Sports personality, cultural critic, and human kerosene Bomani Jones, that is. He said as much on Austin radio (10:30 mark) and his Sirius radio show while offering his own perspectives on why he believes the Recruitocosm's two year coverage (and by proxy, our own) of Will Lyles and other street agents has taken a racist slant.
Forgetting his contention in the video that "rich white people" couldn't possibly care about helping poor black kids - which is just a tad revealing of his mindset on our shared human condition not to mention pretty effective trolling, so hat tip to him - examining Jones' issues with the term 'street agent' is a useful microcosm in deconstructing Jones' perspectives on larger matters of race, discussing the proper role of satire, explaining our historical knowledge of the actors involved and the nature of the Lyles' hustle itself.
Bomani sees race as a primary motivator in this matter because when you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This is his trade. His shtick. He likes to weigh in on race, sports, and society and he isn't shy about swinging the ball peen. Fine by me. It's a fascinating, edifying topic when handled deftly. Though that's rare. More often you end up with nannying lectures, a lack of authentic discourse because of fear of misunderstanding, insipid pandering, or incendiary ignorance from the worst elements on all sides.
One of the more amusing devices of the current sports media is to examine any issue with a potential racial dynamic (or one in which they'd like to manufacture one) by having the host bring on a "personality" - black - because only they may authoritatively opine on matters of race - and one guy should be able to speak for 40 million, who is then informally deputized as Arbiter Of All Racism, and asked somberly (with host sensitively intoning as if he'd just watched the movie Crash):
"TELL ME, IS THIS THING RACIST?"
The thing - whatever it is - is then often pronounced to be RACIST. Then they agree that racism is bad. We all nod. It is. Then, cue baseball highlights!
In my exposure to Jones I've seen him handle race issues elegantly, thoughtfully, and informatively and, as above, I've seen him do it ham-handedly and simplistically. I suspect the chore of creating heat as an ascendant sports personality balanced against measured and rational discourse is one of the reasons - the current rapid-fire culture of two minute segments doesn't promulgate deep thought; though I also sense, as with my carpenter metaphor, Bomani tackles most questions by first examining - if not magnifying - the racial aspects. However tangential or incidental they may be.
Sometimes it serves him well, other times I'm left in bemused wonderment as he tries to apply a hammer to clean a dirty window.
That written, if Bomani will whack Woody Paige or Jay Marriotti with an actual hammer on his next appearance on Around The Horn, I will worship at his altar forever and dude can do no wrong.
So is the term 'street agent' racist? Nope.
In this context, street agent is a colloquial term applied to those who act as middlemen selling the signatures and camp visits of high school athletes for their own enrichment. Motivated by their interests in getting that athlete to the highest bidder, irrespective of what best serves the young man. It has no inherent racial meaning.
Street agents have existed for some time now in many sports, most famously the pioneering white shoe company AAU street agents and runners who steered young men to universities contracted to an agreeable apparel brand. See Sonny Vaccaro.
Ohio State's basketball program under Jim O'Brien was taken down by a white street agent. A rather famous Serbian street agent named Spomenko "Semi" Pajovic. This was a big deal, but apparently it never registered on Jones' radar.
Did the media call him a street agent though? Aren't white street agents always called, as Jones contends, helpers, mentors, service providers? Well...
Spomenko "Semi" Pajovic, a street agent, allegedly placed Savovic with friends of an Ohio State booster where he received numerous NCAA extra benefits.
- Colombus Dispatch, August, 2005
O'Brien told NCAA investigators that he gave the money to Biancardi; Biancardi told investigators that he then gave the money to Spomenko "Semi" Pajovic, a street agent, to give to Radojevic's family.
- Colombus Dispatch, July, 2004
Here's a quick etymology lesson: street does not connote 'black.'
Word on the street doesn't refer to only what my black friends tell me, a street pharmacist can be a white burn-out peddling meth, street musicians can be anyone with an instrument busking on a sidewalk, street justice was perfected by the Mafia, and street fights happen across all ethnicities and rarely on an actual street.
'Street' suggests that which is without sanction, without regulation, without sponsorship, the illicit. Jones believes that it's white racist code for 'black', which is another sliver of insight into his own racialist dogmatism and the narrowness of his own experience.
Remember, hammers always see nails.
