What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

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Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

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True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”


The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”


“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”


Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.


It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

Saints DE Cameron Jordan is a beast on the field and off of it The NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee goes above and beyond to help his community

A few days before Cameron Jordan rejected five passes that helped lead his team, the New Orleans Saints, to a 31-9 victory over the New York Jets, he’d visited a high school in the Louisiana area “on the West Bank.”

It’s his Tuesday ritual — going into the community to visit high schools or hospitals, or showing his face and lending a hand to any community event — something he’s faithfully done since his rookie season. Giving of himself to serve or encourage others is a habit Jordan learned from his father, six-time Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, who instilled great values and work ethic in him on and off the field.

Cameron Jordan is now up for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and he is elated about the possibility of ranking No. 1 out of the 32 nominees. The NFL recently announced the nominees for the award, which gives honor to a player who exemplifies the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. Finalists will be announced in January.

Giving back comes naturally to the 28-year-old. Since being drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, he has participated in at least one but sometimes multiple weekly community events as he has evolved into a defensive starter, captain, Pro Bowler and nationally recognized player.

Whether his participation has been team-related or sponsored by a community partner, a teammate or a fan, he’s remained selfless. For the past four years, Jordan has been the face of the Saints Kids Club. He spends several hours during the summer working with kids who take part in the Saints Community Patrol Summer Camps. He also delivers several motivational speeches to youth and high school students.

Each Man of the Year nominee will receive two Super Bowl LII tickets to give away to fans and community heroes. The five current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning and Jason Witten. All 2017 nominees, including Jordan, have donned a Man of the Year helmet decal since the announcement was made in early December, and they will sport it through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field. This tradition will continue for future nominees and winners of the award.

“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release.

“Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”

In between practice and community events, The Undefeated caught up with Jordan about the driving force behind caring for the community.


What inspires you to donate your time and effort on a weekly basis to the community?

You know, if anything, I give credit to my dad. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always gave back to the surrounding community of Minnesota when he was playing, and Arizona, where we moved to after, where he’s from. He’s made an emphasis in his life just to give back just as much as he’s gotten from life. That’s a lot.

It’s easy to go to the pros and be able to try and give back to the next generation. What’s more motivating is not the fact that I’m doing it because my dad’s doing it, or I’m doing it because there’s some recognition part. If anything, I don’t want any of the recognition for it.

At the end of the day, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a thing that can help a kid, will come back to me.

I’m not saying I’m the foundation — just a brick.

What’s your most meaningful cause to give your time to?

At this point, it’s almost a ritual to go out to a different school every Tuesday. Whether that be for New Orleans, whether that be New Orleans East, or whether that be the West Bank, you go out to as far as Houma and Boutte. It doesn’t really matter. Just the inclusiveness, the inclusivity of being able to show that there’s an NFL player that cares about these kids.

How do you balance being such a prolific football player and contributor to the team, and such a wonderful role model and community member?

I don’t know. That’s a great question because in terms of everything I do, I always want to feel like I can do more. We talk about there’s guys who’ve started a foundation, and as much as I talk about I could start my own foundation, is that also that, if I start my foundation, this is what you sort of have to stick to.

I guess it completely makes my possibilities limitless. … Me and [Saints wide receiver] Mike Thomas are doing this event Friday for the battered women’s shelter, where we’re going to take a whole bunch of families out there. It was basically just coming to each other, like, ‘Hey what can we do?’ This is an event that the Saints have helped people in the past. This is something that we can pick up and make it our own. Just whether that be going to Target and giving out gifts. Whether that be … whatever we can do, whatever we so set our minds to, that’s what we can accomplish.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to see in the community?

Anytime you do a hospital visit, anytime you talk about seeing an intensive care unit. It’s one thing to go and talk to kids, be able to see that life force, that active, vibrant energy in all aspects of life. Then you go around and you turn to a hospital visit. You see kids that are super young, months old to a couple years old, that haven’t even had a fraction of a life that you have. The empathy that you feel toward that family is just that much more genuine.

What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you about philanthropy?

He never did it for any recognition as well. It’s just something that you assume upon yourself.

There’s so many moments to be proud of that, as a kid, you just don’t pick up on that. As a man now, I realize how much he did. So it’s just easy enough to assimilate into the role of ‘What can I do for my community?’ As much as I try to say I’m my own man, I was molded by a perfect situation. I had a loving mother. My mom was like … she believes in the golden rule. She believes in Jesus. She believes in showing God’s light through a person.

Then you talk about my dad, who of course believes in always trying to teach the next generation, whether that be my first cousins, or my second cousins, or the random kids from our high school that just look like they may need some help. My dad was always there for that.

For more information on the nominees and the award, visit NFL.com/manoftheyear.

Dhani Jones’ linebacker skills have taken him around the world The serial entrepreneur on what he’s learned, and the great advice he got from Michael Strahan

Life is a big adventure for former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones. Even during his 11 seasons in the league, Jones, now 39, was in the process of grooming himself for the next stage in his life. As a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, Jones spent two offseasons exploring the world and participating in international sports for the filming of his Travel Channel show Dhani Tackles the Globe. At the same time, Jones went to work on BowTie Cause, an organization that creates custom-made bow ties to raise money for charitable groups. From that came Bow Tie Cafe, in Cincinnati.

“I played football. We’re entrepreneurs by nature,” said Jones. “Anybody that plays sports is an entrepreneur. Anybody who competes is entrepreneurial by nature. I came into that world by following a lot of other people. Also, by trying specific things and understanding what I like. The entrepreneurial world is not a comfortable world. I’ll tell you that much. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

In 2011, Jones announced his retirement from football. Two years later, Jones co-founded Qey Capital, a private equity firm. “[Entrepreneurship] is an area in which I have an incredible passion, and also … African-Americans need to be able to get involved in investing,” Jones said. Soon, Jones was approached by CNBC about a new show, Adventure Capitalists, that combined his love for entrepreneurship and adventure. It premiered in 2016. Season two began on Oct. 10. The hourlong program showcases the products of four entrepreneurs who are seeking investments from Jones, Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and world champion skier Jeremy Bloom.

“I’m as crazy as the rest of them,” said Jones. “I like learning about people just as much as I like learning about their product. There’s still the American dream that lives in this world. Whether it’s technology or packaged goods or whether you’re an artist, it all still can be accomplished. The most important thing is, you need partners.”

What question are you asked most by fans?

The question I get asked all the time is, ‘Why do you live in Cincinnati?’ People ask me that every single week. It’s amazing.

And what’s your answer?

