Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Would You Rather Be A Fish

While discussing something non-ball-related, my significant other recently called me a "curmudgeon" (a badge I wear proudly) with a tender yet harrumping hint of derision. Still breathing this chilled air, I will now release a weighty load that has cramped my ventricles for months, concerning one Dwight Howard.
“That’s so gay.”

“I got gypped.”

“He’s a strapping young buck."

I saw a billboard in Chicago recently advertising a publicly minded website called “”. The spirit behind that effort (though it explicitly targeted only the first of my three examples) is quite right; the educated response to any of these above-cited idioms is to educate the speaker about its odious origin. It may be that teenagers reflexively dismissing a cacophonous pop song or a taxing history assignment as “gay” are truly and sincerely not associating the lame thing with homosexuals; they just think it’s dumb. Still, all told it would be better to expunge an offensive word from the language rather than allowing it to live on in repurposed form.

I raise all this because the NBA’s marketing machine has, of late, put all its oomph behind a hideous metaphor that deserves to disappear. Consider Dwight Howard’s self-professed ‘Superman’ persona, which he initiated at the 2008 All-Star Slam Dunk Contest and continued to tend at the same event in 2009. Howard and his sponsors happily agree when any NBA commentator speaks of him as Superman or uses related imagery in a bid at rhetorical adornment.

Howard has said that he thought to develop the Superman gimmick while listening to a hip-hop song by a young MC named Soulja Boy. The lyric “Superman that ho!” in Soulja Boy’s popular rap song “Crank Dat” refers to, well, an act that you can investigate for yourself via Urbandictionary or some other apt source. I can’t say whether Soulja Boy or any of his associates ever accomplished this tricky feat, or whether it remains inchoate, limned only by theory. The mere thought is disgusting, crude, vile, and misogynistic.

That’s the admitted inspiration for Dwight Howard’s Superman persona. Really! And if you still don't believe me, well, here's some video of Mr. Howard practicing Soulja's virally popular dance moves that accompany the song:

To be sure, many young people like to deploy charged symbols with little regard for the etymology or implications. Consider teens who wear Catholic rosaries as a fashion statement, or tattoo an Iron Cross on their bicep, or draw an “anarchy” symbol in white chalk on their backpack, or wear a Che Guevara shirt because, well, he’s so rebellious. Soulja himself was only 17 when his “Crank Dat” climbed the charts.

Unlike my examples above of “gay”, “gypped”, and “young buck”, there are other idioms of questionable provenance that nearly everyone in polite society uses. Consider “That sucks.” or “You really got the shaft there.” I can’t imagine that, in an ultimate analysis, these phrases mean anything other than “That’s just as weak and shameful as performing oral sex on a man”, or “Your wrongful suffering was just as bad as being anally penetrated.” Right? Am I missing something? What is the tacit message we send about those individuals (men and women) who regularly engage in such behaviors?  (To be clear, I am not endorsing the message.)  Yet folks say this all the time, and sometimes with a grin on their face.  It is not hard to wield words as a tool of oppression.  Respectable adults routinely refer to a white tank-top as a “wife-beater”, which I think is both anti-women and anti-men at the same time. (The casualness of the utterance is incredibly misogynistic, while the presumption that any dude who dresses like that must be an abuser is fairly bigoted, and possibly classist as well.) Perhaps I am fighting a lonely battle if I wish to chase these noxious palabras out of contemporary speech. I try to avoid all of the above terms, even though I sometimes exclaim under my breath that some calamity really SUCKED!

A college photo of Bulls star Derrick Rose surfaced earlier this year, showing him and a buddy wielding dueling gang signs with their fingers – Rose with the Gangster Disciples and his mate with the Vice Lords. This was surely a joke (if those two guys were in fact affiliated with those two gangs, they would not be hanging at a party together), and Rose probably meant little more than did the oodles of scores of scores of suburban kids who have posed in the same way. This may not be any different from the teenager with an anarchy symbol, though perhaps Rose’s erstwhile proximity to gang activity as a child in Chicago means that his gang sign at the Memphis party represents a cheerfully ironic distance. The suburban teenager is positing no ironic distance, because s/he was never close to anarchists in the first place. I would put Dwight Howard in the second category. He may genuinely be too innocent, or perhaps he may not be perspicuous enough, to know what Soulja Boy’s song is about.  Perhaps he could argue that he means the Superman persona innocently.  On the other hand, given the original association that he authored, it's hard not to "read" him as representing the Soulja song.

Moreover, Howard is no kid. A few months ago, I participated in an internet discussion (OK, it was the juggernautic “Facebook”) in which several individuals averred with all sincerity and conviction that Dwight Howard is still a virgin, owing to his successful self-promotion as a man of faith. I helped them out by pointing them to this photo below, of Dwight Howard’s cute young son Braylon and his mother Royce Reed, a former Magic cheerleader who gave birth to the kid in early 2008. And surely, like fellow Orlandoan Eldrick T. Woods, Howard has skinny-dipped more than once.

I was a bit surprised when I read this April 2009 article in Sports Illustrated suggesting that the nursery room in Howard’s home, intended for young Braylon, is "seldom used". Mr. Howard rarely sees his child? But really, this is nothing but expected: a 23-year-old ballplayer with daily obligations for practice, workouts, filming clever commercials, and applying for his Chinese visa has little time to spend with an infant. He probably wouldn’t be very good at it even if he spent all day with the kid. This is a man who thinks, per the above SI piece, that entire closets full of candy are a good use of his square footage. Really!

In short, the NBA’s support of Howard’s Superman antics is embarrassing. Has no one the temerity to take him aside and tell him, sorry Dwight, but this is unacceptable? Every player and every team surely has access to a PR flack who can suggest what is, or is not, a good idea for public figures. Why do so many who are under strict scrutiny feel that everything’s okay as long as they’re making money and nobody complains?

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