Major Key: Keegan-Michael Key is busting out all over  From ‘Dolemite’ to ‘Lion King’ to this weekend’s ‘Playing with Fire,’ he’s everywhere

Keegan-Michael Key is laughing. Hard. The kind of laugh that makes you want to join in because whatever it is he finds so funny, surely you will, too.

Key says he dreamed his whole entire life of being Billy Sims or Lynn Swann, but never got a chance to play football. So the idea that he garners fanboy love from NFL stars — including Von Miller and Michael Bennett — well, it tickles him.

See, about seven years ago Key — along with his then-comedic partner Jordan Peele — created what’s become a timeless funny take on the sometimes Afrocentric and other times simply creative names that some black football players may have for their Key & Peele show on Comedy Central. That sketch has nearly 53 million views on YouTube alone and one of the characters, Hingle McCringleberry, had made numerous “live” appearances.

And years later, it sticks.

“It is surreal to have these young men know me … my work is the closest I can get to emulate being an athlete,” Key said. “So there’s this really wonderful kind of synergy, this imaginistic — Made up that word! — this imaginistic synergy that I get to have with the players. And they all have really wonderful, rich senses of huge potential. Yes, for lack of a better way of putting it, yes, they do. They fanboy.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Keegan-Michael Key (right) pose for a picture at the opening of NFL Experience Times Square in New York on Nov. 30, 2017.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

But perhaps — just perhaps — they’re also taken by the growth in Key’s visibility in Hollywood? Because four years after Key & Peele went off the air, he’s everywhere. Sometimes he’s the funny guy as in Playing With Fire, which stars former wrestler John Cena and opens on Friday. And sometimes he plays it straight, as he does as playwright Jerry Jones in Netflix’s much-lauded Dolemite Is My Name.

Or is it his voice work? This past summer he voiced one of those menacing hyenas in Disney’s $1.65 billion blockbuster The Lion King. He also voiced Ducky in Toy Story 4, which has topped $1 billion at the box office.

Point is, Key, 48, is killing it.

“I think the ship is starting to turn a little bit,” he said. “A career is not like a little tiny sailboat, it’s a big aircraft carrier, so it takes a while to kind of start moving in different directions. But I believe it. I believe that people are starting to view me that way.

“I think that a hundred percent people are starting to see it. I’m playing the emotional fulcrum and the kind of solid, strong, straight man role in this musical [The Prom] I’m about to shoot with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman and James Cordon. That’s being directed by Ryan Murphy, which is going to be one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my career.”

He takes a pause and lets it sink in. Because that’s major.

“I am overwhelmingly excited about it. And I’ve seen that there’s a little shift in the way I’ve been cast and that’s all very intentional,” he said. “When I first met my wife [actress, producer and director Elisa Pugliese] and before we were married, we worked together. Key & Peele was finishing. She said to me, ‘What is it that you’d like to do next? And if you had no barriers, if there’s no story about why you couldn’t do what you wanted to do, what would you want to do?’ ”

The answer was serious drama, maybe even Shakespeare, and action movies like the Jason Bourne series. “That’s what I want to do. There was a very precise direction that the team can focus on that. And we’ve been doing that for like the last two years.”

Key says he’s blessed that there’s been a steady stream of work. He’s juggling a lot.

He’s in postproduction for the films Jingle Jangle (which also stars Forest Whitaker and Phylicia Rashad), All The Bright Places (which stars Elle Fanning, Alexandra Shipp and Luke Wilson) and the highly anticipated stop-motion feature Wendell and Wild, which re-teams him with Peele, now an Oscar winner and one of the most talked about genre-shifting creatives in the industry. And if that’s not enough, Key also is working on a pair of TV hosting gigs. Up first is National Geographic’s Brain Games reboot, which premieres Dec. 1.

“It’s been a very focused thing that requires quite a lot of maintenance,” he said. “The biggest challenge is believing in yourself, because there are days when you have to go, ‘Oh, God, I could absolutely really slay this role. I feel like I could just kill this role!’ But it doesn’t serve my needs, it doesn’t serve my goals.

