Generation Tat

Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton is a true rarity.  Not only is he talented and charming, he’s a 22 year old professional athlete who has no tattoos or piercings.

In terms of athletes, Newton is the anti- Chris Anderson:

This week, Cam Newton became  the flash point of a semi-racial controversy when Jerry Richardson, the white Panthers owner, asked him to stay un-pierced and un-tatted for the length of his employment with the team.

Many people immediately cried foul.  How could a white man ask a black man not to get tattoos and earrings, especially when earrings and tattoos are such a big part of black culture?

In my opinion, Jerry Richardson is a rich, bigoted, bossy man.  Beyond this, he’s actually quite insufferable for many other business reasons, not the least of which is the role he played in the NFL lockout or his refusal to spend the money it takes to put a winning team on the field.

Despite these drawbacks Jerry Richardson isn’t bigoted in the way people think he is; he isn’t a racist.  The majority of players employed by Richardson are not exclusively white.  In fact, Mr Richardson is actively engaged in the process of helping young African-American men become millionaires.

Jerry Richardson is merely bigoted in the way that most old people are.  He doesn’t like wild haircuts, tattoos, or piercings.  He’s also probably not a big fan of loud music, sagging jeans, and soft caramel chews either.  When he thinks about the things that people like, and will spend their money on, he first thinks of the things that people like him enjoy.

People like him have money and they don’t like tattoos.

This way of thinking and reacting have helped make him a 75 year-old bazillionaire.

You and I think like this too don’t we?  When we bump into something we don’t like we tend to find as many people as we can who support our cause.  If we find a large enough group we leverage it to justify our point about how bad the thing we don’t like is.

We also do this with the things we like.  Humans settle into groups of people who agree with their lifestyle and then use the collective consensus to normalize our thoughts and behaviors as correct.

I call it “talk radio-ing.”

Talk radio hosts don’t actually give out news or new ideas on their programs, they collect like minded listeners who then feel validated for thinking the way the host does.  That’s why a slogan like, “Rush Is Right!” is so awesome.  If you and Rush both feel the same way, then guess who’s right?  You are!

The problem with looking to human consensus as a means of direction setting, in any area of life, is that eventually you will wake up and realize one of two terrible things:

1.) People, like cattle, can very easily be herded in new directions.

2.) While you weren’t paying attention, the world changed and you didn’t.

I’d suggest to Mr. Richardson that while he was enjoying 60 Minutes and the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast DVD’s, tattoos and piercing became so popular that not only do moms and dads now have them, they also pay for their children to get them as commemorative graduation and wedding presents.

Sometime around the year 1997 we reached the “Barbed-wire around bicep” tattoo flashpoint. Since then, the migratory herd of millenials have rejected the notion that someone wouldn’t give them a job if their arms looked like a Nikki Sixx love letter to Kat VonD… because they were all inventing their own industry and jobs anyway.

Not wanting his young star to get a tattoo or piercing for marketing reasons isn’t Jerry Richardson’s biggest mis-judgment; asking someone who made it to 22 without getting one to not get one (while his peers were violating NCAA rules to get them) is.

Did Richardson ever consider that if Newton doesn’t have a tattoo yet, it might just be that he doesn’t want one?

As the owner of a sports franchise targeting an audience made up of 18-45 year-old males, Jerry Richardson isn’t making a wise business decision to restrict personal expression when it comes to appearance… even though it’s well within his rights as an employer to do so.

His decision isn’t a racial faux pas (insinuating that tattoos and piercings are a “black thing” is) it’s a social blunder that reveals just how much America has changed since he was 55 and spry.

As a leader, Richardson could be commended for leading out of conviction over consensus, if we could prove that he knows what direction the herd is headed.

You see it takes more than just “not bowing to consensus” to be a good leader, you also need to discern the proper direction and whether or not the consensus is already headed there.

Because sometimes the only lost person is the person in charge.

A leader who has strong convictions without an understanding of people is like someone possessing a valuable map and an impotent voice- their passion and strength will be wasted shouting over the din in a noisy room.

A leader doesn’t just spend time discerning where to lead people, he also gets to know the people he is leading because people don’t follow someone they know doesn’t have a clue or care about them.

A leader with no followers isn’t actually a leader are they?

Cam Newton making it to 22 without a tattoo is a signal that he isn’t a follower and Jerry Richardson insisting that Newton submit to his antiquated tastes is a signal that the owner isn’t a very good leader.

