Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thursday Thesis: Another El Jay Debacle

For those not in the know, Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson was interviewed by Chris and Cowboy of local sports-talk radio station KCSP, 610 AM. The 23-minute bit aired yesterday morning, and people are still freaking out about it. Rightfully so. It's pretty preposterous, and if you're so inclined, you can hear it here. If you spent any time listening to the station yesterday -- or caught any of it on ESPN or the NFL Network -- you've probably heard the important blips. In a nutshell, they are...

...a re-hashing of what Johnson said after the Chiefs' final game this season: a) his time in Kansas City is done, b) he doesn't care for the city or the organization, c) that his beef wasn't with Carl Peterson, d) that he liked Herman Edwards, and e) that most of his teammates have his back.

Once the Chiefs name their new head coach, which some are speculating could happen today, this will easily be the largest issue for the franchise to deal with as it moves toward the 2009 season. I have a number of thoughts on the scenario that unfolded yesterday, but my largest curiosity centers around what good (beyond ratings and appeal) the station thought would come of the interview, and more importantly, why Johnson agreed to it. Station management had to know this would only increase the rift between Johnson and the organization/fans, and from a self-marketing standpoint, I find it hard to believe that Johnson thinks that this material could cast him in a positive light in the eyes of potential employers.

There was, however, one thought yesterday, that kept hitting my brain as I was in and out of the car, catching various segments of the broadcast day: It's only a matter of moments before someone tries to make this a race issue that it is not. Frankly, I should've known that it wouldn't be a listener that conveyed it, be it via a phone call, a text, or an e-mail message to the show, but an employee of the station. And I should've known that it would be the biggest idiot on the payroll: Nick Wright. I couldn't have applauded 610 more when they finally cut their ties with Rhonda Moss. She. Was. Awful. Their biggest downfall was that they waited many months too long in doing so. And then they moved Wright to a weekday slot, only bringing them right back to the status of a pretty good station with one massive corn on the foot of its staff.

I've voiced my opinions on Wright once before, and I haven't done so more often because I think his show -- though in his intro he touts it as "The Best Solo Sports Talk Radio Show in Town" -- is nothing shy of terrible. Whether his angles are his own or force-fed by management, they are, contrary to Web publishings of his alma mater, the exact opposite of "fresh, colorful style that's smart and street-inflected." That is, they are stale, bland, and wanna-be. Wright boasts his Kansas City nativeness, and that story suggests that he has a "thick, urban, Midwest drawl has a distinct tone that engages the listener." The only credit I'll acknowledge there is that his voice is in fact thick. Thick in undesirable, fat-hangover-tongue way that a body works overtime in removing from its system. Midwest drawl? Does such a thing exist? Distinct? He sounds like he's trying to impersonate Damon Amendolara, who, much as I liked his program, sounded like he was trying to impersonate Jim Rome. Engages the listener? Sure. Engages them to change the channel.

I will say that themes of race were touched on during Neal Jones' segment. He mentioned that he has had African-American colleagues in the past that have been the victim of racial profiling when driving home late at night. Jones, though, didn't dwell on the issue very long, and the reason he didn't was because that's not what this story is about. I will also admit that there were very mild undertones of race in some of yesterday's callers. They were no different than the same vibes that were cast during the prolonged weeks during the Scott Pioli hiring and the Herman Edwards firing. Perhaps they even stretched back to the Carl Peterson resignation week.

And in my mind those sentiments were this: The majority of callers that voiced their opinion of wanting to keep Edwards around appeared to be black. Conversely, the majority of the callers that wanted him gone appeared to be white. There are two caveats to those statements, and they are these: 1) Most of the callers are white, and 2) There were in fact a few black callers that wanted Herm gone, and there were a few white callers that wanted Herm to stay. Those few, however, were very few, the obvious minority. All of this, though, as a whole, remained an undertone.

