The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

Shaq steps in as a ‘triple threat’ to help Papa John’s reverse course Former NBA star will be the company’s first African-American board member

NEW YORK — Papa John’s has a new face: NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

The perennial All-Star and four-time NBA champion turned television commentator, pitchman and serial entrepreneur is joining the troubled pizza chain as what he calls a “triple threat”: its first African-American board member, a brand ambassador, and part-owner of nine franchises.

O’Neal said he had been in discussion with company officials for several months. He told the chain’s CEO Steve Ritchie, that “The only way I would want to be involved is if you got some diversity in your leadership,” O’Neal told The Undefeated. “He said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’ ”

Not long afterward, O’Neal got a call asking him to join the board of the nation’s third largest pizza delivery chain. “I said, ‘How about a triple threat?’ ” O’Neal recalled. “Board member; I want to invest in stores to show you I’m serious; and, of course, I’ll be an ambassador to the brand.”

O’Neal’s involvement with the company, announced Friday, is a crucial step in Papa John’s efforts to rehabilitate its image after back-to-back racial controversies that crippled sales, depressed its stock price, and eventually upended its leadership.

The turmoil was ignited by company founder John Schnatter, who was also the company’s chief executive, board chairman, and the smiling pitchman known in television commercials as Papa John. In late 2017, Schnatter caused a stir when he blamed a slump in Papa John’s sales on what he saw as the mishandling of NFL player protests by the league.

His objection, while widely shared, was backed not just by people who felt uneasy about players protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. It also drew support from white nationalists and avowed racists, who named Papa John’s their official pizza.

Then, last summer, the company was rocked after it was reported that he had used the N-word on a conference call during a training session. Schnatter said he had used the word not as a slur, but to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, he quickly disappeared from the chain’s television commercials and promotional materials as the company attempted to distance itself from its founder.

Before long, Schnatter was out as CEO and board chairman, too, although he remains the company’s single largest shareholder.

“All of that stuff was uncalled for and unacceptable. It can’t happen,” O’Neal said, adding that the fact “they have new leadership” made him comfortable with being involved with the chain. As a board member, O’Neal said, he hopes to help foster a more inclusive culture in the chain’s corporate offices, where there were also reports of sexual harassment and an otherwise toxic workplace culture.

NBA Hall of Famer and restaurateur Shaquille O’Neal (right) and Steve Ritchie (left), president and CEO of Papa John’s, at the New York Stock Exchange on March 22 after Papa John’s announced that O’Neal will be joining Papa John’s as a member of the company’s board of directors and as an investor in nine Papa John’s restaurants in the Atlanta area.

Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Papa John's International, Inc.

O’Neal plans to appear in television commercials and make public appearances as part of his reported three-year, $8.25 million deal as an ambassador. He also said he intends to be a regular presence at the nine Atlanta franchises where he is now a part-owner.

“I want to be the one to help cultivate a new culture where everyone knows they are loved and respected,” O’Neal said. “I am not to say I am the savior, but this is a great opportunity.”

O’Neal has been involved in a broad range of outside businesses since the early days of his NBA career. He said he always admired former NBA stars who have gone on to business success, including Junior Bridgeman, the former Milwaukee Bucks swingman, who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants, and Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons guard who led a steel company and automotive supplier.

O’Neal said Magic Johnson, whose business interests range from movie theaters and restaurants to owning a slice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged him early on to think about leveraging his basketball career to launch a business career.

O’Neal said he started by buying a book that laid out the basics of business ownership. Since then, he has bought and sold Five Guys franchises, Krispy Kreme stores, and Auntie Anne’s locations, among other businesses. He also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as a piece of the Sacramento Kings.

“I try to draw on lessons from my basketball career in how I approach business,” he said. “I do not micromanage. If I was a leader of a team, I did not try to tell the point guard or power forward how they do their job. In business, just try to set a tone. The customer is always right. Have fun, and make sure the product is good.”

O’Neal earned an estimated $292 million during a 19-year NBA career in which he was heralded as one of the most dominant players in league history. Still, he said, he is equally proud of what he is doing as a businessman.

“I have six children,” he said. “And it is cute that their dad was the Shaq. But it is even cuter if their dad can own Krispy Kreme stores, or car dealerships, or other businesses. I want them to see me as something more than just a great basketball player.”

Why are some whites blind to the humanity of black folks? That inability to embrace the humanity of others is cruel and stupid

Even when I was a child in the 1960s, I wasn’t a big fan of what I’ve been calling the “Kumbaya Yada Yada” for the past 20 years. You know, how we all have to learn to live together, as if all the wise men and women don’t always teach and preach that, as if all the bullies who rise to power don’t ignore that teaching and preaching for as long as they can get away with it.

