by John Walters
The thought occurred to me, more than once: You only have a couple hours before you head out for your paying job slinging vodka sodas to the masses; is this really how you want to spend that time? Maybe you should do a few sit-ups. Mop the living room. Phone a relative who’s still speaking to you. Something.
Alas, it is a chronic condition in me. If something smells off, I want to address it. That’s part of the reason I do what I do (when not stuffing limes in the tops of Corona bottles) and part of what gets me into so much trouble. But just like Dexter couldn’t stop from murdering bad people, I can’t shut my mouth when I see a glitch; particularly when, and this is the source of most of the loathing that comes my way, the masses do not share my opinion.
A few notes to get out of the way before we begin: I like Jeff Pearlman, the author of the story I am going to address, and consider him a friend. We’ve been friends since we were both reporters at Sports Illustrated in the Nineties. I admire and share his passion for writing (like me, he writes a blog on his own time and unlike me he interviews writers for a podcast nearly every week) and we even played on the same hoops team for a few years (Jeff has a patented fake jump shot that he’d inform the referees about prior to the game, like a quarterback informing a ref about a trick formation, so that they’d be ready for it; half of them still whistled him for traveling).
Jeff is a good egg. And he’s in Maui with family right now so in no way am I trying to disrupt his holiday. Also, and I’m the first to admit it, Jeff is a far more successful writer than I am. I don’t measure writers against one another, but if I used Ty Webb’s method of measuring golfers against one another (“By height!”), well, Jeff is taller than I. Finally, both of us write for The Athletic, although Jeff is more of a regular.
None of this—zero, zilch, the empty set—is personal. It’s about the writing. Jeff and I both grew up, sort of, in the SI editorial system where at least two editors, usually three, combed through your story, not to mention a fact-checker, a copyreader, and then a late reader. That experience taught me, taught us, to be your own harshest critic before you pushed send. To ask yourself the questions you figured Michael Bevans or Peter Carry or any of a number of highly cynical and skeptical editors would ask once the story appeared on their screens.
Rarely does one have time, in this era of clickbait and Slack and SEO headlines, to pore over stories critically. Anyone practicing journalism online today will tell you that ordinarily one to two editors will peruse your story and as often as not miss the spelling error in your piece (among other things; and hopefully there will only be one typo). That’s not a condemnation of editors, by the way: it’s an indictment on the sheer workload they have now as opposed to when we had more staff at SI than do most websites now and were only putting out one magazine a week.
All that said, I want to play journalism professor here with Jeff’s piece on San Diego Charger defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins, which appeared earlier this week in The Athletic, which you can only read if you have a subscription to The Athletic, which—A-Ha!, it’s all a ruse to incite a spike in subscriptions to The Athletic (you’re welcome, guys). I encourage you to subscribe if you have not done so already, and I add that it’s going to be most difficult to follow past this paragraph if you cannot read the story from August 14 titled “Rayshawn Jenkins Is Not Angry, And That Is Some Kind Of Wonderful” (and I’m not even going to get into why the title poaches a John Hughes movie title).
–The first three grafs explore, in detail, Jenkins’ juvenile delinquency: vandalism, fist-fighting, etc. Nothing exactly felonious, but he easily could’ve spent time in a juvenile detention center. Okay, point made: he was an incorrigible youth. We hope this is going somewhere.
–We then pivot to a point made that Jenkins was frequently physically abused by his mother, as were his 17 siblings. That, to him, is normal. Okay.
–Here’s where we begin having problems: “… the Rayshawn Jenkins story that’s supposed to be written… — the one repeatedly spun during his five years at the University of Miami, and now as a professional — is the simple-yet-fun saga of a successful football player with 17 (yes, seventeen) brothers and sisters.”
Firs of all, why in 2018 would anyone be so naive as to think that being one of 18 children is a “simple-yet-fun saga?” Particularly when even the most cursory dive into Jenkins’ background would suggest that even though he is from Florida, he is not one of Pat Williams’ kids. Which is to say, your first question would be, How could his parents afford to raise all of those kids?
—Then comes this:
The stuff was irresistible, and it would be easy for a scribe to smile, nod, follow with two or three more questions (“What’s your wackiest memory?”), then transition to Philip Rivers or Joey Bosa or Jenkins’ development as he approaches his sophomore season with the Chargers. That’s pretty much what we do in 2018.
