Racial Controversy: Columnist Says Black QB’s Tattoos Make Him Look Like He Just Got Paroled

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

A sports columnist is trying to explain himself after making some odd remarks about the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.   Sports writer David Whitley doesn’t seem to know the difference between an NFL quarterback and a prison inmate, after he compared 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to men who just got out of prison.

Whitley says that Kaepernick can never be a legitimate hero because he discounts the position of quarterback with all of his tattoos.

“San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is going to be a big-time NFL quarterback. That must make the guys in San Quentin happy,” wrote Whitley in AOL FanHouse. 

“Approximately 98.7 per cent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough Lockup to know it’s close to accurate.”

Whitley also said this:

“NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”

Obviously, the column got a reaction, but not the kind that’s good for business.  If an article sparks a light among readers, that’s great.  But the last thing you want is a forest fire.

In spite of the controversy, Whitley wasn’t backing down from his words.  The columnist goes one up on the “I have a black friend” defense:  He actually has two adopted daughters who just happen to be black.

“If they were old enough to read, my two adopted African-American daughters would certainly be disappointed to find out I’m a racist,” he said.

“It didn’t occur to me that admitting I’m not a fan of body art would be admitting I don’t like African-Americans.”

Whitley’s explanation of his personal life didn’t stop the intense public reaction and even required his editor to write a defense for his words.

Sporting News columnist David Whitley has sparked outrage with his opinion piece that compares the ownership of tattoos to being incarcerated in prison

Whitley seems to think that having black people close to you means that you can’t be a racist. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  There are quite a few people who hold racial anxieties who also have black people in their lives that they love to death.  You need to go no further than the old southern plantation, where massa’s wife would trust her black nanny with her life and her children.  You can also point to college campuses like The University of Kentucky, where the negroes on the court are treated like rock stars, while rank-and-file black people are considered second-class citizens.  So, loving a black person is not a “Get out of jail free” card when it comes to accusations of racial oppression.

Some of Whitley’s animus could be due to the fact that times (and people) are changing.  Part of the problem could be a classist reaction to “those people” who come from a different background from ourselves.  Loving black children doesn’t mean that he loves all black people, and there are some who associate themselves with black folks so they can teach them a set of values that differ from what they might see otherwise….at worst, it can be part of the paternalistic tradition of “civilizing the savages.”

But in Whitley’s defense, it can be noted that there are quite a few black people who are equally annoyed with the “tatted-up” culture of modern athletes.  Additionally, there is a very disturbing spillover effect between prison culture and black male culture in general, largely driven by the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex, where black men have become cattle being fed to slaughter in a capitalist machine of involuntary servitude.   We even have music being played for black boys on a daily basis that indoctrinates them into a set of predictable decisions that significantly increase their probability of spending time in prison.

What is certainly true, however, is that you can’t disconnect race from Whitley’s association of a tattoo-covered black athlete with a prison inmate.   The prisons are full of black men who could have been professional athletes, and there are plenty of professional athletes who roam with convicted felons.  The cultures tend to overlap and many white folks can’t tell the difference between the big black man who might hurt them and the big black man who will score their touchdowns.

The bottom line is that the analogy was an inappropriate and unnecessary example of when “keeping it real goes wrong.” Whitley could have expressed his concern in a more decent and thoughtful way, rather than grabbing onto the most convenient stereotype he could find.  Also, he needs to focus on loving his black daughters and not using them as political hand puppets, since using them to make his case only makes him look like that much more of a bigot.  A better approach for Whitley might have been for him to protect his job by judging the player by the content of his character and not the colors on his skin.  He probably needs to go ahead and apologize.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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  1. Engage the brain next time to prevent putting your foot in your mouth in the future. just saying.

  2. Is the guy on the pic above who we're talkung about ? If so I thought he was white ……lol

  3. Is the guy on the pic above who we're talkung about ? If so I thought he was white ……lol

  4. I have a problem with that remark. There are numerous white athletes who have a number of tattoos on body parts visible to the public. I don’t hear any commentators, black or white making judgmental remarks about that. This quarterback just happens to be a black man with tattoos. Ironically, Whitley’s surprise that his remark is offensive does not surprise me either. Whites are so accustomed to viewing Blacks and other disenfranchised minority groups in a certain way based on their ingrained discriminatory prejudices, that they truly do not recognize what they said was inappropriate, or downright wrong because they are unable so desensitized when it comes to the perspectives, rights, views and needs of others. Their bigoted viewpoint about otHer minority groups and the way they express it has become second nature.

