It's Gotta Be the Dad: Blaming Black Fathers in the World of Sports
[18 January 2006]
Black fatherhood in the media is seen as a national problem or an issue that young black males have to overcome, or both.
by David Leonard
In celebration of Father's Day last year, FoxSports.com ran side-by-side articles on fathers, sons, and sports, chronicling the good and bad of various relationships. With "Athletes Whose Fathers Got them Started," Elliot Kalb deployed the longstanding masculinized sporting clichés of fathers and sons (the lone woman included on this list was Monica Seles), celebrating those fathers "who coached and disciplined and taught and fought and influenced their children." To provide a "fair and balanced" counterpoint on fathers and athletes, the site published Kevin Hench's "The Domineering Dads that take the Cake." Like Kalb, Hench provided a list of fatherly influences on sports, but instead focused his attention on those relationships that "have not always produced a whole lot of hugs and presents on Daddy's big day."
What struck me as I read the article was not so much the patriarchal inscription of sport, nor the overly simplistic notions of fathers rearing their children into sports (these are daily sports tropes that should surprise no one), but the absence of Kellen Winslow Sr. from either list. While deserving, I found little shock in his absence from the list of fathers worth celebrating. However, given the widespread condemnation of both Winslow Sr. and his son, Cleveland Browns' tight end Kellen Jr., it is somewhat surprising that he did not find a place among overbearing figures like Henry Bibby and "Jelly Bean" Bryant. Winslow Sr.'s ability to control his son has been repeatedly called into question by media and fans alike, replicating longstanding and ubiquitous practices of blaming black fathers as the source of familial and societal problems. Such questions materialized particularly following a motorcycle accident that left his son severely injured and the media salivating.
It seemed to be just another average Sunday afternoon as Kellen Winslow Jr. sought to learn how to ride a motorcycle in a Canton, Ohio parking lot. Unfortunately, not all of the lessons took, with Winslow suffering injuries to his right shoulder and knee following an accident that threw him over the handlebars. Media and fans were criticizing Winslow Jr. even before he left the hospital. While it would be easy to reflect on other cases (LA Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent, for one) where off-the-field activities resulted in injuries that prohibited on-the-field performance, it would be just as easy to examine how race has operated in the disparate coverage and level of outrage in these cases.
Throughout the sports pages and on the Internet, commentators denounced Winslow Jr. as yet another selfish, money-driven, lazy, self-centered basket case polluting sporting culture. Notwithstanding the amount of money Winslow has generated for both his employers (formerly the University of Miami and now the Cleveland Browns), his worth has been limited to his ability to perform on the field. Referred to as a jackass, a selfish (black) athlete, and an all-around bad guy for injuring himself on a motorcycle, the media and fans showed little compassion toward Winslow, reducing him to a piece of property worth nothing so long as he could not perform on the field. Rick Morrissey, in the Chicago Tribune, reminded the Winslow family and everyone else of this fact: "Winslow Jr. is…the Brown's piece of property as much as a tackling dummy." Although I may not represent the working masses, I also certainly do not feel as if I am "the property" of my university. Nor do I think such rhetoric would resonate with the 9-5 sections of American life, except perhaps with the country's various sweatshop industries. The Winslow case once again demonstrates the ways in which sporting discourses and practices seek to control and discipline black bodies for optimal gain (and pleasure), with those transgressing the established boundaries finding themselves subjected to a series of disciplinary projects -- opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and organizational efforts to recoup salary bonuses.
C. Richard King and Charles Fruehling Springwood aptly link process of disciplinarity and sporting culture in "Body and Soul: Physicality, Disciplinarity, and the Overdetermination of Blackness," arguing that "Euro-American understandings of African Americans being excessive and transgressive have always fostered, if not demanded, disciplinarity, the application of regimes of control, regulation, and management." The level of outrage following Winslow's accident, like the panics induced by Randy Moss's simulated "mooning" and the influx of high school kids into the NBA, reflects historic and racialized discourses of control, disciplinarity and punishment of intruding, transgressing, and rule-breaking black bodies.
This outrage only intensified when, soon after the accident, Kellen Winslow Sr. took the media to task for its treatment of his son. "He made a mistake. You made it a circus. Remember when you were 21," Winslow rhetorically entreated. "A human being at 21 makes mistakes. He's not a piece of property." Not satisfied just defending his son, Winslow Sr. took this opportunity to blast the media for the level of coverage in this case and others. "You blow it out of proportion. This Jerry Springer mentality of journalism, you guys are better than that. You should be ashamed of yourselves." As to provide Winslow Sr.'s point, the media propelled his comments into a national debate. ESPN and other media outlets described his comments as part of a "tirade," while an unidentified former player announced on NFL.com that the Hall of Famer should have known better.
