Commentary

Now it's time for change

An appeal to black male athletes to consider the broader impact of their actions

Updated: August 2, 2012, 4:42 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

This is a cry for black American male athletes to admit that some of them aren't helping us. This is a cry for them to begin to pay closer attention to some of the things that they are doing and understand the effect their behavior is having on those who look like them. This is a cry for the "role models" to look beyond themselves and try to realize they really aren't helping the kids in the hood that they claim they love, respect and represent when they help prove the people right that despise them or want to see them fail. This is not a cry for help. It is a cry for change.

In Detroit, seven arrests of four Lions players in seven months. Player DUIs piling up like "Call Me Maybe" hits on YouTube. Superstar and world champion athletes in court for child support issues. All-world running backs getting arrested in nightclubs. One player in the news accused of hitting his mother.

Spotify the Public Enemy: "How low can you go?"

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Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesWe're seeing too many arrests, too much misbehavior.

See, sometimes the behavior of others becomes a reflection on a larger group, especially when isolated incidents begin to overlap. And the wave of recent incidents involving black male professional athletes is now contributing to the stereotypical and often indefensible image of ignorance brushed on the canvas in the ever-evolving picture of black men in America.

Specifics: In Chicago, homicides are up 60 percent and shootings are up 37 percent as of July 1, compared to last summer. Among the latest tragic deaths: Iona recruit Michael Haynes. In Houston, Adrian Peterson was recently arrested and charged with resisting arrest after a nightclub incident. On the "Dr. Phil" show, Terrell Owens embarrasses himself by trying to rationalize not paying child support for kids he's fathered with three different women (The mother of his fourth child did not appear on the show.) Across the nation, there are DUI arrests and pending court appearances for -- but not limited to -- Marshawn Lynch and Kenny Britt and Robert Quinn and Jason Kidd. Brandon Meriweather and Justin Blackmon are sentenced in DUI cases. In Dallas, Dez Bryant was arrested after being accused of assaulting his mother.

One brush. One color. One paragraph. One image. Get the picture?

Not that pro athletes' actions have gotten senselessly worse recently. But with more public and media attention being paid to crimes committed by and against people of color, it makes one wonder if it's time to begin calling athletes out and calling attention to their behavior before the image of us becomes more self-depreciating and irreversible.

As Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the institute for diversity and ethics in sports at the University of Central Florida, who also writes for ESPN, put it ever so accurately in an interview in 2009, "I get called regularly when somebody is arrested. If a sexual assault involves a hockey or baseball player, the questions generally revolve around the player. When it involves a basketball or football player, they ask, 'What is it about African-Americans?'"

Look, this subject is nothing new. I could have written this same column a year ago or 10 years ago. As a sportswriter, I see every day the direct impact professional black male athletes (can) have on society. And while none of their arrests in recent months are on the same level as murders and assaults that have become nightly news leads, what some of these men have been doing damn sure doesn't help the overall perception of young black men.

Despite the positive imagery and actions of athletes such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the very public redemption of Michael Vick, the criminal/drama-free professionalism of the Ryan Howards and Prince Fielders and Matt Kemps, has anything really changed in recent years? Have these and other counterbalances helped shift the "What is it about African-Americans" perception America often has of young black men when they get arrested? Every move pro athletes make is a reiteration, a confirmation, a reflection in the two-way mirror through which America stares back at us.

Excuses are meritless. Play time is over. It is black men, especially athletes and their outsized public reach, versus comprehensive accountability. There is no disconnect between who athletes are now and the young men they once were. At least, I fear, not in the eyes of the broader society. Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, Vick, Mike Tyson -- they've all done their share to add to the image problem in the past. But now is different. The crimes may remain the same; it's the times that aren't. It takes a nation of only a few fools to hold millions of us back.

"For most whites there are three dominant media images of black males: criminals, athletes, and entertainers," Robert Entman, co-author of the book "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America," wrote in an email. "When -- as often happens -- a black male athlete or entertainer receives publicity for allegedly committing a crime, it is probably negative for images of black men in general. Research shows accused criminals who are black but not celebrities stimulate anxiety and hostility in white Americans. When black athletes stand accused, they blend right into that existing negative stereotype of irresponsible, violent, etc. black males."

Unfortunately, the perception -- and reality -- is that there is color associated with this. It's the color that I happen to be, the color of Cullen Jones and John Orozco happen to be, the color former athletes-turned-professional-team-owners Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan happen to be, the color the president of the United States just happens to be.

Professional male athletes are on the front line of how black men in this country are universally and unilaterally viewed, and it seems right now as if too many of them too often don't care.

Lynch said in a statement made about the negative attention reflected upon him from his recent DUI, "This is not the type of community leader I have been over the last two years or the one I'm striving to become."

I can only hope that he really means what he says. We can only pray that other athletes such as him take heed and practice what he's preaching.

Because this is what the image of America's crisis already looks like: The face: Of color. The nationality/race: African-American. The gender: Male. The age: Young.

Now the black American male athlete is giving them reason to add a profession to that list. Thanks a lot, Dez.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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