Quarterbacks, tattoos and the face of modern racism

Bradley Cox–Staff Writer

On Nov. 28th, Sporting News ran an article on their website entitled “Colin Kaepernick ushers in an inked-up NFL quarterbacking era” by David Whitley, sparking waves of controversy across the internet for the racial tone that the article seemed to convey. The subject of the piece was Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who has gained national notoriety this past month after taking over for injured starter Alex Smith and who also sports half-sleeve tattoos on both arms. It was not Kaepernick’s quarterback rating that inspired Whitley’s article, but rather the ink on his arms. Whitley sees the image of an NFL quarterback with tattoos as an assault on his worldview, and laments the loss of the innocence of his so-called “little Dutch boys” by associating body art with criminality, stating “Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison [San Quentin] have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough ‘Lockup’ to know it’s close to accurate. I’m also pretty sure less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos.” The NFL quarterback is the “ultimate position of influence and responsibility,” the “CEO,” and for this reason above all else they should be held to a different standard. Even after noting that Kaepernick, a biracial son of adoptive white parents, is by all accounts an extremely well mannered, well-spoken, perfect role model with a clean record (in Whitley’s words, “Tim Tebow who can throw”), Whitley still raises concerns, stating “His ink-covered arms will one day raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Imagine the impact that could have… If you can’t draw the tattoo line at NFL quarterback, you can’t draw them anywhere.”

The backlash was instantaneous and overwhelming, prompting Whitley’s editor, Garry D. Howard, to write an article responding to the article and defending his writer. Although much of the criticism was aimed at the racial undertones of Whitley’s article, Howard, himself an African-American, contended that “Generations, not races, divide opinions of Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos.” Indeed, there is certainly a generational divide, and Whitley has clearly staked his claim to the values of the older generation. His assertions are closed-minded and off base, and his journalistic integrity is lazy at best, basing his argument on admittedly fabricated statistics. The social and cultural meaning of tattoos is clearly subjective and without any inherent implications. The fact that it may have been associated with negative behaviors at one time in history does not mean that the same holds true today. According to the Pew Research Center in 2010, over a third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 have a tattoo, and that includes individuals at the top of the business world, including Electronic Arts Sports’ chief operating officer Peter Moore, who sports a Halo 2 tattoo on his arm from his time at Microsoft, not to mention the fact that Whitley specifically cites at least five NFL quarterbacks with tattoos, which, out of only 32 NFL teams would vastly overshoot his 1.3 percent estimate.

However, the far more interesting subject and the source of the controversy was not, as Howard called it, the generational division, but the racial implications, the backlash and our ideas about what “racism” is and isn’t in today’s society. Detractors called Whitley a racist, to which he responded “I’m going to have a hard time explaining that to my two adopted African-American daughters” (an argument that, in itself, sounds an awful lot like the “black friend” argument). What this illustrates is that many people on both sides of the argument fail to understand what “racism” really is or means in this context. We tend to consider “racism” to be a binary dispositional condition: either one hates other races (illustrated by those who outwardly profess extreme racist views, such as the KKK) or one doesn’t. However, in reality, one does not need to consciously harbor hateful attitudes in order to say something racist or formulate an opinion that is informed by an inaccurate racially charged understanding of the world.

It is highly probable that David Whitley is not a “racist.” However, he presents an ethnocentric argument that cannot be separated from negative racial stereotypes, and for that he deserves all of the criticism he has received. The idea that the quarterback position is sacred is directly related to the fact that it is (aside from the kicker) the one position most strongly associated with white people (and something tells me Whitley wouldn’t be all that excited about a tatted up punter either). This is yet one more way that the quarterback position has been subtly raced: tattooing is more strongly associated with black people than white people (despite the fact that polling data from the Harris Poll suggests that African-Americans are actually slightly less likely to have tattoos than white people) and is also more strongly associated with criminality. This bias was illustrated last year when Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson asked his newly drafted (and black) franchise player Cameron Newton if he had any tattoos or piercings. When Newton responded “No,” Richardson replied “Good. We want to keep it that way.” There is no record of a similar conversation with quarterback Jimmy Clausen when he was drafted by the Panthers in 2010.

This also fits hand-in-hand with existing conceptions about the division of labor on the field, wherein the quarterback (white) is the “brains” while the position players (black) rely on pure athleticism; thus the belief that successful black quarterbacks have to be more athlete than strategist, in the mold of Randall Cunningham and more recently Michael Vick. Whitley makes good use of these stereotypes, contrasting the “bad” tattoos of bad examples like black quarterbacks Vick and Terrelle Pryor to the more “acceptable” tattoos of white quarterbacks Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger that do not show through their jerseys and apparently have personal meaning (although he makes no effort to find any potential meaning in the tattoos of the aforementioned black quarterbacks, or, incidentally of Kaepernick, whose tattoos are all deeply religious). This is especially ironic given that Roethlisberger has been accused of rape or sexual assault at least twice. Given this, it is interesting (to say the least) that he chose to evaluate Kaepernick (who is biracial) on the basis of his tattoos rather than his personality traits he earlier praised. USA Today’s Jarrett Bell suggests that perhaps Whitley would be accepting of Kaepernick if he only looked like Ryan Leaf, the one-time first round draft pick and quarterback of the San Diego Chargers who is white, sports no ink and is currently in prison.

Therefore, the tattoo controversy regarding the Sporting News article may be generational, but that does not mean that it is not also racial. After all, support for gay rights is largely generational, but it is quite likely that homophobia has a lot to do with the reluctance of support from the older generation. Longing for a return to the values of a previous “golden age” that are inherently discriminatory against that which does not conform to the white heterosexual male standard is inherently racialized and discriminatory. Garry Howard says that “In this day and time we should be able to have a discussion about tattoos without it morphing into a race debate,” however the context of this debate is so racialized that it becomes impossible to separate the two. Rather, in this day and time, instead of dismissing those who “pull the race card,” we should be willing to listen to the concerns of others, examine our own assumptions and be open to the possibility that if people are offended, there might be a reason for it.

Released in print January 23, 2013.