Pardon me, but is Jeff patting himself on the back, less than a third of the way into the story, for being able to dig beneath the topsoil on Rayshawn Jenkins when so many other of his peers could not? Even if that’s true, why inject yourself into the story here? Why make this about you, which is how I read it?
For reals: Jeff is an excellent interviewer; he’s terrific at getting strangers to open up, which is why he’s such a talented writer. He realizes that most people are dying to tell their stories, often against better judgment. His personality creates a welcome and warm atmosphere for subjects to do so (and often hang themselves; we’re looking at you, John Rocker). All that is great. As an editor, though, I’d advise Jeff that there’s no need to take a bow just five paragaphs in. The story does not require it.
—The next few grafs are backstory, from the date Rayshawn was born up until before he began playing football. I have questions. His pop, Charles, has fathered 14 children from nine different woman. We learn that he was a cook (first, at a Howard Johnson’s, then at a community college). I dunno, call me something awful, but I’m a little curious about what Charles does now. Does he have a job? Does he support any of his children, many of whom are younger than Rayshawn? Has he ever purchased a condom? What makes him spread his seed so indiscriminately and so unabashedly? Maybe I’m getting away from our main subject, but I’d kinda like to know.
–Mom, Terry, was put away in prison for stabbing someone with a knife. What happened to that person? How was she given custody of her kids, Rayshawn included, after she was released? And WHY DIDN’T SHE SPEAK TO THE ATHLETIC FOR THIS STORY? How many moms of pro athletes do you know who don’t want to crow about their sons? She may be the first.
I’m skipping ahead here, but later we will learn that Rayshawn speaks to his parents “semi-regularly.” What does that mean? It reminds me of that Spectrum TV ad that disses DirecTV where the customer calls the dish “pretty ugly” and the installer says, “So you’re saying it’s pretty?” Semi-regularly doesn’t tell the reader what the nature of Rayshawn’s relationship with his parents these days is, now does it? And I think, and call me a cynic, I’d be a little curious about how often the subject of money comes up in those semi-regular phone calls.
—Finally, we meet the true hero of this story: Gary Roland. A former high school classmate of Rayshawn’s dad, he is a youth football coach who, more than anyone, saved Rayshawn’s life. As he did more than a few other future NFL athletes. In every place he is quoted, the man simply gets it. More Gary Roland, please. In fact, he’s a better story. No doubt.
—At last we arrive at the theme of Jeff’s Gary Smith Special, more than two dozen paragraphs in: “Jenkins was lashing out at a society he didn’t understand; football was the lone refuge from an ever-mounting wave of hopelessness.” There’s no doubt: Rayshawn was saddled with some horrific parents and an awful home situation. And this is where it gets a little political: as the progeny of two parents who were born in the south Bronx, both of whom lost a parent and one of whom was shuttled into foster care, I just can’t get on board with the whole “It’s society’s fault!” excuse for every bad action. You may disagree, and I in no way am here to suggest my parents had the upbringing that Rayshawn did. But I also don’t sweep under the rug every crummy thing someone did as a young man with that sentence that Jeff wrote. To Rayshawn’s credit, and he’s quoted often about these incidents, he makes no excuses and takes full responsibility.
—Let’s move on to the knockout punch at Admiral Farragut Academy. At this point in our tale, Rayshawn has moved on to high school and his life has taken on a 21st century Dickensian tone. An altruistic patron has put him on the path to a way out, and Farragut is that ticket. But, according to the narrative, a classmate calls Rayshawn the N-word and Rayshawn punches him in the face, literally knocking him out.
I don’t know if you went to a private high school (I did), but if you did and you punched someone so hard that you knocked them out, not only would you be expelled that day but you might just, again, wind up in juvy. In this story, we learn that the true offender is the person who allegedly called Rayshawn the N-word. This is what Jeff explores: Why can’t the student who used the N-word be expelled, not why can’t the guy who just committed aggravated assault.