“So sometimes you get three or four projects come down the pipe and you go, ‘Ugh, it’s all broad, slapstick comedy.’ And you know that you could sit in your lane and be comfortable and really make people laugh really hard at that,” he said. “But you’re not stretching, you’re not moving, you’re not growing, not evolving. So sometimes there’s that sting when you say, ‘No, no, I’m going to better myself. … I’m going to say no to this project.’ You say no a few times … as you tried to disseminate the information about your wants and needs, people start to move in that direction with you. They kind of fall into the current, but that challenge is real and significant.”

Keegan-Michael Key attends the Los Angeles premiere of Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name at Regency Village Theatre on Sept. 28 in Westwood, California.

Rachel Luna/FilmMagic via Getty Images

He knows that most people see him as a sketch comedian. But just as sure as he’s challenging himself to evolve, he wants to challenge his viewership to join in that transformation as well.

“You get nervous that the only offers that are going to come are going to be the same. If I don’t take them, everyone’s going to stop asking and no one’s going to come back and no one’s going to come calling. And you have to face those fears. You have to take a deep breath and say, ‘There’s something that I want. There’s a desire that I have. What are the steps I need to take to achieve that desire?’ ”

Key pauses again. He’s connecting the dots of his career trajectory.

“I think it’s very serendipitous to have been in a project like Dolemite, because Rudy Ray Moore, the whole movie is pretty much a treatise on perseverance and not giving up on your dream,” he said of the game-changing comedian and his life story. “I have to say frankly it’s inspired me.”

TIFF 2019: In ‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ Eddie Murphy makes a way out of no way Hollywood loves films about itself. Finally, we’ve got one from a black perspective.

TORONTO — If there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s films about the hometown business. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land, The Artist, Sunset Boulevard, Tropic Thunder, The Day of the Locust, Slums of Beverly Hills, Trumbo, Saving Mr. Banks and Hollywoodland, just to name a few. (Then there’s a subset of this genre dedicated entirely to stories about Marilyn Monroe, a well that never seems to run dry.)

There’s just one issue with these films: They suffer from a self-indulgent racial myopia. Films that tell stories of what it’s like to be a minority in Hollywood are all too rare. Enter Dolemite Is My Name, a new Netflix film starring Eddie Murphy that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, who dreams of making it big but is down on his luck.

Courtesy of TIFF

Directed by Craig Brewer, Dolemite Is My Name shares some familiar beats with your typical film about the movie business, namely a persevering protagonist who dreams of making it big but is down on his luck. This time, he’s played by Murphy, who stars as Rudy Ray Moore, the real-life figure who crafted the Dolemite character and the blaxploitation-era films centered on him.

Moore is an over-the-hill vaudevillian with a potbelly who works as the assistant manager of a record store in Los Angeles and never seemed to catch a break. He sings, he dances, he tells jokes. When he left his sharecropping daddy back in Arkansas, he dreamed of becoming a movie star.

Dolemite Is My Name tells the story of how that finally happened and the challenges that Moore faced getting Dolemite made. Although he didn’t know a thing about filmmaking, Moore miraculously assembled a team through his own grit, hustle and charisma. He persuades a hoity-toity thespian named Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to co-write the first Dolemite film with him after the character he’s created becomes a hit on the black nightclub circuit. Dolemite wears a wig, carries a cane, dresses like a pimp and tells jokes in verse. Moore doesn’t have the looks, acting ability or panache of Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier, but he has something else: a tremendous knack for entertaining, and an understanding that sometimes a little crude humor makes you forget that you’re broke.

Moore’s director, D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) is a lot like Jerry Jones: a black actor with real credits who can’t break out of the shadows and into the meaty, demanding roles that go to white leads. Snipes gives Martin an assortment of truly gut-busting affectations, from a pinkie nail perfect for escorting a bump of cocaine to his nose to an eye roll that’s just begging to be memed. It’s Snipes’ funniest and most inspired comic role since he played Noxeema in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, which came out in 1995. He upstages Murphy, who plays Moore as a showman who’s been humbled but not broken, in just about every scene the two share.

Genocide, systemic injustice and police violence were among the themes that dominated the TIFF films I saw this year, and frankly, Dolemite offered a welcome reprieve. What a relief to see something so nakedly committed to entertaining its audience, and which made the case for doing so with such passion.

What a breath of fresh air to see a film in a genre that’s way too dominated by whiteness, revealing, in funny and stylish fashion, how black artists make a way out of no way.

