Bigger than Jay Z: Fear and Anxiety of the Black Sports Agent

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He has more professions and careers than names. So it is not surprising that Shawn Carter is now a sports agent. And without fail, this decision has elicited backlash as if Jay’s presence would corrupt the “pure,” “righteous,” and ethical culture of sports agents.

Since Jay Z announced his plans to become a sport agent, a plan that includes partnering with Creative Artist Agency (CAA), one of the biggest agencies in the business, there has been ample backlash. One agent turned hater noted,

“Jay-Z doesn’t know sh*t about baseball. You don’t hire a real estate agent to do neurosurgery.”

“Can you imagine the hardline negotiations that will take place when Jay-Z walks into (Yankee president) Randy Levine’s office with that Yankee hat he’s always wearing and says his client wants to play with the Dodgers?”

“Celebrity in baseball comes from performance, but Robinson is looking at Jay-Z and Beyonce to make him a celebrity. He is being naïve. The story now is about Jay-Z, not Robinson.”

Not to be outdone, a post at Bar Stool Sports, a cesspool for sports commentary, further articulated this criticism of Jay Z, albeit through a racist and anti-Semitic narrative:

Look I get it. Jay Z is a cool a** dude. Especially for a New York athlete. And I know he can work wonders for your off the field popularity and endorsement deals and all that stuff. As I said in my first blog about Robinson Canó signing with Roc Nation, I know CAA is a big agency and capable of representing these guys. But the fact that these clowns are dumping high profile, very powerful agents to be with their favorite rapper Jay Z is lunacy. First of all, if I’m an athlete, I want an old, white Jewish man dealing with my money and my contracts. Give me a -stein or a -berg or a -witz as my agent. That’s the guy you want handling your negotiations. Secondly, these super agents they are dumping are not the guys you want to be your enemies. Boras and Condon are the type of spiteful bastards who will go out of their way to f–k you.

While I don’t expect much from a website named “Bar Stool Sports,” the decision to give voice to such longstanding anti-Semitic and anti-black stereotypes is reprehensible – just because this is a virtual “bar” doesn’t legitimize this sort of violent rhetoric. It reads like something that would appear on Klan Stool. Yet, the backlash against Hova was not limited to the sewer of sports.

Not surprisingly, Jason Whitlock, the Tipper Gore of the sports world, weighed in on Jay Z’s ascendance into sports agent territory. Asserting “the marriage of Jay Z to the sports world is idiotic” and referring to Jay as “Stephen from Django,” Whitlock argues that Jay Z’s values are incompatible with the values of sports, particularly baseball.

Selling athletic competition and selling music are two distinctly different disciplines. Sports are founded in traditional, mainstream American values. Music, particularly rap and rock, is founded in rebellion and anti-establishment values.

Jay-Z’s sensibilities do not comfortably co-exist with the sensibilities that best promote athletic culture. The NBA’s headfirst embrace of hip-hop music is one of the main reasons the league has lost relevancy the last 15 years. Blaming it all on the aging and retirement of Michael Jordan and/or the Pistons-Pacers brawl at The Palace is intellectually lazy and David Stern-friendly propaganda.

Whitlock’s conclusions and the outrage from the legion of Hova Haters are striking for a number of reasons, including his scapegoating of hip-hop as the reason for the NBA’s fan problems (it’s gotta be the fans), his bankrupt praise of sports values, his myopic celebration of baseball and football because of its values, and disregard for Jay Z’s accomplishment as a business man (and yes there are critiques that could be had here).

The commonplace nature of his comments and their connection to a larger discourse should give pause for several reasons:

First

there seems to be a general dismissal of Jay Z as businessman, as someone who has built a financial power. Whether or not you agree with the politics or choices he has employed to reach the top, it is hard to discount his success within a capitalist context. The denigration that “he’s just a rapper” not only discounts his successes outside the rap game but also continues the narrative that rappers are not intelligent, creative, and resourceful individuals. It perpetuates longstanding stereotypes about white intelligence and black inferiority. It is telling that the same people who celebrate the American Dream, who celebrate bootstraps ideologies that see hard work and ingenuity as the basis of success, are the first to dismiss Hova as not worthy of being an “agent.” It’s not like he’s Donald Trump, Jim Buss, or Mitt Romney, who inherited their success.

Secondly

those who elevate the importance of agents seem to be living in a fantasy world that doesn’t recognize the economic landscape of the sports world. While collective bargaining agreements and the salary caps limit the negotiation possibilities in many contexts, the power of agents rests with the ability to transform athletic stars into transnational global icons. Who is best suited to do that – Scott Boras or Jay Z.

Third

there seems to be this narrative, one based in white supremacist ideologies, which imagines white agents as successful, and black agents as incapable of doing the job. According to Kenneth Shropshire, “African-American sports agents are not only confronted with the historic allegiance of African-American athletes to white agents and a lack of positive race-consciousness by these athletes, but also with the negative commentary of the white sports age.” The disparagement is quite visible in the response to Jay Z and Roc Nation ascendance into sport agency business.

Fourth

the reaction mirrors the backlash directed at LeBron James and his decision to hire his childhood friend as his agent; when he decided to partner with his friends to control his brand and image. Maverick Carter described the backlash as such:

Everyone said, ‘What is he doing? Why would he give three of his friends, three young African-American guys…’ – that’s what they really wanted to say, right? – ‘…hand over his business to them at that level?’ LeBron looked at it as, ‘I know these guys. I believe in these guys. I trust these guys. I’m gonna give these guys the shot. I’m gonna empower them to do all the things they wanna do and all the things they’ve seen and dreamed about doing,'”

Yet critics were relentless; how did that work out?

Finally

ultimately the backlash is about anxiety and fear and not just from agents who fear clients lost; it is about the racist assumptions that the role of the agent, the skills of a white man, is to discipline and control black bodies. The allure and popularity of Jerry McGuire is wrapped up in the appeal of his disciplining Rod “show me the money” Tidwell, whose success, happiness and redemption results from his relationship with his white agent. The rise of Jay Z denies this fantasy of white assistance and mutual redemption.

According to Glen Hughes these racial ideologies are fundamental to American racial discourse “This is the joke driving the Barkley Right Guard ‘uncivilized’ ad from awhile back. Teaching Black men how to behave – how to dress, speak respectfully, and generally assume a humble affect – is a paternalistic task for management, for the league, for white people who know better. It’s the basic plot of Any Given Sunday and, in some ways, Jerry McGuire” (NAASS Listserve 2005). The panics, anxiety, and outrage about Jay Z emanates from the presumption that sports needs Jerry McGuire to control and discipline its black athletes.

In the end the question is why do sports commentators and others care so much who is Robinson Canoe or Kevin Durant’s agent. I wonder if they can even name Kobe Bryant or RG III’s agent, but whether Rob Pelinka or Hova, these commentators will begrudge any money earned especially when done on the terms established by these black athletes themselves. Yes, haters gonna hate but more is at stake here. And that is worthy of our attention.

Article originally published on NewBlackMan.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris