By Zan McQuade
Like most of Ohio, or at least those of us with any interest in American sports or a distant tie to the colleges involved, I spent Monday night in front of the television, watching the Buckeyes of The Ohio State University take on the Ducks of Oregon in the first ever College Football Playoff. I myself rarely watch football, preferring instead the more subtle narrative that plays out on a baseball field, but I was eager to pick up on the narrative of the gridiron. It was alive with allegory on Monday night, and the biggest story out there on the field that night appeared to be that of 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound quarterback Cardale Jones.
The commentators couldn’t mention his name without also mentioning his background: third-string quarterback who against adversity rose out of a poor neighborhood in Cleveland to — after injuries to OSU’s two other QBs — find himself leading this tight-knit midwestern team to a national championship, all this mere months after the birth of his daughter.
At the end of the game, with an interception and the final whistle, the Gatorade was poured and Cleveland Cavalier star LeBron James approached Cardale Jones and whispered something in his ear. In the post game interview, Jones was asked what James had said to him: “He told me this is something for all of Cleveland to believe in and rally around.”
A city touched by hardship, rallying around a kid touched by hardship: an inspiration for them that they might pull themselves up by their bootstraps and extract themselves from poverty with good, hard work and dedication. It’s a narrative we’ve seen before: the Hollywood rags-to-riches arc ever-present in sports movies like The Blind Side, Rudy, and Hoosiers, in television heartstring-pullers like “Friday Night Lights.” This has also been the narrative attached to both Cardale Jones and LeBron James, and it’s a narrative that national sports media can’t get enough of. The downtrodden poor inner city/rural dying town kid rising above all obstacles to become a sports hero, making something of his life by staying in school and listening to his coach.
After the playoff game, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was quoted in the New York Times as saying “Cardale is a case study for overcoming adversity and how […] if his personal alignment with his mentor, his high school coach and his coaching staff […] didn’t happen, he wouldn’t be sitting here.”
In this narrative lies only one truth: success against all odds. It’s no surprise that Cleveland played a part in this narrative, for it’s the very same story told, ad nauseum and often to their detriment, about Rust Belt cities.
This is how the players’ stories are told:
Cardale Jones grew up in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland, the youngest of seven children who never knew his father. In an interview with Cleveland.com, Cardale’s older brother Javon talked about his admiration for his younger brother:
“To know you can rise above all the stumbling blocks put in your life, that you can rise above that and be on a national platform, that’s definitely encouraging not only to the younger generation but to older people as well. You can still reach your goals no matter what life hands you.”
Cardale himself said in the same interview that “I almost became a statistic, and I’m not.” He had a difficult home life, and eventually left his home to live with mentor Michelle Nash, who also worked with kids who had committed violent crimes (though Cardale himself had not). He struggled with school, even tweeting that he didn’t understand why athletes even had to attend classes. In a Sports Illustrated article on Jones, the opening paragraph describes a visit he made to Ginn Academy, a mentoring school founded by Jones’ high school football coach Ted Ginn, Sr., that works with inner-city kids to help them through high school to college and jobs, where Jones would speak to students who had been through what he had:
“He didn’t know them, but he knew their empty stomachs and broken families. He knew their insecurity, their longing for conformity, the daily temptation of the drug trade.”
LeBron James grew up in Akron, where his mother moved from job to job and his family moved from apartment to apartment as they struggled to pay the rent. His mother had a boyfriend who spent time in prison. Then LeBron found basketball, and it pulled him out of the chaos of poverty and into a respectable life. In addition to his successes on the basketball court, LeBron has his own line of Nike shoes, and was the first African-American male to appear on the cover of Vogue. He abandoned Cleveland as a free agent for a contract with Miami, before returning to Cleveland last year, leading the Cavs to a — well, the start of what is stacking up to be a somewhat mediocre season. In an essay for Sports Illustrated he wrote on his return to Cleveland, LeBron wrote in a line that I’m sure delighted his editors to pull into a paragraph of its own, that “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
Of course, we can’t deny that an individual’s background is important to defining him as a person. We have to respect where people come from and pay tribute to what adversity they faced. It is not nothing, and there is nothing wrong with telling a true story of hardship; exposure to the realities of these athletes’ lives affords us a view to important socioeconomic issues of race and poverty, and educates us on the wrongs being perpetrated in communities thanks to lingering hardships wrought by the dismantling of industry and the crumbling of social services.
