Irvin, Harrison, and the Cost of Free Speech

07/15/2011 at 2:28 pm By

Two questions:

1.)    Was James Harrison right for berating his teammates and the NFL commissioner in this Mens Journal interview, and later apologizing for it?


2.)    Was Michael Irvin right for throwing the African-American community’s homophobia under the bus in his Out Magazine interview?

If you ask me, I’d say yes.

James Harrison said something that anyone who has ever had a contentious relationship with an employer has wanted to say, but were too scared to say. Michael Irvin said something that was long overdue.

Michael Irvin threw his hat and public figure status into the ring on the debate over the validity of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. He says he did so to honor his late brother, Vaughn.

In the feature with Out Magazine, Irvin reveals his difficulty accepting his late brother’s gay lifestyle, his fear of being labeled gay by association, and the ways in which he overcompensated for that fear in other areas of his life.

Irvin sheds light on seeing his older brother dressed in women’s clothing, and being confused as well as embarrassed. He would explain how years later he would come to empathize with those who were gay, but in the proverbial “closet”:

“I’m not gay, but I was afraid to even let anyone have the thought. I can only imagine the agony—being a prisoner in your own mind — for someone who wants to come out. If I’m not gay and I am afraid to mention it, I can only imagine what an athlete must be going through if he is gay.”

Irvin said that he will support any current athlete if they were to announce that they were homosexual. He also made it a point to single out the African_American community, and why they in particular should support same-sex marriage:

“I don’t see how any African-American with any inkling of history can say that you don’t have the right to live your life how you want to live your life. No one should be telling you who you should love, no one should be telling you who you should be spending the rest of your life with. When we start talking about equality and everybody being treated equally, I don’t want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn’t deserve equality.”

Irvin ruffled feathers with the last statement comparing the struggle for the civil rights of African-Americans with the plight of homosexuals in America. It’s something that many within the African-American community have a hard time coming to terms with because in order for the point to be made, one has to accept that being homosexual is no more of a choice than being born a certain race.

And it isn’t.

So we find ourselves two-fifths of the way through the “Arguments Never to be had if you Want to Keep Friends Lists”. You’re familiar with the list. It includes sex (what God intended the internet to be used for), drugs (to weed, or not to weed), murder (you and Casey Anthony are alone in a locked room… what happens next?), politics (President Obama is doing a great/horrible job), and religion (maybe it wasn’t God who wanted you to download all those porn sites after all).

Arguing with friends and loved ones on these topics may not be a death sentence (oops) to your relationship, but it’s at the very least a kidney punch. Wherever you fall on either side of any argument relating to those topics will forever shape the way people view you, for better or worse.

Think I’m lying? It took Irvin 45 years and the death of his brother to take a public position on the issue of homosexuality. If I’m not mistaken, I don’t remember Irvin as the soft-spoken type.

The African-American community is notoriously homophobic (yeah, I said it), and much of this has to do with ties to religion. They aren’t alone in this regard either. In most every culture the prevailing feelings on homosexuality can be traced back to religious influences.

Irvin did choose to call out the African-American community in particular though, and for good reason. Tolerance for homosexuality is minimal, and homophobia is prevalent. Call a black man the “N-word” there’s at most a 50-50 proposition that they’ll take offense. Call him the “F-word” though, and you’ll likely have an actual fight on your hands.

I was a fully grown adult male halfway through my Van Wilder-like tenure as a college student before someone who I knew and respected told me plainly that they felt homosexuality was a sin, and that gay people were going to burn in Hell.

I laughed out loud (we weren’t “LOL’ing” yet) before realizing that this person was being dead serious. The next few moments were among the most awkward of my entire life.

When I asked this person why they felt the way they did, and response had something to do with religion. The fact that we shared the same religion, and had even attended church together, was apparently inconsequential.

The craziest thing about it to me was the way in which this person was seemingly just as confounded that I didn’t know that Hell was a certainty for gay people.

