For the last few days, the talk has been all Odell Beckham Jr. Every sports channel, reporter, analyst and blog has had Odell’s name in their mouths and on their thumbs. The criticism is all the same: Odell is a punk, a crybaby, selfish, a distraction to his team and so forth. His sideline and game-time frustrations have been well-documented and overstated. What is it about us that we bask in the misfortunes and public struggles of others, especially the rich and famous? What is it about us that we think verbally assaulting someone online or screaming obscenities from the stands is acceptable behavior? What is it that makes us equipped to dissect and judge the behavior of others when we wouldn’t welcome the same harsh insults and judgments in our daily lives? Why do people think the money you make should be a fair trade off for scrutiny and disrespect?
This lack of empathy is a reality all the time in sports. If that guy isn’t on your team or if he isn’t your favorite player, he’s unworthy of your empathy or basic human respect. The entire sports world is playing armchair psychologist to Odell because in their minds he should check his emotions. I’ve always told Black Eli to never get caught up in the hype and you’ll never have to worry about the hate. If they didn’t make you, they can’t break you. So don’t let them make you. Face it: When someone is objectified, he’s not regarded as human. Odell went from the celebrated one-handed catch guy to the frustrated distraction guy.
I roamed the sidelines on Monday night taking in all the drama from the field to the stands. The loss was tough to watch. We couldn’t get anything consistently done on offense, and our defense was missing key guys (Eli included). Frustration was everywhere. A beautiful stadium with dedicated fans became an ugly scene as a few fans near the Giants bench screamed obscenities and vulgarities at Odell, words you wouldn't even utter to your worst enemy. At one point, he responded back to them. I knew it would be a long night.
Crude behavior and attacks have become an accepted norm in sports, especially in football. Security guards just watch as fans are allowed to demean and denigrate a guy trying to do his job. Imagine if someone came to your workplace and yelled obscenities, repeatedly demeaning you as a person. But we expect professionalism in the midst of inhuman verbal assault. Because you’re paid a lot of money, because you have fame, because you’re on a team, you are held to high behavioral standards and given no room for error and your maturation process is given zero exception.
Odell is a fun-loving guy. He’s kind and generous. He’s a passionate competitor. Does he say and do all the right things all the time? No. No one does. Would you or I handle things differently? Probably. But we’re not Odell. We don’t know what it’s like to be a 23-year old young man living in a spotlight bubble. Money and fame don’t make people immune from frustration, and it shouldn’t disqualify them from basic compassion. Black or white, male or female, rich or poor, famous or unknown, we all want to feel understood and included, despite our flaws and limitations.
Odell was not the only one frustrated in Minneapolis Monday night.
I knew going into the week Black Eli wouldn’t be playing, and I was ready to embrace a weekend at home until I got my assignment—a shoot before the Giants-Vikings game. Monday Night Football is like a Broadway production, and everyone has a part to play and a script to follow. My script didn’t go as expected, as my Sunday NFL Countdown shoot never happened. I was told we were all set to interview and shadow the guy who does uniform checks for the league—there are 64 former players with that job. On the way to the stadium, I found out the person I was supposed to shadow never agreed to the piece and the league never gave permission. I was reasonably disappointed. But we all express our frustrations and disappointments differently. I gave myself 13 minutes to be annoyed and angry, and then I went on with life.
On the bright side, I got to experience Monday Night Football live and in person. And what an experience this was. I met so many Hall of Famers and legends.
The greatest thing to ever come out of Michigan is Charles Woodson. Black Eli has watched Woodson forever, and as a family, we’ve all been fans for a long time. I believe Woodson is the best corner to ever play the position, and he has the exact combination of achievement and temperament you want your son to admire and emulate. We’ve always coupled humility with talent when parenting our sons. It wasn’t good enough to be talented—you must respect what you do, those who did it before you and your teammates and opponents. That’s what being a professional athlete is all about, and Woodson has always exemplified everything good about the profession.
Meeting Steve Young was geek-worthy. “Steve, you’re one of my favorite black quarterbacks,” I said as soon as I grabbed his attention away from sideline fans and visitors. “Ronnie Lott always called me a black quarterback,” Steve said with heavy laughter. Glad I wasn’t the only one who called him that. Back in the day, white quarterbacks didn’t scramble. That was something attributed to the handful of black quarterbacks in the league: Cunningham, Moon, Stewart. Watching Young fearlessly get out of the pocket at that point in the league’s history was something to marvel at. To meet the man you watched in high school on the sidelines with Randy Moss and Charles Woodson was a dream come true for this football fan. But the one legend who meant the most to me was Lisa Salters.
When you’re a black girl who loves sports, you’re not used to seeing people like yourself as an important part of the game. The sideline reporters are dominantly blonde, and the cheerleaders don’t look like you. You may ask, why is that important? If you’re saying that, you don’t know what it’s like to be a part of a culture that doesn’t recognize your brilliance or your beauty. In a class system, the black woman is at the bottom of the barrel. Image creates perception, and perception creates reality. The image and perception of black women on TV created a skewed reality for little black girls, even moreso for little black girls who love sports.
A few years ago, I went with a friend to see the movie The Help, about black women in our history who were powerless and relegated to lives as maids and domestics, powerless and unprotected by their country and communities. For 17 minutes after the film, I sat in my seat, unable to move. My heart ached. I sobbed in that small theater in Voorhees, New Jersey. Growing up, I never quite got feminism. Feminism never showed up for the black woman, certainly not the poor black woman.
This is why Lisa Salters is so important to me. She showed my sons and my daughter that black women are poised, knowledgeable, professionally gifted, gorgeous—and they know the game. That’s not an image seen on TV, especially in sports. Black commentators, whether former players or sports reporters, get instant credibility due to their gender, playing experience and perceived knowledge. Not politically correct but factually accurate, the blonde white women we see on the sidelines are often there because they are what sports fans want to see. Not to take anything away from talented and brilliant white female reporters, but black and brown women, who are the same race as many of the players they cover, don’t typically make it to the sidelines or sports anchor desks. White women are what male fans want to see; if nothing else, they remind them of their sisters, wives, girlfriends. There is a connection, an attraction. What respected connection does the black woman have to sports?
Meeting Lisa Salters, though she is now technically my colleague, was an important life moment. Our country is not where it needs to be, but thank God it’s progressed. Salters flawlessly covers each game and investigative piece with precision, intelligence and unwaveringly humble swag. To meet her and introduce my son to her is a moment I won't forget. To her, I may have seemed like a wide-eyed fan, but to me, she represents something of significance. Today there are more women of color in sports, and their voices are becoming more valued and respected. Black or white, Salters, like Lesley Visser and Hannah Storm, is the gold standard.
I bet Lisa Salters never really thought by just doing her job she was setting a powerful example for a young black woman, journalist and mother. One day Odell will realize what a powerful example his actions can send. But that will be a lesson learned in his own time and by his own process; until then, he gets my compassion without judgments.