Where sports and politics collide.
Editor’s note: This is a special guest post by Seattle teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian.
Some of my early memories are of riding on my parents’ shoulders at the annual Martin Luther King Day march. Seattle’s annual rally on King’s birthday is often one of the largest marches of the year in our city, bringing thousands of people into the streets around the most pressing social-justice issues of the day. Organized by dozens of grassroots community and labor organizations, the event traditionally begins with a rally in the gym at legendary Garfield High School, my alma mater and where I now teach history.
That’s why when I was invited to speak at the thirty-third annual Martin Luther King Day celebration I was deeply honored. At the beginning of the ceremony, I was asked to award recognition plaques to students who had taken action in pursuit of justice for Michael Brown. After the indoor ceremony, some 10,000 people began marching towards downtown. My wife and two boys marched a few miles with me before they peeled off to return to my mom’s house, where our 2-year-old son’s birthday party was scheduled later in the day. The march streamed through downtown Seattle and ended at the federal courthouse, where I delivered the final speech of the program.
I took the opportunity to defend Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy from the false praise of those who tolerate injustice. I reminded people of the King who demanded fundamental change. The King who invited people not only to dream on that twenty-eighth day in August of 1963, but also cautioned, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” I told the crowd we would not let anyone imprison the true message of Dr. King—a man who, were he alive today, would have delivered that message from the streets of Ferguson, and with Black Lives Matter protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others. I ended by crediting the new young activists who, fed up with the school-to-prison-pipeline, are creating a school-to-freedom pipeline.
As I stepped away from the microphone, the roar of the crowd affirmed the day I had so eagerly anticipated. There was only one thing left to make the day complete: my son’s second birthday party. He was born on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and we decided to hold the big family celebration on MLK Day at the conclusion of the march.
What happened next turned what should have been one of the most joyous days of my life into one of the most painful. While I was on the sidewalk a few blocks away from where I had delivered my speech, a Seattle police officer pepper-sprayed me in the face.
I was on the phone with my mom to arrange my pick-up when a searing pain shot through my ears, nostril and eyes, and spread across my face.
My mom soon arrived and took me back to the house. I tried to be calm when I entered so as not to scare my children, but the sight of me with a rag over my swollen eyes upset the party. I spent much of the occasion at the bathtub, with my sister pouring milk on my eyes, ears, nose and face to quell the burning. My heart began to pound, and I could feel a rising panic when my older son asked me what happened and why I was pouring milk on myself. I didn’t want him to have to learn, at the age of 6, to be afraid of the police on our own city’s streets. I still don’t know how to talk to my kids about what happened.
What do I have to do, so that when my sons have grown up and recall the sixty-third annual MLK Day celebration, it is about remembering past trials of injustice rather than endlessly reliving them?
Conspiracy theories abound in US history, a way to explain the unexplainable in a nation with massive gaps in wealth and power. How could a lone gunman kill the President of the United States? Who put a drifter like James Earl Ray in position to kill Dr. Martin Luther King? Or the conspiracy theory of our century, one that has been entertained by the person at the heart of this article, Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll, how did the Towers fall? (Please save the e-mails. I am not passing judgment on any of the above theories. Only pointing out that they all have found purchase.)
Sports, where antitrust exemptions, a compliant media and authoritarian structures don’t exactly encourage open discussion, conspiracy theories have always been nourished. Well, one is certainly emerging after last night’s shocking end to Super Bowl 49, as the Seahawks gave away a game that looked comfortably in their grasp. With the outcome in their hands in the closing seconds, on second down from the one yard line and trailing by four points against the New England Patriots, Seattle coach Pete Carroll chose to throw a three-foot slant over the middle instead of handing it to their power runner extraordinaire Marshawn Lynch. It was, of course, intercepted, the first time a pass from the one-yard line had been intercepted all season in any game.
In the stunning aftermath, after that unfathomable decision, conspiracy theories sprouted like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. I’m not talking about Twitter-theories from deep-thinking eggs, or any cris de coeur from devastated Seahawks fans. I’m talking about people inside Seattle’s own locker room. I’m talking about texts I received from mainstream writers who don’t want to deal with the backlash that would come with writing it up.
The theory goes something like this. Russell Wilson is your young clean-cut God-fearing media-perfect quarterback. If one was creating a superstar face to market for the twenty-first century, chances are they would look, sound and basically be Russell Wilson. He’s Derek Jeter with a Bible, someone who comes across like he has never spoken out of turn in his entire life.* Marshawn Lynch is… Marshawn Lynch, and if you haven’t figured out what that means after the past two weeks, then you haven’t been paying attention.
The theory goes that there were major financial, public relations and football reasons for Russell Wilson and not Lynch to be the one who ends the game in glory. If he throws that touchdown for the victory, Wilson is almost certainly the Super Bowl MVP. He gets the commercial. He gets to stand with the commissioner. And oh, by the way, he also gets his new contract, one that will fasten his prime, at only 26 years old, to the Seattle franchise. Marshawn Lynch is also due a new contract. Marshawn Lynch, had he punched that ball over the goal line, would probably get to be the one handed the MVP trophy. Marshawn Lynch also maybe gets on the mic to say Lord knows what.
Marshawn Lynch is in addition playing for a new contract and will certainly get one after an awesome, iconic season. But unlike Wilson, Marshawn Lynch turns 29 this off-season, that time when the ability of running backs tends to fall off the cliff. In Seattle’s own recent history, they saw their MVP running back Shaun Alexander go seemingly overnight from superstar to someone who could barely run the ball, a football equivalent of milk left on the radiator.
