Commentary

James Harrison's words define image

Updated: July 16, 2011, 10:05 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

One of the greatest hip-hop cuts of all time is "They Reminisce Over You" by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. Released in 1992, this introspective monologue started off as a tribute to a friend of the group who had passed away but ended up becoming the lead song to the soundtrack of many black Gen X'ers lives, of which I am a part.

James Harrison
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesInstead of being celebrated as a champion, hard-working player, James Harrison has become notorious for public pronouncements.

To this day, whenever I hear the haunting sax refrain that drives the melody, my head involuntarily begins to bop, as my mind does a quick inventory of the decisions I've made and how I hope to be viewed when people reminisce over me.

I thought of this song when I saw the photo of a shirtless James Harrison, brandishing two guns and a frown -- driving up the page clicks for Men's Journal, while simultaneously driving home nearly every negative stereotype of today's black athlete.

In the apology that followed he said he's a gun collector, a hunter and a fisherman who advocates for the responsible use of firearms and "could just as easily posed with my fishing poles."

"… I am not promoting gun violence by posing for that photo."

Hmmm, WWJD (what would James do?): Go for the fishing poles or play off a cover image of the video game series "Hitman" in which the main character, Agent 47, is an assassin and the subtitle of the latest installment is "Blood Money?"

Decisions, decision.

I'm not going to say that Harrison's apology isn't sincere. But I am amazed at how the language an athlete tweets or uses in interviews always seems vastly different from the language used in apologies.

It's a free country and Harrison doesn't owe anyone anything, not even his community. If he wants to push a negative stereotype of black men in general and black athletes in particular, it is what it is. The days of black athletes feeling morally obligated to "give back" or be positive role models are long gone.

It's every man for themselves.

It's every man, rep themselves.

Still when I think about the Harrison interview and all his other blips, I couldn't help but recall the Rock-Smooth lyric, "when they reminisce over you, my God."

• Skipping out on meeting the president of the United States -- twice.
• A domestic dispute (charges were eventually dropped).
• And now trying to downplay a photograph that emulates an assassin and comments critical of fellow Steelers. (His beefs about teammates' play in the Super Bowl would have more bite if dude had more than one tackle.)

But that's neither here or there. In less than five years, the 33-year-old Harrison will likely be out of football, but our impression of him, carved from what we know of his life up to this point, will live long after.

James Harrison
Geoff Burke/US PresswireThe man behind the mask hasn't presented the best public image.

Realistically he probably doesn't really give damn about that, me, you, or how anything he said in the story -- or apology -- makes him look. And maybe years from now that's what they'll say about him: "He didn't give a damn."

Too bad, because they could say so much more.

Harrison was an undrafted free agent who has scratched and clawed his way to being one of the best defensive players today, maybe of all time. His legacy should be one of resilience and determination. His narrative should be repeated every hour during the NFL draft, much in the same way Tom Brady's is. This is a guy who was underestimated and dismissed now forcing the league to recognize. He should be so much more than what he's allowed himself to become.

I will always have a soft spot for people like Harrison because, as someone who started life with my share of mistakes, I know people can change. And as novelist George Eliot once said, "it's never too late to be who you might have been."

But that doesn't take away the fact that we must realize who that person is today. I'm not outraged by a single thing Harrison said in that interview because, sadly, I've come to expect that out of him. He's always linked to questionable behavior, so I expect questionable words.

My surprise is reserved for the day he changes. I'm not being cynical, I'm just being real.

I remember when I used to cringe every time someone of Harrison's profile pulled something like he did in Men's Journal. Between our culture's insatiable appetite for scandal, and the small number of positive black images in the press, the black community couldn't afford to have its public figures lead reckless lives. There simply wasn't a balanced portrayal of the black community in the media. There was one episode of "The Cosby Show" vs. a week's worth of "breaking news."

I'm not sure things are too much different now, but at this point it doesn't really matter. Harrison's in Men's Journal, Rodney King's in jail -- again -- and Chris Brown's in dire need of growing up.

And that's just in one week.

I guess I'm at the point where my desire for someone to be something he's not has given way to accepting who he really is. Fines and suspensions can punish, jail can deter but eventually a person's going to be who he is going to be. I hope for change but accept people may not. If Harrison was reported arrested tomorrow, I doubt anyone would be shocked. He's projected that kind of image.

And when they reminisce over him, that's what they'll say, unless he decides otherwise.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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