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Carrying a Cultural Burden: Falcons’ Michael Vick & Grizzlies' Ja Morant

Memphis Grizzlies star, Ja Morant finds himself at the crossroads of losing his NBA success due to clinging onto “street culture,” but he should look at former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as a precautionary tale.

Back in 2007, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was a two-time Pro Bowler and a superstar both on and off the field, yet he found himself behind bars.

Flash forward to present day 2023, and sports media has sunk its teeth into a "New Vick," [whether his actions are deserving of the title or not] in two-time NBA All-Star and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant.

In a modern NBA dominated by international players, Morant is arguably the league's brightest young American star. He holds the culture in his hands, and, with it, has the potential to be the face of the NBA. Yet, the celebrity status might be too much for the 23-year-old to handle as he continues to make headlines for his actions off the court.

Since ascending, Morant has conducted himself recklessly with two incidents of holding a gun on Instagram Live. First was the one in a strip club that earned him an eight-game suspension.

Following the first incident on Instagram in March, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement on Morant’s suspension.

“Ja’s conduct was irresponsible, reckless, and potentially very dangerous,” Silver wrote. “It also has serious consequences given his enormous following and influence, particularly among young fans who look up to him. He has expressed sincere contrition and remorse for his behavior. Ja has also made it clear to me that he has learned from this incident and that he understands his obligations and responsibility to the Memphis Grizzlies and the broader NBA community extend well beyond his play on the court.”

Not even two months later, Morant proceeded to flash a gun on Instagram Live again, this time while in a car with friends. He now faces an indefinitely long suspension. These incidents are in addition to other accusations that have followed the star.

Late in the 2021-22 season, Morant threatened a Twitter troll in a since-deleted tweet saying, “It’s free to see how hollow feels.” After the season, he allegedly threatened a mall security guard. Then, four days later, he allegedly beat up a 17-year-old and flashed a gun at him after an argument. Finally, an alleged incident in January led to Indiana Pacers players claiming that a laser from a gun was pointed at them from Morant’s vehicle, which included his associates.

While all of this is troubling and confusing coming from a young man who seemingly has the world in the palm of his hands, it’s not a new phenomenon.

As the first black quarterback to be drafted No. 1 overall, Michael Vick could’ve been the athlete to eliminate racial tropes that players such as Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick would claim to be subject to by NFL general managers years later. Instead, he serves as a precautionary tale for up-and-coming athletes as to why they shouldn’t get too involved in “street culture.”

A 2017 article from Andscape summarized what Vick’s celebrity represented at its peak when he played for Atlanta.

“Vick was hip-hop, gang culture and streetball all wrapped up into one world-class athlete. He was the Allen Iverson of the gridiron,” Andscape said.

The article went on to point out that “It was Vick’s jersey that [Jermaine] Dupri wore in the “Welcome to Atlanta” music video. Vick appeared in T.I.’s video for his 2003 track “Rubber Band Man,” and the quarterback’s name found its way into verses spit by nearly every Atlanta rapper making music in the mid-2000s.”

Unfortunately, Vick's highlight reel is paired with equally astounding lowlights for his activities off the field. In 2007, Vick was sentenced to serve 23 months in prison after pleading guilty to his involvement in a dogfighting operation.

Despite cleaning up his act after leaving prison, winning the Ed Block Courage Award in 2009 [an NFL honor earned by teammates voting for him as an inspiration] due to advocating for eradicating animal cruelty nationwide while working with The Humane Society of the United States. His sentence stained the progress that'd been made as black hip-hop culture began to seep into mainstream America.

Andscape wrote, “Vick wasn’t the first black quarterback to grace Madden’s cover,” but, “with the hair, the ’hood, the swagger, he was a litmus test for black acceptability in white space … he signaled a readiness from the masses for a black quarterback as the face of the NFL — something black America had been awaiting for decades.”

Now, just as Vick’s name was once a staple in hip-hop culture, Morant’s name has become a regular fixture in rap lyrics, whether it be mentioned on songs such as J. Cole’s My Life or the focus of a complete song such as Moneybagg Yo’s Rookie Of The Year.

A prominent sports figure bridging the crossroads of hip-hop and the streets is nothing new. The long-standing connection between athletes, rap, and violence is well documented.

Look no further than rap legend Tupac Shakur’s death following his attendance at a Mike Tyson fight as an example of the toxic relationship that can occur when sports, rap, and the streets become too closely linked.

As recently as November of 2022, Takeoff, a member of the Atlanta rap trio Migos, was shot and killed while observing a dice game being played in Houston, standing just inches away from boxing champion Shakur Stevenson.

A long-standing criticism of hip-hop has been the glorification of guns and violence, two things that Morant has seemingly taken an affinity toward, as indicated by his love of rap star NBA YoungBoy, who’s associated with violent lyrics.

