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Keith Strudler: The Politics Of Hair

If you’re like me, you spent a good amount of your late youth arguing with your parents about your hair. For me, it was one of a select few moments of protest, since I wasn’t really cool or sophisticated enough to break any real rules. But, I did like to challenge the barber shop to make my hair look more like something from the Muppet Show than GQ. Eventually, in college, I invested in my own pair of hair clippers and lived by the mantra that it will always grow back. I also seemed to think that having cool hair would make my band more popular, or at least more popular than if people simply focused exclusively on what they were hearing. Such led me down the exhaustive road of an extensive hair gel collection, fabric hair bands, and once even an experiment with orange hair dye – which I immediately regretted.

I’m certain that this process had its cost. For example, dates. Also, perhaps summer jobs and internships. Once, and this is a true story, I interviewed for a graduate assistantship with painted finger nails. I did get the job, but it was more complicated than need be. Regardless, I used hair, and sometimes nails, as an odd form of expression that perhaps got in the way of success. And this was something my parents advised against. Repeatedly.

In some ways, and I stress only some, this is reminiscent of the current situation with unemployed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er who gained outsized social significance during his decision to sit during the Nation Anthem before games last season. Kaepernick, who has not been picked up by an NFL team for this upcoming season, was advised by former NFL quarterback Michael Vick – yes that Michael Vick – that he’d have better luck landing on a roster if he cut his hair. Now, some clarification. Kaepernick sports a large Afro, which he sometimes wears in cornrows. Similarly, Vick sported cornrows earlier in his career – particularly before going to prison for dog fighting – then wore his hair in a much closer shave during his NFL rehabilitation afterlife. In his comments, Vick noted that he loved Kaepernick, and simply wanted him to realize that in the NFL, image and presentation are really important. So cutting his hair would make him more palatable to team owners. Vick speaks from experience, since he did manage a respectable second career after suffering one of the most intense nose-dives in pro sports history outside of Aaron Hernandez.

To that, Kaepernick replied by tweeting the definition of Stockholm Syndrome – where a victim sympathizes with his or her abuser. The insinuation being that Michael Vick, in suggesting Colin Kaepernick should cut his hair to appease future employers, has begun to empathize with those that oppressed him. Vick tried to clarify his remarks, which I truly believe were not meant with any sense of malice, and we’ll have to assume life will go on for both. Particularly since Kaepernick may not play this year, and if he does, has already said he’d stand for the Anthem.

But what of Vick’s comments, and of Kapernick’s reply? There’s not enough minutes in the day, much less this commentary, to do a deep analysis of both quarterbacks’ lives and personas. To be brief, they are both complicated, talented, and will have lasting impact – more for what happened off the field than on, which is amazing given how much promise each had and the seeming consensus that they both wouldn’t simply win Super Bowls, but might also revolutionize the game itself.

But let’s say this. Colin Kaepernick is not the only NFL athlete with long hair. Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers has long, flowing blond hair – like out of an 80’s metal band – and not only is it tolerated, it’s earned him a fair amount of commercial acclaim. Of course, he’s white. So there’s that. And he never made a political statement on the sideline. To be fair, several non-white players have long hair, more often than not in long dreadlocks. Like Larry Fitzgerald, who seems to be loved universally.

But let’s also say this. I agree the workplace often demands a certain conformity. That’s why a lot of people chose to be a lifeguard instead of a lawyer – that and a lot of other reasons. But what Vick’s comments and Kaepernick’s reply reminds us is that we still cannot dissociate race from the larger construct of sport. It’s not simply that Vick told Kaepernick to clean himself up and cut his hair. It’s that he told an African-American who led a protest movement to change an element of his appearance with historic ties to Black empowerment in this country. That’s the problem. And it’s a reminder that while the NFL is a largely African-American league, the owners are not. And not knowing for sure, that’s probably why Kaepernick replied like he did.

Now, where will this argument go, and will Kaepernick cut his hair? Hard to say. But if he’s anything like me when I was young, it’s probably going to take a long time.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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