A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.
Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.
What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.
Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.
Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?
That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.
What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?
They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.
One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’
He never loses his charisma.
Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.
Those are so hard to watch.
Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.
This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?
Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.
What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?
What do you consider to be gossip?
Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.
I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.
One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?
We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.
The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.
That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.
I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.
So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’
When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.
Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?
Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’
And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”
The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.
What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.
I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.
I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.
Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?
Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’
Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.
There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.
But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.
For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.
For some reason, a passage from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, the memoir Insecure creator Issa Rae published in 2015, began trending on Twitter recently.
It’s a funny, honest, fairly anodyne work. But it turns out that some Twitter users took offense to a passage in which Rae recommended that black women and Asian men start dating each other more. In 2014, OKCupid released a study which found that those two groups were, by quantitative standards, the least desirable groups using the service. Rae wrote a chapter riffing on this data, and three years later, someone on the internet decided this meant that Rae hates black men, and here we are.
At first glance, this is the sort of thing that merits an eye roll and little else. Classic hotep, Ashy Twitter nonsense.
Except for one small problem: internet misogyny has a way of spilling into real life, something that writers such as Amanda Marcotte, Amanda Hess, and Lindy West have been writing about for years. We have plenty of examples of men who commit deadly acts of violence in real life, motivated by hateful ideology they ingested and espoused online.There’s Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people, and then himself in 2014, because women wouldn’t have sex with him. George Sodini targeted an all-female aerobics class in 2009 for the same reason. There’s the man who threatened to bomb Utah State University because feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give a speech there. The latest example is Alek Minnasian, a self-described “incel” (involuntary celibate) who allegedly recently drove a van into a crowd in Toronto and killed 10 people, and who thought of Rodger as a hero.
OK, you say. But all of these guys were white. What does that have to do with hoteps? There are various strains of internet misogynists: incels, GamerGaters, pickup artists, white supremacists obsessed with the 14 Words, etc. Hoteps are just a little more specialized — they tend to be black men who hate black women, and especially mouthy black feminists. They traffic in what many online black feminists call “misogynoir.” Most hoteps can be found on Twitter because that’s where the majority of black public discourse on the internet takes place.
While they may be small in number, they are loud. You know the type: They’re the ones who say that there’s a conspiracy to lock up Bill Cosby because he was going to buy NBC.
- They blame all of Kanye West’s inchoate, misogynist, faux-deep nattering (“I had to take 30 showers” after being with Amber Rose) on the death of his mother, Donda.
- They cheer when accused rapist Kobe Bryant wins an Oscar in the midst of the century’s most high-profile movement against sexual harassment and assault.
- They blame R. Kelly’s victims when they come forward to tell reporters the singer held them in a “sex cult.”
- They’re the reason black feminists are constantly explaining that racial liberation is not “black men get to behave with impunity like white men who exhibit unethical and abusive behavior.”
Even in the absence of a mass killing in the vein of Rodgers or Sodini, black women still experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence of any racial group. When we normalize rhetoric based in gendered resentment toward black women, it’s a piece of a larger puzzle that contributes to their victimization. That’s why it’s up to all of us to push back against misogynoiristic vitriol. Just because the physical results of such rhetoric have yet to make national televised news doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
William Gay lives and breathes football. Like most cornerbacks in the NFL, his energy goes into pouring everything onto the field — especially since he’s a part of a playoff-caliber team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when game day is over, Gay’s energy goes toward advocating against domestic violence, a subject matter that hits close to home.
The 33-year-old turned the pain he’s been carrying since 1992 into motivation, all in the name of his late mother, Carolyn Hall, who was killed by her boyfriend when he was just 8 years old.
He’s been vocal about his personal journey in the past few years. Now he is partnering with former vice president Joe Biden in an initiative that will address these issues.
Thursday, the Biden Foundation named Gay to its Advisory Council, which focuses on ending sexual assault and violence against women, among other causes.
As an Advisory Council member, Gay joins a prominent group of leaders, experts and advocates who have been selected to serve as ambassadors for the Biden Foundation, guiding strategic partnerships to create societal change.