Yesterday, at the dreaded six o'clock hour when Jones hands the mic to Wright, the host of "What's Wright" kicked off his show by proudly announcing that he was going to dive straight into the race issue, and pound it home because it needed to be done. What he said as a prelude was deeply disturbing, and it (paraphrased) went a little like this:

"I listened to the radio all day, and a significant portion of the callers were angry with Larry Johnson. Not all of them, but most, maybe 20 percent. You could feel the racial tension in their voices, and you could feel a couple of them being very close to dropping 'N' bombs. You could tell that most of these callers are envious and jealous of a young, rich, rapper-looking, hip-hop-listening-to, black man, and the things that he has said, and the off-the-field incidents he's been a part of have done nothing but contribute to their dislike of this professional athlete."

That segment aired right as I was getting home. On my agenda was to tend to the dogs and get dinner ready. I could've gone inside and turned on the program, but I did not. I was torn in that I wanted to hear some reactions to his statement, but I was also furious that this massive doofus with a radio show would fuel the race fire by such allegations as callers to his stations wanting to drop 'N' bombs and being jealous, envious, and angry with a person because of the color of his skin.

Now, I'm not trying to imply that there isn't racism out there, and I don't want to suggest that there aren't Chiefs fans who are racists, or who don't like Johnson. To that end, Johnson claims in his interview that one of "the suits" at Arrowhead told his father and someone else that he knows that Johnson "walks around like a rapper." I don't know exactly what that means, but if a Chiefs executive -- all of whom are white that I know of -- said that, I can't imagine it was spoken in complimentary terms. I only mean to say that I find it disturbing and saddening that a radio voice, one who was deemed by a college colleague as having cred', would dive into a broadcast with such a topic.

Most of the callers that I heard yesterday wanted to voice their opinions on Johnson in either a game-performance or an off-the-field sense. And I get that. The skinny on Johnson, in my humble opinion though, is this: It's both.

In my utopian mind, I want my team to be full of Tony Gonzalezes and Brian Waterses. In his interview, Johnson said he understands why fans really like guys like that, that he wishes he could be like those guys, but he can't because his "situation is different." Gonzalez and Waters are great role models in both senses: They are Pro Bowlers as well as great community leaders. So was Will Shields. So was Trent Green, and so was the figure most often compared to Johnson: Priest Holmes. Holmes, though he had a stigma for being weird and ghostlike and secret, never got involved with any of the bullshit.

Johnson, after his first two legal issues, took over for Holmes and went off, putting together two very impressive seasons. When he got involved with the personal-life stuff, I was disappointed. It didn't help matters for me that he clashed with Dick Vermeil, a coach I very much loved and respected. But he got past those incidents and produced on the field in Pro Bowl fashion. Then he sat out. Then he got his giant payday, and then he got hurt. Soon after, he's having legal troubles again, getting benched, getting suspended, and seldom producing out of the backfield.

Some wanted to point to his yards per carry in 2008. I say it's a misleading stat in this situation. He didn't get the carries he would've liked this year. With a re-tooled offense, he didn't even hit the 200 mark. His 4.5 YPC mark, however, didn't come in the way of finding seams, hitting holes, and breaking tackles every time he had the ball. That stat is largely padded from a few huge runs he had in a small handful of games. He had seven carries of 20 yards or more, three of 40+, and one that went for 65. He also fumbled the ball five times in what one might call limited duty. When you miss four games because of conduct, and cough up the rock at such a rate, you're good for a fumble every two and-a-half games, which, in a rebuilding mode, on a losing team wherein you are the highest-paid player, ain't good.

So it's both. Johnson now has four (that we know of) legal issues in six years as a Chief. You're one of few veterans supposedly responsible for guiding one of the youngest teams in the league, and you're getting arrested/having charges pressed against you once every season and-a-half. And you haven't produced since you got handed big bucks. Sure. Injuries and the offensive system in place are factors. But add to that a now-totalling (at least) half a dozen times where you've told the media that you don't like the fans, the city, the organization, or some facet of all three, and you aren't going to win folks over, black or white.

As for my opinion on his future, I'd like him to stick around. I think with the right general manager, coach, and offensive scheme, Johnson could become the huge asset he's been paid to be. It's unfortunate now, though, that his negative stigma

(clip courtesy of Arrowhead Addict)

is greater than ever, making the career hill he's got to climb, steeper than ever.

As for Nick thinks-of-himself-as-cutting-edge Wright, God help us.