Still, when my Uncle Sam started to launch into what I thought and feared would be a disquisition on national unity, I leaned in.

Born into a sharecropping family in 1905, Uncle Sammy was short and powerful, a little big man. His movements reflected a lifetime of carrying heavy burdens, from the plantation to the factory floor. He was my daddy’s older brother, and he spoke quickly and in a low voice. He barely opened his mouth when he talked. Yet he expected his listeners to laugh or nod respectfully on cue. Just 9 or 10 years old and sitting in my uncle’s North Philadelphia living room on a Saturday afternoon, I prepared to laugh or nod.

“The trouble with white folks,” my uncle began, “is they don’t understand that black people are people too.” At those words I prepared to tune my uncle out, but with subtlety and respect. I thought but didn’t say, “If white people don’t know black people are people, and often very good people, I wasn’t going to join the effort to persuade them.” After all, generations of black people had sought to make that case, from slavery to a begrudged freedom that folks were fighting to protect and expand, from the picket lines to courthouses.

After all, in my life, spent almost entirely with black people, I’d lived among honest, loving and spiritual people. They paid their bills. They cleaned their streets when the city didn’t. They took care of their grandparents and their grandbabies when they couldn’t take care of themselves. And they prayed, humbly and beseechingly, that their tormentors receive God’s grace and forgiveness.

Consequently, at my uncle’s words, I lifted my gaze from his round and unlined face and glanced at the living room TV. I quickly took my gaze from the TV screen and rested it upon my uncle’s fingers, which, as he talked, traced the words of a newspaper, as if he could receive their wisdom through his fingertips. I returned my gaze to his face and watched his lips move ever so slightly and listened. Then I leaned in some more and tried to catch up to what my Uncle Sam was saying. This all took a few seconds.

My uncle wasn’t singing “Kumbaya.” Instead, at a rapid pace, he was explaining that the fundamental denial of black humanity led America to embrace a cruelty that hit black people first and hardest but ultimately affected and infected the entire society.

Which is to say, the South that he, my father and their father fled between the two world wars was brutal for black people, tarred and feathered with the N-word. But it was no bed of magnolias for the people who were balled up and tossed aside as “white trash” either.

Which is to say, my uncle thought that at one time or the other, almost anybody could be subjected to being treated the way black people are routinely treated in America. Consequently, my uncle wanted white America to understand that the treatment of black people served as a cautionary tale and a warning for the rest of society.

 

Which is to say maintaining a society that’s unjust for many of its people is a dirty job that soils, tarnishes and corrupts everyone.

Which is to say maintaining a society that’s unjust for many of its people is a dirty job that soils, tarnishes and corrupts everyone.

From time to time, I’m reminded of my uncle’s mumbled wisdom, especially when somebody bemoans dishonesty or hypocrisy among high government officials or the absence of decency in the way someone is treated or talked about, especially by someone who is white.

America’s dishonesty and hypocrisy toward the dispossessed, the casual and routine cruelty and disregard for those defined as the other, are not new. They are as old as the broken treaties with Native Americans. It is as old as the slave auction. It is as old as the Japanese internment camps. But so is resistance, resilience and renewal.

If my Uncle Sammy were alive today, perhaps he wouldn’t speak in black and white terms. Since the 1960s, the demographics of the nation have changed so much. And the chorus demanding freedom and respect swells with many voices.

Perhaps today my uncle would decry the general inability of the favored and the privileged in America to understand and respect the humanity of those less favored, whether that privilege is based upon race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, gender or sexual orientation.

That inability to embrace the humanity of others is cruel and stupid. But it is not new. And neither is the solution. Unity is the only way to defeat the bullies and their minions.

As the wise elders say, we have to learn to live together.

Former NFL player Darryl Haley is using his passion for music to help veterans and children His annual event Music at the Monument has a little something for everyone to enjoy

Former NFL linebacker Darryl Haley’s ultimate goal was never to play in the NFL.

“It was to actually get into college,” he said. “Because you have to ask yourself, ‘How am I going to get out of the inner city?’ My feeling was that if I get a shot to go to college, I’m going to do all right. If I can get out of L.A., if I can survive L.A. — which I loved, but nevertheless — I could definitely survive college.”

The youngest of six children, the Los Angeles native finished high school at 15 after taking summer classes and testing out of pertinent subjects. Recruited by several different schools, he chose the University of Utah.

“It was a small enough place that I was able to handle mentally, from a maturity standpoint. Then, once the football thing came around, that, to me, that was natural because at the end of the day, I just can’t get beat.”

As an offensive lineman, he played six seasons for the New England Patriots, the Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers.

Since leaving the game, he’s taken his first love, music, and used it to help military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and school-age children through his nonprofit organization Music at the Monument.

“Music at the Monument started as a music therapy program to assist veterans with PTSD,” Haley said. “We invite people out, agencies, organizations, individuals, to disseminate information or assist in any way they can with veterans with PTSD. They’re really enjoying it, but for us, it’s to create a level of awareness while people are enjoying fabulous music.”

His passion for music started when he was 6 years old.

“My mother always had music playing in the house. She had all different genres of music playing. So whenever you woke up in the morning, you heard music. You heard music throughout the day, then you definitely heard music before you went to bed. So I kind of grew up with music.”

He began to recruit bands to perform all genres of music.

“Everywhere from hip-hop to rock, punk, R&B, bluegrass, jazz, country,” Haley said. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve developed some pretty phenomenal relationships with the catalog. We have about 85 to 100 bands or groups or choirs that will perform at Music at the Monument, so I chose to use my love of music to begin to find a way to give back to our military personnel who are suffering from some of these unseen injuries.”

Haley also works hand in hand with the National Park Service as its ambassador, traveling across the country to national parks and monuments to hold events that bring people together. His efforts aim to encourage those who rarely visit national parks to experience the public spaces and learn about healthy lifestyles.

The former Ironman triathlete also owns and operates a bed and breakfast in Luray, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. The Darryl Haley Bed & Breakfast creates an environment for guests to focus on fun and fitness, providing an opportunity for the former athlete to put his 25 years of personal fitness training experience to use.

In 1989, Haley relocated to the Washington, D.C., metro area. Holding a bachelor’s degree in human kinetics from the University of Utah and earning a degree in computer science from George Washington University, according to his personal website, he began a career after football as a corporate fitness trainer, technology marketing specialist and strategic business development consultant.

While preparing for Music at the Monument, which kicks off May 4, Haley spoke with The Undefeated about music, starting college at 15 and life after football.


When did you go back to your musical roots to start Music at the Monument?

I went back to my music roots once I stopped playing … you begin to understand that freedom is not free. You begin to understand that while you get to go to college, without a care in the world, your tuition’s being paid, all you’ve got to do is books and ball. I began to create and develop and understand more of what was the need of what was going on with our servicemen and women of our U.S. armed forces. The thing becomes, when they’re coming back home, how do we begin to bridge that gap between civilians and our military personnel who are coming back to be reintegrated into our communities.

How does your program provide resources to residents outside of the military?

You begin to get kids involved in symphonic bands. You begin to get kids involved in symphonies and orchestras. Don’t just play music, begin to read music. If you’re reading music, you’re going to understand mathematics; therefore, you begin to go to class. You begin to have this whole new world of reality, of acceptance through music again.

Music is a part of all cultures. Where words fail, music speaks. It’s the medium. Now, for this year, in 2018, as we’ve done over the last five years, we do have symphonic bands who are coming out from high schools. We have the Prep Academies who will be coming out and performing. What we want to do, and our goal, is to give them a platform to perform.

How did you get involved in sports and football?

Football was an interesting start because I was actually a baseball player. I started playing baseball when I was 7, and there were a lot of guys in my neighborhood who all played baseball. You had Darrell Jackson for the Minnesota Twins, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, we all went to the same high school. My junior year going into my senior year, a buddy of mine passed away from diabetes. I swore never to play baseball again. I had never played football, other than flag, so I went out for the football team. I had my baseball spikes on, not knowing they actually had to wear cleats. My thing was, ‘Hey, this ain’t going to be very complicated — the ball moves, I get to hit you,’ and from there, that’s how I started playing.

Then I had a guy who actually hit me and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that can’t happen again.’ My thing was, ‘Let’s play offense.’ And playing offense, playing offensive tackle, I get to move first, I get to deliver the blow first.

How did you manage starting college at the age of 15?

It’s a different kind of thing happening. What I mean by that is, you have some guys who have gone on missions, and so they come back and these guys are 22, 24, 25. Your teammates [are] already married, with a family, and have kids and you’re just kind of going, ‘Wow, OK. This is interesting.’ They’re definitely much more mature, definitely much more mature physically and mentally. But for me, coming out at 15, I was already 6-4, about 250, so my thing was very simple. This is about books and ball. And my thing was, if I stayed focused for the next four years on books and ball, everything else is going to work out. And it did.

Did you experience culture shock?