But Dolemite Is My Name offered more than belly laughs and a light bit of popcorn fare about how a low-budget Shaft-inspired comedy came to be a hit. So many of Moore’s struggles, which largely center on drumming up the money to give himself work when no one else will, are still relevant for black artists trying to make it in the film business today. I’ve spoken to many promising black artists who, like Moore, have had to beg, borrow and steal to get their art made in front of people’s eyes. That’s the story of the early days of Numa Perrier, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, and of so many black directors of the L.A. Rebellion. So many talented black directors are forced into becoming new iterations of John Cassavetes because Hollywood still struggles to see how employing them is profitable.

Despite their limited viewpoint, I enjoy films about classic Hollywood more often than not. The best ones help us understand what an enormous undertaking it can be to make and release a feature film, and how many people and jobs are involved in such an enterprise. They shed light on eras gone by and the troubles that characterized them, such as the tyranny of the studio system and the struggles against McCarthyism. Plus, the costuming is just delicious.

Costuming, by the way, is essential to Dolemite Is My Name. Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter makes the film a feast for the eyes with an array of 1970s trends, from wide-lapel suits in eye-searing colors to polyester getups that look as though they’ll burst into flames if they come too close to a naked lightbulb. What a breath of fresh air to see a film in a genre that’s way too dominated by whiteness, revealing, in funny and stylish fashion, how black artists make a way out of no way. With any luck, Dolemite Is My Name will make the case for more such films to come.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talks Spence vs. Garcia, OBJ trade: ‘Thank you, thank you’

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the unofficial host of boxing’s biggest event of 2019, the pay-per-view matchup between Errol Spence Jr. and Mikey Garcia. Before the two undefeated fighters squared off, Jones talked about the bout, AT&T Stadium, his Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns trading for Odell Beckham Jr., and much more.

The top 25 blackest sports moments of 2017 If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends

Black Friday. The day when people decide that the only way they can make themselves feel better about whatever they just went through with their families on Thanksgiving is with a whole lot of retail therapy. It’s the unofficial kickoff of the holiday shopping season, and according to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend an average of $967.13 each before the end of the year. That adds up to a cool $682 billion.

But forget all that. We black. So we’ll take this opportunity to reclaim our time and get back to using ham-handed puns for the culture. A point of clarification: There are a variety of items on this list. Some are groundbreaking accomplishments. Others are moments that made us laugh. A few are things that we might actually regret.

By the by, we’re doing this bad boy college football style. If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends.

Receiving votes

• Mississippi State’s Morgan William beats UConn with a buzzer-beater that shocked the college basketball world. Three years earlier, her stepfather, whom she called her dad, had passed away. He taught her how to ball.

• Bubba Wallace becomes the first black NASCAR Cup Series driver since Bill Lester in 2006. No, Bubba is not his given name. It’s Darrell. Insert your own conclusions as to why he needed a nickname at all.

No. 25: The Gonzalez twins bounce on UNLV

Instagram Photo

If you’ve somehow missed the Instagram megastars Dylan and Dakota Gonzalez, who transferred to Vegas from Kansas, where have you been? They’re the ones who Drake once showed up at a Pepperdine gym to see play. That aside, they make music. And it’s very good. So instead of battling over their final seasons of eligibility with the NCAA, who’d been hating from the get-go about the entire situation regarding their recording careers, they went pro. In singing. Don’t worry, grandma, they had already graduated anyways.

No. 24: Trey Songz tries his hand at NFL analysis

You might recall that after beating Washington’s NFL team, the New York Football Giants had a playoff game the next week against the Green Bay Packers. The Giants’ secondary didn’t look great, so Trigga Trey (who is a Skins fan, btw) decided to weigh in with the classic tweet: “DB’s weren’t on the yacht. Just a lil FYI.”

First of all, “just a lil fyi” is A-level Auntie Shade on full display as a matter of course, but let’s get back to that picture. OBJ is wearing fur-lined Timbs on a boat. Enough said.

No. 23: Cardale stunts on the haters

Remember when then-Ohio State Buckeye Cardale Jones basically intonated that he didn’t care about school? Or at least, that’s what y’all thought? Well, the current Los Angeles Chargers quarterback graduated this year, and none of you all can take that from him. *kisses fingers* Beautiful.