My answer is, the Midwest is important. There’s a lot of things going on on the coasts, and they’ll always be extremely successful. But the Midwest is on the uptick. Think about all the people that support you — why would you run from them? People who play in Green Bay and they live in Arizona. Doesn’t make any sense. No one knows you in Arizona. … If you want to vacation in Arizona, great. But work where people know, like and trust you.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It’s from Michael Strahan. He was like, ‘Say please. Say thank you. Shake people’s hands. Look them in the eye. Be very appreciative, and it will come back around in a very valuable way.’ That’s been very true. Strahan taught me a lot when I was on the Giants.

What’s a place you’ve never been that you’re dying to visit?

Greece, like Mykonos. Places like that. I haven’t been there. All my friends go. I’ve been kind of saving that place.

What is the worst purchase you’ve ever made?

I’m trying to figure out what I bought and didn’t like. We’ll have to come back to that one.

Best purchase?

Oh, my belt. I’ve had this belt for a long time. I’ve probably owned two belts in my life, and this is the second one. I love it. I own a bunch of belts, but there’s only two belts I’ve ever worn.

If you hadn’t become a football player, what would you have been doing?

A pediatric neuroplastic surgeon.

Are there any habits you picked up in football that you still find yourself doing today?

Yeah, the most important habit I picked up in football is always sort of scanning the field, and I always scan the world. It’s helped me a lot in terms of the world of business. That’s the most important skill.

If you could go back and deliver a message to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?

Always take a beat. Be patient. Don’t be so … anxious is the wrong word, but don’t be so quick to do things. Take your time.

‘The Black Cowboy’ will shine light on history hidden in plain sight Documentary in production lends insight into African-American cowboys and rodeo

Denard Butler is not the typical cowboy in Checotah, Oklahoma, known as the steer wrestling capital of America. He holds an advanced degree in behavioral health and worked for a time as a therapist. He speaks routinely about “the laws of the universe” and quotes Bible verses.

Oh, and he’s black.

Of all Butler’s attributes and uniqueness to his profession, his race is the most surprising — and polarizing.

At 33, he is a third-generation cowboy from Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, meaning he went into his chosen career aware of the challenges that come with it because he was not white. And he chose it anyway.

“It’s a passion,” said Butler, an accomplished steer wrestler who also owns a trucking company. “When you’re black and competing in places like San Juan Capistrano, California; Price, Utah; and Prescott, Arizona, you’re not going to see many people who look like you. So you will hear the N-word. A lot. I use it for power. I feed off it. I tell myself, ‘You’re going to read about me. You’re going to get sick of seeing me.’ I want it more than most, and so I use it as fuel. My belief system is different.”

Butler’s story, which includes four bar fights with white cowboys or patrons who put their hands on him, is part of a revealing documentary in production that promises to lend heretofore unknown insight into black cowboys and their history in America.

Charles Perry’s film, The Black Cowboy, takes a high-definition and comprehensive look at the legacy of African-Americans as cowboys, which dates to the beginning of the lifestyle, up to today’s influx of black cowboys in Oklahoma and other places across the country.

Perry, of Carson, California, said he “escaped” suburban Los Angeles to play college basketball at Northwest College in Wyoming in 1994. In 1997, he visited a friend’s home in Lewistown, Montana, and attended a rodeo.

“And there was this black kid participating,” Perry said. “And it was loud in my mind: ‘That kid must be adopted. A white family must have taken him and made him become a cowboy.’

“That thought stayed in my mind as I drove from Georgia to Portland, Oregon, [in 2014] with a friend. We ran across the Okmulgee Black Rodeo in Oklahoma. I was in a daze, seeing all these black cowboys. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

But it was at that moment that the budding filmmaker embraced the idea for his first major project. He had worked with others on small films where he served various roles. Perry also worked on films as an extra or bit, nonspeaking roles and said he would stick his head in directors’ discussions, and “they never told me to get out, so I learned a lot.”

In April 2015, the resourceful Perry took a job driving a U-Haul truck from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Portland. He drove “directly to Okmulgee, to tell the Okmulgee City Hall my plans of making the documentary.”

He met Delta Higgins, who worked at City Hall and who has been a guiding force for Perry — “my angel,” he called her.

“It is an incredibly important yet omitted story within America’s narrative,” the 41-year-old Perry said. “How often do we see now or in the past the cowboy of the Wild West represented as a black man or woman? Very rarely … and yet, they were there in important ways. Black cowboys and their story have been neglected.”

Filmmaker Charles Perry.

Ivan McClellan

Perry has spent the better part of three years traveling the country, mostly by car, to research, meet and film black cowboys in all points of the country. He said the film should be completed in time for entry into the renowned Sundance Film Festival next summer. He also plans to enter it at Cannes, Tribeca and other festivals.

He used online crowdfunding to raise $25,000, which allowed him to hire Emmy-nominated cinematographer Erik Angra and respected African-American photographer Ivan McClellan, who are working at discounted rates, Perry said, because they “see the vision of the film.”

Perry’s younger brother, Marcus, is on the staff, as well as two high school friends — J.R. Redmond, who won a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots, and Tony Harvey, who once played for the Utah Jazz of the NBA — who serve as executive producers.

“It’s been a grind, something Nate Parker [director of Birth of a Nation] told me last year at Sundance what it would be,” Perry said. “But I’m determined.”

The total budget of the film is $220,000, and Perry said he used his savings and supplemented the support and donations he’s received by eating less and working side jobs more. “I will pass up on an extra hamburger but not skimp on using the best-quality cameras we need,” he said.

Mostly, Perry said, “I know how to hustle” to keep afloat. To support himself and the film, he edits online video content, including short films and music videos.

“I’m a one-man crew for $2,500 a job. I get three or four jobs a month [to] sustain myself,” he explained. “I’m doing what I have to do to make this film. It’s that important to me.

“So I’m taking my time, not rushing,” Perry added. “This thing is deeper than I thought when I started.”

Perry, for instance, has learned that the term “cowboy” originated when farmers would instruct black farmhands to “go get that cow, boy.”

He learned that Oklahoma, first home of Native Americans, was a haven for African-Americans who fled the South in the 1800s. Blacks owned land and built thriving communities.

Government officials asked Congress to designate Oklahoma as a “black state” or “Negro Colonization.” It never happened, but the influx of African-Americans produced countless farmers and, yes, cowboys.

“I grew up playing at Will Rogers Park and Will Rogers Beach in California, so to learn the most famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett, was Will Rogers’ right-hand man, well, that was something of a confirmation for me that this was a film I should make.”

Prominent in the film is the story of Pickett, who is credited with creating in 1903 the sport of “bulldogging,” now known as steer wrestling. It is a rodeo sport in which the cowboy rides on a horse alongside a steer, leaps onto the bull and wrestles it to the ground by its horns.