“I received a letter, and when I saw ‘Joe Biden’ on it, I’m like, ‘OK, this might be a false letter,’ ” Gay told The Undefeated. “But then my agent told me about it and then the NFL also told me about, so then I was like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ His ideas are similar to what I have going on, what my beliefs are, and trying to end domestic violence. I was glad he thought of me. I jumped at the opportunity — not as quick as I wanted to, because I got the invite during the season and I’m 100 percent about football. So I tried to focus in on the playoffs, but I was all excited for the opportunity to be invited on the advisory committee.”
A longtime champion for victims of domestic violence, Gay believes in the Biden Foundation’s commitment to bringing together diverse voices who can uniquely speak to groups that will change the culture.
On Friday, Gay and Biden will link up to discuss their commitment to empowering men and women alike to stop sexual assault on college campuses. The duo will speak at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values Central 2018 in Indianapolis.
“We have to start engaging in conversations where we hold each other, and ourselves, accountable,” Gay said. “We hope to spur some of those discussions today and keep them going as we work toward a safer tomorrow.”
The Biden Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation established to carry on the former vice president and his wife’s lifelong commitment to public service. Through educational programming and public policy analysis, the foundation works to build a world where all people are equal in dignity and opportunity.
“It’s on all of us to change the culture on our college campuses, in our locker rooms and in our frat houses so that sexual assault is never accepted. We all must stand up and stop inappropriate behavior,” Biden said. “Men must be part of this solution and conversation. William understands what is at stake when we remain silent on abuse. He gets it and is using his platform to work to end domestic and sexual violence. That’s why I am so proud to have him join my foundation’s Advisory Council and partner with us as we work to create a culture where all live free from violence.”
Gay says he is eager to join this platform with Biden.
“This is all I’ve been preaching, for everybody to just come together and realize that this is dangerous,” Gay said. “You can talk about it, you can do something about it. It’s not embarrassing to let someone know or to try to help someone. The more you talk about it, the more you get people comfortable, that’s the first ring of trying to eliminate these problems.”
Gay’s crusade for ending domestic violence has all been in the name of his late mother.
“What drives me is my mother’s story, and this is a way, one, to keep her voice alive; two, just to help someone who is either in their situation or as a child in the same situation, give that encouragement that there are better things out there in the world. As a kid, there’s no like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over because I don’t have parents.’ And for anyone who is in that violent situation or the sexual assault situation, there are people out there who would help. I don’t think my mom knew people that would help, because this was back in 1992. This is my way of allowing her story to stay alive, her to be alive, and also her story helps someone else.”
After Hall was killed, her boyfriend shot himself. Gay and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother Corine Hall.
“From 8 to about 12-13, I just felt like I was alone, didn’t care,” Gay said. “Even though my grandmother took me and my two brothers in, I just felt like a loner, because when you go to school, you see kids’ parents picking them up, and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I was just against everything.”
Gay says the hardest part of his journey is not having his mother around for major accomplishments.
“I had a loving family. My grandma did what she could to make sure that we felt loved, but it’s just those milestones. The high school graduation, the picking my college, the graduating from college, to getting drafted, going to the Super Bowl and, you know, just all these accolades that I attained and, you know, she wasn’t present. And I know if she was here, she would be front row or even on the stage with me.”
Gay’s uncle was his role model growing up.
“He was just blunt,” Gay said. “He said, ‘If you keep on this path, or being mad at the world, or wanting to being a bad child or thug, or what have you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail. You’re also not going to be able to play football.’ I was 12 years old, but it stuck with me through every journey in my life.”
He said he had a “whole team” of people, including family, teachers and coaches, who took him in.
“[They] saw the potential in me and knew that I needed just a little help to get where I’m going,” Gay said.
Football helped Gay manage his feelings, and he found a safe haven in the sport. It’s been so much a part of his life he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a football.