However, for all the endorsement deals street cred can get you, indulging in street activity can cost you everything in an instant. It’s a delicate balance.

Professional sports leagues view the world through the lens of black and white, good or bad, yet their most profitable commodities are the players that transcend race, such as how Ja inspires kids of all races to hit the Griddy like him when they score.

What's complicated is that professional sports leagues look to profit from their "street athletes," yet they publicly condemn them when one side of the market decides it’s gone too far and brings bad publicity. Vick and Morant can only be as "street" as the suburban mainstream is ready to accept.

Both athletes and rappers put themselves at risk when they refuse to distance themselves from a street mentality and toxic acquaintances, which Vick learned the hard way and Ja would be wise to accept.

To most people, it may seem incomprehensible that someone like Morant or Vick would even consider actions that might cost them millions of dollars, but a Bleacher Report article from 2007 credited Vick’s irresponsible behavior to a concept known as cultural relativism.

“Many people have asked, “Why would a man who had well over a hundred million dollars spend his time fighting dogs?” If we use the framework that Geertz lays out in the “Balinese Cockfight,” an answer presents itself,” Bleacher Report wrote. “Is it possible that the true meaning in Vick’s life, his ultimate sense of self-worth, beyond the money, cars, and women, could be found only in a game of “Deep Play?” The more irrational and high-risk the endeavor, the more momentous it became for Vick and his friends: enter dog fighting.”

Cultural relativism, simplified, is the idea that one’s specific culture dictates the importance of something.

In Vick’s case, the South normalized dog fighting more so than the typical American household, thus making him not only more prone to commit that crime than, say, Tom Brady, a Californian suburban kid, but more likely to glamorize it above the financial risk.

Morant’s vice seemingly comes from a new generation that values social media clout-chasing and has normalized hip-hop’s glamorization of guns and violence. This combo seems to appeal to him more so than an NBA check.

In the words of rapper Snoop Dogg, Morant’s emphasized the wrong part of show business. Rather than prioritize keeping his money safe by focusing on conducting his business privately and professionally, he’s emphasized being the ‘show’ and earning validation from rappers he likes to listen to. Snoop Dogg spoke on Morant’s situation during an appearance on The Pivot.

“He ain’t ready to have the city on his back,” Snoop Dogg said. 

The rap legend acknowledged that social media was a problem for the younger generation that exposes stars’ actions taking away the freedoms he enjoyed as a young and reckless star. However, instead of condemning the Morant as much of the media has, he offered advice saying, “The get back gotta be better than the setback.”

Snoop shared that in his youth, his uncles would let him “Dibble and dabble [with vices]” but would kick him out of Ill-advised situations, saying, “Don’t f*** your life up.”

While the 15 minutes of fame social media offers may seem enticing, it requires discipline to build a Hall of Fame like LeBron James or Brady rather than fizzle out, becoming a flash in the pan. Vick detailed the pain of his actions and their consequences in a letter to The Players Tribune in 2017.

“In those first few months of my sentence, I really did come to understand how far I had fallen. I came to understand how much hurt I had caused, and how much work it was going to take to earn back just a portion of the respect that I had lost — both people’s respect for me, and my respect for myself. I came to accept the consequences,” Vick wrote. “Not everybody can tell you the specific day that they hit rock bottom, but for me it isn’t hard: April 26, 2008. The day my mom had a birthday and my grandma had a stroke. The day the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan, quarterback out of Boston College. The day I lost Atlanta.”

Perhaps money isn’t what drives Morant, and he, too, must lose his respective city as Vick once did before maturing. 

As Vick wrote in his letter, “The only person on the entire planet who wasn’t unstoppable while playing as Michael Vick — was me. Michael Vick.”

It’s ironic that Vick couldn’t succeed using himself in Madden when everyone else says that they could have. It reflects the way that people talk about how they would succeed off the field if only they had the talent of him or Morant on it.

During an interview with Black Enterprise, the former Falcons quarterback shared advice learned from his mistakes. 

“I preach a hard message when talking to the youth in terms of responsibility, character, your beliefs, values, and morals,” Vick said. “I try to explain to young men and women the hurt and the anguish that I’ve experienced to grow stronger and to get to where I am today. I want my message to be, at all cost, you’re not going to go through life perfect, there are going to be some ups and downs, but it’s all in how you persevere.”

With reports that Morant is distancing himself from social media, one can only hope that he has learned from his mistakes like Vick once did before it costs him more. As the expression goes, Morant should keep the main thing, the main thing. 

The first step is to do as many OGs have advised. He should distance himself from some of his acquaintances that have proven to be baggage and dedicate himself to being a better role model off the court. Learning from the Atlanta legend's mistakes could save Morant’s career.

You can follow Isaiah DeAnda Delgado on Twitter and Instagram @IsaiahDDelgado.

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