  5. Silly bugger, come to Australia most of our NRL (football) players have tatts and most haven't been to goal, perhaps he needs to open his eyes a little wider!

  6. The problem I see with Mr. Whitley's comments is that it seems to reveal a deep seated fear about his sacred QB position. He is afraid because today's players are not like those of yesteryear. Mr. Whitley's mistake is that he judged Colin Kaepernick based on his outward appearance. Where I come from, we call that stereotyping. More QBs are coming in the league that don't resemble what sportswriters are used to.

    Let's not forget the paranoia that occurred two years ago when current Panthers QB Cam Newton entered the NFL draft. He doesn't have any tattoos, but there were still criticisms that had no merit, and there was certainly racially coded language in them.

    Kaepernick is vastly intelligent, having carried high GPAs in high school and college. A couple of his tattoos are actually Bible verses. Before comparing Colin to a parolee, David Whitley could've found out these things with basic research. That's what is so egregious about his statements. Mr. Whitley comes across as the type of person who can say this stuff in an article about Colin Kaepernick, but would wet or crap in his pants if said guy was standing in front of him.

    Lastly, I'm not a big tattoo guy, but just because someone has ink on their skin doesn't mean there's something wrong with them. Get to know someone before you judge.

  7. Lets have some guaranteed fair treatment regarding tattoes. Why is this quarterback singled out. There are a multitude of people from various cultures and professions covered in tattoes. Keep in mind todays raceism is not as blatant as in the past but just as devious. The statements are racist.

  8. Whitley being one who writes an opinion for all to see,certainly should have expected what he is getting. The opinion of intelligent African Americans who live their lives being black and are probably more aware than he about what a tattoo on a black body means to a blacks acceptance in society. It is my opinion of his article,it is a feeble attempt to express his opinion of his dislike of tattoos. The use of the young man,who is now QB of the 49ers just so happened to inspire him to associate his body art With that of those in the prison system,in my opinion was where his article became controversial,and insulted those of us who really don't care for words with racial undertone. The message,became different once the QB was now a CEO,and future exceptance in society ect..ect..his defense of his opinion being his choice of a adopted family,continued his decent into his foot in mouth disease. In my opinion he wrote the article,to call attention to this young man tattoos and being a QB in the NFL,he dilutes qualification of the position and his future as well,because in his opinion CEO or positions of such,see tattoos as prison related. This writer is either extremely jealous of this young man and his obvious success,or he has a problem realizing how much society has changed about this body art thing. I can't visualize Tat's on my old ass,however far be it from me to try and give my opinion about who can and cannot display them on their body. This Whitley needs to re-think,his opinion because,there are many African American now that have forum like this,and will chew your ass if you don't come strong with your opinion…peace

  9. A vast % are just late.
    slavery updated is in full effect,go get a late pass okay.

  10. Problem is; through this young man success as am NFL qb, why is he singling out a tattoo you don’t see until the game is over and media is interviewing them in the locker room. San Quentin is how this gentleman view these kids future will be like.

  11. That's the reason he doesn't write for a major brand. He's an idiot don't even respond.

  12. Yes, what he said was racist and using the "I've got a black friend" excuse is typical. The fact that he has two adopted black kids doesn't change a thing. I'm black and my best friend of about 15 years is white. She admitted to me two years ago that she's racist. It wasn't "news" to me.
    White athletes have tattoos also. Does he give them a pass? I don't go about looking for examples of racism but when its obvious I call an ace of spade a DOGGONE SPADE.

  13. you must be be blind not to see the racial undertones! Ya'll are just blind!

  14. Making his comments racial assumes that all Black have tattoos or that only African Americans have them. Last time I checked there dozens if not hundreds of White NFL players t have just as many tats. Also, who said Kaepernick was Black?

  15. The talk show hosts are getting to the point where they think they can say whatever they want about whomever they want and not suffer in repercussions later. The easiest way to get back at this guy and any of the rest of them is stop listening to them and encourage all of your family and friends to do the same. Then work to get their sponsorship cancelled and if that's done they won't be around very long. They have to have sponsorship to stay on the air and screen. That's just simple economics.

