Sports, Music, and the Cocky Black Male

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys

[I’d like to welcome another guest post, this time by Jaime-Paul Falcon, who can be found at the Dallas Observer, among other places.]

With forty-six seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Detroit, Dez Bryant made the catch of the year. Down 7-3, Tony Romo took a snap, dropped back, and fired a back shoulder fade to a covered Bryant, who leaped into the air, reached behind himself, trapped the ball with one had, corralled it against his helmet, and managed to stay in-bounds as a second defender came charging at him in hopes of laying a blow that would dislodge the ball from Bryant’s hand. Note that I say hand, singular. It’s a play few people can make, a play that Dez Bryant makes look almost routine, a play that was overshadowed by his actions later in the game.

Twice on Sunday, Fox cameras cut to an emotional Bryant yelling aggressively at his teammates. Reports from the Cowboys camp say that Bryant was just trying to pump his teammates up; Bryant himself said he was yelling encouragement, however, much of the media chose to run with the story as yet another example of Bryant’s immaturity.

Ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick remarked on Bryant’s argument with Tight End Jason Witten, chiding Bryant for “…pulling his spoiled-child routine again.” Within minutes, social media, especially amongst the people in Dallas, the state of Texas, the US, and that weird land where anyone can say what they want, erupted in outrage over Bryant’s behavior, with many commenters being taken aback that Bryant would dare shout at Witten.

The language of the outrage is similar to how Kanye West is discussed both by culture critics and the general public. West is constantly derided for what’s seen as an extreme ego run wild, and much like Bryant, it feels like the criticism is levied so heavily because of the color of his skin.

Director Spike Lee once discussed how he never felt more uncomfortable during film then while watching one of the Rocky films. He noted how general excitement over the film turned dark when Rocky made his charge against Apollo Creed – Lee said he felt that it wasn’t the audience rooting for the underdog, it was the audience rooting for the brash African-American athlete getting his comeuppance. The director has made a career of holding up a mirror to audiences to show that society is uncomfortable with the success of the young blackmale, and therefore does everything it can do to attack them, and bring them down. Anything young black men do is automatically magnified and scrutinized to death, because of society’s need to keep the status-quo, to keep people of color in their place. So when people so gleefully attack any missteps by Bryant or West, they’re not saying, “Look at this guy being an idiot!” They’re shaking their heads scoffing, “Who does this guy think he is?”

And it’s not as if others aren’t pointing this out. After Sunday’s criticism started to amass, Grantland’s Chris Ryan took to the site’s Monday recap of NFL events to write about how maligned Dez is. He listed six points, ranging from an incident where NFL GM questioned Bryant over whether his mother was a prostitute, to Bryant’s banning from a posh Dallas-area mall for his fashion choices. During this time period, former Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton was having publicized relapses with his drug and alcohol addictions, and the support in the Dallas area for Hamilton was almost universal; the scorn for Bryant, almost the same.

In a piece published last week, Flaunt Magazine editor E. Ryan Ellis made an aside noting that in college, Bryant was suspended by the NCAA for part of a season for having dinner with his mentor Deion Sanders. Current Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel, received just a one game suspension for allegedly receiving payments for autographs.

These pieces are comparable to an essay on Kanye written by Kiese Laymon, in which Laymon discusses Kanye’s social impact with his step-grandfather in Mississippi, his friends in New York, a cab driver, and finally, a class at Columbia. While rightfully critiquing West for his feminist failures, Laymon contextualizes his place in the world as a voice for the modern young black man – one who scares the modern white man.

Kanye-West-Yeezus

In his review of West’s latest album Yeezus for the New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of the artist, “Why are so many people fond of being mad at Kanye West? Is it his lack of control, his self-absorption, his boastfulness? Complaining about a surfeit of ego in a celebrity performer is like going to Barcelona and bitching that the locals eat dinner too late.” It’s a brilliant opener to a review-turned critique of how we as an audience, and more so as a public, view Wests’ work based on the audacity of his antics and less on the merits of his work. Sounds pretty familiar to how Dez Bryant is being treated at the moment, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s one and the same. This critical reaction has not improved since Muhammad Ali was maligned by the white press in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ali was far above his peers in both talent (Bryant) and his ability to divide people over his comments (West). As he aged, matured, and moved away from the fire of his youthful antics, Ali eventually became loved by the his critics, the public, his country, and the world. Time will tell if either 24 yer-old Bryant or West will be able to reach the heights of adoration like Ali, while not succumbing to the lows they’re constantly brought down to.

An example of someone who did not survive this sort of criticism raised his head on Sunday to defend Bryant’s actions. The much-maligned ex-NFL receiver Terrell Owens was run out of the league when his antics were deemed too detrimental to teams when compared to his on field production. Owens, who has been out of the NFL since failing to catch on with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, raised the question if there was a double standard with Dez Bryant’s antics, and New England quarterback Tom Brady’s much publicized sideline tantrums with teammates earlier this year. Speaking with Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, Owens summed it up simply: “Why is Tom Brady showing passion when he screams at players, but Dez is out of control?” I don’t want to say it, but I do wonder if race plays a part in the double standard. Why is Brady treated one way, and Dez another?” Salient points from someone who went through something very similar.

Time will tell if these things will change; West is still dealing with blowback from his post-Twitter rant appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, and has suffered criticism from his extravagant proposal to fiancé Kim Kardashian. The week of endless stories concerning Bryant’s behavior just kicked off, and one has to wonder how the media storm will affect his play this coming Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. However, one thing is for sure; in the wake of a weekend dominated by Halloween costumes that not only featured the racist use of blackface, but also the decision by a couple of young adults to go as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it feels like we’re not that removed from the days of racial strife that existed 50 years ago. It just feels like we’ve found different ways to couch the indignant language, and found different figures to attack.