Pickett is a cowboy legend and was the first African-American to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma. He died in 1932 after being kicked and stomped in the head by a horse when he was 61.

His legacy did not die with him, however. Pickett also is in the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and has been honored with the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma. Pickett’s emergence spawned a wave of black cowboys that, the documentary will show, has continued over all these decades.

“It’s a good thing this story is finally going to be told,” said Clarence LeBlanc, 65, a former black cowboy who retired 13 years ago, but not before twice claiming the world steer wrestling championship (1983 and 1990). “Every ranch since the beginning had black cowboys on them. But when you saw the movies or heard the stories, we were excluded. This film will help let people know our impact.”

LeBlanc said he was quite “uncomfortable” much of his career because “prejudice was strong. When I started out, it was really bad. Most schools weren’t even integrated. Over time, the white cowboys began to get to know me because we were seeing each other every week at different rodeos. Many of them let go of the ignorance.

“But the towns we went to, those people had never been around black people before, and they didn’t want us there. And they let us know that.”

He said he never felt his life was in jeopardy, but “I knew when I was in a place that was more [volatile], and so I stayed close, I didn’t venture off at all. … But I don’t think there was anything anyone could do to run me off, I loved the sport so much.”

That love among African-Americans continues to rise, according to Perry, who estimates there are more than 100,000 black cowboys in the United States. Most are in Oklahoma, but others are in Georgia, California, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“There are small pockets of black cowboys in many parts of the country, and we visit those places and the people wonder why we want to take their pictures,” Perry said. “It’s like when blacks go to Japan and the Japanese want to take our photos because they don’t see many black people. That’s how it is with the black cowboy.”

This is news to many, including a man Perry recently encountered at a party in Boston. Perry said he wears a hat and T-shirt with “TheBlackCowboy.com” on it almost everywhere he goes. “This was a smart, educated white man,” Perry recalled. “He noticed my hat and I told him a little about the history of the black cowboy, and he said no way in the world was what I told him true. He said, ‘Oklahoma is white.’ He just didn’t want to believe it.”

Perry said he has received skepticism from some in the cowboy community because others before him had committed to documenting its history of blacks in the profession but failed. So many did not “take me seriously,” he recalled.

To gain trust, he paid out of pocket for a sizable portion of historic footage — and has been consistent in his efforts to complete the movie.

“I’m excited about seeing the film myself,” Butler said. “I haven’t studied the black cowboy. I am into Warren Buffett and Napoleon Hill. But do know the black cowboys have two things in common: talent and perseverance. That’s the only way to make it with all we have to go through because of our race.”

And don’t forget money, added Butler, who also raises and sells horses on his ranch. “Really, you have to be close to rich, or have someone in your family with money, to compete,” he said. “My family isn’t rich, but my parents made some real sacrifices to get me out here.

“You’re talking $21,000 in fuel to travel to events, $20,000 fees to enter. A horse trailer: another $40,000. Then there are all kinds of miscellaneous stuff. It’s the No. 1 reason there aren’t a lot of blacks on the [rodeo] circuits.”

For LeBlanc, who has lived in Oklahoma all his life and raised prize-winning horses, seeing the number of black youths in rodeos makes him proud. “I know, in at least a small way, we paved the way,” he said. “I have a little grandson, and I can’t wait for him to get old enough to get out there.”

In the end, Perry anticipates a work that enlightens and entertains. “Our goal is not only to bring their story to the mainstream but to establish resources for young aspiring cowboys and cowgirls to follow their dreams,” he said. “I have almost been like a detective, digging for the truth, and it’s been fun.

“Imagine being a cowboy in a rodeo — the sole black person in an entire arena. It’s as close to Jackie Robinson as you can get. This is a history that has been hidden in plain sight … while going on today.

“Well, we’re bringing it all to light with this film.”

Women’s March organizers have received unexpected donations for upcoming convention Detroit is the backdrop, and the city’s sports figures want to make sure people can attend

The revolution was televised. On Jan. 21, networks tuned in to watch 2.6 million people across the world come together for an iconic moment. A five-hour rally known as the Women’s March took place.

The event highlighted topics dealing with criminal justice reform, social justice, racial discrimination, domestic violence and women’s rights, and it implored entertainers, celebrity speakers, actors and activists to help progress the cause.

Now, the Women’s March organization is taking its activism further. The first Women’s Convention will be held in Detroit from Oct. 27-29. The massive gathering, which will bring together thousands of women and allies of all backgrounds for a weekend of workshops, strategy sessions, inspiring forums and intersectional movement building, will aim to continue the preparation going into the 2018 midterm elections in Detroit.

The convention is set to bring first-time activists, movement leaders and rising political stars to the forefront. And it’s all happening a few short weeks after NFL players sat, knelt or raised their fists in protest during the national anthem in direct response to President Donald Trump’s recent comments regarding on-field protests.

Now, Detroit-based players, coaches and their families are taking their causes a bit further and stretching their likeness to organizations such as the Women’s March for their upcoming Women’s Convention. To date, former Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy and his wife, Desire Vincent Levy, recently donated $30,000, along with Detroit Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy and his wife, Kim, who have also donated $10,000 to a scholarship fund for the convention.

Activist Tamika D. Mallory, national co-chairwoman for the Women’s March and founder of Mallory Consulting, said players coming together to help with the cause isn’t surprising.

“I think that has really garnered the attention of NFL supporters,” Mallory said. “With all of the issues we see happening with the NFL and how it sort of intersects with some of the issues that the Women’s March has been bringing to the forefront, it would make sense that there would be players and others within the sports industry who would want to support and help.”

Mallory notes that while the Women’s March did not have any past relationships with players, the Gathering for Justice, the organization that the Women’s March is part of, has a relationship with Colin Kaepernick.

“He donated to the gathering prior to the Women’s March and has had a very strong relationship with us,” she said. “I think that it [the decision to donate] was really important for us because it lets us know that people are not disconnected from the issues. That just because a person is playing for a sports team and it may sometimes seem as though they’re not necessarily connected to what’s happening on the ground, that’s not in fact the case. That people are actually listening, that the work that we’re doing resonates with folks from all industries. So it is certainly very encouraging to have the support of people from the sports industry, for certain.”

The organization’s decision to choose Detroit as the place to hold the Women’s Convention was made during the summer and “very intentional.”

