Where sports and politics collide.
When Metro Transit Authority police officers were looking for a surveillance spot to film #BlackLivesMatter protesters in Grand Central Terminal, they chose a particularly juicy location: the balcony level overlook provided by the high-end restaurant chain known as Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. Oh me, oh my, where to begin…
This past season in the NBA has seen an unprecedented level of political expression by players, prodded and provoked to speak out and align themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police violence. The reason players from LeBron and Derrick Rose to David West and Nik Stauskas went public with their solidarity was because a mass in the streets—and on social media—was both loud and powerful enough to enter their rarified air.
Michael Jordan, the greatest NBA player to ever breathe and current owner of the Charlotte Hornets, decided, unsurprisingly, to not be a part of this. Jordan has long been a symbol of the apolitical star athlete more concerned about his branding and commercial appeal than social statements. In the wake of the on-court protests, many observers have noted that the Jordan Way was starting to appear to be as passé as butt-hugging shorts, with this generation of social media–savvy, socially aware jocks creating a new template. That’s why the use of a restaurant that bears the Jordan name to monitor protesters is more than a bad look. It projects the idea that His Airness is not only disinterested when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter, he’s actually on the other side. One e-mail I received about this, from the group Shut It Down NYC, reads in part, “With the light cast on Michael Jordan’s implicit support of state intimidation of Black Lives Matter protesters, we hope that he will stop his cooperation. Otherwise we will just stop buying his products.”
There is also a change.org petition up asking Jordan to “stop cooperating with surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters.”
Is this a fair assessment of the situation, or more a case of “If the Jordan Dub Zero fits”? My Nation colleague James Kelly and I have been trying… and trying to find out whether the use by police of the Grand Central restaurant that bears his name was something that would require Jordan’s approval. In other words, how complicit is Jordan in this process? What we learned is in many ways almost as disturbing than the notion that Michael Jordan wants his steakhouses to be a strategic masthead against the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Let’s start with Grand Central Station itself. I grew up in New York City and always assumed it was public, City-owned space. It is actually owned by a private real estate concern called Argent Ventures. The MTA pays in excess of $2 million annually to run trains through the facility. As for the Michael Jordan Steakhouse, it operates as a high-end franchise, with the one on the north balcony of Grand Central owned by the Glazier Group, namely Penny and Peter Glazier. According to The New York Times, the financial arrangement between Michael Jordan and the Glaziers is not for public consumption.
We spoke to Penny Glazier about whether police need any kind of permission from a private restaurant to conduct this kind of surveillance. Ms. Glazier said, “The building is owned by New York State. We’re just tenants and we have to abide by their rules.” As mentioned earlier, this is not the case, as “the building” is owned by Argent Ventures. We also received a callback from their son Matthew Glazier, who described himself as the “general counsel” for the group. He told James Kelly, “We don’t comment on that type of stuff…. ask the MTA, it’s public knowledge.” He also said, “If the MTA comes in and says anything, we’re going to respect what they say.”
Matthew Glazier also did not confirm what was widely witnessed, that the MTA was in his restaurant on February 9, but maintained, “If they say they’re coming in, they’re coming in.”
What is bizarre is that we spoke to an MTA officer who also said that Grand Central Station is owned by the City. He told us that permits are required for approval by station managers to conduct surveillance. In addition, here is video from February 9 of an independent Internet reporter trying to ask an MTA officer why demonstrators are being filmed and getting this response: “You don’t have a right to know anything.” (This statement is a little different from Glazier’s assumption that “it’s public knowledge.” Maybe “You Don’t Have A Right To Know Anything” should just be emblazoned on police cars, the new “To Protect and Serve.”)
