Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Texans releasing J.J. Watt offers peek into racially coded language — what’s 'classy' & who gets to be the 'face of a franchise'?

J.J. Watt was more than just a football player for the city of Houston.
J.J. Watt was more than just a football player for the city of Houston.
Image: Getty Images

When the Texans decided to release J.J. Watt on Friday, it marked the end of an era in Houston — and the continuation of an era in media’s use of coded language.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted that while Houston might have been able to get a “solid draft pick” back in a Watt trade, the Texans “decided to do it this way, handling the face of their franchise with class.”

First of all, this is stupid. If the Texans could have gotten a draft pick back for Watt in a trade, they should have done so, because the team is in dire straits already without its first-round pick this year — the No. 3 overall selection, at that. And it’s not as if the Texans couldn’t have done right by Watt by asking him where he might want to go (the Steelers, perhaps, to join his brother T.J.?) and then working out a trade with that team. It happens all the time, throughout sports, namely when a team wants to trade someone who has a no-trade clause.

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The Texans simply could have gone about making a Watt trade by involving him in the process, and it would have been the best result for everyone — albeit perhaps not for salary cap purposes, as Watt is now simply released rather than carrying a $17.5 million hit. Is that what “handling the face of their franchise with class” means?

In the annals of racially coded language in sports, the idea of acting in a “classy” fashion is a long-running dog whistle. It’s not universally synonymous with whiteness, as Albert Pujols, Al Downing, and Andre Johnson all are among those who have have been tagged as such, but in general, you’re far more likely to see discussions of “class” applied to fitting a behavioral archetype that satisfies a white sense of propriety. One way to see this is how it’s applied in a nearly all-white situation, like a reporter who sits atop a peak of white privilege saying, “Way to keep it classy,” to fans in Winnipeg because they had the audacity to chant “Flyers suck” — as if that’s somehow language that would offend the delicate sensibilities of Philadelphians.

But there’s another phrase in Rapoport’s tweet that stands out: “the face of their franchise.” There’s no arguing about this when it comes to Watt, who has been even more impactful off the field in Houston than he was on it, raising millions for Hurricane Harvey relief and lending a hand amid the coronavirus pandemic. In another situation, Deshaun Watson might be described as the face of the franchise, and now he is — at least until he’s not-classily traded — but it’s not controversial in the least to describe Watt that way.

The fact that it’s inarguable with Watt, though, is a good entrance point to examine the use of “face of the franchise,” and whether it’s applied disproportionately to white athletes — not because of specific malice, but because of the racial privilege that has been baked into our culture going back long before any of these franchises even existed.

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One usage that stands out is a 2014 Sporting News piece that I wrote headlined “Ace of Cards: Wainwright is face of the franchise in St. Louis.” At that time, Yadier Molina already was a five-time All-Star and two-time Platinum Glove winner with a pair of World Series rings. The headline was based on a quote from Cardinals pitcher Shelby Miller, and it’s not like Wainwright hadn’t also been successful in St. Louis for years, but it’s weird that the thought of who would get that tag for the Redbirds in this era would be anyone but Molina.

My most recent usage of the phrase in a piece was last month, when I applied it to the newest member of the Cardinals, the former face of the franchise in Colorado, Nolan Arenado. That tracks, and the way that Arenado came to be that in Colorado is instructive: there’s a requirement of high performance, an idea that the player will be part of the team for many years to come, and ideally that player being marketable. In some ways, then, perhaps the “face of the franchise” becomes self-fulfilling, because who’s assumed to be marketable outside of obvious superstardom is subject to the same elements of privilege that lead to such players being labeled as classy.

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For instance, in 2016, when the Jets drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round, he was hailed as a “new face of the franchise,” even though the Jets also had a first-round pick in that draft, which they used on Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee. Meanwhile, an actual future face of a franchise, who certainly got no ballyhoo as such, Dak Prescott, didn’t come off the board until the fourth round of that draft, maybe because of something to do with his face.

Some other recent faces of their franchises, as mentioned by media? Anthony Rizzo with the Cubs, Matthew Stafford with the Lions, and Ryan Zimmerman with the Nationals. But also Ke’Bryan Hayes with the Pirates, Lamar Jackson with the Ravens, and Tim Anderson with the White Sox.

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It’s a pleasant surprise to find diversity in the way “face of the franchise” is used, but it’s still worth noting that players like Stafford and Zimmerman can ascend to such a level without being outright superstars, and when the time comes that Hayes is due to make real money, he’ll follow every other by-default “face-of-the-Pirates-franchise” right out of Pittsburgh.

Until then, it’s worth being careful with using a phrase that’s got a lot of connotations and is hard to establish concrete criteria around. That, always, is territory ripe for language to develop troublesome patterns. Remaining vigilant and thoughtful with the way we use words is the classy (ahem) thing to do.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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