A FEW YEARS AGO, I decided to become a sports columnist.
I had idols. People in the game I respected. Looked up to.
Only a few of them were black. Jason Whitlock was one of them.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, in a column in The Kansas City Star, columnist Jason Whitlock responded to a column I wrote here on Page 2. He had issues with the column, he had issues with me.
I wrote a column that dealt with the politics of race within sports journalism. In the column, I told a story of educating a group of young black high school and college students about the fact that they stood a better chance of making the NBA than of becoming a sportswriter in America.
As I stated in the column, my information on the subject was based not on theory or opinion, but on facts -- facts that would be validated weeks later in a study by Richard Lapchick and the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. The study reported that only four of 305 (the number is actually five out of 305) sports editors at major newspapers in the country are black and that, of all the sports jobs at those papers, only 6.2 percent are held by blacks.
"You all have a better chance to make it to the NBA than you do doing what I do for a living." Those were my words. Exact.
To some degree, it seems my point was misinterpreted, perhaps because of the way that sentence was written. The statement as it stares at you is not about me personally -- it's about our profession of sportswriting and our role as minorities (by both race and number) in it. That the odds are so stacked against becoming a sportswriter who happens to be black that the NBA -- by the numbers! -- might be a better option.
But one that's still worth pursuing.
Apparently, though, Mr. Whitlock had a problem with the message and the messenger. In his regular column for the Star, Mr. Whitlock went after my argument, then went after me. Personally. He called my argument and point of view juvenile, flawed and stupid, put quotation marks around the word column, apparently to suggest that my work is not worthy of the status, as if I'm not a real columnist.
Then he referenced some black writers (and by implication, me) as "buffoonish," "assimilated," "unskilled," "untrained." A wild radical minority journalist that liberal white managers "love to bend down" to.
As to the topic of the column, Mr. Whitlock made an argument of his own in an attempt to explain the paucity of black sports editors. He claimed, "it's foolish to look at the raw, end-result numbers and conclude that racism is the only explanation and that jobs should just be handed to minorities in the name of diversity."
His point that young black people too often tend to lack the passion and willingness to prepare, pay dues and work their way up to become viable candidates for important jobs in sports journalism is well-taken. Unarguable. But how much passion and preparation should one expect from a generation when that generation sees only a handful of people "like them" -- people of similar race, similar backgrounds, similar cultures -- succeeding in a particular industry?
Choose one: law, medicine, real estate, education, film directing, television producing, hotel designing, interior decorating, video game developing, automobile manufacturing, farming, commercial architecture, engineering, international banking, drug trafficking (not drug dealing) sportswriting.
There's a direct correlation between what people see as accessible to them and what they choose to do with their lives. It doesn't shape what everyone does, but it's naive to think that doesn't play a role. Unless someone sees a person doing something he can see himself doing, finding the passion and work ethic necessary to pursue that career never manifests.
As black people, we often must dream our way through bars that won't bend. That's our existence. Not just mine.
But Mr. Whitlock paraphrased what I wrote as bragging. In no way was it ever about me. It was, and still is, about us, all of us -- Mr. Whitlock included -- who happen to be of color writing about sports for a major newspaper, magazine or Web site. The point I was trying to get across is that there aren't many African-Americans who have gotten the chance to do what we do. That truth doesn't change if it comes from me, Michael Wilbon, Phil Taylor, David Dupree, Jemele Hill or Khalid Salaam. That's just the nature of the game we're in: There simply are more black pro basketball players than there are blacks collecting checks from sports departments at major newspapers, magazines and Web sites in this country.
It's a fact that I always point out to students who want to become sports journalists, a fact that I urge them not to fall victim to. I encourage them to make Mr. Whitlock one of their heroes and inspirations. So when they see him on TV or in the paper or on the Internet, they should realize and recognize that this dude is doing it, that "I have a better chance," that someone like him should be a motivator.
But somehow in my column on the topic, that point got lost -- at least to one reader, and probably more. I simply think the words were read wrong, maybe because of the way I presented them, which is something I'll take responsibility for. But the facts I will stand on, and will continue to use to encourage others to chase this dream that "we" have partially made come true for ourselves and hopefully use to open opportunities for others.
Even the next Jason Whitlock.
A FEW WEEKS AGO in a Web interview (and in another column in the Star), Mr. Whitlock furthered his issues with what I'd written. This time, he furthered his concerns to include the way I write and the way he views me as a person.
