Where sports and politics collide.
Michael Jordan as an NBA player, owner and cultural force, has always been proudly apolitical. Most famously, he refused to oppose segregationist Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Yet Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist rant has so upended the NBA apple cart that even Jordan is speaking out.
“As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I’m confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I’m completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA—or anywhere else—for the kind of racism. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot & must not tolerate discrimination at any level”
After a period of initial silence, Jordan is now just the latest NBA owner doing the previously unthinkable: speaking out against a fellow member of their exclusive club.
These belated words are welcome, but it is impossible to take any owner seriously that they are “shocked” or “outraged” by Sterling’s surreptitiously recorded statement, because “news” that Donald Sterling is racist qualifies as news only if you’ve been living on a hermetically sealed space station for the last decade. Even Clippers coach Doc Rivers’s comment that when he took the job last year—he didn’t know that Sterling was a bigot but “probably should have”—strains credulity. Sterling, with a great deal of attendant publicity, has been a racist in both word and deed for some time. His statements about African-Americans, Latinos and Asians—not to mention his misogyny—are exceeded only by his much-protested practices as a discriminatory slumlord. (If anyone wants to know this history, you can read this article.)
After Sterling’s latest racist eruption, the NBA is now dealing with a full-on public relations nightmare, and right when Sterling’s team, the Los Angeles Clippers, are real contenders to win an NBA championship. Two stunning developments have been immediately clear in the aftermath. The first is the sheer number of NBA players that have loudly and proudly condemned Sterling’s racism. (It has to be noted that one of first to do so, was the league’s biggest star, LeBron James.) There have also been reports that the LA Clippers even openly discussed boycotting their game on Sunday in protest. Instead they wore plain red warm-up shirts in protest.
The second is just how many people have not only expressed “shock” at Sterling’s words but also have said variations of “I have never heard anything like this from owners in the NBA.” I cannot speak to whether or not this is true. It is certainly possible that Donald Sterling is the only owner who seems to be in a constant state of arousal, fear and rage at what he calls the “beautiful black bodies” of the NBA. But every owner, as well as former commissioner David Stern—whose paternalism was called out by Dwyane Wade during the 2011 NBA lockout—needs to carry the burden of having counted this person as a colleague for so long. And lest we forget, Donald Sterling’s great benefactor, friend and partner was the late Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers, a person who was universally mourned without criticism after he passed away.
In his press conference, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked by ESPN writer J.A. Adande about why, given his racist history, Sterling had never been sanctioned. Silver, in his best impression of Mark McGwire said, “I am not here to talk about the past.” But an NBA ownership structure that would tolerate a man like Donald Sterling for so long is, frankly, intolerable. Clearly owners—and maybe we should stop calling them “owners” given Sterling’s most recent, Romneyesque released comments—are now throwing him under their Humvee limos and driving back and forth because he’s become bad for business. Expect in the days ahead for Silver and the NBA owners to sanction Sterling or even pressure him to sell the franchise. But unless they look in the mirror and account for their years of enabling this man, it’s not enough.
One NBA player, whom I will not name, got in touch with me and just said, “I don’t doubt he’s racist, [but] I’m astounded (not shocked) that the league hasn’t taken action before. What concerns me is that the league is clearly only concerned with him possibly being a racist because he got caught, not because he is… Racism is being allowed as long as our customers and employees don’t find out.” This is the perception, and that perception is reality. Silver needs to own his league’s past and condemn it in the harshest possible terms. He needs to organize the owners to finally get Sterling out of this club, and then figure out a way to deal with the noxious fumes that remain. Maybe make the Clippers property of the city of Los Angeles so the club can actually be a force for good, particularly for those residents of the city who have been so damaged by Sterling’s existence both inside and outside the Staples Center.
Read Next: Donald Sterling, the slumlord billionaire.
Following the uproar over audio revelations of a racist rant by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, it is worth noting that Sterling’s racism is nothing new and should come as no surprise. Reprinted—with some edits—here is the essay on Sterling that I wrote for my 2010 book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. It is out of date insofar as the Clippers have gone from being a sad-sack franchise to contending for the 2014 NBA title, but everything else holds. Hopefully it will give some insight into a man who has become, in the words of Magic Johnson, “a black eye for the NBA.”
