The minute Colin Kaepernick took the field for Monday Night Football, putting his Dead Sea Scroll upper arms on national display, the clock started ticking. There was bound to be a stink about the ink.
Tattoos on any athlete trigger Pavlovian frothing at the mouth. They send minds stumbling into booby traps of conformity. They elicit Puritanism from the folks who bring us the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
And here was an NFL quarterback, the center of every team's universe, his skin scripted to the hilt. Kaepernick broke new ground for body art.
The frothing started this week with a misguided column by one of the finer people in this business, David Whitley of the Sporting News. Kaepernick didn't lead him into the trap. He had lamented the epidermal graffiti of sports before. This time, he equated Kaepernick's look with prison culture, and called it particularly inappropriate for a quarterback, the CEO of any roster.
Kaepernick's parents reacted as would any parents, especially those who reared a church-going “A” student.
"You are categorizing this kid on something like tattoos? Really?'' Teresa Kaepernick told USA TODAY Sports. "Saying other guys are role models because they don't have them? Really? Some of these other guys don't have crystal clear reputations. That's how you're going to define this kid? It's pretty irritating, but it is what it is."
No, it's just plain irritating, this false character assessment. It was irritating when Allen Iverson posed for the cover of a magazine published by the NBA and airbrushing took away his tats. It was absurd when SI removed a tramp stamp from Danica Patrick's bikini shot. Nobody censored the idea of shooting her from behind with her buttocks thrust out and the cleavage between them showing, but an American flag sketched in the hollow of her back apparently interfered with this otherwise tasteful presentation.
With Iverson, style was always was conflated with substance, complicating any efforts to fix the latter. I remember a conversion with an NBA team executive -- and not a white one, by the way -- who argued that Iverson's generation needed to pass on the bling, the cornrows and the ink.
No, I said, he needs to stop recording homophobic rap songs. He needs to stay out of cars transporting pot and a gun at 90 m.p.h. He probably, just maybe, needs to go to practice on a regular basis. He does not need to get rid of the tattoos.
Here's a hint to all the sportswriters and execs obsessed with tattoos: Re-read "The Catcher in the Rye.'' Absorb Holden Caulfield’s preoccupation with phoniness. Then consider why young athletes often ignore substantially constructive advice.
If that's too complicated, remember the grade-school lesson about all horses being four-legged animals, but not all four-legged animals being horses. A tattoo on some players may spell rebellion. On Kaepernick, it does not. He has scripture printed on the arms, and a fight between angels and demons illustrated on his back. He says it represents the constant, complex effort to do the right thing.
The last full back tattoo I learned so much about belonged to a friend who is wickedly smart, a little crazy in all the right ways, and probably more of a hell-raiser than Kaepernick will ever be. She got it near her 37th birthday.
For every tattoo that indicates defiance, there is one that simply connotes an expressive personality. One of Kaepernick's teammates, tight end Delanie Walker, has covered his hands, his back, his chest. He has always been one of the most entertaining, straightforward players in the 49ers' locker room. He is very respectful of people who do not share his fondness for body art, and fans who do not want their kids running off in search of hot needles to emulate a football player.
"I wanted to express myself on my body. But some of the stuff, to parents, they may not like that,'' he told the SF Gate website as it arranged a slideshow of the team's body art. "The tattoos on my back and chest I don’t want photographed. I have thought about it and … it’s stuff that I wanted. At the same time I’m a role model. That’s why I always wear long sleeves when I’m at special events.”
For the moment, two starts into his NFL career, Kaepernick does not feel so constrained. But he will face more scrutiny and disapproval than anyone else in the locker room. He is the quarterback, and he is the first to have carpeted himself in tattoos.
Whitley will have plenty of company in spirit, though perhaps not in concert with the unfortunate inmate analogy. C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle took a squeamish route in a blog post on Kaepernick.
"He seems like a nice kid,'' the columnist said. "But there’s something about the idea of covering half your body with slogans — he has 'Against All Odds' tattooed across his chest in letters that must be 6 inches high — that creeps me out.''
They both pointed out how the tattoos will sag hideously in later years. Everyone over 40 says that. It's the go-to line about youth and tattoos. It's repeated with such numbing regularity that submitting to the pain of a tattoo needle sometimes seems like a stimulating alternative.
What my cohorts forget is that most people end up appalled by aging even if they don't have tattoos. A 25-year-old never looks at a 45-year-old and thinks: "That will be me someday.''
The consequences of youthful impulsiveness can be pretty grave. Premature parenthood is costly to everyone, especially the offspring. A tattoo disturbs only those who choose to pay attention and be offended.
Besides, we humans can wreak just as much havoc at the far end of the age spectrum. Confusing the accelerator with the brake? Failing to vote properly in Florida 12 years ago? Those aren't tattoo side effects.
This is not an attempt to pretend that I'm closer to college than Social Security. My image of the anti-ink crowd is decidedly vintage. Think Gladys Kravitz, the busybody neighbor on "Bewitched.'' The same personality type kicked a young man off a plane for wearing droopy pants. Airline employees are empowered to play this version of “Project Runway” because nothing supports Homeland Security like meddlesome superficiality.
Do I understand the baggy-pants phenomenon? Of course not. I have a completely different, distinctively awful fashion sense.
Tattoos, the Gladys crowd loves to remind us, are permanent. They can be erased only with tremendous effort and pain. Likewise, picking a quarterback has deep, lasting repercussions. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said last year that he wanted Cam Newton, the quarterback Carolina drafted at No. 1, to be and remain tat-free. It's a safe bet that other owners share his sentiment and Whitley's.
Kaepernick had very raw skills and a long release, but some teams might have passed on him for reasons that have nothing to do with talent. If he becomes a bigger star than most of the players taken ahead of him, the other clubs should wear that failure for a long, long time.