Everyone wants to forgive the favorite child, the prodigal son, the hometown hero. It’s why, despite the overwhelming evidence, suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice still has his online defenders. It’s why it took a video on TMZ to get the NFL to do the right thing.
Everyone knows who he is, but who is his wife, Janay Rice, to a football-worshipping, forgiving fan? Could she run a combine? Was she wearing a jersey? If not, then she could be chalked up as someone in the way of someone else’s football season—an inconvenience, a sideshow. And that’s what she would have become if it weren’t for TMZ and Twitter.
Because historically, if a black celebrity did some dirt—abused a spouse, become involved with someone underage—a lot of people didn’t hear about it. In the past, the white, mainstream press didn’t cover what was going on with the black jet set no matter how many albums were sold or how many movies were released. And the black press wasn’t much better. Celebrities held a lot of power, choosing to deny future access if black-owned publications attempted to report on and get at the heart of their demons.
But if we’d had the robust social media community that we have now, there are more than a few black celebs who probably wouldn’t have escaped the scrutiny that Ray Rice now faces.
Here are a few examples:
Today it might have been harder for Davis to continually unleash his rage on the women who dared to love him. All three of his marriages were marked by domestic violence, including his marriage to award-winning actress Cicely Tyson. Writer Pearl Cleage even went so far as to pen a stage play, Mad at Miles, that has been described as a Vagina Monologues of domestic violence. There’s no discounting Davis’ influence and skill as a musician. Even his former wives tout his genius. But his infamous temper likely wouldn’t have survived today’s Twitter era, when police photos of battered faces, as in the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna, or hotel security-camera footage can be easily leaked or sold.
In the new biopic Get on Up, there’s a brief scene in which Brown, played by Chadwick Boseman, hits one of his wives, played by Jill Scott. While an entertaining film, Get on Up sums up Brown’s propensity for violence with a bell-ringing slap, ignoring the dozens of stories of Brown inflicting pain on others, including allegedly once attacking singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer. Like Davis, Brown was also a musical genius and unrivaled showman. But in his day, few of his exploits ended up in the press, until his problems, and his iconic mug shot, became too big to ignore.
Brown is a football legend. Many of his records as a running back in the 1950s and ’60s remain untouched. But Brown, too, faced charges of violence against women, on more than one occasion, but he mostly escaped sanction. As with James Brown, his history didn’t affect him professionally until he was already an old man. But none of it stopped the NFL from inducting him into the Hall of Fame.