It takes a certain flair for racism—a panache for prejudice—to find yourself facing two different racial discrimination lawsuits simultaneously. Meet Donald Sterling, the owner of the most unspeakably malodorous franchise since the Cleveland Spiders: the Los Angeles Clippers. Since Sterling’s purchase of the club in 1981, his team has by far the worst record in all of the National Basketball Association. The Clippers have made the playoffs only four times in Sterling’s twenty-eight years as owner, never advancing past the second round of the playoffs. It’s been said that the NBA should rename its annual players draft “The Donald Sterling Draft Lottery.” He was named the worst owner in sports by the writers at ESPN.com because of his complete disregard for fielding a winning team as long as he could turn a healthy profit. It stands to reason why in 2000 Sports Illustrated named the Clippers “the worst franchise in professional sports.”
But Sterling transcends the stereotypical Scrooge-like miser. He is so much more boorishly colorful than just a man trying to fill his coffers while snoozing in the luxury box. Sterling is like a side character in a James Ellroy noir novel. He is ruthless and toothsome, a man who unabashedly reinvented himself in Los Angeles’s healing sunshine. Former LA Mayor Tom Bradley once said, “People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles. They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.”
That well sums up the tale of Donald Sterling. His real name is Donald Tokowitz. After moving from Chicago as a child, he came of age in the rough and tumble Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. Donnie Tokowitz was the only son of an immigrant produce peddler. As a young boy, he worked boxing groceries at the local grocery stores and showed a talent for saving money. “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything,” said a friend. “With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” His mother was not impressed with his ability to hustle a dollar and insisted that he go to college and become a lawyer. Young Mr. Tokowitz worked his way through Southwestern School of Law, graduating at age 23. To help pay his way through, he worked nights selling furniture. It was there that he changed his name to Sterling. “I asked him why,” a coworker told Los Angeles magazine. “He said, ‘You have to name yourself after something that’s really good, that people have confidence in. People want to know that you’re the best.’”
After some success as an attorney he started buying property throughout Los Angeles, and kept buying and flipping real estate until he earned enough to buy the then San Diego Clippers for $13 million, $10 million of that on layaway. By ownership standards, he was practically proletarian.
Before fleeing to Los Angeles, he ended any prospect of professional basketball in San Diego by being the most personally repellent owner in the game. In San Diego, he was like Mark Cuban, if Cuban maintained his outsized personality while actively trying to destroy his team. “It’s the start of a new era!” he promised in an open letter to fans. “I’m in San Diego to stay and committed to making the city proud of the Clippers. I’ll build the Clippers through the draft, free agency, trades, spending whatever it takes to make a winner.”
They were gone within five years.
As Sports Illustrated wrote in 1982, “Sterling is a good example of the kind of ownership problems the league has had in recent years.… He started his crusade with a campaign to boost ticket sales that, oddly enough, featured Sterling’s grinning face on billboards throughout San Diego County.” They won their opening game of that 1982 season, and Sterling skipped around the court after the 125-110 victory. Then, his shirt unbuttoned down to his waist, he gave coach Paul Silas a big smooch. This behavior would be charming if, that same first season, he wasn’t accused of stiffing players on their paychecks.
It didn’t help that his assistant general manager was named Patricia Simmons, an ex-model who had what one San Diego newspaper described as “no known basketball background.” When Silas was in China on a Players Association exhibition tour this summer, Simmons moved into his office. When Silas returned, he found his belongings stacked in the hallway.
This kind of bizarre behavior is why in 1984 Rothenberg, then the team president, predicted about Sterling, “You’re going to call him the Howard Hughes of the NBA.”
The San Diego Clippers were an embarrassment, averaging fewer than 4,500 fans per game for three consecutive seasons. Sterling could have tried to stick it out, but instead he packed up and urged on by his friend Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, moved the team, now derisively called the Paper Clips, to LA in 1984. Sterling undertook the move without first receiving approval from the league, which fined him $25 million. Sterling countersued for $100 million but withdrew when the new commissioner David Stern dropped the fine to $6 million.
While Sterling has cobbled together a terrible franchise, he is seen as a visionary at the art of turning his team into a cash cow, dumping contracts, pocketing television revenue and collecting his share of the NBA’s luxury tax. The cheapness of Sterling is the stuff of myth, if not legend. During his first season as owner, he asked coach Silas if he could double as the team trainer and take up the duties of taping players before games. During the 1998–99 NBA owners lockout, when almost half the season was cancelled, Sterling chose simply to not hire a coach for six months. (The Clippers finished the lockout season with a sterling 9-41 mark.) Not one of Sterling’s nine lottery picks before 1998 re-signed with the team.
