Is Russell Wilson 'Black Enough'?
Turns out, Percy Harvin was just the beginning of the Seattle Seahawks' mid-season troubles.
The disgruntled wide receiver was traded to the New York Jets more than a week ago, apparently after confrontations with teammates including quarterback Russell Wilson. On Sunday, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that the team was similarly growing weary of star running back Marshawn Lynch's behavior, a report that was quickly dispelled by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
But the most discussed storyline has centered around Wilson himself, an apparently polarizing figure despite his unassuming persona. Some players are said to think that Wilson is too cozy with the team's front office, while others feel he doesn't always own up to his mistakes on the field. Last week, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman noted another point of tension that's uncomfortable yet necessary to discuss: the idea that Russell Wilson "isn't black enough."
As Freeman predicted, the Seahawks have denied any problems concerning Wilson, and his teammates have jumped to his defense. Safety Earl Thomas said the story was "an insult to our race," while corner Richard Sherman, who has never shied away from earnest discussions of race, asserted, "Nobody in here said that. It's made up."
I suppose we should take them at their word; Sherman isn't exactly one to toe the party line. Then again, Freeman is a highly respected reporter with years of experience and access. And it's not like we haven't heard this story before.
There was the embarrassing incident back in 2012, after Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III expressed his desire to be seen as a football player beyond his race; to be viewed as a quarterback and not just a black quarterback. In response, ESPN's Rob Parker characterized Griffin as only "kind of black" and asked, "Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?" bringing up Griffin's "white fiancée" and the possibility that he might be a Republican.
The idea of black authenticity also recently emerged last year during the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero reported that the victim, offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who is biracial, was viewed as "soft" and struggled to gain acceptance among his black teammates. Meanwhile, Richie Incognito, who is white, was seen as an "honorary" black man, and his derisive use of the N-word toward Martin was dismissed by teammates who insisted, "Richie isn't a racist."
"Being a brother is more than just about skin color," one Dolphin told Salguero. "It's about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you've experienced. A lot of things."
Wilson's perceived lack of "blackness" is informed by his middle-class upbringing, his mannerisms, the way he speaks, his relationship with management -- all of which might seem out of step to the average black NFL player. As former New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks writes in a stellar piece for the Cauldron, 66 percent of NFL players are black, and for many of them, football was their ticket out of a world of poverty, violence and drugs. Banks makes the compelling argument that the discussion of black authenticity "is a tired, outdated, and destructive idea" that is "undeserving of serious analysis," a way for us to talk around race without addressing head-on the ways in which racial dynamics afflict the league and its public perception.
Banks's piece is required reading for anyone looking for a cogent dissection of sports and society intersect along racial lines. I disagree, however, on the value of discussing Wilson's blackness. Not to further a futile conversation around what constitutes blackness -- as Banks writes, of course Wilson "is black, black enough, and legitimately black" -- but to highlight the tensions inherent in being a black quarterback, a black leader, in today's America.
Football has a complicated history with black quarterbacks, a position regarded for its authority and intellectual requirements. For nearly a century, African-Americans have faced racial antagonism, informal bans and stereotypes on the way they play, many of which persist to this day. While black players are characterized as naturally, physically gifted, their work ethic and leadership qualities are often questioned, bringing the historical exploitation of black bodies to modern sports.
Given all that, Wilson's success as a quarterback is a big deal, made all the more impressive by the fact that he has had to navigate through both black and white expectations of the position. He's expected to be a leader and to represent the organization, while simultaneously representing the interests of his teammates to management. He has to be at once part of the white establishment and "one of the guys" on a team consisting of mostly black players. It's code-switching for football.
Someone who can relate to Wilson's dichotomous role is one of the few people who noted that he's only the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl: Barack Obama. Back in July, Wilson wrote about meeting the president and the parallels between the two men, arguing that while he's not naïve about the barriers he still faces, he's encouraged by the progress we've made in seeing past his and Obama's race.
Except we haven't. That Wilson may be seen as "not black enough" by teammates and that Obama is still being accused of being "not black enough" by political opponents is evidence of the uneven power dynamic between black and white that allows this binary to persist. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2007, the failure to understand blackness as a spectrum is a symptom of a power structure that has historically defined the African-American identity through a white prism. Ideas of authentic versus inauthentic blackness can only exist in a system in which blackness is antithetical to whiteness and whiteness is valued above all else.
I would love for Wilson to write earnestly about this issue, to use his platform at the Players' Tribune to really explore his conflicting expectations. I don't see that happenings, but it would be fascinating. His editor-in-chief, Derek Jeter, also knows something about having his blackness questioned by a teammate. And while Jeter managed to finish his career with most people either overlooking or forgetting that he's biracial, "color-blindness" is still a form of racism. Perhaps Wilson could get some tips from the Captain on how to get people to see past his race in a step toward the post-racial society we hope to achieve.
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