Homosexuality wasn’t something that I’d thought of all that often. I knew I wasn’t gay, and I never really cared much about the sexual habits of other people, gay or straight. I knew that I didn’t agree with that gay people should burn in hell, but I didn’t know any way in which I could convince this person they were wrong.

So hats off to Irvin for at least using his platform as a public figure and an engaging personality to speak out on the issue, even if it may start a fight.

Now, speaking of fighting words, four-time Pro Bowler and former AP Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison put an example of the African-American community’s homophobic hostility on full display in his Men’s Journal interview. Harrison called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, you guessed it, a “f—-tt”, among other things, while expressing his frustration with being the scapegoat as the NFL’s dirtiest player:

“My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people,” he says. “But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty — till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”

Also from the Men’s Journal interview:

He goes on in cold fury, spitting curses and charges, none of which will earn him sympathy from the “devil” or endorsements for Double Stuf Oreos. “Faggot Goodell” (also described as a “punk” and “dictator” by Harrison), Anderson (“another dummy who never played a down”), and Hanks, a former Pro Bowl safety with the Niners (“he needs to be ashamed because he played D before, though he never was what you’d call a real hitter”), conspired, he says, to target the Steelers, who have “too much force, too much swag, and are predominantly black.” Says Harrison: “We sent them a tape of 27 hits from games that following week — 27 hits like mine or worse — but none of ’em got flagged or fined. And what’d they say to us? Nothing, not a peep. So I guess they ain’t fouls unless we do ’em.” (Asked for comment on Harrison’s claim that he and the Steelers are targeted, a league official said only, “There were 262 fines issued last season to players other than James Harrison for unnecessary roughness. Other than noting that fact, we do not wish to comment.”)

In the same interview also had words for:

– Ben Roethlisberger – “You ain’t (Peyton Manning) and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.”

– Rashard Mendenhall – “Fumble machine.”

– Brian Cushing – “That boy is juiced out of his mind.”

– Former New England Patriots turned commentators Rodney Harrison and Teddy Bruschi – “I hate those mother(bleep)ers.”

How in the same breath can one rail against homophobia, and then agree with someone using a homophobic slur against his perceived employer? Simple.

Hey, James, you shouldn’t have called Roger Goodell a “f—-tt”. That was wrong. Evrerything else was cool though.

Harrison managed to hit on two-fifths of the aforementioned “Arguments Never to be had if you Want to Keep Friends Lists”: Sex and Politics. This time, the politics of the National Football League.

I ‘m sure most will find it hard to endorse publicly lambasting your boss the way Harrison did, and many sport writers have called for Goodell to suspend Harrison for being disrespectful. I disagree. You can’t fine or suspend Harrison for speaking his mind. What would it prove anyway?

Harrison obviously lives within his own bubble, which can have positive and negative consequences. The fact that he feels no one other than he and his Steelers teammates received fines for hits last season speaks volumes to his lack of self-awareness. However, he was fined more than any other player last season, and within the bubble that he lives, he feels as if he’s fighting for “the soul of the game”. He’s a defensive player getting defensive about the direction that the game is going.

Not saying that he is right, but that he has his right. Subtle distinction, which is why italics were used.

Being even more technical, the NFL is in a lockout, and what Harrison did wasn’t illegal, so there are no real grounds on which the league or the team could rightly punish him.

Furthermore, he issued an apology, and still managed to piss people off who said he was backpedaling and needed to stand strong by what he said. To those people all I have to ask is this: really?

Harrison, more than anything, strikes me as the kind of person that needs what he says played back to him constantly before it is to be consumed publicly. This was a case of him getting somewhat caught with his guard down. In his issued apology he says as much.

He’s not running for office, he’s running to take heads off of ball-carriers (Pause… Oh wait, does that undermine my earlier point?). He’s not a rocket scientist, he’s an NFL linebacker. Lets take him at his word.

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One Comment

  1. robert norris jr

    on 07/16/2011 - Reply

    I was informed and entertained by this article….thks.

    Poppa Bear

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