Revealing the Stigma Against Tattooed Athletes

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 02: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws a pass during the game against
ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 02: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws a pass during the game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on December 02, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Rams beat the 49ers 16-13 in overtime. (Photo by David Welker/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. Whitley:

I recently decided to take a break from public writing; I needed to catch my breath, to catch up on life, work, and recharge. Yet, after reading your most recent piece about Colin Kaepernick, I found myself unable to shake my anger; your words had gotten under my skin.

From the first sentence in your column -- "San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy" -- to your description of people with tattoos as looking as though they are on parole, you make clear that you see a tattooed body as a criminal body. You question Colin Kaepernick because he looks "like a criminal." This makes me wonder if you think he looks like a criminal because he has tattoos or because he has tattoos and he is black. To me, he looks like a chef, a college student, a soldier, or one of the many professors that I know who are covered with tattoos. He looks like many of the 20-30 percent of Americans who currently sport ink.

And so what if he looks like someone locked up in one of America's many prisons? I know the extent of your knowledge of the criminal justice system begins with Cops and ends with Lockout, but did you know that the vast majority of America's incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenders? Did you know or care that they are people -- mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; brothers and sisters. Why is looking like someone who has gone to prison such a bad thing in your mind? Your comfort in imagining those locked up as violent criminals, as "tatted thugs," gives me pause. I mean your entire argument is premised on fact that "criminals" have tattoos and therefore why would any person want to have a tattoo. Maybe you should do some research about the millions of incarcerated people, and those on probation and parole; hopefully that would lead you to be a little less callous. To lament Kaepernick's inked arms by demonizing incarcerated people is reprehensible.

And forgive me if I don't buy your claim that your point isn't about race. Forgive me if I don't buy the explanation that race isn't an issue because you have two adopted African American daughters, or because your editor is black. Is it just a coincidence that you lament tattoos in sports by focusing on their place on African American bodies? I must have missed your exposés on Josh Hamilton and the death of America's pastime. Your piece on Danica Patrick and NASCAR's tattoo problem must have been left on the editing room floor. And yes, I realize that you note that Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith both have tattoos, yet they seem to get a pass because they aren't visible. Are tattoos bad or do you have a problem when the ink is visible? You remind me of the person who denies they are homophobic, and claims, "I don't have a problem with gay people," but laments the sight of men holding hands or worse, kissing in public. Oh wait, you are that person.

Do you think Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant look like "criminals?" Have you questioned their leadership abilities? I think not. The "NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don't want your CEO to look like he just got paroled." Those are your words. Did you know that Barry Goldwater, Antonio Villaraigosa , Senator Jim Webb, Rep. Duncan Hunter, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. all had tattoos? Does this change your opinion of them? What about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill (and his mom), President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, and Thomas Edison? All tatted! This isn't surprising, as among the elite tattoos have a long history. Throughout the early part of the twentieth century, aristocracy often got tattoos as evidence of their sophistication, cultured ethos, and worldly cosmopolitanism. Maybe before your next column about tattoos you should do a little reading about the subject you are writing about, rather than recycling stereotypes.

Your column mirrors so much of today's lamenting discourse, which bemoans the changing racial demographics, the shifting cultural values, and the challenges to white male heterosexual power. It works through your own nostalgia, all of which seems wrapped up in your own racial assumptions. In sounding like Mittens O'Reilly and those afflicted with White Delusional Disorder (WDD), I can't help but think this is all about your racial anxiety. Do you fear what will happen if the bastion of white masculinity -- the quarterback position -- is challenged not just by Cam Newton, but also by tatted Colin Kaepernick? "If you can't draw the tattoo line at NFL quarterback, you can't draw them anywhere." Why is there an impulse to draw a line in the first place and how empowered you do draw such boundaries? How does this represent your desire to contain bodies? I can't but see your column as part of a long line of efforts to police black bodies. Does the sight of Kaepernick's ink body lead you think that he might be "bad boy black athlete" (Collins 2005, p. 153) and not "Tim Tebow." We know that contemporary sports culture consistently represents black male athletes as "overly physical, out of control, prone to violence, driven by instinct, and hypersexual." Are tattoos and blackness seen as inseparable? Or does ink mean something depending on the body it is attached to? While you seem OK in using tattoos as evidence of worthiness, as markers of being "unruly and disrespectful," "inherently dangerous" and "in need of civilizing" (Ferber 2007, p. 20), I am not.

Yes, I think your column is all about race; I think it is about nostalgia for the white quarterback; I think it is about anxiety over demographic shifts and cultural transformation. I think it is about delusions and your own stereotypes. You are not alone here. Your column reads like many I have read before. A 1997 article from the Associated Press also imagined tattoos as markers of criminality and dysfunctionality: "Tattoos always have been popular among inmates, sailors, bikers and gang members. Now they're showing up in increasing numbers in the NBA." In 2009, Kyle McNary identified tattoos as why the "NBA [was] almost unwatchable." Describing those with ink as people who "lack self-esteem" and as individuals saddled by "poor decision-making skills," McNary imagines the proliferation of tattoos as an epidemic destroying the league.

Is it a coincidence that you cite Michael Vick and Terrelle Pryor as the other examples of those who don't look like quarterbacks? "Neither exactly fit the CEO image, unless your CEO has done a stretch in Leavenworth or has gotten Ohio State on probation over free tattoos." I am not sure what CEOs you had in mind here, but maybe you were thinking of Bernie Ebbers, Walter Forbes, Martin Grass, Dennis Kozlowski, Sanjay Kumar, Joe Nacchio, John Rigas, Richard Scrushy, Jeff Skilling, and Sam Waksal. I wonder if they have any tattoos; I would doubt it. So are these the leaders we are suppose to believe in? Is this who our children are suppose to look up to as role models? Maybe Bernie Maddoff or the many politicians who falsely led us into various wars are more your style? I will take a tatted quarterback, chef, college student, or drug dealer before any of these CEOs.

You defend your words by highlighting the negative stigmas associated with tattoos. That is, you were simply pointing out what tattoos represent to many people. Yet, your column perpetuates that stigma, sir. Do you think a column that links tattoos to prisons, that questions whether a tattooed quarterback can lead his team, might perpetuate the very stigmas you use to defend your simplistic column. It is my hope that you use your platform to challenge stigmas.

If you need assistance for your next column, let me know. Maybe you can read a piece I co-authored with another tatted professor on the differential treatment of inked chefs and athletes; maybe you can actually do some research on tattoos throughout history. Maybe you can read the writings from many people who have thought about tattoos. Jack London once said, "Show me a man with a tattoo and I'll show you a man with an interesting past." Pretty brilliant! Why not think about this or the Iban proverb, "a man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods." And if reading ain't your thing, maybe we can get together and go get some ink. I promise, it doesn't hurt -- at least not as much as your closed mindedness and barely veiled racism.


A member of inked America