Just Another Black Man Caught Up in the Mix

The morning after Iverson's press conference, I referred to AI as "the athlete least likely to bare his soul, admit mistakes or appear in the least bit sympathetic unless you bought into his rhetoric." My friend Q. McCall took me to task for it, and after a lengthy chat, I recanted and convinced him to do a guest post. You can also catch his writing over at Swish Appeal.

I once lost a job over an argument about Allen Iverson’s cultural significance.

Actually, it was more a mutual agreement to part ways because things clearly were not going to work out, but that’s beside the point—a dispute over Iverson was ultimately the reason I lost income.

I was a 23-year-old black graduate student at a research university working with a professor at a smaller university on a project designed to “empower” an economically distressed de-industrialized black community. For me, the project embodied exactly the type of community work that I had always wanted to do – bringing together my academic knowledge with the budding activist impulse I had developed during undergrad. It was one way to participate in the ongoing post-Civil Rights struggle for racial equality that my parents (both from Virginia, father from Newport News) had convinced me was the responsibility of an educated black man.

However, a tension quickly emerged between the lead professor and I during the course of the project due to competing definitions of “blackness”.

The week prior to “the Iverson incident”, he sat me down in his university office after I presented him the results of a community survey that suggested we should slightly alter the direction of the project. He responded by telling me how the “white knowledge” that I brought from my university—in this instance, the use of a survey to determine the opinions and needs of the black people we intended to serve—didn’t apply to the folks of this community. My counter-argument—that we cannot understand the needs of the community simply by assuming we know what all black people need—fell on deaf ears.

The image of him wearing a dashiki with his doctoral robes hanging on the door of his office in the comfy confines of the ivory tower while telling me that I didn’t understand the struggle as a young academic is something that will remain forever etched in my memory. It was at that point that my admiration of his work was officially overcome by skepticism over his intentions.

In some ways, the interaction is representative of a generational disconnect that so many who lived through “the struggle” justifiably lament: while they fought and died for increased opportunity, we post-civil rights babies either didn’t take advantage, didn’t appreciate the newfound opportunity, or sold out. Within that framework, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was the sell out based solely on the fact that I attended a “white university”, was using “white methods”, and was honestly just sort of “square”.

It was within this broader context that the job-ending Iverson argument occurred. It was not at all random but an extension of this tension over “blackness” and “authenticity” between us.

The argument began at a dinner party he was hosting. He claimed that he could identify “conscious brothers” merely by the fact that they were wearing dreadlocks and not walking around with sagging pants and cornrows. I chuckled at the simplicity of such an assertion—regardless of what it means to wear dreads, the idea that one can could so confidently assert knowledge about a person’s identity based merely on their physical appearances strikes me not only as bizarre, but anti-intellectual. The statement was even more troubling given our collective investment in improving the conditions of one small black community many of whom have chosen not to sport “conscious” hair styles.

As we went around in circles evaluating a multitude of rappers and other public figures as “thug” and “conscious”, we eventually came to then-Sixers guard Allen Iverson, who had recently come off an outstanding run to the 2001 NBA Finals.

He claimed that Iverson’s swagger, sagging pants, do-rag, and chains hanging from his neck (“bling” was not really part of the lexicon at this time) clearly indicated that he was a “thug”. No longer worried about keeping the job at this point, I blurted out, “That’s ridiculous.” At that moment, the other graduate students in the room—all white—gasped and everyone got quiet waiting for him to respond. Which he of course did.

After he and his more loyal graduate assistant—a white man a few years older than I who had grown up around black people and had thus established his “street cred”—explained to me the strong relationship between sagging pants and thuggery, I responded with a simple question that ultimately got us nowhere: “What has Iverson done to constitute being a thug?”


I listened to him rant, was accused of not understanding the struggle by a white assistant as the professor’s white wife chuckled, and I eventually left early with no intention of working for the man again. I had no desire to have my “authenticity” judged by a university professor wearing a dashiki, nor did I care to listen to him categorically dismiss others based on a priori assumptions of who they are all under the guise of “racial uplift”.

What I found “ridiculous” was his apparently simplistic categorization of black people—whether it be calling me a “sell out” (yet simultaneously surrounding himself with educated white people), dudes wearing dreads “conscious”, or Iverson a “thug”, not to mention establishing his own “revolutionary blackness” by wearing a dashiki in a university office. It was simply too convoluted, contradictory, and hypocritical a standard to tolerate given the nature of the work we were doing.

I probably need not explain at length the problems with casting people into epic characters without granting them the dignity to possess multiple character or personality traits that might fluidly create a unique identity (and not necessarily fit our preconceived notions of who they should be). That’s what makes us human, if you accept Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work. Of course, there are times when that can go too far; “liberal individualism” that demands unlimited freedom to define and express oneself disconnected from larger structures can be damaging. Nevertheless, as human beings, one would think that we should all assume responsibility for respecting that there’s an internal world within any person that cannot be accessed simply by seeing them in one press conference or walking down the street.