No. 22: Allen IVERSON returns to crush the Confederacy

We all remember the 2001 NBA Finals when Bubbachuck banged a trey in Tyronn Lue’s face, leading Lue to fall down, followed by Iverson giving him the stepover heard ’round the world. But to think to resurrect that for a toppled Confederate statue is nothing short of brilliant. I was legitimately moved.

No. 21: You ‘gon learn today, son

There are so many things going on in this video. It’s bunch ball kids hoops, which means that traveling and double dribble are not enforced, because kids just don’t get those rules early on. But you know what is enforced? Basket integrity. What you’re not gonna do is score on your own hoop. Now, mind you, this dude is already doing a lot for this level of coaching.

He’s wearing a tie for reasons that cannot be explained. He’s screaming his head off and waving his hands like it’s the NCAA tournament; and that’s before the kid takes off the wrong way with the rock. What happens next is a lesson that child will never, ever forget: the day his coach put him on his butt with a rejection so vicious that the grown man considered jumping to do it. Seriously, watch it again. Homey was ready to elevate.

No. 20: Bring. It. On.

I don’t follow cheerleading. All I know is that whenever I see these young folks flipping all over the place, it’s typically big, predominantly white institutions where the teams are used to being on TV, etc. Whatever. The ladies (and gentleman) of Savannah State University became the first historically black college or university to win the event, which began in 1997. My favorite part? They didn’t know that until after they took the crown.

No. 19: Nigel Hayes fights back

The Wisconsin hoopster wasn’t just playing in the NCAA tournament in March, he was also taking on the system in federal court over the concept of amateurism. He started off the season by saying, “We deserve to be paid,” still somehow a relatively controversial stance in the year of our Lord 2017. That aside, he had previously broken out the protest sign at ESPN GameDay with his Venmo account listed on it. By making noise in this year’s tournament, his cause got a lot more shine. He donated the money from the stunt to charity, so stop hating.

No. 18: The real Black Barbie

U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was honored with her very own Barbie doll this year, complete with its own hijab. It’s not just about her having her own thing, it’s about what she said at the Glamour Women of the Year Summit. “There is so much focus on Muslim women in hijab, and oppression and being docile. This is flipping this entire bigoted narrative on its head,” she said, according to The New York Times.

No. 17: Oakley being Oakley

The former Knicks great did something that many fans of the team have been wanting to do for years. He popped off in front of the team owner and got a borderline face mush in while he did it. Of course, he also got dragged out of Madison Square Garden in cuffs, which is not a good look. Clearly, this was foul on many levels, but the fact that he was willing to take the whole team to court over the matter makes things that much funnier.

No. 16: The check cleared

Remember when Sloane Stephens won the US Open, and when they showed her the check, her whole situation changed? Yeah, that will happen when someone drops a couple million bucks on you. Playing tennis is great and all, but yeesh. That’s big money. And when she finally put out her official trophy photos, if you will, the caption was absolutely priceless.

No. 15: Chance and migos shooting hoops

For a certain generation, the photo of Jesse Jackson and Marvin Gaye playing hoops is a classic like none other. Two people otherwise known for different things out here hooping it up like any other Saturday. It’s almost uncanny how very similar these two photos are, in terms of subjects and style. My favorite part about it, though, clearly, is Offset. His mind is elsewhere but very focused.

No. 14: Black girl magic

If you don’t know who Carla Williams is, you should. She’s the University of Virginia’s new athletic director, the first black woman to hold the position at a Power 5 school. Considering what else has gone down in Charlottesville — and by that I mean white supremacists rallying and people ending up dead — this is a step in a direction we can all look forward to.

No. 13: Mike Jones. Who? MIKE JONES.

There are some phone numbers you’ll just never forget. 281-330-8004. You might recall that when Jimmy Butler went from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves, things got a bit awkward. So, in true “come see me” mode, he straight-up gave out his phone number during his introductory news conference in Minneapolis. Clearly, he’s changed his number since then. But if you’re looking for a way to ditch a lot of people in your life, this is a hilarious way to set up a legit “new phone, who dis” excuse.

No. 12: That’s Dr. Rolle to you, sir

Myron Rolle had a surefire NFL career ahead of him. But league execs got wind that he might not be all the way into the game, and his draft stock fell. Mind you, he was a freaking Rhodes scholar — it’s not like he wanted to become some traveling magician. Anyways, he decided to leave the NFL to become a doctor. This year he graduated from medical school. Maybe one day he can find a way to prevent concussions in football. No, seriously, he’s a neurosurgery resident.