“Being a Clipper can be real tough,” said retired point guard Pooh Richardson, who played for the Clippers from 1994–99. “It’s almost a given that you won’t win and that the team won’t hold on to its best players.”
“At some level Sterling must be content being the losingest NBA owner ever,” said super-agent David Falk. “All the criticism he has gotten hasn’t changed the way he runs the team one degree.”
Sterling says he hates to lose. He said plaintively to a reporter, “Basketball is the only aspect of my life in which I haven’t been a winner. I want to win badly, I really do. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will. Don’t you think it will?… It must. It simply must.”
But if Sterling really wants to win, he loves being an owner even more. He’s never come close to winning a championship and compensates by holding NBA lottery parties at his Beverly Hills estate. As Sports Illustrated reported,
Sterling has often prepped for his parties by placing newspaper ads for “hostesses” interested in meeting “celebrities and sports stars.” Prospective hostesses have been interviewed in the owner’s office suite. One former Clippers coach recalled dropping in on Sterling during a cattle call. “The whole floor reeked of perfume,” he said. “There were about 50 women all dolled up and waiting outside Donald’s office, and another 50 waiting outside the building.” The chosen get to mingle with D-list celebrities and drink wine from plastic cups.
Sterling has even been penurious enough to share an arena with the Los Angeles Lakers. It certainly makes business sense. Since leaving the LA Sports Arena and sharing the Staples Center, Sterling has opened up his wallet for players like Elton Brand and Baron Davis (both signings, disasters). But the comparison between the two clubs is rather consistently unkind.
The Lakers have been to twenty-six NBA Finals and won twelve championships. The Clippers have the most sixty-loss seasons in NBA history. It’s the prince and the pauper sharing space at the Staples Center. As comedian Nick Bakay wrote, “The Lakers’ luxury box is prawns, caviar and opera glasses[,] while the Clippers stock Zantac, barf bags, some good books, and cyanide.”
Sterling dismissed the comparison, saying, “Let’s say you take your child to see Shirley Temple onstage. And let’s say you tell yourself, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if that was my child up there?’ And you think, ‘My child will never be Shirley Temple, but I love her all the same.’ So you send her for dancing and singing lessons and hope that one day she’ll have all the qualities you admire in Shirley Temple. But she’ll never be Shirley Temple.” It’s lines like this which led him to be described as a having “the furtive, feral charm of an old-time movie mogul.”
You might be tempted to think that playing for Sterling would at least be interesting. The man is a character, not a suit. But he is also a notoriously cheap and verbally abusive bigot. Sterling stormed into the team’s locker room in February 2009 and unleashed what was described as a “profanity-laced tirade” at his players, calling young player Al Thornton “the most selfish basketball player I’ve ever seen.” When Thornton looked beseechingly to his coach Mike Dunleavy, Sterling told Dunleavy to “shut up.” He also, according to his former GM Elgin Baylor, “would bring women into the locker room after games, while the players were showering, and make comments such as, ‘Look at those beautiful black bodies.’ I brought [player complaints] to Sterling’s attention, but he continued to bring women into the locker room.”
Clipperland is a place where any player with potential is either not re-signed or desperately tries to leave before their potential is squandered. In 1981 they picked Tom Chambers with the number-eight pick, and then in 1982, they nabbed Terry Cummings (who won Rookie of the Year) number two overall. The two appeared in six combined All-Star Games and 228 combined playoff games—of course, none with the Clippers. Both got the hell out of Dodge by the summer of ’84.
If only that were the full extent of Sterling’s sins.
Sterling is narcissistic and CliffsNotes literate enough to present himself as a self-made Gatsbian figure. He even has “white parties” at his Bevery Hills home where guests all wear white “like in the book.” He’s a Gatsbian who never read The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby was running from his past, hiding his rough background behind the artifice of taste and wealth. Sterling presents himself as the tony developer of high-end properties in the Hollywood Hills, and plays it much closer to the street. Sterling is also the Slumlord Billionaire, a man who made his fortune by building low-income housing, and then, according to a Justice Department lawsuit, developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties. In November of 2009, Sterling settled the suit with the US Department of Justice for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case involving apartment rentals. Reading the content of the suit makes you want to shower with steel wool. Sterling just said no to rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown and just said hell-no to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Sterling, who has a Blagojevichian flair for the language, says he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
The Slumlord Billionaire has a healthy legal paper trail, which creates a collage of someone very good at extorting rents from the very poor. In 1986, the spiking of rents in his Beverly Hills properties—the so-called “slums of Beverly Hills”—led to a large march by tenants on City Hall.