I wanted to keep my mind open … I’m willing to understand and learn and get out of my comfort zone and be uncomfortable in a place where there is a culture shock. You do get called the N-word. Let’s keep it real for a minute. I’m not going to dwell on that, but it did happen. It wasn’t my problem, it was somebody else’s to have to deal with, because I’m here.

What was your transition into the NFL like for you?

Well, let me say first, Utah back then is not the Utah it is today. Utah is a little bit of a powerhouse. So, back in the day, I’m talking early ’80s, late ’70s, so for me going to school there, again, it was fun. The fact that I did stay focused, when I came out of Utah, I was always rated in the top three linemen in the country. That was really cool.

Then when I got drafted, I got drafted in the second round. The 55th player taken. The phone call came in. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t looking for it, and it was Dick Steinberg on the phone. He said, ‘Hello, Darryl, this is Dick Steinberg and we have just drafted you to the New England Patriots.’ And Ron Meyer was the head coach at the time. I hung the phone up. I thought somebody was playing. I just hung up. I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’

Then, they called back and they said, ‘Nah, this is the real deal.’ Once I got to New England, I fell in love with New England like I did with Utah because then you begin to understand all the different culture and in history.

What did you love most about the NFL?

The camaraderie and the level of competition. The level of competition — on any given Sunday, that is such a true statement — on any given Sunday, you’re lining up against the best of the best. When you line up and say, ‘I’m the best at my position today,’ and then the same person on the other side of the ball is saying the same thing, the level of competition was just absolutely fabulous.

Was it hard to leave the game?

No. Absolutely not. I was not that player who said, football is the beginning, the middle and the end of life. My thing was to always remember where I came from, but was to get in, first, in college, to get an education. Two, get enough years in the National Football League to get vested and have some savings. After that, I felt like I was going to be OK regardless. I just wanted to create enough of a beginning to give myself a start.

When and why did you decide to make D.C. home?

When we used to come here and play against the Redskins. I loved playing against the Redskins because when we played against the Redskins, back in the day, they were that powerhouse. They had the Hogs, they had the defensive line, they had the Three Amigos, they had the Dexter Manleys, the Charles Manns, the Dave Butz, the [Wilber] Marshalls, I mean, they were bringing it all day, every day.

I just thought it was the most exciting, electrifying moment. Then, when I began to understand that, OK, this is also the nation’s capital. You have the White House, you have the Capitol, you have Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial. From the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve got the Jefferson Memorial, the Reflecting Pool. Then you begin to look at it in the sense of our whole culture and history runs right up from the Arlington Cemetery to the Capitol.

Then you begin to understand, everything that happens in the world is coming through Washington. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool spot. I’m going to go back.’

Cosby’s conviction proves a misogynist in a bow tie is still a misogynist He used class as a shield and projected his worst qualities onto poor black people

Bill Cosby’s self-righteous moralizing finally did him in.

In 2009, some five years after he’d delivered his now-notorious “Pound Cake Speech,” Cosby released a rap album: Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency. The purpose of the album was, in Cosby’s words, to “tackle such social issues as self-respect, peer pressure, abuse and education … that doesn’t rely on profanity, misogyny, materialism or ego exercise.” “Pound Cake” with a backbeat, if you will.

Well looky here: Kendrick Lamar has a Pulitzer Prize and Bill Cosby will soon have a prison sentence. At this point (Drake beef notwithstanding), Meek Mill is more of a hero in Philadelphia than Cosby is.

Ain’t that about a bitch?

Cosby, who was convicted Thursday of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, had long been guilty of shaming black people. Especially poor black people, and especially those darn hip-hoppers, with their cursing and their insistence on using the N-word and their baggy pants and their drug-dealing and their hatred of women. To Cosby, this culture was the real problem with black people, not mass incarceration, or racist policing, or discrimination in housing and education, or racist discrepancies in prison sentencing, or the drug war.

At this point, Meek Mill is more of a hero in Philadelphia than Cosby is.

No, it was black people not taking enough personal responsibility.

“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola,” Cosby said in 2004. “People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not ‘You’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No. ‘You’re going to embarrass your family.’ ”

Slipping Quaaludes into women’s drinks is totes better than slinging crack on the corner, right?

His conviction came in part because, in 2015, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno unsealed a 2005 deposition from the civil suit Constand filed against Cosby. The judge’s reasoning? Cosby “has donned the mantle of public moralist and mounted the proverbial electronic or print soap box to volunteer his views on, among other things, child rearing, family life, education and crime. To the extent that defendant has freely entered the public square and ‘thrust himself into the vortex of [these public issues],’ he has voluntarily narrowed the zone of privacy that he is entitled to claim.”

