It’s Gotta Be the Ink: Crime, Athletes and Tattoos

It’s Gotta Be the Ink:  Crime, Athletes and Tattoos
Sports media is often a place ripe with racial, class, and gendered meanings; it often is a site where stereotypes and profiling are articulated; where bodies, particularly bodies of color, are subject to scrutiny and examination, ridicule and demonization.  Sports media, especially when the coverage moves beyond the game, is often dominated by generalizations and grandiose arguments that spill over outside of the arena and playing field.  This has been evident with two recent columns about John Wall and Aaron Hernandez, both of which extrapolate meaning and pathology from tattoos – or better said the meaning in an inked body of color.
In a recent column, Jason Reid cautioned the Wizards (he provides clarification here) against signing a contract extension with Wall because of his decision to get and unveil his tattoos:
Posing shirtless recently for an Instagram photo, Wall revealed several tattoos. Wall’s interest in body art is surprising, considering he previously said he did not have tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons. Many NBA players do have tattoos, and Wall isn’t breaking new ground in sharing his ink with fans through social media.
But not every player flip-flops on a topic in such a public way. Factor in that Wall is expected to receive a huge payday from the Wizards next month, and the timing of his tattoo revelation raises questions about his decision making. For a franchise with a history of backing the wrong players, that’s food for thought. . .
Reid makes clear that Wall’s decision to get tattoos leads him to question his mindset, his character, and his priorities since he previously stated that he wasn’t getting any tattoos because of a potential reaction from fans and the organization.  Yet, now he has them, causing Reid to wonder about Wall’s focus on the game and the fans.  It’s gotta be the ink.
Reid’s effort to read meaning into Wall’s tattooed body is nothing compared to Jason Whitlock’s recent column, which is disturbing even by Whitlock’s standards.  Amid the many troubling points of “analysis” that nostalgically pine for popular culture and a sports world of yesteryear, Whitlock uses the arrest of Aaron Hernandez as an instance to pathologize and demonize today’s athletes, and accordingly goes in on tattoos:
Athlete covered in tattoos is linked to several violent acts, including “accidentally” shooting a man in the face. Modern athletes carry guns. They do drugs. They mimic rappers and gangster pop-culture icons.
Athletes want street cred, and they costume themselves in whatever is necessary to get it. Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc., were the first to recognize the importance of authentic street cred when it came selling product to American youth.
Sadly Whitlock was not done:
When he stood in chains before a judge at his arraignment, in a white T-shirt and his arms decorated in ink, Hernandez did not look out of place. Guilty or innocent, he looked like someone who had prepared for this moment. He didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like an ex-con…
We can no longer distinguish bad from good. We no longer even aspire to be good; it has considerably less value. That’s what Aaron Hernandez represents, to me. Popular culture has so eroded the symbolic core principles at the root of America’s love affair with sports that many modern athletes believe their allegiance to gangster culture takes precedence over their allegiance to the sports culture that made them rich and famous.
There is so much wrong here that I am not sure where to start but let me unpack a few arguments.  (1) He seems to argue that America’s crime problem (despite declining crime rates) is the result of its faulty values. Popular culture is the teacher to blame. The celebration of Jay-Z and Tony Soprano (and I am not fooled by the inclusion of Tony Soprano to obfuscate from the racial arguments) has created a culture of criminality, as evidenced by Aaron Hernandez.
Whitlock writes that Hernandez, “stayed true to his boyz from the ‘hood. He mimicked the mindset of the pop-culture icons we celebrate today.” While acknowledging the costs and consequences of “a 40-year drug war, mass incarceration,” Hernandez is a product of “a steady stream of Mafia movies, three decades of gangster rap and two decades of reality TV have wrought: athletes who covet the rebellious and marketable gangster persona”—a  little nostalgia to go with Whitlock’s simplicity and reductionist linear narrative.
In amazing level of erasure of history, of violence, Whitlock, who clearly plays a sociologist, psychologist and media studies scholar on both TV and the Internet, pontificates how to thwart crime and violence: revamp the television guide and top-40.   Yes, it’s got to be the television.  Rather than address structural realities, it is time for politicians, activists, and communities to address the real menace: popular culture.  If only he was kidding.
(2) I wonder if he or others who like to blame rap and popular culture for everything invoke these arguments in other cases or just those involving people of color.  I must have missed an examination of the listening habits of Adam Lanza or James Holmes?  I wonder what sort of influence hip-hop and Allen Iverson had on the Boston bombers, Catholic priests, or Wall Street executives.  Clearly, it is time for Whitlock and others to listen to Michael Franti’s “It’s a crime to be broke in America.”
They say they blame it on a song
When someone kills a cop
What music did they listen to
When they bombed Iraq?
Give me one example so I can take a sample
No need to play it backwards
If you wanna hear the devil
Cause music’s not the problem
It didn’t cause the bombin’
But maybe they should listen
To the songs of people starving…
More than reminding me of the scapegoating of music which truly masks the criminalization and demonization of bodies of color (nobody has made issue of George Zimmerman’s tattoos), I recall a response to David Whitley’s piece about Colin Kaepernick because sadly I can just remix this “Dear Mr. Whitlock” because same message different day.

