Guns, suspensions, and blanket statements. The conversation around the Memphis Grizzlies point guard has gone from grave mistakes to something deeper and troubling
Over the last couple of weeks, there have been many words written and spoken about Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant. In the wake of a string of actions, Ja Morant stepped away from the Grizzlies and was subsequently suspended by the NBA. The timeline of Morant’s behavior has included members of the Indiana Pacers saying that a laser was pointed at them by a passenger in a car that included Morant, going on Instagram Live with a gun in clear view, and photos were leaked of Morant in a strip club. To his credit, Morant has taken the initiative and has sought help in the wake of his actions.
The public has resorted to the same tactics that we have seen before. Calling Morant a thug, wannabe gangster, or just plainly, an idiot. People have jumped on the bandwagon of blaming hip-hop music, even questioning Ja’s father, Tee Morant, for raising Ja incorrectly. While Ja Morant has behaved poorly and needs to be better (especially with his standing as an NBA superstar) I cannot help but feel that the way he has been villainized highlights a deep-rooted issue in the way that we cover Black athletes in this country.
The Allen Iverson Parallel
Seeing the reporting on Ja Morant recently has reminded me a bit of what Allen Iverson went through in his early years in Philadelphia as a member of the 76ers. Most NBA historians credit the societal influence of Iverson on the NBA as much as his play on the court. Iverson is often credited with being a direct line of influence between basketball and hip-hop. We saw this with his baggy clothing and the fact that rappers referenced him in their lyrics. Iverson was a symbol of a brasher, and Blacker, NBA. As much as we were in awe of him willing a mostly mediocre 76ers roster to the NBA finals, we also saw his impact off the court when former NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a dress code to discourage what Iverson was doing.
On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between Iverson and Morant. Both are smaller guards (Iverson is 6 '0'' while Morant is 6’2”), and both were the faces of franchises that were experiencing down periods. Iverson entered a 76ers squad that had won less than 30 games in 4 years and Morant joined a Grizzlies team that had gone through 3 coaches in 4 years. Both players dazzled crowds with their athleticism and scoring ability, making both franchises must-see TV. Both teams also had star players that came before Iverson and Morant, which meant that they both needed to be special to be taken seriously. The 76ers of course have had a long history of great players in Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, and Charles Barkley. The Grizzlies had the iconic grit and grind era with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley that Morant had to live in the shadow of.
Both players used their unique skill sets of scoring inside and playing with heart and tenacity to win the hearts of two hard-nosed cities. Much like Iverson, Morant played a style that was appealing to younger fans that caused emulation. This made both players iconic young stars in the league, who had clear influences as Black men that grew up in less-than-ideal conditions in the southern coast of the United States (Iverson in Virginia, Morant in South Carolina). As a result, both of these players came into the league rough around the edges. Instead of understanding that they were young men thrust into the spotlight at a young age, we have chosen to blame hip-hop music.
Blame It On the Rappers
One of the most iconic rap songs of the late 1990s was “Stan” by Eminem. In this song, Eminem tells the story of a fictional fan named Stan that claims to be his biggest fan. As the song continues, Stan shows obsessive behavior as he was emulating Eminem. The lesson of this song shows the perils and lengths that people will go to when they glorify a musician. Despite the drastic nature of the song, it cannot be overstated that we do idolize the musicians that we listen to. In the case of Ja Morant and many other young Black men in the NBA, they have grown up in the hip-hop era and idolized these artists at a very young age.
So when you are a young 20-year-old like Morant entering the league, and you are drafted to a city in Memphis that has a vibrant, up-and-coming rap scene, chances are that you will gravitate towards these artists. In the wake of his actions, many people have referenced the tragic death of Memphis rapper Young Dolph as a cautionary tale to what Morant has been doing, specifically with showing a gun on social media. Morant has made connections in the Memphis rap scene, forming a friendship with Cocaine Music Group artist Moneybagg Yo. It is easy to listen to some of Moneybagg Yo’s music and assume that he and other rappers are to blame for making content that has negatively influenced Morant and other athletes that should be role models.