When we look at representations and personas of black men in particular, it would be naïve to believe that our judgments of them are formed by what we see alone. As bell hooks once said about “rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg” in 1994, “…it is essential for everyone to remember that they are not only more complex than the way they represent themselves, they’re more complex than the way white society represents them as well. This notion that Snoop Doggy Dog defines himself 'as he really is' is something I reject. He clearly defines himself with a persona that works in cultural production in this society.”

In other words, we must acknowledge that both black male celebrities and the white society that consumes them have a role in the creation of these personae. However, to then take those personae as universal truths that can be applied to anyone, anywhere, without any attempt to understand them on their terms, is problematic at best.

Yet mainstream society has somehow managed to mindlessly conflate “being a thug” with record studio manufactured images of thuggery. It works well for entertainment executives that sell albums to suburban youth with an interest in romanticizing “thug life” as an exotic counter to their own lives, and who possess disposable allowance to support the inquiry. However, the fact that Iverson “fits the manufactured description” is by no means evidence that he consistently exhibited the violent criminal behavior that would constitute thuggery.

Yes, he’s had run-ins with the law, but the facts in the most egregious cases were so unclear that they are almost inadmissible as evidence to substantiate the claim that he is in fact a “thug”. The usual way that people even begin to associate Iverson with being a thug is by linking his image to these artificially manufactured images of “thug life” and our lingering fears of the black “super criminal”.

More than anything, this demonized “AI” persona is the personifcation of stereotype convergence: that of the hypermasculine black male athlete and a record industry manufactured “hip-hop” bravado that has lost its “utopian impulse”, as once described by Cornell West. It is ultimately a shallow caricature of the “hard”, hyper-individualistic, misogynistic, narcissistic, simple-minded, swaggering black male.

It is sad example of how our perceptions are shaped not only by what we see, but also by conceptual frameworks that we draw upon as short hand to “make sense” of the world, as described by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their classic book Metaphors We Live By. The problem is that to the extent that we draw upon pre-existing metaphors to make sense of people, we strip them of the agency to represent themselves as human; while these metaphors frame expectations for behavior, they also irrationally justify us assuming that our perceptions are universal common sense and those who don’t fit can be demeaned, dismissed, mocked, or vilified.

In other words, the idea that Iverson is a thug is a fictive reality conjured up in the racialized imagination of a society that remains fearful of young black men in spite of electing a black man president. To the extent that Iverson’s image resonates with a set of racialized metaphors we live by, he never had the agency to truly be understood.

As such, “AI” can never be separated from the fact that his persona was created in a U.S. society that was built upon racism, that never figured out how to deal with racial diversity at a structural or interpersonal level, and has a tendency to dismiss the very mention of race as a factor in public life as “playing the race card”. However, it doesn’t take much thought to recognize that even in our treatment of athletes, we cannot really escape racialization much less expect that we might reach the post-racial promised land when race is used as a cheap ploy to sell everything from records to detergent.

Iverson is thus simultaneously romanticized for and trapped within a racialized “thug” image: some disaffected inner-city black youth can draw inspiration from him while others lament the burden his image causes in their daily life; some affluent blacks have looked down upon him with self-righteous disdain while others see him as an example of a meritocratic myth in the U.S.; some well-meaning whites have seen him through a romanticized lens that masks fears of an urban lifestyle their families fled long ago while others claimed racial neutrality; fans can cheer his dominant scoring when he’s winning and blame his ball dominance when he’s losing.

What is often—not always—lost is that AI is a product of circumstance in a world that demonizes black men more often than not. In that context, it becomes unreasonable to assume that he would even want to cater to a media that merely perpetuates a distant and shallow racialized portrait of who he is to a mainstream audience that mindlessly consumes shallow images.

I was initially annoyed by Shoals’s Baseline post about Iverson's press conference:

So fine, even if Iverson can't play like he used to, doesn't really work with the Sixers current coach or cast and is superfluous once rising star Lou Williams returns, there's this breakthrough, which is as much about us—and for us—as it is Iverson. After a decade of being the athlete least likely to bare his soul, admit mistakes or appear in the least bit sympathetic unless you bought into his rhetoric, Allen Iverson hasn't just come home. He's finally made himself accessible. But that's only part of the equation, because now we might have to try and better understand what Iverson really meant during all those standoff-ish years.

It would be pathological for someone to bare their soul to people who have repeatedly torn him down without any genuine attempt to make sense of him. Within the historical context of this country, it makes even less sense for a black male who is consistently misunderstood and boxed into a manufactured “thug” persona.