“Probably 2, 3 …,” he said. “Football was always in our family. My older brother played, my uncles played. Just sports in general because where we were living, you weren’t staying in the house, you had to go outside. As long as it was hot in Florida, we played football. I officially started loving the game when I was 9 or 10. That was a safe place for me. That was my safe haven for me, even at a young age. I just knew when I went out there, I got away from problems. I didn’t have to think about I don’t have a mom. I’m out here having fun, and I’m competing.”
From this experience with Biden, Gay wants the public to focus on the outcomes and beating the odds of domestic violence than dismal statistics surrounding the subject.
“I always tell people I ain’t big on numbers. I love math, but when it comes down to statistics, I beat those odds, so I don’t even talk about statistics. What I talk about is real-life numbers, examples of people who’d been through it. That’s what I want people to get out. This is not coming from a book. This is coming from a written life, and I just want the realness of it, and that’s what people who are going through it want to see. They don’t want to see, ‘Oh, well, this doctor, he has five different degrees, or this person has eight different degrees and they’re telling me this and that, but they don’t really know what I’m going through.’
“I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise or take the right path.”
Ten years ago, when award-winning nonprofit organization Jackets for Jobs (JFJ) decided to honor Michigan female veterans, they teamed up with retail giant T.J. Maxx and devised “A Purse with a Purpose.” The charitable initiative distributed hundreds of purses as well as $25 gift cards to the veterans.
“As the daughter of a deceased veteran, this project is near and dear to me,” said Alison Vaughn, founder and CEO of Jackets for Jobs, who added that she knows the road ahead for many veterans is not an easy one.
JFJ is a year-round program that helps thousands of job seekers find employment and has been doing so for 17 years. The agency has assisted more than 21,000 individuals by teaching candidates employment etiquette and providing interview-appropriate clothing.
Along with the work JFJ does daily, it is important to them and T.J. Maxx to foster a healthier veteran community while also empowering them in their personal lives. In November, the companies also participated together in an event hosted by Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment, where female veterans, military members and other organizations gathered to raise awareness to support female veterans and their families.
“We want to let the veterans know how much we appreciate their service to this country,” said Karen Hume, district manager for T.J. Maxx.
Not only is T.J. Maxx an off-price apparel and home fashions retailer in the U.S. and worldwide, operating more than 3,800 stores, the company understands that its business touches a lot of communities, from large cities to small towns, and it is committed to adding value to the communities it serves. Across those communities, T.J. Maxx decided to provide help with issues pertaining to poverty, education and training for at-risk young people, research and care for life-threatening illnesses, and safety from domestic violence. One step to bring T.J. Maxx closer to helping the community is partnering with Vaughn and JFJ.
Besides supporting women veterans, Jackets for Jobs and T.J. Maxx also team up to distribute coats to children during the winter.
Outside the office of Bronx, New York, District Attorney Darcel Clark, a protest rally for Pedro Hernandez this summer began and closed with prayer.
Hernandez, 18, had spent 13 months awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison on questionable weapons charges in the shooting of another teenager because his mother couldn’t afford his $255,000 bond. Eventually, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group paid a reduced bond of $100,000. Between the prayers for people unjustly locked in the criminal justice system, those gathered at the rally called on Clark to dismiss the shooting charges.
Some local politicians and advocates said the situation was painfully reminiscent of the case against Kalief Browder. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, because he was unable to make $10,000 bail after being charged with stealing a backpack as a 15-year-old. That case was eventually dismissed, but it left Browder a broken man who later took his own life.
The Browder case has haunted Clark. The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in her state, she campaigned as a change agent who understood the burdens the criminal justice system imposes on black and brown lives. But in her previous role as a judge, Clark presided over six of Browder’s 31 court dates while he languished in jail — and admitted during her campaign that she couldn’t remember them.
“This happens all the time,” said Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother, a few moments before the rally for Hernandez in August. Clark grew up in the Bronx, he noted. “Like, you were raised in our community. You should use it to our advantage and not to lock up kids.” Browder, a long-shot Green Party candidate for mayor, said the presumption of innocent until proven guilty often does not apply to black and brown residents of the Bronx. “District Attorney Clark is guilty of this,” Browder claimed. “The community has to say enough is enough.”