For the record:
I’m 37, white, and have zero tattoos.

4 Responses to “Generation Tat”

  1. Jesse August 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    I think this story is a little overblown. I think it is a little strange that he doesn’t want him to have tattoos, but I am not sure there was an ultimatum given. He does have Shockey on the team whose arms look like an American flag threw up on them.
    But I don’t think tattoos make someone a bad person.

    Do you remember the mobile tattoo stations at TomFest? That seemed like the worst idea ever. Get a tattoo and then go into a sweaty mosh pit and dont shower for 5 days.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on the ESPN article about “What if Michael Vick were white”. Which I personally think is the most racial insensitive article to come out in a long long time and I can only imagine if Fox News had written it.

    • Jon August 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

      ESPN is really reaching these days, Pretty sure that the picture and the title of the Vick article were created to “drive traffic” to the article. If Vick was actually white, he’d be a much better QB version of Tim Tebow…

      So glad you didn’t go into the mobile tat booth, especially right before 90 lb Wuss went on!

  2. Karina Olson August 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    I agree with your comments. To see this athlete’s unmarked epidermis does leave a person almost subconsciously wondering why it feels like there is something “missing” from the picture. I also concur with the 1997 flashpoint. While I believe that tattoos are on “Here to stay” (particularly because they are permanent in a way that mullets and big hair never were) I am especially interested to see how the trend evolves over time.

    I have been in several discussion/debates in which I hold to the position that the extreme popularization of inking and larger-gauge piercings will become less beloved by 2025. Many have opposed me and said that, No, Tattoos are not a trend but rather a cultural reality that American Society as a whole has incorporated, that to experience the fullest sense of individuality, we almost “need” tattoos to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. After all our uninked arms (ankles, necks, lower back etc.) make us “all the same”, perhaps undistinguishable from one another. An interesting perspective.

    It will be interesting to watch the evolution of the tattoo phenomenon. I tend to think this trend as we experience it will fade…just as the colors and clarity of much of the work itself will. They will become dated… not extinct, but the popularity and seeming universality of the stamps may wane.

    When you attend a Harley event, here in Milwaukee the long ponytails, dew-rags, ripped stonewashed denims sported by the 50 something crowd are anachronistic among a diverse, tattooed, enthusiastic crowd still sporting leather and appreciating the chrome-work of hundreds of custom bikes. These 20-35 hard bodied and tattooed men and women are no longer unique in the culture. Everybody is doing it. I know 50+ year old women are so proud of themselves for being daring and getting a cute butterfly tat on their ankle or top of their foot, just like their “granddaughters”.

    This is what indicates some of why it will lose its widespread popularity. Getting a tattoo is no longer counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian, daring, and it is anything but unique. I suspect that within the next decade-and-a-half or two, tattoos will be old-school. Passé. Especially the ones that sort of meander all about ones fore-arm or creep up the neck. You know, when a girl weighs 25 pounds more than when she got her tattoo… it’s just not quite as flattering.

    I have nothing against people choosing to get a tat. I suppose it is a matter of personal preference and individual taste. Artistically, I admire some specific designs, and appreciate some of the talent I have seen exhibited in some really amazing body art that many of my friends and family have incorporated into their tegument. Nevertheless, I continue to prefer art to be displayed on a canvas that offers a stability that living human skin just can’t offer.

    I’ve expressed more here than I originally intended, but thanks Jon for your commentary on Cam Newton’s situation and Jerry Richards seemingly cavalier perspective. Upon further observation of the photos you posted here, it seems that Cam’s pristine skin magnifies the natural aesthetic of the human form, and it perceived strength and power. Who knows- Maybe someday we will see a trend in this graffiti-less direction?

  3. Jon August 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    Nice take… I’m pretty sure that the recent fashion trend towards the more tailored feel on the mid 1960’s will bring a less enthusiastic response towards large scale tattoos. That said, tattoos largely are the provenance of the young and impulsive. Gauged ears and inked extremities will probably morph away from mainstream prominence yet remain a vital subculture for years in the same way that punk became goth, goth became punk emo, emo became scene, and scene has gone glam.

    Eventually young peoe will rebel against the tatted up expression of their parents in a form that we probably won’t be able to predict. That’s probably when only the old, saggy, and lobeless will be inked… Oh, and ex military.

    Thanks for the holla Karina!

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