Commentary

Tony Dorsett's poor word choice

His reference to the Cam Newton case as a 'modern-day lynching' isn't productive

Originally Published: November 17, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

On Oct. 10, 1902, a story ran on the front page, below the fold, of the Daily Item in Mobile, Ala. It appeared without distinction or sensationalism, but it powerfully underscored the daily life for African-Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.

"Garfield Burley, and Curtis Brown, negroes, were lynched here at 9 o'clock tonight by a mob of 500 persons," the paper reported under the headline, "Bound Face to Face." "The mob would not listen to the judge and forcibly took possession of the two men. … Ropes were presented and the two men were taken to a telephone pole where they were securely tied face to face. At a given word, they were strung up and in a few minutes both were pronounced dead. The lynching programme was carried out in an orderly manner, not a shot being fired."

[+] EnlargeTony Dorsett
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliTony Dorsett's comparison between an NCAA investigation and a lynching is unfortunate.

Ed Scott was a young boy growing up in Hobe Sound, Fla., in the 1930s, and he remembered numerous details of black life during the Great Depression: the lack of work for his father, and how the family ate sun turtle, gopher and corn bread when chickens, hogs and vegetables ran low. He especially remembered the large, lone oak tree that stood strong and unforgiving and menacing in a field near town.

"That was the hanging tree," he told me. "That was what kept you in line. You always knew it was there. You knew that if you didn't stay in line, you could be the one swinging from it."

Scott is among the men who lived the world of baseball without ever playing an inning at the big league level, but he lives on as the man who discovered a 15-year-old named Henry Aaron. He died earlier this year, and so much of the world of his time, thankfully, is over. Hate crimes still exist, and divisions between people and religion are still obvious and present. But if an American is hanged from a tree in 2010, the mainstream media certainly would not support such domestic terrorism as "orderly." In so many ways, we are better than we were.

But if society has changed, language has not; for the second time in the past six months, the worst verbal images of the American story have been applied inappropriately to the sports world by people who truly should know better.

Tony Dorsett, the great former running back, referred to the Cam Newton saga as a "modern-day lynching" in an interview with the New York Daily News this past weekend. And in the summer, when LeBron James left Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach, the Rev. Jesse Jackson described Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert as possessing a "slave-master mentality."

Both examples in many ways owe their existence to the race-based metaphor used by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, when he famously referred to his Senate confirmation hearings as a "high-tech lynching." The bottom line: The sort of language used by Dorsett and Jackson is never appropriate for sports. Ever.

[+] EnlargeRev. Jesse Jackson
AP Photo/Sunday AlambaMaybe the Rev. Jesse Jackson was employing hyperbole in his "slave-master mentality" comment, but it was still inappropriate.

In each of the two recent cases, the explosive language coming from a high-profile African-American fueled a news cycle. But both remarks reflect a recklessness with the language that (1) is offensive to anyone who has ever opened a history book and (2) undermines the important points that both Dorsett and Jackson were on the cusp of making.

Newton, the superstar Auburn Tigers quarterback who each week secures an even firmer grasp on the Heisman Trophy with his tremendous play, is not being lynched -- far from it -- either physically or metaphorically. He is an athlete whose handlers (including his father, Cecil) might or might not have broken NCAA violations by allegedly demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mississippi State University in exchange for Newton choosing to play for the school. The situation is being investigated by the NCAA and the FBI.

Meanwhile, James' existence could not be further removed from slavery. He is, in fact, one of our greatest examples of American progress and sacrifice. He is the dream of America -- white, black, Asian or Latino. He bounces a ball for a living, and for it, he makes a handful of businessmen rich and millions of fans happy. He also earns more than 99.9 percent of his countrymen.

Yet, we still are handcuffed by imprecise and inflammatory language. This is not merely a question of choosing the wrong words. Racially charged hyperbole distorts the conversation away from important, real concepts, transforming the debate into noise. Unfortunately, both Dorsett and Jackson have created a convenient red herring for the real issue: power and the distribution of it.

[+] EnlargeNewton
AP Photo/Dave MartinSo far, at least, nothing has been taken away from Cam Newton.

Maybe Cam Newton cheated on two entrance exams; maybe he didn't. Maybe Cecil Newton attempted to coerce $200,000 from a university in exchange for his son's athletic gifts; maybe he didn't. The fact is that both allegations are the result of a lie -- the lie that college athletics is largely about academics. The names change, but the issue stays the same whether it involves Cam and Cecil Newton, Reggie Bush, Derrick Rose or the other talented players attracting the attention of agents nosing around and nursing them or their families with advance money.

The myth of the university environment as a character builder keeps the game in business. The college game continues to dance around the hypocrisy that everyone makes money but the players, then falls back on its outdated sanctimony when a new name creates the latest headline. The solution -- the creation of a system in which it is unnecessary for a Cam Newton to have to allegedly cheat on a test or shake down schools for money -- is one the NCAA still lacks the courage to confront while its member institutions continue to pay coaches millions.

And if the argument persists that, say, a University of Oregon running back is being compensated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of a scholarship and a free education, it follows that the player should be given the choice of the education or the cash, thus becoming -- like his coach -- an employee of the university. Players without Newton's gifts who will need a degree when their collegiate eligibility ends might very well choose the free education over the short money.

Jackson, we should note, was correct in pointing out the never-ending paternalism that is an anachronism from the old days when country club sorts -- not megacorporations -- ran professional sports, Mister Wrigley and Mister Busch notwithstanding. James is not chattel. He has a seat at the table now, and his lexicon -- he refers to his financial and career advisers as his "team" -- has changed along with the times.

But there exists a great and important difference here. Even allowing for hyperbole, Newton is not being treated unfairly. He is not being lynched. He is still playing and appears in no danger of losing a down of his college career. Dorsett might not like that the FBI and NCAA are returning to the past in search of wrongdoing, but it appears that both investigations are being handled professionally.

[+] EnlargeJames
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeIt's difficult to think of LeBron James as a "slave."

Nor is James a "slave." Ballplayers once had no rights, but James was free to go, and he left. He was criticized for the way he handled leaving Cleveland for Miami as a free agent, but it was his unprofessional approach to the decision that was being challenged rather than his right to leave one team for another. He did not offer the Cavaliers the professional courtesies that are part of the boardroom game; James felt the backlash for looking the part but not knowing the rules. As the great character actor Sydney Greenstreet said in "The Maltese Falcon": "Business should be transacted in a businesslike manner."

With superstar athletes, there is a third element at work -- accountability -- and the powerful use language to evade it. Inflammatory language is the default position when the heat is on. Dorsett used it for Newton. When the walls have closed in on a Bush or a generation of steroids users in baseball, the ballplayer or his backers often have used the term "witch hunt" -- Dorsett did, too, last weekend -- a clever but generally unsuccessful attempt to deflect the hard questions.

Real lynching took the place of justice, the mob mentality stampeding any semblance of due process. Newton and his supporters might be feeling some discomfort, but the investigations and questions are not without merit. Nor has Newton been deprived of his ability to play while the papers are being pushed.

If Dorsett needs a refresher course on the actual meaning of a lynching, especially within the context of this country, a visit to the National Archives might be helpful. There are countless photos and stories of them, and none ends with a celebration in the end zone.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42

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