Weeks after the rally, Clark’s office dropped the weapons charges while continuing to pursue an unrelated robbery case against Hernandez. DNAInfo reported recently that the prosecutor in the shooting case is being investigated over allegations that he helped coerce people into falsely identifying Hernandez.
“Prosecution of violent crime is challenging,” Clark said in a statement after the charges were dropped, “especially when victims and witnesses decline to cooperate, but this is the reality we face in the Bronx every day as we continue to build trust with the community.”
“I am very thankful and very appreciative that they did the right thing,” Hernandez’s mother, Jessica Perez, said at the courthouse that day. “But let’s not forget, Pedro is just one of them. I hope this exoneration of his bail can be used for another kid who’s in the same need.”
Numbers have long painted a cruel reality in the Bronx. The borough north of Manhattan is home to 1.5 million people, most of whom are black or Hispanic. More than 8 percent are unemployed, almost double the national average. More than 30 percent live below the poverty line. The South Bronx has the bleak distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the country.
Lawyers in its court system routinely handle crimes of poverty, such as subway turnstile jumping. The Bronx also has the highest rate of violent crime in the city and a notorious backlog of felony cases. It’s a system that processes misery day in and day out.
Clark came into office promising a new day. “I want to change the narrative of the Bronx,” she told the crowd at a community meeting last December, a few weeks shy of her first year in office.
Clark, 55, was elected in November 2015, as national headlines questioned the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and the acquittals of the officers involved. She is one of several people of color recently elected as local prosecutors who are vowing to aggressively pursue a reformist vision for the criminal justice system, especially in its interactions with people of color.
In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx argued as a candidate that prosecutors have a conflict of interest in handling police-involved shootings because they must work regularly with law enforcement. In St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has said she will work to restore residents’ trust in the criminal justice system and work to divert nonviolent offenders from entering a courtroom.
Clark has a 30-year résumé as a former prosecutor, a criminal court judge and an appellate judge. But her election was controversial. Her predecessor, Robert Johnson, held the job for 27 years. After running unopposed in the Democratic primary in 2015, Johnson resigned a few weeks before the general election to seek a judgeship. Critics blasted the move as politically corrupt, saying it essentially allowed the Democratic Party machine to handpick the next district attorney: Clark. In the Bronx, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 12 to 1. In the general election, Clark won 85 percent of the vote, easily beating Republican Robert Siano. With the party registration numbers so lopsided, insiders say Clark can be district attorney for as long as she wants.
During the campaign, Clark said she would push the office to be more effective, cut the colossal backlog and build a stronger relationship with residents who distrust the legal system. Clark said she would send prosecutors into neighborhoods to hear firsthand the concerns of residents and work with them to prevent crime, particularly gun violence.
“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community,” Clark said in an interview earlier this year. That includes defendants as well as victims, she said. “Criminal justice includes all of the community,” said Clark, “and as a prosecutor, I have to see myself in that way.
“You have to change minds and hearts,” Clark said, “and somewhat the court culture, in order to get it done. But you know, it’s doable. You just have to do it.”
Some say she’s not doing it fast enough, though, and question how much Clark can truly reform a system in which she was a longtime cog.
More people are in jail waiting for their trials in the Bronx than in the rest of the city’s boroughs combined, Siano said. “Hopefully we see changes in four years,” Siano said. “When her term is over, I hope the Bronx will hold her accountable.”
Clark has been in office less than two years, arguably not enough time to judge her office’s results. But others are hopeful about Clark’s ability to bring change.
“We were obviously very happy and encouraged that one of our own, a black woman lawyer and judge, would be in this role,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “When there is diversity in thought, diversity in experience and someone who has committed so much to justice in the Bronx, change has happened.”