Apparently still bothered by something, he decided to stop writing his column for ESPN.com, which ended our time as colleagues. In the interview, he blasted me (along with some other ESPN people). But his attack on me got personal.
Outside of calling me out of my name -- implying I am part of the "Ignorant 5" percent ("the new KKK"), calling me "an insult to black intelligence," a "clown," saying he went to "ESPN executives countless times" because of problems he has with my writing, saying because of me he wasn't comfortable with "his place in the batting order" as a columnist on ESPN.com, saying that he only reads my writing "when he wants to purge" -- he described my writing as "bojangling."
I really don't know what's eating Mr. Whitlock, because for all his issues with me and my style, he has never done the honorable thing, which is to call me so we can discuss it man-to-man. Even when we were sitting together at a table in a Dallas hotel lobby during the NBA Finals in June watching a World Cup game with Dan Le Batard, dude never said anything. Nothing. Even when invited by the producers of "Quite Frankly" to discuss the issue -- his issue with me -- in July, he refused.
Perhaps if he had done that, said something to me, pulled me to the side and said, "Brah, I don't like you, here's why " we'd have no problem now. But he chose to go public, get personal, say things in print that he wouldn't to my face. So let me say this, right here and right now: Who I am, what I write and how I write it is not something I'll ever have to explain or apologize for to anyone! I speak and write the truth as I see it in a language and style that people I care about and respect understand.
Just like the "1.3 Percent Doctrine" column, I write about controversial things. I write about things that often go unwritten by the general sports media, often overlooked by other writers. I see angles in stories that are unconventional, I take those angles. Inside of these angles, I write unapologetically, I tell stories differently. I write a different kind of "column." I take stands.
But what I stand for and what I will stand are sometimes two different things. I will tolerate someone who has a problem with the way I write and my style. I will tolerate someone who disagrees with my opinion. I'll even go so far as to tolerate someone trying to publicly (or privately) discredit me as a writer. Those things I will stand.
But what I will not stand is someone, anyone, crossing the line from professional criticism to disrespect. In the words of Laurence Fishburne in "The Cotton Club": I dance for no one.
Kobe and Shaq? Donovan and T.O.? Tupac and Biggie? Never that. This is one sportswriter who simply doesn't like another sportswriter and stepped outside the professional boundaries to express that.
Have I called Jason Whitlock? Yes. Once. Did he answer or respond? No.
It's done. I'm not going to get in the crab barrel with him. I'll even go so far as to say this: He's entitled to his opinion. I'll honor that. But just because someone doesn't "feel" where you are coming from or know where you came from doesn't give that person the right to disrespect you. In that respect, Jason Whitlock went too far.
All because he doesn't like or understand or "get" the words I type.
Words that I will never apologize for. Words that define who I am.
A FEW DAYS AGO, I read past what Jason Whitlock said about me and read into what he was saying. He talked of a new Civil Rights Movement. We need one. Especially in sports.
In the arena of sports journalism, it would mean the galvanizing of young black minds and young black talent and letting them know there is a place in this game for them to contribute, room for some to shine.
It would mean all of us, black sportswriters, columnists and editors, walking into high school classrooms and onto college campuses and telling what we feel is the truth. The truth about the work we put in, the truth about the work they must put in.
We must give them the raw data. Then tell them that despite the odds and options, their chances are great because none of us stands before them alone.
Because in this game, only because there are so few of us, it is necessary for us to stand together, have each others' backs, through thick and thin skin, whether we like one another or not.
Martin might not have liked Malcolm who might not have liked Stokley who might not have liked Adam C. who might not have liked Bayard. But you rarely heard about it. Not publicly. They understood that the most effective component of a movement is solidarity. They kept the intra-racial hate internal. They kept their eyes on the prize.
So the next time I enter a classroom and explain to those in front of me the truths about being a sportswriter, a black sportswriter, I'm going to tell them which folks they need to hold in high regard and whose paths they need to follow. I'm going to tell them of those I look up to.
Ralph Wiley, William C. Rhoden, Sonja Steptoe, Roscoe Nance, Stephen A. Smith and yes, Jason Whitlock.
Because, regardless of how I personally feel about another brotha, I understand that the first step in creating a Civil Rights Movement is being civil.
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He appears regularly on "Quite Frankly" and other ESPN shows. He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.