  16. They are not racist statements, we would have to prove racist intentions in order to make that argument. What his remarks are is nothing short of ignorant though. Tattoos have been a cultural statement around the entire world for many centuries and are a widely respected form of body art. What the writer didn't do is his due diligence to see whether or not CEOs have body art as well. He based his entire opinion on his personal experience watching a television show. If anything he's just proven that he isn't very credible.

  17. If you watch Lockup, then you know there are a lot of white people with Tats as well.
    I really don't care for them myself, I think It's a fad out of control that lots of people are going to wish they never participated.

  18. Typical Racist, I pity those kids being raised by this Bigoted Idiot!!

  19. Code 10 it’s the Enemy Again!!!

  20. Without even showing me his picture, I could tell that this guy is a complete asshole….

  21. Are there no white athletes with tattoos? Unfortunately racism is as American as apple pie. That;s the reality whether one acknowledges it or not.

  22. Just because he has two African American adopted daughters, doesn’t mean that he is not racist. He probably adopted them to have sex with them.

    • You are probably right about him still being racist even though he adopted two AA daughters. You are probably wrong about him doing it for sex. He is more likely doing it to make white kids out of them. This is a very popular thing for white folks to do these days. They love for you to be black on the outside and white on the inside.

  23. Must everything be racial? I confident, soon people will ignore totally.
    it when it's said! From the top down, if you are critical of the president and his policies you're a racist, if you bump a black man on a crowded L train you're a racist, if you feel OJ got off you're a racist, if you feel a ID should be shown before voting you're a racist, if you think people should better them selves via a good education " that's code for Black people" you're a racist. I't needs to Stop!

  24. I didn't see that as a racist comment, unless you personally believe that tattoes re some how a black thing. There is definitely a connection between prision and tattoes. I personally don't agree with him though just because being a quarterback isn't the same as being the CEO of the team… each team actually has a real CEO, and the position of quarterback seems quite appropriate for tattoes. I don't like tattoes either, and I think that those who over ink themselves tend to look like criminals(black or white) and generally reduce their chances of being accepted into certain social classes if they have an over abundance of visible tattoes.

  25. @ Alan Carter

    Same here. I’m a black woman and I didn’t see anything racist about his comment nor do I have a problem with the athlethe’s tats. I’m not a fan of tattoos and the columnist comments were nothing more but personal commentary with a dose of that tired ass sarcasm to demean the person whom you don’t hold a favorable view of. I can understand how some people will interpret his comments as racial given the comparison to prison and with the prison population being disproportionately African Americans. I didn’t realize all Quarterbacks must have a certain look to be acceptable by mainstream America, but oh well. There’s a first for everything. Last, I will say that white columnists have a way of using racial undertones to patronize a group of people. They are the masters when using this tactic with the assumption that their distain about something they associate with that group will go over most people’s heads. Also, Colin Kaepernick is biracial. Irrelevant, but I just thought I mention that little fact.

  26. I sorry I just don't see anything racial about his statements. I also don't see anything wrong with a Q-back with tats.

    • I'm in full agreement with Alan Carter's response. Although I don't agree with David Whitley's opinion on tattoo's, he has a right to his opinion just like anyone else. I saw nothing racial about it. I think in some cases, we need to see things just for what they are and not try to look for something that was never there to begin with.

    • I'm in full agreement with Alan Carter's response. Although I don't agree with David Whitley's opinion on tattoo's, he has a right to his opinion just like anyone else. I saw nothing racial about it. I think in some cases, we need to see things just for what they are and not try to look for something that was never there to begin with.

    • Agreed Alan. This is the result of a writer who makes his bones selling us stories of race issues so of course he will say its racially motivated. It's insensitive but not to race. No one does prison tatts like skinheads. Why assume he's referencing black men?

    • The problem I had is that young Black Male athletes are not the only ones that are tatted up. there are plenty of white male athletes, as well as, females of both races that are tatted up. Personally, I don't like them but then again I don't have any. To each his own.

    • Probably because the person he made the comment about IS BLACK. He didn't make these comments about skinheads or whites who resemble them.