Kevin Hart’s health is no laughing matter. So much of his comedy is rooted in self-deprecation about his own physicality: he’s a 5-foot-4-inch man who makes you laugh even before he says a word. Especially if he’s paired up with a hulk of a man like say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the two of them together usually translate into cinematic gold. Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released on Dec. 20, 2017, has now “earned $377 million in North America, and has topped $904 million globally … [Jumanji] is now Sony’s second-biggest global grosser of all time, between Spider-Man 3 ($890m in 2007) and Skyfall ($1.1 billion),” according to Forbes.
Two years ago, Hart broke ground as the first comedian to partner with a major footwear and apparel company on a cross-trainer. Armed with a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike, his Hustle Harts are meant to inspire; he wants to help people find their inner athlete — everyday folks who didn’t think they had it in them. Just like him, at one point.
Now, Hart is one of the fittest men in Hollywood, sharing his journey via his social media outlets, including an impressive New York City marathon finish in four hours, five minutes, six seconds back in November — and, ahem, he bested former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber. Bragging rights for years.
Hart figures he’ll do a few more marathons before it’s all said and done. It’ll help him keep up his breakneck schedule: a new digital series, Cold As Balls, more films, production deals and of course, a rigorous stand-up comedy touring schedule is on deck. Because the last thing he wants to ever do again is fall asleep on stage (more on that, later). We talk.
You’re coming off of Jumanji, one of the most successful films of last year, and you’re getting ready to get back on the road. Why is it so important for you to continue to stay out there?
I’m a comedian first. This is my craft, what I started as. And I built this big thing, and this big thing opened up a door to get me to another big thing. But if I forget about this first big thing, these doors could start to close. So, I’m very adamant about staying on course. Stand-up is not only what I love, but … it’s what the world needs. People love to laugh.
You’re also an athlete — not sure if people really understand that. You run marathons, you have a shoe endorsement deal. How do you use and channel that competitiveness into this world of Hollywood?
Here’s the beauty of it: You get one life. And that one life, you got a choice to make. Do I want to live this life to the fullest and do I want to maximize my full potential while I’m on this earth? If I do, what does that entail, what does that mean? What am I going to do? That means I’m going to put absolutely all of my energy into my craft. I’m going to put it into becoming the best possible man that I can be. If I do that correctly, when it’s all said and done, and I look back at it, the story of who I am should be an amazing story.
The story of your life?
What can I accomplish along the way? That’s how I look at it. So, when you’re talking about partnerships, when you’re talking about my career — you’re talking about goals. You’re talking about the athletic side — all of it fits within the story of Kevin Hart. That’s all I want. I want my kids to be able to go back and look at that and go, “Man, dad was cool.” That’s it.
You’ve been grinding it out for a long time and at a certain point, it’s easy to lose that hunger, but you’ve never lost it. It’s only increased. How is that?
I don’t do anything halfway. I don’t want to sign on a for a moment. I don’t need a check. That’s not what I’m here for. I want to be a part of something special. I want to build something. I want to do something that hasn’t been done. That’s how I take on everything. The day you lose that hunger, is the day it closes, and somebody comes up that has it. It’s not guaranteed that I sit in the seat I’m in, or that I’m going to be here forever. The day that you get comfortable and you expect things to stay the way they are is the day they change. I stay hungry as if I have nothing.
Let me tell you what looks really uncomfortable: Cold as Balls. Where the hell and why the hell did that concept come up?
The endgame, when it’s all said and done for me, is going to be a talk show. When my knees hurt, and my arches are bad … I’m just going to have to sit still. And I think being a talk show host of some kind, being able to have the conversations with the people that I want to talk to … it’s something I know will be good. So, Cold As Balls is a way for me to tiptoe in that just to see how it would be … The questions I’m asking may make [my guests] uncomfortable — may not — but the personality ultimately drives the conversation. And that’s why you’ve been seeing a lot of funny interviews. They’re coming out really, really good. I’m happy.
You didn’t play in the celebrity game at NBA All-Star this year, but there was a moment where the thing people thought about Kevin Hart wasn’t athlete. Initially when you started playing in NBA Celebrity games people were probably like, “Oh. The funny guy who’s short is going to play in the basketball game.” And then of course, you dominated.