I don’t believe that Michael Jordan, the human being, gave any kind of OK to the MTA or the NYPD to use the steakhouse that bears his name for surveillance purposes. I don’t even think the Glaziers gave any kind of explicit permission to the police, because it is highly doubtful that they were asked. The police in the New York City of 2015 go where they want to go. But I do know that Michael Jordan should care about what happens under his name. If Jordan put out a statement that he does not want police using his restaurants as surveillance hotspots for Black Lives Matter protests, I bet they would be looking for a new location mighty quick. It is not just that it’s a “bad look.” To allow the Michael Jordan Steakhouse to be Surveillance HQ is a slap in the face to every NBA player that risked their brand appeal, commercial viability and incurring the wrath of their fans by standing with this movement. Jordan was never the best of teammates. But perhaps as an owner he should care whether the new generation of players wonders whether he believes that their lives matter.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the significance of NBA star Steph Curry’s dedication to a victim of the Chapel Hill murders
— Golden St. Warriors (@warriors) February 15, 2015
“I’m going to send them the shoes I wore yesterday. And hopefully they know that I’ve been thinking about them.” —Steph Curry
It can seem like such a small thing, but in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry made the most important statement of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. As the smooth-shooting Curry proceeded to win Saturday’s heavily branded, hyper-commercialized Three-Point Contest in dynamic fashion, he chose to do so while having #CurryFORDEAH and #RIPDEAH written on his shoes. Both were in reference to Deah Barakat, the young dental student murdered along with his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. All three were beautiful people who took part in numerous community charities and activities. Deah was someone who traveled to the Middle East to do free dental work for 200 Palestinian refugee children in 2013. He was also a hoops fanatic, who would wear jerseys with Curry’s number 30 on them and described himself on social media as an “aspiring Splash Brother,” a reference to Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson.
For Curry to even know that there was this extraordinary person who admired his play and lost his life happened because of the efforts of those trying to make sure that Deah, Yusor and Razan are not forgotten. The killings, which one can believe was either an anti-Islamic hate crime or “a parking dispute,” have sparked widespread mourning and outrage. Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s All In, said, “It feels to me, as someone observing this admittedly from the outside, like a galvanizing moment for Muslim Americans—a Trayvon Martin moment, a Michael Brown moment—for Muslim America.” Their funeral drew thousands. Demonstrations against anti-Islamic bigotry have taken place in several US cities. Vigils have been organized as well, one of which I attended in DC, where freezing evening weather did not stop hundreds from gathering. Their killings also sparked the much debated but very effective Twitter hashtag #muslimlivesmatter, which played a critical role in pushing the story from being largely unreported in the mainstream media to the subject of widespread discussion. All of this—the demonstrations, the hashtags, the vigils—has been an effort to fight the invisibility of actual real life Arabs and Muslims in the United States, beyond scapegoating and beyond the Fox News/Bill Maher caricatures.
And then there is Steph Curry, a leading candidate for NBA MVP as well as a leading candidate to be the new face of the league, saying after the Three-Point Shootout, “Once I got to know who Deah was as a person and the stories that everybody was telling about him, it only seemed right to honor him and his family and let them know people were thinking about them, they’re not alone and hopefully to give them some kind of peace and comfort. He was a special guy. I just did my little part to shed that light toward him.”
This matters. I spoke to Ramah Kudaimi who has been active organizing remembrances in DC. She is also a serious sports fan. Ramah said to me, "In the past few days the media has gone from ignoring the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan to trying to pass it off as a parking dispute issue in an attempt to not discuss anti-Muslim bigotry in this country due in part to US policies like the war on terror. Steph bringing attention to these three wonderful people and their families sends a message that everyone should know what happened and their story needs to be told. It was a beautiful gesture and hopefully will bring some solace to their families knowing people do care about the lives of their children.”
Deah’s family has said that the 23-year-old loved “basketball and anything Stephen Curry.” For one night, basketball and Steph Curry loved him back. As Curry said, “Even though we never met, I think it will hopefully mean a lot to his family and friends that knew what kind of a basketball fan he was to have some kind of peace knowing that people are thinking about him and they’re not alone.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the real scandal surrounding Jackie Robinson West
The fact that United States Little League baseball champs Jackie Robinson West have been stripped of their 2014 title, for using “players who live outside the geographic area that the team represents” is a slap in the face to everyone trying to keep baseball, a sense of community and even public education alive in the cities of the United States. This would read like scabrous satire from the pen of a writer whose DNA was part Runyon and part Baldwin if not for the fact that there are very real children being victimized by this decision in the city of Chicago.
But before we dissect just what exactly is so pugnaciously ignorant about the actions of Little League Inc., a brief request for sportscasters like ESPN’s Karl Ravech to refrain from further comment. This morning, Ravech tweeted, “Beyond unfortunate that few in JRW Little League deemed winning at all costs outweighed fair play. Kids caught in middle of childish adults.”
