National Football League
Deion fails to get his point across
National Football League

Deion fails to get his point across

Published Aug. 7, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Deion Sanders’ Hall of Fame speech did not strike me the way he intended.

To me, it denigrated work more than it illustrated his devotion to his mother. To me, it celebrated one of the primary dysfunctions crippling African-American boys more than it enlightened them on how to truly pursue success. To me, it was more about putting his critics in checkmate than celebrating the sacrifices his mother made.

Before I go further, let me add Deion Sanders is one of my all-time favorite football players. I loved to watch him play, high-step and smile. He backed up his big talk with even bigger play. I also believe Deion is a good person with wonderful intentions. He wants to help young people, and I admire him for that.

His speech Saturday was intended to inspire youth. He wanted to dare them to pursue greatness. He wanted to reveal to the world what made him “Prime Time,” a flamboyant football brand that changed the pay scale for defensive backs.


“I don’t know if you figured it out by now, but I gave you Prime,” Sanders said, summarizing the things he believes made him a great football player. “I just gave you the formula and who is really standing before you. Because I was trick-or-treating, and it wasn’t even Halloween. Because all the things you may have thought I was and some of the things you didn’t like, you didn’t love, you didn’t want to accept, I was doing it for my mama.”

Yep. The gold chains, the bandannas, the music videos, the high-steps, the brash talk and the hey-look-at-me antics were all done for the benefit of Deion’s mother.

Deion said that, as a child, he was so ashamed of his mother’s job at a hospital that he vowed he would do all he legally could to ensure she never had to work again. He first dreamed this at 7. He said he came up with the “Prime Time” formula while at Florida State.

“Since 1989, I tackled every bill my mama has ever given me,” Sanders said, rebutting the critics who said he didn’t tackle. “Haven’t missed one.”

Maybe what Deion said is all true. Maybe, in his mind, he became a polarizing figure because he thought it would allow him to take care of his mother. That does not make it right. That does not legitimize his message on Saturday.

Deion Sanders is not a trained, skilled orator. I don’t think he understands the message he delivered on Saturday and how his primary audience (young people) will receive it.

Most of them will not be blessed with 4.2 speed in the 40-yard dash or any of the physical gifts it takes to be a professional athlete. They will never earn legally in their 20s or even 30s nearly enough money to make it so their parents will never have to work again. And that should not be their goal. Well-intentioned parents just want to go to sleep at night or pass from this earth knowing their children can take care of themselves.

“What separates us (Hall of Famers) from some of you kids, from some of you adults, from some of you people,” Deion said during his Hall speech, “is that we expect to be great. . . . I expect to be great. I expect to do what hadn’t been done. I expect to provoke change.”

I am not questioning Deion’s work ethic or commitment to football. But what separates many of the Hall of Famers from ordinary athletes is God-given talent or parents willing to work at hospitals sweeping floors and pushing wheelchairs.

More important, what separates many happy, functional, successful kids from kids locked into poverty, dysfunction and illegal activity are parents who allow kids to be kids and not take on the burden of manhood and family provider long before they’re ready.

If a child makes it up in his mind that it is his responsibility to provide for an adult, most likely the child is going to choose a childish way of doing it. If you’re blessed with athletic talent, great — play a child’s game and earn riches. That’s a tiny percentage.

There are prisons filled with black men who were never given the freedom to be black boys. They’re turned into providers and de facto husbands at age 10, 11 and 12.

I heard Deion’s speech differently from how he intended.

My mother worked on an assembly line at Western Electric for 32 years. During my childhood on the east side of Indianapolis, depending on how much overtime she could finagle, she earned between $18,000 and $28,000 a year checking the ringers on telephones.

When things were tough, she took a second job, working a cash register at a local grocery store. On some weekends, she moonlighted as a kitchen beautician, giving her girlfriends perms. She drove a used, beat-up Mustang, and the few nice clothes she had, she bought from the “hot” clothes lady out of the trunk of a car or van.

As a child, I spent a lot of time wishing my parents had never divorced, wondering why my brother and I couldn’t have the same life as Wally and Beaver Cleaver, occasionally embarrassed by our circumstance in comparison to some of my friends in our working-class suburb.

As an adult, I take great pride in my mother’s work history and ethic. She retired from Western Electric at age 53. She never quit working. She’s 71 and works every tax season for H&R Block. My father is 75. He still works at his bar. My parents set a standard for work ethic that my brother and I try to meet each day.

I’m glad Deion was able to take care of his mother. I’m glad I can provide for mine. But there is great honor and dignity in work, no matter how menial the labor.

Again, I believe Deion is a good, well-intentioned person. He was blessed with great athletic talent, and that and work ethic made him a Hall of Fame player.

Educating and instilling the proper mind-set in young people requires thought, study and an absence of ego.

Deion closed his speech asking his fellow Hall of Famers to use their platforms to inspire young people and then quickly turned to promoting a party at his tent with Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Ice Cube.

“We about to tear this thang up!” he said.

I just hope Deion didn’t use his platform to serve gin and juice.


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