No. 11: Field of Dreams

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Gift Ngoepe finally broke through to the bigs this season, he became the first African-born player to do so in the history of major league baseball. And this wasn’t some “born in Africa, but really grew up in New Jersey” situation. Homeboy went to high school in Johannesburg. To top it off, he got a hit in his first MLB at-bat, which is statistically still an amazing feat on its own too.

No. 10: I said what I said

Kyle Lowry is a great dad and a fun dude, and he don’t play when it comes to his words. So when President Donald Trump put a ban on people from other countries who practice Islam from trying to set foot in this country, quite a few people spoke up. And this particular moment wasn’t just about the fact that he spoke up and cussed on the mic. It’s about the fact that when the oh-so-polite Canadian media asked him if he wanted to clean up his language, he broke them off.

No. 9: The real MVP

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

In 1999, when the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup, Brandi Chastain got a large bulk of the shine for hitting the penalty kick that sealed it. Many forget, however, that Briana Scurry made a save beforehand that made all that possible. She had an illustrious career overall, but eventually her life was nearly ruined by the effects of concussions. This year, she was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, becoming the first black woman to earn that honor.

No. 8: She stayed as long as she wanted

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Claire Smith is not only a pioneer as a black woman, she’s the first woman, period, who ever covered a major league baseball beat full time. The old story is that the Padres’ Steve Garvey, when Smith was routinely exiled by other players in MLB locker rooms, once stuck up for her, sticking around and publicly letting it be known, so she could get her job done. All these years later, Smith, now an ESPN employee, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for a baseball writer, this year during Hall of Fame weekend.

No. 7: He’s still gotten fined a couple times, tho

Marshawn Lynch is an American legend. He’s the first entry of our “people who just had tremendous years in blackness,” so they’ll get one entry with multiple examples of such. First of all, homeboy was eating chicken wings while he walked out on the field at a preseason game. And his reality show, as shown above, is the realest thing ever. Lastly, him dancing on the sideline for Oakland during a game is such a great moment.

No. 6: Let him celebrate

Look. I know he works for a rival network. But Shannon Sharpe is the man. His discussion about the situation in the NFL regarding pregame protests has been nothing short of incredible. But let’s be clear. We know why he’s on this list. His completely out-of-the-blue viral moment regarding Black & Milds and Cognac, with a side of Hennessy thrown in, has an outside argument for the medal stand on this list, if we’re being honest. Also, shouts to DJ Suede for this banger.

No. 5: Farewell, Mr. President

With President Barack Obama leaving office, there were quite a few moments that many people will treasure, but there were a couple of teams that definitely valued the fact that they were going to get to see 44 one more time before he left the White House. One was the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, whose lovely artistic tweet expressed exactly how much it meant to him. But the most vicious move came from Dexter Fowler, who brought Obama a pair of custom Jordan brand sneakers as a gift. What a boss.

No. 4: UndefEATED. Never lost.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how big of a year this has been for the Ball family in general. Beyond Lonzo getting drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, the family launching a reality show, LaMelo getting his own signature shoe (and dropping an actual N-bomb during a WWE broadcast), the Big Baller Brand has actually been pretty successful, if their pop-up shops are any indication. But they took a knock when LiAngelo and his teammates were put under house arrest for a shoplifting incident in China.

But LaVar, being the man that he is, managed to flip that situation into an all-out verbal brawl with President Trump that landed Ball on CNN. What a marketing genius.

No. 3: Ante up

Look, when I first decided to make this list, I was going to put Aqib Talib at the top. I’m not even joking. When he decided that he was going to snatch Michael Crabtree’s chain on an NFL football field, I decided right then and there that this list needed to happen in whole. That said, the incident itself was amazing.

He didn’t even get penalized, because what’s a ref going to call? Chain snatching is a violation in the streets, not on the field. I’m sure there are still people who viewed this as a harmless prank, but the level of disrespect here is so high. And Aqib is a very active member of not only the hands community but also the toolie community, which means that people don’t want that action. Crabtree had no chance.

No. 2: She’s the G.O.A.T.