In 2001, Sterling was sued successfully by the City of Santa Monica on charges that he harassed and threatened to evict eight tenants living in three rent-controlled buildings. Their unholy offense that drew his ire was having potted plants on balconies. Talk about “hands on.” How many billionaires drive around their low-income housing properties to look for violations? That’s Donnie Tokowitz in action. Two years later, Sterling was effectively able to evict a tenant for allegedly tearing down notices in the building’s elevator.
In 2004, Sterling led a brigade of other landlords to smash Santa Monica’s ultra-strict Tenant Harassment Ordinance. The ordinance stated that issuing repeated eviction threats to tenants was a form of harassment. Sterling and his crew believed that they should be allowed to harass to their hearts content. There are only so many potted pants a man can stand!
That same year, an elderly widow named Elisheba Sabi, sued Sterling for refusing her Section 8 voucher to rent an apartment. Sterling emerged crowing and victorious. (That had to feel good. Damn elderly widows.)
And in 2005, Sterling settled a housing-discrimination lawsuit filed by the Housing Rights Center, which represented more than a dozen of his tenants. He paid nearly $5 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs—a staggering amount—along with a reportedly massive, albeit confidential, sum. Not all the plaintiffs, though, lived to see their windfall. Court documents state that on July 12, 2002, “Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.”
Amidst all that was described above, there are a web of lawsuits and complaints leveled against Sterling that suggest he is willing to suffer endless financial penalty and legal embarrassment if it means he can have control—always control—over who gets to live in his property.
As sports columnist Bomani Jones wrote, “Though Sterling has no problem paying black people millions of dollars to play basketball, the feds allege that he refused to rent apartments in Beverly Hills and Koreatown to black people and people with children. Talk about strange. A man notoriously concerned with profit maximization refuses to take money from those willing to shell it out to live in the most overrated, overpriced neighborhood in Southern California? That same man, who gives black men tens of millions of dollars every year, refuses to take a few thousand a month from folks who would like to crash in one of his buildings for a while? You gotta love racism, the only force in the world powerful enough to interfere with money-making. Sterling may have been a joke, but nothing about this is funny. In fact, it’s frightening and disturbing that classic racism like this might still be in play.”
Former NBA commissioner David Stern, always so PR-conscious when it comes to where players mingle, how players dress, whom players consort with after hours, has turned a blind eye to this disturbing pattern. Now these chickens have returned to Stern’s back porch to roost. There is a second racism lawsuit buzzing around Sterling’s helmet of hair.
Sterling’s other lawsuit comes from inside his own NBA offices: his long-time general manager Elgin Baylor. Baylor, an NBA legend with the Los Angeles Lakers, has spent more than two decades making a series of personnel decisions that have ranged from depressing to enraging. Baylor’s was called without irony by a television commentator as “veteran of the lottery process” watching the ping-pong balls bounce around to see who gets the number-one pick. The Clippers draft picks under Baylor’s tenure—and their entire roster—have largely been a dyspeptic horror show. According to Baylor, one reason for their continued ineptitude was Sterling in telling Baylor he wanted to fill his team with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.”
A Clippers draft pick who could actually play was Kansas star Danny Manning. Manning didn’t last in LA. This might be because Sterling, according to Baylor, would grumble that he didn’t like being in a position where “I’m offering a lot of money for a poor black kid.” Baylor’s lawsuit claims the team has “egregious salary disparities” based on race. Baylor claims he was told to “induce African-American players to join the Clippers, despite the Clippers’ reputation of being unwilling to fairly treat and compensate African-American players.” Baylor says the owner, Donald Sterling, has a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude.” It also stated that Sterling made clear to Baylor that hiring an African-American head coach was not his preference. This is why Baylor’s lawyers accuse Sterling of having a “vision of a Southern plantation–type structure.”