“She grew up like us,” said Aldo Perez, a community activist who has met with Clark. “She knows what we need, but she also knows her role. She also knows that we don’t need to prosecute for low-level crimes but focus on violent offenders.”
Perez believes that Clark’s experience growing up and living in the Bronx offers hope. “There’s nothing she cannot understand when it comes to how we feel about crime,” Perez said, “how crime affects the community, because she’s seen it. She knows who was selling drugs in the neighborhoods. She knew how to stay away from that. She knew what was going on in the projects. She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried. She knows. She knows. And you can’t fool her.”
Clark grew up in the Soundview Houses public housing development in the South Bronx. Her father, Daniel, worked there for more than two decades as a groundskeeper. Her mother, Viola, a nurse’s aide, headed the tenants organization. Clark said she was the first in her family to attend college. “It was just really, you know, it took a village,” Clark said of growing up in the Bronx. “It was like if you did something wrong, before your mother came home from work, she knew because someone had already told her. There was always that kind of connection with people. That’s what I grew up on.”
She still lives in the Bronx with her husband, Eaton “Ray” Davis, a detective and 30-plus-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. His perspective deepens her understanding of the police, she said.
After Clark graduated from Boston College in 1983, and from Howard University Law School in 1986, she was hired as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. She spent 13 years in the office, was supervisor of the narcotics bureau and later deputy chief of the criminal court bureau. In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Clark as a judge in criminal court. In 2006, she was elected to the Supreme Court in Bronx County, the trial-level court in the state’s system. In 2012, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to be an appellate judge covering Bronx and New York counties. Clark stepped down from the bench in 2015 to run for district attorney.
Clark is described by colleagues as laser-focused, a clear thinker and down-to-earth, as well as someone who possesses a holistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.
“I think she is a formidable individual,” said Daniel Karson, who co-led Clark’s transition team, recalling how she came into office “brimming with confidence.”
With a 2017 budget of $71.6 million, Clark began hiring, adding new prosecutors, for a total staff of more than 850 people. There is no reason that her office should not be ready for trial, she said. “And if there is, we need to take that in account as to what our approach is going to be on those cases.” Clark said she meets with her staff weekly to review upcoming cases and the oldest cases to determine whether they are still viable. Those measures have cut the backlog from more than 15,000 pending cases at the end of 2015 to just over 11,000 at the end of 2016.
Clark shifted the office to a vertical prosecution model in order to cut delays and build accountability. That means one assistant district attorney handles a case from beginning to end, from charge to disposition, instead of cases being handed off to other assistant district attorneys at various stages.
Clark opened a 14-person bureau on Rikers Island that includes investigators, administrators and prosecutors to work on cases against inmates and correctional officers. Clark also created a conviction integrity unit. One of its first cases involved Steven Odiase, 31, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 2013 for the killing of 15-year-old Juan Jerez.
Odiase’s attorneys later came across a redacted police report in evidence that the district attorney’s office had turned over. Blacked out was a witness’s description of Jerez’s killer that did not match Odiase, said Odiase’s attorney Pierre Sussman, who alerted Clark’s office. Prosecutors then asked for Odiase’s conviction to be vacated. In April, he was released from prison, and Clark announced last week that he will not be retried.
“We don’t know whom eliminated it,” Sussman said of the evidence that four years later cleared his client. He did, however, credit Clark and her office for their response. “Once they turned that over to us and it was discovered by us, they did the right thing and the only thing,” said Sussman. “They joined us in helping the court overturn the conviction.”
Sussman also credited Clark for staffing the conviction integrity unit with veteran defense and appellate lawyers. “That tells me that she’s taking it seriously,” Sussman said. But he cautioned: “It’s a nascent unit, so we’ll see what happens in the next few years.”
Clark’s time as district attorney so far shows the complexities and contradictions of her role.
At the community meeting in December, many residents voiced concerns about policing and police brutality. Clark assured them, “If the police want to run wild, they have to come through me.” Many applauded, but one man stood up and challenged her. Even if her office brought charges against a police officer, he said, Clark had little to no sway over a conviction. Some applauded in agreement.