Damn right I did!
But you actually train — who is Kevin Hart the athlete?
Kevin Hart the athlete is a guy that just fell in love with the idea of giving myself a long time to live. When I looked at it, I lost some family members. I lost friends to just simple health issues. From severe heart attacks to strokes. High blood pressure that’s gotten crazy to where it’s flipped a person’s life upside down, to where that person can’t even maneuver the way they want to maneuver. When you look at the effect that just not taking care of yourself can have on you as a person. These are things that I think you don’t believe until you get hit with it. There was a point in time when I was younger [and] you couldn’t tell me that drinking and driving was as bad as everybody said it was … but I got a DUI at one point, and I said, “Oh, my God! Oh s—! I could have died. I could have hurt somebody.” The reality hit … So, I decided to choose a healthy road. That person that you’re defining as an athlete is really a person that’s just trying to stay healthy. I put a large demand on my body. You know, 14, 15 hours a day consistently. If I’m not taking care of myself, there’s no way that I can do that at a high level. It’s impossible.
Was there a point where you started shifting? Was it like five years ago?
There was a point that I was on stage — this is a true story — I fell asleep on stage one time. Nobody noticed. It’s a real story. I was literally performing, and like, you know, I’m up every day, but I’m drinking, I’m eating fast food, everything. And there was a moment we’re on stage, and I stopped, and in the middle of a joke, I fell asleep. It was like a good 30 seconds. And I woke up and I was like, “Yeah, man.” And I got right back to the set. And I was like, “Oh s—!” I just. I didn’t pass out. I really just fell asleep.” I was like, “What the f—?” I remember being so in shock at that moment, and then I remember I went and I looked at my data, and I was like, I’ve been eating cheeseburgers and cheesesteaks and fries all day, and I get on stage, I’m giving like a half of a show. It’s like I’m sluggish, farting all on stage. Come on, Kevin. What are you doing, Kevin? Have you ever had that conversation, you had to really talk to yourself?
I’m having it right now!
Listen, I really was in the mirror and I was like, “Kevin, what the — come on, man. Look at you, Kevin.” And I really had a moment where I was like, “Nah. This isn’t, it can’t be like this.” Not if I’m supposed to give these people a show at a very high level every night. Not if I got to be on set and I’m supposed to be acting at a very high level every single day. Not if people are depending on me every single day. I got to make sure that I’m doing it to the best of my ability. And I don’t want people to think that when they read this that that means that should be your thing, too. I think that when I say that, it’s also a heavy mental thing. So, for anybody out there, this is you understanding that, “Hey, you know what? Let me make sure that I’m taking care of me.” There’s different levels to taking care of yourself. I’m a little extreme with it. That doesn’t mean everybody else should be extreme. There’s levels, but I think when you have that mentality, when you’re aware, you’re OK. Just don’t not be aware. That’s my piece of advice to any and everybody. Because when it smacks you, and then you go, “Oh, oh, what? Huh? I got to lose my foot?” People really don’t understand that’s how fast the reality is. It’s not a, “Oh, you get a warning.” It’s like ‘Heart attack! Oh, s—! I almost died!”
That’s very real.
I saw it firsthand. So that’s where the athlete, that’s where the healthy guy, that’s where the running the marathons comes from. And then there’s a piece of wanting to achieve greatness in there, too. Do you know the percentage of people in the world that have run a marathon? This is going to blow your mind.
Hit me with it.
It’s under 5 percent of the world.
So out of how many billion people, under 5 percent have actually ran a marathon. I want to be in that 5 percent … the marathon, I’m going to try to do five.
Chasing personal greatness is part of the Kevin Hart story.
This is all a part of the story. The goal is while I’m on tour, I’m trying for a marathon, I’m going to be filming a movie at the same time. So, the goal is to consistently keep it up, and then I think I run the marathon in October. So, that would be checked off the list. I don’t want to fall asleep on stage.
What has to happen in 2018 for you to say, that you outdid yourself this year?
I’m already trying to lay out 2019. The tour goes into 2019. It has to be the biggest tour ever in comedy … what’s my total number of specials that I want to do? George Carlin did 10. I’m on No. 6. I’ve got work to do. When it’s all said and done, what’s my catalog going to look like? What’s my movie catalog going to look like? Am I going to do more dramas? More animation? I’m producing stuff now. My company is part of me, with studios, it doesn’t stop. It literally just continues to grow and grow. Just a little Energizer Bunny.
LOS ANGELES — The hottest stars on the planet, from the worlds of basketball, entertainment and fashion, descended upon the City of Angels for the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And they brought the hottest shoes they could get on their feet. The festivities of the weekend — from pop-ups from the biggest brands in the sneaker industry to spontaneous concerts to the celebrity all-star games, the actual NBA All-Star Game, and even the lead-up practices — was a cultural explosion when it came to sneakers. These are the top 24 (shout-out to the greatest No. 24 in L.A. history, Kobe Bryant) pairs we saw at All-Star Weekend, along with the stars who made them shine.
— NBA (@NBA) February 17, 2018
— SoleCollector.com (@SoleCollector) February 18, 2018
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 18, 2018
— NBA (@NBA) February 19, 2018
LeBron James was named the MVP of the All-Star Game, and we’re also declaring him sneaker MVP of the weekend. Heading into practice before the game, he debuted a low-top version of his Nike LeBron 15, as well as a red, white and blue player exclusive (PE) edition of his first signature sneaker, the Nike Air Zoom Generation. On Instagram he broke out another Air Zoom Generation PE — this one designed with black pony hair and a glow-in-the-dark sole. His pregame All-Star shoes were a custom pair of “More Than An Athlete” Air Force 1s — a nod to the recent critical comments about the world’s greatest basketball player from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. And last but not least, on the court at Staples Center during the All-Star Game, he rocked a regal pair of Nike x KITH LeBron 15 PEs, featuring rose and vine stitching and gold embellishment fit for a king. God bless Nike, KITH and James for delivering all this heat.
Took care of @QuavoStuntin with custom Huncho Curry 4s and Culture Brons for each half of the Celebrity All Star game this weekend. Thanks to @MrBrando3 and the @FinishLine family for tagging in for this one. #AllStarWeekend pic.twitter.com/nzpdlxWDvH
— Mache Custom Kicks (@MACHE275) February 16, 2018
Quavo took home the trophy as MVP of the NBA’s Celebrity All-Star Game after balling out in not one, but two pairs of custom kicks. With the help of Finish Line, and famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache, the rapper a part of the hip-hop trio Migos wore Nike LeBron 15s and Under Armour Curry 4s, both of which were inspired by the supergroup’s No. 1 album Culture II. We caught up with Mache, who discussed his process of bringing the specially designed “Culture Brons” and “Huncho Currys” to life.
From afar, it looked like pop star Justin Bieber was wearing a pair of Off-White Air Jordan 1s while running up and down the court in the Celebrity All-Star Game. But actually, he donned the Fear of God All-Star Pack, crafted by L.A.-based designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former Major League Baseball player and coach Jerry Manuel).
Odell Beckham Jr.
Customization was a theme of the weekend, especially for Nike. And one of the brand’s biggest athletes, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., couldn’t leave L.A. without getting in the lab and getting his custom on. The end product? A red pair of OBJ Air Force 1s, which he swagged with a red and white Supreme x Louis Vuitton shoulder bag on the sidelines during the All-Star Game.
Kanye West made a surprise appearance at Adidas’ #747WarehouseSt in his “Blush” Yeezy Desert Rat 500s. The shoes were also available at the event to the public in limited quantities through a raffle. Shout-out to everyone who got a pair.
— Xbox (@Xbox) February 16, 2018
It’s been the year of the Air Jordan 3, and Xbox is riding the wave. On Feb. 16, the video gaming brand announced that three limited-edition consoles — inspired by the “Black Cement,” “Free Throw Line,” and “Tinker Hatfield” 3s — will be given away to three fans through a Twitter sweepstakes taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 21.