ESPN both through game broadcasts and breathless SportsCenter coverage of the Little League World Series has made the conscious choice to be a cog in the professionalization of youth sports. They are obviously not alone in this, but anyone who monetizes the amateur experiences of children and then gets moralistic about those breaking the rules needs at bare minimum to choose silence as this story unfolds. These are kids, and the intensity that surrounds this story is partially a function of ESPN’s choice to cover Jackie Robinson West like they were the 1998 Yankees. It would be a better look for Ravech and company to either not comment or own their complicity.
As for the decision itself, ironies abound. Jackie Robinson West was the first entirely black team to represent the United States in the Little League World Series. And yes, waiting until Black History Month to strip JRW of their title is at best tin-eared. But that insult shouldn’t blind us to the greater injury. Recall their damnable offense: Jackie Robinson West didn’t use 16-year-old ringers or cork their bats. They had players suit up who lived “beyond their geographical boundary.” The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids. A plurality of Major Leaguers is made up of people from either the US suburbs or the baseball factories of the Dominican Republic. Many of the few African-American players on Major League rosters actually come from the suburbs. This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate. That’s what made JRW such a profound anomaly. In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.
I reached out to Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey who said to me, “Mayor Rahm closed half a dozen schools in Jackie Robinson West’s part of the city, and tried to close the school, Marcus Garvey, where the founder of JRW—Joe Haley—worked. Then Chicago Public Schools cut funding for high school freshman sports, laid off a thousand teachers. CPS put forty kids in physical education classes and doesn’t even put a librarian in most of the school libraries in [the South Side district of] Auburn Gresham.”
As for the Little League seizing JRW’s championship, Sharkey said he stands with the statement of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who said, in part:
To strip Jackie Robinson West of its title nearly six months after securing the win tarnishes the efforts of our children who have dodged bullets, school closings and reductions in their school athletic programs in order to compete and win on the playing field…. I remain proud of our students securing their place in history as the first all-African-American Little League team to win the coveted Little League national championship. It is not lost on my community that they are named for a sports and civil rights icon that also had to break down barriers of racial hatred, segregation and the 1 percent’s total disregard for his right to exist as a human being. Jackie Robinson West should retain its title, be issued an apology, and every player should receive full-ride scholarships for college sponsored by the people who have humiliated these boys, their families and their community.
Jackie Robinson himself once commented, “I won’t ‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.” Little League Inc. is attempting to separate the children in Jackie Robinson West not only from their title but from their dignity. It is beneath contempt. It is also beyond their power. At a press conference held Wednesday, JRW player Brandon Green said, “We weren’t involved in anything that could have caused us to be stripped of our championship, But we do know that we’re champions, our parents know that we’re champions, and the team’s parents know that we’re champions, and Chicago knows we’re champions.” Damn right.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the return of Serena Williams to the Indian Wells Tournament
Dean Smith, perhaps the most visible white anti-racist of the last half-century, died on Sunday at the age of 83. He also of course coached a little bit of basketball. In legendary fashion, Coach Smith led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for thirty-six seasons, and retired with the most wins in college hoops history. His players spanned multiple eras, from Billy Cunningham to Michael Jordan to James Worthy to Vince Carter. They also all swore by him, loyal to the last. Jordan, by consensus the greatest player of all time, said in a statement released on his passing, “He was more than a coach—he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”
When Coach Smith is remembered this week, we will see tributes to both his basketball acumen as well as his words and deeds against the Jim Crow laws that plagued North Carolina at the start of his career. This included his recruitment of Charlie Scott, the first black player to suit up for Tar Heels. Coach Smith endured threats to his job as well as his life and was undeterred.
But these are in many respects easy and palatable things to celebrate. After all, even Rand Paul realizes that opposing the Civil Rights Act is political suicide. It is worth remembering however, the parts of Dean Smith’s politics that were daring then and remain controversial today. As Jay Bilas—A Duke grad—said on ESPN, “Dean knew what was right and stood up for what was right no matter what the cost was professionally or personally.”
