The product of a broken home, the famed actress and comedian Carol Burnett was raised by her grandmother in an impoverished section of Hollywood. A generation later, just a few miles down the road, Boston Celtics basketball superstar Paul Pierce grew up in Inglewood, another section of inner-city Los Angeles.
At the end of every show, Carol Burnett would tug at her ear. A sign, she said, to her grandmother, signifying that she was okay, and that she loved her. At the beginning of each basketball game, when he is introduced to the crowd, Paul Pierce also makes a sign, which he says, means "blood, sweat and tears."
This past April, Paul Pierce was fined $25,000 for looking at the opposing team's bench and making his sign, which David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) called "a menacing gesture." It is unknown whether anyone has ever felt threatened by Carol Burnett tugging on her ear lobe. If she has been fined for making her sign, it certainly hasn't received the media attention granted to that of Paul Pierce.
Regrettably, with the current gang-sign hysteria sweeping across our nation's sports leagues, it seems the fine has more to do with the shade of Paul Pierce's skin than with the "menacing" nature of his hand gesture.
Not to be out-hyped by the NBA, the National Football League (NFL) has recently made news surrounding the proposed hiring of experts to study the on-field celebrations of its players and determine whether or not those celebrations include any gang signs.
"There have been some things that we've seen," said Milt Ahlerich, the NFL's Vice President of Security.
Early in 2007, Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed in an alleged gang-related incident. That prompted the NFL to require all of its players to watch a video outlining the dangers of gangs before the start of last season. Now, after the Paul Pierce incident, they feel they must go further.
"The Paul Pierce thing is what brought it to light," reports the NFL's Vice President of Officiating, Mike Pereira. "That's when we said we need to take a look and see if we need to be aware of it."
Alarm over gang activity and violence is commendable. But one wonders where the public relations stop and the honest concern begins.
In the early 1980s, David Stern marketed the then-struggling NBA with an urban image that allowed his league to ride the birth of hip-hop out of sports mediocrity. However, lately the NBA Commissioner seems to be looking at his league through the eyes of Dr. Frankenstein, wondering how he can reign in his monstrous creation.
A few years ago, Stern hired Matthew Dowd, former public relations specialist for the Bush Administration. He wanted Dowd to give the NBA more "red state appeal." Soon thereafter, the commissioner instituted a corporate dress code for all inactive players sitting on the bench, explaining, "We want our players to look like the fans buying tickets to the games."
This spring, Stern hit Pierce with the fine. Stern, observes syndicated columnist Dave Zirin, "has continued on this path with a series of moves that make you wonder if he doesn't see himself as a modern Rudyard Kipling, sent to tame the savages of his league by any means necessary."
The reality is that many professional athletes do come from rough, often gang-inhabited neighborhoods. "A ball player's got to be kept hungry," the legendary Joe DiMaggio once remarked. "That's why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues."
Yet, while success through sports continues to be one of the most celebrated roads out of poverty, the facts are a little more daunting. Of all high school athletes playing some sport across the country, only three percent of them will get to play in college. And of all our collegiate student-athletes, only three percent again will make it to any professional league.
These are the dire odds with which many of today's athletes must contend. And yet, it is with the hiring of gang-sign experts and public relations gurus that the leagues, and their millionaire commissioners, seem the most concerned. What exactly do they strive to save, the sports themselves, or the lucrative television contracts and corporate-seating-spectators that beef up their wallets and fill their stadiums? What are the honest intentions of our league's commissioners?
Professional tennis has no commissioner. For the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the man in charge is Chairman and CEO Larry Scott. And so it is Scott who would be dealt the task of determining what the appropriate punishment for a possibly-gang-related-hand-sign would be, if there is such an incident on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, New York, in this month's U.S. Open.
For, after facing each other in the Wimbledon Finals (where Venus defeated Serena), the Williams sisters are dominating tennis once again.
Several years ago, Richard Williams, their coach and father, celebrated Venus' first Wimbledon Championship on the grass courts of the All England Club by happily shouting, "Straight outta Compton!"
And it was on the public courts of Compton, another inner-city neighborhood of Los Angeles, surrounded by "gangs and guns," as Venus recalls, where Richard taught his daughters about the game of tennis.
Maybe they even came up with their own sign, with which to show each other their love and affection. Just like Carol Burnett and her grandmother did, several miles down the road, a generation ago.