Metta World Peace is once again America’s most hated athlete. After elbowing James Harden in the head, an indefensible foul netting him a 7 game suspension, he has faced endless criticism on not just the cheap shot but him as a person. In article after article, within television commentaries, media pundits have made their anger clear, often refusing to call him by his name since his actions mirrored those when he was Ron Artest. Announcing that he doesn’t deserve to be called Peace, that he clearly has not changed from his Ron Artest ways, and that his new name was a lie in that he was “still a thug,” the efforts to deny MWP his name is telling. It is both a power play (“we will call you what we want to call you”) and part of argument that MWP is a bad guy who is incapable of changing irrespective of his name.
Part of the refusal to call by MWP seems to come from anger if Metta elbowed the media in the face. This wasn’t simply a foul or even a cheap shot, but a betrayal to all those who believed in Metta’s transformation, who rooted for him, and who gave him a 2nd chance. It was an affront to his new name, a name he didn’t deserve.
Drew Magary, in “Why Did We Ever Think Ron Artest Was Interesting?”, reflects the level of hostility directed at MWP, anger that comes from a feeling of being bamboozled and taken for a fool in believing in this changed man: “I was one of those Internet people who participated in the rebranding of Ron Artest when he arrived in L.A. a couple years ago. Yet “Artest isn’t really a colorful character. He’s not an interesting person. And he’s not sympathetic. There’s nothing to learn from the life of Ron Artest. Like Arenas, he’s just a flaky shithead.”
Capturing the tone of a parent whose child missed curfew again, after having promise to always be on time, the post-elbow tone has been one of disappointment and feelings of betrayal. “I had come to know him and even like him…. I have visited with him countless times after games and eventually understood him as a guy who seemed to be constantly choking down his violent tendencies in an attempt to change,” writes The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke. “He would say something mean, then turn it into something funny. … I was really starting to believe he was Metta World Peace. I was wrong, and James Harden has the headaches to prove it. He is still Ron Artest.“ As with many others Plaschke refuses to call him by name because in his eyes he is the same old bad person.
Following in the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, World B. Free, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and even Chad Ochocinco, Ron Artest’ changed his name to Metta World Peace (MWP) in Summer of 2011. While facing similar scorn and criticism (albeit each in distinct ways), his decision to be come MWP highlights the power of black self-naming in a society that often doesn’t understand the black community. The capacity to name one’s self is in power, a power routinely co-opted and denied by white America. As we are reminded in Coming to America: “A man has the right to change his name to vatever he vants to change it to. And if a man vants to be called” Metta World Peace, “godammit this is a free country, you should respect his vishes, and call the man” Metta World Peace!
Having believed that MWP was a changed man, the elbow betrayed their desire to redeem him because it showed how compassionate, forgiving, and exceptional American could be. As with the anger directed at Tiger Woods, “America’s multicultural son” after news broke of his martial infidelity, and the disappointment directed at Kobe Bryant, who was “different” from his baller brethren, following Colorado, the elbow denies the media THEIR story. And so denying the “we forgive you Metta; isn’t America exceptional story,” these angry commentators have returned the favor in denying him his name. It goes back to that same old (White supremacist) saying: you can take the player out of the ghetto, but you cant take the ghetto out of the player. Or better said, you can take on this flower child name, but you can’t change who you are if who you are is an inherently violent thug. Yet, the man has changed and despite an indefensible foul, he still has the right to be called Metta World Peace.
Much of what was significant about MWP’s transition was the fact that he spoke candidly about having a therapist and receiving treatment for mental health issues. Some audiences made light of this and laughed at him, when they should have been praising him for having the courage to seek and receive help. In light of Junior Seau’s tragic suicide this week, it is particularly important that we do not shame Metta back into old habits for having a single transgression by forcing him back into his Ron Artest jersey.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).