Grammy Award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar took the stage at Nike’s Makers Headquarters on Feb. 17 in his newly dropped Cortez Kenny IIs. An iconic L.A. shoe for an iconic L.A. native.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan
— UNDEFEATED (@UNDEFEATEDinc) February 17, 2018
— 2018 NBA All-Star (@NBAAllStar) February 18, 2018
— UNDEFEATED (@UNDEFEATEDinc) February 19, 2018
Nike x UNDEFEATED have the collaboration of the year so far, with the Zoom Kobe 1 Protros that were released to the public in a camouflage colorway at an exclusive pop-up in L.A. during the weekend. Toronto Raptors star, and Compton, California, native DeMar DeRozan wore a mismatched pair of the Protros — one green camo shoe and one PE red camo shoe — during the All-Star Game. We also saw pairs of PEs from Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the Celebrity All-Star Game, and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the 3-point shootout.
— J23 iPhone App (@J23app) February 17, 2018
Yes, that is Usher wearing a pair of Air Jordan 5s, signed by Tinker Hatfield, the greatest designer in the history of sneakers.
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) February 16, 2018
Portland Trailblazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard is endorsed by Adidas and is a huge fan of the Japanese streetwear brand BAPE. So this weekend, he brought us the BAPE-inspired Adidas Dame 4 in camo, red and black. Simply beautiful.
— KicksOnFire (@kicksonfire) February 18, 2018
There have been reports for quite some time that Nike and Kyrie Irving would be coming out with a new and affordable basketball shoe separate from his signature line. It appears to have arrived. On the practice court before the All-Star Game, Irving broke out the unnamed sneakers, which honor the Boston Celtics with the words “Boston” and “Pride” featured on the outsoles, as well as the years of Boston’s championships on the laces. Look for this shoe to eventually drop at rumored retail price of about $80.
One pair of Dwyane Wade’s Li-Ning All-Star Way of Wade 6s, which were unveiled and presented to fans in limited-edition fashion through a raffle on Feb. 17, went to this little girl. What a moment.
LOS ANGELES — At the intersection of hoops and hip-hop, one thing has always been the case. “We all think we supposed to be in the league,” the legendary MC Snoop Dogg professes, “just like all NBA players think they supposed to be rappers.”
So the godfather of West Coast rap approached Adidas about creating a special event for 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And at #747WarehouseSt — the brand’s two-day All-Star experience, which mixes fashion, sport and music — his vision came to life, via the first annual East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop celebrity game. The two teams featured only artists, and were coached by none other than Snoop and Atlanta hip-hop star 2 Chainz.
“What happened was, I was sitting back at home watching the [official] celebrity game, trying to figure out a way to put something together … where we could have a good time, and it was only rappers,” said Snoop at news conference before Friday’s game — which he pulled up to an hour late with his fellow coach 2 Chainz, who came with a lit blunt in hand as well as his 4-year-old French Bulldog, Trappy Doo. “So I hit my nephew 2 Chainz up, and told him what I was thinking. He came in with a few ideas, and we matched these ideas together.”
— Aaron Dodson (@aardodson) February 16, 2018
Snoop’s roster boasted the likes of David Banner, Chris Brown, K Camp, Chevy Woods, and himself, of course, while 2 Chainz rolled with a squad that included Trinidad James, Young M.A., Wale and Lil Dicky. Originally listed as a player for the East squad, Quavo of the Migos pulled out at the last minute to take his talents to the NBA’s official Celebrity All-Star Game, during which he dazzled the crowd with an MVP performance.
“My roster was based sheerly off the way artists walked. If you’re onstage going back and forth, there’s a sort of athleticism to it,” said 2 Chainz, who served as strictly the coach of the East, having broke his leg last July. Snoop’s general manager skills followed a more traditional scouting approach. “A lot of the people on my team, I played with him, or I’ve played against them, in [other] celebrity games,” he said. “I’m just a fan of rappers that love the ball.”
