Confession: I love to watch Mike Tyson with his pigeons. There’s something about watching a guy with a facial tattoo—not to mention a guy who reportedly beat his first wife, was convicted of rape, bit off a guy’s ear, and has had seven children by three different women—play with birds. Naturally, Taking On Tyson is great TV. It succeeds in humanizing perhaps the baddest bad guy in the history of sports.
But after reading today’s New York Times Magazine piece “The Suburbanization of Mike Tyson,” I almost hate the guy again.
I believe that no life, no matter how squandered, is over until it is over. From the ashes of defeat can come great and inspired victory—no matter one’s background, reputation, or misdeeds. But all this talk about the suburban home that Tyson bought from his buddy Jalen Rose (talk about irony, given Grant Hill’s editorial this week in the same paper), unplugging phones, eating vegan, and going to Gymboree classes (can you imagine the look on the faces of the other moms when Mike walks in with his 2-year-old daughter?) has me thinking about redemption more broadly.
As Tyson says in the Times piece, it has taken nothing less than a “paradigm shift” for him to come down to earth. Two things seem to have brought about all this clean living: rehab and his children. In February 2007, Tyson checked himself into the Wonderland Center, a rehab facility in the Hollywood Hills, for the treatment of various addictions. He “felt safe,” he said, and stayed there nearly a year. Then, in May 2009, came the tragedy of losing his daughter Exodus, who died at age 4 at her mother’s home in Phoenix; she was strangled when her neck was caught in a cord hanging from a treadmill. Tyson blamed himself for not being able to save her. It drove his desire to live better and be a more active father.
Children can have a pronounced effect in even the most vicious institutions. My friend Julio Medina was locked up in Sing Sing for over a decade. He wanted to do something about the gang stabbings that happened every day inside. So he asked permission from the warden to post the handprints of inmates’ children along the most dangerous corridor in the prison. Killings immediately dropped.
My wife and I have been involved in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston for years. They provide all kinds of athletic and educational services to kids in bad neighborhoods, but the most important thing they provide is safety. Over 90 percent of the children report they feel safer at nightclubs, where armed guards protect patrons, than in their own communities.
What about the kids who have no “safe” place to go, who run right into trouble? If Mike Tyson, a vicious and, by his own admission, insane criminal, can be rehabilitated, what about the other 2 million men we have locked up in prison? What about the nearly half who are African-American?
Watching Mike with his birds and reading about him today made it clear that it hasn’t been a quick journey for the boxer. His story shows the difficulty of making fundamental personal changes after life-altering mistakes.
Tyson’s demons haven’t disappeared fully. In The Times, he mentions his “click-outs”—when “he feels alternately so low that he wants to jump out the window and so angry that he wants to crack someone’s head open with a pipe. ‘They come on you … out of the blue.’”
But the man has a loving wife and children, a year of life skills learned in rehab, and, of course, bird therapy. Tyson hopes to land genuine acting roles where he gets to play someone other than himself, or at least a man who isn’t feared by all of America. Taking On Tyson is a big step forward.
I, for one, will be rooting for him. Like with any other guy who’s made horrible mistakes (I sure have), there’s only good to come of a man turning his life around.
But how many other American men—especially African-American men—will get that same chance? Tyson forces me to face the reality that we’ve thrown in the towel on a whole generation of American black men—or at least the 1 million in jail. And unless something changes in our education and prison systems, we’ll throw away the next generation too.