Once again, in any other year, and perhaps even in this one, in a singular sense, my favorite athlete of all time would be atop these rankings. Serena Williams has had an incredible year. She won her 10th Grand Slam since turning 30. She showed up randomly to a tennis court to hit balls with a couple of bros who were completely awestruck. She then appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, revealing that she was pregnant when she won the Australian Open earlier in the year.

The baby has now joined us, and Alexis Olympia is adorbs, clearly. Serena is so awesome. Oh, yeah, and her wedding was completely bananas.

No. 1: Colin Kaepernick

There was no responsible way around saying that Colin Kaepernick’s had the blackest year in sports. His actions regarding the national anthem in football have set off a flurry of activity so huge that every person in America has an opinion about his actions. On that strength alone, you’d have to say his protest was effective. I don’t care about the interior chalk talk of whether or not police are actually less racist. That’s not Kap’s job to fix.

Demonstrations. Jerry Jones nearly losing his mind. The president going completely haywire at a speaking event. Hockey players, 8-year-olds, cheerleaders, high schoolers, basketball players and, yo, German soccer players all found their way to make a statement.

Oh yeah, GQ named him the Citizen of the Year. Even Tomi Lahren understands why.

 

The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel Demonizing black protest while allowing black celebration has a deep historical context

This NFL season, the usual game-day messaging of beer and sneaker ads and uplifting videos about community or military service has been augmented by a special kind of cultural telegraph.

Sent from white NFL owners and fans to black NFL players, it goes like this:

You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. (STOP) But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. (STOP) Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest. (STOP)

It’s a historically layered message about what’s allowable, laudable or even tolerable for black men to do with their bodies. It’s an adjudication centered in the white gaze, projected onto black limbs, televised to millions of eyes. Politicians, business leaders and NFL leadership have reached peak freak-out about players tackling racism and police brutality during the national anthem. But even as a divided populace watches football on a hair trigger, the league has newly relaxed its rules about touchdown celebrations.

Every pressurized system needs a release. Cue Mr. Bojangles.

Or can talented players simply be allowed to celebrate athletic achievement and the joy of expression, like any free people, without the echoes of white supremacy? I’m asking for the culture.


White fear of the black male body is part of the subtext of the rage over the NFL protests (and actually any form of black protest). That fear, stemming from perceptions of black lawlessness and criminality, can also be understood as a projection of white rage.

The angst and anger over the protests during the national anthem, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently ticked up dramatically. President Donald Trump cursed NFL players who protested and called for them to be fired. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said, “We can’t have inmates running the prison” during a meeting of NFL owners and league executives. TV viewership was down 7.5 percent through the season’s first six weeks compared with the same period last year, and every week brings tension, threats of boycotts and boos directed at players and teams who do anything other than stand and salute.

But end zone dances and celebrations have ticked up dramatically too. Highlights of the most creative are ranked weekly on websites and social media. “We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown. And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an open letter to fans earlier this year.

That position is new.

Last year, Newsweek reported that players had been fined 18 times for excessive celebrations through 14 weeks, more than 2.5 times the fines issued for all of 2015 and part of a leaguewide crackdown. This included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose professional-grade twerking in the Washington end zone, along with other pelvis-intensive dances, cost him nearly $60,000. Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King danced with an official’s penalty flag after the opposing team was called for roughing the kicker, costing him more than $12,000. And when then-New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz danced a salsa and teammate Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take pictures, that choreography cost them more than $12,000 each.

In an explanatory video last year, Dean Blandino, then senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, said there were long-standing rules against excessive demonstrations (which earned it the “No Fun League” nickname) but penalties were up because “it’s been a point of emphasis.” Hugs and salutes were fine, he said, as were limited dancing and going to the ground in prayer (presumably unless it involved praying for police to stop shooting black people).

In the offseason, however, the league changed course to allow group choreography, props and rolling on the ground. This year has witnessed the Peter Piper dance and an homage to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on Monday Night Football. There’s been faux bench-pressing and fake home run hitting.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now,” Brown enthused in a preseason tweet. Along with other players, Brown (who last year finished in the top five on Dancing with the Stars) previewed possible dance moves on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the season. He helped tout the new dance rules in a Pepsi commercial.

