Where sports and politics collide.
The set-up seemed preordained, written up by a hacky Hollywood screenwriter. Here are the Dallas Cowboys, the surprise juggernaut of the 2014 NFL season. They have all the Super Bowl ingredients: a fearsome offensive line, a healthy and surprisingly calm Tony Romo at quarterback, and a record-breaking running back in DeMarco Murray. The one thing they’re missing, an essential in today’s pass-happy NFL, is the ability to rush the passer. This is a Cowboys team with only six sacks on the season and not a single player with more than 1.5. There on the practice squad is a son of Texas, Michael Sam, whose chief commodity as a college All-American was his ability to get off the edge and drop the quarterback. The script was written for Sam to be promoted to the roster, and making a needed contribution to a dream season in Big D. Instead, it was announced on Monday evening that Michael Sam was being cut from the organization. The three sacks and eleven tackles in four games Sam garnered in preseason with the St. Louis Rams meant nothing. He was gone.
Oh, by the way, if Sam had been brought up to the main squad, he would have become the first openly gay active player in NFL history.
Did this have anything to do with his release? After all, Sam fulfilled a position of need on a team achingly close, after years of mediocrity, to being on the inside track to the Super Bowl. It is a legitimate question, given the groundbreaking nature of Sam’s efforts and the risk-averse reality of today’s NFL. Even though he, by every account, had been quiet to a fault and just worked hard on the practice squad, the widespread, whispered, off-the-record, belief has been that he would be a “distraction” and was only on the team because of NFL pressure, not to mention team owner Jerry Jones’ inexhaustible desire for publicity.
Throughout the year, when asked about Sam, the Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has been peevish. ESPN Dallas’s Jean-Jacques Taylor recently questioned the head coach about Sam’s progress. Garrett, in Taylor’s words, “did not provide a ringing endorsement.” The head coach then said, “He comes to work every day. He practices hard and he’s one of the 10 practice players we have. He’s working on his skills trying to develop, but also doing a lot of other things. He’s playing offense, playing defense and playing the kicking game. That’s what a lot of those guys do.”
Why would Garrett be so dismissive of Sam? Maybe it has something to do with why Sam was on his practice squad in the first place. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported that after Sam was cut from the Rams and spent almost three days without a spot on an NFL team, “a league official contacted multiple teams asking if they had evaluated Sam as a probable practice squad player. Now Sam and the NFL avoided a nightmare situation when he signed with the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys.” The league offices have denied this, but we have to remember, as we have all learned this fall, that you know the NFL is lying when their lips are moving.
Jim Buzinski over at Outsports now argues that this will make closeted male athletes throughout the sports world far less likely to be open about their sexuality. “With Sam being cut halfway through the NFL season and without ever stepping on the field during a regular season game, I think it will be a while before we see another player come out publicly. There just isn’t much upside and the perception will linger that by being out, Sam hurt his draft status and chance of landing on a team.”
That perception is hard to shake.
Sam was typically gracious upon hearing about his release. “I want to thank the Jones family and the entire Cowboys organization for this opportunity, as well as my friends, family, teammates and fans for their support,” he said on Twitter. “While this is disappointing, I will take the lessons I learned here in Dallas and continue fight for an opportunity to prove that I can play every Sunday.”
One wonders whether Sam will get that opportunity. As of now, it looks like he was caught in a vise between NFL headquarters pushing to get him on the Cowboys practice squad and the lack of desire by any franchise to want to be “the ones” to actually put themselves out there and give him an honest chance. It is ironic that the Dallas Cowboys, a team defined for so many years by “distractions,” starting with their own endlessly embarrassing owner Jerry Jones, are now finally winning and therefore want no part of the non-football-related attention Michael Sam brings. This is still like a Hollywood movie. Only now it reeks of farce.
Read Next: “Michael Sam Gets Drafted, and the NFL Has Issues”
Imagine if four female Olympic athletes from extremely poor countries were told that if they wanted to compete, they’d have to undergo a surgical procedure on their genitalia—with lifelong health repercussions—to lower their testosterone levels. Imagine if they were informed by ruling officials that unless they went under the knife, their athletic dreams would go up in smoke. Imagine if the doctors also subjected them to procedures that had nothing to do with their testosterone levels, but were aimed at “feminizing” them, including “a partial clitoridectomy, and gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty.” This is not the plot of a new sports book by Margaret Atwood. This is an all all-too-true tale from the 2012 London Olympics.
Surgical violence of this kind is perpetrated against women with naturally high levels of testosterone, referred to in the medical world as “hyperandrogenism.” In other words, women, because of what their body naturally produces, are deemed to no longer be women. Instead, in the eyes of the ruling international bodies in sports, they are aberrations in need of correction. What’s not clear in any of these cases is whether these doctors revealed that this surgery can also lead to sterility, loss of sexual sensation and lifelong risks to their health.
There is one woman, however, who is standing up, going public and saying hell, no to what international athletic officials define as normal. She also comes from a developing country, also was born into poverty and also represents the best hope for her family to deliver them from their one-dollar-a-day jobs as weavers. By refusing surgery, and by fighting to be heard, she is risking a great deal. But this is someone of uncommon courage. Her name should be synonymous with resistance against the idea that there is somehow something wrong with anyone outside the proscribed gender binaries in sports. She is from India, and her name is Dutee Chand. Last month, Dutee Chand went public with her refusal to let hormones or surgical instruments invade her body, saying, “I feel that it’s wrong to have to change your body for sport participation. I’m not changing for anyone…. It’s like in some societies, they used to cut off the hand of people caught stealing. I feel like this is the same kind of primitive, unethical rule. It goes too far.”