“We were looking across the country, looking for cities that we thought represented all the issues in our Unity Principles, a place that’s sort of a microcosm of the issues that we know are happening to marginalize people in America,” she said. “Detroit specifically, you’re looking at a place where gentrification, workers’ rights, the police accountability issue, right down the road from Flint, where the water crisis continues to today. Looking at economic stability, or instability, and just looking at the displacement of black and brown folks and how that plays out within the Detroit area. Even gun violence, a major issue there. We looked at Phoenix, Arizona, we also looked at Atlanta, Georgia, and Detroit was always the No. 1 choice for us, so when we were able to find dates that worked, we went there.

“We wanted to go to a place that we could bring folks from across the country to hear from people who are dealing with very, very serious challenges, but also we know that Detroit is a place where you have so many great organizers, people who have organized and done great work throughout history, and so we know that there’s also a great cultural experience that people coming from all over the country can benefit from. Lastly, we wanted to make sure that when bringing resources into a particular city, that we as Women’s March would bring our resources to a community that needs those resources and needs an infusion of care from people across the country.”

The Levys attended the Women’s March in January. The two made their donation to the Women’s Convention “to support women and girls from Detroit to be able to attend the conference” and “for local vendors to be able to vend in a social justice city.”

“I was really excited when I learned that it was going to be coming to Detroit,” Desire Vincent Levy said. “This is important because it’s a convergence of a lot of different individuals from Detroit, from around the country, coming together to connect and build and learn. Supporting that, the connection and convergence, just given the climate of the world right now, I think is very important.”

The Levys are no strangers to giving. They host a fundraiser called Our Issue, which raises money for the backlog of neglected rape kits in Detroit.

“We also have a scholarship in partnership with the Detroit Food Academy that is funded through a dinner series called Regenerate Detroit,” Levy added.

With the climate of what’s going on right now with football players’ silent protests, Levy believes the NFL and Women’s March organization can collaborate more.

“I think both are looking for solutions and sparking and continuing conversations about inequality and injustice that’s occurring in our society,” Levy said. “To me they both have the same aspiration: to spark conversation, to get people engaged that maybe wouldn’t normally be engaged and, quite honestly, need to be engaged.”

The organizers refer to the convention as a place where people can get the tools that they need to organize locally and connect with other organizers so they are able to continue their local work.

“The resources that we have received and continue to receive from people in the sports industry and other influencers alike, it’s helpful to give us the space and the opportunity to provide them these necessary tools to organizers and activists,” Mallory said.

O.J. Simpson is a relic in a new culture that celebrates unapologetic blackness The Juice re-enters American society at its most divided since his ‘Trial of the Century’

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” / Okay / House n—a, don’t f— with me / I’m a field n—a with shined cutlery.

— Jay-Z, 2017’s “The Story of O.J.


Fate has a fetish for O.J. Simpson. Oct. 1 is nearly 22 years to the day of both his acquittal after the double-murder trial that captivated the world and nine years since being sentenced for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. Both happened on an Oct. 3. And now the sharp winds of the judicial and correctional system once again gust in the direction of the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner. After serving nine years, the man known as “Prisoner 1027820” in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center is free.

Emphasis on free. Because what does it mean? What has it ever meant? And can O.J. Simpson, in particular, ever truly obtain freedom? He re-enters American society at its most divided since his “Trial of the Century,” and we are right now in an era defined by social, cultural and racial injustices — and the resistance and protests against them. The line between sports, culture and politics is as blurred and polarizing as it’s been since the 1960s. And the black world that Simpson sought to escape via football and a white wife is a world he can no longer run from — if he ever could. “The heartbreaking truth is,” says columnist and author Rochelle Riley, “O.J. Simpson is coming out of prison, and having to wake up black.”


Simpson’s former employer, the National Football League, looks a lot different from the one that existed before his 2008 conviction. There are Ezekiel Elliott’s crop tops and Dez Bryant’s custom Air Jordan cleats, Richard Sherman’s and Marshawn Lynch’s locks, and Odell Beckham’s Head & Shoulders-endorsed blond hair. There’s the NFL’s more cautious style of play apropos of player safety. Some aspects remain the same though — like the ongoing issue of the league’s embarrassing, harmful and erratically applied discipline for domestic violence offenders.

The NFL’s biggest lightning rod isn’t even in the league. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, intended to shine light on police brutality and the inequalities that persist within the criminal justice system, has reverberated far beyond football. Athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Oakland A’s rookie Bruce Maxwell and the WNBA’s Indiana Fever have lent support to the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller.

Kaepernick’s won adoration from and influenced Stevie Wonder, Tina Lawson, Chuck D, Carlos Santana, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, J. Cole and others. Jay-Z donned a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, as Nick Cannon rocked a classic one at a recent St. Louis protest after the acquittal of Police Officer Jason Stockley for the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. His No. 7 San Francisco 49ers jersey is now in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture announced in May that various Kaepernick items will be featured in future exhibits.

There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

The NFL also sits embroiled in a beef with President Donald Trump over protests inspired by Kaepernick — the same Donald Trump who entertained the idea of a reality show with Simpson back in 2008. And while we’re on reality shows, Simpson enters a world dominated by Kardashians. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been a fixture in American pop culture since its premiere, 10 years ago this month. The family became famous during the fracas of Simpson’s first trial, where attorney Robert Kardashian — Simpson’s close friend and father of Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob — was part of O.J.’s legal “Dream Team.” Kim’s husband, the Adidas designer and Grammy awardwinning producer/rapper/cultural live wire Kanye West, references Simpson in 2016’s “THat Part”: I just left the strip club, got some glitter on me/ Wifey gonna kill me, she the female O.J.

Where we are now is this: Athletes and entertainers (and many, many others) have called the president of the United States outside of his name — and the president and his supporters clap back, tit for tat. There’s a culture war going on, and while it’s different from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a vibe O.J. is all too familiar with. He’s seen it move like this before.

Getty Images

Consider the American psyche leading up to the pivotal year of 1967, Simpson’s first season as tailback at the University of Southern California, a private, predominantly white institution surrounded by black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In 1961, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the “Freedom Riders.” Fifty-seven percent viewed lunch counter “sit-ins” as hurtful “to the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” The 1963 March on Washington was viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of voters. And by January 1967, 53 percent of voters believed black people, instead of protesting for equal rights, would be better off taking “advantage of the opportunities that have been made available.”

Compare all this to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group for ESPN from Sept. 26-28, just days before Simpson’s release. A clear racial divide exists: 72 percent of African-Americans strongly or somewhat agree with the protests, which were started by Kaepernick last season. Sixty-two percent of white people strongly or somewhat disagree. Other polls revealed similar numbers.

