Alright, Black folks. Enough is enough. It’s time to leave Michael Vick alone.
Anyone with an active social media account has probably witnessed the virtual thrashing leveled at former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick after he said on national TV that free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick should cut his hair as the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback tries to rebuild his image and get signed to a team.
“First thing we got to get Colin to do is cut his hair,” Vick said while appearing on FS1’s “Speak For Yourself.” “I just think perception and image is everything. I’m just going off my personal experiences. Listen, I love the guy to death, but I want him to also succeed on and off the field and this has to be a start for him.”
Black activists and “Hoteps” alike have been lambasting Vick for his comments ever since. But it’s time for everyone to back off, because what he said wasn’t wrong.
What Vick shared with Kaepernick is what I would call classic “O.G.” advice. For those unaware, Black folk often refer to an older, wiser person in our lives as an “O.G.” Though an acronym for “original gangster,” the term is used in urban culture to describe an affectionate a person in your life who has been around the block, has gained wisdom from their experiences and is now in position to share that wisdom with the younger guys. An “O.G.” or “O.T,” short for “old timer,” can be a father, uncle, older brother, older cousin, or even an older friend. It could be a coach, teacher, barber or anybody else who serves as a mentor and has some form of wisdom to pass down to the younger generation.
At age 37, Vick would certainly be considered an “O.G.” to the younger, less experienced 29-year-old Kaepernick. And like Kaepernick, Vick knows all too well how it feels to be ousted from the NFL. Like Kaep, Vick knows what it’s like be considered the face of an NFL franchise with the brightest of futures, and suddenly become an outcast and considered an enemy of the state by NFL owners.
Sure, there’s a huge difference in what Vick and Kaepernick each did to get themselves on the outside looking in. Vick got tossed in a federal penitentiary for 548 days for operating a dog-fighting ring, while Kaepernick simply pissed off White America by taking a knee during the pre-game playing of the National Anthem as a protest of racism and police brutality. But the bottom line is they both became extremely controversial figures. Vick, however, was able to overcome the turmoil surrounding him and made his way back into the league by reshaping his public image.
When asked what it would take for Kaepernick to get a job in the NFL, Vick said the same thing so many “O.G.’s” in the Black community have advised young brothers to do forever: get a haircut. Trust me, I’ve been told the same thing a million times.
I wore dreadlocks from 2005 through 2013. I remember my wife’s grandfather inviting me out to lunch one day, just him and I. I had been proudly serving as the Sports Editor for the AFRO since 2008, but I was also looking for some side work to help pay the bills and provide for my wife and kids, and he knew that. Well, he wanted to break it to me gently that he felt it was time for me to cut my hair to change how potential employers may have been perceiving me.
Of course, I didn’t want to hear that. I was proud of my hair and what it represented. I was a young, proud African-American man and I made it my business to rep my culture to the fullest, especially among professional peers as a sports journalist. I basked in the fact that I was often the only young Black man with dreadlocks sitting in the press box of M&T Bank Stadium during Baltimore Ravens games. When the Ravens went to the Super Bowl during the 2012 NFL season, I made sure I wore my Nike foamposite shoes, a staple in urban culture in Maryland at the time. You see, majority of beat writers covering the NFL are middle-aged White men, and I wanted them all to see a young Black man sitting at the table with them who would not conform to their standards.
Fortunately for me, I was given that opportunity because I worked for a Black-owned newspaper. My employer shares the same ethnicity as I. But that wasn’t the case for the employers I was pursuing side work from. And it’s not the case with Kaepernick and the NFL now.
Vick knows that, and was trying to offer Kaepernick the same advice he received so many years ago. He was telling Kaep to do what he had done when he was facing his own controversy: rebuild his image. Vick followed up his initial comments by saying that many people in his life came to him about cutting his own hair, and like myself, he didn’t want to hear it at first.
“I didn’t listen until the end…until I was going through the turmoil and the hardships and it was very difficult,” Vick said on FS1. “Then I started to see what was most important and that was cleaning up and changing my image not just for public perception but for how the judge [perceived me]. So it was a difficult process that I didn’t like but had to accept.”
Unlike Vick, Kaepernick doesn’t face any federal charges. But there’s no denying that he’s facing charges in the court of public opinion. Many people believe Kaepernick’s actions were unpatriotic, and although Kaep has done an outstanding job of eloquently expressing that his taking a knee is no slight towards the U.S. military or patriotism, many still find the gesture offensive. I’m willing to bet my house that all 32 NFL owners, all of whom are old, rich White folks, are amongst the offended. Go ahead and add a bevy of the NFL’s corporate sponsors to that list, too.
So let’s keep it real, here. We all know if Kaepernick wants another job in the NFL, he’s going to have to change his image. No, it’s not fair to Kaepernick, just as it wasn’t fair to me when I decided to cut my hair following my talk with my grandfather-in-law. I hated hearing that advice at the time, but he was right. It didn’t matter how many college degrees I accumulated (three, by the way) or that I possessed a squeaky clean record. All employers saw were my dreadlocks.
With Kaep, all the NFL owners see is an afro and the revolutionary cause it represents. They don’t care about the fact that he’s better than half of the quarterbacks who do have a job in the league. They don’t care about his clean off-the-field record. They just see someone unwilling to appease to their standards. And that’s all it takes for them not to hire him.
So how do we combat that? Well, it starts with adding diversity to ownership and administration positions. If there were Black owners in the NFL, I’m almost certain they would hire Kaepernick without needing him to change anything about his image. But we still haven’t cracked that glass ceiling yet. We’re on our way, but haven’t gotten there just yet. And sometimes you have to just play the game and do what you have to do until you’re in position to change the game.
The Trojan War wasn’t won on the open field, but with the deceptive infiltration of the Trojan Horse. I understood that fact, and how it applied to the plight of the Black man, after reading “The Spook that Sat by the Door,” a fictional novel from the 1970s that portrayed a young Black revolutionary who hid his true intentions of Black rights activism so that he could become the first Black CIA agent. Once inside, he would learn the CIA’s specialized intelligence and guerrilla warfare tactics and use those methods against them, ultimately giving his own race of people, the oppressed, power over the oppressor. Had the young revolutionary not “played the game” by concealing his pro-Blackness, he would have never made it to a position where he could actually bring about change.
Hopefully, one day, we won’t have to conform ourselves to fit into anyone else’s society. But until that day comes, it’s better to play it smart. Keep your head down and get your chips up until you reach the owner’s box. Prominent Black figures like Michael Jordan or Jay-Z gave us that blueprint. They were often criticized for their silence on politics throughout their respective careers. But now they’re both billionaires who use their positions of power to put other Black folks in positions of power.
Kaepernick doesn’t have to take this approach. My personal advice to him would be to walk away from the NFL and continue his path into activism. That way, he doesn’t have to appease any owners. But if we want to guarantee no Black man ever gets black-balled by the NFL again, we better find a way to that owner’s box. If we want real change, that’s the only way we’re going to get it.