Still Hating Marshall Henderson
Original version published at NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Marshall Henderson has been busy since his Ole’ Miss squad lost in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Once his season ended, which included his giving fans the finger, and the media celebrated his contributions to the tournament, he moved onto more important activities: encounters with the police. In fact since March he has several face-to-face visits with the police, including a May stop where after being pulled over for speeding, he was found to be in possession of both marijuana and cocaine. Ultimately, he wouldn’t be charged with any drug crimes, but instead was citied for not having insurance. Say, what? Given his history, and the draconian nature of American drug policy, the lack of intervention from the criminal justice system should give pause.
Reports of this and other incidents only surfaced after his coach announced that he was suspended indefinitely (not kicked off the team; not removed from school) from the team for violating “team rules” (as opposed to state law or school policies).
The media response to the suspension and to the reported arrests has been muted to say the least. Called a “knucklehead;” “someone who has been enjoying himself;” as someone who is “battling a beast” and a sickness; as someone who keeps messing up; as someone who needs to get his life together, who needs help. Not a thug, not a menace, not a criminal; not someone who should be kicked off the team, kicked out of school or sent to jail. Understanding and compassion at every level.
Chris Herren, a former basketball player whose battles with addiction have been well documented, furthered the poor Marshall narrative: “You can never minimize the fact that you’re jeopardizing your future. It’s tragic for me to see his situation knowing what I know, what I went through, what I did.” Herren, who like Marshall was afforded many 2nd chances, further noted, “Ultimately, he needs to get down to the reason why a substance is more important than yourself, your family and your future,” said Herren. “Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball or any sport at a high level, the price to pay is a lot of pressure. That’s why he needs to incorporate some balance in his life and surround himself with people who have the same dream he does.”
With these events, and his continued ability to cash in on his “whiteness,” to get a pass because he does not elicit racial fear and outrage, I continue to hate Marshall Henderson. There I said it. I hate that every time I see his name I am reminded as to white supremacy, about racial standards, of the history of the 3/5 clause, and of dreams deferred.
I realized long ago that my disdain for all things Marshall runs deep, where I couldn’t help but sit in front of the television to watch Ole Miss-Florida in the SEC tournament finale. I am more likely to watch the Real Housewives of Iowa than an SEC basketball game, yet it was must see-TV because of my disdain for Marshall Henderson. From March until now, from his trash-talking to his arrests, from his 2nd and 10th chances, he is emblematic of the racial scripts that pervade American society.
But let me clear, I am not a hater. I don’t have sour grapes; I got outrage to injustice and he is indicative of this entrenched injustice. My feelings have little to do with Marshall Henderson. I don’t know the man. Nor do I have an investment in his daily performance.
My thoughts about Henderson have as much to do with the myopic celebration of his accomplishments, “colorful” personality, and “swagger” given the sordid history of integration at Ole Miss. Given the “ghosts of Mississippi,” and given the historic mistreatment directed at African American students at this “rebel campus,” it is telling that Henderson has elicited praise. It is telling that he has been elevated at the expense of his teammates, erasing their contributions to the team.
My emotional reaction is not about Henderson himself but the narrative, the media coverage, and the double standards that he is embodies. “Marshall Henderson is the Charlie Sheen of college basketball – an unapologetic poster-child of white privilege,” notes Charles Moriano. “Despite a litany of on and off-court behavior that normally send sports media pundits into “what about the kids” columns with African-American athletes, Henderson has been most often been described as ‘passionate’, ‘colorful’, and ‘entertaining’.” Greg Howard describes the double standards that anchor the media response.
He messes with any racially essentialist expectations of what a white basketball player is supposed to be. He’s an incessant shit-talker who tosses up 30-footers, rarely passes, and has a conspicuous lack of “hustle” stats. He tokes an invisible joint after made three-pointers…Marshall Henderson by all rights shouldn’t exist. And if he were a black athlete, he wouldn’t—not as far as big-time basketball is concerned.
My contempt is about the public persona that he has created along with a media that seems not only OK but rejoicing in behavior that has become the basis of the sports-punditry-hater-industry when it comes to today’s black athletes.
Matt Rybaltowski is illustrative of everything I loathe about the Marshall Henderson story: “In an age of political correctness and the contrived sound bite, Marshall Henderson is an anomaly, a free-spirit college basketball hasn’t seen since Jason Williams brought his killer crossover to Gainesville in the late 1990s. Dating back even further, it’s not a stretch to consider Henderson a Bill Walton in a shooter’s body.”
Sports pundits are incapable of offering comparisons that are not racially segregated. Whereas Bill Walton loved the Grateful Dead, protested the Vietnam War (he was even arrested during his junior year), and joined Kareem Abdul Jabbar and others in support of the civil rights movement, Henderson loves playing quarters and his “hoes.” I guess we can say Henderson protested injustice, calling those coaches who didn’t vote him first team all-conference as losers. Comparing Henderson to Walton is like comparing Justin Bieber to Eric Clapton; white and involved in same vocation.
Whereas black ballers are continuously criticized for selfishness – “there is no I in TEAM” – Henderson’s aspiration to “get his money” or his propensity to taunt fans is a sign of his being free spirit. He is celebrated for saying what is on his mind even if his mind seems to begin and end with himself. It is a striking moment of hypocrisy where not only does Henderson get a pass for his trash-talking, self-promotion, and his shot selection, but when he is imagined as exceptional. In an age of media scrutiny, where (black) athletes are routinely criticized for deviating from the prescribed scripts, it is striking that he is celebrated by the same media that makes millions off telling today’s (black) student-athlete to shut up and play.
