Flack he got. Only it wasn't Roberta. Roberta Flack didn't sing
for Mike Tyson, because the all-star parade planned for Tyson
was canceled. On account of he's a convicted rapist, recently
paroled. And the idea of celebrating his release -- well, it
drew some flack. So instead of being paraded, the former
heavyweight champion of the world was discreetly "saluted" last
week in the hazy heat of Harlem, where preacher after preacher
honoring the ex-champ proclaimed him "the prodigal son."
You know: the Biblical boy who demands his share of his father's
estate, leaves home, squanders the money and returns to the old
man, repentant. "Father," says the son in Luke 15, "I have
sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be
called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants." But
the father fetes the lad instead. "Fetch a robe, the best we
have, and put it on him," he tells the help. "Put a ring on his
finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill
it, and let us celebrate with a feast. For this son of mine was
dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found."
The above translation is from The Oxford Study Bible, which
summarizes the story as, "Joy over repentant sinners." If you
forget the fact that, in coming to Harlem, Tyson had not quite
returned home (he's from Brooklyn), or that he remains
prodigiously prodigal (buying cars like he's Adnan Kashoggi), or
that he has yet to admit to or apologize for raping 18-year-old
Desiree Washington in an Indianapolis hotel room, you might have
figured him for a neo-New Testament hero, an honest-to-goodness
Until, that is, he appeared at the "press" conference.
July 2, 1995
Held in a tent in Harlem, the Q-and-A session was dominated by
"sycophants and psycho fans," as the New York Daily News put
it. So Tyson fielded such softballs as "Mike, I just want to
tell you that African-American women love you" and "Mike, do you
still give away free turkeys on Thanksgiving?"
When an actual journalist was somehow heard and began to ask
Tyson if he was "sorry," promoter Don King seized the dais.
"Sorry?!" shrieked King. "Sorry for what?! What are you talking
about?! C'mon, man!"
Moments later Tyson was asked if he would denounce violence
against women, and again one of his handlers handled the
inquiry. "He doesn't have to!" said John Horne, a Tyson
confidant. "I won't sit here and let you disrespect him like
There would be no act of contrition. Tyson left to spread
charity checks totaling roughly $1 million around Harlem before
arriving by limousine in front of the historic Apollo Theater,
the centerpiece of what one pro-Tyson speaker called "the most
famous black community in the world."
HARLEM SALUTES MIKE TYSON & DON KING read the banner on the
makeshift stage set up in the street, where over 500 spectators
-- "so desperate for heroes," as one Harlemite put it -- waited
for two hours in the 95-degree heat for a few words from Tyson.
But first, there were filibustery speeches: some praying for
Tyson's redemption, many stating that he was railroaded in the
rape trial and a few frighteningly implying that, all things
considered, rape is a relatively unserious transgression.
"Remember the lady who drove her two children into the river in
South Carolina?" asked the Reverend William Crockett. "Mike
Tyson didn't do that. Remember Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the
building in Oklahoma City? Mike Tyson didn't do that. Remember
Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate the people and put them in the
refrigerator? Mike Tyson didn't do that."
In short, Mike Tyson is no manslaughterer. Though Don King is.
Does it matter? Both men did their time. But do an athlete's
actions outside the arena diminish his greatness in it? "Like
Picasso," says Camille Paglia, a self-described dissident
feminist and author who is decidedly in Tyson's corner. "Because
he was mean to his girlfriend, he was not a great artist?" Of
course he was.
So, say Mike Tyson remains a great artist inside the ring.
Should you root for him?
"Why not root for Mike Tyson?" asks the man who prosecuted him,
Indianapolis attorney Greg Garrison. "He paid his debt to
society. People have expected me to have a medieval attitude
about him, that he ought never to have success again. But that's
antithetical to the notion of rehabilitative justice. How many
times do you pay for the same sin?"
Socrates might respond this way: How does one rehabilitate a man
who won't acknowledge having sinned? "How do you heal somebody
who doesn't admit they want it?" asks Boston Globe columnist
Ellen Goodman. "Even your basic 12-step programs say you have to
admit what your behavior was."
Moreover, long before the rape conviction, Tyson's behavior was
a model of misogyny. He allegedly boasted that the best punch he
ever landed was on Robin Givens, his wife at the time. Upon
receiving an honorary doctorate from Central (Ohio) State in
1989, Tyson was moved to remark to a gathering of about a
thousand, "I don't know what kind of doctor I am, but watching
all these beautiful sisters up here, I'm debating whether I
should be a gynecologist." Which is to say he was a crass act.