Sports columnist Woody Paige, on ESPN's Cold Pizza, lambasted Winslow Sr. as a bad father who needed to dedicate more of his energies toward raising his son, rather than criticizing the media. Jay Marrioti, on the same network's Around the Horn, intimated that father and son were alike, and that his comments disgraced his legacy. Accordingly, he was seen not as a good or nurturing father, but a corruptive element in his life. Like Marrioti's, many of the attacks against Winslow Sr. did not just focus on his comments, but sought to demonize him as a father. Without evidence beyond a motorcycle accident and a few controversial interviews conducted by his son (one in which Winslow Jr., while at the University of Miami, had the nerve to compare the football field to a war zone after a 2003 game against Tennessee), one has to wonder on what grounds Winslow's fathering skills were being challenged.
As of this writing, similar debates have not taken place regarding the failed efforts of the fathers of Jennifer Wilbanks (the Runaway Bride), Scott Peterson, Joran Van der Sloot, Kenneth Lay, or a host of others. The attacks against Winslow Sr. recall those against Dusty Baker a few years ago, who's son, a batboy with the San Francisco Giants, was almost trampled during a playoff game, or Joe Jackson (Michael's dad), who's overbearing and controlling parenting style has been cited as cause of Michael's "troubles." These criticisms demonstrate, as Mark Anthony Neal writes in New Black Men, "the significance we have placed in American society, and the black community specifically, on the relationship between fathers and their sons and on fatherhood and masculinity."
In his book, Neal reflects on the ways in which black fatherhood is rendered as absent and a source of problems for the black community within political/academic circles and popular culture projects. Black fatherhood in the media is seen as a national problem (as in the Moynihan report) or as an issue that young black males have to overcome (as in countless halftime pieces during the NBA finals), or both. Given the reduction of black fatherhood to explanations of communal and individual failings and the absence of representations of nurturing black fathers, it is no wonder that the media and various internet commentators focused on Winslow's failure as a father to make amends for his son's accident.
The condemnation and outrage directed at the Winslow family is nothing new, though, as father and son found themselves in the media crosshairs during Jr.'s senior year in high school. As one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation, his decision regarding his college plans received much media coverage. After it became known publicly that Winslow Sr. did not want his son to sign with the University of Washington because of its lack of diversity, controversy erupted. Hoping to encourage his son to attend Michigan State University (who had a black coach at the time), Winslow Sr. gave Jr. the following advice: "I told him to take a look around. Thumb through the media guide and see how far you have to turn before you get to a person of color. And if you don't see people that look like you, there is a problem." Winslow Sr. took matters beyond advice, though, even refusing to sign his son's letter of intent to Washington. Although father and son eventually settled on the University of Miami, Winslow Sr. was widely criticized within the media, despite his son's public praise for his Dad's guidance. Commentators denounced him as overbearing and meddling. Others condemned his effort to insert race into his son's life, ostensibly instructing father not to play the race card with his son. To them, he was everything that Hench described as undesirable about sports fathers and worse, given that his actions did not merely create an unhappy father-son relationship, but helped form the dysfunctional behavior that Winslow Jr. had been taken to task over for the past three years.
Responding to this widespread critique, Black Coaches Association President Bob Minnix defended Winslow Sr., noting that "The typical minority kid doesn't have a father like Kellen's to help in realize all these things," to which Daniel Clark, an online commentator, responded: "Thank God." Winslow Sr., in Clark's estimation -- and in the minds of many others -- was not just a meddling sports Dad, but also a father facilitating a whole generation of immature black athletes that see bling and race before team and fundamentals. "No wonder the whole episode caused a rift within the Winslow family," wrote Clark sarcastically. "Kellen Sr. must have wondered where he'd gone wrong that his own son would fail to recognize where there were too many white people in his presence. So 'immature' was that he'd shown none of his father's habitual suspicion and bitterness -- but he's learning." Clark's tactic of "reverse racism" in his analysis of Winslow Sr.'s influence erases the reality of race in college athletics, as shown in the disparity between the large number of black athletes to the comparative lack of coaching and management positions filled by blacks. It is apparent in the popular responses to the Winslows' decisions that it is better for a (black) father to passively embrace the exploitation of his son for the "love of the game," rather than bring his son to consciousness where matters of race are concerned.
John Edgar Wideman, in his powerful memoir Fatheralong, explores the meaning of black fatherhood and seeks to challenge a "tradition of theft and distortion," working to reclaim his own and an entire community's generation of black fathers. "The stories must be told. Ideas of manhood, true and transforming, grow out of private, personal exchanges between fathers and sons," writes Wideman. "Yet for generations of black men in America this privacy, this privilege has been systematically breached in a most shameful and public way. Not only breached, but brutally usurped, mediated by murder, mayhem, and misinformation." Whether it be narratives that articulate national concern (panic) for the "absentee black father" as the source of (black) societal problems, or media and discursive efforts to demonize and police black fathers, these assertions demonstrate the persistent question that remains within the American psyche: is black fatherhood an oxymoron? The media and fan condemnation of Kellen Winslow Sr. (and Jr.) provides insight into this answer. Now, that is shameful.