Saturday, September 05, 2020

J.J. Wolf Denies ‘White Power’ Signal. (Great.) So What Was He Doing?

Well this sure is unsettling. Cincinnati native and KIT212 favorite J.J. Wolf -- who should be high on life having reached the third round of his first Grand Slam event -- has found himself in hot water after the club where he trains posted a photo of the 21-year-old giving what some perceived to be a "white power" signal following his first match at the U.S. Open. (Kass Tennis Academy has since deleted the post.) Before I was able to figure out what exactly transpired, I had read various accounts -- including that Wolf had spelled out with his hands the Cincy 513 area code while celebrating a victory -- and my first thought (hope?) was that people had gotten it wrong. 

But then I saw the photo. That's a very specific way to pose, one that has gained currency during this administration. For people who think liberals are "going out of their way" to see something that isn't there, my only response is why would I possibly want to come down on an American player I have been cheering on for the past year who was having a good run at the U.S. Open? (There is no reason.) 

From HERE.

From HERE.

People can try to explain the hand signal away all they want ("it started as a hoax"), but as Vanessa Swales reported in The New York Times, the bottom line is this: Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalists are now using it in public to signal their presence and to spot potential sympathizers and recruits. A number of high-profile figures on the far right have helped spread the gesture’s racist connotation by flashing it conspicuously in public, including Milo Yiannopolous, an outspoken former Breitbart editor, and Richard B. Spencer, one of the promoters of the white power rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman. And the gesture has also become an extremist meme, according to the Anti-Defamation League. 

On Instagram, Wolf addressed the issue head-on, but his denial only left me with more questions.
I learned that I was accused of making a racial hand gesture after winning my first grand slam match ever at thee US Open. I have never made a racial hand gesture in my life and I never will. I don't hve a racist bone in my body. I am not sure why someone accused me of this, but I would like to get back to focusing on my next match at the US Open tomorrow. #blm
Let's take him at his word. Great, I'm glad he says he didn't make the white power sign. And the nod to Black Lives Matter was a nice touch. (The shirt looks great!) I did a little digging around and it's sweet to see that his club did a BLM post before this happened, and that several players at KT are pictured wearing BLM shirts.

But it's what he's not addressing that's the issue: If he's not making a white power symbol, WHAT is he doing? Just give us an innocent explanation and I will update or delete this post. Instead it feels like he's gaslighting us by not even acknowledging why people might be concerned to begin with, like when certain types do the Nazi salute and then act surprised when people call them out on it. If I'm reading his post correctly, what J.J. is saying is we're all just crazy and we didn't see his fingers in that odd position. But that's not what happened -- if it wasn't objectionable, why was it deleted? -- which until he offers a clearer explanation leaves us guessing. 

One possibility is that he didn't fully understand what the signal meant. If this is the case, he should just say that -- acknowledge that it has come to his attention now and that he wants nothing to do with that ideology. But if he -- as I suspect -- started doing the hand signal to fit in with his conservative friends who want to "own the libs," might I suggest that helping white nationalists and the people who emulate them in their efforts to "distract and infuriate" people who are against racism is a really bad idea, even as a frat house joke.

Swales writes: That the gesture has migrated beyond ironic trolling culture to become a “sincere expression of white supremacy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, could be seen in March 2019 when Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist accused of killing 50 people in back-to-back mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, smiled and flashed the sign to reporters at a court hearing on his case.

I've reached out to J.J. for comment and will update if I hear back. If nothing else his Instagram post indicates he's been scared straight. Ideally, though, he will have learned an actual lesson about how actions have meanings and consequences -- and that like it or not, when you're in the public eye, you will be held accountable for them.

Footnote: In December, The New York Times reported that officials at West Point and Annapolis -- our top military academies -- were reduced to investigating whether cadets and midshipmen who made the sign with their hands during television coverage of the Army-Navy football game were doing so to express racist sentiments. After a brief investigation, officials determined that the cadets were playing "the circle game," which describes as "an activity where one person makes a 'circle' with their fingers and holds it below their waist, convincing a second person to look at it. If the second person looks, they receive a punch to the shoulder."

I'm anything but a conspiracy theorist. But you'll have to forgive me if I am more than a bit skeptical of the investigators' findings. One thing is for sure, however: You can't play the circle game by yourself.

UPDATE: It's been three days since I posted this and neither J.J. nor anyone from his camp has contacted me to offer an explanation. (As I said before, I will gladly delete the post if they can.) 

Instead, I was pointed to yet another photo from his Instagram account that appears to show him and a friend doing the 23 hand sign, which according to the Anti-Defamation League is "a numeric symbol for W ('White'). This itself is often shorthand for the numeric symbol 23/16, which stands for 'White Power.'"

Again, what is he saying here? It's time all straight white male tennis players -- not just Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul -- let it be known where they stand on these issues. 


On Sept. 29, we had another American player flash a similar hand signal and it didn't go unnoticed, creating a big distraction from a what should have been a celebratory moment at a Grand Slam tournament. I was again unsure what to make of it, so I reached out. 