Nevertheless, to say that Iverson didn’t appear “the least bit sympathetic”, is now more accessible, and less “standoff-ish” completely ignores the honest ways in which he has indeed demonstrated directness, honesty, and passion in his interactions with the media. Shoals refers to former Sixers teammate Eric Snow in the article, describing how outsiders—us fans and members of the media—never really got to know him. However, it’s also difficult to ignore the many occasions in which he was nothing but honest, opinionated, and passionate. The only reason to dismiss those moments when seeking evidence of a sympathy and accessibility is that they might not have come when or how we expected.

How could you ignore his repeated expressions of gratitude for Georgetown University coach John Thompson? How could you ignore his expressions of respect for former Sixers coach Larry Brown? After his ranting about his frustration with the disproportionate attention to him missing practice, how could you dismiss the Detroit press conference in which he lightheartedly laughed at himself? Even in the infamous practice rant, the point was clear: the man wants to win games.

Ultimately, the evidence does not amount to an unsympathetic, inaccessible, ruthless figure but a human being forced to struggle with a complex set of life circumstances. Even if it did, how much can you legitimately claim to know about a person’s character sitting at home and reading the accounts of a few newsmen and watching a few press conferences?


It shouldn’t take a heartwarming homecoming story and on-camera tears to make it clear that Iverson is a man who loves basketball and most of all loves to win. Unfortunately, that has simply been lost as people continually attempt to cast him as an epic character who fits what they want to believe.

The argument that a superstar athlete should expect this type of treatment is indicative of a sick and ugly sense of voyeuristic entitlement in U.S. society. It’s almost irrational to expect someone to take all that and continue to cater to people who make no attempt to understand him as a person because they’re confined to their own metaphors. In that sense, it’s not so much that he’s inaccessible, as much as truly accessing him would cause a form of cognitive dissonance that would force people to challenge their racialized assumptions. The idea that he is inaccessible speaks more to the inability—and even refusal —of some people to make sense of Iverson as one representation of “blackness” in the U.S. than anything having to do with Iverson himself.

While Shoals rightly suggests that “now we might have to try and better understand what Iverson really meant during all those standoff-ish years”, why does it take him choking up on camera for us to make that attempt? If people have to see him publicly overwhelmed by emotion to feel as though he’s safe, what genuine desire is there to understand the man?

When I chatted with Shoals, he said, “I don't think Iverson was capable of being someone he wasn't, but he kept a lot inside.” If that is so, then the very people who have demonized him penalize him for being neither superficial nor a transparently simplistic person. We could certainly smugly sit back and say, perception is everything and Iverson has merely been caught up in his perception. But commenting on Iverson as though his blackness is not somehow implicated in that perception is either naïve or anti-intellectual.

That’s not to deny that Iverson has some responsibility in the creation of his own image—he has dressed and behaved in ways that certainly seem to resonate with a manufactured “thug” representation. In my present role as teacher, I certainly do my best to prepare young black men for an unfair world not by telling them to hate or embrace it, but to acknowledge it and figure out how to navigate it. Has Iverson navigated the public sphere perfectly? Not necessarily. But at some point we, as observers, have to take some responsibility as intelligent life forms to do more than point fingers and make simplistic assumptions.

As Shoals also said in our chat, “Real thugz don't stick around to have HOF careers.”

Like many athletes before him, Iverson forced the sports world to confront a manifestation of blackness that is bound by both his origin and particular time. Race is the elephant in the room that people are normally frightened to discuss publicly, with friends, or at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s time to start discussing that rather than making clearly racialized assumptions from a color-blind stance—or claiming to have the capacity to evaluate one’s character based on how they dressed.

Neither is a particularly valuable way to proceed toward the post-racial society that so many people yearn for to relieve them of the burden of shielding themselves from the reality of race.


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At 12/07/2009 2:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

Really fantastically thought out and conceived.

"Nevertheless, as human beings, one would think that we should all assume responsibility for respecting that there’s an internal world within any person that cannot be accessed simply by seeing them in one press conference or walking down the street."

At 12/07/2009 2:16 AM, Blogger Spencer said...

Wow, spectacular work McCall.

At 12/07/2009 4:59 AM, Blogger foul ball said...

Great work. I love you bringing Bell Hooks into a basketball blog, as basketball is really so much about the construction of race and a nation.

At 12/07/2009 10:02 AM, Blogger djturtleface said...

I don't know much about this whole "race in America" thing, but a nice get-back to the studious.

Q: Isn't the situation in Philadelphia just as much about selling tickets as Memphis was? Does it say something about American consumerism when the basketball markets for Iverson, the winning teams, pass on him, and the big, fat capitalists continue to exploit what's left of his (false) image to cash in on the casual fan's lack of understanding?

A: Somewhere in Togo there is a 22 year old wearing a matching 2000-2001 Philadelphia 76ers NBA Champions hat and caricature T-shirt. They look nothing like the "retro" logo and jerseys that the 76ers wear today.

