July 10, 2003
ACCORDING TO some of the nation's top marketing directors, a lot more Kobe Bryant sneakers should have been sold this week. Maybe we can expect other promotions and sales soon, like "Free Kobe" T-shirts, or a new sitcom, Kobe Comes to the 'Hood.
These marketing directors are suggesting the Los Angeles Lakers star may have improved his "street cred" after being arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a Colorado resort two hours west of Denver.
That's what Bryant needed, an image makeover.
He was almost white, but not with universal appeal. Now, he fits in from top to bottom. Bryant has an impending case, as do a lot of the young kids on the street. Bryant has been busted, and, well, so have most of his street supporters. Been there. Done that.
But seriously, if you open the window and turn on the fan, here's the message once the smoke is gone: These marketing directors are perpetuating the stereotype that young African-Americans, especially males, are influenced by violent crimes.
It's insulting and offensive but on par for these talking heads. Remember the ones who kept insisting that the D.C. sniper had to be white?
They're just as annoying as Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker and his theory about why black and Latin players are better suited to play in the heat.
"We're always telling our kids that your street rep is garbage, that there isn't any place for it," said Donnie Brown, the lacrosse coach at Woodlawn High who also works with inner-city youth. "I don't understand how some of these guys form their opinions. They think outside the tank. They've never been inside the tank, and they don't interact with people."
Exactly. That's why this premise about Bryant is so ludicrous. You really want to know why kids aren't buying Bryant's shoes? They're ugly. Repulsive.
But instead of looking at the product, the talking heads look at race and social class. (By the way, does "street cred" refer to one's status among the criminal element or low-income blacks?)
Since Bryant's arrest, we've heard comparisons to Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, and how his merchandise continues to sell despite his bad-boy image.
These marketing directors are treating this incident like it's a marketing bonanza, almost as if Bryant planned it.
The theory is that the boys on the street can't relate to Bryant because he's too soft. That's the label some of the media like to use for African-American players who are articulate, educated and well-mannered. Like the corporate executives, they don't understand that African-Americans are a diverse people.
Bryant is from a middle-class family. He speaks three languages. Windex couldn't have given him a cleaner image.
And if his image caters to the middle or higher class exclusively, which it doesn't, is there anything wrong with that?
That Iverson fella, though, is hard. He struggled coming up. He has been victimized by the media and the Philadelphia police. The man has tattoos, and he has "street cred."
But that's not the reason his sneakers sell and Bryant's don't.
"Kobe's shoes are ugly," said Avery Pierce, 15, from Essex. "Look at the style. Look at the colors. People just don't like them."
"They are heavy and look like ice cubes," said James Joyner, 17, from Reisterstown. "They aren't very attractive."
Wow. Imagine that. A fashion statement. African-American teenagers are no different from any other teenagers. They don't care that Bryant is multilingual, has a $13 million mansion and owns three NBA rings.
They just want to be cool. Air Force Ones and Converses are in. Bryant's shoes are out.
But these corporate types couldn't look at is that way.
Here's another news flash for them: Believe it or not, most people in black communities don't want crime, and the crimes most frowned upon are rape, sexual assault or any assault on a woman or child.
"No one is going to look up to that. Every honorable man is going to respect the sisters, mothers and the women. Every man is going to respect that aspect of family history," Brown said.
Said Pierce: "What is there to respect about a man possibly being charged with a sexual offense? It doesn't make any sense. That's not going to happen. No one is going to accept that."
It was interesting to note that in a Harris Interactive poll of teenagers this spring, Bryant was third on the list of role models behind parents and teachers. That's pretty good company. And the poll wasn't divided into affluent teenagers as opposed to poor ones, or black ones compared to white ones.
Bryant is no different from any other star player. There are going to be people who love him, hate him or just don't care.
"We're going to have people in our communities who don't like him because he went straight to the pros, or because he had it better than them," Brown said. "They are going to be jealous of Kobe no matter what.'
But the "street cred" theory has no credibility.
"That's definitely a stereotype," said Ravens rookie outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "There are a lot of black people who have never been arrested, never had a record. They aren't going to relate to him for that. Maybe these people who make these kind of statements will either apologize or retract them. They make absolutely no sense."
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