Both freedom of expression in black protest, which has been demonized, and freedom of expression in black dance — which, this year at least, is more OK — have complex and often contradictory messaging. But it all relates to questions of power and control of the black-body politic.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now.” — Antonio Brown

Former NFL Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson has experienced those attempts at control firsthand. In 1996, Johnson was a New York Jets rookie wide receiver when he scored his first NFL touchdown. He ripped off his helmet, spiked the football and started dancing. Teammates joined in celebration and tackled him to the ground. Former quarterback Joe Theismann, then an ESPN analyst, called him a jerk.

Though Johnson never went in for celebration dances after that — he threw balls in the stands until the fines got prohibitive, then just handed the ball to kids in the front row — it wasn’t because of Theismann’s criticism.

“I looked at it as this is a white dude that don’t like a black man doing something totally different than what the narrative is supposed to be, which is you’re supposed to play football and be quiet and be happy,” he said.

A segment of fans will always think celebrations are wrong, Johnson said. “They just think that showboating is basically like clowning.” It takes their mind to “if you celebrate, you’re disrespectful, because they want to control what you do. Part of controlling what you do is, ‘We prefer him to do this versus that.’ ”

When white players perform celebration rituals, they are understood differently, said Johnson. The quarterback position “is dominated by mainly white dudes with the pumping of the fist and the screaming out loud and guys shouting to the air when they throw a touchdown,” Johnson said. Fans and analysts say, “Oh, look at Tom Brady … he’s exuberant. He’s passionate about that throw to [Rob] Gronkowski. You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s celebrating.

The nature of the guys who often take the ball into the end zone contributes to the creativity of the dances, Johnson points out. Wide receivers have to be fast, and speed is its own form of beauty. Receivers are “isolated. They’re the furthest position on offense, detached from their teammates,” said Johnson. They touch the ball less often than running backs and quarterbacks, so when they do get their hands on it, they want to make it count. Plus, “we happen to be, you know, sports car guys. We ain’t no big old truck dude. We ain’t no lineman. You look in the car lot, they’re going to have Bentleys, Ferraris, they’re going to have all that.”

Johnson likes dances being choreographed and creative but with limits on sexual suggestiveness, or implied violence such as throat-slashing. He believes that dances are allowed while protests are contested because of money. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, man. We’ve got to put a stop to this.’ ” He believes in criminal justice reform. “But I also understand Jerry Jones [Dallas Cowboys owner, who threatened to bench players last month who he said “disrespect the flag”] because I, too, am a business owner, so I understand when you start messing with my money. … ”


Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, sees the players’ dance moves — the boasting, mimicry and pantomime, the circle formation, the use of props — as definitive hallmarks of the African-American dance aesthetic.

Dancing and singing were one of the few areas where the dominant white culture allowed the enslaved freedom of expression. Then, of course, blacks got stereotyped as always dancing and singing, said Reece. This contributes to the multiple gazes operating on the field when it comes to football dances.

In one political moment, it’s showboating, overly stylized, expressing individualism at the expense of sportsmanship. (And, as a popular Key and Peele skit suggests, no touchdown dance is complete without at least three pelvic thrusts.)

In another political moment, dance is safe and entertaining — something white folks have historically enjoyed watching happy blacks do. In turn, that sight line evokes minstrel show dancing and “cooning” for white audiences.

The dances “can be spectacle, depending on the arena that it’s in, but the roots of it are quite meaningful and quite rooted in a cultural tradition,” said Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, who says he doesn’t do the latest dances, “the Dougie, or whatever,” sees football players expressing grace, athleticism and even their inner child as they move their bodies to punctuate their joy. But black dance has always been a contested cultural signifier. NFL dances are about rejecting old strictures and reclaiming personal expression. It’s the idea “that you dance in spite of how you’re being perceived because you know the inherent joy in that.” Or, Just because it’s a stereotype, I’m not going to stop eating fried chicken at the company picnic.

The dances are meant to push buttons, Battle said. It’s meant for “the naysayers or the ones that would be threatened. It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened because I’m that damned good!”

Black social dancing has always been an extension of dances that came to the Americas with the enslaved, said Kyle Abraham, artistic director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company and a MacArthur Fellow. “The ways the pelvis is used in the dancing, the way it’s much more grounded, can evoke fear to some but can deliver power to others.”

As for black dance being loaded with shade, Abraham references the cake walk. It was an elaborate, high-stepping prance that began before the Civil War and mocked the high society pretensions of whites and slaveholders, subversively, on the low, to their faces, as they clapped along.