In 1967, like in 2017, everybody makes the decisions they make. On April 28, 1967, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing induction into the U.S. Army, the revolt of the black athlete entered the living rooms of Americans. This was the same year O.J. Simpson rushed into USC immortality and the American consciousness with 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns. This was the same year that, on Thanksgiving Day, Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, organized the Western Regional Black Youth Conference. The gathering of about 200 people discussed the possibility of boycotting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were there, as was UCLA’s star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). “Winning gold medals for a country where I don’t have my freedom is irrelevant,” Smith said at the meeting. “So far I have not won my freedom, and I will not turn back from my decision.” Alcindor refused to try out for the Olympic team, prompting critics to label him a national disgrace and an “uppity n—–.”

Though at a Western school, O.J. Simpson didn’t attend the conference. His epic 64-yard touchdown vs. UCLA, less than a week before, propelled USC to the national championship. Edwards had approached Simpson about lending his name and influence to the cause. Simpson disassociated himself from the movement, famously telling Edwards, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” Smith and Carlos’ decision to speak out hurt their careers, in Simpson’s eyes. He wasn’t going down like that. “He absolutely distances himself from everything, which turns out to be a pretty good career move,” says Dr. Matthew Andrews. “It opens up all these doors in advertising, movies and so on.”

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy defined 1968. Riots erupted throughout the country. Black America had seemingly reached its breaking point. The defiant and painful image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power fists at the Mexico City Olympics ingrained itself in sports and American history. Meanwhile, O.J.’s celebrity ballooned as he separated himself from the swelling movement. He won the Heisman in 1968 and was the first overall selection in the 1969 draft. For the next two and a half decades, Simpson enjoyed the fruits of his decision and became one of the most recognizable, marketable and celebrated black men in America.


“You see, O.J. was under that illusion — ain’t been black since he was 17. Under that illusion of inclusion — [until he] got That N—- Wake-Up Call. Only n—- I know that could get on any golf course in America. They loved that boy! He had to come home when it got rough.”Paul Mooney, 1994

Simpson’s goal seemed to be: live a deracinated life. He didn’t want to make white people uncomfortable. He was handsome, charming and safe — and so, with 1969’s Chevrolet deal, became the first black corporate pitchman before playing a down in the NFL. Long after his playing career, Simpson was one of the few black faces on screen, as an actor or a commentator, during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “O.J.’s providing a very meaningful image for black kids in America,” said Ezra Edelman recently. He’s the Oscar-winning director of 2016’s O.J.: Made In America. “He deserves his due for the way he influenced culture, beyond being on trial for murder in 1994 and ’95.”

O.J. Simpson for Hertz, in 1978

Master Tesfatsion, 26, doesn’t remember the “Trial of the Century.” He’s a Redskins beat reporter for The Washington Post, and one of his most recent stories is about cornerback Josh Norman pledging $100,000 to Puerto Rico’s victims of Hurricane Maria. Tesfatsion’s first memory of O.J. is the 1997 civil case that ordered Simpson to pay $25 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Growing up Eritrean-American in Section 8 housing in Irving, Texas, Tesfatsion’s early O.J. knowledge primarily came from the neighborhood. “I just trusted the OGs,” he says. “If everyone on the block was telling you O.J. ain’t do it, what are you supposed to think?”

“O.J. really is this wisp of memory that is not as important because so much has happened since.”

Tesfatsion’s generation? They were kids when Simpson’s criminal trial happened. And they are well-aware of how deeply racial dynamics and police distrust played into Simpson’s case, and into their own lives. “People always think because you have a certain wealth status, whether it’s white people or even black people who are rich, they think they can escape colorism,” says the Arizona State graduate. “O.J. has proven on the highest of levels that that’s not the case.”

Tesfatsion remembers the passion the case evoked in his parents, and what was clearly two different Americas. So many white people mourned the not guilty verdict. So many black people celebrated quietly, or as if it were an NBA Finals victory for the home team. “The heartbreaking point about O.J.,” says Riley, whose The Burden: African-Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery is being published in February, “is not whether he got away with murder — if he did — but black Americans have been so mistreated and denied justice so many times and for so long that his acquittal was seen as a needed win.”

Simpson is a poster child for race and the legal system, but for Tesfatsion’s generation, he’s not on whom they hang their hat. Simpson’s verdict now of course has rivals in cases that have come to define this generation’s adulthood. “For a generation and a half, O.J. is not this larger-than-life person who meant so much, and who people paid attention to so much,” says Riley. “[O.J.] really is this wisp of memory that is not as important, because so much has happened since.”

Many of the same factors that came into play during the “Trial of the Century”—black bodies, white superiority complexes, and the assumption of black guilt have defined the cases of the Sandra Blands, Philando Castiles, Tamir Rices and Michael Browns. There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

“[Trayvon] was mine,” says Tesfatsion. “It was crazy how caught up I was into it.” Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was delivered on his 22nd birthday. “To expect one thing, and see the other result, you know, as an African-American, the anger that you feel and the disappointment you feel it’s hard to explain.”


The question no one can truly answer is what happens next for O.J. Simpson. Fresh out of jail, he missed the entire presidency of Barack Obama and enters a world driven by Donald Trump — whose Twitter-fueled presidency has roots in the 24/7, reality-TV celebrity obsession culture rooted in the insanity that was his first trial. Rumors of a return to Hollywood even exist.

Former football legend O.J. Simpson signs documents at the Lovelock Correctional Center, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Lovelock, Nev. Simpson was released from the Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada early Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Brooke Keast/Nevada Department of Corrections via AP

But if there’s one reality starkly different from the one Simpson encountered pre-prison—and the beginning of it was the 24/7 coverage of his trial — it’s the extinction of the veil of anonymity. Does he attempt to live a life of modesty and recluse? Or has a nearly decade-long, state-mandated vacation done little to change him? Simpson’s been called a sociopath, one who craves constant attention strictly on his terms. Yet social media, his lawyers suggest, won’t be an issue for him. But he’s never dealt with the monster that is this iteration of media: social breaks stories and develops narratives before the first byline is written. Cameras don’t just sit on shoulders anymore, they sit in the palms of everybody’s hands. One click equals global broadcast.

Many already aren’t willing to deal with the potential fallout. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is attempting to bar him from the state — the same Sunshine State that houses the infamous generational antagonist George Zimmerman.

Dr. Andrews thinks that whatever the case, it will be interesting. “Which O.J. is he going to be? One would argue that pre-trial O.J. would distance himself from what many NFL players are doing. Certainly distancing himself from what Kaepernick’s doing. What Kaepernick did is exactly what [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos did in 1968. O.J. wanted no parts of that. [This] O.J. might get it a little more.”

But, Andrews asks, “Do you really want O.J. to be the spokesperson for this battle in racial justice?”

