I hope you didn’t come here for answers…
by Myles Brown / @mdotbrown
I shared some of my thoughts on this hubbub with the good folks over at True Hoop. Here are the rest…
How exactly did we get here? Jalen Rose produced a critically acclaimed documentary rife with talking points: the abuse and exploitation of college athletes, the Fab Five’s actual legacy and even how they served as a precursor of sorts to the Miami Heat. Yet more than a week later we’re still entrenched in the rudimentary conversation of who and what is an Uncle Tom. Now no matter the impetus, we should welcome a discussion on race, particularly when considering it was a central theme of the production. However, in order for such dialogue to be productive, it must be broader and far more honest.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Grant Hill wrote a letter. What is still unclear is whether he watched the documentary in its entirety before firing off this missive. He says that “It was a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events, therefore, to see friends narrating this interesting documentary…” yet the rest of his words are littered with inaccuracies and loaded language indicative of a second-hand accounting. No one-especially Jalen-”disparaged” the Hill’s for their “education, work ethic and commitment to each other.” In fact, he praised them and admitted he was quite jealous of the benefits they provided their son. Furthermore, Jalen only “seems to change the usual meaning of these very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families” if the context of his statements is ignored. That context being Duke’s recruiting practices. The issue isn’t whether blacks value education, it’s whether Duke values only certain kinds of blacks.
Duke has traditionally sought after privately schooled players, which has lent their program an air of affluence and respectability. Such players are committed to the program for the duration of their college careers; ostensibly capable of adhering to both Mike Krzyzewski’s military rule and the rigors of a Duke education. Yet it could also be argued that such commitment keeps roster turnover low and thus, keeps the program strong. To some, it may appear that Duke recruits the class of player they do not just for academic reasons, but to avoid the impoverished players presumably more subject to NCAA violations. Plainly put, kids who are financially secure don’t leave school early and they don’t take money either.
True or not, the perception remains. Such a stigma isn’t necessarily racist, though it certainly has classist undertones. Therefore, those complicit with such a program-particularly black students-will be seen as subservient, which is the traditional definition of an Uncle Tom: subservience or deference to a dominant white power structure. At the risk of putting words in the man’s mouth, this is what Jalen was referencing. Not an outright accusation, just a candid acknowledgment of his feelings at the time. (Again, at the time.) Now the only way to clarify what Duke values and why, is to hear from Coach K himself, who has been curiously quiet during this firestorm. Surely the New York Times would welcome his commentary, no?
Another voice that could have provided some much needed perspective was Chris Webber’s. Unfortunately, Webber declined to participate in the documentary and hasn’t chimed in on the ensuing controversy, so we are left with these words from Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Dispatch: “I often thought that Chris was uncomfortable in his own skin. He wanted to be a street kid. He wanted everybody to think he was an inner city tough guy and he wasn’t.” Burwell isn’t the first to share such an impression.
Webber attended Detroit Country Day-a private school-and was doggedly recruited by Duke. As it was noted in the Fab Five, Chris enjoyed many of the basic necessities that his public school counterparts saw as luxuries: proper training facilities, a bus, games played without the looming threat of violence. Any reasonable person would understand a young man protecting his future, however it probably wasn’t hard to find a few jaded souls who thought he was soft. Scared, even. Hence the overcompensation. But the question remains: Had Webber attended Duke, would he have been seen as an Uncle Tom too?
Better yet, would he have been accepted by his fellow Blue Devils? Elton Brand knew nothing of silver spoons and felt the sting of his classmates contempt upon leaving the program after only two years, which Webber did himself. Brand’s experience lends credence to the notion that all Duke players aren’t ‘posh yuppies’, yet it also perpetuates the impression that ‘outsiders’ aren’t welcome. Which brings us right back where we started.
So were Jalen Rose’s comments ignorant? Of course. Whether in past or present tense, Rose was/is guilty of, as Hill put it, “stereotyping others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger.” However the fact that Hill’s statement was afforded space in the paper of record may bolster Rose’s initial assertions regarding privilege. Can we assume Jalen would have been given such an opportunity? As a reminder, “I looked at it as they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates.”
Regardless, it’s time we abandoned the paternalistic instincts to castigate a young man’s ignorance and pay equal attention to the point that he felt ignored. This isn’t a call for a referendum on Duke nor a weighty love letter to the Fab Five. It’s an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves to have these conversations on a deeper level and a more frequent basis;to examine the socioeconomic and cultural influences that breed such issues. No, black people aren’t a monolith. Yes, education is a priority within the black community. This shouldn’t be news to anyone.
The 30 for 30 documentary series has been a fantastic success, an informative and entertaining experience for us all. However for all of the provocative stories it’s produced; including Billy Corben’s captivating look at ‘The U’ and Steve James’ numbing recollection of Allen Iverson’s trial, this is the first attempt at a substantial discussion of race we’ve encountered.
It shouldn’t take one man calling another a ‘bitch’ for us to get there.