ESPN the Magazine's "What if Michael Vick Were White?" article is a shameful case of a media outlet shamelessly race-baiting for attention's sake.
The accompanying image of Vick digitally altered to appear Caucasian conveyed clearly the editors' intentions of pimping Vick for shock value. Instead of thoroughly examining a multilayered and challenging issue, they chose to treat the subject as a cheap imitation of a Dave Chappelle skit.
"We had several conversations about how to support the essay with imagery that made people think as much as the words did," ESPN the Magazine Editor In Chief Chad Millman wrote in a statement issued on ESPN Front Row. "Ultimately, the resulting treatment felt like the strongest way to answer the question so many have been asking."
Millman is correct -- the imagery made me think. More specifically, it made me think, "this is an absolute embarrassment to sports journalism." The illustration was designed to draw attention and shock, conjuring connotations of the stereotypical blackface of 19th-century minstrel shows.
On a more subtle level, the actual article is just as anathema to good sense as the picture is. From the opening paragraph, entertainment and culture writer Touré describes Vick's "deeply African-American approach to the game" as "streetball" filled with "swag."
Touré then expands on the main premise of his article -- exploring how Vick's situation would be if he were white. In Touré's hypothetical situation, being born white "sets (Vick's) life trajectory in an entirely different direction."
Touré's declaration that "switching someone's race changes his entire existence," is the fundamental flaw in the article and should offend readers regardless of their race. Race does not change who you are; it only changes how people perceive you.
The difference is tremendous. Under Touré's hypothetical premise, being born white would have provided Vick with a stable home life, economic security and a different set of morals.
In all actuality, such logic is a double-edged sword of negativity: it makes excuses for Vick's actions, while implying certain negative behaviors are endemic to a particular race.
The focus of Touré's article is the assertion Vick would have been a different person based on his race, when a more productive focus would be whether Vick would have been treated differently if he were white. It still wouldn't be a simple discussion -- race is simply one of many important factors in how media and society treat people.
Unfortunately, race is still a massively important factor in cases like Vick's. If Vick were white, would he have been portrayed as a "good ole country boy" who didn't know better because dogfighting was culturally accepted where he grew up? As a hypothetical question, there's no definitive answer, but it is certainly worth discussing.
The only way our society can continue to make progress in moving past the stigmas and subconscious biases that affect our perception of racial issues is to openly discuss such complex issues. However, oversimplifying the discussion with generalizations is even more harmful than ignoring the elephant in the room.
Touré's article makes dangerous and harmful assumptions based on outdated stereotypes, but he has every right to express his opinions. The freedom for a diversity of opinions is part of what makes the United States a free country. Touré should by all means express his opinions and definitely did not deserve the hateful statements he received on Twitter.
The blame in this situation should not go to the author of the article, but to the institution responsible for publishing and promoting it. Aside from its ridiculous accompanying image, of which Touré expressed disapproval when asked about it on Twitter, ESPN the Magazine's decision to publish the article in the first place was a poor one.
The purpose of opinion columns should be to lead thoughtful debate and discussion about important issues. By placing such a tasteless photo alongside an oversimplified argument that failed to address the deeper issues of race in sports, the self-styled "Worldwide Leader In Sports" prioritized getting page views over serving its readership and failed miserably to lead the discussion.
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