The conspiracy theory lies in the fact that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll believed that the last yard the Seahawks needed for that Super Bowl victory was a gimme and, all things being equal, much better to have the iconic Super Bowl moment go to Russell Wilson than to Marshawn Lynch. Coaches setting certain favored players up for glory is as old as football itself. In addition, the politics of race, respectability, public relations and what’s in the best interest of a $2 billion corporation all played into this. That’s the theory.
I contacted someone inside that locker room and they said to me as if on repeat: “Can’t believe it. We all saw it. They wanted it to be Russ. They didn’t want Marshawn to be the hero.”
Mike Silver for the NFL network reported on these “mutterings” as well, writing that he wanted to “refrain from lending any legitimacy to the conspiracy theory which one anonymous player was willing to broach: That Carroll somehow had a vested interest in making Wilson, rather than Lynch, the hero, and thus insisted on putting the ball in the quarterback’s hands with an entire season on the line. ‘That’s what it looked like,’ the unnamed player said, but I’d be willing to bet that he merely muttered it out of frustration, and that it was a fleeting thought.”
Appreciate Mike for reporting it, but it’s not a fleeting thought. People in the Seattle locker room are saying it. People in the sports media are texting it to me. Only a few people are writing about it. But the fact that people on the inside are even thinking it, in a locker room that earlier this season, as Mike Freeman reported, was roiled by these very kinds of divisions, makes it story enough.
But does it hold actual weight? Would Pete Carroll risk the Super Bowl for public relations? Who the hell knows? Some mitigating factors in Carroll’s corner: Marshawn Lynch is a beast mode of awesomeness, but was actually one for five on the season when rushing from the one-yard line. In other words, it was not an automatic for Lynch to score that touchdown. If he fails, the Hawks have to burn that last time out and probably then have to pass it anyway. Factor in that Pete Carroll may have been thinking about a somewhat similar scenario when, coaching at USC in 2006 for a national championship, he ran the ball and failed. Given that Carroll himself was basically in a state of post-traumatic stress after the game and didn’t really explain much of anything, it may be a long time before we ever know what he was thinking. But in a locker room like Seattle’s where they truly do feel like it’s them against a world and an NFL power structure that wants to put them down, this is one theory that we can expect to find purchase in the months ahead. Tragically, it all overshadows a terrific comeback by the New England Patriots and a game for the ages, a game that reminds us why, despite every scandal, every NFL corporate crime and all the incompetence that swirls around Roger Goodell’s leadership, the sport still reigns supreme.
* the original text quoted and hyperlinked the movie The Other Guys where Derek Jeter is tearfully called a "biracial angel" as a reference to the way some sports fans adore Wilson. Yes. I know - and knew - that Wilson is of African and Native American descent and not "biracial" (if we accept the definition of "biracial" as including whitenss). I thought the context of The Other Guys scene made the reference work. Hyperlinks don't work as context in writing however so I made the change. I was wrong and I apologize. - dz
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how the Seahawks represent a new sports/politics paradigm
When I started writing about the intersection of sports and politics in 2003, a countless number of sentences started with two words: “if only”. “If only” star athletes used their hyper-exalted-brought-to-you-by Nike platform to actually say something about the world instead of just trying to sell us more crap. If only they stood up to tired sports media that for decades had treated outspoken athletes with a sneering and, in the case of black players, transparently racist contempt. If only the pros, particularly in basketball and football, did not forget the painfully exploited “student athletes” they left behind in the multibillion-dollar NCAA meat grinder. If only a new generation of athletes would show that speaking out did not prevent you from being able to land a new contract and provide for your family, so we could put to rest cautionary tales like 1990s players Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, drummed out of the league for rocking the boat. If only the most successful athletes, the ones with the rings on their fingers, would speak out more in the tradition of champions such as Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali thus giving lie to the myth that having a voice takes your focus off of winning the big game.
It is so easy for all of us to get so caught up in saying “if only” that you don’t see changes taking place right before your very eyes. To paraphrase James Reston, it’s a lot easier to to notice revolution than evolution. Well the evolution is here, and they’re coming straight outta King County with a posse on Broadway. They are the NFC Champions going for back-to-back Super Bowl wins. They are the Seattle Seahawks.
It helps that they are led by Pete Carroll, that rare football coach who does not think he’s the reincarnation of General Patton. It helps that we live in a social-media age when players can get their message directly to the fans, and around the traditional sports media gatekeepers.
But to make this a social-media story, or a narrative about the more relaxed nature at the top of the Seahawks organization, takes too much credit away from the courage of the players themselves. To have Seahawks linebacker Michael Bennett use the Super Bowl media scrum to slam the NCAA and say, “I think the NCAA is one of the biggest scams in America” and “I think there are very few schools that actually care about the players. Guys break their legs and they get the worst surgery they could possibly get by the worst doctors with the worst treatment” is more than someone sounding off. It’s an act of solidarity.
To have their always-outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman follow that up by saying, “I tell you from experience that one time I had negative forty bucks in my account. It was in the negative more times than positive. You have to make a decision whether you put gas in your car or get a meal” turns it into a national story.
