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20TH WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES | COMMENTARY

Davis' Manner Impedes Message

February 21, 2006|Jemele Hill | Orlando Sentinel

TURIN, Italy — A real American hero or a selfish scoundrel?

An unpatriotic louse or a brilliant athlete who seized the biggest moment at the Winter Olympics?

What exactly should we think of Shani Davis?

As of now, you don't know whether to cheer for him tonight in the men's 1,500-meter speedskating or root against him so hard the vein in your forehead bursts.

Davis is to blame for the confusion. He's the Olympic ideal one minute -- the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal in the history of the Winter Games -- and the angriest medalist NBC has ever interviewed the next.

No matter how blase Davis appears about his national perception -- which is not very good after his NBC interview Saturday after he won the 1,000-meter event -- you hope only that someone makes Davis understand this is not the time to be petulant.

"You have to shelter the storm," Davis said. "You have to ride it out because, hopefully, one day you'll get the chance to do something great."

But as long as Davis is a polarizing figure, he'll never be offered the chance to extend his presence beyond the Winter Games.

This has nothing to do with his middle-school-like rivalry with teammate Chad Hedrick, who was also looking out for Numero Uno when he asked Davis to race in the team pursuit. That, coincidentally, would have aided Hedrick's quest for Eric Heiden's record of five gold medals. No, this is about Davis' supposed desire to fulfill a mission that extends beyond sport.

Davis says he wants to be the Michael Jordan of speedskating. He says he wants to help inner-city kids, for whom he has a special affinity because he grew up in Chicago.

"It's sort of like a snowball effect," Davis said. "You take a small snowball, roll it down the hill and any time it gets down the hill, it can be like an avalanche. Back in Chicago, there's going to be a lot of people trying speedskating now."

But I have bad news for Davis. When you behave as unprofessionally as he did with NBC, supposedly out of anger at critical remarks made by Bob Costas, when speedskating legend Bonnie Blair is afraid to utter your name because your mother told her not to discuss you, it just kills all your sincere intentions.

Saturday night, NBC's Melissa Stark interviewed Davis.

"You are the first African American male to win [an individual] gold medal at the Winter Games," Stark said. "How proud are you of that?"

"I'm pretty happy about it," Davis replied. "That's it?" Stark said."Yeah," Davis said.

What if that inner-city kid Davis is hoping to reach watched that interview? What should he think?

Or what about the advertisers who might want to put Davis' face on their products and make him the household name he deserves to be?

To interject race for a moment, a part of me wants to cut Davis some slack because being the "only" and the "first" is as uneasy and uncomfortable as it is groundbreaking.

Of course, Davis probably has dealt with racism because he was trying to gain entry into a traditionally white sport, and it probably has hardened him to some degree.

And yes, when you're a black athlete as visible as Davis and you make a controversial decision as he did with Hedrick, it will be magnified.

But that is the fine print all notable African American athletes must accept. Making history sometimes means making enemies.

But it does not excuse petty behavior by Davis or his mother.

His medal has given Davis a special platform. It has given him a great opportunity to present the broader, more important message of diversity, hard work and fulfilling a dream, no matter where you come from.

But if Davis isn't careful, no one will ever want to hear it.

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