Or, in the far less legalistic words of comedian Hannibal Buress: “Bill Cosby has the f—ing smuggest old black man persona that I hate. He gets on TV: ‘Pull your pants up, black people! I was on TV in the ’80s! I can talk down to you ’cause I had a successful sitcom!’ ”

The conviction came after approximately 60 women had publicly accused Cosby of sexual abuse that spanned decades. It was Constand whose case could be heard, though, because it was one of the few that remained within the statute of limitations. And so this case was not just about her.

It was clear from the way he refused to entertain the questions about the sexual assault allegations against him from an Associated Press reporter in 2014: “No, no. We don’t answer that,” he said, as though the reporter’s question was some gross violation of politesse. Cosby thought he’d ascended to the point that he could rely on the shield of aristocracy: that outward dignity and gentility was — and, perhaps more significantly, should be — enough to deflect attention from internal ugliness. After all, it worked for the Kennedys — just ask Mary Jo Kopechne. Oh wait, we can’t.

At some point, we must acknowledge that the ideas that informed Cosby’s black conservatism and attendant hypocrisy are what uphold a culture of silence around rape and sexual assault on historically black college and university (HBCU) campuses such as Morehouse and Spelman (where Cosby donated so much money he funded a professorship and put his wife’s name on a building). Cosby condescended to poor black people and advanced the idea that higher education — and the education in class and decorum that presumably accompanied it, especially at HBCUs — was the answer to black people’s problems. He never understood that a misogynist in a bow tie is still a misogynist.

When we debated whether it was appropriate for the Smithsonian Institution to display Cosby’s art collection in the National Museum of African Art, what we were really debating was whether it was ethical for an institution to be complicit in upholding this aristocratic contract. That’s why it was significant when colleges and universities began rescinding their honorary degrees and removing Cosby’s name from their edifices. This wasn’t about erasing a man or a legacy. It was about clawing back the cloak of legitimacy he’d used not only to denigrate poor black people but also to win the trust of so many of his victims. After all, Constand met Cosby when she was director of women’s basketball operations at Temple University and Cosby was one of its favored sons.

Cosby is hardly the only self-styled race man with a woman problem. See also: Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and pre-MAGA Kanye West (yes, that would be the same Kanye who tweeted, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” in 2016.)

This week, a different sort of survivor came forward. In an interview with Hollywood Unlocked, singer Kelis alleged that her former husband, Nas, the same man who wrote “I Can,” had been physically and emotionally abusive. For decades, Cosby has been trying, with varying degrees of success, to suggest that misogyny is a problem of less educated, less well-mannered black people. Well guess what, Bill, now you’re in the same boat as R. Kelly and a host of other abusers you’d prefer to sniff at. Happy paddling.

Cosby’s conviction offers some measure of vindication for the five dozen women who have accused him of drugging and/or sexually assaulting them. Finally, a woman got to tell her story to a jury. And finally, she was believed.

But I’m hoping that this week delivers another lesson too. True justice and equality do not mean that wealthy men of color get to behave with the same cavalier disregard for women as their wealthy white counterparts do. True equality is when all abusers, regardless of race, are held to account for their actions and they’re no longer allowed to use class as a shield.

Before season 2 of ‘Atlanta’ kicks off? A spoiler-packed power ranking of season 1’s episodes Swisher Sweets? The Migos? Lemon pepper wet wings?  Which episode was best?

The hiatus lasted well over a year, but the wait is finally, nearly over. Atlanta, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning FX series starring renaissance man Donald Glover (“Earn”), Zazie Beetz (“Van”), Brian Tyree Henry (“Paper Boi”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Darius”), returns Thursday with the premiere of season two. It’s dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” a direct homage to ATL slang for the time of year when robberies tend to increase: during the holiday season.

“You might get your package stolen off your front porch. While we were there, my neighbor got her car stolen from her driveway. It’s a tense … time,” Stephen Glover, executive producer and writer, said at the Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena in January. “Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

There really were no terrible moments from season one — the episodes truly range from “good” to “phenomenal.” That being said, a power ranking is in order. And after reading ours, the real fun arrives with your rankings. Hit us up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and let us know where you stand. Enough talking, though. Without further ado …

10. Episode 4 — “The Streisand Effect”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This is the episode where we meet Zan, the social media troll who gets the best of Paper Boi after a series of tweets, Instagram posts and videos sullying his good name in these Atlanta streets. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that illustrates how much people invest in social media these days. But the true crutch of the episode lies with Darius and Earn.

AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. By ’69, he was already No. 3 on the all-time list. By ’71, he would’ve beat that boy, fa sho. — Darius

Earn needs money because he’s broke (as hell). Darius takes on a journey to get money that involves a thrift store, pawning off a sword, and a Cane Corso dog. The only catch is Earn won’t get the money until September, prompting Earn to utter one of the more sobering realities in the first season: Poor people don’t have time to invest because they’re too busy not trying to be poor. A dope episode, but in comparison to the rest of the episodes — well, someone had to finish in 10th.

9. Episode 1 — “The Big Bang”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This starts out with a bang, quite literally, as Paper Boi shoots a guy who kicked a side rearview mirror from his car. It was an example of how pride becomes the downfall for so many. It’s in this episode that we meet the major players. Earn’s broke and living part time with his girlfriend, Vanessa, and their daughter. Paper Boi is selling drugs and trying to get his rap career poppin’. And Darius is just Darius. And to know Darius is to love Darius. Is Earn opportunistic with regard to trying to get on with his cousin, who has a hit record in the A? Of course he is, but as we’d come to find out, he does have his cousin’s best interests at heart.

On the lowest of keys, though, the best part of this episode is Earn’s reaction to Dave (a white guy) saying the N-word when describing a party he’d attended, and how Earn used the white guy’s ignorance against him and also tried to hustle him out of money to get Paper Boi’s song played on the radio. When asked to tell the same story again, but this time around Paper Boi and Darius, Dave not surprisingly omitted the N-word.

“Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

8. Episode 5 — “Nobody Beats The Biebs”

We have Darius who goes to a shooting range. Everyone looks at him crazy when his target practice is a dog and not a human. He doesn’t understand how shooting a dog is considered inhumane when shooting a human is completely normal. The situation becomes so heated that the owner points a gun at Darius telling him to leave. We could get into a lot of discussion about Darius’ experience in this episode alone — it’s harrowing. At least he made us laugh, though. Meanwhile, across town, Earn and Paper Boi attend a celebrity basketball game. Earn is mistaken by Janice for another black guy she knew (who she says ruined her career). Earn uses the perks for a while.

It’s Paper Boi who is forced to deal with Black Justin Bieber. Now I’m not saying Black Bieber is seeing eye to eye with Dave Chappelle’s “Black Bush” skit, but it’s damn close if it isn’t. We see Black Bieber doing all sorts of outlandish things: urinating in public, mushing a reporter in the face and generally acting out. Everyone thinks it’s adorable. “He’s just trying to figure it out,” the singer Lloyd says in a brief cameo. The twist is, of course, he’s black. Paper Boi and Black Bieber eventually end up fighting, but Black Bieber wins everyone back. He turns his backward cap forward. He apologizes and performs a new song right there at the news conference. Everyone instantly forgives Black Bieber while Paper Boi stands in the back wondering what the hell just happened. It’s an interesting case study: white celebrity behavior vs. black celebrity behavior.

The only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it.

7. Episode 2 — “Streets On Lock”

The criminal justice system is addressed here — in its own special Atlanta way. Earn and Paper Boi are still in holding following the shooting. While Paper Boi is bailed out at the beginning of the episode, Earn is locked up until Van bails him out at the end.

“You been arrested for weed. It’s not that bad, right?” — Earn

“Well, it’s not as good as not getting arrested for weed, man.” — Paper Boi

Earn sees what it’s like from the inside. The arguments, the stories of innocence, the mentally unstable who receive anything but rehabilitation, the violence and even the drama. Earn gets a crash course in the prison-industrial complex. On the outside, Paper Boi and Darius celebrate temporary freedom with a stop at Atlanta’s famed J.R. Crickets, where they’re given lemon pepper wet chicken wings. This episode became such a hot topic that Crickets actually added lemon pepper wet to its real-life menu afterward. Paper Boi also comes to understand how his actions affect the youth: He sees kids playing with toy guns, saying they’re mimicking him — a subtle reference to Tamir Rice.

6. Episode 3 — “Go For Broke”

Or, as it will always be remembered, the Migos episode. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff guest star as dope boys copping work from Paper Boi and Darius. The scene is hilarious, as the two attempt to get out of the situation with both the money and their lives intact. Elsewhere, Earn takes Van out to eat. Earn’s broke, so he’s expecting to see a happy hour menu, only the restaurant has recently been redesigned and everything on the menu is way too rich for Earn’s blood. Thanks to a waitress who upsells him on food and drinks all night, Earn has to call Paper Boi — in the middle of a drug deal, mind you — to wire him money so he can pay for the bill. Earn’s poverty hits home on a spiritual level. Especially when he calls his bank the next morning to report his debit card stolen.