Chand’s story began at what should have been her ultimate triumph, having just won two gold medals at June’s Asian Junior Athletics Championship. An opponent, undoubtedly at the prodding of a coach, demanded that she be tested for “hyperandrogenism”. The Sports Authority of India thoroughly examined her naked body, took her blood and had her receive an ultrasound. According to Chand, who was just 18, she was not informed why they were going over her body like it a piece of meat. She was then deemed unfit to compete without surgery and hormone treatment.
This all highlights the profound double standard women face in sports when it comes to how we view their very bodies. I spoke to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, multiple Olympic Gold medal swimmer and civil rights attorney. She said to me, “When men are born with unusual genetic differences that help them become better athletes (think Michael Phelps), we applaud them. When women are born with them, they are scorned and told they’re a threat to other women. Dutee Chand is no more of a threat to fair competition than Lisa Leslie or Brittney Griner in the WNBA. I don’t have the condition hyperandrogenism, but I am unusually muscular. When I was growing up, I heard on almost a daily basis that I wasn’t gender conforming—that my strength was a threat. More testosterone doesn’t make a woman male, any more than extra height or large lung capacity does. Elite athletes of all types are important for young girls to see because their very presence breaks down stereotypes that hold women back.”
On gender issues, the open, proud cognitive dissonance of the sportsworld is stunning. Sportswriters drool over the genetic marvel that is high school basketball phenom Thon Maker, but Dutee Chand, running in her natural state, has her body scorned and criminalized.
There is now a movement to end these barbaric policies and allow Dutee Chand to compete, without having to undergo surgery or hormone treatment. A petition decrying Chand’s “unscientific and discriminatory” treatment and calling for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to abolish these polices is now online, under the name “Let Dutee Run!” As written by Katrina Karkazis, it reads in part, “I started this petition because I believe Dutee should be allowed to run without having to prove that she is woman enough to compete with other women. As she has said, ‘I’m a woman. I should be allowed to compete as a woman. I do not understand why I am asked to change my natural body simply to participate as a woman.’”
Everyone should sign this petition and stand with Dutee. Not surprisingly, the best answer to all the athletic officials and critics who try to tear her down, comes from Dutee Chand herself. When they ask her, why she is standing up, speaking out, and resisting the surgeon’s knife, she says, “Why surgery? I’m not sick!”
There is an aspect to this story that, I believed was assumed, yet which readers have said I should make more explicit, so please allow me to do so. We have to say that this unabating “hormone testing hysteria” is not about fairness or having a “level playing field” for athletic competitors. It’s about transphobia spiked with no small amount of racism. There is a long tradition in women’s athletics – particularly women’s track and field – where black women as well as women with non-female conforming features, have been looked upon with consternation, derision, and in the end, persecution. In the late 1940s, an Olympic official, Norman Cox, said that in the case of women of African descent, “The International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them — the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites’ who regularly defeated ‘normal women,’ those less skilled ‘child bearing’ types with ‘largish breasts, wide hips and knocked knees.” By 1964, “sex-testing”, which started as women athletes lining up naked for full-body inspections, had become Olympic protocol for all prospective women competitors.
Dutee Chand is now confronting not just 21st century officials, but decades of backward scientific thought that belongs in history’s dustbin. Fear of non-gender conformity – transphobia - and racism are now Dutee Chand’s greatest opponents: opponents she provoked merely by saying that she wanted to run without having to go under the surgeon’s knife.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on #FergusonOctober coming to Monday Night Football
Hari Kondabolu is one of the most rib-tickling comics working today. He also unabashedly draws much of his humor from political targets, and there are few targets juicier than the Washington football team. On Thursday, Kondabolu dropped a video about the team with the painfully anachronistic and utterly racist name and his unique solution for how team owner Dan Snyder can keep the name. The five minute clip really needs to be seen to be believed, so check it out.
I was able to catch up with Hari and ask him why he took this on.
He said, “I wanted to create a sketch that could attack the controversy from a new comedic angle while involving other people in the fun through social media. Since logic and human decency have not led to a name change, perhaps it’s best we attempt to destroy their brand through public mockery.”
If mockery alone could do it, this video would be the #changethename equivalent Gettysburg. Watch and enjoy!
In covering these NBA preseason protests that have confronted the presence of Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, I’ve spoken to numerous fans of Israeli basketball. Invariably, they have issued the following complaint against demonstrators. They say, in the words of one person, “Sports should be a politics-free zone and we should be allowed to come here to enjoy our Israeli teams without being confronted by chants and people shouting about Gaza. It’s just a game.” Protesters have consistently responded to this by arguing that there is nothing apolitical about the NBA hosting Israeli teams in the shadow of the summer’s Gaza war as well as the continual blockade.
What was so interesting about tonight’s protest in front of the Verizon Center where the Washington Wizards were hosting Maccabi Haifa was that several of the Palestine-solidarity protesters took this complaint and turned it on its head. A young man named Yanal said, “I am a huge Wizards fan and I don’t want to see my team used to prop up an apartheid regime. I don’t understand why this is happening. I don’t know when this decision [to host Maccabi Haifa] was made, but if it was made over the summer during the attacks on Gaza, that’s just appalling to me.”
His friend chimed in, “I thought this was my league, too.”
I also spoke with a multi-year Wizards season ticket holder named Iman. She said, “I was so disappointed when I heard this game was happening. This is my politics-free zone where I come to escape. I love basketball and I love my Wizards and this is just unacceptable that they are hosting this team.”
Iman also wrote a letter to the Washington Wizards team as a season ticket holder. I asked her to send it to me and she was kind enough to oblige. The full letter is below. She writes in part:
I’m a loyal Washington Wizards fan and season ticket holder. Coming off a great post-season run, I have to say, I’m very excited for this upcoming 2014-2015 season. Things are looking pretty good for the Wiz kids (#dcRising!). However, I am deeply disappointed in the Wizards (and the NBA) for the decision to host a pre-season exhibition game against Maccabi Haifa…. Hosting an exhibition game against teams from a nation whose government is brutally attacking a besieged population is questionable, at best. Hosting individuals and teams who openly and publicly support such human rights violations and honor those who have committed these violent atrocities against civilians is, frankly, a slap in the face of those killed, injured, and displaced by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Moreover, these exhibition game appears to show that the Washington Wizards and the NBA have chosen to publicly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There are a lot of basketball fans out there who are so heartbroken over what is happening in the West Bank and particularly the Gaza Strip that NBA basketball is the equivalent of self-care, a break from the dead bodies and numbing political hypocrisy that engulf the region. The fact that the NBA has chosen to take that sweet escape away has driven people to protest.
The DC action was not huge, about thirty people, although the torrential rains, lightning and thunder had at least something to do with that. The weather also meant there was a paucity of people who showed up for the game. When several dozen protesters inside the arena unfurled their flags and chanted Free Palestine, they were heard across the arena. Many were escorted out by security, but there were no arrests. As one in-arena protester, Jianing, said to me, “We were in two levels of the arena for half the game and held steady until the end. A pro-Israeli couple camped themselves behind us and started cursing us calling us worthless etc. They almost got into a fight with us at the end and grabbed away our flag. Security then took some of us out one at a time for standing up.”
There have now been or will be protests at Maccabi Tel Aviv or Maccabi Haifa games in Brooklyn, Cleveland, DC, Sacramento, Portland and Toronto. The question that lingers is why in the world, given Israel’s summer offensive in Gaza and continual blockade, did NBA Commissioner Adam Silver think this was in any way a good idea for the league? Why choose to alienate fans across the world who love basketball precisely because it constitutes a brief, and desperately needed respite from the horrors in this world? How could Silver bear witness to what happened over the summer and say, “We need to host this country’s teams during our preseason.” These are questions we will continue to ask the NBA in the weeks to come.
Letter of Protest from a Wizards Season Ticket Holder
I’m a loyal Washington Wizards fan and season ticket holder. Coming off a great post-season run, I have to say, I’m very excited for this upcoming 2014-2015 season. I’m jazzed about the addition of Paul Pierce and happy we were able to re-sign Marcin Gortat! Things are looking pretty good for the Wiz kids (#dcRising!).
However, I am deeply disappointed in the Wizards (and the NBA) for the decision to host a pre-season exhibition game against Maccabi Haifa. The recent and ongoing situation in Gaza has triggered public outcry from Americans across the country and others around the world. According to the UN, 69% of those killed by Israeli attacks on the besieged Gaza strip were civilians (among them 495 children and 253 women), and even as a ceasefire has been accomplished, the humanitarian crisis continues. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has bombed civilian homes, unarmed boys playing soccer on the beach, and UN shelters and schools. One-fourth of the Gaza population has been internally displaced as a result of the recent violence (according to UN estimates).
Despite undeniable facts that highlight the extent of the death, devastation, and destruction caused by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in this summer’s aggressive offensive on the besieged people of Gaza, the NBA has allowed (and perhaps also participated in) a ceremony in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to honor the IDF with Maccabi Tel Aviv (who played the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets in the past few weeks).
Hosting an exhibition game against teams from a nation whose government is brutally attacking a besieged population is questionable, at best. Hosting individuals and teams who openly and publicly support such human rights violations and honor those who have committed these violent atrocities against civilians is, frankly, a slap in the face of those killed, injured, and displaced by Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Moreover, these exhibition game appears to show that the Washington Wizards and the NBA have chosen to publicly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is why, as a season ticket holder and Wizards fan, I have sent a letter to Wizards owner, Ted Leonsis, and Wizards management sincerely requesting the following:
Consider canceling the exhibition game scheduled for October 15th at the Verizon Center vs. Maccabi Haifa;
Issue a public statement condemning the violence and human rights violations committed by Israel and expressing regret and condolences to the Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives and livelihoods at the hands of severely problematic Israeli policies and military attacks;
Urge the NBA to avoid partnering with Israel’s BSL in domestic and international exhibition games; and
Meet with me and other season ticket holders and local fans who feel strongly about this issue.
Tragic violence has plagued the Middle East for far too long. Politics aside, everyone can agree that peace is the best solution, and that the loss of innocent human life is indefensible. Out of respect for those who have suffered, I request that the Wizards and the NBA act to respond to those concerned worldwide with the ongoing suffering in Palestine.
A Concerned Wizards Fan and Season Ticket Holder
Note: In an e-mail, Iman added:
I wanted to make sure I mention about my letter to Wiz ownership and management is that they did respond to me with a phone call from a senior leader thanking me for sharing my perspective, apologizing if I or others took any offense to the game, and reiterating that the wizards certainly do not intend any political statement. They also offered to exchange my tickets to the maccabi game as a season ticket holder to another game of my choosing. I personally think they handled it well to make sure their season ticket holder’s concerns were at least acknowledged so I didn’t want that to get lost in my letter.
Read Next: Dave Zirin reports on the protests at Barclays Center against the NBA hosting Israeli teams.
The tradition is as longstanding as it is powerful: fans and even players disrupting sporting events in the name of a greater cause. Sometimes when this takes place, it's iconic, other times it's forgotten. This is usually dependent on the power and breadth of the movements off the field that animate these extraordinary actions.
We saw it most famously perhaps when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics. It helped change the world when the people of Australia and New Zealand fans stormed the grounds when Apartheid South Africa's storied Springbok rugby team took the field. It continues today when people protest the Israeli basketball tour of the NBA preseason in the shadow of the Gaza war or when NFL players in solidarity with the family of Michael Brown raise their hands as they leave the tunnel.
That tradition continued last night when, as a part of #FergusonOctober, fifty people in the upper deck of the St. Louis Rams-San Francisco 49ers game unfurled a banner saying "Black Lives Matter On And Off The Field" and held a protest right in the middle of Monday Night Football.
An NFL stadium is a place of constant security, surveillance and inspection. Getting inside the White House with a knife seems like an easier task than entering an NFL arena for a protest. Yet in St. Louis, they did it and sent a strong message that this was not a time for games.
Stadium protester Shannon Wilson said, "We chanted in protest to tell the world that Rams fans know that black lives matter. Some Rams fans who sat in front of us ignored us at first. When our cries for our lives grew louder, some men began to dance as if to imitate monkeys, and shouted, verbatim, 'Shut the f*** up you monkeys.' I guess some Rams fans don't know that Black lives matter."
Charles Modiano, who helped organize the action, said:
Sorry to inconvenience the 3rd quarter, but the wild cheering of African-American athletes who can run fast, and the death and disrespect of Mike Brown simply cannot be separated from each other. Black lives must matter on AND off the field. We witnessed many hateful, hostile, and nearly violent responses from fans inside and outside the stadium. But we witnessed many Rams fans - including many white fans -- who joined our protest in solidarity after initial hesitance. It's almost like they needed permission to show their justifiable outrage. Last week the St. Louis Symphony protesters asked 'What side are you on, my friends. That's the question. There are six witnesses, no police incident report, still no arrest, and Mike Browns in every town. This is real basic. There can be no fence-sitting here. Dismantling the Blue Wall of Silence also includes ending white walls of silence.
Thousands were protesting at St. Louis University, Walmart, at the Ferguson police Department, and other places. And that was just one day.
As one stadium protester who requested anonymity told me, "Tonight was a major success. Our message was clear - black lives matter and that means that police violence is an issue no one can ignore, even during Monday night football. Our movement is growing every day and while ESPN chose not to air our major action, we know that many in our country stand with us. We are waiting for our leaders to act."
Yes, it's true that ESPN ignored the happenings in the stands. But it was picked up by mainstream channels like The Sporting News and SB Nation as well as the highly trafficked rebel sports site Deadspin.
At a rally this weekend, Montague Simmons, from the Organization for Black Struggle, told a crowd: "They didn’t value Black lives then, they don’t value Black lives now…. If this moment is gonna be all that it can be, we got to make the cost of Black life too high for them to take it." Actions like last night are a critical part of that process.
Protestor Darnell Moore said, "While waking around the stadium with several dozen others chanting 'Mike Brown' and 'Hands Up Don't Shoot' some fans willfully ignored us or shouted irately because their game was interrupted."
This was a brave action that went down last night. As long as some people in the United States cannot escape the fear of police violence, the escapism of sports is a bubble well worth popping.
Tory Russell, who has been on the ground in Ferguson from the start, said, "What were saying is No Justice, No Peace. You can't go on with life as usual until justice is served. We are fighting all across St. Louis and this is not a game to us."
The best young adult sports book that I’ve ever read is Raiders Night, by Robert Lipsyte. It details the dynamics of a big-time New Jersey high school football team, the Nearmont Raiders, and the ways in which a sports hazing culture seamlessly morphs into a sexual assault against a teammate. Raiders Night lays out better than a stack of academic articles how the toxic masculinity embedded in many football teams, when spliced with peer pressure, could lead otherwise good kids to choose silence when faced with a violent crime. I lent this book to a friend in 2010 and I’ll never forget their judgment that it was “just another overly melodramatic attack that demonizes football with an horrible event that wouldn’t really happen.” Tell that to the Sayreville, New Jersey, football team, winner of three state championships in four years, where the reality makes Raiders Night look not only prescient but restrained.
Seven players on the Sayreville football team have been charged with a series of crimes. Three of the arrested were charged with “aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration upon one of the juvenile victims.”
According to the police, “One of those juvenile defendants and the remaining four juvenile defendants were charged with various counts, including aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot by participating in the attack of the remaining victims.”
As the report details, “the hazing rituals included younger members of the team were then said to be held down while other members penetrated their rectums with fingers. Those fingers were then placed in the victims’ mouths.”
The season has been canceled and the coach, George Najjir, who has led with the team in two decades of glory, is almost certainly gone.
Like Raiders Night but also like recent events in Steubenville, Ohio; Torrington, Connecticut; and many other towns, where the victims of football team sexual assaults are women, we see the connections between the rape, rape culture and sports. What makes these cases so harrowing—and why the term “rape culture” must be used to describe it—is that they all involve bystanders seeing the assault and choosing to do nothing.
In Sayreville, these rituals were so constant and widely known that freshman boys would be hustling in and out of the locker room to avoid assault. Four survivors have already gone public, and there are more to come.
I contacted Robert Lipsyte for his thoughts about the ways in which his young adult fiction is playing out as a national story, and his words spoke volumes. He said:
”Eight years ago, when I started visiting high schools reading and speaking about Raiders Night, players and even some young, assistant coaches would tell me the book was like a documentary, while coaches and principals (many former football coaches) would have my appearances cancelled. And some were pretty upfront—they thought high school football was where college football had been fifty years ago, ready to break into national TV, sponsorship, and a national tournament. Thus the increasing pressure to win, to get on that national track early, was ramping up the hard-driving ‘rites of inclusion’ like hazing and—because of football’s homosocial nature—sexual dominance. Lots of it stays in the locker room in a jock culture where if you’re not on the team, you’re a girl or a puke. You saw the need to belong to the most powerful gang in school, the team, all that rage and frustration that often goes inward and make the next class go through what you went through to belong.”
This is Sayreville. As one parent described, “It’s sickening, man…. I just think if my son or somebody else’s son wanted to leave … they couldn’t leave because there was somebody at the door there. I could see the kids saying, ‘You’re not going nowhere until this is over.’ It’s just like being in a bad dream, you know?”
There may always be violence. There may always be alpha athletes who are drawn to express their physical power by humiliating those they perceive to be weak. But we can also live in a world where the majority no longer “sit around and witness stuff like this” and instead speak out. We can live in a world where the mere thought of silence in the face of a sexual assault would make a person violently nauseous. Standing up to this then becomes a point of instinctual moral reflex. If they feel like they can’t “stand up” to the 17-year-old muscle-bound seniors blocking the door, then they know that there are adults they can go to and speak about what happened. That’s our job. We have to fight to change this culture so the attackers are the anomalies and the whistleblowers aren’t “snitches” but fighters against a rape culture that has to die. But most importantly, above all else, we have to live in a world where the adults aren’t proudly ignorant, like those Lipsyte described canceling discussions and squelching the truth. We have to make sure that in the future, Raiders Night is seen as a harrowing fictional representation of the past and not a “documentary” of our present.
Former Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo was once best known for creating a defense so mighty that it could drag their utterly inept quarterback Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl. Now, if there is any justice, he will be remembered for something far more important. He will be known as a brave whistleblower who came forward to say that in his thirty-year career, he saw the NFL cover up “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of domestic violence. If the sports media are still paying attention to the whole “domestic violence/NFL thing”—unless we’ve moved on to something far more important like college players selling autographs (where’s my fainting couch?)—this should be banner front-page news.
First and foremost, to get this out of the way, I absolutely believe Mr. Angelo. He has no incentive to lie. In fact, his words read like an act of contrition and to express a need to make amends. He takes responsibility and paints himself in the ugliest possible light. “I made a mistake, Angelo said to USA Today. “I was human. I was part of it. I’m not proud of it. We knew it was wrong…. For whatever reason, it just kind of got glossed over. I’m no psychiatrist, so I can’t really get into what that part of it is. I’m just telling you how I was. I’ve got to look at myself first. And I was part of that, but I didn’t stand alone.” Tragically, the next day, Angelo “backpedaled like Deion Sanders” from these comments, saying, “That ‘hundreds and hundreds’ was taken totally out of context,” to CSNChicago.com. “When I was making a point to this person, I was making a point that over my 31 years in the National Football League I’ve seen a lot of changes…. I’m very pro-Commissioner.”
It’s sad but not unsurprising that Angelo did not stick to his observations. The Bears immediately disavowed everything Angelo confessed. Fomer Bears coach Mike Ditka called Angelo’s comments “gutless,” saying, “If you didn’t do anything while you were running the team, then shut up. Don’t live in the past.” This was a curious statement from Ditka, whose past comments about women, the Washington team name and pretty much any progressive idea since the end of prohibition show him to be proudly living in the past.
I think Jerry was telling the truth as he believed it and then was pressured to say otherwise. I see Ditka’s unhinged reaction, if anything, as another clue that Angelo is telling the truth. I also believe Angelo because of what we do know about domestic violence, above all else. As my friend Kerry who works as a DV counselor says to me, “Rule One: Never trust the numbers.” We have seen stats that show domestic violence among NFL families is lower than in the broader society. What would happen to those stats if we included these “hundreds and hundreds” of cases? It’s not just the NFL where DV statistics are largely useless. Wealthy families don’t come forward because they fear scandal. Poor people don’t come forward because they fear court costs, the police and the breaking up of their families. Women and, to a far statistically lesser extent, men don’t come forward because of some combination of fear and shame. Kids don’t come forward because the foster care system may seem more terrifying than what they are facing at home. Violence inside the family is ugly, complex, sometimes salvageable, often irredeemable, and far more widespread than anyone wants to admit.
Then let’s look at the NFL. We already know that the league has spent decades ignoring or covering up domestic violence cases. We already know that Roger Goodell, a k a Commissioner Kipling, a k a Dr. Discipline, has chosen to ignore almost every case that has crossed his desk over the last decade, including a murder/suicide that ended in the parking lot of one of the league’s own practice facilities. The only real question is, Just how widespread a coverup are we really talking about? What do the numbers actually look like? A cursory look at the NFL paints a picture of how bad it could be: young men, a lot of testosterone, a lot of what some players call “road beef” to be had between games, a lot of alcohol to dull the aches and pains, a lot of headaches and migraines, a lot of insecurity from non-guaranteed contracts and then a lot of tension when you return home to a family routine after living that life. All done in the service of a sport whose ultimate goal is expressing power over someone’s powerlessness. Police officers, who also live work lives of tension, violence, testosterone and expressing power and violence over others, have high rates of domestic violence as well. This is not coincidence. It’s a commonality of ingredients. It’s like a master list of #dv triggers.
“Hundreds and hundreds” implies that domestic violence swirls around every team of which Angelo was a part. “Hundreds and hundreds” implies that it was normalized as just a feature in the lives of many players. “Hundreds and hundreds” implies, as Angelo says himself, that “our business is to win games” and all else be damned. Angelo also says, “The commissioner’s job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem.” If that is the case, then it is a mind-blowing mystery just how Roger Goodell is still employed. His predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, did not address domestic violence because he believed that the NFL was a business and a player’s private life was their own. If the courts said something he would act, but otherwise it was not his problem. Agree or disagree with this approach, at least this was an actual approach.
Roger Goodell decided eight years ago that he would crawl inside the personal and private lives of players to root out those who would shame “the shield.” Yet for some reason, while wearing brightly colored sox or smoking weed brought down the Goodell’s hammer of judgment, physically assaulting women was nakedly ignored. By the very standard Roger Goodell himself chose to set for this league, he is worse than Ray Rice. Worse than Adrian Peterson. Worse than every player he has chosen to drag in front of the cameras to represent what is wrong with the league. Worse because, unlike so many cases of domestic violence, Goodell’s actions were ones of premeditation. Paul Tagliabue was the guy who believed that what happened off the field wasn’t the NFL’s business. Roger Goodell is the guy who deprioritized domestic violence as an issue and chose to ignore it every time it happened and happened again. Save for one Atlantic City video, he’d still be ignoring it today. Not only should Roger Goodell not have a job. He should—at least morally—be seen as an accessory to the black eyes, sprained wrists and broken families that the NFL has left in its wake.
When activists arrived at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to protest a Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces fundraiser that was coupled with an exhibition game between the Nets and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, the police were waiting with a message of their own. As the night unfolded, this message spoke volumes. Protesters would not be allowed on the expansive plaza that unfolds from the front of the Barclays Center all the way to the Atlantic Yards subway entrance. Instead, they would have to be in a fenced-off pen on the narrow strip of sidewalk to the side of the arena. Yes, an outdoor space built with public funds was deemed a privatized, no-free-speech zone, enforced by armed public employees, otherwise known as the police.
Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder, who’s written—and continues to write—a blog about the Atlantic Yards project for almost a decade, explained to me the way it works: “To the extent there are restrictions on activity at the plaza—the Daily News Plaza, to be precise, given the newspaper’s sponsorship—we must remember it’s not quite a public space, despite the significant public support—direct subsidies, tax breaks, eminent domain, override of zoning, and giveaway of naming rights—for the Barclays Center.”
(In an attendant irony, I was told at one point by arena security that reporters couldn’t talk to people in the “Daily News Plaza”.)
I asked one police officer to distinguish between “open space” and “private space” for freedom of assembly. He said, “This plaza is private land owned by Barclays. If a demonstration happens here, it’s because Barclays says a demonstration can happen here.”
That’s what made what then unfolded all the more bizarre. While 200 people marched around the tightly constricted pen with signs that read, “Don’t play with apartheid” and “This Jew says no to Gaza slaughter,” counter-demonstrators gathered on the private, open-space plaza. All male, mostly young and carrying Israeli flags, they showered the demonstrators with profanity. Many not holding a flag held phones up with one hand, videotaping the protesters, and raised a middle finger with the other. When I attempted to interview one young man, he said, “Fuck them, fuck your questions and fuck you. Get the fuck away from me before I bury you.” I asked how he wanted to be identified. He said, “My name is ‘fuck you.’”
Not seeing much opportunity for discussion on this side of the barricades, I asked several police why this counter-demonstration was permitted on what I thought was private land. Did Barclays clear this? Most wouldn’t answer, although one more loquacious officer said to me. “That’s above my pay grade. Maybe if you raise taxes here and increase my salary, I’ll have an answer.” (I am waiting for comment from the Barclays Center about whether this counter-demonstration received any kind of official approval.)
As for the protesters, their presence was animated by the summer’s ongoing war on Gaza. I asked Pam Sporn from Jewish Voice for Peace what she would say to those who would deem a sporting event an inappropriate place for a protest. She said, “One of the most horrifying images from Israel’s Gaza onslaught was the death of the four boys playing soccer on the beach. Their names are Mohamed Ramez Bakr, 11 years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both 10, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, 9. I say their names because Palestinians are so dehumanized that their deaths don’t even register to much of this country. I’m here tonight because you cannot use a basketball game to honor an army that killed those boys. It is morally bankrupt. Jews and non-Jews have an obligation to speak out.”
Mindy Gershon of the organization Adalah-NY then commented, “If you believe that we need a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to hold Israel accountable, then we need to be here when basketball teams come to play.” Gershon then looked over at the counter-demonstrators and said, “We have to hold a mirror to the faces of people who don’t believe Palestinians are human beings.”
I also spoke to Nets season-ticket holder Ahmed Eltouny, who showed up wearing a custom-made Brooklyn Nets jersey with the number 48, the year of the creation of the Israeli state, and the word Palestine along the back. Eltouny said, “When I first found out this game was happening weeks ago, it left a bad taste in my mouth and I planned on being out here. When you stage a game like this, it normalizes relations with a country that habitually ignores the United Nations and any external authority on their actions. There is a fundraiser going on right now in an NBA arena for an army that is being investigated for war crimes. How can the NBA be OK with this?”
Not all the protesting took place outside the arena. People from the organizations NYC Solidarity with Palestine and Direct Action Front for Palestine unfurled a banner in the stands during the second quarter that read, “We Are Brooklyn. Don’t Play with Apartheid #BDS.” One of the participants Amin Husain, said to me afterward, “Fans were aggressive. They snatched the banner. Security tried to escort us out, but we evaded them. Others in our group then took out a Palestinian flag and were assaulted by fans. We escaped the assaults but made it outside. We told police what happened but they did not do anything.” (Photos of the indoor protest can be seen here.)
While this was happening inside, I was also able to speak with local resident and Nets fan Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, who stopped by with his two small children and surveyed the scene. “This should be a community space,” he said to me. “Brooklyn is a close-knit community. I’m upset that the divisive vibe carried by FIDF would be brought into the place we call home.”
One Israeli counter-demonstrator named Eli, who was pointedly not using profanity or slurs, criticized the Palestinian protesters and said to me, “Why don’t they protest the deaths in Syria or the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia or ISIS? But they have every right to be here. In the US as well as Israel you can protest and be heard, not so much in these other places.” He then looked over at the cursing young men on his side of the barricades and said, “that look doesn't go so well with my message to you.”
Also surveying the counter-demonstrators from inside the barricades was Arya Shirazi of Queens. Shirazi said to me, “When I see all that anger and that kind of behavior from those supporting FIDF, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Israel’s actions, and then I look at us, it’s heartening. Look at us. We are racially and ethnically diverse. We are young and old. We are the people, and that’s why we are going to see a free Palestine.”
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It seems that NBA owners thirst for the blood of their players. Unlike vampires of yesteryear, they don’t want these precious fluids for personal sustenance. Instead, it’s for the health and vitality of their billion-dollar franchise investments. According to an article in ESPN The Magazine the owners want the blood of their athletes and some may already be harvesting.
This isn’t blood testing to see if players are taking performance enhancing drugs. It’s actually the opposite. It’s blood testing—along with 24-7 monitoring—for the purposes of building a better basketball cyborg. The article, cowritten by Pablo Torre and Tom Haberstroh, outlines the new ways that teams “scrutinize, optimize and fundamentally think about their players.”
They then outline the neoliberal fever dream that animates the NBA’s new generation of billionaire hedge fund managers and tech innovators who see their players’ bodies and by extension their private lives as just another asset in their portfolio.
Owners “have discovered how to leverage new, ever-shrinking technologies to supervise a player’s sleeping habits, record his physical movements, appraise his diet and test his blood.” Torre and Haberstroh then point out wryly, “In automotive terms, the league is investing in a more accurate odometer.”
What is particularly disturbing is the execs who are proudly gushing about this new normal. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is one of them. The billionaire with a yacht named after Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead told Torre and Haberstroh, “I think the smartest thing we do for health from a data perspective is take ongoing assessments and even blood tests so we have a baseline for each individual that we can monitor for any abnormalities. When someone is ill, we know what their numbers should be.”
Does he mean their health numbers or in-game numbers? In the context of the article, it’s not clear. What is clear is the quote from former Mavs guard Devin Harris who said, “I don’t know what they do with it once they have it, but they definitely take it. And I know they talked about taking blood throughout the season for certain stuff.”
The words of executives reveal an NBA where players’ bodies have been further “thingified” over the last ten years, transformed in the eyes of ownership from “malice in the palace” thugs, in need of a dress code and charm school classes, to human hosts of optimal basketball nutrients.
Sacramento Kings General Manager Peter D’Alessandro is all-in on these new practices. “The holy grail,” he says, “is sequencing and understanding the genome. And how that relates to pro athletes on an injury basis and who’s naturally good at certain sports.”
D’Alessandro also says, “We need to be able to have impact on these players in their private time. It doesn’t have to be us vs. you. It can be a partnership.”
That talk of partnership sounds lovely, but the first time the National Basketball Players Association had even heard about the NBA’s 24-7 biometric monitoring agenda, was—remarkably—when ESPN was researching this article.
NBPA counsel Ron Klempner said, “If the league and teams want to discuss potentially invasive testing procedures that relate to performance, they’re free to start that dialogue and we’ll be glad to weigh the benefits against the risks…. We’ve barely left the starting line on these issues.”
The NBPA faces this now with a recently hired executive director in Michelle Roberts, and the news that the league had signed a new staggering $24 billion television deal with ESPN and TNT. As franchises get sold for record prices, players are seen as “partners” in the way Poland was a “partner” in the US war on Iraq. The players’ powerlessness—not their partnership—has been the prerequisite to these exploding franchise values and, not incidentally, the ways that players are being treated like genetically modified sides of beef.
All-star Andre Iguodala made it plain, saying, “I just hope we don’t become robots, where they’re feeding us the same thing, every day, and then it’s time to flip the switch and go to sleep.”
This is a beautiful game. If we don’t want it to become a cultural symbol of a world where some workers are deemed disposable and others are genetically honed it to perfection… a symbol of a world where billionaires sit in the front car of the snowpiercer toasting their good fortunes as the neoliberal kings of this monstrous distortion of human interaction, then the union is going to have to stand up. They won’t need garlic and a wooden stake, just some damn backbone to stand up to the collection hedge fund harvesters and say that they demand ownership of their own humanity.
Unlike his polarizing predecessor David Stern, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has clearly tried to chart a different path. The Silver way, to his great credit, seems a sincere aspiration to make the NBA something that unites instead of divides. Under Silver, two owners have been shown the door for comments the league has judged to be racist. Those protected under Stern have been exposed.
Clearly Adam Silver wants the league to steer clear of looking like a divisive force, and that is exactly why it is so difficult to understand how a fundraiser for Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces is a part of the NBA preseason. The “VIP Event” is taking place before an exhibition game between Euroleague Champion Maccabee Tel Aviv and the Brooklyn Nets.
It is also difficult to understand, given the Israeli Defense Forces summer war on Gaza, why the NBA decided that two of the three international teams to tour the NBA this preseason would be from Israel. Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Maccabi Haifa will be criss-crossing the country, from Washington, DC, to Portland, in a series of celebrated scrimmages. Why Maccabi Haifa is one of the three teams is a mystery. What is not a mystery is the fact that protests are going to follow the teams to NBA arenas. This includes a picket of Friends of the IDF at the Barclays Center on Tuesday, which as of this writing has 150 confirmed attendees on Facebook.
I asked the NBA why Friends of the IDF was doing a fundraiser before a preseason game. I also asked why Maccabi Haifa was a part of this tour, and whether there were future plans to host a Palestinian team. NBA spokesperson Michael Bass replied:
The NBA is not involved in any private reception arranged by Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Barclays. Regarding Maccabi Haifa, our NBA teams want to get prepared for the season by playing against strong international competition. Maccabi Haifa, which beat Maccabi Tel Aviv to win the 2012-13 Israel League championship and featured future Dallas Mavericks player Gal Mekel on its roster, is one of the European teams that our teams have played against in preseason games.
In a previous comment, Bass said:
For more than a decade, the NBA has supported Seeds for Peace and each year our NBA and WNBA players attend the program’s annual summer camp that brings together Palestinian and Israeli kids to foster cultural understanding. As it relates to preseason games against international teams, our NBA teams want to get prepared for the season by playing against elite international competition and traditionally have played preseason games against Euroleague teams, such as CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona and six-time—and reigning—Euroleague Champion Maccabi Tel Aviv.
After reading Bass’s comments about Seeds of Peace, I did receive a call from nine-year NBA veteran Etan Thomas, who was involved in the NBA Seeds of Peace program. He said:
I attended the Seeds Of Peace camp that the NBA has supported for years and it’s a great program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli kids in an effort to nurture future generations into peace. However, this one-sided support from the NBA with this situation sends a very different message… this appears to be an attempt to further strengthen relations with a government we should be applying pressure on. It sends the wrong message especially coming off the heels of the slaughter of more than 2,000 Palestinians last month. Friends of IDF, at their VIP celebration at the Barclays Center prior to the game, will ‘honor’ twelve wounded soldiers from the recent Gaza conflict. Are they also going to honor the hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians most women and children who were massacred? I’m already of the belief that staying neutral in a conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor, means you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor and this isn’t even neutral. Having a Friends of the IDF Fundraiser at Barclay’s is not only irresponsible. It should not be unacceptable.
Etan Thomas and I co-host a sports/politics radio show on WPFW. On Thursday, we interviewed former NBA player Tariq Abdul-Wahad. I asked Wahad for his thoughts about the presence of Friends of the IDF as a part of the NBA preseason. He said, “It’s sad but you have to remember that there is the United States perception of what Israel is doing and there is the world’s perception of what Israel is doing. In Europe, Israel is seen as an apartheid regime. That’s not the case in America.”
I asked Wahad if he had any words for Jewish Voice for Peace, the sponsor of this Wednesday’s protest. He said, “That’s great, if they want to picket the game. This is America. The corporate world is going to make their decisions and the public has the right to react. They get my full support. What happened in Gaza—what is still happening in Gaza—are war crimes of the highest standard. There are peaks and valleys. The media showed it during peaks but in the valleys, the crimes are still going on.”
I do not think the NBA wanted to start the season with preseason protests. It signals, to give my own spin on Wahad’s comments, the disconnect between how our leaders in the corporate and political worlds view Israel, and the ways in which regular people are starting to look at the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s state with a far more critical eye. I am going to be covering the protest in front of Barclays this Tuesday and will report on what takes place.
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