- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Duke edged Michigan in a surprisingly great game, one that came on the heels of former Blue Devil Grant Hill criticizing former Wolverine Jalen Rose. Though the game was great, last week’s media discussion was lacking. Specifically: Few came to Rose’s unequivocal defense, even fewer found fault with Hill. Below, three TrueHoop writers express frustration over how this supposed “race controversy” gave way to such dull, toothless commentary.
Myles Brown: How exactly did we get here? Jalen Rose produced a critically acclaimed documentary rife with talking points: the abuse and exploitation of college athletes, what constitutes a commendable legacy and even how Michigan's Fab Five served as a precursor of sorts to the Miami Heat. Yet, we're still entrenched in the rudimentary conversation of who and what is an Uncle Tom. Now no matter the impetus, we should welcome a discussion on race, particularly when considering it was a central theme of the production. However in order for such dialogue to be productive, it must be broader and far more honest.
As you've probably heard by now, Grant Hill wrote a letter. What is still unclear is whether he watched the documentary in its entirety before firing off such a missive. He says that “It was a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events, therefore, to see friends narrating this interesting documentary...” yet the rest of his words are littered with inaccuracies and loaded language indicative of a second-hand accounting. No one-especially Jalen-”disparaged” the Hill's for their “education, work ethic and commitment to each other.” In fact, he praised them and admitted he was quite jealous of the benefits they provided their son. Furthermore, Jalen only “seems to change the usual meaning of these very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families” if the context of his statements is ignored. That context being his upbringing and more importantly, Duke's recruiting practices.
Duke has traditionally sought after privately schooled players, which has lent their program an air of affluence and respectability. Such players are committed to the program for the duration of their college careers; ostensibly capable of adhering to both Mike Krzyzewski's military rule and the rigors of a Duke education. Yet it could also be argued that such commitment keeps roster turnover low and thus, keeps the program strong. To some, it may appear that Duke recruits the class of player they do not for academic reasons, but to avoid the impoverished players presumably more subject to NCAA violations. Plainly put, kids who are financially secure don't leave school early for the money and they don't take money either.
True or not, the perception remains. Such a stigma isn't necessarily racist, though it certainly has classist undertones. Therefore, those complicit with such a program -- most notably African-Americans -- will be seen as subservient, which is the traditional definition of an Uncle Tom: subservience or deference to a dominant white power structure. At the risk of putting words in the man's mouth, this is what Jalen was referencing. Not an outright accusation, just a candid acknowledgment of his feelings at the time. Again, at the time. Now the only way to clarify what Duke values and why, is to hear from Coach K himself, who has been curiously quiet during this firestorm. Surely the New York Times would welcome his commentary.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: Myles, you correctly tag the discussion as “rudimentary,” and I seek attributions for the sloth. I’m indicting my fellow white writers here. When sports spawn racial controversies, our conveyor belt churns out one of the two responses:
1. LeBarryBrondsism: “I’m mad at a black athlete and race is NOT a factor here! I know that because I’m incensed enough to speak out on this issue. Race couldn't have influenced my aggrieved opinion because then I’d feel icky, possibly guilty, maybe even introspective. Too angry for that! So don’t play any tricky 'race card' games with my head!”
2. Bunker (Grant) Hill: “This is a very, very, sensitive topic. I’m too frightened to publicly speak on the matter. Maybe I’ll say the wrong thing? Oh wow, I know what to do! I won’t take sides, and I won’t posit opinions. Instead, I’ll sagely bellow, 'These are very important issues and we need a rich debate!' The declaration will be followed by the medieval trumpet noise that kicks off all great jousts.Then, I’ll stop paying attention save for retweeting columns from pontificating black journalists.”
So, white sports writers live in a world where race is either “not a factor,” or not worth commenting on. It’s a much easier planet to navigate, no? But, the path of least resistance rarely helps anybody save for maybe the path taker. Many white bloggers have emailed me takes on Rose-Hill that they wouldn’t publicly air. Thought-provoking opinions are withering inside the heads of the fearful, not sure if this is helping a country that badly needs to understand its balkanized self.
Bomani Jones makes the point that this “Uncle Tom” embroglio only impacts white people in the tangential sense. True, though I believe white pundits should stop with the mental constipation regarding a perceived away game. If you have something to say, say it. If it’s stupid, then we’ve at least begun the process of getting somewhere better. I hope.