— adidas (@adidas) February 17, 2018
The rappers-turned-hoopers took to the multicolored court, named after Pharrell, in custom Adidas jerseys that all appropriately featured the word “Rapper” on the back. Actor/comedian Michael Rapaport and rapper Fat Joe served as the AND1 Mixtape-inspired on-court commentators of the contest, from which Snoop’s West team emerged victorious. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. even made an appearance on the court. He’s a Nike-endorsed athlete, but on this afternoon, he couldn’t resist experiencing this cultural moment, brought to the people by Adidas.
MINNEAPOLIS — Despite freezing weather, football fans crisscrossed the Twin Cities for some spectacular nightlife. There were some dynamic and exclusive events, parties and concerts before what ended up being the Philadelphia Eagles upsetting the New England Patriots 41-33. If you were in the right places, you could catch Jamie Foxx playing waiter and Shaquille O’Neal doing his DJ thing. Justin Timberlake ended up drawing mixed reviews for his official halftime show, but Minneapolis, on the nights before the big game? Jennifer Lopez and Pink lit up the same venue, albeit it on different nights. And new superstar Cardi B graced the Super Bowl festivities. So much to do. Not enough time to do it all. I have no idea how my colleague and friend Kelley L. Carter maintains this pace. A quick look at some of what went down in these parts.
Leigh Steinberg’s 31st annual Super Bowl party – The longtime NFL agent who served as the model for Tom Cruise’s fictional character in Jerry Maguire was at it again, delivering one of the week’s best parties. Steinberg uses his platform to honor NFL professionals for their charitable work, as well as to introduce his upcoming draft class, which includes University of Southern California running back Ronald Jones II. The elusive runner could be a high pick. Rookie Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was in attendance. With the trade of veteran quarterback Alex Smith from Kansas City to the Washington Redskins last week, Mahomes will begin his second NFL season as Kansas City’s first-string passer. NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson was in the packed house as well.
EA Sports Bowl – The most interactive event of the week. Guests waited turns in front of massive screens to play the hottest games. It was a great way to get pumped before Imagine Dragons took the stage.
The 2018 Maxim party – Is there any performer on the planet hotter than Belcalis Almanzar? Just hearing that Cardi B is scheduled to perform is enough to get most people to jump into an Uber. Shoot, it was enough for me.
Pink – The lady is a trouper. Although battling the flu, Pink put on a good show earlier in the week and delivered a strong, efficient rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before kickoff. Props.
J. Lo – Lopez always has high-energy shows. Last week was no exception.
The 6th Annual Big Game Experience – The daylong festivities began with a luncheon and Q&A session about, among other topics, life in the sports media game. Hosted by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Samantha Ponder, the session also included Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, Ray Lewis (a member of the 2018 Hall of Fame class) and Minnesota Vikings star wide receiver Adam Thielen. Much later, after a dinner, Foxx jumped onstage and went to work. The Academy Award and Grammy winner handed out late-night snacks and drinks. Then O’Neal, the 15-time NBA All-Star and four-time NBA champion, showed off his DJing skills.
Tiki Barber and Drew Rosenhaus – Barber, the former New York Giants Pro Bowl running back, teamed with Rosenhaus, among the NFL’s most successful agents, to throw a well-attended bash. Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden, Kansas City Chiefs star wideout Tyreek Hill and former NFL passer Charlie Batch were among those who joined in the fun.
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”
It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.
Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”
A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.
Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.
And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.
“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”
True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.
No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.
Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.
“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”
The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.
“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”
Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”
Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”
But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”
— Blue Dragon Sports (@bluedragonsport) November 12, 2014
Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”
It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.
It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”
“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”
At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”
Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”
Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”
Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?
Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”
Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.
“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy. … He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”
Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.
Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.
“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.
Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”
And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”
He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.
It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.
It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”
After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”
Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.
So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.
“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.
“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”
A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”
Sometimes one’s dreams for success come true in completely unexpected ways.
Such was the case for athlete-turned-actor LaMonica Garrett.
The high school quarterback was a standout. He went on to junior college and landed a scholarship to Central State in Ohio. Now, however, Garrett is not gracing a field but the screen as Secret Service agent Mike Ritter on ABC’s political drama Designated Survivor.
