illustration by Darren Thompson
The lesson to take away from the latest Josh Howard scandal: if you’re going to screw up, don’t leave any room for ambiguity. Was the problem what Howard said? (To recap: “ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is going on. I don’t celebrate this s---. I’m black.”) That he was reckless enough to say it on camera? That he forced us to acknowledge feelings we’d prefer athletes keep to themselves? Was this a serious political statement, bad humor, or a hard-edged joke with political overtones?

What’s so frustrating—at least for those of us who wanted to defend Howard—is that it seemed a little bit of everything. And that’s pretty much the story of Josh Howard at this point in his career. While still at Wake Forest, Howard spoke out against the war in Iraq before it became easy to do so. Howard received death threats, but he had a conscience to follow. In the run-up to the 2003 draft, Howard admitted to having smoked pot, figuring it was better to be up front with teams. It hurt his draft position but has since started to catch on as common practice—at least in the NFL. As a rookie, his energy, defense, and heart earned him major minutes, and he’s made great strides every season since.


But the last year of Josh Howard has been one big mixed message. In the first half of 2007–08, he often looked like the Mavericks’ best player. After the All-Star break, he fought through injuries, was dealt a major emotional blow with the death of the grandmother who had raised him, and then struggled to adjust to the addition of Jason Kidd. In the middle of the playoffs, there was controversy over his frank admission of drug use, which Howard couldn’t resist addressing, and insubordination in the clubhouse. Earlier this summer, he was arrested for drag-racing in Winston-Salem. And now, this.


The tragedy isn’t that Josh Howard’s career and image are in turmoil. New coach Rick Carlisle, several months of rest, and more practice with Kidd will remedy his on-court problems. There’s also no way that Howard, who most folks agree is a decent, mature man, will continue this run of off-court calamity. No, the real bummer is that this video made a mockery of Howard’s desire to speak his mind, to be an athlete who stands for something and makes us confront uncomfortable truths. It may have been the low point of what was an awful summer, but it also reminds us what Howard could be if he got himself together.

Bethlehem Shoals is one of the founders of the basketball blog FreeDarko.