At 12/07/2009 12:05 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

@ djturtleface. nothing but net.

thanks for the great post mccall. this is why FD is FD. way long comment but u managed to squeeze some deep thoughts from my shallow mind....

"AI is a product of circumstance".
- Ouch. Victimism. Yes, none of us live in a vacuum....but this reeks of of an excuse-driven, deterministic world-view devoid of free will. Anyone claiming themselves to be a product of circumstance has already clashed with my fundamental view of the world...we all must take maximum responsibility for our actions (while accepting the fact that we are specks of dust in the cosmic dance).

"However, it’s also difficult to ignore the many occasions in which he was nothing but honest, opinionated, and passionate. The only reason to dismiss those moments when seeking evidence of a sympathy and accessibility is that they might not have come when or how we expected."
- solid. I think the crocodile tears were exactly because of this. AI desperately yearns for people to understand him....the toughness is a defense. He's been bottling it up his whole career and his release valve has always been wide respect for his play on the court....when he was on the verge of losing that.....i'm sure it nearly broke him completely.

"The problem is that to the extent that we draw upon pre-existing metaphors to make sense of people".
- Stereotypes are dangerous and never accurate....but they are a human survival adaptation to a society in which we interact with masses of strangers daily. We require the ability to make instant judgements to assess new situations and interactions.

"The idea that he is inaccessible speaks more to the inability—and even refusal —of some people to make sense of Iverson as one representation of “blackness” in the U.S. than anything having to do with Iverson himself."
- no individual can possibly represent a larger group they are perceived to belong to. i think the tension comes from our cognitive difficulty to cross this line between instant abstract stereotypes of a perceived group, and scoping that down to an individual while stripping away those same preconceived notions.

"But at some point we, as observers, have to take some responsibility as intelligent life forms to do more than point fingers and make simplistic assumptions."
- agree. but its a basic survival mechanism that isn't going to disappear overnight....so i'd say its equally important to understand that it is more difficult to change others actions than your own. its lead by example. and as actors, we must accept the fact that some observers will always point fingers and make simplistic assumptions. it is a choice and a life-long learning process to balance your free individualism and the need to conform to social norms.

i watch basketball to relax my lizard brain. evolving self & social awareness is a lot more draining......i think its a new muscle we as humans are trying to develop and flex....i'm optimistic that as we dump off simple memory tasks to the internet (and other technologies) we as a species will have more time and energy to evolve these new capabilities....its interesting to watch the slow curve of darwinain evolution clash with the speed at which we are able to shape the world around us. and its why cliff clavin was funny.

At 12/07/2009 12:15 PM, Blogger Neighorhood Verbully said...

Great work. AI is such fantastic study in modern race issues for our country. Is he the chicken or the egg? He so exactly typified the white expectation of a "thug" that he ended up being the victim of his own cliche. I have never really liked him as a player, his game just did not appeal to me, but his style and cultural identity are without equal. Thanks for the perspective.

At 12/07/2009 12:32 PM, Blogger Blue Moon said...

"To the extent that Iverson’s image resonates with a set of racialized metaphors we live by, he never had the agency to truly be understood... As such, “AI” can never be separated from the fact that his persona was created in a U.S. society that was built upon racism..."

Great post. But, what bothers me is that too often this feeling that one should be allowed to have a life and identity disconnected from appearance or the accumulated cultural baggage that he had nothing to do with is often a one-way street. I have met scores of people in my life that want A.I. to have room to be himself without being subjected to stereotypes, but then say that I am "too white" or a "sellout." Freedom means freedom to do things you would not necessarily do yourself, but respecting my right to do it. Filtering me through a racial grid that I had no say in creating and dismissing me because I do not tick the boxes you think a "real black man" (tm) should be is just as destructive as the ignorant "thug" cry anytime a black man is not wearing a Hart, Schaffner and Marx suit. There needs to be room for A.I. AND David Robinson to be who they want to be.

At 12/07/2009 12:34 PM, Blogger Deckfight said...

this merits an admin account & regular posts from Q.

At 12/07/2009 1:12 PM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

I personally don't think Iverson's a thug -- based on those soft eyes and soft media presence (dude cries at a lot of pressers) -- but I don't think reading him as a thug is such an outlandish mistake.

It's a common belief (merited or not) that what you see on the basketball court is one of the truest representation of a player's personality. You can posture and bark at refs, but you can't fake your whole game. Conscienceless gunners, unselfish passers -- notice the character traits we attach to simple basketball acts.

Now, quoting you: "hyper-individualistic, misogynistic, narcissistic, simple-minded, swaggering black male."

Since he's never punched a cheerleader in the face, let's assume he's no misogynist. But how about the others:

Hyper-individualistic? He was taking all the shots and making all the plays for that 2001 squad. Also cannot deal with being a bench player.

Narcissistic? "We talkin' bout practice?"

Simple-minded? As Iverson constantly says, all he wants to do is play basketball and win.

