Chris Henry’s Death Exposes Double Standard

Toxicology reports are back for NFL wide receiver Chris Henry. The results show that Henry died in Charlotte last December from a fractured skull and other head injuries, which occurred when he jumped or fell from a moving truck; his fiancée Loleini Tonga was behind the wheel. The story made national headlines and kicked off a media frenzy about Tonga’s innocence or guilt.

High-profile domestic disputes, especially those involving NFL players, aren’t new in Charlotte. Former Carolina Panther Ray Carruth murdered the mother of his child more than 10 years ago. And in 2003, Deidra Lane killed Carolina Panthers running back Fred Lane, alleging domestic abuse.

Folks took a particular interest in the Henry case because the athlete, who experienced some problems early in his career, had supposedly turned his life around, winning his spot back on the Cincinnati Bengals — a team that had previously dismissed him for bad behavior.

According to witnesses, Tonga was fleeing a domestic dispute with Henry at the couple’s home. Henry jumped into the back of the pick-up truck when Tonga drove off and, somehow, he was ejected from the vehicle. Authorities ruled the incident an accident, declining to press charges against Tonga.

When the accident first happened, comment threads surfaced on the Web calling Tonga a murderer. Some people said: “Had she just pulled over, he would be alive.” I thought to myself, “Had he been able to control his emotions and not chased her out of the house and jumped on the back of the truck when she left, he would be alive.”

I heard and read that Tonga was driving at breakneck speed, purposely making him fall off of the truck. Investigators found that Tonga was not traveling more than 19 mph. I thought perhaps Henry’s anger, adrenaline or superior physical condition contributed to his “jumping” from the truck. I remember trying to reserve judgment until more facts became available, even though in my mind it was clear that it was a dispute gone wrong.

But when trying to chat about it with friends, male and female, the same tone crept into the conversation: Tonga, who was called every name but a child of God (including “bitch,” “whore” and “gold digger”), was supposedly this venomous woman who plotted to trap Henry and purposely kill him. Really? It’s always interesting that people think athletes are so much better than the women they date. But I digress.

When I asked folks who spoke so harshly about Tonga what was driving their anger, many simply stated that they were giving Henry the benefit of the doubt. I thought to myself: “Why weren’t they willing to give Tonga the benefit of the doubt?” One friend said Tonga left him on the side of the road, which shows that she knew what she was doing. But Henry, who ran out of his house and jumped in the back of her truck, didn’t know what he was doing? Another colleague stated that if Tonga had stayed in the house or not driven off, Henry would be alive. I wondered aloud, “But would Tonga be alive?”

It was clear that very few people cared about this woman because she wasn’t an NFL player. In their minds, she was some “groupie” who bagged a professional athlete and killed him for no reason. Folks were blind to the facts that were coming out about the case. With all of that selective hearing and reading, it was determined that Tonga was a horrible person. I suppose if a woman isn’t a pop superstar, then it doesn’t matter if she’s involved in a volatile or abusive romantic relationship. But that’s another article.

The irony of the situation is that this type of thinking about women informs domestic violence. Women as evil temptresses who lead men to do dubious things is part of the world’s historical narrative in all aspects of society including religion, education and popular culture. It is communicated to us every day that women are objects of desire who cannot be trusted. When women try to escape this way of thinking, they are usually punished … much like Tonga. And it is not just men who think like this — it is also women, many of whom raise batterers.

With the recent findings that Henry was not intoxicated or on drugs during the incident, the hating on Tonga has resumed. The failure to address Henry’s role in the domestic dispute that cost him his life has resumed as well. While domestic violence incidents are present, real conversations about the problem are nonexistent.

This incident made me think about the countless number of domestic disputes that happen in Charlotte that don’t get national news coverage. Last year 617 women were admitted to Charlotte’s Shelter for Battered Women. More than 2,000 were turned away. So what are victims to do if there is nowhere for them to run?

A campaign is currently underway to build a larger battered women’s shelter, which is good and bad for obvious reasons. Unless we get a handle on this epidemic, clearly there will be plenty of high- and no-profile cases. As evidenced by the Henry case, no one wins when it comes to domestic violence.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She is also an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz Section and feature stories.

2010 CIAA Tournament: A Perfect Storm

The CIAA has finally arrived. The 65th annual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament took over the Queen City last week as the five-day tournament returned for its fifth year in Charlotte.  The CIAA is the premiere basketball conference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Over the years, it has evolved from a regional basketball conference to a national destination for upwardly mobile African-Americans due to numerous special events, activities and conference basketball.

If the conference is in its fifth year of operation in Charlotte, why has it finally arrived? Because finally the City of Charlotte has gotten over itself and realized what we’ve been saying all along – the college educated black folks that attend CIAA are here for a cultural experience that includes networking, socializing, spectatorship and fellowship.