To have Marshawn Lynch consciously try to control his own labor and by doing so, dredge up the worst impulses in the sports media aristocracy was, intentionally or not, a national service. Thanks to Lynch, we have seen a layer of sports writers regurgitate all of their suppressed bile against young black athletes—tweeting things like their desire for an “English to Marshawn dictionary”—and exposing the long-standing resentments older and mostly whiter sportswriters have towards the people they cover. When Lynch looked at the media and said, “Shout out to all my real Africans out there,” you could almost hear the ventricles in the room constricting.
Yes, the team is owned by the wealthiest owner of them all, Paul Allen. But unless you are a fan of the Green Bay Packers, never stand with a team based on the owner. Look at the people on the field. This is a team that has had players speak out for the Black Lives Matter movement and a team that has felt no compunction against calling out a commissioner in Roger Goodell who cares more about public relations than the players and the families of players that the league employs. The Seahawks are also doing all of this while winning with a hell of a lot of style and flair. It is a fact that the more Super Bowl trophies they collect, the bigger their collective platform will become. It is also a cardinal rule of the sports world that the more they succeed, the more they will become a paradigm for how the next generation of athletes will try to leverage the spotlight. We can understandably shake our heads over the fact that the NFL—a brutal, damnable sports league—is now intimately connected to how we discuss issues ranging from violence against women, to workplace safety, to the movement against police brutality. But as long as that is the truth, we should want the people who hold that platform to be the most conscious possible participants in this discussion. This is reason enough, if you aren’t from the Maine-to-Connecticut-corridor, to pull for the Seattle Seahawks. Pull for the team that will use the win to be more than just a brand. Pull for the team that models the idea that having an opinion about the world is a positive thing. But most of all, pull for that moment, as the confetti falls, when that walking, talking corporate crime spree Roger Goodell has to hand Marshawn Lynch the MVP trophy.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Marshawn Lynch and Roger Goodell
Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have something glaringly obvious in common. They both struggle mightily speaking on camera. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Marshawn Lynch, who thousands of people pay to watch play on Sundays, earned a base salary of $6 million last year.* Roger Goodell, who no fan would put down money to do anything other than perhaps be hooked up to a lie detector, made $44 million.
Marshawn Lynch is financially forced by the league to talk to the media, ideally to mouth the same clichés every other player is hardwired to repeat. He spoke at the Super Bowl Media Day this week and twenty-nine times repeated seven words that speak the truth of a league that demands players to double as corporate pitchmen: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” If Lynch hadn’t made an appearance, he would have faced a gobsmacking $500,000 fine.
Roger Goodell is under no obligation to talk to the public, even though he oversees a league that has received billions in corporate welfare and whose central office is designated by the federal government as a tax-free nonprofit. As Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch’s teammate who has never been uncomfortable in front of a microphone, said, Lynch should not be obligated to speak “any more than the commissioner is obligated to speak.”
Marshawn Lynch has also been fined $20,000 by the NFL for grabbing his crotch, which is Lynch’s customary move when he scores a particularly explosive touchdown. Roger Goodell’s league sells a framed collage that includes the very image of Lynch tugging his testicles for $149.95. While Lynch writes checks, Goodell profits on both ends, while also perhaps grabbing his junk.
Marshawn Lynch, who it’s been theorized by friends has a social anxiety disorder, is mocked mercilessly by the media for his lack of desire to speak to them and his inability to sound like Peyton Manning. Roger Goodell, whose only disorder is inordinate blushing when challenged, receives no such casual barbs. He has actually felt some media heat this year over his years of covering up cases of domestic violence. Yet despite every misstep, he was still praised by on a primetime NFL playoff broadcast by announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth for his “integrity” and making domestic violence “part of the national conversation.” (This is, as I’ve written elsewhere, like praising Goldman Sachs for making corporate greed “part of the national conversation.”)
Richard Sherman put it perfectly in a piece he wrote this week for Sports Illustrated. “Under Goodell the league continues to put players like Marshawn Lynch in a position to be mocked by the media, which seems to get a kick out of seeing people struggle on camera. As teammates we’re angry because we know what certain people do well and we know what they struggle with. Marshawn’s talking to the press is the equivalent of putting a reporter on a football field and telling him to tackle Adrian Peterson.”
Sherman also pointed out exactly why so many players—particularly black players—hold a hostility toward an older contemptuous sports media, writing, “Some of the same people slamming Marshawn for not talking are just as likely to condemn the Browns’ Andrew Hawkins and Johnson Bademosi for protesting police brutality with T-shirts. They want to hear us speak, but only if we’re saying something they want to hear.”
There is one last similarity between both men: they both generate gobs of money for the thirty-one billionaires that run the league. The difference however is that Marshawn Lynch will be thrown on the scrapheap as soon as he no longer has the ability to perform. Roger Goodell continues to be paid long after he has proven in practice that he is a liability to players, their families, and the future of the league. I would love to be able to pull off a “Lucy and Ricky” scenario and for one week, start Roger Goodell at running back for the Seahawks and put Marshawn Lynch in the Commissioner’s chair. Seattle would surely suffer. The league, however, would register an immediate improvement. If nothing else, on game day, we’d all get a whole lotta Skittles.
*this article originally put Lynch’s base salary at one million dollars. Apologies for the error—dz
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Patriots balls and Christopher Hitchens
The seeming utter inanity of our national obsession over whether the New England Patriots were deflating their footballs and if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would do something about it, reached a fever pitch this week. While wondering whether this was just a “weapon of mass distraction” or actually worth giving a damn about, Christopher Hitchens came to mind. This is not usually a pleasurable experience.
The last time I agreed with Mr. Hitchens, who passed away four years ago, was in 1998. Before Hitchens “found his purpose” verbosely lusting for war with the Islamic world—think Bill Maher with a thesaurus—he was a merciless critic of those in power, regardless of political party. This included President Bill Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky affair was revealed in 1998, Hitchens was deeply frustrated with others on the Democratic party left who defended Clinton on the basis of standing up to what Alan Dershowitz has recently deemed “Sexual McCarthyism.” He was also angered by those on the radical left who said that Clinton’s lying about an affair was meaningless and that if the president were going to be impeached, it should be for “his real crimes.” In other words, impeach Clinton for the deadly sanctions leveled against the Iraqi people, or for his cold-hearted welfare policies, or for the unprecedented build-up of the prison-industrial complex under his watch.
Hitchens’s response to this was to say that Clinton’s perjury and these profoundly more serious issues were intertwined. Both spoke to how he believed that rules simply didn’t apply to him. Clinton’s libertine sex ilfe was also monstrously hypocritical, given how his welfare reform policies policed the sexual lives of poor women.
As the months wore on, Hitchens took his argument—in my view—to an indefensible place, a place that presaged his political future as someone who tied his skill with the written word to the needs of the American state. Hitchens voluntarily swore out an affidavit to inform on his friend and Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal for alleged plots to discredit Ms. Lewinsky. This earned Hitchens the nickname he carried in many circles until his death, ““Hitch the Snitch.”
This entire scenario echoes in the drama that surrounds the New England Patriots, Roger Goodell and their deflated balls. I am hearing many people I respect say that if we are going to roast Goodell and the National Football League, please have it be for his “real crimes” as opposed to this sideshow. In other words, the serial covering up of violence against women, the lack of regard for player safety, and his hostility towards the NFL Players Association should be what brings him down. Yes, it is difficult, if not absurd, to discuss “cheating” in a sport where every team is looking for an edge, many players take whatever pills will keep them either bulked up or upright for the opening kickoff, and the purpose of play is to mash the frontal lobe of your opponent into a fine paste. But among the Saturday Night Live sketches and snarky columns, there lurks something important about the culture of corruption and cronyism in this commissioner’s office, particularly in Goodell’s relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman was absolutely correct when he was asked earlier this week about whether the Patriots would be punished and he said, “Probably not. Not as long Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. He [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC Championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.”
This conflict of interest is very real. As GQ’s Gabriel Sherman wrote in a damning long read that dropped this week about Goodell, Kraft is apparently known among NFL execs as “the assistant commissioner.” Even this description is charitable. It’s less the relationship between an assistant and a commissioner as much as it is one between a hand and the bottom aperture of a puppet. Bob Kraft, in addition to being just a “friend of Goodell,” has been the great defender of nGoodell’s stunning $44 million salary. He was Goodell’s first defender during the release of information that showed that the NFL cared very little about domestic violence until tape went public of Ray Rice striking his wife Janay. He also, according to GQ, orchestrated Goodell’s disastrous defense of the NFL’s domestic violence policies, in conjunction with CBS network who was about to start airing its lucrative Thursday night NFL telecasts. Kraft ordered Goodell to speak to CBS and grant an interview to, in Kraft’s insistence “a woman,” who ended up being Norah O’Donnell. Goodell complied.
Drew Magary wrote, in analyzing the league’s deep concern with the optics of this, “[Y]ou can see that NFL higher-ups were far more concerned with LOOKING like they were handling domestic violence appropriately than actually doing so (cut to Eli Manning in a No More ad looking like you just told him that we’ve run out of cupcakes).
This relationship with Bob Kraft and the mere appearance of impropriety that marks how Goodell handles every issue that crosses his desk, tells its own story about why he must go. A reckless incompetence now defines everything he touches, whether it is his enforcing of the rules, the health and safety of players, or his dealings with the union. Instead of acting—like his predecessor Paul Tagliabue—as even the mildest of checks on the grasping of the bosses, he is their id unleashed. Instead of listening to players, Goodell is so comically distanced from the reality of his own ineptitude that he has become the sports version of Yertle the Turtle.
It is understandable why people do not care about the Patriots ball-maintenance or whether public officials lie about their sex lives. But we should care about people in power who hector us about our own morality as an exercise in spin. We should care about executives who punish workers by saying “ignorance is no excuse” while proudly being an ignoramus. If deflated balls are the small string that rips the sweater off of Roger Goodell, then we should grab it like we’re trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch, and hold on for dear life.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how it makes perfect sense why people care about the NFL’s latest scandal more than the SOTU
Around midnight, mere hours after Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where the most powerful person on earth put forth arguments on war, peace and the health of our economy, the number-one trending topic on Twitter was about deflated balls. Footballs, to be specific. Or most pointedly, the footballs used by the New England Patriots in their 45-7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s playoffs. Eleven of the twelve balls used in the game were missing some hot air, and the hot takes were flying about whether Patriots coach Bill Belichick had engaged in cheating (never!) or if New England’s victory should be seen as illegitimate.
The NFL, a league that has covered up instances of massive brain trauma; homophobic, racist bullying; and violence against women, is said according to ESPN to be “disappointed…angry…distraught.” Yes, if you really want to disturb the moral compass of the NFL leadership hierarchy, deflate their balls. Typical of this was a throwaway tweet by the ultimate NFL insider Adam Schefter, who said, “The NFL starts in controversy and ends in controversy.” I don’t think Schefter meant any harm with these words, but they speak volumes. The “controversy” that started the season of course was compelling evidence that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was continuing an ignominious NFL tradition of covering up violence against women. Knocking out your partner, deflating some balls… it’s all just another cart on the rumbling, stumbling and often bumbling NFL gravy train. It’s Roger’s world, a world where if you can get away with it, you do it, and by all means, you never do it on videotape.
But forget for a moment the hot takes about Belichick, his legacy, and how this event could dominate the next ten days as idle reporters in Glendale, Arizona, now have something to feed the 24/7 news cycle. Forget as well that the Patriots would have beaten the Colts last Sunday if they had played with a rubber chicken wrapped in silver duct tape. At least some of the collective outrage, not to mention interest, about this speaks to our profound cynicism about formally trusted institutions of power in this country, and our continued, shockingly unshakable, relative absence of cynicism about sports. After years of hearing about doping scandals, dirty players, hypocritical commissioners and games that seem to be staged only as background to sell the “war on terror brought to you by Budweiser”, people still want to believe that the play itself, if not pure, is still an honest endeavor in between the lines.
Contrast the faith people project onto sports with the utter absence of credulity we give politics. Why were people talking more about deflated balls than President Obama’s State of the Union address? I imagine it’s because unless you are someone who sees Beltway politics as a form of entertainment, or a DC insider consuming and analyzing every last optic, you would have to be Shirley Temple to feel like anything said by the president, no matter how artfully articulated, connects with your life. We were told the economy is booming, yet household income for the middle and working classes is still far below pre-2008 crisis levels because of stagnant wages. We were told that a tax on the 1 percent and free childcare was on the agenda, yet a hostile Congress makes those promises about as realistic as hoverboards for all. We were told that the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, yet the facts—and boots—on the ground tell a different story. We were told that it was time to come together and see both sides on questions of police violence, yet protesters were being targeted in Ferguson while the president was speaking.
Meanwhile, we saw the Patriots kick the snot out of the Colts and we saw the Seahawks have as wild a fourth-quarter comeback as I’ve ever seen to beat the Green Bay Packers. We want to believe that this—if nothing else—represents a tangible truth. Frightening as it is to consider, sports might be our last collective tether to a recognizable reality. If people feel like Bill Belichick has taken that away, it will affect his legacy and this sport, more than a thousand instances of Roger Goodell looking like he has the moral compass of a feral raccoon. It’s sad. It’s pathetic. But it’s also understandable. We can only work with the world we’re given, and it’s a place where the trust in institutions of power is more deflated that any damn balls.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on what the secret friendship of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali teaches us today
[This is dedicated to Mark Marqusee, who taught me the history below, and Jasiri X, who inspired me to write it.]
Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been dominating my thoughts recently, and not only because their birthdays just passed, a mere two days apart. Ali was admitted to the hospital on Thursday for being in a “non-responsive state”. This was happening as news that Selma, the film about Dr. King’s 1965 civil rights campaign was being both snubbed at the Oscars and hammmered by President Lyndon Johnson’s old apparatchiks, aghast that the film did not give LBJ what they believed was his proper due as a civil-rights hero. The national fear that these could have been Ali’s last days, as well as the concern that LBJ wasn’t getting enough of Dr. King’s reflected glory, could cause your brain to short-circuit if you were familiar with the actuality of their history, not to mention their private friendship during the 1960s.
On the face of it, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King would have had no reason for either friendship or common cause. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization staunchly opposed to King’s integrationist worldview. The NOI was withering in its assessment of King, most famously with Malcolm X’s contention that King in 1963 had led not a March but a “Farce on Washington.” King, in response wrote that he believed the Nation of Islam was “made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible devil.” He said we needed a movement based in love and not “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” As for Muhammad Ali, he mocked King’s integrationist ideal in 1964 saying, “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.” King’s ally Roy Wilkins responded by saying that “Cassius Clay [Ali’s name at birth] may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils.”
And yet, as the 1960s moved forward, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King formed a common bond forged through the common hatred showered upon them and their loved ones. As John Carlos, famed 1968 Olympian and protester, once said to me, “If there was an Olympic sport for number of death threats received back then, King and Ali would be fighting for the gold.” I have seen some of these death threats, and they are terrifying in a way that Twitter threats, awful as they are, simply are not. They are written often with a rational hand and comprise thousands of words, with knowledge of their targets’ movements, and solemn promises of when their lives or the lives of their children would end.
As the 1960s propelled forward, both men were part of a common black freedom struggle that was blurring the lines between “nationalism” vs. “integrationism” taking on not only the legal barriers to integration set forth by Jim Crow but the intractable racism of the North. We know of their friendship only because of those invaluable stenographers at the FBI. Here is one FBI wiretap summary with Martin Luther King Jr. in which Muhammad Ali is referred to derisively as “C”, for Cassius Clay.
“MLK spoke to C, they exchanged greetings. C invited MLK to be his guest at the next championship fight. MLK said he would like to attend. C said he is keeping up with MLK and MLK is his brother and he’s with him 100 percent but can’t take any chances, and that MLK should take care of himself and should 'watch out for them whities.’"
(Interestingly, we know of these wiretaps only because of the March 8, 1971 break-in of activists into an FBI office. They chose March 8 because it was the night of first Frazier-Ali and they knew the guards would be distracted with the rest of the country.)
Ali and Dr. King saw their connection become unbreakable in 1967 when King made the courageous decision, against the wishes of his advisers, to take a stand against President Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. By this time, Ali had already become the most visible draft resister in the country, standing strong despite the stripping of his heavyweight title and the threat of a five-year prison sentence in Leavenworth.
The press was hounding King about why he wasn’t just focusing on the “domestic issue” of civil rights, and King took that moment to draw upon thoughts of his private friend and said, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression.”
The two men also appeared together at a fair-housing rally in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. There, Ali said, “In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you. I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent while my own people, many I grew up with, many I went too school with, many my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom, and justice and equality in housing.” Ali was now a protester. Dr. King was now an internationalist. The boxer and the preacher had come together as one.
It took a bullet on April 4, 1968, to end this fellowship between Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. For both men, it required losing the power of speech, whether in death or as a result of Parkinson’s disease, to be embraced by the country as a whole. At a time when a new movement is finding its feet to stand against police violence and stand for the deceptively simple request for people to see that #BlackLivesMatter, we would do well to remember the hatred endured by both these men in the name of delivering truth. At a time when this movement is attempting to forge connections with oppressed people across the globe, from Ferguson to Gaza, and trying to figure out how to deal with a frustrating president in the Oval Office as well as a class of civil-rights leaders reluctant to give up the microphone, it is worth remembering how much hate King and Ali proudly invited upon themselves. Their only moral compass was one that pointed toward standing with the powerless against the powerful. That was the basis of their friendship. That should be basis of our own solidarity as we move forward today.
Read Next: Shireen Ahmed and Dave Zirin on the significance of the Palestinian national soccer team's qualification for the Asian Cup
At a moment when world leaders and cable television blowhards are braying for collective punishment of Arabs and Muslims, the Gaza Strip this week is a scene of collective joy. This is because the Palestinian national soccer team took to historic Newcastle Field in Australia to play in the Asian Cup, the first major international tournament for which they have qualified in their eighty-six-year existence. As soccer writer James Montague put it, “For Palestine—a team recognized by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, since 1998 but not yet as a fully fledged country by the United Nations—their appearance meant more than any progress on the pitch.… Palestinians, for once, will begin as equals to those around it.”
To call this a Cinderella story would only make sense if we choose to make the story of Cinderella profoundly more harrowing than even the most fevered visions of the Brothers Grimm or Steven Sondheim. And no one in this tale would confuse Sepp Blatter with any kind of fairy godmother.
Palestinian Football has fought an indescribable battle in order to even compete on an international stage. They live under occupation, have had their training facilities destroyed, have coped with the detention of players, the deaths of teammates and the inability to move freely through Israeli militarized checkpoints in order to train and compete in matches. This has led to an international campaign featuring prominent footballers calling for FIFA to expel Israel from its fold or at least prevent them from hosting FIFA-sanctioned tournaments. They have also had to shoulder the burden of having coaches, mentors and potential players killed amidst the ongoing Gaza war and blockade. This is why the Palestinian football team is lovingly known as “Al-Fedayi,” which means “one who sacrifices life for the sake of the homeland,” and “the Strivers” in English. Striving and sacrifice have both been necessary components toward making this appearance in the Asian Cup a reality.
We spoke with Sanaa Qureshi from Football Beyond Borders, an organization that took a team from London to play in Palestine in 2011. They were able to experience the conditions for themselves.
“Palestine’s qualification for the Asia cup marks a huge achievement for a country under brutal occupation, with a diaspora unable to return home.” Quereshi said. “Remarkably, the team is a perfect microcosm of the Palestinian struggle, made up of players from the West Bank, Gaza and of Palestinian heritage from all over the world. Overcoming obstacles that have included being denied visas and routine detention at borders, this is a team not only playing for their country but for recognition of their existence and the continued resistance of the Palestinian people.”
All the joys from sports are short-lived in Gaza. Even the joy, and mass celebrations that erupted following their shocking May 2014 1-0 victory over the Philippines, which secured them entry into the Asian Cup. In June, just months after this remarkable moment, Israeli Defense Forces began a series of attacks on Gaza, killing according to the United Nations, more than 2,000 people, with 1,500 of them classified by the UN as civilians and 500 of them children. (Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians were killed in the conflict.)
On July 16, 2014, four young boys, from the Bakr family in Gaza, were killed as they played football in the sand. Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr and Ismael Mohamed Bakr were on the beach and killed by shells from an Israeli naval gunboat. For months, the most prominent aspect of football in Palestine in the eyes of the world was the harrowing image created by artist Amir Schiby in honor of the four Bakr boys.
There were questions about whether the bombardment of Gaza and the travel blockade that followed would prevent Palestine from making the trip to Australia to even field a team for the Asian Cup. The Strivers eventually did secure their travel permits, but had to hold their trainings far from home, in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Then, a few months before the tournament, their coach, Jamal Mahmoud, quit due to what were described as “personal reasons.” Assistant coach Saeb Jendeya immediately stepped in until the current coach, Ahmad Al Hassan, was appointed. The preamble to the Asian Cup wasn’t so much an exercise in training as a Job-like demonstration of spiritual and emotional endurance.
It was all worth it on Monday, when the squad walked onto the pitch in Newcastle, and heard the eruption of the crowd. There were the rhythmic beatings of drums, flag-waving, chanting and singing; activities that were echoed miles away in Gaza City. The result of the match was dismal, albeit expected, as Japan (Samurai Blue), the defending Asian Champions trounced Palestine 4-0. But this is one of those rare moments in sports when the score doesn’t necessarily tell us who won and who lost.
As the website Football Palestine said, “Palestine fans should be proud. They created a party-like atmosphere in Newcastle and in a tournament bereft of the vociferous support you might see at other major international finals. Down 1-0 they didn’t stop nor at 2-0, 3-0, 4-0. All the way to the final whistle, this may be the start of something truly special.”
Palestine deserves to relish this moment. The objective is not only victory but to shine a spotlight on the abilities and resilience of Palestinian athletes. As star player Ashraf Nu’man Al-Fawaghra explained during an interview with FIFA.com: “Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us. We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop. Furthermore, we want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.”
On Friday, Palestine plays Jordan in Melbourne. Jordan placed sixth in the previous Asian Cup and is ranked ninety-third in the world by FIFA, compared to Palestine’s 115. A victory is possible, and it would constitute a culmination of one of the great underdog stories in the history of international soccer. But this is no Cinderella story. This is a tale of hard work and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. It might not be a fairy tale, but it has created its own kind of magic.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the death of the irreplaceable Mike Marqusee
Radical journalist Mike Marqusee, the greatest professional influence on my life, has died, and I’m wrecked about it. Losing Mike is like losing several pints of blood. I’m left dizzy by the prospect of his absence. On the most basic level, there is my own sense of debt. I’m a sportswriter because Mike Marqusee made me one. I divide my life not “before and after I had kids” or “before and after I moved out of my mom’s house in New York City” but “before and after I read Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali And the Spirit of the Sixties” in 1998.
Not only did Redemption Song rediscover quotes, speeches and dimensions of Ali’s politics and personality that had long been buried, but it revealed to me that sports writing could be something different and even something dangerous. Until this time, I was a young political activist and a die-hard sports fan with those obsessions in decisively separate worlds. The political sports writing I had read was dense and sleep-inducing. The exciting sports writing I consumed was like junk food, leaving me hungry and a little nauseous after gobbling it up. Redemption Song was revelatory. Here was sports writing that would make your adrenalin rush with every Ali jab in the ring as well as every Ali political riff, all brought together with Mike Marqusee’s rambunctious and deftly humorous prose.
When I started writing about sports, my task was how to do it without ripping off Mike Marqusee, either in style or substance. I often failed. As a newly minted, self-proclaimed sports journalist, I often felt like I was in a fog of writer’s block. Asking me to forgo shameless borrowing from Marqusee was like asking me to give up my compass. This desire to mimic his style only mushroomed as I started reading his other books, brilliant analysis of subjects—unlike Ali—I had no interest in previously. Mike Marqusee had me consuming stories of cricket and Bob Dylan like they were tales of the 1998 Chicago Bulls.
Then I was able to meet Mike Marqusee. He was traveling from his home in London to give a talk about his Bob Dylan book Wicked Messenger. I was terrified to meet him. Getting to know your idols can be a painfully disillusioning experience. I was also nervous because I thought he might say, “Hey, you’re the guy who keeps ripping me off!” Neither was the case. Mike was about as kind, generous, and as principled a person you could ever hope to meet.
Mike Marqusee was born in the United States but lived his adult life across the pond. I asked him, other than his love of cricket, how that marked his writing. “I think it’s meant that I have no qualms about loving sports and no qualms about being a proud socialist,” he said. “I get all of the joy without the baggage.” Mike wore his politics and his love of play proudly and both were beacons for those looking for some wisdom, direction or just a kind word. He also never kept his politics at the “armchair” level but took it to the streets and the organizing meetings where his goal was always figuring out how to make a contribution to building a fighting left that was possessed by the flair and imagination that marked his writing. But Mike also listened, and not just in the realm of politics. He cared deeply—even when he was very sick—about how I was doing, during times when no one would have ever blamed him for thinking about himself. I will always believe that there is no dignity in death, but Mike came damn close to making me reassess that. Even when in great pain from his cancer, Mike was a radical voice, rejecting, as he wrote in The Guardian, “the stress on cancer patients’ ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ [which] implies that if you can’t ‘conquer’ your cancer, there’s something wrong with you, some weakness or flaw.” From his bed, he thundered, “What we need is not a war on cancer but a recognition that cancer is a social and environmental issue, requiring profound social and environmental changes.”
In 2008, Mike Marqusee penned his most challenging, brilliant and controversial book, If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. The audacity of even taking on this topic speaks volumes. The sensitivity with which Mike weaves stories from his own family to argue that being a principled Jew means standing up to Israel still awes me. Mike, this expert on Ali, Dylan and cricket, wanted to put his own life at the service of the idea that being Jewish did not mean being a supporter of the state of Israel and that in fact being Jewish meant a particular responsibility to call out its hypocrisy. Over the weekend, as I learned that Mike was in his last hours, the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo killings were in the news. Benjamin Netanyahu arrived uninvited to a Paris synagogue and said to the Jews of Paris, “There is one country which is their historic home, a state which will always accept them with open arms.” This statement speaks to the worst traditions of Israel: exploiting the spilling of Jewish blood to call for ending the journey toward a multicultural society and instead collectively retreat to the Middle East. In this packed synagogue, the response to Netanyahu’s call for French Jews to abandon their country, was—in Bibi’s face—the loud and proud singing of “La Marseillaise.” Even though I knew he was ailing and in his last hours, I could have sworn I saw Mike Marqusee agitating in the back, raising his arms for more people to join in song, like a modern twist on Rick in Casablanca. But unlike Rick, Mike Marqusee stuck out his neck for everyone. Rest in Power, Mike. You have earned the rest, but we will need your power to move forward in your absence.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on naked emperors and college football’s championship
You really couldn’t have a more appropriate starting quarterback in the first college football championship game than Ohio State’s Cardale Jones. For a “playoff system” that critics say is a lucrative money-grab serving to extend the season, pull players away from even the pretense of going to class and further establish Division I colleges as football factories, Jones is perfect. The third-string quarterback with a tight end’s build and rocket arm, made news in 2012 when he tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” For his trouble, Jones had to deactivate his twitter account and was benched by his $4.5 million-per-year coach Urban Meyer the following week with what the Toledo Blade described as “DNP-tweet.” But his words were just a casual observation that the emperor happened to be naked.
It’s not just about the ways the players are getting cheated out of a check. At this point, if you can’t see that having unpaid student athletes undertake a grueling five-month travel schedule, score top TV ratings and support an infrastructure of multimillionaire coaches and media members is just a tad unjust, then you’re choosing not to see it. But less discussed is also the way running a football factory skews reality across the campus. Administrators—with dreams of massive alumni gifts, sparkling new stadiums and fully stocked luxury boxes on the brain—treat students like going thousands of dollars into debt for an education is a small price to pay to go to a school with a rockin’ football team.
A professor at Ohio State forwarded me an e-mail sent to all faculty from school provost Joseph Steinmetz that read, “As you know, next Monday Ohio State will face the University of Oregon in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship. This is an exciting moment in the life of our university community—one that happens to coincide with the first day of spring semester. I want to remind you that on January 12, Ohio State will operate as it normally does. Absences by students choosing to attend the game are not excused absences. That said, I hope instructors will use their best judgment and take into account that this historic match-up falls on the same day as the first day of class.”
This happened as vice provost Wayne Carlson sent a public letter to students warning them to not miss classes for the game. The letter was leaked to the press and provoked the following misleading headline from USA Today, “Ohio State warns students skipping school for championship risk getting cut from class.” So the faculty gets one message, while for the purpose of public relations, another message goes public
According to the professor who sent me the e-mail, this is the only time we see messages about leniency for wayward students. He said, “Do administrators send campus letters when Black kids are gunned down, asking profs to be lenient to traumatized students? Or when sexual assault cases are reported? No. This is what they care about and what drives the university. It’s embarrassing and disturbing.”
In addition, The Columbus Dispatch reported this week that “Ohio State University spent about $372,000 to send university leaders, faculty, friends and student leaders” to their Sugar Bowl “semi-final” game last week. In addition to the team, the cheerleaders and the band, the school sent a sixty-nine-member “official party” and another fifty-five people, all who travelled on the school’s dime. While the school is sending its people around the country to cheer the team, the school has seen fee-hikes for out-of-state students, while enacting cuts in the arts and humanities budget. (Oregon is not immune to any of this, having spent just under $250,000 over the last two games sending fifty “UO administrators, recruiters, fundraisers and some spouses and partners” to the championship game.)
A member of the campus community said to me, “I want the Buckeyes to kick Oregon’s ass because I’m a sports fan. I love this team so much and have loved seeing them come into their own. But watching this game for me means shutting out the reality that makes the world of big time college football what it is.”
This is what he calls “the paradox of the thinking college sports fan.” Success only encourages the school to further devalue education and assume that the glory of football will provide financial windfalls that will make everyone believe that the ends justified the means, and it’s difficult to think of a worse lesson that could be taught. Once again, this is not an Ohio State issue. Their rival Michigan just dropped a record $48 million to secure the services of new football coach Jim Harbaugh. This was done the same week that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a law banning college athletic unions. At Oregon, Nike CEO Phil Knight has poured an estimated $300 million into the athletic department while the rest of the campus has buckled under budget cuts and furloughs. In addition, Knight gets to further brand Oregon as “Nike University” while receiving massive tax breaks for this “philanthropy.” This is less philanthropy than money laundering through sports and using the shield of amateurism to score both tax breaks and swoosh enhancement. Then, with every win by the Ducks, the Phil Knight approach, with the courting of their own Phil Knights by administrators, becomes the law of the land.
Increasingly, this system has been identified as corrupt, hypocritical and in need of change. But in the face of union drives, lawsuits and a barrage of criticism, a group of powerful people are fighting like hell to save the sclerotic mutation of a golden goose that is amateur athletics. College sports could be openly professionalized, regulated and made fair, but there’s no money in fairness. In the end, the relationship between big-time sports, universities, the media and the public is about as cozy, corrupt and cringe-inducing as a Jerry Jones/Chris Christie hug. Cardale Jones was right in 2012. But now everyone, from administrators on down, is “playing school” for the benefit of big-time football. But as Jones learned, in the real world just saying the emperor is naked doesn’t make people recoil in horror. Often they just turn up the volume on what an attractive nude trendsetter he’s become, even if it means structuring your professional life, not to mention your personal dignity, around kissing the emperor’s pasty, powdered ass.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Boston should say ‘‘hell no” to the Olympic Games