Don't Blame It on the Moon

Jane Sherman

After the Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss fake-mooned the crowd in Green Bay two weeks ago, the sports moralists wasted no time in formulating the imperative response: putting the impertinent wide receiver with the giant afro in his proper place. The first scold to weigh in was Joe Buck, the FOX play-by-play man who worked the game. Within seconds of Moss's end zone celebration, the indignant Buck pronounced it a "disgusting act" and declared deep regret that FOX "had it on our air live."

Buck's broadside was followed in short order by an avalanche of similarly overheated criticisms. After the game, Chris Berman, the ESPN highlight show host and guru of NFL orthodoxy, harrumphed that "Randy disgraced himself." Moss's breach of gridiron decorum was so extreme that ESPN initially refused to air a replay. From there, the pile-on proceeded in a predictable manner. Joe Saraceno, columnist for USA Today, called Moss "a punk" and "the biggest kind of loser." A Charlotte Observer columnist declared Moss "moronic." Closer to home, St. Paul Pioneer Press's Bob Sansevere, who previously diagnosed Moss as suffering from oppositional defiance disorder, declared that Moss suffered from a case of "terminal petulance."

As the frenzy grew, an opposing view emerged. From the perspective of the fans, it turned out, the critics were making a mountain out of moon crater. Then came the revisionist critics. While many claimed to be unimpressed by Moss's antic celebration (apparently, they are just too classy to have a laugh at such crassness), they pounced on the glass-house hypocrisy of the Moss-bashers. The FOX network, they pointed out, has constructed a media empire chiefly through its Herculean and very successful efforts to lower the collective standards for good taste.

Still, Moongate proved too much for the image-sensitive NFL, which insists on marketing itself as family-friendly entertainment. In the NFL, the definition of good taste includes the relentless replaying of the egregiously violent hits ("You got jacked up!" the commentators shout on ESPN every week), the targeted marketing of beer brands to teenagers, and of course the Showgirls-style T&A sideline show provided every week by the cheerleaders.

Yet, for all the sound and fury generated by Moongate (an internet news database search turned up over 600 articles on the topic), one aspect of the story has been left conspicuously unexamined: race. Neither Moss nor any of his defenders made mention of it. Of all people, only Vikings owner Red McCombs even came close. In objecting to the censorious Buck's attack on Moss, McCombs said the announcer had revealed a "prejudice." McCombs did not say that the prejudice was racial in nature, though the implications of that word--intended or not--do linger in the contemporary consciousness.

It is hardly a surprise that race would be left out of the discussion. Officially, the sports world is color-blind. In the current mythology, sports is the leading bastion of meritocracy in American society. Talent, the thinking goes, is all that matters. If you possess it, you play--white, black, yellow, or red. So how could the NFL be racist? Many, if not most, of the country's most popular athletes are black and they are paid vast sums for their efforts, celebrated endlessly on the highlight reels. Obviously, the problem of racism in sports is pure fiction.

Were that only the case. Truth is, the accolades black athletes receive from the mainly white media are typically reserved for players who profess to care what the media thinks of them. These are called "classy" athletes. If they are especially lucky, the sportscasters and columnists might go an extra mile and declare them "intelligent." (In jock speak, that is the ultimate inoculation against a charge of racism: I said a black guy was smart, so how on earth can I be bigoted?)

Certainly, overtly racist views of black athletes have disappeared from the mainstream media. Spoken gaffes from Jimmy the Greek and Howard Cosell created a bright line that job-conscious media types are careful not to cross. So instead, the slap-down of the "bad nigger"--as athletes like Moss were known in previous eras--is accomplished through subtler terms. Sometimes, it is through the coded invective ("lazy" being the favorite term of art); sometimes, it is accomplished through the pure excess of a mass media pile-on.

In his day, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and the object of the most virulent race hatred in sport history, was demonized in a way that is unimaginable today. Johnson was despised because of his race but also--and more importantly--because he did not care what white America thought about him. Such impertinence was deemed a great insult, and Johnson's victories in the ring led to both race riots and, eventually, his imprisonment.

To be sure, Randy Moss is no Jack Johnson--not nearly so compelling a figure and certainly operating in a vastly less noxious racial environment. That said, there are small parallels and curious echoes worth noting. Chief among them: Moss does not care what the press thinks of him. He gives interviews rarely. He dismisses questions he regards as rude or irrelevant. And most significantly--he doesn't seem to care what the pundits think of him. In other words, he doesn't know his place. And that, it seems, is his most unforgivable offense.

As a result, Moss is maligned at every opportunity. His astounding achievements as a receiver are attributed to "natural" athleticism. His story is framed as if his success is simply the product of genetic good fortune (the same thing can be said of nearly everyone in professional sports). His work ethic, his savvy, and his drive, meanwhile, are somehow viewed as suspect. So while Moss remains on pace to break every receiving record in NFL history, he is continually tagged with labels such as "lazy" and "not a team player." In a different era, the words might be different--"uppity" surely would have been deployed, as would "nigger"--but the meanings would be largely the same.

There was one other thing the critics had wrong about Moss's idiosyncratic end zone celebration: It was pretty fucking funny.

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