Swaggering? You ask Tyronn Lue if Iverson's got swagger.

Now understand me -- I don't think any of this is a bad thing. In the world of sports, where it's just a game, "thugs" are awesome. They add character and intensity to the game. They amp up drama, they make you watch.

I think the mistake your dashiki-clad professor really made was assuming that what you see on the court is what you get off the court. I think it's true in a lot of cases, but we have to give players the benefit of the doubt.

At 12/07/2009 2:32 PM, Blogger tray said...

I too was confused by the athlete least likely to bare his soul line. What NBA player bears his soul more than Iverson? Maybe Garnett? A line like that seems much more true of Kobe.

At 12/07/2009 2:33 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

If I had to do it all over again, I would've written something about "show vulnerability." At least that would've made sense.

At 12/07/2009 5:57 PM, Blogger djbtak said...

Great article, and will be looking more over at Swish Appeal, but I do also think someone who can represent this p.o.v would be a fine addition to the FD team.

The key point is not even necessarily racial (though it is that), it's about that momentary slippage of believing that we know someone through the media, when in fact that persona has to work according to a tight script in order to be accepted. Mainsteam journalists never accepted AI. It's bizarre to say that Simmons nailed it on AI in TBOB:

"Iverson's career personifies how the media can negatively sway everyone's perception of a particular athlete. There was a generational twinge to the anti-Iverson sentiment, fueled by media folks in their forties, fifties and sixties who couldn't understand him and didn't seem interest in trying. Nearly all of them played up his infamous aversion to practice (overrated over the years) and atypical appearnace (the cornrows/tattoos combination) over describing the incredible thrill of watching him play in person. They weren't interested in figuring out how an alleged coach-killer who allegedly monopolized the ball, allegedly hated to practice and allegedly couldn't sublimate his game to make his teammates better doubled as one of the most revered players by his peers. They glossed over the fact that he was saddled with an incompetent front office, a subpar supporting cast and a revolving door of coaches in Philly. They didn't care that he was one of the most influential African American athletes ever, a trendsetter who shoved the NBA into the hip-hop era and resonated with blacks in a way that even Jordan couldn't duplicate [OK, I have no idea what that 'even' is doing there -djbtak]. They weren't so interested in one of the most fascinating, complex athletes of my lifetime: a legendary partier and devoted family man; a loyal teammate who shot too much; a featherweight who carried himself like a heavyweight; an intimidating competitor who was always the smallest guy on the court; an ex-con with a shady entourage who also ranked among the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstars in any sport. If I could pick any modern athlete to spend a week with in his prime for a magazine feature, I would pick Allen Iverson in a heartbeat."

At 12/07/2009 5:59 PM, Blogger djbtak said...

ht: http://wedefyaugury.blogspot.com saved me typing out that excerpt.

At 12/07/2009 6:12 PM, Blogger Chris Cohan said...

Problematic opening quote from DuBois: "This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture."

You've written a strong introduction to this conversation. I hope it continues.

What's a "real" thug and what's
a racialized, gendered, bodily, coded, social performance?

Hall of Fame and Mega-Celebrity NBA player. Multi-millionaire.
Snazzy dresser. Rock wearer.
Dude. Father. Partner. Funny. Great interview. Washed up. Money grubbing has-been. Super star Hall of Famer. Loud locker room presence. Should retire. Maybe he can still win though! Homecoming. Ticket sales device. Who? Not me.

I don't always follow which of the critics in play here, including you (author) are upholding an authentic thug category and which are working on those categorical essentialisms, and that's from a hooks reader so it's a bit of a set up.

First response is, you sort of have an Authentic Thug rubric in play here, actually. Can you define it or clarify the critique on this point?

At 12/08/2009 1:17 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

So...I should stop applying the "thug" stereotype to Iverson and henceforth apply the "thug with a heart of gold" stereotype?

I'm sort of surprised that Iverson would be labelled "unsympathetic" or "not vulnerable" in the first place. I fully expected him to cry. I know that this was brought up in the post, but the guy cries pretty much every time he talks to Thompson, although I suppose that is probably true of all human beings. (I also have a problem with Lou Williams being a "rising star". By this standard, so is Dalembert, which makes Igoudala and Brand already stars, which means the Sixers are good...oh, whoops.)

Re: your professor and "thuggery" -From my very removed understanding of the situation, the aspect of Iverson that offended your professor was Iverson's adoption of the white-constructed black "thug" sterotype. To your professor, accepting, embracing, and even promoting this stereotype made Iverson reprehensible, betraying himself and his race, ie a "thug". I agree with you that given the whole racial-construction-blah-de-blah, Iverson has no obligation to cater to his critics, but I think that you have given the professor an unfairly stacked deck by taking his "thuggery" criticism so literally.

At 12/08/2009 3:56 PM, Blogger Sergio R. said...