The series centers on a lower-level U.S. Cabinet member who is suddenly appointed president of the United States after a catastrophic attack kills everyone above him in the presidential line of succession. Garrett shines as the man charged with protecting the new president in the wake of the unprecedented bombing. To prepare for the role, he spent time choppin’ it up with the Secret Service detail from then-President Barack Obama’s staff.
“I always knew that I wanted to act, but I had an equal passion for football too,” said Garrett. “I grew into middle linebacker, where I got my first looks from team scouts. Central State’s Pro Day the year before had Hugh Douglas [New York Giants defensive end], who became the Defensive Rookie of the Year, so the following year, half the NFL came out to find the next Hugh Douglas. I worked out for a couple of teams and tried out again the next year, but it didn’t work out, so I realized my football career wasn’t going to go any further.”
Garrett’s dream was to play football for six or seven years and move straight into acting.
“I trained with a few NFL teams, but it didn’t work out, so that just moved up my timeline to pursue acting.”
Garrett was named after football legend Daryle LaMonica. His athletic skills would take him to Central State, where he played two seasons as linebacker and left college early to pursue an NFL career. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, the San Francisco native signed up for acting classes. He worked as a FedEx driver during that time, and coincidentally, his route included the Warner Bros. lot.
He made a detour in his acting career when he fell into the sport of slam ball, where he competed globally. However, coming full circle, he shortly landed a three-episode guest role as a slam ball antagonist on the television show One Tree Hill. And since then, he’s been laser-focused on acting and getting gigs in television and film, including Sons of Anarchy, NCIS, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Daddy’s Home, to name a few.
Ahead of hitting the gym, Garrett caught up with The Undefeated.
What did you learn about yourself playing Mike Ritter in Designated Survivor?
Mike Ritter is disciplined and his fortitude is compassion. I see a lot of that in myself. I’m learning from him as well as finding out different things about myself. When you’re reading and researching your character, you sometimes begin to identify more than you realize. As actors, you can’t really judge the character. You just have to tell the story.
How did you prepare for that role?
We took a trip to the White House last October and I got to meet some of the Secret Service detail that was on President Barack Obama’s staff. It was great picking their brains firsthand. It doesn’t get better than that.
You starred in the short film The Duke, that tells the story of J.P. Duke, who suffered multiple concussions in the NFL. What are your thoughts on concussions and the NFL?
CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] is troubling. Finding out what the NFL knew before they disclosed it … it’s just not good business or good ethics. Give the players the chance to make their own decision with all of the information. I’m sure a lot of them will still play, but you just have to be upfront with people. There shouldn’t be any gray area for health care for former football players, either. They should be taken care of for the rest of their lives no matter what. It should just be automatic. This applies for veterans too that are coming back from the war. There shouldn’t even be a discussion.
Who is your favorite athlete of all time?
What surprised you most about acting that you had to overcome?
I grew up in a strong military house, so we weren’t really taught vulnerability. It was, ‘Are you hurt or injured, suck it up,’ ‘Don’t cry or show pain.’ Because of that, the hardest hurdle for me was to become vulnerable with myself. If you don’t know yourself, how can you jump into someone else’s skin and portray them on camera? It was a deep study of self and that was probably the most challenging for me. But acting classes really helped me with that.
How did you find inspiration as a FedEx driver?
Everyone loves the FedEx guy. Whenever I would come on set for a delivery, the prop guys and set designers would invite me to have lunch. I didn’t really tell any of the folks on set that I wanted to be an actor. In my head, I felt like they might look at me funny. I just kept it to myself, but I was still very inspired by just being in that environment.
Sometimes I’d see some of my buddies from acting class who would have a guest role on shows like The Jamie Foxx Show. It pushed me even harder. You see it and know it’s attainable. It’s so close, yet so far. But I knew if I stuck around long enough and put in the work, I’d get my shot.
How did you like your first acting gig with One Tree Hill as a slam ball athlete?
I fell into slam ball by accident because initially I thought it was an audition for a TV show, but instead it was for a traveling team. Apparently, I still had this inner competitiveness and athleticism that I didn’t have out of my system yet. We played in different cities and overseas, so that put my acting career on hold.