Riley is more than willing to answer. “The most important thing he could do for himself and America is to not answer the question,” Riley says. “To not weigh in and not try and make himself relevant in any way that he shouldn’t.”

It’s not just the NFL, and O.J. Simpson, but America itself that sits at a crossroads. All three face illness they never really addressed let alone medicated. O.J. walked out of prison Sunday a ghostlike relic of injustices he ignored, injustices he experienced and injustices he helped create. There is undeniable irony in karma greeting Simpson more harshly than his generational contemporaries. Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Smith, Carlos and so many others were in their early 20s fighting demons older than America itself. The athletes were considered pariahs then but stand as saints of progress now. The same will one day be said about Colin Kaepernick. And about those for whom the killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and others inspire a lifetime of resistance and service.

This is the third time O.J. Simpson experiences the first day of the rest of his life. Everybody isn’t that lucky.

Ray Charles’ ‘America the Beautiful’ is our best hope for bringing us together If a patriotic song can divide us, this song can heal that divide

It would take a genius to ease the antagonisms surrounding the national anthem controversy. I know just the man for the job. His name is Ray Charles.

Often called “the Genius” during a long career, Ray Charles performed unique combinations of rock, country, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, jazz and gospel with such energy and style that he invited fans of one culture to cross over and taste the flavor of another. The fact that he was blind from childhood only added to the mystery of his mastery. He attracted appreciation from white folks and black folks, listeners from the country and the city, rich people and poor people, the up-and-coming and the down-and-out.

“This may sound like sacrilege,” said another piano man, Billy Joel, “but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”

I remember well the day he died: June 10, 2004. I was in New Orleans, scheduled to deliver a professional workshop on writing and music. A day earlier, a young woman slammed a car door on my left hand. When it was time for the workshop and I sat down at the piano, I learned the meaning of playing with pain. Using just one finger to play the bass notes, I offered my best tribute to Charles, brief versions of “What I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

This tribute wasn’t planned, but I was inspired by what I had seen that morning on the news. It turns out that former President Ronald Reagan had died just five days before Charles. The two had a fine moment together during the final minutes of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray delivered his gospel version of “America the Beautiful.”

The effect was mesmerizing. While the crowd was overwhelmingly white, you could not help but notice a change in its demeanor. Some cried. Some swayed. Some nodded and looked up as if it were their first visit to a black church. The Reagans and the Bushes looked on with a curiosity that turned to warmth and then delight. When it was over, Reagan and Vice President George Bush climbed down to where Charles had been at the piano and lifted him up to the top of the stage, where the love of the crowd could wash over him.

Move forward now to Oct. 28, 2001. It is the second game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees, a series delayed by the attacks of 9/11. The debris of the Twin Towers had fallen on a cross-section of Americans, and for a brief interval we were together in our misery, and resolved toward our recovery. Who better to express this emotion than the Genius. At a piano on home plate he once again performed “America the Beautiful.” As he sang and played with an easy soulful pace, people on the field, soldiers and first-responders unrolled a flag that covered the entire outfield. Cheers went up. When they created the illusion of the flag waving, cheers reached a crescendo. Charles rose from the piano bench. I am not sure I have ever seen a performer so moved by the response of an audience. It was almost a dance of delight, holding his face, hugging his body in recognition.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” have all made a claim to be America’s song. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Our national anthem (like the Pledge of Allegiance) too often carries with it a formalized test of patriotism: “Please rise and remove your caps …” (Hey, this is America. Don’t tell me what to do.)

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is easier to sing, but it can be rendered and received in a way that seems cloyingly sentimental. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to Berlin’s anthem, with choruses that focus on the poor and dispossessed who do not feel so blessed. To my ear, “America the Beautiful — at least the version rendered by Charles — exceeds all of them in its ability to raise our collective spirits.

It was not just this song that allowed Charles to use his powers for healing and reconciliation. In 1966, the Georgia State Assembly refused to seat an elected African-American, Julian Bond, because of his supposedly unpatriotic opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a unanimous Supreme Court decision to seat him.

Turn the calendar forward 13 years to March 7, 1979, to that same body. In what was considered a symbol of reconciliation and racial progress, Charles performed his version of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Georgia on My Mind.” At the end the assembly rose as one in tribute. The speaker honored him with having performed a miracle, bringing political antagonists in the legislature together. One month later, they voted to adopt Charles’ version as Georgia’s official state song.

The song “America the Beautiful has its own rich and complex history, giving Charles the artistic freedom to make it his own. That history begins in 1893 when a young English professor from Wellesley College, Katharine Lee Bates, makes a trip across the country to Colorado. From the top of Pikes Peak, she is inspired by natural beauty she has seen. To honor that vision, she composes a poem, America, published in a church magazine for the Fourth of July. After some reworking, the stanzas of the poem become the lyrics of a song. A New Jersey composer, Samuel A. Ward, wrote the music. Over the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of “America the Beautiful” grew and grew, sung in churches, classrooms and patriotic festivals.

Charles recorded the song in 1972. In live performances he followed a consistent pattern, flavored by the improvisations we associate with gospel and soul music. He adds “I’m talkin’ about America” and “I love America, and you should too,” and “Sweet America,” fervent ornaments that offended the few but inspired the many — including my dad.

He begins his version, curiously, with the third of four verses, perhaps the least well-known.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!

America!

America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!

Written just three decades after the end of the Civil War, those lines evoke the most traditional tropes of America’s civic religion. They include the heroes who give their lives to protect the country and keep it free. They remind us that we are an exceptional country, blessed by God but imperfect in his eyes. Its gold must be refined. The second stanza prays that “God mend” America’s “every flaw.”

What happens next in the Ray Charles version is especially interesting. He speaks directly to the audience over the music, “When I was in school we used to say it something like this. …” Only then does he sing the original first verse, familiar to generations.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America!

America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It invites the audience to sing along, and we often do, a call-and-response pattern familiar in many churches and a powerful expression of unity, community, love of country — with all its flaws. Sisterhood and brotherhood — from the man who liked to be called not a genius, but “Brother Ray.”

It should be obvious by now that I love Ray’s version. When I sit down at my 100-year-old upright piano and try to play it the way he did, I always wind up crying. But I love “The Star-Spangled Banner” too, even with all those bombs bursting and its two challenging high notes.

There are hundreds of interesting versions, many available on YouTube, including ones in which African-Americans have offered their special take. We know what Jimi Hendrix did with his magical guitar in 1969 at Woodstock. In 1983, Marvin Gaye shocked the world with his slow-jam version before the NBA All-Star Game, the only version of the anthem I have ever seen in which the audience was moved to rhythmically clap along. Whitney Houston gave us the most elegant version before the 1991 Super Bowl. Maybe my favorite anthem moment was provided in 2003 by NBA coach Maurice Cheeks, who rushed to the rescue of a 13-year-old girl who forgot the lyrics. Mike Lupica once referred to this move, by the former point guard, as Cheeks’ “greatest assist.”