It's funny, right around this time (spring of 2001), I was taking a Nietzsche seminar with a professor (white), who due to Iverson's size, skill, toughness, ability to seemingly withstand entire teams by himself (and Aaron McKie), and seeming disregard for common morality made the comparison between Iverson and Zarathustra.

Ever since I have often thought of AI as an ubermensch from his Jordan ankle breaking to the '01 playoff performance to his "practice" presser to his short lived retirement from the L. That's the way I'm always gonna think of AI

At 12/08/2009 5:24 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

Nietzche's superman view of the world led to his demenitia and premature death....i really hope iverson's final hurrah goes well enough that it takes the zarathrustran chip off his shoulder so he can retire in peace....instead of relaxin at camarillo.

- Thus Spoke Iverson

At 12/08/2009 7:19 PM, Blogger Q McCall said...

First of all, thanks for all the feedback. As Chris Cohan said, I think this is really the tip of a larger discussion that isn't going to be resolved in a FD post...

But a few responses that I hope address the questions above:

@Chris Cohan re: authentic thug - as I believe you've alluded, "thug" is a somewhat fluid or multi-dimensional term. Part of that is the fact that the formal definition involves some measure of "criminality", which is obviously contextual and contested and often unevenly applied.

However, there's the bigger issue of colloquial usage of the term.

On the one hand, my professor was using the term with pejorative connotation not just to describe Iverson's behavior but to demean him and make a racially based judgment of character.

On the other hand, there are also those who would use thug as a positive to connote street cred or a trait deserving of respect. In that instance, it's *sometimes* more about a disposition and posturing more than any demonstrated behavior.

Even with that more colloquial definition, the issue is that it's hard to establish that definition separate from recording studio "thugs" whose posturing and image have shaped the thug-as-credibility framework.

In other words, I'm not sure there is a singular "authentic" definition of the term thug -- I think that is determined entirely by how, when, where, and by/about whom the word is spoken..

@ SpanishBombs, following from above, I agree with you on what offends the prof about Iverson -- more specifically, I might add that it's the damaging effect of the acceptance of this thug posturing in black communities that's really troubling to him.

However, what troubles me, is that it's difficult to detach the status that being "thug" or "hard" holds for certain people from the structural dynamics that shape the living conditions in certain places.

Therefore, it's the juxtaposition of Iverson-as-thug with a "conscious brother" in dreads that's part of the problem here -- not only is it arbitrary, but an assumption based on a surface disposition hardly sufficient for evaluating whether someone is conscious or not.

As The Other Van Gundy said:

"I think the mistake your dashiki-clad professor really made was assuming that what you see on the court is what you get off the court. I think it's true in a lot of cases, but we have to give players the benefit of the doubt."

For a prof supposedly concerned with "racial uplift" to make an assumption about an individual based on a surface level image with structural (and recording studio) roots struck me as "ridiculous". And it is difficult to separate the assumption from Iverson's race.

What's reprehensible is not Iverson or his "promoting this stereotype" but the social conditions that shape why Iverson and others do promote the stereotype. We don't have to deny individual responsibility while acknowledging bigger forces at play.

As a teacher of youth who promote the stereotype and associated attitudes ("snitches get stitches"), is that frustrating? Yes - and it often does hold them back. But focusing on the conditions is much more useful to me than demeaning or fearing individuals by placing them in clearly racialized boxes...especially when claiming to be a scholar...

At 12/08/2009 11:08 PM, Blogger tray said...

But even vulnerability - isn't a huge part of his myth precisely that he's so vulnerable, so human? Toughness and vulnerability aren't mutually exclusive. Yeah, he endures a lot, but he's not superhuman like a Wade is, or inhuman like a Kobe or Duncan. Your original piece made it sound like this was the first time he cried in public or shown a vulnerable side. Do you remember how many times the guy would bitch about the tears in his eyes when his little daughter asks her daddy if he's getting traded, like there was something cosmically unjust about his children having to worry whether he'd get paid 20 million in one town or 20 million in another? To me he's always seemed incredibly vulnerable, sensitive, whatever word you want to use.

At 12/08/2009 11:43 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

There's two kinds of "vulnerable"-the kind that means "sensitive" and the "over-sensitive" type. The former being sympathetic, the latter pissing people off.

At 12/09/2009 9:46 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

Fine piece, fine comments. I enjoyed hearing of Mr. McCall's rejection of that ridiculous professor's hasty, cursory conceptions of men with a different fashion sense.

I respectfully disagree, however, about the nature of the "elephant in the room" regarding the specific topic of AI. Using the image and idea of Iverson as a means to discuss issues of race and perception is one thing, but, in examining the man himself, let us not forget that his 8 figure annual earnings easily separate him from the reality we middle-classers inhabit. To suggest that he faces the same struggles or that he even identifies with the same outlooks or problems as most people is laughable.

At 12/09/2009 9:47 AM, Blogger Charlie Panian said...