The heavy hopes of others he shed like a fighter sheds clothes
at weigh-in. "There are so many negative myths about black male
athletes, myths that I have personally committed myself to
eradicating," says Reggie Williams, the former Cincinnati city
councilman and Bengal linebacker who is now an executive at the
Walt Disney World Company. "But all of my actions will never
carry the media clout or have the domino effect of one of Mike
In a poignant counterpoint to Tyson's circus maximus in Harlem,
some 75 demonstrators protesting violence against women --
members of African-Americans Against Violence, a group formed in
response to the Tyson parade plans -- assembled outside the
Apollo the night before the "salute." They were nevertheless
rooting for the fighter. And why wouldn't they be? Said
spokesman Donald Suggs, "We want to get him to the point where
we can look at him as a hero."
Tyson declined an "invitation" to that rally; instead he
reportedly spent the evening in a men's clothing boutique a mile
away. Two nights earlier he had bought a $123,000 Mercedes over
the telephone, complementing the four $320,000 Bentley Azures he
had recently purchased in Las Vegas, where he had also sprung
for a big house since being sprung from the big house in March.
There is nothing wrong with that, except that Tyson claims an
ascetic new lifestyle. "The only thing I do is pray and fight,"
says Iron Mike.
To be fair, he did convert to Islam in prison and allegedly read
the great works of Western literature. And though he failed to
obtain his high school equivalency degree while spending three
years behind bars, there were larger lessons to absorb at the
Indiana Youth Center. "You hope he's learned something," says
filmmaker Spike Lee, who visited Tyson five times in the
slammer. "I think eventually he'll speak out against abuse to
Lee wrote and directed Do the Right Thing. Tyson has yet to do
it. And even he can't say that he has changed. "If I have," is
all Tyson will say, "I hope it's for the better."
Some sports fans would like to know whether that's true before
they decide to root for Tyson. "I don't find it easy to root for
people just because they win," says Temple basketball coach John
Chaney. "I find it easy to root for people because there's
something about their attitude."
"His lack of contrition and his immediate re-signing with Don
King and his purchase of a million-dollar house suggest that
maybe he hasn't changed," says Congressman Bill Richardson (D.,
N.Mex.), a fight fan who has sponsored legislation to regulate
Some of Tyson's backers say he has nothing to apologize for,
arguing instead that he was a victim of a judicial system that
continually comes down hardest on black men. "I know him well,
and I believe he was falsely accused and convicted, and the
community believes that as well,'' says Russell Simmons, CEO of
Def Jam records. Just as some rap lyrics express young
African-Americans' rage and frustration, Simmons says, Tyson
represents their hopes. "The gangsta rappers say things in their
songs all the time about how they'd much prefer to have an
education, but that isn't an alternative. Today young black kids
have no opportunities. They used to have affirmative action, now
there's little hope. Mike Tyson presents a powerful image of a
young black kid who took street smarts, determination and hard
work and built his own industry. He represents hope."
"Mike is trying," says Muhammad Siddeeq, Tyson's spiritual
adviser and tutor in prison. "Mike is moving in a positive
direction. He's been to jail. He's paid a price. He hasn't
reached angelic status, but he's moving in the right direction.
"What more can society ask of a man?"
"What are we asking of Mike Tyson?" echoes Williams. "Do you
want him never to box again? Do you want him to pay more for his
crimes? Do you want to give him a chance to prove the naysayers
wrong? Do you want him to just roll up and die? Is there any one
thing that will satisfy all these diverse points of view?"
Is society not fractionally responsible for the care and feeding
of its heroes? At the time of his trial in 1992 Tyson was the
most prominent American figure since Errol Flynn in 1943 to be
charged with a crime as serious as rape. Today, that statement
can stand on its head: In being charged with a serious crime,
one becomes famous in America. Celebrities have always said that
fame is a prison. Now it is literally so.
So we have serial-killer trading cards, love letters mailed to
the brothers Menendez, a welcome-home party for Joey
Buttafuocco, and teens too young to have known him as an athlete
applauding fugitive double-homicide suspect O.J. Simpson as he
fled police in slow motion. Fame has become an inherent moral
good. Celebrity and celebrate spring from the same Latin root.
"We go into neighborhoods as coaches and think we can convince a
kid that 'son, if you get educated, you'll go to college, have a
good job, a car,'" says Chaney. "That's bull. We don't
understand that as he looks out of his eyes and sees Mike Tyson
and others like him as heroes, he feels everything is instant.
He thinks, I can gain a lifestyle without waiting 10, 15 years.
It's easier to go out and commit a crime."
Thirty-three years ago felonious fighter Sonny Liston was an
unpopular heavyweight champion. Gangstas were not heroes to
youngstas, as they are today. Should a society that glorifies
the culture of violence -- indeed, which sees no oxymoron in
that phrase -- really have a problem pulling for Tyson, a man
whose brutality (in the ring) is his most praiseworthy quality?
