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Deion Sanders and his new hair: defector or trailblazer?

‘Prime Time’ has admitted to the treatment, yet he still holds on to his vanity

Deion Sanders’ wet Jheri curl glistened in the photo for his 1990 Topps trading card, projecting an aura of flair and confidence that defined him. That Jheri curl turned into a short S-curl showcased in his 1994 “Must Be the Money” music video, a song from his Prime Time album. As his career proceeded, he aged out of those greasier, processed hairdos and selected natural, more conventional short stylings. Since transitioning from athlete to television analyst, he has sported a shaved head, having fallen victim to male pattern baldness that ensnares so many of us.

Then change struck.

When the current NFL season started, a new Sanders graced our televisions, one with hair. A few weeks ago, a hilarious video surfaced on the internet, wherein Sanders addressed the matter. “I’m back,” he joyously proclaims. “Money, money is something. Money is a blessing. Everybody buying booty. I got some hair.”

Sanders left “squad shaved-head” and integrated “team hair plugs,” becoming the most prominent black man to publicly acknowledge having undergone hair transplant surgery. Maybe Jamie Foxx will come clean soon? No one naturally has a receding, then proceeding, hairline. The streets crave answers.

As a shaved brotha, I wondered how I should regard Sanders: Is he a defector, one who rightfully receives criticism after deserting a group? Or is he a trailblazer, one who charts new territory and alerts stragglers that they have nothing to fear by following along?

I probably never would have considered the defector angle had I not seen one of the funnier moments from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lead character Larry David, in one episode, searches for a chef to head the restaurant he is opening. David, whose baldness is integral to his identity, perks up when a bald chef applicant approaches him. They immediately strike up a conversation about their mutual baldness and how they dislike guys who hide from it by wearing toupees or getting hair plugs. David hires this chef, but when he later randomly sees him in the grocery store, the chef is wearing a toupee. David, betrayed, fires him.

The sitcom, nearly every episode, mines for comic fodder how baldness causes David turmoil. Bald jokes would hit with much less force if he were black. The audience would wonder why he doesn’t just shave his head.

Baldness is easier for black men, largely because bald high-status black men vaulted the shaved head into the realm of sexy and cool. The leader, Michael Jordan, turned it into such a fashion statement that some with hair shave it off to improve their appearance. Other famous black men have carried the torch further, allowing the rank and file to wear it confidently, knowing society embraces the look.

This can change, however, if bald high-status black men start buying hair. If they choose hair plugs, the ambassador ranks would dry up, potentially meaning that the shaved head will fall into disrepute. This is the case that Sanders is a defector. Men like him potentially damage the fortunes of the group by fleeing.

The case for Sanders as a trailblazer proceeds differently.

When prompted to play the word association game, most would choose adjectives such as confident or cocky to describe Sanders. We all appreciated his greatness partly because he told us. When the Detroit Lions selected Barry Sanders in the 1989 NFL draft, he quipped that had the team selected him, he “would’ve asked for so much money they would’ve had to put me on layaway.”

America tends to bloody the self-esteem out of black men, but Prime Time wore an armor of swagger. The bullets shot from the typewriters of hoary sportswriters fell harmlessly to the ground if they targeted Sanders.

Insecurity, though, necessarily precedes getting hair plugs, and I never really thought of Deion as insecure. Yet, by getting hair plugs and talking about it publicly as he has on various outlets, might he be showing how confidence and insecurities can cohabitate?

So maybe Deion isn’t a trailblazer because him buying hair plugs will coax others to as well. I’m unsure how healthy nudging people to undergo cosmetic surgery is anyway. But rather he is a trailblazer in openly speaking about an insecurity, knowing people will mock him for getting plugs all while still being an obviously confident man. He has chosen to deal with his insecurity this way. Other men will deal with their own insecurities their way.

The ability to be self-assured despite acknowledging personal insecurities — that’s why I prefer to think of Sanders as a trailblazer.

Still, if a bunch of famous brothas start getting hair plugs, I reserve the right to pull the defector card.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.