There is no issue where this rings truer than that of the death penalty. Current approval of the death penalty in the US is at its lowest level in forty years, but is still favored by 63 percent of the population. Dean Smith opposed capital punishment publicly his entire life, even when support for it nationally was over 80 percent and even in a state where the death penalty was a matter of bipartisan consensus. Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition to capital punishment, but he had to go beyond the realm of the religious to explain his opposition in North Carolina, where pro–death row politicians have never been shy about using the Bible as justification for the noose. Therefore, Dean Smith also spoke about the racism that infests death row cases. He spoke about his fears that the innocent could be killed. He spoke about the system of capital punishment being, in his words, “barbaric.” As he once said, “If it’s a deterrent, as some people say, why don’t they hold the execution in a shopping mall so everyone can attend?”
He also never hesitated speaking truth to power. This was never clearer than in 2003 when Coach Smith was part of a delegation visiting North Carolina’s governor Jim Hunt, pleading for the life of a mentally ill death row prisoner named John Noland. Smith had met Noland on one of his trips to “the row.” As reported by Bonnie DeSimone of the Chicago Tribune, Smith erupted at Hunt, saying, “You’re a murderer!” He then stuck out his finger at Hunt’s apparatchiks saying, “And you’re a murderer—and I’m a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers.”
Remarkably, this received very little publicity at the time, and one can’t help but wonder how social media would have dissected this man. Coach Smith did not only oppose the death penalty. He stood up to the war in Vietnam, opposed nuclear weapon proliferation and supported LGBT rights. Perhaps most controversially, he did not merely do this on his own time but engaged his players in dialogue and debate. He even took them to North Carolina’s death row and the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana to actually interact with prisoners. He had a moral calling to leverage his legend to make change. It’s long been rumored that Dean Smith advised Michael Jordan and his family to not seek the death penalty against the two men who murdered Jordan’s father in 1993. Smith denied this, but the Jordan family did not in fact seek lethal injection for the killers and the currency of the story speaks volumes.
I contacted Reverend William Barber II, organizer of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina to ask about what it meant to have Dean Smith as a recognized abolitionist. He said,
“Dean Smith was clear in his opposition to the death penalty. He knew death did not solve death and that the sentencing was racially biased. He knew that like a fixed game the results were unfair. Right now in North Carolina, we have had over seven individuals, mostly black, in recent years exonerated from death row declared wrongfully charged and convicted who would have been executed. This is more than any other state in the country. Based on this reality we can surmise that through the death penalty and the faults of racial and class bias we have probably killed innocent black and poor white persons in our state. We should have and still need to listen to Coach Smith’s vocal opposition and abandon the death penalty.”
His legacy of fighting for the school’s African American Studies department and caring about the exploitation of college athletes also stands in sharp contrast to the current state of the Tar Heels basketball program. As UNC Professor Altha Cravey, a member of the school’s Progressive Faculty Network said to me, “Dean Smith taught courage, fairness and leadership. As I learn more about the way he lived his life—confronting white supremacy, opposing imperialist war— understand more what we have lost. It is ironic to note that the university’s so-called leaders—the ones celebrating his life today—have been engaged in five years of stonewalling, whitewashing and cover-up about misdeeds in UNC’s basketball program, the very program in which Dean Smith demonstrated that doing the right thing is always more important than winning or looking good.”
The state of UNC basketball and its grade-fixing scandals are, of course, not just a UNC problem but reflect the far deeper rot in the NCAA’s system of for-profit amateurism. It is difficult to think about Dean Smith and not feel like today’s mercenary, multi-millionaire coaches suffer dramatically in comparison. There was only one Dean Smith, but it would be the best possible tribute to his memory if more coaches—and more people—made the effort to emulate his character.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the return of Serena Williams to the Indian Wells Tournament
“Serena and her big sister Venus brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background.’… Serena and Venus win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been booed and cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.”—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Tennis icon Serena Williams and her older sister Venus have spent their careers not only surviving but thriving in a hostile space: a white background that often threatened to swallow them whole. As Serena’s individual legend flourished, so did her antagonists in the aristocratic, imperious world of professional tennis. Biased judges, grotesque mockeries and other indignities (“crip walk”?) pock her career. While accumulating scars and enduring the burden imposed by the “white background,” the girl known for years as “Venus’s little sister” has also— remarkably—made herself into perhaps the greatest player to ever pick up a racket. The numbers speak for themselves: nineteen Grand Slam wins, fifty-six singles titles, along with twenty-two doubles championships, and all done with wicked flair in dazzling technicolor.
