Article of the Week: Tom Farrey on Carmelo Anthony

My apologies. The article of the week has been AWOL in 2006, and the first one of the year is an article that isn't even from this week.

But, please, read Tom Farrey's story from ESPN magazine about Carmelo Anthony. It's really Anthony that gets my attention here, because he's talking frankly about things that a lot of professional athletes experienced--but Anthony's the only one I know who's talking about his good relationships with drug dealers, and mistrust of cops.

For months after last winter's PR storm, Anthony's handlers wouldn't grant interviews with him unless a reporter agreed not to ask about "Stop Snitching." No more. Anthony never felt he'd done anything wrong, nothing big at least. Now, he wants to talk about where he comes from, the hand he was dealt.

In the Pepsi Center, he sets down a PDA he has been tapping away at and leans back in his chair. "Drug dealers funded our programs," he says. "Drug dealers bought our uniforms." They were just about the only guys in the hood with the cash to outfit a team. They did it for three years beginning in late elementary school, he says, and never asked Anthony for anything in return, like carrying product. "They just wanted to see you do good."

When the cops took over the nearby rec center and nailed a Police Athletic League sign on the front, Anthony and his friends boycotted. The goal may have been to clear out the dealers, but to him it felt like one more act of harassment, another form of bullying by some Charm City cop who doesn't especially trust loitering young black males. More than once, Anthony says, men in blue left him black-and-blue. "Nothing major," he says. "They'd just choke me, drag me around." It was enough to seal the kind of resentment that could one day lead to five minutes of face time on a fire-starter DVD. Think of the cameo as support for old friends in a hood to which he no longer belongs.

A few months after "Stop Snitching" hit the streets, Baltimore police asked Anthony to appear in a production of their own, "Keep Talking." He committed only to lending his name to an antiviolence campaign led by a local surgeon who stitches up gunshot wounds nightly. Anthony is a child of the War on Drugs. So he thinks in war terms, us versus them.

"I would never snitch," he says. "I would never testify on anything. That's just the street code." As the declarations tumble from his mouth, his marketing people sit 25 feet away. They have spent the past year trying to salvage his corporate appeal. And they have done it gladly, because they know his heart. In spite of everything, they lined up an endorsement deal with PowerBar -- not exactly IBM, but not a bad get. They kept the "Got Milk?" folks from bailing early, and made the Nickelodeon cameo happen. But their client doesn't make their job easy. "If you snitch," Anthony says, oblivious to them, "you're talking about someone's life."

(It seems like plagiarism in a way, but below are my own thoughts on the topic, mainly from an e-mail to a friend.)

Used to be, decades ago, we had real heroes. Or so we thought. But then years later you read the tell-all biography and find that everyone--take your pick, from Winston Churchill to Dr. King--had shortcomings.

Then the media mushroomed, news went around the clock, and the flaws--stupid little ones and meaningful big ones alike--are being exposed in just about every would-be hero every day. Everyone is acting like the whole world is on fire. But it's nothing new. What's new is that now we know about it in real time.

That genie's not going back in the bottle (nor should it, I suppose) but I'm in favor of all of us being a little more realistic and calm about it. We need to adjust to the incredible amount of information that we get every day, and take a deep breath.

Seeing Carmelo stand tall, speak with dignity, and say that he has done some stuff that he knows most of America disagrees with--to me, that's progress. He's not sneaking around with shame. He's making it easy for the rest of us not to over-react.

I like the idea that you can dislike a thing about a person without disliking the person. ("You are all welcome to come on in," I remember someone saying once "but that hair has to stay outside.") I might not like how Bill Clinton handles his personal fluids around the interns, but he gives a nice speech and the economy sure hummed when he was in office, if you see what I mean.

I'm not saying I'd forgive anything in anyone, but in general I like the idea that we can be honest about our shortcomings while maintaining some dignity.

And as for the wars in our cities? I wish I could say I believed the cops were always the good guys like on TV. But, sadly, I believe it's much more complicated than that.

As Farrey covers well in the article (by interviewing the mother of a young man who was killed apparently to keep him from testifying), the "stop snitching" campaign is dangerous and wrong-headed. Any way you slice it, it's not really about keeping the peace, it's about protecting the people who make big money filling our cities with violence and addiction.

But it would be easier to make the case against it if there weren't so many problems with the justice system. And I don't think we need to hate Carmelo Anthony for anything. I agree with Tom Farrey, who said in a chat about the article that "in the two months I spent working on the story, I didn't come away thinking the kid is trouble. He just has some thoughts on inner-city social issues."

He's a brashly honest, if perhaps slightly misguided, guy in a complicated world. This is good healthy dialogue--which is always better than seething silence when it comes way to solving problems. I applaud Carmelo Anthony and Tom Farrey for getting this conversation started.