Like 114.5 million other folk, I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night, the most watched show in U.S. TV history (shouts out to Missy Elliott’s halftime performance, yes gawd!). As a Carolina Panther fan I was not terribly invested in the outcome, but I was low key rooting for the Seahawks 1) because I regularly root for the underdog and 2) I live for the badassery of Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch. The badassery I speak of is not limited to their on the field athletic prowess (Sherman is a cornerback who attended Stanford, and Lynch is a running back who went to UC-Berkeley), but rather their off the field badassness. Both men are 20-something athletes whose unapologetic performances of black masculinity and resistance have left mainstream media perplexed and exasperated. Both men’s gender presentations fuel the stereotypic imaginations of folk who find black men intimidating and terrifying, while wielding enough charm and cockiness to make them fascinating and mysterious. With dark-skin, tattoos, and dreadlocks, both men simultaneously trouble race and gender politics by participating in a system that profits from them (and their bodies), while profiting them (and making them millionaires). They are assumed to be pawns but have proven to be more clever than onlookers originally thought. Both men have successfully flipped the script on notions of one-dimensional black masculinity and what respectability, in the context of black masculinity, looks like.
Their passion for the game of football and their confidence in their abilities make them fun to watch and even more endearing to listen to, but class standing aside, outside of the context of professional sports, they are read like any other black man without a fresh fade, collar shirt, and propensity to codeswitch. Sherman and Lynch represent a particular type of black maleness and masculinity that competes with the safety of pretty boy intellectuals whose masculinity is tempered by their demeanor. White folk don’t know if they should find them endearing or threatening.
Last year the internets went amuck when Richard Sherman got “too hype” in a postgame interview, wherein he made a game changing play that took his team to the Super Bowl. His emotional response/rant, targeted at his nemesis Michael Crabtree, was misread as misplaced aggression and anger. Reactions to his outburst ranged from applause and appreciation to fear and racism. He was called a thug, undoubtedly for how he looked, how he embodied black masculinity in the presence of a white woman, and the way he spoke with conviction at the highest tenor of his voice.
And this year, the memes keep coming around Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to engage reporters. Unlike Sherman whose emotional outburst led to mischaracterization, Lynch’s approach of not answering questions has led to him being labeled antisocial, rebellious and reckless (he has been charged $100,000 in fines for his media silence, and faced up to $500,000 in fines if he didn’t at least make himself available for media leading up to the Super Bowl).
Both men have been spotlighted for what is read on their bodies as deviance (or defiance) and both have taught us a thing or two about respectability and black masculinity. For Sherman, his performance of black masculinity initially played into the public fascination and fear of black masculinity. His emotional outburst broke the fourth wall to expose a gritty, emotional side of him that in many ways had been reserved and tempered for media. He became the black man you must hide yo wife and kids from. His in-the-moment expression of passion required that he remind folk that he graduated from Stanford, that black men are fully capable of being educated AND a lil’ ratchet, and that black men are nuanced, multidimensional individuals. For Lynch, his performance of black masculinity successfully bucked a system intended to infantilize him by refusing to play by their rules. His clever disengagement pushes folk to re-imagine what his intentions are. The intentionality of his silence, the consistence of his stubbornness, his refusal to “give in” and his “unbossed and unbought” attitude force onlookers to re-think what is going on (is he getting played, or is he playing them?). By being un-invested in what they think or believe about him, saying as much in an interview, “I care about my family, not you,” he further mystifies masculinity.
My take is that respectability and black masculinity are often situated in opposition of each other. Respectability seeks black men who are mild mannered, well dressed, and obedient (which is read as effeminate) while hegemonic masculinity requires resistance, a demonstration of dominance, and tendencies towards violence.
The NFL is unique in its glamorization and acceptance of hypermasculinity and aggression. In a game that is all about taking and getting hits, it epitomizes intimidation and glorifies thuggery on the field but expects, if not requires, a turn around when representing the league off the field. They want you to be a “beast” (Lynch’s nick name is Beast Mode) when you play, but a “choir boy” in the press room. It is irresponsible and unrealistic to think that despite the fluidity of gender performance, that you can socialize men to be antagonistic and aggressive for their job, but then expect them to effortlessly shift to being cooperative and submissive for that same job. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the legalities facing NFL players for their aggression/s off the field, hypermasculinity cannot be neatly contained on a football field, especially in a culture that values masculinity above any representation of femininity (shout out to the Always commercial “Like A Girl” that aired during the Super Bowl).
But this objectification and manipulation of black athletes is not new. In 2005, the NBA implemented a dress code “to distance the league from its then ‘thuggish’ (and we all know what that really means) image in the mainstream. The rule made it mandatory for the players to wear a jacket and tie before games, after games, during interviews, on the bench while injured, and in attendance at league charity events.” The dress code required ball players to only “look” like ball players on the court, and to otherwise promote a more “respectable” aesthetic when representing the organization.
It is problematic to market black male athletes as hypermasculine and profit from their performance but then attempt to sanitize them off the field and place lesser value on their everyday masculinity and cool pose/s. This is true in what is communicated verbally and nonverbally, by what they say (or don’t say), what they wear, and how they act.
As a communication studies professor I have had my fair share of “what now” moments listening to post-game interviews with microphones thrown in the faces of black men who are expected to understand interview etiquette without proper training. My frustrations are not in allegiance to black respectability politics, however. I am oftentimes perplexed that black athletes are not taught how to handle the media and/or field questions as part of their preparation for self presentation. If their job is to “represent” a particular brand on and off the field in exclusively expressed ways, they won’t necessarily know how to do that by instinct. Because of the embedded scrutiny of blackness in the public eye (and how it is perceived through slang, ebonics, dialect and appearance) black folk in general (think of every street interview of a random black person that is used and edited for maximum stereotypical effect on the news—remember Sweet Brown?) and young black males in particular, are pigeon-holed as ignorant, inarticulate, unsophisticated broods whose only contribution to society is athletic prowess. For those of us who know, love, and talk to Marshawns and Richards in our everyday lives, we know that is not true, but we also know perception, seeped in anti-blackness, oftentimes dictates what people think is possible. The unfortunate truth is that black folk are judged in particular ways before we speak and in the case of Lynch for refusing to speak at all, so we have to be strategic and mindful about our representations.
Respectable black masculinity does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a pre-packaged version of feel-good masculinity that represents the kind of black man that makes you comfortable. Black masculinity is messy. It’s an amalgamation of masculinities and performances that range from hypermasculine to homophobic. It is trans* and queer inclusive, dapper, daunting, cool, unassuming, hip hop, stoic, vulnerable, r&b, bluesy, rebellious, young, old, somewhere-in-between, sexy, country, aggressive, quiet, respectable and beautiful. It’s all of those things at once. It’s only some of those things some of the time. It’s complicated. Black masculinity and respectability are not synonymous, nor do we need/want them to be.
I find Lynch’s lack of engagement wickedly brilliant. Jenée Desmond-Harris frames Lynch’s “selective silence” as a way for him to resist the system and claim ownership of himself. His refusal to “perform” for white folks entertainment outside the boundaries of his own comfort is his way of achieving/enacting his agency, and refusing to be controlled. It is a way of demanding respect and exerting masculinity. By saying, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” he concedes that they (the powers that be) can force him to show up, but they can’t force him to engage. (Hell, I’m thinking about putting that quote on a t-shirt and wearing it to all of my faculty meetings).
Lynch’s strategic silence speaks volumes and reminds us that the performance of cool masculinity and hypermasculinity threatens respectability, but respectability and respect in general should not be restricted to those of us who look or speak the part.