This article appears in the Sept. 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Hey, did you hear the one about the celebrities who were tied up, held hostage at gunpoint and lived to tell about it? It goes something like this:
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Antoine Walker was a victim -- why haven't we heard more about that?
On July 9, Antoine Walker and a family member were held hostage in Walker's town house while four armed men made off with valuables and his Mercedes-Benz. Less than three weeks later, Eddy Curry and his family were victims of a similar break-in.
Don't be embarrassed if you've already forgotten about the two players' brushes with death this summer or if you missed them altogether. Neither was a big story. The Washington Post stuck Walker's news on the notes page of its sports section, right between Greg Oden's tonsillectomy and the signing of Wolves rookie Corey Brewer. The St. Petersburg Times ran a brief on Walker and Curry after a Croatia Open update. That's tennis, for those out of the loop.
Two relatively famous athletes are bound and robbed at gunpoint, and it barely cracks the sports page. I have to wonder if the story would be fighting for space with the Vick saga right now if Curry and Walker were the masked gunmen and not the innocent victims. That's right -- innocent victims.
Consciously, we know skin color has nothing to do with who commits a crime and who doesn't, but subconsciously, we're not accustomed to seeing black men, particularly athletes, portrayed as innocent. We're used to them being guilty. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who associates three key words in that AP story -- "hulking," "stars," "NBA" -- with victimhood. The sad fact is, when we think of crime and the black athlete, we assume he's had something to do with committing it.
And if we don't, we end up thinking, Who cares? -- believing it to be just another case of a guy's hanging around the wrong people or being in the wrong place. That's what rich black male athletes do, right? They run with posses and start fights in strip clubs. As soon as the Walker and Curry stories made their way across the wires, comments posted on ESPN.com associated the robberies with hip-hop, thugs and the hood. Never mind that both crimes took place in wealthy neighborhoods and who knows what music the gunmen listen to.
"I was living in Boston when Paul Pierce was stabbed, back in 2000," says Lee Igel, a professor in the sports business and management department at NYU. "The first question people asked was, 'What was he doing in a nightclub so late?' Paul was actually at a private party with friends, but people figured he was doing something he shouldn't have been doing, that he brought the stabbing on himself."
The police have made arrests in those July break-ins (they believe the crimes are connected), but you'd have an easier time finding out what Sanjaya's up to these days than learning the progress of the investigations. We just don't care -- not the media, not its consumers. Is it possible that if Curry and Walker were a different color their stories would have been reported more compassionately and embraced more readily?
Sam Ford, a professor at MIT who studies the media, says that when people are presented with an image that doesn't fit their usual views, they look for ways to make it fit. "If the robberies had been a more stereotypical story, it would have gotten more coverage," says Ford. "It would have been easier to tell."
The recent activities of Vick, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones have done little to challenge accepted stereotypes. Even within the African-American community, black athletes have a hard time living down the rep. "A lot of upper-middle-class black people hear reports about a black athlete and assume he's guilty," Saints linebacker Dhani Jones says. "If he's innocent, they'll see it more as a special case than the norm."
We hold our athletes accountable for their behavior, and the athletes believe it goes both ways. "I don't blame the media for everything," says Wizards center Etan Thomas. "I know negativity sells. But there's a responsibility to show both sides. You can't paint us with broad strokes across an impressionable canvas. People tend to believe everything they read. If someone is shown only one side of a coin, they become convinced the other side doesn't exist."
Or it just gets ignored. Ask Walker and Curry.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.