Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Whitlock’s logic on “NBA prison culture” doesn’t apply to Shaq’s rap?

Jason Whitlock appeared this week on Best Damn Sports Show…Period and attempted to make the case that Shaquille O’Neal’s recent freestyle rap blasting Kobe Bryant was “funny,” a “joke” and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Whitlock on Shaq, Imus
Whitlock on Shaq, Imus

I agree, the rap was funny. But it was also entirely inappropriate, if we apply Whitlock’s own logic for how an NBA player ought to be conducting himself.

In his April 2, 2008 column “Am I supposed to be mad about LeBron?”, Whitlock was more concerned about LeBron James “prison” ink than how Vogue magazine supposedly captured him looking like “King Kong clutching Fay Wray” on its cover. Whitlock has repeatedly taken LeBron to task for not meeting all of his potential, not as an athlete, but as a role model.

"You know, when he covered his body in tatts years ago, mimicking a death-row inmate, LeBron invited people to jump to the conclusion that he’s dangerous. Yeah, that’s the way the image-is-everything game is played. Ink is a prison and gang thing. Don’t act like you don’t know the origin of the current fad … Showing up to work in a white T and iced-out (heavy jewelry) was their way of showing loyalty to their boys in the ‘hood, a shout-out to the corner boys and girls."

His point was further elaborated in his May 29, 2008 column “In NBA playoffs, less ink means more viewers.” Here, Whitlock speculates that one very important (yet not discussed) reason for the resurgence in TV ratings for the NBA playoffs is because of the lack of ink displayed by the majority of players left in the conference playoffs:

"Part of the reason more people are watching these playoffs is because the average fan isn’t constantly repulsed by the appearance of most of the players on the court. Most of the key players left in the playoffs don’t look like recent prison parolees …

"No one wants to watch Delonte West or Larry Hughes play basketball. It’s uncomfortable and disconcerting. You don’t want your kids to see it. You don’t want your kids to think they should decorate their neck, arms, hands, chest and legs in paint. You don’t want to waste time explaining to your kids that some millionaire athletes have so little genuine self-confidence that they find it necessary to cover themselves in tattoos as a way to mask their insecurities."

Personally, when I think of tattoos, I don’t think of prison. At least, that’s not the first thing I think of. I think of S&M calendar pin-up girls in a dirty mechanic’s body shop. I think of grease monkeys in general. I also think of biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels (not too far away from prison inmates, I suppose). I think of dirty rock-n-rollers like Guns N’ Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and all the countless emo bands clogging up the airwaves. I think of frat boys with generic barbed wire wrap-around tattoos on their biceps. Sometimes I even think of aboriginal tribes.

But yes, eventually, I do admit that I think of prison inmates. I absolutely do. However, given their depth on my list, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they have sparked “the current fad”—at least not in the white community, which is not nearly as affected as the black community by the disproportional targeting of its youth by the criminal justice system.

White people, generally, do not get tattoos so they can look tough like prison inmates. They get tattoos so they can look tough like rockstars … or tough like athletes … who may or may not, in turn, be mimicking prison inmates, I don’t know.

But my point is this: If Whitlock were David Stern, he would (in his own words) “commission Nike and/or Under Armor to create a basketball jersey with long sleeves, all the way down to the wrists. I’d make Iverson wear a turtleneck jersey with sleeves. I’d cover the tats.”

This so that the league does not continue to perpetuate the “prison inmate” ideal.

So what about Shaq’s rap?

In his freestyle, Shaq says two things that he should be held accountable for—even by Whitlock’s own standards—1. “That’s like a white boy trying to be more ni**a than me”; and 2. “Kobe, ni**a, tell me how my ass tastes.”

At best, such language is thuggish. No one wants their kids watching a bunch of grown men walk around calling each other the N-word. Parents in both the white and the black community do not want this for their children.

But at worst, Shaq’s language is reminiscent of the same prison inmate culture that Whitlock derides.

“Hey Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes” is about power—power derived from emasculating a man in a public forum and leaving him open to ridicule. Consequently, it’s the same sort of power that’s leveraged by prison inmates when they rape other prison inmates.

Shaq is not saying, “Hey everyone, Kobe just licked my ass because he wanted to.” Shaq is saying, “Hey everyone, I just made Kobe like my ass.”

There’s not a lot of settings in today’s culture where one can get away with saying something like that without either a physical or a legal confrontation. In fact, I can only think of one setting—and here only if you have the numbers stacked heavily in your favor: prison.

I liked Shaq’s rap. I also like tattoos, despite the fact that they are trashy. And I also wouldn’t blame the NBA for asking players to cover theirs up.

If Whitlock is going to encourage the NBA to cover players’ tats, he should at least recognize how his same logic should be applied to Shaq’s recent emasculation of his former teammate as a perpetuation of the prison inmate culture. Whitlock should call for the NBA to fine Shaq … or else stop complaining about the tats.

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