Now Serena Williams, for all she has accomplished, is attempting to enter a club even more restricted than those that host certain events on the WTA tour. It is reserved for the few defined by history as being “more than just an athlete.” Ms. Williams has announced both in a video message and the pages of Time magazine that she will be returning to play at the Indian Wells Tournament after a fourteen-year absence. Serena and Venus have famously boycotted Indian Wells since 2001 when “racist slurs” and “false allegations” of match fixing were levied against the Williams family. As she recounted in Time, their father, Richard, had “dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”
Serena Williams’ has decided, after years of apologies and invitations from the new directors at Indian Wells, to “forgive freely,” “follow [her] heart” and return to place she describes as “nightmare,” a place where at the age of 19 she spent “hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001…feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.”
In an effort to grasp the momentousness of all of this, I asked Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson for his thoughts. He said:
“Serena’s decision to return to Indian Wells suggests the majestic arc of forgiveness in black life that has helped to redeem America. Without such forgiveness, America may have well flowed in the blood of recrimination and revenge. Instead black folk have consistently proved to be moral pillars of American conscience, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sybrina Fulton, black athletes in particular have carried the water of grievance for black life, sometimes against their wills, and have represented the heartbeat of black resistance to racism. Serena’s—and her family’s—painful experiences at Indian Wells was a low moment in American sports history. She was right to remain visibly absent. She let her lack of presence do the speaking—a protest of strategic absence. Her decision to return is equally effective. She has decided that Indian Wells will no longer be an individual sore spot, and therefore no longer a collective one for her or her fans or the black Americans who love and support her. As the most dominant athlete of her generation, Serena carries huge symbolic capital. This gesture of principled forgiveness once again proves that black athletes at their best have been thermostats who changed the temperature of society rather than thermometers that merely recorded the temperature.”
What is particularly stunning about this return to Indian Wells is that Williams is not only writing a narrative of her own racial reconciliation but also linking it to a broader anti-racist struggle that touches millions of lives. She has announced that fans could enter a raffle for ten dollars, the winner getting to “stand with me at Indian Wells.” All raffle proceeds are going to the Equal Justice Initiative, which fights racism and class bias in the jails and courts by providing legal representation to those lost in the catacombs of the Prison Industrial Complex. This is an organization dedicated to ending our system of deeply racialized mass incarceration, and Serena Williams is leveraging the “white background,” that corporatized, country club world of pro tennis, to assist them in their fight.
I contacted Andrew Jones, a reporter at The Intercept and a freelance sportswriter who perhaps knows more about tennis than anyone under 30 in the United States. He e-mailed me about the joyous “shock” he felt upon learning that Serena was using this moment to promote the work of EJI. “No one expected her to do that,” he wrote. “No one. It was quite the rare sight seeing a notable figure, celebrity or celebrity athlete, highlight a criminal justice organization. That was so unexpected and it added even more awesomeness to her returning to Indian Wells. Her going back to the tournament was one thing. But her support for a criminal justice law firm located in the Deep Southern town of Montgomery, with its racist past and systematic racist present, was staggeringly tremendous.”
He is absolutely right. Sportswriter Jessica Luther put it this way: “Serena is literally using her return to the most racist incident in her career to raise money for an organization that actively works to dismantle the systemic racism that plagues the criminal justice system. Serena is inspiring. She’s inspiring on the court, no doubt. But she and her sister have inspired me for many, many years now. This is a good example of why.”
Jon Wertheim, editor and senior writer for Sports Illustrated said to me that he believes, “as trite as it sounds, it’s a proud day for tennis. All credit to Serena for having the strength to take a principled stand for all these years; and then the intellectual and emotional flexibility to soften and reverse that stance. I credit the tournament, too, for reaching out repeatedly and making it clear that—while respectful of Serena’s decision throughout the years—she would be welcomed back. I can’t imagine she receiving anything other than a warm reception next month.”
