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Dear Plaxico Burress: Please Don't Blow it This Time

The following is an open letter to incarcerated NFL Star Plaxico Burress from Dr. Boyce Watkins:

Dear Mr. Burress,

You and I have never met, and the truth is that we probably never will. Besides the fact that we are fellow New Yorkers, I'll admit that I'm not a New York Giants fan, and I've only seen you play on television a few times. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Boyce Watkins. I am the founder of ALARM, the Athlete Liberation Academic Reform Movement. Our goal is to explore the experience of black athletes in America, and to heighten their pursuit of intellectual awareness, leadership and personal fulfillment. Our goal is not to tell athletes what to think, it is to simply encourage them to think for themselves.

My eyebrows were raised in 2008 when you were convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree and second degree reckless endangerment after accidentally shooting yourself with the gun you had hidden in your pants. I hope you've healed from the incident, both physically and mentally. I give my condolences to you and your family, and I personally believe that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was wrong to try to make an example out of you. As we all saw in the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, that kind of thing tends to happen to black people a lot these days.

I am writing this letter to share thoughts with regard to your upcoming release from prison during June of this year. I see that your agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is already doing a great PR job by updating the world on your pending release and reminding us that you are in good spirits. Of course he also says that you're ready to step on the field and perform for any team willing to give you another chance. I certainly hope someone will give you the opportunities that you truly deserve. The success of Michael Vick is a clear and immediate indicator that those who've served time in our prison industrial complex deserve the opportunity to get their lives back on track and provide for their families. You are no exception.

But I have some additional thoughts regarding how you might use your time once you get out of prison in ways that go beyond simply catching more footballs for "the man" and playing the role of the big buck black male athlete who serves to fuel the financial engines of corporate America. My thinking is that the pain and struggle you've endured might be used for the productive purpose of enhancing the lives of millions of others who've witnessed the volatility of your ordeal.

First, for your own safety, I encourage you to remember the rule of the African American male: You individually doing the right thing is not enough. You must also ensure that you avoid spending time with others who are doing the wrong thing. Like Jamail Johnson, the young man murdered at a campus party a few weeks ago, thousands of young black males are killed or incarcerated regularly because of the actions of the men around them. Whether it's the friend who deals drugs, the brother you get into a fight with at the club, or some other unfortunate manifestation of our toxic reality, you simply have to be careful. I encourage you to resist the temptation to be sucked in by hip-hop culture that tells black men that we are supposed to run the streets strapped with weapons provided by money-hungry gun manufacturers and to engage in other forms of self-destruction, ranging from irresponsible sexual choices to the extensive use of drugs and alcohol. In other words, make sure you stay out of bad situations, because you probably won't get a second chance.

Secondly, I encourage you to remember that you have the opportunity to be an intelligent leader, not just an athletic commodity. So many black male athletes have allowed themselves to be made into corporate monkeys, denying themselves education and intellectual fulfillment, all for the sake of throwing a football or dunking a basketball. The days of black athletes using their platforms to engage in intelligent and meaningful discourse about the issues that affect their communities are long gone, and this is a sad and wasted opportunity. The late Tupac Shakur is immortalized to this day, not simply because of his impeccable skills on the mic, but also because he heightened awareness on matters that serve to kill black men and destroy black families. The same can be said about the great Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and other athletes of the past. Athletes can and should be more than just dumb jocks.

Third, you should consider using your experience as an opportunity to help get guns off the streets. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black males, with the gun industry working overtime to supply as many weapons as possible to fuel our commitment to genocide. You must give your new life purpose by taking a stand on gun control to help young brothers realize that walking around "strapped" is not a safe way to live. Additionally, you must provide assistance to those who are willing to stand with you to challenge gun manufacturers who continue to illegally profit from our desire to kill one another.

We need you Plaxico. We need you far more than Giants fans needed you to make that amazing Super Bowl catch back in 2007. You are not a thug. You are a man with the intelligence, courage, focus and determination to become one of the greatest athletes on the planet. The world has taught you that these skills are best used earning millions for yourself on the football field. I encourage you to think outside the box and realize that sometimes our greatest setbacks can become our greatest opportunities. You must also remember that being a true champion goes beyond your performance on the field.

Don't be surprised if you get resistance for taking a stand on the matters that affect those you've left behind. Even your agent, Drew Rosenhaus, might be far more supportive if you kept your mouth shut and dumbed yourself down into an entertainment product. In fact, being an intelligent black man can lead to a punishment only reserved for the worst of criminals. But at the end of the day, you must ask yourself if your greatness as an athlete has done anything for your mother, sister, brother, and millions of other African American men, women and children all across America. If all you've done is catch footballs, buy big houses and drive fancy cars, then you have effectively lived an entire life of capitalist incarceration. Good luck dawg, I'll be watching you on television.

Dr. Boyce Watkins 



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