Posted on November 22, 2004

It’s Really About Race

Sports Illustrated, Nov. 18

I should’ve known this latest Terrell Owens story wouldn’t vanish quickly. It involves sex, money, sports and, most critically, race. These are topics that make for a lively debate and I doubt that T.O. has any idea what kind of Pandora’s Box he jolted open when Nicollette Sheridan vaulted into his arms on Monday night. ABC and anybody else who makes money off Desperate Housewives, is still reveling in all the publicity generated from the segment.

Personally, the skit didn’t bother me one bit. What the segment did do, however, was make me wonder if America was ready to see a naked, blonde, white woman with her arms wrapped around an outspoken, controversial, highly paid black man. From what I can tell from everybody’s reaction, the country definitely wasn’t.

Isn’t that what this is really all about? Once we get past all the people complaining about how inappropriate the skit was for the Monday Night Football audience and how so many children will be scarred after being exposed to such a tawdry scene before their bedtime and all the decision-makers in the NFL who have raced away from this topic as if it were a time bomb, this is an issue that comes down to race. Aside from Tony Dungy, nobody wants to talk about that aspect of the story, because that’s the really scary part. It might tell us something about ourselves, that our country hasn’t come as far in the area of race relations as we’d like to believe. Even now, with so many people still talking about Owens and Sheridan, I doubt we can fully address it like it needs to be addressed.

It’s the one issue in this country that remains difficult for us to talk about. If you’re black — or any other minority — you deal with race every day. It’s a fact. If you’re white, you deal with race mostly as it impacts you. It’s a choice. Moments like the one that occurred on Monday night force us to come face-to-face with how we really feel about the subject and that is a good thing. In fact, I tell you what’s been the most amazing moment for me since Monday night. It was a friend telling me that one of his buddies was shocked by the suggestion that all this controversy could’ve had anything to do with racial attitudes. As my friend’s friend said, “Aren’t we past the days when we have to think like that?”

No, we aren’t. If you want to know how touchy the subject of black men hooking up with white women is, take a quick poll of America. There are plenty of black women who will have something to say about it. There are still plenty of interracial couples who know what it feels like to be stared at when they’re out together. And there are plenty of parents, black and white, who are petrified by the thought of their sons and daughters proclaiming their love for somebody with a skin color different from their own. And when it comes to sports, there are plenty of people uncomfortable with the notion of a black man bedding a white woman.

I guarantee you that if Peyton Manning had been the man Sheridan jumped on, there wouldn’t be half the controversy. If it had been Eva Longoria, the Latina co-star of Desperate Housewives, there also wouldn’t be as much of an outcry. Two minorities locked in a sexual embrace isn’t as shocking a thought in some of those red states. This is the same type of thinking that is all around Hollywood. When’s the last time you saw Will Smith, Taye Diggs or DenzelWashington smooch a white woman? I can’t recall it either because the people who make movies know they’d face the same response as ABC is dealing with now.

Everything I’m talking about here points to one central issue — how comfortable America is with black men as sexual objects. Dungy had that part right when he talked about the Owens segment reinforcing the racial stereotype of a black sexual predator being chased by a fawning white woman. But I think it’s deeper than that. Americans celebrate the black athlete and pay him huge sums of money but many people still have issues when it comes to his sex life. It’s too salacious, too disturbing, just too much. But thanks to T.O., we’ve got an opportunity to openly talk about how we feel about it. I only wonder when we’ll all realize that.