In my view, this is a foolish tactic. But it is also one that we have seen before. We have seen artists like Marilyn Manson blamed for influencing the Columbine High School shooters. It seems that any type of non-traditional music will come under the scrutiny of the larger public. So if young Black men are listening to other Black men tell stories of drug dealing and violence, the dots are immediately connected. The reality is that the music makes people feel uncomfortable, and it is an easy scapegoat. The issue with Ja brandishing a gun that doesn’t seem to be talked about at all is that we in this country have an obsession with firearms. We are one of the few first-world countries that have not banned firearms after a deadly incident.
So what is the difference between Ja Morant brandishing a gun on Instagram Live and congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene posing with a gun on Facebook? I think we can all say the quiet part out loud. Owning and advertising that you own a gun is okay until you are a young Black man doing it while living in Memphis, Tennessee. The viewpoint is so much deeper than just the fact that Morant listens to rap music.
The Lens of the Black Athlete
It was a short 59 years ago when segregation was outlawed in the United States. In the context of the history of a country, that is not a long time at all. There are people in my father’s generation that lived in this country where Black men and women were openly treated like vermin. Race relations, while improved since then, still have a ways to go. This country still lives in fear of Black men, and we are reminded of this far too frequently when we see tragic displays of excessive police force against these young Black men.
In the world of athletics, particularly in the NBA and NFL, we see the player pool being predominantly African American. These men have become our heroes, yet if we saw them on the street without the context of their stature as professional athletes, many fans would be fearful of them. It is this underlying fear that colors the way that we cover these players when they get in trouble. There is often a tone of expectation, that they are waiting for the athlete to make a mistake, that they are proven right about them.
As a result, many Black athletes (especially those brought up in the American South) have a hard time trusting people outside of their circle, because we as a society have necessitated it. I wonder if this Morant story was a white player brandishing a hunting rifle or was a Black athlete that the media deems more “palatable”, what would the reaction be? There is a gap in reasoning that we often see, where we want the Black athlete to be a role model but only by our definition of what a role model is.
The stakes are simply higher for a Black athlete. Morant was absolutely in the wrong for what he did, but his repercussions in the court of public opinion will be more severe because he is a Black athlete from the South. While the league has suspended Morant, many wanted it to be for longer. But he has sought help, and even that has been mocked. At the end of the day, it seems that this has gone into a lens that is so far beyond just Ja Morant. It has exposed a larger issue, which is, the perception of the Black athlete by this country as a whole.
The Memphis Parallel
It is important in all this Ja commentary to also understand the city that he plays in. Memphis, Tennessee is a city with the highest rate of low-income residents among large cities. The city is very blue-collar, and also very Black with a 61% African American population. Memphis as a city is often dismissed in favor of the more fashionable Nashville in Tennessee. People typically paint with a broad brush when it comes to Memphis, and assume it is a sort of desolate place much in the same way that people speak about Detroit and Chicago.
Memphis is also a place that only has one professional team the Grizzlies, so they love their team and their basketball. The Grizzlies are often at their best when the team and its players are a little rough around the edges. This is why the Grit and Grind era was so popular. They embrace the underdog role of these players. They had Marc Gasol, the other Gasol brother. Mike Conley was a tough point guard that made everything go. Zach Randolph was a notorious member of the “Portland Jail Blazers” era and came with baggage, but was immediately embraced by the Grizzlies faithful. This was a group that you hated to play against but loved to root for.
This current implementation of the Grizzlies seems to have a similar quality. Dillon Brooks has quickly turned into a player that everyone loves to hate. There was a theory that the Grizzlies' big man Jaren Jackson Jr was getting his numbers padded when at home, creating a narrative to root against this Grizzlies team. The team has been braggadocious, confident, and some would say borderline arrogant with their aspirations of greatness. Perhaps Ja Morant turning into a sort of antihero fits into this team's identity. This moment could be the rehabilitation moment that was offered to Zach Randolph all those years ago. It would appear that Memphis looks for players that are fully bought in even if they are a little unpolished. So this team and this fanbase will back Morant for that reason.
On an individual level, Morant needs to be better with his stature as a superstar. He has transformed from an exciting young player into a full-fledged superstar, especially after his recent contract extension. He is not only the face of the Grizzlies but one of the future faces of the NBA. With that comes pressure, and perhaps his actions have been a reaction to that pressure. But he should know what is at stake, because in this league eventually, your time runs out even if you have tremendous talent. For the sake of Grizzlies and basketball fans in general, I hope that Ja gets the message and changes course accordingly.