I am not advocating replacing the national anthem. I am proposing, instead, that some group (the NFL, MLB, Congress, the Georgia state legislature, ESPN) offer the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” as our hymn of national unity and racial reconciliation. My dream is to one day attend an NFL football game when, at halftime, an image appears on the screen. It is Ray Charles at the piano. As he sings and swings, and hums and prays, we see a montage of images: Americans, including professional athletes, working to help each other through storm and strife. Working across difference to find unity and build community. From sea to shining sea.

DeMarcus Cousins said Trump needs to ‘get his s–t together’ and other news of the week The Week that was Sept. 25- 29

Monday 09.25.17

A Pittsburgh fire chief said he regrets adding Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to his “list of no good N—–s” on his Facebook page and wants to apologize because “This had nothing to do with my Fire Department” and “My fire department should have never been dragged into this.” Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, very on brand in a leather vest and cowboy hat, pulled a (tiny) gun out during a political rally. Donald Trump Jr. posted a map that supposedly showed an overwhelming number of Americans who supported NFL players standing over kneeling with the caption “where else have I seen this???”; the map was county-level results from the 2016 presidential election. A Texas pastor said NFL players “ought to be thanking God” that they live in a country where they don’t have to worry about “being shot in the head for taking a knee.” New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins, who has the most technical fouls in the league since 2010, said Trump “needs to get his s— together.” Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, a teammate of convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez for two seasons, said after some New England players knelt during the national anthem on Sunday, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot.” Retired college football coach Lou Holtz, who is white, said he doesn’t understand why black athletes demonstrate during the national anthem because “I’ve been unfairly ticketed. I was given a ticket when I didn’t exceed the speed limit, because I was coaching at one school, and the patrol officer graduated from the other.”

Tuesday 09.26.17

Four assistant basketball coaches from Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and the University of Southern California — which, combined, make more than $300 million in total revenue across all sports and do not pay players — were arrested on federal corruption charges for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to direct college players to certain sports agents and financial advisers. New York Giants owner John Mara, who continually employed a kicker who abused his wife and didn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because of possible fan protest, said he is

very unhappy” that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. simulated a dog urinating on the field on Sunday. To make room for more terrible sports and Insecure takes, Twitter will increase its famed 140-character limit to 280. Another person left the Trump administration, and another former member of the administration has hired a lawyer. Professional wrestling legend and Wilt Chamberlain rival Ric Flair estimates that he had sex with 10,000 women: “I wish I hadn’t said that because of my grandkids,” Flair said in an upcoming ESPN documentary.

Wednesday 09.27.17

Longtime adult actor Ron Jeremy doubts Flair had relations with that many women: “It’s very difficult to get numbers like that.” Los Angeles Chargers unofficial mascot Boltman said he risked being beaten “like Rodney King” by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after he refused to remove his mask at last weekend’s home game. A bar in Missouri, a state for which the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for people of color, displayed recently purchased NFL jerseys of Marshawn Lynch and Kaepernick as doormats with the two jerseys spelling out “Lynch Kaepernick.” Another airline was caught violently dragging a customer off one of its airplanes. A Madison, Wisconsin, gyro shop worker was charged with “first-degree reckless endangerment … possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and carrying a concealed weapon” after he shot a man at his place of work when the man tried to run off with $1,300 worth of cocaine without paying for it; “Dude shot me in the back,” the “victim” told police. Taken actor Liam Neeson, two weeks after announcing his retirement from action movies because “Guys, I’m 60-f—ing-five,” said he’s not retiring from the genre and that “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground.” Trump, who was an owner in the USFL, which folded after just three seasons, said the NFL is “going to hell” unless it prohibits players from kneeling during the national anthem. Former action “star” Steven Seagal, currently a resident of Moscow, said demonstrations during the national anthem were both “outrageous” and “disgusting.”

Thursday 09.28.17

Hours after posing an anti-DUI video on Instagram with the hashtag #dontdrinkanddrive, a Los Angeles police officer, under suspicion of driving under the influence, caused a three-car crash that killed three people. Trump, blowing a dog whistle so loud a deaf man could hear it, said NFL owners, some of whom are his “friends,” don’t punish players who kneel during the national anthem because “they are afraid of their players.” During the all-male Presidents Cup tournament, the PGA Tour, still trying to rid its long-held sexist label, held a cook-off among WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of the competitors. Reality TV star Rob Kardashian, per a lawsuit, accused former girlfriend Blac Chyna of smashing his gingerbread house during a December 2016 incident. Just hours after Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson joked that he was glad “that we were with Russell [Athletic]” when the Adidas and college basketball corruption case news broke, Russell Athletic announced it will “transition away from the team uniform business”; Georgia Tech will switch to Adidas in 2018. A Canadian woman who tattooed purple dye into her eyeball may lose her sight in the eye; “I took my eyesight for granted,” the woman said. Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, just piling on at this point, called Trump an “idiot” and a “d—head.” In “it’s about respect for the military” news, the message “go home n—–” was written on the whiteboard of a black cadet at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Friday 09.29.17

Proving what we already knew, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said teammate Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens “have an unspoken language already.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade said it was not his idea to ride on the back of a banana boat with Gabrielle Union, LeBron James and Chris Paul: “I remember saying, ‘Guys, I didn’t wanna get on there,’ but, you know, peer pressure.” Trump, who aced geography in college, said Puerto Rico is “an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who recently received a presidential pardon after being convicted for essentially racial profiling Latinos, traveled to California to continue his investigation of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Former NFL player Chad Johnson, who once legally changed his last name to “Ochocinco” because he thought it was Spanish for “85,” compared the NFL’s “whitewashing” of protests during the national anthem to “a goddamn Ice Bucket Challenge.” Third-graders in the Washington, D.C., area said they don’t like Trump because “ever since he was president a lot of bad things have been happening,” “Trump doesn’t like black people and Hillary Clinton does,” and because “he’s orange.” Another person resigned from the Trump administration.

All eyes on the Dallas Cowboys After a weekend of NFL protests in response to President Trump’s explosive comments, America’s Team is now center stage

Not even Hollywood could script this.

On Friday night, the president of the United States takes on the National Football League. He calls players who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest “son of a b—-.” The next day, the president doubles down on Twitter, demanding those same players stand for the national anthem or face harsh discipline. A far cry from what he tweeted two days after his inauguration:

Then, on Sunday, more than 130 players from various teams kneeled, sat or locked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room altogether. While all this is taking place, President Donald Trump’s administration goes on the offensive, suggesting the NFL should implement a rule with regard to anthem protests. Trump’s assertion Monday morning that kneeling for the anthem had “nothing to do with race” further sullies a yearlong campaign of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s original point: It was never about the flag. It was never about disrespecting the troops — the men and women of the military protected his right to kneel. And it was never about the anthem itself. Lost in an endless cycle of debates and purposeful misdirections is that Kaepernick wanted to bring light to police brutality and economic disparities and injustices in lower-income communities.

Which brings us to Monday night’s iteration of Monday Night Football, quite possibly the most American weekly sports tradition of all. And on this Monday, as fate has so lavishly prepared, the schedule features the NFL’s most lucrative, popular, hated and polarizing franchise: the Dallas Cowboys (visiting the Arizona Cardinals). What example, if any, does America’s Team set after a weekend of protests that had been brewing for over a year since Kaepernick decided to take a knee and then-candidate Trump suggested the quarterback “find another country” to call home?


Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, I should have been a Washington fan, but family ties won out — in favor of Dallas. The Cowboys, since the mid-’90s, constitute my life’s most emotionally taxing relationship: perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak. My deepest connection to the Cowboys is through my mother. Her favorite player was Jethro Pugh, a ferocious yet warm defensive lineman who played college ball at North Carolina’s historically black Elizabeth City State University under my grandfather, coach John Marshall, in the early ’60s.

Everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet.

Pugh, who died in 2015, became one of the greatest players in Dallas history and a key cog in the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped deliver the franchise its first two Super Bowls. A pass rushing savant, Pugh also led the team in sacks for five straight seasons, 1968-72. My mother remained a Dallas fan over the years and grew to love former coach Tom Landry (and his fedora).

In the 1990s, when football became a major facet of my life, the Cowboys were lit. They won nearly as much as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, capturing three Super Bowls in four years. In truth, at least five Bowls were in order, had it not been for two fumbles: the first was Deion Sanders’ missed pass interference call on Michael Irvin in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, and the second was owner Jerry Jones’ ego-driven decision to fire Jimmy Johnson after back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

Nevertheless, the Starter Jackets were fresh and, as trivial as it sounds now, the Dallas Cowboys — featuring names such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and more — were bad boys and rock stars in the age of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana. Their success on the field made them seem larger than life, and this outsize brand persona was made evident by Jeff Pearlman’s fascinating exploration of the teams’ 1990s run: Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.

America loves its reality television, and in football there is none greater than the Cowboys, a team often too comfortable operating under a veil of chaos. What spinach was to Popeye, headlines and controversy are to Dallas — despite the fact that there have been only two playoff victories since the organization’s last Super Bowl in 1996. As a fan, it’s fun to wallow in that attention. The Terrell Owens years are a prime example. The Tony Romo era is another. But at times, Jones’ willingness to embrace controversy is anything but enjoyable — most notably Greg Hardy’s signing after a graphically publicized domestic violence case. Or the frustration that came with the immensely talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain.

What will the Cowboys do Monday night? Not surprisingly, Jones recently said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan that he felt strongly about recognizing the flag and the people who sacrificed for the liberties we enjoy: “I feel very strongly that everyone should save that moment for the recognition of the flag in a positive way, so I like the way the Cowboys do it.” Glenstone Limited Partnership helped fund a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee earlier this year. Glenstone Limited Partnership is a segment of Glenstone Corp., which is led by Jones.

Despite mysterious posts on social media and conflicting statements from “inside” sources, nothing suggests the Cowboys will do anything of note. Dallas has yet to have a player engage in protest, last season or this season. The Cowboys would not be the only team to keep it business as usual.

But everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet. Jones has lived off that bravado since he purchased the team in 1989. The players and fan base followed suit. It’s part of the territory that comes with being a team whose stadium could pass for the eighth wonder of the world. The franchise is valued at nearly $5 billion and comes with A-list fans such as LeBron James, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Westbrook, Jamie Foxx and Allen Iverson.

Still, the team appears unified in neutrality. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t plan on participating in protests, saying last month, “It’s just important for me to go out there, hand over my heart, represent our country and just be thankful, and not take anything I’ve been given and my freedom for granted.” This was before ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity became a narrative. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Crock-Pot of moving parts, rumors and controversies. Pro-Bowl linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith provided virtually the same answer: Both disagree with Trump’s statements but refused to expand any further. And star wideout Dez Bryant seems content with his stance. “I’m not criticizing nobody,” Bryant said recently of the swelling number of players in the league joining the protest. “They’re free to do whatever they want. Hell, no, I’m not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I’m not saying they’re wrong because they’re feeling a certain way. They’re supposed to.”

But this particular juncture feels different because it is different. New York Giants defensive end Damon Harrison said of the moment the president placed the entire league in his crosshairs that it was “bigger than money, bigger than the game,” and that if he didn’t voice his frustrations he “wouldn’t be able to sleep or walk with my head held high as a man or father.” And Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was moved to tears by the magnitude of Trump’s comments, and our racial climate overall. The Cowboys have their on-field issues. They haven’t looked particularly dominant, even in their lone victory over an Odell Beckham-less Giants. And a week later, Dallas had its muffin cap peeled back by the Denver Broncos.

Kneeling at NFL games during the national anthem in protest of systemic inequalities went from being “Kaepernick’s fight” or “Michael Bennett’s problem” to a movement the leader of the free world not only monitors but also attempts to eradicate (while at the same time, Puerto Rico pleads for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that’s left most of the U.S. territory immobile and without electricity).

In an ideal world, the league’s most powerful owner and biggest cash cow of a team would make some sort of bold statement — more than locking arms or placing hands on shoulders. The president’s anger toward players who are not content with cashing checks and staying mum only scratches the surface of a far more cancerous issue: that players, who in the NFL are 70 percent black and are on the field destroying their bodies, are often seen as undeserving of earnings apparently awarded by owners to players who should be grateful for the money. White owners, on the other hand, are viewed as fully deserving of their billions.

The Cowboys may be fine with playing the role of an ostrich with its head buried in the turf. It’s the Cowboys I’ve come to expect. It still doesn’t make it any less weird that a franchise priding itself on being “America’s Team” remains self-muzzled during a time when America needs to be anything but, both in speech and in action. In a better world, and in a move that would shake both the league and the Oval Office to its core, the Cowboys would’ve long since signed Kaepernick — he’s of course far more polished than the team’s current backups, Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush. But this isn’t a better world. At least not yet.