Asked about that moment later, Clark said that “still, the district attorney is the gatekeeper.”
“Police could arrest a whole lot of people, but if the DA doesn’t prosecute them, what is the point?” She added that she has a “fair relationship” with the New York Police Department “and they get that message loud and clear.”
“I’ve had to work side by side with the police. We need the police. You know, people say they don’t like the police until they need them.” Still, Clark pointed out, the Police Department in New York and others throughout the country also need reform.
“How many times are the courts going to dismiss cases?” Clark said. “How many times are there going to be federal monitors on a police department? How many times is a judge going to declare that the tactics of the police are unconstitutional?
“If they keep getting that message over and over, then they’re going to have to change with the times as well.”
Last year, Clark confronted the shooting death of Deborah Danner, 66, by a police officer.
Emergency crews and police officers had come to Danner’s seventh-floor apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood on Oct. 18, 2016, in response to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed woman screaming in the hallway. Danner allegedly refused to go to the hospital. At some point, she held a pair of scissors, then swung a wooden bat toward Sgt. Hugh Barry. Barry opened fire, shooting Danner twice.
The mayor and police commissioner both criticized Barry, saying he should have used a stun gun instead of his gun. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to proceed, stating that Danner was armed when Barry shot her. In response, Clark impaneled a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case.
In May, seven months after Danner was shot, Barry, 31, was indicted for second-degree murder, manslaughter and other charges in the killing of Danner. The grand jury found that Barry should have used other ways to subdue Danner or should have waited for a specialized emergency service unit to arrive before he used deadly force. He was released on $100,000 bond. His next court date is Nov. 27.
In a statement, Clark offered her condolences to the Danner family and acknowledged “the heartbreaking loss they have suffered.” She also thanked them for their patience.
“The men and women of the NYPD protect and serve us and face the possibility of danger every time they respond to calls of emotionally disturbed persons, domestic violence incidents and other crises,” Clark said in her statement. “They answer thousands of these calls each year without incident. I hope that measures will be taken to prevent another tragedy such as this.”
Organizations such as the Legal Aid Society have been pressuring Clark and other borough prosecutors to stop pursuing low-level crimes such as subway fare evasion and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately targeted for such violations, advocates say.
“When you think about justice and the communities that are being impacted, this goes all the way to the womb,” said Edgar, of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “If you have a broken system, there are so many things that fall into the brokenness of that system. … It’s that long-standing institutional racial bias that affects our communities in a much more detrimental way than other communities.”
Over the summer, Clark held a second Another Chance event as part of an effort to address the concerns. In the first event, held during her first year as district attorney, she partnered with public defenders and judges to bring a warrant forgiveness program to the Bronx. In a makeshift courtroom at Mount Hope Community Center, 270 people had 355 summons warrants erased, many for offenses such as public alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct or possessing a small amount of marijuana. Because these offenses are handled in criminal court, convictions can prevent people from getting housing, employment and immigration visas.
During the event in August, held in the basement of Eastchester Presbyterian Church, a few men sat in metal folding chairs waiting for their cases to be called. In case after case, the summons was for having an open container of alcohol on the street. Bobby Diago, 56, had eight summonses, the oldest from 2011. After his case was called, the judge vacated his warrants in a matter of seconds.
By noon, more than 100 warrants were dismissed. It was “a drop in the bucket,” Clark said, compared with the 355,000 open summonses in the Bronx and the 1.5 million throughout the city. Many of them, Clark admitted, could not be tried.
As a judge, Clark said, “I presided over these very same summonses when people had them in court, and I can tell you that a lot of them are not prosecutable.” Sometimes the records are missing addresses, the defendant’s name is incorrect or the allegations don’t sustain the charge, she said. “So that’s why I really wanted to do this.”
Standing outside the church and holding his disposition certificate, Diago, a construction worker, said that he had not taken the summonses too seriously (“What, they gonna give me life for an open container?” he said), until his wife told him a police officer had come to their home looking for him.
Clark said outside the church that more of such offenses are being moved to civil court from criminal court. “We’re doing anything that we can to try to keep people out of the criminal justice system and provide them with resources so that they can be stable and really be productive members of the community,” she said.
Another certificate holder, Joseph Ramos, remembered the date of his summons clearly — it was his 26th birthday, June 12, 2015. The whole block in his Bronx neighborhood was seemingly outside celebrating with him, Ramos recalled. “The cops came and gave everybody tickets,” according to Ramos, who said he works as a security guard. One officer, Ramos said, took the plastic bottle Ramos had in his hand and poured its contents, an almost full bottle of Hennessy, onto the ground.
Now, Ramos said, “I don’t have to stand outside and be worried about getting locked up.” But he predicted, “Most likely it’s going to happen again.”
The Bronx court system still runs on delays. On any given day, a long line of defendants with court appearances snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk. A holding room is filled with those transported from prison, awaiting trial. Judges routinely adjourn cases, attorneys say. “It’s a horror show,” said Sussman, who has been an attorney for more than 20 years.
“The Browder case was the kind of illustration,” said Sussman, “the horrible illustration for what can go wrong when a backlog means that a case for theft of a backpack, if that is even what it was, takes three years to unfold in court. And the result is breaking a man. It’s not that Browder was shot down in the streets. He took his own life. They broke him.”
With the Browder case still echoing through the system, Clark says the most challenging aspect of her job has been dealing with youths.
“It’s scary that we really might be losing a generation to some of the things that are happening,” said Clark, who made a point to note the many young people who are succeeding in lives that don’t make headlines. “When I was judge, those were the most difficult cases. Because even though they’re accused of criminality, and may in fact be guilty of it, what do you do really with them? You don’t want somebody’s life to be ruined forever, but you don’t want them to think it’s OK to just prey on their community and do the things that are wrong and that there are no consequences. So it’s just really deciding to figure out that balance between what is wrong and what is right, and how to go about getting a result that is going to be beneficial to the whole community.”
Time will tell which case will determine that balance and define Clark’s tenure as district attorney.
Living in the public eye can be tough for anyone. But when reality TV star Evelyn Lozada found herself in a situation that took her from being the take-no-nonsense Basketball Wives standout to a domestic violence survivor, it changed her life.
That label, domestic violence survivor, is not one she takes lightly. Lozada recently announced a new online campaign, Turn Hurt Into Joy, as part of the Evelyn Lozada Foundation. The goal is to raise money for two nonprofit organizations that help domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. The campaign will run throughout October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The funds will benefit the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and the Violence Intervention Program Inc., both based in the Bronx, New York. According to the campaign website, the Turn Hurt Into Joy online campaign is Lozada’s testimony that a negative situation can be transformed into a positive one.
The mission of Lozada’s foundation is to transform society’s response to domestic violence and to support healing. It does so in three ways: healing, education and advocacy. It currently supports existing services for survivors residing in the Bronx, but she is looking to expand soon.
“I was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx,” Lozada said. “The Bronx is very dear to me and a place where I grew up. I feel like Evelyn is the way she is because she grew up in the Bronx, and I will never change it. I love it.”
According to the Violence Policy Center, nearly three women are murdered every day in the U.S. by current or former romantic partners. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in his or her lifetime.
In 2012, Lozada wore an original Ines Di Santo dress for her wedding to former NFL player Chad Johnson. Three weeks later she was in the hospital with six stitches on her forehead after an altercation with her new husband. Forty-three days later, she was divorced and living her truth in front of the world. Johnson was charged with simple battery and misdemeanor domestic violence and was later sentenced to one year of probation and domestic violence counseling.
“I received so many emails,” Lozada told The Undefeated. “I received messages through social networking, just from women that are in abusive relationships, domestic violence survivors, still in relationships, not in relationships, still going through the motions. But because my story was so public and I was now the face of domestic violence, I wanted to do something positive. I wanted to help as many women, and I’m going to say men also, because I’m learning that men are also in abusive relationships and are also abused. I decided to start the Evelyn Lozada Foundation.”