This news is hardly the public relations boost that NBA commish David Stern relishes. And it’s not the first time Sterling has put his foul foot forward. Sterling had to testify in open court that he regularly paid a Beverly Hills hooker for sex, describing her as a “$500-a-trick freak” with whom he coupled “all over my building, in my bathroom, upstairs, in the corner, in the elevator.” Stern, as one commentator noted, “normally has to explain away the behavior of 20-something athletes, not married 70-year-old club owners worth nearly a billion.”
I guess a billion buys a lot of Viagara. Sterling went on to give the woman in question credit for “sucking me all night long” and whose “best sex was better than words could express.” I will now scream into a pillow while performing a home-lobotomy. The very bombastic, very married Sterling testified that he was “quietly concealing it from the world.” Sterling had a blunt appraisal of his “exciting” relationship with the woman in question: “It was purely sex for money, money for sex, sex for money, money for sex.”
In an even greater leap to the absurd, the lawsuit was not initiated by the vice squad or any controlling legal authority. It was initiated by Sterling against his “$500-a-night trick” because he just couldn’t bear the thought that she was occupying a home she claimed he gifted to her. He was done with her and wanted her out. He also seems to have wanted to proclaim to the world, that at 70, Donald Tokowitz could still throw it down in the sack. If Sterling wants to be a geriatric Charlie Sheen, that’s his business. But in a sport that polices the character of its players, from their dress code to where they spend their leisure time, to what they say to the press, it seems the height of hypocrisy that Sterling skates.
Sterling and the Homeless
For someone whose hobby is unjust evictions, Sterling’s charitable pet project is helping the homeless. Sterling’s homeless “activism” consisted of him buying an $8 million warehouse with big plans to turn it into the $50 million Donald Sterling homeless center. We know of Sterling’s plans not from any press conference with homeless rights activists, or a ribbon-cutting ceremony or even efforts to secure permits from the city. We are aware of his unparalleled generosity because Sterling bought a series of full page ads in the front section of the Los Angeles Times to tell us how generous he is. The ads do more than trumpet Sterling. They seem designed by him as well, or by a man who would unbutton his shirt to the waist in public.
Each ad contains Donald Sterling’s massive head, complete with a smile showing a mouth of capped teeth (or maybe white Chiclets), hair by Blago and skin stretched tighter than a Sunset Boulevard miniskirt. Underneath Sterling’s head it reads, “Please don’t forget the children, they need our help.”
Sterling has taken out full-page ads before, often times ones that proclaim him the recent recipient of some “humanitarian of the year” honor. But the shelter ads were worse because they raised the hopes of an entire community in LA starved for funds and relief. As Patrick Range McDonald wrote in the LA Weekly, “The advertisements promise a ‘state-of-the-art $50 million’ building on Sixth and Wall streets, whose stated ‘objective’ is to ‘educate, rehabilitate, provide medical care and a courtroom for existing homeless.’… These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense.… From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.’”
Tom Gilmore, who served for six years on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said, “I’m generally a very optimistic person, but this thing smells like shit. The Los Angeles Times ads aren’t cheap. He could’ve stopped buying the ads and spent that money on homeless people.” Gilmore, who’s been working downtown since 1992, adds, “I’ve never seen [Sterling] down here in my life.”
Reverend Alice Callaghan, who works with the 4,000 people on LA’s skid row at any given time, was even more blunt: “It’s the lowest of the low if he’s using the homeless to make himself look good,” she said. “Or it’s the dumbest of the dumb. No one builds those kinds of shelters down here anymore. He’s a businessman. He can make anything happen. So if it’s not happening, there’s a reason for it.”
When we consider the terrible budget deficits and constant crisis the state of California finds itself mired in—and when we couple that with the walking train wreck that is Donald Sterling—perhaps the Clippers should become the first NBA team to be fan-owned like the Green Bay Packers. Then they could be a team that can truly help the homeless and give something back to the neediest residents of Los Angeles… and Donald Sterling and his “plantation mentality” could finally be gone, an owner no more.
Read Next: Why is Blackwater helping to train Brazil's World Cup security?
In news as shocking as it was unreported in the United States, the Brazilian press revealed earlier this week that Academi—the rebranded private militia once known as Blackwater—has been providing security training for the 2014 World Cup. The notorious company, responsible for the 2011 Nisour Square massacre in Iraq, has been training Brazilian security forces in North Carolina.