The trepidation, with which Charlotte greeted the CIAA conference in 2005 when it first arrived, has largely been replaced by open arms, with local businesses and venues literally rolling out the red carpet for conference attendees.  This year felt different from previous years. Most businesses were welcoming, events were well planned, organized and executed and attendees seemed to be delighted with the outcome.

Some would argue that Charlotte businesses and venues were so jovial and welcoming because of declining dollars throughout the year due to the recession.  There is money to be made during the tournament, which has been consistently proven, even during rough economic times.  According to the conference website, CIAA accounted for the direct spending of over $25 million and a total economic impact of $38.2 million dollars over the one-week period in 2009. Neither the recession nor bad weather kept the dollars from rolling into the city during last year’s tournament.

This year’s tournament had even more events and much better weather, so the anticipated economic impact is tremendous from this year’s receipts.  According to veteran live music promoter Michael Kitchen of The Sol Kitchen, “Last year’s tournament was negatively impacted because of the bad weather. Even though there were a lot of people here, some promoters felt the heat because there were fewer attendees than during previous years.  Those that came spent less money. This year was much better because people came out in droves because the weather was much improved, which helped to make this year’s tournament one of the best ever financially and socially.”

April Garrett, 31, of Miami shares Kitchen’s sentiment. “I went to North Carolina A&T, so I always attended the conference. In Raleigh, everything was spread out and there wasn’t a lot to do. This year’s conference is the best because there is so much going on – parties and events and Charlotte is such a nice city.” First-time attendee, Craig Robinson, 31, of Washington, DC says, “I came down because I heard a lot about it from my friends. I think it’s cool because the conference has a small time flavor to it, but it is a major event.  It is great to see African-Americans coming together to support HBCUs and you can’t beat the networking. Everyone is getting along, which is great.”

Like the city of Charlotte which is becoming more and more diverse in terms of its influx of young, urban professionals, the CIAA tournament is attracting people from all over the country. Dallas, Miami, DC and Chicago boasted strong contingencies. Event planner Felicia Gray who was co-hosting a party with the Digital Divas at Zink stated, “It surprises me the number of people from Chicago and Dallas. We’ve met three people tonight that are from Minnesota. It’s amazing.”

CIAA caters to a broad range of African-Americans. It is one of the few places where you can find African-Americans of various generations intermingling and sharing space, which lends itself to the huge number of events that are ongoing during the conference. CIAA events included the Ford Fan experience at the Charlotte Convention Center, Food Lion Women’s Health & Wellness Symposium and Laugh 4 Life in the Time Warner Arena. Performers included En Vogue, Ginuwine, and local artist Lacee who sang the national anthem on Saturday.

CIAA added Chowan University to the conference this year, which shocked the hometown favorite JCSU Golden Bulls, by knocking out the two-time defending champions in the first round.  The conference also welcomed TV ONE as a television partner, which aired the men’s quarterfinal and semi-final rounds of the tournament, which was a first for the CIAA. The St. Augustine Falcons won the men’s tournament and the Lady Broncos of Fayetteville State won the women’s tournament.

Basketball games and CIAA sponsored events were buoyed by events hosted by celebrities and entrepreneurs. Rick Ross, Allen Iverson, Greg Oden, Melanie Fiona, Michael Vick, Diddy, Lil’ Kim, Doug E. Fresh, Chuck Brown and MC Lyte were among the celebrities in attendance who either hosted or performed.

Perhaps the most anticipated celebrity party of the weekend was Taylor Massey Entertainment ’s (TME) party at the Ramada Hotel at Woodlawn, hosted by Diddy, who made an appearance around 1 a.m. The event was well attended and had lots of buzz and energy, recovering nicely from a shaky start due to organizational challenges.

The Sol Kitchen’s Friday party at Mez was packed, with partygoers singing along to every cut that Grammy award-winning producer and DJ 9th Wonder spun. While the party was fantastic, there was gouging going on in V.I.P. with bottle service starting at $800.  If folks wanted to pay those prices, they would party in Las Vegas, Miami or New York. Part of the charm of Charlotte is the affordability of the city, which seems to disappear during CIAA when hotels raise rates exponentially.  In addition, V.I.P. is sky high during the tournament and includes little to no personal attention or additional services. Add drink prices that are triple what is normally charged, and Houston, we have a problem.

Although the parties seem to get better each year, they are still marred by novice issues like ticket issuing. Part of the reason for buying tickets in advance is to avoid standing in line. If people buy advance tickets, then there should be a designated entrance for ticket holders separate from those who need to purchase tickets. Unless there is a capacity issue, advance ticketholders should not be standing in line with folks waiting to purchase tickets. This happened at a number of venues.