There are dangers to using - or having - only one tool in your analytical belt.
The Kansas basketball ticket selling fiasco involved Sonny Vaccaro proteges The Pump Brothers, who reportedly began their careers as street agents and runners, are about as white as you can get - they are gingers and they look like they own Abba CDs - and are often referred to pejoratively as "The Pimp Brothers."
Let me venture that if the "the Pimp Brothers" label were applied to a pair of black street arbitrageurs, Bomani would evidence this as racist thinking. But they're not, so it's all good. Damn this complex world. It's almost as if people assign words based on actual behaviors and not just their phenotype.
Street agents exist predominantly in sports that are dominated by black athletes. And they do their best work in families where there is no strong male authority figure, the prospect may have dim academic hopes, and where kids are particularly susceptible to small gifts, affection, attention, male authority recognition, and merch. Those facts align with certain sad demographic realities in parts of the black community and it's clear that some street agents use it to their advantage.
That personal exploitation - not race - is the key to why they enrage people. People dislike street agents viscerally for the same reason they dislike predators and hustlers in general. It's about users. Whether a guileful street agent, a sanctimonious head coach, a hypocritical politician, or a begging televangelist. They target the vulnerable, they present themselves as something they're not, they abuse personal relationships and trust.
When they're called on their behaviors, as with all con-men, they roll over, lie, obfuscate, betray, scurry for cover, and attempt to deflect attention by pressing hot buttons around race and whatever else will buy them temporary shelter.
We've been writing about Will Lyles for two years. We've written dozens of pieces on street agents, the mechanics of the game, the broader inequities that allow them to flourish in the NCAA's bizarro-world of rules and mandates, and we did it long before any national media guys had ever heard any of these names. Most of the mainstream press still has no clue what a street agent actually does. Or, it seems, the basic definition.
Meanwhile, Lyles has been actively reaching out to potentially sympathetic media entities, particularly black sports media personalities who enjoy - often with good reason - pillorying the NCAA for its base deceptions, selective enforcement, and institutional hypocrisies. He tries to establish a mutual sympathy, explaining that he's taking the fall for a corrupt system, that he's being targeted for his race.
It's a hustle. Just as Jason Whitlock was hustled. Con men benefit when their victims are too proud to admit when they've been played. And the beauty of the con is that even when the dupe suspects that a con is happening, they still can't see the angle on how they're being used. Until the reveal.
Whether it's Three Card Monte, Irish Traveller's fake asphalting your driveway, a David Mamet play, or Bernie Madoff, it's all the same game.
As for satire, it's the natural consequence of watching the absurd for so long. You can't jump in after two years without any context. We've been watching this cat for years. He has become a walking satire. So we write it.
My most popular satiric character, Clipper Cooper, is an ignorant overly privileged white racist Texas fan who reeks entitlement and stupidity and is meant to suggest a certain type of fan (thankfully, few exist). His patterns of speech, his references, his idiocy are all meant to illustrate his vapidity.
We mock what needs mocking. Is satire an absolute defense? No. It can cross the line. But very little art or writing that is good is created by toeing a PC line. And if it does cross the line, it should be evaluated in a larger context.
If you dislike someone presenting a satirical view of someone that you've decided is useful to you, then carry water for people that we can't make fun of as effectively. Or grow thicker skin.
You don't have special province over certain areas of the public discourse. If you believe racism is a serious issue, don't throw the accusation around so flippantly and frequently, thereby cheapening its currency. The point of the satire, rather clearly, is not Lyles' persona, or his recent silliness - which is inarguable - but that this a guy flailing about, trying to grab anything that will prevent his drowning, throwing out conspiracy theories and bizarre accusations whenever he experiences anything that thwarts his ambitions.
I suspect Bomani has grown accustomed to people backing off or acquiescing whenever he starts throwing the word racist around. It's a useful tool to stifle debate because it's a horrible thing to be associated with.
I'm unimpressed. It gets a yawn from me. It's tired. Stephen A. Smith exhausted this space sometime around 2007 when he ultimately decided that boom mikes, butterflies, and asparagus were all racist.
Only asparagus is racist and that's only against the Irish, which barely counts. That's just good common sense.
But you keep wielding that hammer. And keep seeing those nails. It's a simple world, right?
One tool should get you through it just fine.