Column: Odell Beckham Jr. never needed ‘redemption’
The question that NFL Network’s Jim Trotter asked Commissioner Roger Goodell during a news conference is making the rounds on social media, and justifiably so. After first summarizing the league’s dismal history when it comes to hiring Black head coaches, Trotter unexpectedly flipped the script, turning the topic toward the NFL offices and media arm.
According to Trotter, “of the top 11 executives there, there are only two people of color.” The more upsetting revelation was Trotter’s statement that “there is not one black person on the senior level in the newsroom who makes decisions about a league whose player population is 70% Black.”
LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.
It would appear the Rooney Rule, which requires minority candidates to be considered when coaching jobs are being filled, needs to be expanded beyond the field. While a lack of diversity at the executive level is troubling, it is not all that unusual for a multibillion-dollar organization. But a newsroom? That’s just inexcusable.
The league has made some gestures in the right direction, like announcing internships in 2019 in partnership with the National Assn. of Black Journalists. But that’s always been the NFL’s PR approach when it comes to controversy regarding race: Announce changes like a lion, follow through like a lamb.
Trotter is saying the NFL’s news division doesn’t trust Black journalists, while the league is proclaiming it wants to inspire the next generation of Black journalists. Of course, it’s not as if the industry where I started, newspapers, is much better. In fact, that’s why NABJ was formed in 1975, to address the lack of diversity in newsrooms.
They have to not only raise their voices but take action, whether that’s a summit like the one held in support of Muhammad Ali in 1967 or a flat-out work stoppage.
When I was a columnist for ESPN’s Page 2 back in 2006, 87% of the nation’s sports reporters, 90% of columnists and 95% of editors were white, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. At that time, the NFL was 67% Black, the NBA 75%. So coverage of the most popular, and Blackest, sports was largely being done without Black voices — I’d call that “mansplaining adjacent.”
And it shaped how we think about some of the most famous Black Americans. I’m reminded of my own initial trepidation about doing a morning radio show with Keyshawn Johnson, a retired wide receiver whose reputation in the press was dominated by jokes like “throw me the damn ball” and “Me-Shawn.” It wasn’t until we started working together that I learned about his involvement in the Chesterfield Square neighborhood of Los Angeles, his support for LGBTQ rights and his other political activity. Nope, all I knew was what the news media told me, which was unflattering and fell far short of capturing a Black man trying to adapt to the changes in his socioeconomic status while also trying to defend his sense of self and self-worth. Who made the decisions about what we should talk more about?
The quarterback came from the Lions with a string of losses and a lot of personal potential. Will it add up to a Super Bowl berth?
Maybe that “Me-Shawn” rap was well deserved, but maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps the nickname was just a good bit that took on a life of its own because there wasn’t anyone in the newsroom to challenge it with a different perspective.
I recently went back to read some of the headlines about Odell Beckham Jr., who came to the Rams with a questionable reputation. That narrative has shifted a bit, and I’m left wondering why he was ever smeared. He came to L.A. already a three-time Pro Bowler, and the only marks on his record were minor, like reports that he punched a wall after a loss. He’s had three surgeries in four years, but I’ve never heard anyone question his work ethic or talent.
Did he seek attention? Sure, he did. But wanting fame doesn’t make one a bad person. Is it possible that OBJ was never a bad guy, and just got caught up in some drama as he left the Giants and the Browns?
Look at the abysmal racial records of big corporations and the U.S. Senate.
During a 38-7 loss at Pittsburgh, OBJ tossed his helmet and cleats and walked on the sideline in his socks. He said afterward: “I want to be out there ’til the last whistle competing” and “at this point I really don’t care to try to make myself look like a good guy to the world.”
Diva? Sure. But bad guy?
“When I was younger, I definitely did things that could have helped [me] not be seen for who I truly am,” he said this week. “But I also feel like there was a lot more just trying to create a story because it’s easier to see drama than it is to write up good things about somebody.
“I know who I am, and I know myself. I know what I can bring. I know all of the stories.”
Although his reputation has changed for the better, he said, “I don’t really talk satisfaction, because it’s not that deep for me.”
It’s a healthy mindset to have, but it’s disappointing that athletes like him feel that way about the media.
Stories about athletes behaving badly do attract eyeballs. And Black men behaving badly is a story line that America has been very good at selling, which might explain why OBJ is not interested in this new narrative that he has been redeemed.
Seems to me the only reason he needed “redemption” was a perception in the news media that fed on itself over time. Perhaps my industry would have been skeptical and looked closer if there had been more perspectives influencing coverage in more newsrooms.
That’s what Trotter’s question was getting at. That’s the aspect of diversity the NFL is clearly struggling to embrace.
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