Wertheim is certainly correct that the people at Indian Wells, not to mention the Women’s Tennis Association, will breathe a sigh of relief over her return. At this point in her career, the WTA needs Serena Williams more than Serena Williams needs the WTA. As she wrote, “I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
The background to Serena Williams is still sharply white. But she is showcasing a power to sculpt that background into an alabaster marble platform. She is changing tennis, choosing to rewrite its future instead of being victimized by its past. Nineteen career Grand Slam wins, fifty-six singles championships, twenty-two doubles championships. And utterly fearless.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the conspiracy theory surrounding the Super Bowl Bowl’s final moments
I reported earlier this week that right after the Super Bowl, in a Seahawks locker room clearly in a state of profound distress, some were talking conspiracy. People connected to the team, shocked at the play call that led to an interception from the Patriots one-yard line with the game in their grasp, were saying that the reason why bruising running back Marshawn Lynch was not given the ball was because the coaching staff wanted the hero to be quarterback Russell Wilson. The NFL Network’s Mike Silver also reported that this was being articulated inside the locker room. Whether true or ridiculous, it was a belief rooted in the divisions in the Seahawks locker room that Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported on earlier this season, when the team was on the brink of imploding. After a couple days to cool down, I was in touch with my contact and asked him if he still believed that factors other than “What is the best football play for this moment?” played into coach Pete Carroll’s decision. All he said was, “I don’t even know if I believe that anymore. I don’t know what to believe. I just can’t believe it ended like that.”
After I reported on this earlier in the week and speculated upon exactly why these particular conspiratorial thoughts might find purchase in a shell-shocked locker room, I was on the receiving end of a great deal of social media ugliness. The hate rolled in from a combination of right-wingers egged on by the often disturbing fringe website The Daily Caller and sexual harasser -turned presidential candidate turned radio host Herman Cain. It has also come from New England Patriots fans who believed that I was somehow denigrating their moment of triumph.
Let’s forget about the hard-right faithful for the purposes of this article, because I don’t believe honestly that they actually read the piece. Their critique centered on the fact that I had conjured up some kind of racialized conspiracy theory, as opposed to actually reporting something that was being said in the locker room. They can have their strawman on their own time. (And at the risk of stating the obvious, I sure as hell have it worlds easier in this country than their usual targets).
But I actually do want to address Patriots Nation quite directly on this. Any Boston sports fan who remembers the 1980s has no excuse for thinking that a manager or coach would never choose sentiment over strategy or wouldn’t jeopardize a victory in the name of having a favored player get the glory over the person better suited to do the job.
The moment I’m referencing—the one that Bill Simmons called the greatest gut punch in the history of sports—was of course game six of the 1986 World Series when New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson hit the grounder that dribbled through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs.
Bill Buckner was a great player, a multiple All-Star whose twenty-year career ended with over 2,700 hits. In 1984 after a long stretch with the Chicago Cubs, he joined the Red Sox and quickly became the heart of that team. He was also playing on ankles that were being held together with balsa wood and duct tape. All season, Red Sox manager John McNamara brought in young Dave Stapleton as a late-inning defensive replacement for Buckner in tight games. But in game six, with the Red Sox up two runs in the tenth inning and the Mets seemingly without hope, Buckner was in the game. John McNamara got sentimental wanting his favored vet out there for the final out, and it cost the Red Sox the game and perhaps the World Series.
These kinds of decisions happen all the damn time in sports, but we rarely hear about them because it usually doesn’t end in catastrophe. More often, it’s more like Bears Coach Mike Ditka in Super Bowl XX ordering William Perry instead of the great Walter Payton to get a one-yard touchdown because of his personal preference. Examples abound of players on the field or the court when they shouldn’t be because the coach wants them to have their moment. Anybody who has played sports in high school or college—myself included—got playing time their senior year that they otherwise would not have received for the simple reason that, well, that we were seniors. Do we think that Pete Carroll, with the ball on the one-yard line, was immune to conscious or subconscious thoughts about who would get the team’s crowning moment? I don’t know. But I certainly do understand why some players and the Seahawks locker room were feeling that at their lowest moment.