What becomes problematic is when the glossy narrative dominates with its bland reckoning of the same inner-city situations, when Cardale’s Cleveland youth starts to feel interchangeable with LeBron’s Akron upbringing, as if there are no differences, no subtleties, no unique circumstances, no individuals. At no point does either of these individuals have control over his own story. The dominant narrative — the underdog becoming champion, the trouble kid being coached into shape, the city consumed by rubble — then starts to dictate how we see their lives, or at least how they are talked about in the media, rather than their lives — the intricacies of both hardship and success and everything that falls in between — guiding the narrative.
The narrative drawn out of these athletes’ personal stories is as problematic as the narrative of the Rust Belt itself.
We love hero stories, happily ever afters, trajectories that go from low to high. We love the story of a kid who worked hard to overcome adversity, or a city that turned its bad fortune into opportunity and growth. We love plucky winners, underdogs you never expected to amount to anything. We love The Blind Side and Rudy. In these narratives, there is no subtlety; there is only success or failure.
Just as LeBron James and Cardale Jones are more complex individuals than these narratives often give them credit for, Rust Belt cities are proving to be more complex than is able to be summed up in a single headline.
In the national media, cities like Cleveland and Akron and Detroit are judged by a standard of narrative that sees success and failure as black and white*. The success stories are held up as the reason the city could be on its way back; the failures are told with a wagging finger and a shake of the head. Poor Cleveland, or Poor Detroit. I don’t know how that place is ever going to make anything of itself. But what did we expect?
(*It’s no accident we’re talking in colors here, as often the narrative is dominated by the wealthy white east coast media in its interpretation of cities that are predominantly African-American, or white commentators sounding solemn-heartedly impressed that African-American athletes such as James and Jones could find themselves doing well on the national stage after all they’ve been through. We can’t pretend that race isn’t a factor in how these stories are told. It’s worth noting, for example, that one of the very few journalists who chose not to focus on the adversity Cardale Jones had to overcome in the story of his rise to football stardom was Justice B. Hill at BET, who instead talked about Jones’ lofty football dreams the same way you would any kid who dreams of being a star athlete.)
In his recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, journalist David Uberti talks about how difficult it is to fit the discussion of Rust Belt cities into a neatly packaged mass media narrative. “As in Detroit, hope and despair stand shoulder to shoulder in these cities. What’s more, few newsrooms have the mandate — to say nothing of the resources — to really understand what went wrong in the first place, to excavate how local circumstances interacted with larger political and socioeconomic forces over the course of decades.”
As Uberti asserts, it takes a lot to unpack everything that lies within the story of where these cities are today, and as a result of column inch limits, few tend to even start digging. And so, the simple template narrative rears its head, and all we end up seeing are rehashed measures of success and failure. The grayscale subtleties are ignored, and instead of grayscale we’re given a bland, gray portrait of these cities, all the same, all suffering, all struggling. Detroit is Cleveland is Pittsburgh is Akron.
It would be nice to extract the real stories from the blandness, to find a way to applaud what people like Ted Ginn, Sr., and Michelle Nash and LeBron James and Cardale Jones are doing without making it ordinary. It would be nice to read a story about Detroit in the national media that’s not filled with ruin porn photographs in one corner and the well-designed interior of a new downtown restaurant in the other like it’s ordinary. It’s not ordinary: it’s extraordinary. Ginn and Nash shouldn’t have to do what they do to ensure that inner-city kids make it to college; Detroit shouldn’t be solely characterized by either its ruins or its restaurants. And Ginn and Nash and James and Jones and Detroit and Cleveland each has his or her own version of city and experience that never gets told. In each of these stories is a multitude of texture and intricacy that is largely ignored until a sign of accessible and easily-translatable success glows through the wreckage. Or, even worse, sometimes the story simply is the wreckage.
We can’t let the trophies or the wreckage be the only story; doing so breeds complacency with the socioeconomic situation. There are 350 students at Ginn Academy, each with his own story, not just the one hoisting a football trophy in Texas, just as there are 688,701 citizens of Detroit and 390,113 in Cleveland, each with his or her own story of daily experience. Telling them requires rewriting the dominant narrative to reflect that, sure, change can be painful and difficulty can be a source of strength, but success doesn’t have to come from without, based on someone else’s narrative: often, without any sort of fanfare, it can come ever-so-subtly — by our own standards, in our own time, with its own complexity — from within. By changing the narrative from rigid and predictable to subtle and nuanced, we start to see all sides of the Cardale Jones narrative. More than that: we start to see Cardale Jones.
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