5. Episode 10 — “The Jacket”

Quantrell Colbert/FX

Here’s the thing to know about season one. The first half was dope, but the second half is incredible. So much so that the finale, a great episode that really brings a lot of things into perspective, is only No. 5. Earn loses his jacket at a house party and uses Paper Boi’s Snapchat. He eventually figures out he left the jacket in an Uber. The Big 3 of Earn, Paper Boi and Darius drive out to get it, only to find themselves involved in a police sting that leaves the Uber driver dead — with Earn’s jacket on.

We eventually learn why it was so important to retrieve the coat. Earn is homeless. He needed the jacket because he believed a set of keys were in the pocket. The keys unlocked a storage unit where he was spending many nights. The finale is a power episode about the societal trauma of being black in America. Only hours after the same day they were pulled over by the feds and watched a man die, Earn is cooking for Van and their daughter. Pride, the same pride we saw on display in the first episode, won’t let Earn sleep at Van’s another night without being able to fully provide for his family.

4. Episode 6 — “Value”

Guy D'Alema/FX

Prior to this, we had never seen one character carry an episode. And prior to this, we didn’t really know Van. Much like Earn, Van’s trying to figure out a lot of things. Many of which were only compounded by the most uncomfortable moment of the entire season: her dinner date with old friend Jayde. Van is more of the blue-collar, just-trying-to-provide-for-my-daughter type, while Jayde is the type to post her meals on Instagram and “date” NBA and NFL players. After a falling-out at dinner, the two make up and get high at the top of a parking deck.

That’s all well and good, but Van has a drug test the next day. The most unusual and surreal scene of the entire season is Van frantically searching for clean urine — going so far as to slice open her daughter’s dirty diapers to get it. She goes full Breaking Bad in the kitchen, and it works — until it doesn’t. Van gets all the way to the goal line and fumbles. The condom with the urine, literally, pops in her face. She admits to smoking weed. She’s fired. And now both parents are without a source of consistent income. If she wasn’t already, Van instantly became a fan favorite after this episode. Sometimes you just have to get high to funnel out the nonsense in your life. And sometimes you do have to go to desperate measures to pass a drug test.

3. Episode 9 — “Juneteenth”

A lot of people put this in their top two — and I’m not mad at that. The episode starts off with Earn waking up beside another woman, only to realize he’s late to meet up with Van. She picks him up outside the unnamed woman’s apartment and the two ride off, in virtual silence, to a Juneteenth party her ostentatious friend Monique is throwing with her annoyingly hilarious white husband who’s too woke for his own good.

Van and Earn front like they’re married in an effort to look better in front of new company. But it’s impossible in a house full of characters — and a house full of black workers. In fact, the only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it. The couple is outed when two valets recognize Earn as Paper Boi’s manager. Monique frowns upon his line of work, causing Craig to check Monique, but by then it’s too late. Earn leaves in disgust with Van not far behind. The lesson? Never sell your soul for an opportunity that wasn’t meant for you to begin with.

Fun Fact: If you go back and watch the episode, you’ll find Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! album cover in Craig’s study. We just didn’t know what it was at the time.

2. Episode 8 — “The Club”

Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

Now if we’re talking my favorite episode, it’s this one. Classic Atlanta in every sense of the words. The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun. The celebrities are paid to be there. For those in gen pop (aka, non-VIP) it’s all a game of territory — sections are the highest form of real estate, and bottles are the highest form of cultural currency. Everyone’s just trying to one-up each other.

“F— the club!” — Paper Boi

We really remember this episode for three solid reasons. One, for Marcus Miles’ invisible car. Two, for Earn’s unsuccessful attempt to get their club appearance money from a snake promoter (and then Paper Boi roughing up that same party promoter). And three, for Darius leaving the club after he wasn’t allowed back in the same section the bouncer saw him leave. Darius played the situation perfectly. He went home to eat cereal and play video games.

The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun.

1. Episode 7 — “B.A.N.”

An episode so good that even the commercials, in actuality part of the episode, deserve their own separate piece. Seriously, the Swisher Sweets and Dodge Charger commercials made this an instant classic in black television history. As for the episode itself, Paper Boi sits down with Dr. Debra Holt on Black American News’ Montague. After some comments he made on Twitter about Caitlyn Jenner, Paper Boi is accused on the show of being transphobic. He claims he isn’t, saying he doesn’t have anything against the community. Although he’s accused of it, Paper Boi says he never said the trans community shouldn’t have rights. But he finds it hard to fully support that community’s call for freedom when people who look like him are still fighting for theirs. Much to the chagrin of the host, the two come to an understanding.