At 12/09/2009 10:36 AM, Blogger Q McCall said...

@Mouth: Appreciate the respectful disagreement.

Since the "struggles" that I said he faces are those of racialized perceptions of his character, I'm unclear about what is laughable to you. Can you clarify?

Are working on the premise that a) 8 figure NBA salaries erase your pre-NBA life experiences or b) 8 figure salaries neutralize race?

At 12/09/2009 10:46 AM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

mo money, mo problems

At 12/09/2009 5:55 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Great work. Categorizing folks based upon image (as your professor did) is the analytical move that "justified" racism in the first place. I will make one generalization about AI though, and anyone who has seen him play can confirm this: The man loves playing basketball. He plays his ass off. That alone warrants our respect, all questions of vulnerability, thuggery, and social construction aside.

At 12/09/2009 6:01 PM, Blogger Kaifa said...

In his own words:


Well, at least in the ad's writer's words.

At 12/10/2009 1:20 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

I appreciate the tough questions in response to my comment, Mr. McCall.

Forgive the late reply--busy day at Bragg, where I had to help administer a massive urinalysis. Yuck. Oddly, this seems to segue into a lingering thought about the nature of multimillionairedom. The freedom afforded by it is substantial. With that kind of scratch, one can do and say anything one wants and pick & choose what offends him/her. Black, brown, white, yellow--green helps open a lot of doors for anybody. Money can't buy happiness, but it's a good down payment, even if, as Fabolous says, "They don't make bulletproof vests out of dollars." I love to hold people responsible for their actions and words, and we all love to believe that someone who is seemingly naturally profound or who accidentally bares his soul (or displays vulnerability, as Mr. Shoals semantically tweaked it,) in front of a microphone and audiences should generally be applauded. Depending on the merits of his/her speeches, we often place the speaker under further scrutiny in the hopes of enhancing his/her message and making him/her an example of something good. The media can amplify and be a tool for good. You & I seem to agree, however, that the media hates addressing the issue of race with any nuance, depth, or seriousness. I argue that they are guilty of ignoring the ramifications of excessive fortune among their camera's subjects as well.

Yes, it is generally despicable that some listeners choose to focus on the murky, mostly undeserved connotations of the fact that dude rocks a matching throwback and fitted while he talks to reporters and ends up seemingly addressing the entire diverse SportsCenter audience. [**How dare you talk to white kids looking like that, and to be the only black person to whom they listen! To represent the entire race, which of course is an inherent responsibility for someone the media finds interesting, and not say stuff that's totally uncontroversial! Why, I heard that that Iverson fella was arrested a couple times, and he didn't even finish school!**]

Yes, it is evidence of disgustingly deliberate myopia that the professor you describe in your anecdote chose to villify Mr. Iverson probably because of the superior athlete's access, through no fault of his own, to a direct line of communication to the NBA viewing demographic and the YouTube nation. From the mouth of a misguided would-be academic who would be lucky to sell 200 copies of a pamphlet to as many online university databases, it is a perversion of the precept of great power and great responsibility accompanying each other, and the scholarly world is much more his victim than the black community or America is Mr. Iverson's victim.

At 12/10/2009 1:29 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

***Apparently I went over the limit for characters. ***

You, Mr. McCall, seem to be guilty of foisting on Mr. Iverson the most passive version of the concept of responsibility by stating that he is no more than just "one representation of 'blackness' in the U.S." and that he is "a product of circumstance." I love that you embrace the notion of a legitimate, substantive discussion of the issue of race in our beloved nation and among our media counterparts, with whom we probably have a more equivocal sense of affection. When you use the perception of Mr. Iverson to suggest to your students that racial equality is possible, that black men with rough edges can be stars, that a basketball player's persona can generate as much meaningful discussion of the race issue as the works of W.E.B. DuBois, are you prepared for the reality that Mr. Iverson can suddenly retire (Oh, yeah, he just did, sort of.) and take his ball (and millions of dollars) & go home? That part of the lesson plan would comport with the "meritocratic myth," wouldn't it?

And when you note the conditional validity of the hypothetical notion that "the very people who have demonized him penalize him for being neither superficial nor a transparently simplistic person," do you deliberately fail to note that the penalties he has suffered since leaving Georgetown have not been altogether financially harmful?

Allen Iverson has the means to disappear, to abdicate any duty that we might perceive in his activist itinerary, at any time and go hang with Tupac and Ricky Williams (after the NFL playoffs) in Cuba.

Recall also that Biggie brought his crew along for the ride; he represented NY to the fullest, but, once he got paid, he was "getting high, getting head on the beach."

I'm just saying, if we're going to behold the perception of Mr. Iverson as something by which we measure the state of race relations, racialized assumptions, and the plague of tacit racism's ugliest manifestations, we ought to be careful that we not forget that the actual man himself is now millions of dollars away from really being affected personally by what we say here or what dashiki-donning professors assert in our boiling memories of the moment we decided to make AI more than he is.