Revealing the Stigma Against Tattooed Athletes

Revealing the Stigma Against Tattooed Athletes

Dr. David J. Leonard

Dear Mr. Whitley:


I recently decided to take a break from public writing; I needed to catch my breath, to catch up on life, work, and recharge. Yet, after reading your most recent piece about Colin Kaepernick, I found myself unable to shake my anger; your words had gotten under my skin.


From the first sentence in your column — “San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy” — to your description of people with tattoos as looking as though they are on parole, you make clear that you see a tattooed body as a criminal body. You question Colin Kaepernick because he looks “like a criminal.” This makes me wonder if you think he looks like a criminal because he has tattoos or because he has tattoos and he is black. To me, he looks like a chef, a college student, a soldier, or one of the many professors that I know who are covered with tattoos. He looks like many of the 20-30 percent of Americans who currently sport ink.


And so what if he looks like someone locked up in one of America’s many prisons? I know the extent of your knowledge of the criminal justice system begins with Cops and ends with Lockout, but did you know that the vast majority of America’s incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenders? Did you know or care that they are people — mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; brothers and sisters. Why is looking like someone who has gone to prison such a bad thing in your mind? Your comfort in imagining those locked up as violent criminals, as “tatted thugs,” gives me pause. I mean your entire argument is premised on fact that “criminals” have tattoos and therefore why would any person want to have a tattoo. Maybe you should do some research about the millions of incarcerated people, and those on probation and parole; hopefully that would lead you to be a little less callous. To lament Kaepernick’s inked arms by demonizing incarcerated people is reprehensible.


And forgive me if I don’t buy your claim that your point isn’t about race. Forgive me if I don’t buy the explanation that race isn’t an issue because you have two adopted African American daughters, or because your editor is black. Is it just a coincidence that you lament tattoos in sports by focusing on their place on African American bodies? I must have missed your exposés on Josh Hamilton and the death of America’s pastime. Your piece on Danica Patrick and NASCAR’s tattoo problem must have been left on the editing room floor. And yes, I realize that you note that Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith both have tattoos, yet they seem to get a pass because they aren’t visible. Are tattoos bad or do you have a problem when the ink is visible? You remind me of the person who denies they are homophobic, and claims, “I don’t have a problem with gay people,” but laments the sight of men holding hands or worse, kissing in public. Oh wait, you are that person.


Do you think Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant look like “criminals?” Have you questioned their leadership abilities? I think not. The “NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” Those are your words. Did you know that Barry Goldwater, Antonio Villaraigosa , Senator Jim Webb, Rep. Duncan Hunter, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. all had tattoos? Does this change your opinion of them? What about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill (and his mom), President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, and Thomas Edison? All tatted! This isn’t surprising, as among the elite tattoos have a long history. Throughout the early part of the twentieth century, aristocracy often got tattoos as evidence of their sophistication, cultured ethos, and worldly cosmopolitanism. Maybe before your next column about tattoos you should do a little reading about the subject you are writing about, rather than recycling stereotypes.


Your column mirrors so much of today’s lamenting discourse, which bemoans the changing racial demographics, the shifting cultural values, and the challenges to white male heterosexual power. It works through your own nostalgia, all of which seems wrapped up in your own racial assumptions. In sounding like Mittens O’Reilly and those afflicted with White Delusional Disorder (WDD), I can’t help but think this is all about your racial anxiety. Do you fear what will happen if the bastion of white masculinity — the quarterback position — is challenged not just by Cam Newton, but also by tatted Colin Kaepernick? “If you can’t draw the tattoo line at NFL quarterback, you can’t draw them anywhere.” Why is there an impulse to draw a line in the first place and how empowered you do draw such boundaries? How does this represent your desire to contain bodies? I can’t but see your column as part of a long line of efforts to police black bodies. Does the sight of Kaepernick’s ink body lead you think that he might be “bad boy black athlete” (Collins 2005, p. 153) and not “Tim Tebow.” We know that contemporary sports culture consistently represents black male athletes as “overly physical, out of control, prone to violence, driven by instinct, and hypersexual.” Are tattoos and blackness seen as inseparable? Or does ink mean something depending on the body it is attached to? While you seem OK in using tattoos as evidence of worthiness, as markers of being “unruly and disrespectful,” “inherently dangerous” and “in need of civilizing” (Ferber 2007, p. 20), I am not.

Continue reading @ Dr. David J. Leonard: Revealing the Stigma Against Tattooed Athletes.