Sep 14, 2009

A Weekend We Won't Soon Forget

After a rather uneventful summer, the multiple incidents of this past weekend suggest that the fall could potentially be off the chain. On Friday night the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, gave a Hall of Fame induction speech that sounded more like a rapper going through a list of all his personal beefs with other rappers than a typical induction speech. Then on Saturday Serena Williams got her Suge Knight on, threatening to stuff a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge. Not to be outdone, Kanye West decided to channel the late Old Dirty Bastard and upstage a VMA award recipient by declaring that someone else truly deserved the award.

Many have expressed disgust at the way that Jordan used his speech to settle old scores as opposed to giving the customary acceptance speech, full of platitudes, inspirational thank yous, and the obligatory tears. But people should not have been surprised. Not at all. Jordan was always praised for being so competitive as a player. So what did you think, that he would turn it off once he was no longer on the court?

The media long ago created a monster with Jordan and that monster came back to bite them the other night. Jordan willingly embraced that monster for so long that he was eventually consumed by it himself as well.

The person you heard speaking at the HOF induction ceremony was the real Jordan. The media-created, Nike-fueled machine had been replaced by an aging former player who seemed reluctant to give up his throne. The real Jordan was too much for those who have gotten accustomed to the corporate Jordan, a man who always tended to say and do the right thing.

Some people don't want to see what is directly in front of their faces. They would rather project some diluted fantasy onto the target in question than see the real for what it is. Jordan was compensated handsomely for his services, but now that he is no longer playing his former role has become a burden. He basically shed that burden on Friday night. I could appreciate the realness myself.

Now that Jordan is retired, people can't wait to crown LeBron. He needs to win some titles before that happens, but, trust me, the crown has already be fitted for his head. What this means is that Jordan's legacy, which was tied almost exclusively to his excellence as a basketball player and endorser of products, is no longer that viable considering that he is no longer playing. This is unlike Muhammad Ali whose conflicted legacy is often misunderstood, but nonetheless continually significant because his legacy did transcend his sport.

Perhaps, given the chance, Jordan might reconsider his refusal to endorse Harvey Gantt as the former mayor of Charlotte tried unsuccessfully to defeat the arch conservative Jesse Helms during the 1990 senatorial contest in Jordan's home state of North Carolina? If Gantt had been victorious, Jordan would be able to say that he helped kick a racist senator out of office and his legacy today might not be confined to basketball. However when your greatness is limited to your athletic endeavors and you only use it to otherwise sell products it is inevitable that once you can no longer play that your image will suffer. It is the reality of all this that informed Jordan's less than gracious remarks the other night. Again, I found the real Jordan refreshing and only wish that he had visited with us sooner.

As for Serena, let's just say that you can take the girl out of Compton...

One of the reasons that Serena and her sister Venus have enjoyed so much success on the tennis court is because their father taught them to play tennis the same way that dudes play basketball in the 'hood. That edge works both ways though. There are times when this edge wins tennis matches and then there are other times when this edge can lead to frustration and angry displays of emotion.

Serena flipped, lost the match because of it and also has to reach in her ample pockets to pay for her verbal transgressions. Like Jordan, her desire to compete got the best of her, at least for one night. And if the world is fair maybe she'll get the opportunity to cash in on her angry antics like John McEnroe has been able to do. Don't hold your breath for that one though.

Finally I arrive at the actions of Mr. West. Kanye has been doing this sort of thing every since he's been in the spotlight so I'm not sure why anyone is surprised anymore. Besides, it's an awards show, the MTV Video Music Awards at that, not tea and crumpets with the Queen. The reason people watch shows like this is to see something outrageous, because the VMAs are certainly not something to be taken seriously. Yet there seems to be a backlash against Kanye this time that threatens to eclipse the reaction to his infamous "George Bush don't like black people" comment after Hurricane Katrina.

Some, like Ann Powers, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, have attempted to make links across these recent events. Powers' states "it's been a banner week for widely broadcast outbursts, from Congressman Joe Wilson hectoring Obama during his healthcare speech to Serena Williams seriously losing her cool at the U.S. Open to this latest kerfuffle, and in every case, racial conflict has been an undercurrent." Powers goes on to speculate on whether Kanye's diss of the young, white Taylor Swift might have been racially motivated.

Let's get this straight. The rules that govern a presidential speech in the halls of congress are quite different than the rules that apply to tennis matches and music video awards shows. While pop culture has certainly invaded all aspects of our lives, the Joe Wilson situation has nothing to do with pop culture. It has everything to do with a old school southerner who refuses to accept a black man in a position of power. Joe Wilson must answer for Joe Wilson. To try and link Wilson's outburst with the especially minor actions of Serena and Kanye is to dismiss the utterly disrespectful and contemptuous act of a man who has a long history of racially questionable associations and actions to begin with.

Enough with the sleight of hand here. We've seen this before. Don Imus uses racist and sexist language to describe young black women basketball players and the next thing I know we're talking about hip hop and before you can blink Imus is back on the air. Say what you will about Serena and Kanye, but whatever you say, recognize that their actions should not be used as subterfuge to let Joe Wilson and the rest of those yelling yahoos off the hook. The three incidents should not even be conflated, as what has happened is most certainly not a tit for tat exchange. Besides, the line judge who Serena yelled at was an Asian American woman, so I'm not sure how this fits into Powers neat lil' package of racial conflict anyway?

Let's compare apples to apples here. And for Joe Wilson's actions, there are no comparable apples. Serena lost her temper, lost the match, and lost some cheese. Justice served. Kanye was booted from the VMAs for his actions. Joe Wilson, on the other hand, refuses to issue any more apologies and has already been cashing in, drawing large donations from supporters who regard him as a hero. Powers is right to suggest that there are real racial tensions in the country right now, but these tensions have absolutely nothing to do with Serena or Kanye.


Paul said...

South Carolina has a long list of dignitaries that includes Lauren Caitlin Upton (Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant contestant), Board of Education Chair, Kristin Maguire, Governor (and avid Appalachian hiker), Mark Sanford and now Joe “the hater not a debater” Wilson or the “screamer not the dreamer” as others have dubbed him. I did enjoy him cut and running through his apology, which only goes to show that he stands for nothing. He is just another good old boy where in the morning these married men preach to you that there should be prayer in our schools and in the evening they are on their cell phones setting up a date with their other women on the side, hypocrisy has been bred in. I am not surprised that he felt compel to yell like he was at some Friday night game. So long Joey, you too will be seeing the unemployment lines.

mike devlin said...

I agree that Mr. West's comments were not racially motivated.

There is a common link between Jordan, Serena, and West, and dare I say Wilson. We, the audience (the true owners of pop culture) have built these "icons" up to live up to a certain image. We condone their actions and value their accomplishments, and therefore, they not only continue to act and react a predicted way, but their competitive spirit causes them to take it further and further.

I predict that as long as West continues to sell records, he will continue his outbursts. And Wilson, if he is in fact receiving donations, expect his icon to be that of a constant challenger. We create these people. It's not race as much as it is a a decline of social morals.