At 12/10/2009 1:30 AM, Blogger Mouth said...

Forgive my dismissal of the extent to which Mr. Iverson feels the pain bestowed upon him by those who strive to give political or ethical meaning to his persona and its treatment by the media and academic institutions. "Laughable" is an inappropriate word to end a submission to this engaging discussion, and I hope the FreeDarko community continues to be as open-minded as Mr. McCall.

No, 8 figures in the bank does not erase who AI was before the Hoyas or 76ers. 8 figures does not neutralize race.

But, if Mr. Iverson wants it that way, if he wants to erase something or neutralize something to achieve happiness, 8 figures is a damn good down payment.

At 12/10/2009 11:50 AM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

@mouth: mo money, mo problems

i think the picture of the dude in daipers portrays it even better than verse....strange sh*t happens when you chase the false god of paper

At 12/11/2009 2:09 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

I hope that fraternity ritual ended quickly for that dude, though it now lives forever in infamy at FreeDarko. You're right, walrusoflove. A picture is worth 1,000 words. No homo.

At 12/11/2009 3:15 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...


At 12/13/2009 11:49 AM, Blogger paul said...

I appreciate Mr. McCall's passion, but this argument does little to rise above banal observation. Of course society is responsible for creating "AI" as we know him today. Of course that image is inextricably bound with the hegemonic conceptions of race and class markers such as cornrows or baggy pants. And obviously we can't assume that we know AI just because we saw him get choked up at a press conference.

At 12/13/2009 11:52 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I don't know, I think it raises the chicken/egg game with Iverson to a new level. Various levels of "authenticity" we see, want to see (and he wants us to see) in Iverson. It got me thinking.

At 12/13/2009 12:19 PM, Blogger Q McCall said...

...and if it was so obvious, people wouldn't be writing some of the things they've written about it...

At 12/13/2009 3:15 PM, Blogger paul said...

Fair enough. Let me clarify. Your piece makes a good argument about Iverson and the dangers of assuming athletes are one way or another, and from that perspective it is "unique" (though I've always felt an ongoing project of FD is precisely to expose and explore the mythologies players create for themselves and we create for them). At the same time, there has always been a palpable tension between our (mis)perceptions of athletes and the "YOU DON'T KNOW ME" response that has thoroughly problematized the essentialization of pro-athletes, hence my claim that your observation was "obvious." More abstractly, insofar as your post addresses the homo sociologicus/tabula rasa monad dichotomy(i.e. Shoals' chicken/egg observation - how much of AI does he create, how much does white capitalist society project onto him, and to what extent does he perform these roles?), it's not exactly groundbreaking scholarship.

At 12/13/2009 3:19 PM, Blogger Q McCall said...

@Paul: Thanks for keeping things in perspective.

But I'm not sure the intent or Shoals' perception of it was "groundbreaking scholarship" as much as a discussion piece in response to Shoals' Baseline post...as I believe is described in italics at the top of the post...

At 12/14/2009 11:45 PM, Blogger RJ said...

'Yes, he’s had run-ins with the law, but the facts in the most egregious cases were so unclear that they are almost inadmissible as evidence to substantiate the claim that he is in fact a “thug”."

I wouldn't ordinary comment on this and I am not taking a side or really even offering an opinion but I am surprised that if the issue is discussed this specific case is not faced directly:

"On February 14, 1993, Iverson and several of his friends became involved in an altercation with a group of white teenagers at the Circle Lanes bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia. Iverson's crowd was raucous and had to be asked to quiet down several times, and eventually a shouting duel began with another group of youths. Shortly thereafter, a huge fight erupted, pitting the white crowd against the blacks. During the fight, Iverson allegedly struck a woman in the head with a chair. He, along with three of his friends who are also African-American, were the only people arrested. Iverson, who was 17 at the time, was convicted as an adult of the felony charge of maiming by mob, a rarely used Virginia statute that was designed to combat lynching.[5] Iverson and his supporters maintained his innocence, claiming that he left the alley as soon as the trouble began. Iverson said, "For me to be in a bowling alley where everybody in the whole place know who I am and be crackin' people upside the head with chairs and think nothin' gonna happen? That's crazy! And what kind of a man would I be to hit a girl in the head with a damn chair? I rather have 'em say I hit a man with a chair, not no damn woman."[6]

After Iverson spent four months at Newport News City Farm, a correctional facility in Newport News, Virginia, he was granted clemency by Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, and the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 1995 for insufficient evidence.[6]"

“What has Iverson done to constitute being a thug?”

Either he did or he didn't or he did something in between. I don't know.

But the question started there.

At 3/22/2013 5:37 PM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

Sports, politics and culture even though they shouldn't be mix together in the field they do because we are the same at the field. I think like this and even my friends at Hostpph.com too.


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