By Vincent Thomas
To date, I have yet to hear a song more appropriately reflect the duality of black athletes than Common’s “U, Black Maybe” off this year’s Finding Forever. It’s a salient example of hip hop doing what it does best — expressing and articulating the inner workings of human thought and actions of the hood and youth generation. The inner struggle that athletes face when pressed with the decision of how money, class, and stakes could/should affect their association and circle of friends is something that is rarely accompanied by balanced or empathetic analysis — just a lot of judging. This is why “U, Black Maybe” was so extremely refreshing and desperately important. When I read that Jamal Tinsley’s caravan was shot up after a nightclub mix-up, the first thing that popped in my head wasn’t Soulja Boy supermanin’ hoes, but Common spittin’ about this particular incarnation of the black plight, like only he can. Check the chorus:
Can’t come around; They gon’ wanna bring you down
No one knows just what’s inside; Doing dope and doing time
Why they messing with your mind?
Black maybe…
Midway through the first verse he puts the athlete conundrum in real perspective:We leanin on a wall that ain’t, that ain’t stable
Its hard to turn on the hood that made you
To leave we afraid to

The same streets that raised you can aid you

For many, this Tinsley incident is a story primarily about decision making. At Monday’s shoot around, Tinsley seemed embarrassed about his decision making, saying things such as: “Night clubs and alcohol and guns late at night, I put myself in a tough position,” and “When athletes step out anything can happen.” But, to me, the decision making is merely a difficult product of a much more fundamental choice. Comm, narrating his fictional athlete’s ascension-caused dilemma said pointedly: It’s hard to turn on the hood that made you. The fundamental choice of separating, or at least distancing ones self from previous friends and lifestyles is becoming more and more important in today’s world of sports. I’m not an advocate of jettisoning friends, completely switching your steez and morphing into a totally different person. Yet, I do believe that every athlete should judge their situations, relying more on their heads than their hearts. Sometimes, one might have to take cold stances. I’m not saying that Tinsley’s recent misfortune has everything to do with association, but it does have a lot to do with attachment. It’s hard to let go of people you like — maybe even love — and things you enjoy.

Most of us will rarely have to make such choices. You have to be fairly rich to bankroll childhood friends. Entertainers tend to be fairly rich, except they often get there without too much time and circumstances disconnecting them from their previous lives. Comparably, CEOs of major companies are fairly rich, but their path’s tend to do the distancing for them. Let’s say Bob Johnson ran with a pack of derelicts while growing up in Freeport, Illinois. It’d have been difficult to bring his crew with him to Champagne as he pursued his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois. After his undergrad, he didn’t sign a multi-million dollar deal with a pro-franchise, he went to Princeton University to get his master’s degree in international affairs. Then he spent the next decades fiendishly working to create, develop and grow Black Entertainment Television. Chances are, the cats he was running with as a teen were lost in that single-minded pursuit. Post-Illinois, he was probably hanging with his Kappa fraternity brothers. They partied, I’m sure, but they’d probably be more worried about one of his boys contracting an STD than unloading clips.

Black athletes, however, are different than every other sector of rich blacks. Athletes come into their money while they’re young and their childhood ties are still fresh. They also have the free time to get into shenanigans. (In fact, many young people have the desire to get into shenanigans.) Black musicians – specifically rappers – mirror black athletes in many ways, except if 50’s crew gets in a shootout, 50 writes about it and sells more records and Interscope doesn’t even consider for a millisecond about any kind of sanction. Black athletes have to navigate their relationships and deal with scrutiny on one end and loyalty on the other. It’s a tough gig, severing ties. What is often an admirable idea — bringing along friends and family for a prosperous ride — can backfire if friends and family and you yourself don’t recognize that things change when you’re stanky rich.

Remember that Jay-Z diary that aired on MTV? Jay and his crew were at some after-party when a young Beanie Siegel hopped the VIP rails to go confront some rube in the crowd talkin’ reckless. That could’ve turned super-ugly. Jay said he counseled Beans after the incident, hoping his protégé would come to recognize that when careers, tons of cash and, ultimately, lives are at stake; one can’t solely operate on hood-ethics. This means that Tinsley’s camp can’t chase down folks and return fire. This may also mean Tinsley may have to start seriously thinking about whether he can hit the club Saturday night whenever and however he wants.

Comm said, “Can’t come around, they gon’ wanna bring you down.” This is the problem. Some old pals don’t recognize that an old friend’s new occupation might call for him move in different circles. Likewise, some athletes don’t recognize the need to tell these cats to either get with the new program or bounce.

I’m sad that Mike Vick is in jail. I’m glad that Jamal Tinsley escaped the gunshots unharmed. I’m also hoping that athletes are sobering up. When Clyde was hitting Studio 54 in the 70s, his dilemma was which fur to rock. Times have changed.

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