Despite challenges with tickets and lists, which always seem to be somewhere floating around inside of an event as opposed to being at the door, the day parties are by far the best.  People are partying, networking and socializing in the middle of the day. 3 p.m. in Charlotte looks like midnight in New York. This is something that is specific to the CIAA and rarely happens in other cities, even during other major sporting events. The only thing better than the day parties is the DJs spinning throughout the day.

DJ DR, DJ Jazzy Jeff, 9th Wonder, Kid Capri, DJ Drama, DJ Stacey Blackman, DJ Skillz, DJ Bro Rabb, DJ D-Nice, DJ Vince Adams, DJ Slice, DJ Kool, DJ Trauma, Biz Markie, DJ Bonie B and DJ Daddy D were on the wheels of steel, moving the crowd and keeping the parties jumping.

Perhaps there is a little too much focus on partying and too little attention on philanthropic events during the conference which were well attended, but not “packed” like the legendary day parties and celebrity sponsored events.

For instance Uptown Charlotte / VIBE’s Friday event at the Ritz Carlton was a fundraiser for the CIAA General Scholarship Fund. Instead of attending the event, tournament attendees hung out in the lobby socializing. Some said that they didn’t go upstairs to the event because of the large number of people congregating in the lobby. They thought that the event was in the lobby, although there was clear signage directing people upstairs to the charity event.

While the parties are an important part of the CIAA experience, the philanthropic efforts need to be remembered and supported. The basketball tournament is already a fashion show with more people walking around the game profiling and chatting, than sitting and watching the actual game. There’s something that doesn’t sit right with dropping copious amounts of money at the bar, but not ponying up a few dollars towards a scholarship fund.  As the conference grows, more time, money and energy needs to be spent marketing philanthropic events to a greater extent so that they stand a chance against the outstanding entertainment events, especially in the Uptown area.

Jamell Hamilton, 34 of Charlotte who has attended the conference in Charlotte and other cities enjoys attending events in Uptown. “Uptown is able to accommodate so many people because there are so many venues. In Charlotte, you have 20 parties in a 3-block radius. At the EpiCentre, everyone is hosting something. That’s unheard of in other cities that host events like this.”

Event planner Tiffany Jones of Digital Divas agrees. “We host events Uptown throughout the year and have gotten excellent service, so naturally we continue to do this during CIAA. Zink is a great location because it’s two blocks from the arena.”  Promoter George Spencer’s D.M.V. Takeover Party Featuring Allen Iverson and DJ Quick Silva @ Strike City was a major success. “We had over 1,100 people attend throughout the night. I think Charlotte is a great location for the CIAA because of its cosmopolitan flare. Uptown’s killer combination of the EpiCentre, Time Warner Cable Arena, Ritz Carlton, and upscale restaurants, gives Charlotte that touch of swag that compliments the historical tournament.”

While most people enjoyed the tournament, there were some complaints. Garrett, who loved the day parties, disliked her stay at The Blake Hotel. “They ran out of hot water for the weekend and people were paying up to $300 a night to stay there.” According to a promoter, some of the artists he booked at the Blake Hotel last year suffered the same challenges. The conference is also marked by gridlocked traffic, particularly on Saturday night.

Spencer is concerned about the infrastructure in downtown, particularly 2nd to 7th streets. “There needs to be a better job of handling the traffic. Providing alternate routes and transportation options is something the city can work on. For example, keeping the rail open later or providing additional public transportation via shuttles would be invaluable to attendees and help alleviate traffic concerns,” he said.  Uncovered parking, like that at 935 and the Ramada, needs to be better managed.  When promoters are expecting hundreds of attendees, there needs to be a parking plan in place.

CIAA is clearly a national destination and next year is the last year on the contract. Just as the tournament appears to be hitting its stride, there have been rumblings about cities like Atlanta and Washington, DC making a major push to win the tournament. “I’ve been going to CIAA on and off for a long time. I’ve seen it grow so much. This is the best it has ever been and this is the most money that it has ever made. It would be foolish to leave Charlotte. We are the next biggest thing between ATL and DC, 25% black, and none of the other cities can hold it. Charlotte is the only city that can handle a conference like this.”

Many people staying positive, hoping that the CIAA stays in Charlotte because it has added value to the Queen City, just as the Queen City has added value to it. A truly reciprocal relationship exists between the two and should continue to grow and expand.

Keeping the CIAA in Charlotte makes sense. Besides, if the majority of HBCUs are located in North Carolina, why move it to another state?

This year, a perfect storm occurred – decent weather, great venues, positive attitudes, packed parties, veteran promoters, world-class talent and discretionary income made for a great 2010 CIAA conference. Is this enough for the Queen City to do what it takes to keep CIAA in Charlotte? Only time will tell.

An edited version of this article appears in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.