Dr. Walter Greason
4 October 2012
Brian Dawkins is a symbol of defiant Philadelphia pride. Embraced by fans, the media, and the Eagles franchise, he returned to the city this past weekend as his number was retired before the team’s victory over the Giants on Sunday night. Local radio personality Mike Missanelli led the celebration with a poignant interview with Dawkins about his legacy and connection to Philadelphia. Missanelli preceded his discussion with Dawkins with an effort to reverse his multi-year campaign to smear Donovan McNabb’s place in Eagles history. In a similar ambivalent turn, ESPN radio hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic lamented the excessive exurberance of players like Carolina Panther quarterback, Cam Newton, on Monday. All of these conversations serve as entry points to discussions about African American players in the sports entertainment industry.
Missanelli constantly condemned McNabb’s failure to win a SuperBowl championship, skewing the statistical record to ignore McNabb’s playoff victories and superlative performances. He never grasped the singular importance McNabb holds as the most successful African American quarterback in NFL history – better than Steve McNair, better than Randall Cunningham, better than Warren Moon. As the Eagles have seen over the last two seasons, McNabb’s career is also superior to their current signal caller, Mike Vick. Talk radio’s misjudgment of McNabb reflected a deeper, uglier sentiment that receives more frequent expression towards wide receivers like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Chad Johnson over the last decade. The widespread, public intolerance for these players (and others like Deion Sanders or Michael Irvin) reflects a centuries-old disdain for rebellious African American men who did not ‘follow the rules.’
In basketball, this phenomenon manifested most recently in the consideration of players as diverse as Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Craig Hodges, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Just as running quarterbacks must be broken of their bad habits, scoring point guards have to learn their proper roles in the game. Forget the breathtaking athleticism that versatile players like Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett brought to the floor. They must mature and take the sport seriously before they can find widespread public acclaim. If they never learn to behave themselves, then they risk constant depreciation of their legacies – never to gain the acceptance lavished on Brian Dawkins.
The cost of this cultural myopia is that people can miss the importance of the rebel to raising the standards of performance in sports and in life. Poet and philosopher Aime Cesaire referred to this indomitable spirit and creativity as essential components of “negritude.” It is a characteristic nurtured by the experience of generations of enslavement across the Atlantic Ocean. Whether it is Usain Bolt’s explosive joy at the Olympics, or Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu’s unchained power in dominating the field of play on defense, this holistic force of human expression is too valuable to shame and suppress in the media.
Kobe Bryant brought the edge of it to the court after he learned it from Shaq. Dwayne Wade and LeBron adapted it from Kobe to become two of the most versatile performers in the history of basketball. Kevin Durant must take this legacy of innovation to the next level to inspire new generations of excellence. All of this work occurred within the brilliant shadows of Ralph Ellison’s enduring concept of invisibility. Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali had to choose between defiance and acceptable behavior as did Wilt, Kareem, and Joe Greene. These men chose to be ‘bad’, so that Magic, Michael, Jerry, and Emmitt could be ‘good.’ It is time the nation publicly embraced the negritude at the invisible heart of excellence.
Dr. Walter Greason is a Visiting Professor of History at Monmouth University. You can follow him on Twitter (@worldprofessor1).