You might suggest that this magazine sure hopes not, for Tyson
-- "the former champ" -- stars in the videotape currently given
"free ... with your paid subscription to Sports Illustrated."
Get into it. Athletes now come Scotchguarded against scandal.
"They come back and participate and are accepted as heroes,"
says Chaney. "I find that to be very dangerous. It goes back to
the old saying, 'Bad publicity is better than no publicity.'"
But of course. The day before Tyson's tour of Harlem, the Bronx
Bombers signed tax cheat, drug abuser and woman-beater Darryl
Strawberry to a three-month, $850,000 contract, a move so myopic
that it was immediately denounced by Dr. Brown. Not former
American League president Dr. Bobby Brown, mind you (though he
might have pointed to Strawberry's near total decline as a
ballplayer), but by federal drug czar Dr. Lee Brown, who said
the New York Yankees "are sending the worst possible message to
the youth of America: that if you use drugs, you can be rewarded
with big money in big-time sports." Ask Strawberry's teammate
Steve Howe, the man in the Stain-Master cloak, still unsullied
in the eyes of at least one baseball owner after seven
By contrast, Tyson merely requires a second chance. And no one
would deny him his right to earn a living. What Tyson is not
entitled to, says Goodman, is renewed renown. "Why is he
treated more as if he were Michael Jordan than Mike Tyson?" she
wonders. "Because he can bring in the bucks, that's why."
Bring in the bucks. If they do that in this culture, Iron Mike
is eternally Teflon-coated and Strawberry fields forever.
"It's fine to make a buck with Tyson," says HBO Sports boss Seth
Abraham, whose network lost to Showtime in the sweepstakes to
televise Tyson's fights over the next three years. "That doesn't
trouble me. He went to prison and served his time."
You've heard the phrase "Time is money"? Tyson may have earned
only 65 cents a day while sweeping the gym in the joint, but his
was an interest-bearing sentence. He became a much hotter boxer
in the cooler. When Tyson entered prison, his career's parabola
was on a noticeable decline. In the 25 months following his
stunning loss to Buster Douglas in Tokyo, Tyson launched a
comeback in which he had four wins against waning contenders,
the last of which was a 12-round decision against Razor Ruddock.
In the four years since then he has thrown no punches that we
know of. Ergo....
"We think Tyson is the hottest commodity in boxing," says Tom
Bruny, director of public relations and advertising for the MGM
Grand in Las Vegas, which will host Tyson's next six fights, pay
him $36 million and still need a craps rake to pull in the
profits. No wonder the MGM Grand has commissioned a 48-foot
portrait of Tyson to put on a rotating cube outside. And you
know what? Most fight fans will tell you the image is life-sized.
"He was always a towering giant in the heavyweight ranks," says
one boxing buff. "You've seen him in the ring. He's thunder and
lightning." (Forgive Tyson if he fails to phone the florist: The
speaker is Garrison.)
The point is, few will resist watching when Tyson returns to the
ring on Aug. 19 to tenderize a side of beef named Peter
McNeeley. "I'm not asking him to change the world, to do more
time or send me a few bucks for my personal pain or to sign an
autograph or talk to my kids," says Williams. "I want to see
Mike Tyson come out of his corner with that look in his eyes and
his gloves up near his jaw."
Why not? "Hate the sin, love the sinner," is an admirable
chestnut of Judeo-Christian teaching. Surely you can separate
Tyson the fighter from Tyson the felon, cheering the former and
condemning the latter. "I think Mike Tyson, like all of us, is
an imperfect human being," says Congressman Richardson. "We
should like the good side and dislike the bad side. You don't
have to love him all the time or hate him all the time. The
human being in me wants him to show humility and contrition. But
would I pay to see him fight? Yes."
On the other hand, "some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall,"
wrote Shakespeare. So does that make Tyson an indivisible
entity: By elevating the fighter, are you endorsing the felon?
"Saying you separate Tyson the man from Tyson the boxer is
saying, I don't care about his raping Desiree Washington; all I
care about is whether he beats Peter McNeeley," says Goodman.
"Frankly, people who buy Showtime pay-per-view are supporting
him and supporting the notion that you can get away with
The Tyson-McNeeley fight will go for $50 a throw on
pay-per-view. The MGM Grand is already a near sellout. And
speaking of sellouts, King noted last week that in marketing
Tyson he is using "every available means of exploitation."
To see Tyson on that stage in Harlem was to know that King
hadn't misspoken. The fright-haired promoter was introducing
Tyson to his impatient public when the Reverend Al Sharpton, the
New York political opportunist, stepped forward. He was supposed
to introduce Tyson. King acquiesced, and Sharpton did the
honors, joining the chorus of those likening Tyson to the
Prodigal Son. "Bring forth the fatted calf," said Sharpton.
As Tyson stepped to the microphone, that's exactly what he
looked like. The fatted calf.