I’m dragging intellectual blind spots to the away game, due to a white, upper middle class upbringing. But -- caveats aside -- the sentient should be able to cull a damned conclusion or two. Hill wrote an opinion column, a medium that thrives on people debating each other. In its wake, I only hear clapping from my ethnic ilk. Pointed words aren’t following pointed prose.
Oh so few journalists, white or black, are conveying solid, honest arguments here. Some take Hill’s side. Most serve the insipid Goldilocks soup that keeps this country dull and stupid. The wisdom pose is to declare both camps half-correct, find a “just right” middle ground. This is a fake understanding of nuance, designed to make its proponents sound serious. As Bill Moyers would say, “Splitting the difference between a point and counter-point doesn’t equal the truth.” But, this lazy brand of relativism so effectively masks cowardice as judiciousness that it’s become the default model of American punditry. The upshot here is, Hill’s strong words float mostly unchallenged.
Grant Hill obviously has a grievance regarding the stereotyping of black Duke players, but he’s debating a strawman at Jalen’s expense. Rose did not specifically call Hill anything other than someone to be envied--a generation ago.
Jalen exposed himself for the sake of artistic integrity, and I respect his candor. Along with a buzzword that wrung hands, Rose revealed the pain of growing up fatherless, the jealousy Grant Hill’s great life stoked. Art best connects when we transmit the uncomfortable feelings that roil our guts. Jalen did that, and did it well.
Credit to this man for being honest about an immature stage--it’s just sad the PC police have time travel capabilities. His expressed vulnerability is a cudgel against him, as that vulnerability is bizarrely re-framed as some gaffe or bully tactic. Wish more people were speaking up for him, wish more people were speaking in general.
Beckley Mason: An odd side effect of the insecurity and uncertainty white writers might feel in commenting on the Rose-Hill “controversy” is that black writers are expected to fill the commentary void. But what really qualifies one to discuss the Hill-Rose beef? Race? Geography? Culture? Is an individual’s personal experience the sole determinant of authority on controversial racial issues?
Such does not acknowledge the inherent connectedness of our society. Of course we will remain ignorant of each other’s lives, but pretending that means we are not affected by the lives of everyone in this country is unacceptable. And it seems to me that publicly expressed or explored ignorance, when it exposes rather than reinforces that ignorance, can also be promote progress.
Was Jalen Rose ignorant as a 19 year old stud from inner city Detroit? Sure! That’s what the documentary was designed to explore: the strange mix of ignorance and arrogance, helplessness and power, that the Fab Five embodied.
Rose was ignorant, but his honesty in the documentary regarding who he was is the important part. The fact that he expressed the jealousy and hurt he felt watching black players that he perceived to be “fitting in” with and profiting from a society that would not accept him is more important than his word choice. And Rose shouldn’t apologize for having those feelings.
A major reason many people deviate from (and innovate new) societal norms--ie- wear black socks, long shorts, ignore rules--is because following the paths laid out by the structure of mainstream society isn’t working. People who know there isn’t enough food don’t wait in line—the American Dream, simply put, doesn’t work for everyone. If Duke represented the white-dominated mainstream to Rose, we should be asking why he felt automatically excluded from such an institution.
But I’ve also got sympathy for the Blue Devil. Rose hasn’t gone out of his way to say “That’s how I felt in 1991. I don’t feel that way about black Duke players today.” And no one likes to be called "a bitch" in front of millions of people. I can see how Hill could feel the need to defend himself and other black people who were a part of a culture that is a source of pride and love in his life.
So if both Hill and Rose’s opinions came from the heart and a place of honesty, they both deserve to be taken seriously. But the conversation bogs down in our fundamental inability to move past their and our own personal experiences, because ultimately, that’s what pain is--personal. We can sympathize and understand, but no one knows the exact texture of another person’s suffering. Perhaps that’s why many white writers feel they should sit this one out; they feel they can’t, or even shouldn’t, relate. But it would probably benefit everyone if we could be sympathetic on the personal level while thinking critically on a macro-social level. Just because an issue isn’t “our own” doesn’t mean it ceases to affect us all, and visa versa.
Ultimately, parsing a debate that never really happened between Rose and Hill can be interesting, but it can also obscure the message that, sadly, the only means to any semblance of power available to kids like Rose, in 1991 and today, was intentionally disregarding the conventions of the empowered group. Focusing on whether the way Rose communicated the pain and hurt that affects thousands of young people from similar backgrounds was uncouth is like trying to find a needle in a flaming haystack. In debating Rose vs. Hill, we risk overlooking the more serious, pressing, and broader implications of the documentary.