One Tree Hill was doing a three-episode arc with one of their lead characters who joined slam ball, so they needed a slam ball player who would be the antagonist. They were about to audition different actors and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve taken acting classes. Give me a shot!’ They let me audition and I got it. After shooting, I told slam ball I was done, signed up for another acting class and began booking more and more acting gigs.
How did playing football help you with acting?
Not to take criticism to heart, because it can be constructive if you use it the right way. I always say that it’s OK to have a chip on your shoulder as long as it’s constructive. Tom Brady still finds a way to motivate himself; Michael Jordan did too, even late in his career because of that constructive chip on his shoulder.
How do you make time to work out while filming?
I take advantage of days off. Days that I’m working, I’ll hit the gym for no more than an hour. Days that I’m not too busy, I’ll go to yoga too. It keeps me balanced and anchors me.
Who is your favorite superhero?
John Stewart, the Green Lantern. As a kid, I gravitated toward him because he was a normal guy just like Bruce Wayne as Batman and Peter Parker as Spiderman. I felt like I could be any of those superheroes by either finding a ring that gave me powers, becoming rich and buying cool tech or getting bit by a spider and getting spidey powers. All of that seemed attainable because I wasn’t from Krypton like Superman or Asgard like Thor.
How do you give back to Los Angeles?
My friend and I run a program in L.A. where we act as big brothers to kids who don’t have both parents in their life. We take them out, play ball and just become a familiar male figure in their lives. It’s very fulfilling.
Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.
Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.
“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”
Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.
Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys
In 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria.. 2017 & more than 100 still in captivity. In Africa, issues rarely get attention or resolved. W Libya slave trade going on and girls still missing, I wanted to bring awareness & honor efforts for change in Africa. #MyCauseMyCleats pic.twitter.com/py4HrI7IDt
— Chido (@ChidobeAwuzie) December 1, 2017
Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign
Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers
Cause: Fender Music Foundation
Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) November 28, 2017
A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
At an early age, @AJBOUYE21 lost his mother to cancer.
— #Sacksonville (@Jaguars) November 28, 2017
Cause: American Cancer Society
Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Designer: Corey Pane
Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 28, 2017
Meet the kid designers behind Kurt Coleman's #MyCauseMyCleats
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 1, 2017
Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital
Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs
Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers
A lot of kids experience being bullied; with #MyCauseMyCleats I want to raise more awareness on this issue. I'm asking you all to join me in putting an end to bullying!#GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/JsXpjysPQU
— Mike Daniels (@Mike_Daniels76) November 28, 2017
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 2, 2017
Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) December 1, 2017
Cause: American Heart Association
Designer: Mache Customs
DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cause: Brotherhood Crusade
Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) November 28, 2017
Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition
Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks
National disasters leave families homeless, helpless, hopeless & in poverty. I’ve been there & it’s not fun. It took us yrs to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina & that’s why Sunday, I’m rocking my cleats for the millions fighting to restore & rebuild #MyCauseMyCleats #GivingTuesday pic.twitter.com/4NQnH5ItUY
— Eddie Lacy (@Lil_Eazy_Ana_42) November 28, 2017
Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina
Designer: Bizon Customs
Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 1, 2017
Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.
Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers
Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 2, 2017
Repost @e_reid35 – Can’t wait to rock my cleats supporting @kaepernick7’s @yourrightscamp! Each emoji represents a topic covered in his camp to educate youth from marginalized communities. #MyCauseMyCleats
Gavel = Legal Rights When… https://t.co/x4YCUDz9ai pic.twitter.com/vB27pyJaEj
— KnowYourRightsCamp (@yourrightscamp) December 1, 2017
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII
A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
Proud to wear these for #MyCauseMyCleats on Sunday to help raise awareness for Leukemia and Down Syndrome. Let’s all work together to lend a helping hand where we can! #OnePride pic.twitter.com/lRAbIZh60n
— Ashawn Robinson (@AshawnRobinson) December 2, 2017
: In support of Leukemia patients pic.twitter.com/dAsD6zLfsq
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 2, 2017
Cause: Leukemia patients
Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) November 28, 2017
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 3, 2017
Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
— Anthony Walker Jr. (@__AWalkJr) November 29, 2017
Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation
Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope
Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 2, 2017
Cause: Habitat for Humanity
Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike
Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) November 28, 2017
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 2, 2017
Cause: Why Not You Foundation
Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai
Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
Designer: SR Customs
When tight end Martellus Bennett was a young child, he knew he wanted to create visuals and tell stories.
