Let’s talk about sex. Not the kind of sex you’re having, or want to have or think you should be having. Let’s talk about famous-people sex, which is the kind we’re always talking about and reading about anyway.
Earlier this week Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, was being interviewed in front of the congregation at the Rock Church (a mega-church in San Diego) and was asked about his relationship with singer and dancer Ciara. Wilson said that God “spoke to him” and encouraged him to “lead” Ciara by “taking all that extra stuff off the table.” He went on to say, "So I told her right then and there, what would you do if we … did it Jesus’ way?”
Ciara apparently enthusiastically agreed, and within 24 hours the sports and pop-culture media hot takes were coming at Wilson faster than a linebacker on steroids. Two public figures making a normal decision about sex shouldn’t really be news, but when your story hits the sweet spot between America’s racial stereotypes and sexual hang-ups, you’re bound to end up in the crosshairs of social punditry.
There’s plenty to unpack about why Wilson’s comments became news beyond the sports pages, but part of the reason, besides race and gender, is that his relationship with Ciara just doesn’t fit the “pop star plus athlete” model we’ve seen over the last few years. Keri Hilson is a second-tier pop singer-writer and she’s dating Serge Ibaka, who’s the third- (or fourth-) best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder; that makes sense. A few years ago when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was the hotness, he was dating Jessica Simpson, the pop singer who was always repping Texas. Those are the kinds of pairings that make TMZ Sports do an officewide fist bump. But Russell Wilson and Ciara? No P.R. team would have put those two together.
Wilson is the face of the NFL right now. With his racially ambiguous looks, he’s gone to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning one, and has a squeaky-clean image as an evangelical Christian who speaks to mega-churches all over the West Coast. He’s like the reverse Kanye: Wilson divorced his white wife after he won his first Super Bowl, and a couple of months later he’s doing the 1, 2 Step with Ciara.
Not to dump on the Queen of Crunk, but she’s a C-level celebrity (even with black folks) with questionable singing skills, mostly known for being a great dancer and choreographer. Plus, she just had a baby with former fiance rapper Future—and then named the baby Future. There are probably half a dozen other singers, actresses—heck, even schoolteachers and gospel singers—who are a better fit for Wilson’s “image” than Ciara, but for now, that’s who he’s with. Which is part of why the sex issue is so prominent.
Our expectation of athletes—especially men, and especially black male athletes—is that they’re out-of-control sex and party machines. The black male athlete in America is the “predator on a leash” of his league. The media message is that all these athletes are good for is entertaining us and banging hot chicks and producing kids out of wedlock every season. And while we may know that this is not true, black men who are athletes are seldom the spokesmen, intentionally or not, for sexual responsibility and faith.
In the 1980s, A.C. Green of the Showtime Lakers made a big deal about staying a virgin until he was married, but he was a bench player surrounded by sports gods. Nobody cared, and those who did thought he was promoting virginity to hide the fact that he was gay. In modern times, ’90s pop stars like Mandy Moore and Britney Spears were lauded for loudly proclaiming virginity or sexual purity.
More recently, athletes like Tim Tebow and Olympian Lolo Jones have talked about their virginity, and they’ve had whole segments on ESPN’s First Take about what great role models they are. Heck, TV One is about to launch a show called Born Again Virgin. But Russell Wilson? When he says that he and his girlfriend are going to stop having sex, he’s accused of being gay, pundits call him an out-of-touch moralizer, and abstinence itself is cast as some sort of sexist control mechanism for women.
The reality is that plenty of nonfamous couples choose to forgo sex at certain times in nonmarital relationships for various reasons. Wilson and Ciara’s decision may be based specifically on their shared Christian faith, but that should be something worthy of praise, not shade and speculation. He wasn’t lecturing the public or even the congregation, and if you watch the full interview video, it’s obvious that the Rock Church pastor was pushing the sexual-purity issue more than Wilson, who almost looked uncomfortable with the line of questioning.
We live in a culture that consistently tells men and women that women owe men (especially powerful ones) sex. That having sex with beautiful women is the clear marker of manhood, and that all decisions about sex are driven by men’s desires and women’s acquiescence. Isn’t the Bill Cosby case essentially about a man who wanted sex so badly that he worked to deny women their choice in the matter?
So the idea of a man—a famous black man and athlete—saying that he and his partner came to a mutual decision about sex based on faith, and that decision may include refraining from sex, is something worthy of tremendous praise and admiration, whether or not it’s your belief system. Let’s resist the temptation to flood the Internet with memes about “her goodies” and perpetual sports analogies about Wilson getting picked off before he gets inside the end zone. For once, let’s let some famous black people try to be role models about sex. Tebow and Spears shouldn’t be allowed to corner the market on moral celebrityhood.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.