“It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened, because I’m that damned good!”

“There is always a possibility that there is a game being played within a game and that we are actually in control,” said Abraham. “Look at me, I’m entertaining you. Are you entertained? Am I what you want me to be, while at the same time I’m making you notice.”

The handcuffs are off and players are going to want to step up their moves, especially in an age where they can go viral. “Maybe part of this illusion in this modern-day cake walk is that you actually think you have ownership over who I am and how I will be presented … but in actuality, I have full ownership of who I am and how I choose to speak and move and dance. And when I will make those extra 10 yards!” Abraham said.

Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, remembers watching the Houston Oilers’ Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, an NFL dancing pioneer who became legendary for his flapping-leg touchdown celebration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thomas calls Hall of Fame cornerback Deion “Primetime” Sanders, who in the 1990s helped usher in the modern celebrity football player era, his all-time favorite player and dancer and points out that his signature, flashy stiff-arm and high steps mimic movements from Detroit ballroom dancing.

He notes that white players, such as the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and his sack dance, historically have been part of the creative NFL culture. Today, white players have been involved in some fan favorites, including a game of duck, duck goose. Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a serial end zone dancer and originator of Week 9’s potato sack race, one of the season’s best group celebrations.

Although both dancing and protest have gotten attention this year, Thomas contends they occupy separate spaces. Players let you know when they are protesting, he said, and they reserve political acts for certain moments in a prescribed space while keeping the end zone as a “part of the field they are not engaging with social issues.” The exception: “When Odell Beckham Jr. scored a touchdown, went on all fours and raised his leg like he was a dog — and then later said that was in relationship to Donald Trump.”

Reece, the music and performing arts curator, sees multiple narratives “being enacted as we struggle with trying to get beyond the lens of the way that people look at us, and interpret us and define us.”

These will continue to play out as fans struggle, as football players struggle, as the nation struggles with this political moment and the long, complicated history of the black body politic.

Daily Dose: 11/9/17 O.J. Simpson gets kicked out of a Vegas hotel

Thursday was another TV day, so if you get a chance to check out Around The Horn, please do so. I pulled a bit of a prank, so let me know how that goes over.

School shootings are a massive problem in the country. They’re basically everyday occurrences on balance, which overall should scare you very much. Instead of trying to get lawmakers to, you know, help prevent people from getting the types of guns that can kill in mass quantities, we take a different route. Like down in Miami, where a school is offering up “bulletproof panels” for sale to kids to put in their backpacks, in case of a shooting. This is what it’s come to.

KFC thinks they slick. On Twitter, it follows exactly 11 people. If you’re not familiar with its “secret recipe” that includes 11 herbs and spices, where have you been? This is not a reflection on their chicken, which is a whole separate discussion. But, one guy figured out its little social media strategy and it’s actually kind of brilliant. As it turns out, they follow five Spice Girls and six guys named Herb. So, once homeboy cracked the code fast food company hooked him up with a serious gift.

O.J. Simpson is out here wilding. The man who is widely believed to have gotten away with a double murder, then served all sorts of time in prison for an unrelated crime, is now out. And not only is he out, he’s partying with ladies, just like he was before he went to prison. Thursday he got kicked out of a hotel for being drunk in public, which is just an incredibly bad look. I have no idea what the limitations of his parole are, and whether this will send him back to prison. But dude might want to slow down, if he can.

It appears that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott won’t be playing this week. His on-again-off-again relationship with the NFL has now turned into a matter of public ridicule on multiple levels. Another court has decided that he can’t play and his six-game suspension will now be served. Who knows if it will be off again by Tuesday? This case, by the way, has completely sent Cowboys owner Jerry Jones into the next stratosphere with anger. He’s trying to sue the NFL over commissioner Roger Goodell, which we all know is about Zeke.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you don’t know who Masai Uriji is, you should. He runs the Toronto Raptors and he was born in Nigeria, and is largely responsible for the resurgence of that franchise in the NBA. He also happens to be very much a part of trying to grow the game in Africa.

Snack Time: Planes get grounded for a lot of different reasons. But if you’re the dude who gets caught by his wife cheating to the point that they gotta land the plane? My guy, that’s not good.

Dessert: I can’t stop looking at these shoes.