What we do know is that Pete Carroll simply overthought the moment. He put Russell Wilson in a position to throw the first interception from the opposing teams one-yard line in the entire NFL season. It’s inexcusable, and he’ll have to carry that for the rest of his coaching career. But a great measure of credit should also go to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick for making what seemed to be the unpardonable decision not to call a time-out and save time for his star quarterback, Tom Brady, if the Seahawks scored. Belichick instead chose to let the clock run and to turn up the heat on Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson’s mental synapses. Guess what? It worked. It’s a reminder that players and coaches are not computers. There are sweaty palms, shivering minds and sentimental human error involved when the moment gets tight. And frankly, if there wasn’t, we wouldn’t watch. That’s what makes sports awesome, and that’s what can make them also at times so silly and so devastating. Just ask John McNamara and Bill Buckner. In the end, Pete Carroll overthought the moment. What those thoughts actually were will remain in the realm of speculation.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why it’s time for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to resign
Don't you hate it when a self-righteous pundit gets in front of a camera and says to someone in power, "Sir or Madam, if you have any decency, you would resign?"
Well, allow me to join their ranks. The person in power I'm addressing—the person I am asking to break out the want-ads and find new work, is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Dear Mr. Goodell:
It's me .... Dave.
After the scandal-plagued year that the league just suffered through, when everyone from Bob Costas to the folks in Vegas assumed you'd be fired, it would be better for all of us, if you just resign.
No amount of spin, no number of media sycophants rushing to your defense, no series of public service announcements featuring NFL players saying “NO MORE,” can hide a very simple fact: 55 times since you became commissioner in 2006, a player in "your" league was arrested for domestic violence, and 55 times you did next to nothing. If not for a certain leaked videotape, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice would have been number 56.
When you wipe away the lawyer-speak about whether you saw the tape or didn't see the tape or didn't not see the tape—the fact remains that you are now connected to dozens of cases where a woman or child was beaten by one of your employees. Not only have I seen you do next to nothing to curb this problem, you also have chosen to "say" next to nothing about the probable links between head injuries, the violence on the field, and the violence that can visit the families of NFL players.
Yes, the overwhelming number of players do not take part in violence against women and yes domestic violence exists in many families where head injuries are not an issue. But the connection is still real and the league has done nothing—zero—that I can find to educate NFL families on looking for the warning signs.
Yet you continue to praise your league—and really yourself—for making domestic violence "part of the national conversation." This is outrageous. Kind of like praising Goldman Sachs for making corporate greed part of the national conversation.
Maybe that's why Miko Grimes, the wife of Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, basically broke twitter last week with a too profane for tv rant against your league. Well I am going to read some of her tweets anyway.
Ms Grimes said, "The NFL is the BLEEPIEST, SHADIEST, DISRESPECTFUL professional sport in the WORLD and as long as i breathe air, I will talk bleep about em! You have these BULLBLEEP ass NOMORE campaigns going on about domestic violence and sexual assault when we all know u don’t GAF about women! I have friends that were beaten, thrown down stairs WHILE PREGNANT, guys arrested, & the NFL suspended them ONE BLEEPING GAME! Now yall care? Ray Rice clocked his now wife on camera. Then all of a sudden NOMORE? GET THE BLEEP OUTTA HERE NFL!!!! I’m not being quiet about this bullbleep NOMORE!!"
Miko Grimes is right – and clear. No one should be quiet about this.
If nothing else this last year, we have all learned that the continued profitability of the league means that NFL owners will protect and defend you no matter the moral cost. BE better than your employers, Mr. Goodell. Show the country that despite all popular opinion to the contrary, there is such a thing as shame in this world.
SAY that the league needs to get serious in how it discusses domestic violence and head injuries; that the league needs to work in partnership with the Players' Association to figure out a new approach rooted in educating current players and caring for those who have retired … Make clear that your resignation is a precondition for making this new partnership a reality.
And MOST OF ALL be honest in your resignation speech that when it comes to issues of violence against women and head injuries you have been profoundly ignorant. Be honest that your now damning quote when punishing the New Orleans Saints that "ignorance is no excuse," should apply to you as well… and then go out and find a new job. I would recommend seeking work at the Walter Reed hospital ward that deals with traumatic brain injuries. If the tragedy of your tenure as commissioner has been ignorance, I guarantee that will clear it up mighty quick."
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the conspiracy theory surrounding the Seahawks’ last play
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