A donation to the campaign will afford givers a chance to win her wedding dress. The winner will be announced in mid-November.
Lozada spoke with The Undefeated about her evolution, showing compassion for others, her massive social media following and charitable giving.
What’s it like dealing with good and bad times in the public eye?
You never know what life is going to throw at you, and especially because my life is so public, even when I try to not live in the public it ends up in the public. It’s the path that I’ve chosen. I would say you have to take the good with the bad, and that’s just what it is.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
I feel bad for domestic violence victims because sometimes the victim gets revictimized. I still deal with it. I still deal with the, ‘Well, it was your fault.’ Which, I get it. People are going to have their opinions, but I think that for me is the hardest part. Right now with the dress and everything that I’m doing in connection to raise money for these two nonprofits that I’m working with, women will put their stories on there and then you’ll have people saying negative things to them. I think that, for me, is hurtful. It’s hard for me to see that because, unless you’re in my position, unless you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship — whether it be physical, emotional — you don’t know what that person has gone through, for you to take time out and say something negative to them when they are expressing and reaching out or trying to help.
How did you vet the organizations that will benefit from the campaign?
Myself and my amazing PR people that I work with decided that I wanted to start this foundation. Obviously, I’ve never done anything like this. You want to do it the right way. You want to have all the paperwork that you need. You want to make sure that everything is done the right way. We just took it day by day, and we’re still working at it. That’s how it pretty much came about. I have always felt, even in having conversations with something like my mentor, Iyanla Vanzant, who I love and respect, she would always say, ‘Well, what are you going to do with this? What is your legacy?’
What do you want your overall outcome to be for the campaign?
I want women and men to feel empowered. I want women to know it’s not your fault, to love yourself. If I can do it, you can do it too.
How did the Bride’s March inspire you?
I went back to my hotel and I was so overwhelmed by just the love and the sisterhood. There’s all these women that I met that we all did this march together in honor of Gladys [Ricart] and for every domestic violence victim, survivor. It’s hard to explain what I felt. I just felt so good. I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ It’s just really to bring as much to end the violence and abuse.
After I did that march, that same day … one woman, she stopped me. She’s like, ‘Right now, as we speak, I have a broken collarbone. I’m hiding in a closet.’ These are the kinds of stories and messages that I get. ‘What do I do?’ … Sometimes we just need somebody to talk to and just somebody to tell us that it’s going to be OK.
How does helping other women lift your spirit?
It makes me feel good. I want to do something for the world that is good. Like years ago, I took so much negativity into the world and I didn’t care about anything. Now it’s like my goal and I’m just so focused on wanting to do something positive. It makes me feel good to know that I’m helping somebody. I’m invested. If I start a conversation with this woman who’s just going through it and has kids, and I’m like, ‘OK, we’re going to figure this out,’ I am invested until I feel like I’ve done something to help or I’m helping. And not just the domestic violence survivors and victims — just people in general.
Do you think that compassion comes from your own experience?
I’m glad for those experiences because I feel like it made me who I am today. If I didn’t go through any of that, who knows who I would be? Not that I’m like, ‘Woo, hoo. I’m glad I was abused.’ That’s not what I’m saying. I just feel like certain things happen in your life for a reason and it’s up to you to, like, what are you going to turn that into and how are you going to respond and what are you going to do? I just try to be the strongest person that I can be and just keep on moving. It’s really about my kids too.
I want my kids to know, OK, Mom, you’ve been through some things, but she always had a smile on her face. She was always there for us.
The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.
Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.
This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.
Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.
Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”
Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.
Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.
The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.
On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.
What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)
LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”
And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.
Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.
“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”
The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.
The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.
“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.
The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.
“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”
Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.
The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.
Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.
An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.
But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.
The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?
The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”
The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”
The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.
Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.
A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.
In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.
“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”
But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.
“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”
Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.
Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”
The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.