As we speak, ESPN is getting hammered for running a photo-illustration of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick as a white man. The art runs alongside a thought-provoking essay by Toure titled “What if Michael Vick were white?” Have a look at D’arcy Hyde’s rendering of a different Vick:
Strange, yes. You could go as far as creepy.
Commentators are slamming away. Deadspin puts the item under the category “Media Meltdowns” and says, “We are dumbfounded.” Business Insider calls it “inappropriate” and alleges that ESPN concocted the art for pageviews: “ESPN’s ridiculous image did accomplish its goal, which is to get people talking about the story.”
Toure himself is repudiating the photo illustration. He wrote on Twitter, “I wrote an essay about Vick & race. ESPN the mag titled it & added art without me (normal procedure). Judge me on the story not the art.”
The essay is superb, just like the art. At its core, it addresses the question of what would have become of Vick had he been white:
The problem with the “switch the subject’s race to determine if it’s racism” test runs much deeper than that. It fails to take into account that switching someone’s race changes his entire existence. In making Vick white, you have him born to different parents. That alone sets his life trajectory in an entirely different direction. Thus when this hypothetical white Michael Vick ... wait, I can’t even continue that sentence in good faith. I mean, who would this white Vick be? That person is unknowable. When you alter his race, it’s like those Back to the Future movies where someone goes back in time, inadvertently changes one small thing about his parents’ dating history and then the person starts to disappear. If Vick had been born to white parents, you wouldn’t even be reading this right now. That Vick would have had radically different options in life compared with the Vick who grew up in the projects of Newport News, Va., where many young black men see sports as the only way out.
Toure ends up concluding, like any wise man would, that you cannot isolate Vick from the race with which he was born. “Ultimately, there is no separating Vick from his circumstances: his race, parents, economics and opportunities. Alter any of those elements and everything about him and how the world sees him would be unrecognizable.”
That twist of logic appears to be why he and others object to the illustration: That somehow the fact that Vick is inseparable from his race means you can’t gin up a photo-illustration posing the Vick-as-white supposition.
Bunk, all of it. The mission of smart magazine art direction is to find an interesting, pivotal and recognizable story point and render it in visual terms. If Toure can attack the question of Vick’s race in prose, then Hyde can, too, in pixels. It’s intellectually impossible here to love Toure’s essay and abhor the adjacent art.
Good illustrations mustn’t track the details of a story on a literal basis; they must leap from the details into provocative abstractions that pull readers into the story. That’s what ESPN has done here in memorable fashion.