Okay, I’m going to get real here: There is NEVER, EVER an excuse to use that word. Ever. Most especially if you are white. No excuse. On the other hand, there are more than a few street-savvy African-American young men and women who know that leveling that accusation is an automatic Get Out of Jail Free card, regardless of the verity. So if I were Jeff’s editor, I’d be asking for the following info: Was there a particular reason that the student called Rayshawn the N-word or did he just approach him out of the blue and utter it? Did the kid deny having used it? Let’s say both sides agreed that he did use it: Does that make it okay to knock him out cold? Was there any punitive action taken against Rayshawn for knocking out a classmate?
None of these questions are answered. I’m left to assume, again somewhat cynically, that Farragut knew it had one of the best football players in the football player-rich state of Florida enrolled, and that may have had a little something to do with how all of this went down.
—”You need to meet the girlfriend.” I’m sorry, this should read, “You need to meet the mother of his child with whom he lives.” I mean, given the home(s) in which Rayshawn grew up, I think this is more relevant.
—There’s a scene at The U, after Mark Richt’s staff takes over, that the first-year safeties coach scolds Rayshawn in front of everyone, in terms of his body language. “You need to do better. I don’t like what I’m seeing.” Granted, this anecdote most likely came from Rayshawn, so props to him for being self-aware and accountable. On the other hand, why is/was he behaving this way? Is it still society’s fault?
—We get to the happy denoument, with Rayshawn eating shrimp somewhere under a lovely Orange County sky. Life is good. He’s made it. But what’s the point, and how have we answered the question as to, as the title posed, why Rayshawn is not angry any more. Is it because he made it to the NFL? Is it the girlfriend who turned his life around or those 16 ginormous paychecks he receives each year, or both? Is he heroic because he made it to the NFL out of such a disastrous childhood or because he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he wasn’t exactly an angel as a kid? Is he going to be a better adult because he just is or because he’ll have the money and fame that will allow him to be?
—Rayshawn Jenkins comes off as a smart, charismatic and, at the age of 24, well-adjusted young man. The problem for me in reading this story is that it doesn’t sound as if any of this happens if he cannot play football. And if people along the way don’t allow certain things to slide simply because he’s so good at football. And seriously, why are we just acting as if his parents’ behavior is what it is and there’s nothing to be done about it simply because this is a “crime-infested” neighborhood? It’s beyond sad that Jenkins and his siblings were put in such an awful situation. That any of them escaped is, yes, miraculous, but I would have put even more emphasis on what negligent parents they were.
A few other thoughts: If this story interested you at all, read Born A Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir. It’s fascinating, it’s inspirational, it’s heartbreaking and it’s hilarious. Noah’s upbringing was likely more difficult than Jenkins’ but he was fortunate enough to have a seriously wonderful mother WHO LOVED HIM. It made all the difference. There’s not a moment in this story where I believe that Charles loved anything other than getting his **** wet and while Terry may love her son, she’s just so dysfunctional that it might have been better if she’d never had access to him.
Last thing: When I was in my late twenties, I made a SERIOUS mistake covering a story for SI that still haunts me to this day. I was covering the AFC West for a special section we’d do and part of that job was to profile players. Teams worked with us because these were pieces that displayed them off the field in a positive light.
So I met a defensive back who was born on the same date, same year as I. We struck up a conversation and he told me I should profile him because he and his wife ran an Italian restaurant. The team set up the interview, and just he and I were going to spend all afternoon and night together, and head to the restaurant.
I followed the player home and as we approached his front door, he smiled and said, “Now, John, you’re not going to get me in trouble, are you?” And almost on cue a heavenly creature, almost 10 years his junior, met us at the door with two margaritas in hand. This was not his wife. But he lived with her. We spent a couple of very revealing hours together. A few teammates stopped by.
Then we all headed to the restaurant, a bistro his father-in-law started that had progressed to a minor chain of restaurants, where he and his wife pretended to be on good terms for the sake of the article. It was like an episode of Ballers, only 20 or so years earlier. If I’d had the balls that Jeff had when he wrote the John Rocker piece, I would’ve written what I actually observed. Not what I’d been sent there to observe.
I only share this because, one, as a member of the media you’re often getting played. And two, I admire Jeff because, unlike me, he handled a moment of truth in his twenties better than I did. I want that known.
This has been today’s edition of “Entirely Too Honest.” Feel free to pipe in.