Sparked by a Sporting News column, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos have been the source of heated discussion across national sports media the past two days.
Tattoos are the hot topic and columnist David Whitley is under fire. The reason? On Wednesday, Whitley published a column entitled “Colin Kaepernick ushers in an inked-up NFL quarterbacking era.”
Here’s the gist: Whitley doesn’t like tattoos, new 49ers QB Kaepernick (a good-character 25-year-old from Milwaukee who is thriving as the new guy under center in San Francisco) has a myriad of permanent markings on his body, and Whitley thinks Kaepernick is setting a bad example for kids.
I am in a unique position to respond. I am a young man who is: a white guy, a sports journalist, a former athlete who considered playing college basketball and probably would have won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest one day if that had happened, an avid NFL fan since birth, a business professional, someone who has pondered if athletes should be considered role models, and a canvas of two tattoos.
Hear me out.
First, I am the editor in chief of a college newspaper. I worked in the sports department at a local television station for a year, I often write sports articles for two local daily newspapers, and I’ve also done freelance reporting for The New York Times. While I am young (21 years old) and Whitley calls himself a “dinosaur,” I am a sports writer just like him. And while I may not have the clout he has as a writer for AOL and Sporting News and I don’t want to cause a ruckus by publishing this column in a publication, the Internet gives me the same ability to express my thoughts through a small blog I share with two of my closest friends.
I gave Mr. Whitley my eyes and undivided attention. Now I am asking for his.
I promise it won’t take too long, but I have a whole bunch of thoughts.
While my two (yes, just two) tattoos don’t show up in a business setting, they’re both large and noticeable. Additionally, my newspaper (The Spectrum) published a point/counterpoint section debating tattoos last year and my co-worker Lisa Khoury’s anti-tattoo column went viral. I know Lisa and I know she’s a good person. I’m sure Whitley is, too.
I’m not here to debate if Whitley is racist, as some writers have asserted. I suppose the criticism is warranted because he compared Kaepernick to a prisoner and commended white quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning, while demeaning black quarterbacks, namely Michael Vick. However, I trust it was an oversight and his response is genuine. I ask you to do the same, as readers tend to assume the worst in writers and fail to grant the benefit of the doubt. I am a white male like Whitley, but I grew up in the inner city of Buffalo and I’m not your typical “wealthy suburban prep” (in fact, as you can read via that link, the stereotype bothers me to no end). I think Whitley’s two adopted black daughters are enough evidence that he is far from a bigot.
Instead, I’m here to talk about his assertion that “a person’s body is a temple, and you don’t cover temples in graffiti.” I saw the overwhelmingly negative response to Lisa Khoury’s column firsthand, and I don’t wish to degrade Mr. Whitley or label him as closed-minded, as other blogs have done. This is simply the frank opinion of a developing journalist — who is probably similar to the person Whitley was when he was 21 — who has tattoos, doesn’t see them as an issue whatsoever, and has no problem telling the world.
Young? Absolutely. Naive? Hardly.
I got my first tattoo when I was 19 years old. It is scripted: “he conquers who conquers himself,” a translation of the Latin saying “vincit qui se vincit.”
“he conquers who conquers himself”
Mr. Whitley, this tattoo is not a way “to pay homage to [my] religion, children and motorcycle gang.” It is rather a constant reminder that life is not about me. Society preaches arrogance to college students, and it’s easy to buy in. It’s easy to be a selfish young person. Sometimes, that’s a huge problem for me. The phrase “he conquers who conquers himself” is a reminder that I will not accomplish anything in life when I just set out to serve myself. I won’t leave anything behind.
As Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” That’s a concept I often struggle with. Believe it or not, every time I see my tattoo, I go out aiming to make someone’s day. I aim to do something bigger than serve myself.
The tattoo is also a metaphoric bridge. When people happen to see it and ask what it says, I’m able to tell them the philosophy behind it. Would not the world be a better place if everyone were to “conquer him/herself” and start serving others? I think it would. I tend to think you would agree. That’s why I have the message permanently etched into my chest.
But my back, well, that’s the tattoo that means the most to me. Here’s a photo:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
As I said, I was an athlete growing up, so everyone who sees this tattoo and doesn’t know me well assumes it was my high school number. But this number belongs to someone much more talented and generally much better than I. This number belongs to life-long friend Zack McLeod, who suffered a serious head injury during a football game in 2008 and has not had an easy recovery. Here is a basic synopsis.
Inside the number 16 is Zack’s favorite Bible verse, II Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Zack epitomizes the perfect kid — the “little Dutch boy” Whitley so admires. He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever met and yet he was the nicest kid — the kind of young man you can only wish your kid will grow up to be. He was humble. He had conquered himself.
And then the injury happened.
It didn’t — and still doesn’t — make sense to me. Why do such bad things happen to such good people? The tattoo is my outlet for telling others about Zack. If I were to tell you the full story, I can guarantee it would change the way you see the world. The back tattoo is also my permanent reminder that anyone’s life could come crashing down at any given moment — no matter how kind, talented, or good you are. Appreciate what you have. Show love. For more on this “pay-it-forward, carpe-diem” philosophy, check out a column I wrote at the beginning of this semester.
Maybe you, Mr. Whitley, don’t need reminders to be a good, selfless person. Maybe you think my tattoos would make “Jerry Richardson clutch his chest in horror,” like you assert Kaepernick’s will if he ever hoists the Lombardi Trophy.
You may very well have not made it this far, but I applaud you if you have. Stick with me. I’m almost done.
Am I not justified in being a professional with these two constant reminders on my skin? Does that discredit me and make me look like a prisoner, sir? Do I resemble the “98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison [who] have tattoos?” I’ve never had any trouble with the law, I’m a Dean’s List student, and I excel in my work — but I do have two tattoos.
Mr. Whitley, I know you think I’ve missed your point and I also know you think “tattoo removal is going to be huge industry in the coming years,” but that industry won’t be getting any of my money. Not a dollar.
I was grappling with this column in class today when my Spanish teacher started talking about tattoos. A student sitting next to me asked if I had any, and I answered in the affirmative.
He scoffed. “You really want something permanently on your skin?” His judgment was clear, as if he was saying: “You’ll regret that in five years and never land a job.”
Then he took a big gulp of lemon-lime Gatorade and sighed, “I drank way too much last night.”
I spent last night producing a newspaper that would be read by over 10,000 people and working on a documentary for class until 4 a.m. But, again, I have two tattoos (which, though I’m adamant they deeply affect me, are about as meaningful to many — including the young man in class — as barbed wire on someone’s bicep), so I’m probably not on pace to land a successful job.
You ended your column with: “If you can’t draw the tattoo line at NFL quarterback, you can’t draw them anywhere.”
Consider this: Maybe an inked-up NFL quarterbacking era isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe, in fact, it can be a positive thing. Maybe painting the walls of our “temples” with impactful, uplifting messages that mean a lot to each individual isn’t a sign of the Apocalypse.