The “trans-racial” story runs away with MVP honors in this episode as it follows Antoine Smalls, an obviously black male who identifies as Harrison Booth, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. He’s invited on the show, where he quickly shocks the host and guest. Smalls says he feels deeply ridiculed by black people for not being more understanding of his lifestyle. But he’s also quick to call gay marriage an “abomination.” The hypocrisy is enough to send an already tickled Paper Boi over the edge in laughter, while Montague and Dr. Holt are left to wonder, whereas the rest of us knew, almost as soon as the credits began rolling — this was Atlanta’s magnum opus.

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

Chris Archer: A letter to my parents The Rays ace looks back with gratitude at his childhood home, where he learned to love himself and to embrace the differences in others

The setting is a playground in Clayton, North Carolina, in the early 1990s. We’re playing dodgeball during an outdoor recess in grade school, and I’m on a roll. I nail a kid — as well as any first- or second-grader could — to eliminate him from the game, and, as he walks defeated off the field, he looks back at me and shouts the words that rock me to my core: “I don’t care that you beat me, blackie!”

I stopped dead in my tracks, confused and shaken. To this very day, I vividly remember looking skyward while trying to internalize what he had just said. I asked myself, “Is this really how people see me?”

That was the precise moment that I realized I was black. And by the time I had looked down, I realized that color was now a part of my life that I could not avoid.

Sure, being black was always physically part of my life, but, until that grade school day, I had never seen myself as physically different or faced obstacles despite my slightly darker pigmentation (the result of my white biological mother and my black biological father).

I never knew color because the love my de facto parents — who were technically my white biological grandparents and raised me since birth — enveloped me with was all the unconditional love a child could ever need.

From as young an age as I can remember, my parents Ron and Donna always championed the fact that I, and frankly everybody in the world, was different. My mom was especially proactive and would always say, “Chris, what makes you different is what makes you unique, so embrace that.”

Whether my parents were doing it consciously or subconsciously, they were unquestionably preparing me for obstacles that might arise living in North Carolina in that era.

But, at a young age, I honestly never saw any difference between myself and my parents. And as I got older, even as I began to realize my differences, I was never judgmental of other people’s race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And that was largely because of where and how I was raised.

On our cul-de-sac, we had a Mormon family. Between our house and the Mormon family was a lesbian couple. Directly across the street was a gay male couple.

Sure, that’s a lot of differences on the surface. Yet we didn’t see it that way.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

We hosted group dinners together, went to church together and had family gatherings together. And while I, the only black kid in the neighborhood, didn’t grow up on a street that was racially diverse, I did understand early in life that we are all just people despite whatever our differences may be.

As I grew older and entered my adolescent years, I was fortunate to live a life where I experienced very little racial strife and tension, which can be especially rare growing up in the South.

That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in my adolescent life, though.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent a lot of time with this girl at school and around town. We texted back and forth for a few months, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask her if I could come over to her house to kick it.

The girl was white, and I’ll never forget her response: “My dad said that I’m not allowed to hang out with N-words, or have a boyfriend that is a N-word.”

The way she said it was a little too casual, just like when the grade school dodgeball victim called me “blackie.” And just like that little boy, this girl was unfortunate to have grown up in an environment where someone else shaped her views about race and culture.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

Fortunately, I grew up in an “embrace all” environment that my parents provided me, and participation in youth sports afforded me the opportunity to make friends of all different races. Youth sports also exposed me to a particularly special high school coach, Ron Walker. Ron, who is black, welcomed me and my parents into his family, and their support allowed me to connect with a part of my black heritage and culture that was needed in my life.

You may be asking yourself, “But why was this connection needed?”

The answer:

Even to this day, regardless how welcoming I am of all people, certain people in this world will also see me in a certain light — a biracial man. That’s just a sad reality.

But it’s a reality that doesn’t change my mindset toward people who look at me that way. I embrace being biracial. I enjoy interacting with people of all different beliefs. And I most certainly accept people of different beliefs for who they are — not what they are.

I hold no grudge toward that kid on the grade school playground. And I don’t fault my sophomore year crush for the comment that ended our relationship. They didn’t know what they were saying carried so much hate. They unfortunately grew accustomed to those beliefs in the environment they were raised in, and they were simply regurgitating what their household environment passed on to them.

I just wish they could have grown up in a house and environment like mine. A house where my parents endlessly nurtured me, where they showered me with love, and where, despite my “differences,” showed me and my surrounding environment total acceptance regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And for that, I have three words for my parents:

I love you.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”