption, etc.
‘Never Let a Bully Tell You How to Be Black’
That is to say, if Stephen A. Smith would have prefaced his criticism of Kaepernick by classifying the NFL hierarchy as racist or corrupt or anti-black-male-intellectualism, etc., that tactic would have ameliorated the vitriol toward him.
Gates related his most important point in convincing fashion, saying, “The last line of my final lecture (each term), I say, ‘If you take away one thing from this class, it is this: There are 42 million African-Americans in this country, which means there are 42 million ways to be black.’
‘“Never let a bully tell you how to be black.”’
Enough said; case closed; see you later.
About the Author
Gregory Clay is a Washington columnist and former assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.