Remember the good old days? When everything was in black and white? When America still had family values? When you said, “I’m down with that” it meant you had the flu? And when product placement seemed invasive?
Yeah, neither do I. Thing is, product placement has been around since as early as the 19th century. I don’t know if marketing, advertising, and consumerism (henceforth to be referred to as MAC) are really more pervasive than ever before. But I do know that it’s often hard to delineate between marketing, advertising, consumerism, content, PR, entertainment, education, activism, relationships, personalities, personas, personal branding, posturing, profit, non-profit, prophet, non-prophet, etc. My friends, it’s a wonderfully/horrifically impure world that we live in.
One of the greatest horrific impurities of our world is Super Bowl Media Week, during which 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made homophobic remarks in an interview with shock jock Artie Lange. Shortly after, Culliver apologized in a statement probably crafted by his PR team; one had to wonder how Culliver’s PR team didn’t prep him, an athlete playing in San Francisco, in the first place to avoid such remarks. We can speculate about the sincerity of Culliver’s contrition, but perhaps the sensitivity training he goes through really will lead to changed attitudes, even if he’s initially just doing it to save his personal brand.
What’s clear, though, is that Culliver’s initial remarks were not part of a carefully crafted marketing strategy (unless it was part of an effort to land an appearance in a Focus on the Family Super Bowl commercial). In a roundabout way, Culliver’s candor was helpful in revealing the fact that athletes, and we as a society, still have a ways to go. It can be easy for PR teams to train athletes to (rightly) avoid making homophobic remarks publicly. The more difficult task is in changing everyday attitudes, speech, and practices. It can be easy for us to scapegoat Culliver and decry his homophobic remarks (on Twitter, touting our own progressiveness), but if we’re honest, many of us probably still think, act, and speak in homophobic ways, oftentimes unconsciously, the result of growing up in and being formed by largely heteronormative influences.
In December 2012, Torii Hunter admitted that he would be uncomfortable with a gay teammate “because in all my teachings and all my learning, biblically, it’s not right.” Predictably, backlash ensued, and Hunter later clarified his remarks on Twitter. Even if Hunter’s remarks had been quoted by Kevin Baxter accurately, Hunter didn’t deserve the scolding he received. Encountering difference is uncomfortable, is difficult. We know the “correct” response, but it can be detrimental to the process of learning and changing if the process is glossed over, shortcutted. We have to admit to our discomforts with difference in order to encounter the Other. For many heterosexuals, that took/takes place when a family member or close friend comes out of the closet. When the “issue” moves from being an issue to being a real person, there probably will be discomfort and difficulty, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be openness and hospitality.
One example of hospitality is the way former Villanova forward Will Sheridan’s teammates treated him. Sheridan came out to his teammate and roommate Mike Nardi their freshman year. Nardi continued to say things like “Oh, that shit is gay,” but according to Nardi, Sheridan “didn’t care. He wasn’t sensitive like that because he knew what I meant.” Nardi and Sheridan went on to be roommates for three out of four years. It would be easy to jump on Nardi for his homophobic language, but I think we can critique Nardi’s language, while recognizing his friendship with Sheridan, and the hospitality towards Sheridan that was there on that Villanova team. Nardi may have failed in his linguistics, but as far as embodying acceptance, it looks like he did just fine.
Of course, the ideal is acceptance in both. Language is part of embodiment, but embodiment goes beyond language.
All that to say, while they can help shape new norms for society, carefully crafted PR training and statements can also actually lull us into a false sense of accomplishment and actually mask the need for continued concrete transformation on the ground and in us.
That brings me to last night. It was a bad night for humanity given that Mumford & Sons, who create their music through an elaborate system of manatees in a tank pushing around balls marked “banjos,” “crescendo,” “spiritual references,” “occasional profanity,” “rousing chorus,” “diminuendo,” “more banjos,” and “even more banjos,” were awarded Best Album at the Grammy Awards over Frank Ocean. A bad night given that Nas was not only snubbed once again at said Grammy Awards, but also beat out by one Aubrey Drake Graham, he of Tony Parker-Chris Brown fight fame.
As I prepared to put Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” on eternal repeat and fill a flask with Jameson, little did I know that I could #COUNTONKOBE to be a balm for my cynical soul:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) February 11, 2013
Another user was quick to remind Bryant of the 2011 incident where he called a referee a gay slur, to which Bryant responded:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) February 11, 2013
Bryant is not the first NBA player to speak out against using “gay” as an insult. Grant Hill and Jared Dudley appeared in a PSA by the NBA and GLSEN in 2011:
Hill and Dudley should be commended for doing the PSA, and I don’t intend to undermine PSAs. There is something different, however, when the same message is communicated in what appears to be a more organic context/medium.
I know, I know, Kobe’s Twitter account probably isn’t all that organic. I mean, who really believes that Kobe plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (while more bundled up than Randy Marsh in “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow”) to calm his mind. I’m going to curb my cynicism in this instance, though.
Will Kobe’s personal brand improve after that Twitter exchange? Probably. Was he conscious of that? Maybe. Does Kobe have LGBT folks in his life, and if so, how does he treat them? I don’t know. But I think we saw a moment of grace last night. Bryant’s admonishment was gentle (unlike many of our responses to Culliver), he acknowledged his own past failings, and challenged others to learn from theirs.