Why Josh Allen’s Tweets Matter
Youth can’t shield Josh Allen from consequences. It can, however, spark a sorely needed conversation about how we perceive protected speech.
The NFL prospect is in hot water, and rightfully so.
Former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, in consideration as the number one pick in tonight’s NFL Draft, issued an apology through a conversation with Stephen A. Smith after some racial and homophobic tweets, which date back to his high school years, were brought into the public consciousness.
Predictably, the response to this has split into two fairly well-defined camps. “He was just a kid,” one side says. Allen himself claimed it was symptomatic of being “young and dumb” online. The other side concludes that Allen is a racist, plain and simple. As with most things, the truth is likely somewhere in the murky middle, but Allen is missing an opportunity here to affect some positive change.
Young isn’t an excuse. Dumb isn’t as excuse. Allen would garner more sympathy if he chose to actively engage in his suddenly prolific role as part of the ongoing debate about protected speech, rather than apologizing and running to hide in a green room until his name gets called tonight.
Maybe you could argue that this is the by-product of having grown up in somewhat homogeneous communities. Firebaugh, California, where Allen went to high school, had a population estimate of just 8,311 in 2016, according to the United State Census Bureau, 77.5% of whom identified as white-only. Reedley, where Allen attended junior college, had a 2016 estimate of 25,582, two-thirds of whom identified as white-only.
Even so, Fresno County, where both towns are located, is home to nearly a million Californians and populations of color here are not insignificant: Firebaugh and Reedley, for instance, had even higher percentages — 92.1% and 75.1%, respectively — of people who identified as Hispanic or Latino. The black population comprises 5.8%, or roughly 60,000 people.
It’s a certainty, then, that he interacted with people of color, brown or black, in his hometown and his learning environments, which erases some of the justification for his stridency.
Furthermore, we as a society are more connected than ever before, that is no secret, and the times in which those tweets were written offered more than a few examples of the severe backlash such statements deserve. You may have forgotten Justine Sacco, who tweeted her way to infamy on an international flight; Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider; Greek Olympian Voula Papachristou and Swiss Olympian Michel Morganella. These are just a few examples, but suffice it to say that we always put ourselves out there on social media as a conscious choice, and if Allen wasn’t expecting that consequences would come home to roost one day, he wasn’t paying attention.
There’s a conversation to be had about how we react to social media posts that roil our individual sensibilities, especially when you compare the defense of Allen to another Central Valley story which has prompted the exact same response, albeit with the roles reversed: That backlash was immediate and swift, and some intrepid soul undertook a similar unearthing of Randa Jarrar’s old tweets with the expectation that they would be proof enough for Fresno State to fire her from job.
It’s a smart wager that there’s significant overlap between those backing Allen, claiming that these things shouldn’t affect his draft standing, and those who attacked Jarrar as their words work through the exact same machine.
This conversation, though, needs to be led by those, like Allen, who find themselves thrust into the spotlight. There needs to be deep and public reflection on his personal growth since that time (being young isn’t an excuse, but it’s fair to believe that no one is the same person they were at 16 years old). It needs constructive conversations with athletes of color, leaders of color, especially as Allen himself will be expected to lead in whatever locker room he ends up.
More than the bland statement he gave to Smith, it’s worth pointing out that Allen’s already given a glimpse of this during a recent trip home:
This won’t be the last time something like this comes up, so one can only hope that, at some point, someone under fire will choose to be an exemplar and be open and honest about what their words really mean. We can only hope Allen will choose to do more of this now.