This past fall, Cardale Jones, a student-athlete at Ohio State University, had the audacity to tweet: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” Not surprisingly, he was pillared, critiqued, and cited as evidence of what’s wrong with today’s student-athlete. There were no headlines about his refreshing challenge to political correctness and no celebratory articles about his free-spirit and the passion Jones has for his sport.
Marshall Henderson has had more collegiate addresses than John McCain has homes. He has taken his talents across the nation, playing in multiple time zones. He is the Bobby Petrino of collegiate basketball. Over three years, he has attended the University of Utah, Texas Tech University, South Plains Community College, and Ole Miss.
Yet, the story told has not been one of a checkered past or an ability to commit, but instead one worthy of celebration. He has travelled a difficult road in search of his dreams. Despite a Kardashian-esque level of commitment, Henderson’s road to the NCAA tournament has come to signify his “rags-to-riches” story of redemption. His past is evidence of the difficulty he has overcome and why ultimately we should love him.
He is praised for individuality and for his refusal to accommodate societal demands. Henderson shares in this celebration, noting, “That’s just who I am, on and off the court, I like to wear my hat, my hoodie and some shades.” Yet, as Moriano notes, his ability to be himself, to express his own individuality is the essence of white privilege. “Young African-American men have no such luxury – on or off the court. At worst, wearing a hoodie can help get you killed like Trayvon Martin, and on just an average New York City day, it will get you ‘stopped and frisked’.”
Henderson is praised for the “joy” and “passion” he plays with, yet every athlete is not created or critiqued equally. Not every athlete is entitled to taunt Florida fans, to shoot with reckless abandonment. Irrespective of fact that he shoots almost 15 shots a game, or fact that he shoots less than 40% from the field, he is depicted as scorer and an offensive talent. He is the 14th leading scorer in Division 1, yet has the lowest shooting percentage of any player in the top 40.
The fact that he shoots and shoots and shoots is a sign of fearlessness and passion as opposed to arrogance and selfishness. Henderson, despite embracing the aesthetics and practices long associated with hip-hop and blackness, is imagined as “breath of fresh air for an American public “‘tired of trash-talking, spit-hurling, head-butting sports millionaires.’” He is the walking embodiment of “everything but the burden.” According to CL Cole and David Andrews, “African American professional basketball players… are routinely depicted in the popular media as selfish, insufferable, and morally reprehensible.” Henderson is not burdened but instead celebrated for his “swagger” and “passion.” Each and everyday he is able to cash in on his whiteness.
Yes, his whiteness. While his father Native American, and while his twitter name, reps his indigenous identity, in the world of basketball, whereupon blackness is imagined as “normative,” as “non-black baller” he becomes white before our eyes. He has a white pass, one he plays every time he sticks out his tongue or taunts an opponent. And he seems quite aware of his white privilege.
“It’s a freaking game. It’s a basketball game. People take it so seriously that it’s funny for a little white guy like me to just come around, talk trash to people and the fans,” notes Henderson. “Like, what are you going to do in the stands? What am I going to do on the court to you in the stands? It’s funny just to mess with people.”
While Henderson imagines himself as a victim, who is criticized because he is “a little white boy” who “talk trash to people and the fans” in the end he is lovable villain, a person worthy of celebration. He, unlike those other trash talkers, is a good kid and therefore should be judged unfairly because of them.
The privileges cashed in by Henderson are not limited to the basketball arena. In 2009, according to a statement given to the secret service, Henderson, then a senior in high school, used “$800 of counterfeit money given to him by a friend to buy 59 grams of marijuana in two separate transactions.” With help from his coach and father, he was able to plea to a forgery charge, which led to a probation sentence. While at Texas Tech, Henderson violated his probation by testing positive for alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, serving 25 days in jail along with 7 weekends of work release.
Yet, he kept on playing basketball.
Compare his experience to two other African American student-athletes at Ole Miss. Coach Andy Kennedy dismissed Dundrecous Nelson and Jamal Jones, following an arrest resulting from an officer discovering “eight roaches of marijuana made from cigarillos.” While Jones was released, both were dismissed from the team. As with Tyrann Mathieu, Nelson and Jones were held accountable in ways Henderson can only imagine.
Headline after headline, commentator after commentator depicts Henderson as hated, polarizing, and a villain. Yet, this is our problem. We are told over and over again that we are just haters; that we have problems with him because at worse he has a “chip on a shoulder” and at worse because he has swagger. He is not a problem; it is us. We just need to learn to love him. No thank you.
I wonder when the level of understanding will be demanded for those “hated,” “polarizing” trash-talking ballers with a swagger, who are African American? Maybe that is part of the post-racial fantasy we keep hearing about; until that is a reality, I will just keep hating Henderson, the sports, media, the NCAA, and those who chant “free Marshall.” More than that I will find outrage about the stories we tell and sell about him.
In a week where the Trayvon Martin was put on trial in part because of marijuana use, where the ESPN Machine lamented over “yet another” drunk driving arrest in the NFL (yet again ignoring fact that NFL players are less likely to be pulled over for drunk driving than their peers outside the league) the differential reaction to Marshall Henderson’s arrests gives me pause. The disregard for his history is the power of the whiteness. The innocence seen is a sobering reminder of the separate and unequal nature of America’s criminal justice system, its media, and its other institutions. So when I say I hate Marshall Henderson, what I mean is I hate injustice, I hate double standards, I hate hypocrisy, I hate white supremacy, and I hate that amid claims that race doesn’t matter reality shows how it matters in real and sometimes life altering ways.