Friday, April 30, 2010


Last week, we examined why Americans shouldn’t so easily tolerate the use of the medium of television to show the way the Prophet Muhammad looked or spoke. But this week, I’d like to address some comments that were even more offensive than anything that has been aired on South Park. I can’t even repeat these comments without shaking my head in disbelief. They are a perfect example of one human being treating another purely as an “It” instead of a “Thou.” Indeed, it is difficult to envision a clearer instance of how mere speech can strip a human being of his humanity.

I’m referring to an incident that occurred during a meeting between a football player, Oklahama State wide receiver Dez Bryant, and Jeff Ireland, general manager of the Miami Dolphins. At the time of the incident, Bryant was just a kid with a dream. He had finished his college football career and was attempting to entice an NFL team to draft him. One of the teams that expressed interest in Bryant was the Miami Dolphins. Therefore, when it came time for Bryant to sit down with Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland, it’s not hard to imagine who had the power in that relationship. Bryant was desperate to make a great impression so he could realize his lifelong goal: to become a professional football player. And Ireland knew that he could say just about anything he wanted to Bryant and continue to be treated with the utmost respect and deference.

So here’s the question that the well-heeled white businessman, Mr. Ireland, popped to the poor young black man, Mr. Bryant: Is your mother a prostitute?

If you don’t know anything about football you might think that Bryant would have responded by popping Ireland in the mouth. Nobody would have blamed him if he had. But in the context of a pre-draft interview, Bryant could not possibly do anything to insult Ireland and lessen his chances of becoming a Dolphin. “I got really mad, really mad,” Bryant later told a reporter. “But I didn’t show it.” Presumably, he answered “no” to the question and Ireland continued along with his “due diligence” interrogation as if no boundary had been crossed.

After he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant revealed the conversation to the media. Needless to say, it caused many a jaw to drop and many a finger to point in Ireland’s direction. And here was Ireland’s obligatory response: "My job is to find out as much information as possible about a player that I'm considering drafting. Sometimes that leads to asking in-depth questions...Having said that, I talked to Dez Bryant and told him I used poor judgment in one of the questions I asked him. I certainly meant no disrespect and apologized to him."

It sounds so matter-of-fact, doesn’t it -- like he overslept, was late for a meeting, and was attempting to explain why. But at least there was some expression of regret. Here’s how the Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, characterized the incident: "As an owner of many companies and organizations, including the Miami Dolphins, I have always strived to comply with the highest standards in all aspects of my businesses including recruiting. In interviewing employees we always look to obtain relevant and appropriate information in adherence with the best industry practices."

Is Mr. Ross single-handedly attempting to disapprove the hypothesis that human beings have a soul? Perhaps so, because his comment epitomizes what it means to be soulless.

If this were The Godfather, you’d know exactly how Michael Corleone would explain Ireland’s little gaffe: “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” And in fact, that pretty much sums it up. Ireland is a businessman doing the job he was paid to do. Bryant had a “history” and apparently, so did his mother. And the Dolphins were considering whether to invest millions of dollars – not to mention their first round draft pick – in his future. Understandably, they felt the need to evaluate his character.

Fine. But what can you possibly learn about someone’s character by asking whether his mother is a prostitute? Besides, even if she were a prostitute, why in hell would you expect her son to tell you? If Ireland knew anything about Bryant’s cultural background, he would have realized that Bryant would have rather been called a “nigger” ten times than to address Ireland’s question. You just don’t mess with a man’s mother. You just don’t.

In the title of this post, I framed this issue as one of free speech. Implicitly, that suggests that I don’t think Ireland’s question is the kind of offense that should earn him criminal prosecution. But isn’t it ironic that while Ireland has yet to be disciplined by the NFL, that same league is constantly fining players for the way they celebrate touchdowns? Consider, for example, the many times that Chad Ochocinco has been billed for “excessive” celebrations – such as the $30,000 he had to pay for putting on a poncho and sombrero on the sidelines. If Ochocinco had to pay $30,000 for his statement, Ireland and his team should be socked $30 million for his.

Clearly, something is amiss in the NFL. When you can’t dance on the sidelines after a touchdown, but you can ask gratuitous, degrading questions about someone’s mother, methinks that we’re talking here about an abuse of power. And I’m not the only one who sees this abuse in the context of race. The image of black people celebrating on the sidelines – humorously and creatively, in many cases – shouldn’t bother anyone. But who can help be offended when a prospective white employer can, with impunity, make a poor black kid practically lick his boots during a job interview? I’m not one to yell “racism” at the drop of a hat, and yet this incident easily crosses the line. The implication is that Bryant and his mother weren’t people, but rather commodities, and Ireland felt free to poke and prod them however he pleased in order to evaluate the merchandise. Sound familiar?

Is Jeff Ireland really a racist? Might he have asked the same question to Dez Bryant if Bryant was a poor WHITE football player? Since I don’t know Ireland, I couldn’t possibly answer those questions. But they are not the most important ones, now are they? The focus here should not be on Jeff Ireland or Stephen Ross. It should be on how it is that our society produces so many Jeff Irelands and Stephen Rosses. It’s not just in the world of sports, either. It’s all over the world of business -- and yes, in Government too. These days, too many powerful Americans feel free to say and do whatever could possibly advance the interests of their company, their political party, or their own careers, regardless of who they have to step on along the way.

Yes, you’ve got to “crack a few eggs to make an omelet.” But you never have to ask anyone if his mother is a prostitute. And when we’ve reached the point where respectable people are doing just that, it’s time to take a breath and reassess. The NFL can and should take this opportunity to celebrate its Players, not its Suits. Let ‘em dance on the sidelines. Let ‘em wear their socks as low or high as they like, and stop fining them when they fail to tuck in their uniforms. And most importantly, start drafting up policies to reign in abusers like Ireland. When all is said and done, we want him to feel honored to be able to interview Bryant, and not the other way around. After all, Bryant is the one with all the talent.

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