Player 2 replied: 
I just saw your message on Twitter and would like to apologize for what I did. I had no idea what that symbol represents. I really hope this is not taken the wrong way at all. Im really really sorry. It’s been a game with the coach to try and get one another to look at the hand. Whoever looks at the hand loses. It’s an inside joke. Once again I’m not at all a Alt right supporter. Im a big support of BLM. Please I really hope that it is not taken the wrong way. There was zero intention of anything Malice.
Fearing I was being gaslighted, I pushed back, asking him if he'd really not seen J.J.'s apology. 

Player 2 replied: 
I’m sorry but I really didn’t see the post. If I did and saw the hand gesture he made I would never do such a thing. The last thing I ever intended was to make any sort of racial gesture. The systemic issues going on in the states with inequality, the divide and the police corruption going on makes me sick to my stomach. The George Floyd killing, Breonna Taylor and the countless others are horrible and there needs to be a change. This was a learning moment and the last thing I ever wanted to do was the offend anyone. Once again I’m sorry for what I did.
Unlike J.J., this young man seems to acknowledge that at the very least it was tone deaf to celebrate in such a fashion given what he (now) knows. I still don't really buy that grown men are playing the "circle game" on court after an exhausting tennis match, but I'm willing to take him at his word until I have reason not to. 

Here's hoping we won't be seeing any additional players making gestures that can be construed as white power symbols. The USTA still really needs to clean house -- starting with a racial sensitivity class for all players.


RedpineWI said...

For those of us trained for SCUBA diving, it is also one of the most critical signals in diving. It means "I'm O.K.", e.g. I can breathe. If someone signals "are you O.K?" (same sign) and you do not respond, the presumption is that you are in an emergency situation. The training is intense. Even years since I last dove, it is hard to unlearn.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

To SueS: People who play professional sports open themselves to scrutiny, that's just how it works.

P.S. It's telling that no one, including you, has been able to explain what that creepy upside-down OK symbol he was flashing means.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

SueS: He's not a school child or a "boy," he's a grown man in the public eye.

I am not the one who "put it out there" -- I only heard about it after HE POSTED ABOUT IT on Instagram.

P.S. He was playing the "circle game" by himself on a tennis court? If it's really that simple, he could have just said that.

Jeffery said...

Held upright it would be the OK signal. His hands aren’t in that position.

Steve said...

I am with you here. This is an uncommon and weird gesture to make, so if there is an alternative explanation of why he was making the gesture, he should just go ahead and say it. Otherwise, a white power sign is the most reasonable explanation. Now, could it be that he made the gesture without fully understanding what it means? Sure. Maybe he picked it up from some white bros back in Ohio and was stupid in thinking that it was somehow cool. But the motive doesn't change the meaning of the gesture. Once again, all it takes is for him to say: "I was not making a white power sign. Instead, I was making a gesture that [fill in the blank]." This is not hard to explain away if he truly didn't mean it.

RedpineWI said...

When I first read about white nationalists trying to re-purpose the OK gesture, I figured I would not give them that power or satisfaction. Then I read about people being charged as racist, cancelled, and fired for using the gesture. I folded.

I am curious how many people know that the meaning of the gesture has been changed. I suspect a lot of people don't, which creates a problem.

Edgar_Carpenter said...

In some Latin American countries, that sign means "you're an asshole". So, it has a lot of meanings.

Look at all the example photos you posted - they're all holding up their hands and making the sign. Look at him - he looks more like he's getting ready to air-ski. Hands down, like he's holding poles. Look at his legs and feet - he's been caught in the middle of some motion, he's not just standing there. I'd like to see a video of this moment, rather than a still photo.

So I'd say - take him at his word, but watch his future actions. If he's a white supremacist, that will become plain enough. If he's not, that too will become plain enough.

tmpr said...

I just wonder why some players, like Tennys Sandgren, who you called out for racism and trumpism are now featured on your tennis posts. I don’t know anything about watts, but why are the people you wrote about before now ok? Not trying to be critical, just wondering what has changed. Were you mistaken before?

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@tmpr: I can separate people’s physical appearance from their personal views. I still think J.J. is sexual napalm regardless of what he said or did. (Tennys has been working out ... with J.J., in fact.)

These aren’t people I know in real life where it would matter. (I don’t date or befriend those types.)

Kevin McDermott said...

Those gestures are not accidental. Pathetic.

Ray Hesse said...

By now everyone who's not completely and utterly off the grid and living in a cabin in the woods or something knows damned well what that symbol means now.

Foxleigh Harnsworth III said...

Not buying it.

Bob Adragna said...

He came out ... as a racist.

JP Aragon said...

Hmm this is like a Scooby Doo Mystery- yes he is making the sign but in what context? Maybe he was doing something else? He does have great legs I hope he is not a racist

tmpr said...

Thanks for your response. Great blog. So glad you post about tennis and blondie and the go gos. Truly sending respect.

Sandy said...

@RedpineWI: So do you think he's scuba-diving in this photo?

Unknown said...

They aren't the only ones. Danka Kovinic flashed a lefty WP gesture right at the camera after her win over Ons Jabeur in Charleston. Have a screengrab if you want to see it.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

Yes, please send me the photo of Danka Kovinic.