“As a punishment as a kid, my mom used to make me write stories about what happened. And I used to crush those,” he said. “I started writing like crazy. I always feel like creativity is one of my easiest things to do, ’cause there’s some things that you do in life that just feel right.”
The act of creating is natural for the 6-foot-6 athlete who was raised in Houston, where football is king. As Bennett’s desires grew to create more with his creativity and imagination, he knew he wanted to do more. So in 2016 he followed his passion and created The Imagination Agency, “a place where dreams come to life” and where he wears the title of chief executive officer. He tells stories through children’s books, apps and films. It’s an agency that cultivates and inspires youths to pursue creative career paths.
Under the umbrella of The Imagination Agency, Bennett penned children’s book Hey A.J., It’s Saturday, which was released on Father’s Day 2016 and has an app.
Bennett describes the word imagination as “endless possibilities.”
“I think imagination is the key to the world’s issues,” he said. “I think imagination is a great solution. Therefore, this is why I work very hard to promote creativity in kids, because kids have great imagination and creativity, and to help create great solutions for all of the problems that we have in the world in the future.”
To help him carry out his passion, he has partnered with Microsoft to participate in its Create Change movement. Microsoft’s Create Change program features a video series discussing how handpicked players are using Microsoft technology in their philanthropic endeavors. The company, known for having high standards with its philanthropic endeavors, is pursuing thought creators who are inspired to drive positive change and empower other individuals in their communities. And Bennett fits the bill. They also collaborated with four other NFL players to support the philanthropic work they do off the field: Von Miller, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Greg Olsen.
The charitable foundations created or supported by each player focus on areas that align with some of Microsoft’s core missions and values, including education, accessibility, creativity and health. By partnering with these foundations in providing both resources and awareness, they hope to increase their impact on the lives of those in need.
Each video shows a player discussing the inspiration for his cause. They each tell testimonies on how using Microsoft Surface products help them impact more lives in a variety of ways. In support of the work these charitable causes are doing, Microsoft will be making a donation to each of the five nonprofit organizations involved.
Bennett is also working on launching the Uncle Smarty Foundation, where his goal is to help kids use their imagination to dream bigger. He just rebranded The Imagination Agency, developing a new logo, and he is in the process of relaunching the website.
“A lot of people didn’t even know about it,” he said. “I feel like I had a chance to really rebrand some things before I start putting out my next couple projects.”
Bennett says the Create Change program is “super important” for him and his business.
He’s inspired by his 3-year-old daughter, Austyn Jett Rose Bennett.
“I feel like the stuff I’m doing is because of her,” he said. “I feel like she is going to be a black woman in our community growing up and there are a lot of kids like her.”
Bennett also works with Black Girls Code so he can empower other girls and women. “The more people she sees like her, the more comfortable she may be in those fields that she decides to go in. But right now I let her develop around art. It’s encouraging her to be herself, nothing stuffy.”
When Bennett wakes up, he reads some type of philosophy. Then he starts doodling before and after his workout, and “football stuff.” He later starts creating for his agency and uses the remaining parts of his day toward being a husband and father, which to him is the most important job in the world.
“I would rather suck at everything in life and be great at those two things. So I try to make sure that I stay that way, ’cause I’m super ambitious as a person but I want to make sure that I stay ambitious as a father and as a husband as well.”
Bennett is now back with the New England Patriots, who claimed him off waivers Thursday after he was waived by the Green Bay Packers. Bennett was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft and went on to play for the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and New England, winning Super Bowl LI with the Patriots last season.
The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.
Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.
This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.
Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.
Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”
Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.
Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.
The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.
On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.
What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)
LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”
And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.
Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.
“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”
The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.
The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.
“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.
The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.
“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”
Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.
The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.
Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.
An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.
But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.
The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?
The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”
The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”
The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.
Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.
A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.
In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.
“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”
But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.
“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”
Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.
Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”
The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.