Hosting mega-events comes with astronomical costs. This summer’s World Cup in Brazil is the most expensive ever, with a tab so far of $11 billion to $13 billion. These costs promise to catapult even higher as unfinished projects linger long after the soccer fans have returned home, with some estimating the final price tag to crest at $15 billion. In addition to being the most expensive, the World Cup organizers plan to deploy more force than any previous tournament. More than 170,000 security personnel from the military, police and secret service will be on hand, 22 percent more than worked the previous World Cup in South Africa. Now we know that some of these forces will be trained by a private security firm with a dodgy history.
In Rio, the “pacification” of favelas is already hurtling ahead full throttle. Amnesty International described the Pacifying Police Unit’s recent incursion into the Maré complex of favelas as “a military occupation.” The suspicious disappearance of a young man named Amarildo Dias de Souza from his home favela of Rocinha sparked a public outburst and media-led investigation that spurred criminal charges against the neighborhood’s commanding officer and his minions. The security officials sit in prison awaiting trial, accused of torturing De Souza to death and discarding his corpse in the jungle. Not surprisingly, a recent national poll found that less than a quarter of Brazilians trust the police.
The conflation of terrorism and activism is also rampant. Lawmakers in Brazil are angling to use the state of exception that sports mega-events inevitably bring to pass drastic legislation. The Brazilian Congress is contemplating an antiterrorism bill that would impose hefty sentences—fifteen to thirty years in prison—for “causing or inciting widespread terror by threatening or trying to threaten the life, the physical integrity or the health or liberty of a person.” Human-rights groups have clamored that such proposals are overly broad and could be used to squelch all kinds of protest and actions during the World Cup.
For security mavens, Academi’s involvement training Brazilians at its company headquarters in North Carolina may come as no great surprise. After all, Wikileaks revealed in a 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Brasilia that the US government views the crises brought on by hosting sports mega-events as prime occasions to cash in.
After power outages rippled across Brazil in 2009, the US Mission wrote, “The newly heightened concerns about Brazil’s infrastructure as a result of this blackout, combined with the need to address infrastructure challenges in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, present the United States opportunities for engagement on infrastructure development as well critical infrastructure protection and possibly cyber security.” In short, Brazil’s misery created room for opportunism.
The cable encouraged US government agencies like the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security “to explore these opportunities in the near-term.” With Academi’s involvement in Brazil, this type of “opportunity” is taking shape.
The indomitable critic Eduardo Galeano recently said of FIFA, the world’s governing body for football, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.” People across Brazil concur—disgruntlement with Fifa’s arrogance and opacity is widespread. Earlier this month, a poll found, quite remarkably, that in the football-crazy country of Brazil only 48 percent of the population favors hosting this summer’s World Cup, plummeting from 78 percent support in 2008. Meanwhile, 41 percent actively oppose it, up from only 10 percent. Last summer, the 2013 Confederations Cup provided a prime-time dress rehearsal for principled dissent. Almost everyone expects cross-country protests at this summer’s Copa do Mundo.
Under intense public pressure, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently remarked, “We’re not going to build a Bird’s Nest [Stadium] in Rio de Janeiro. If you go to Beijing today, the Bird’s Nest has become a mausoleum to honor wasted public money. We are not going to do this here.” The mayor was right about the perils of white elephants. But another threat lingers: the intensified militarization of public space in the name of protecting the sports spectacle. Now it looks like private security firms like Academi are in on the deal, and that’s unsettling for anyone not under the spell of historical amnesia.
Read Next: Brazil’s World Cup will kick the environment in the teeth.
On Friday, the Northwestern University football squad will be voting about whether or not to become the first NCAA team to unionize. The Wildcats—and how perfect a name is "wildcats"—will be voting to have a seat at the table to discuss the manifest issues that come with playing a "sport" that requires as much as sixty hours a week of their time. They are also voting despite ominous warnings from their coach Pat Fitzgerald that a union has no place in their locker room. In Coach Fitzgerald’s world, there will be no dental plan no matter how badly Lisa needs braces.
As discussed previously, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for Fitzgerald to so strenuously oppose the efforts of his players to have a seat at the table when he is making $2.2 million per year and received a $2.5 million loan from the school upon signing his most recent contract. Yet Fitzgerald’s stance is not only distasteful. It may be illegal.
Here is the substance of the email that Fitzgerald sent to is team on April 14. He wrote, “Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind…. In my heart, I know that the downside of joining a union is much bigger than the upside. You have nothing to gain by forming a union.”
Fitzgerald is also part of what The New York Times called, “A Blitz to Defeat an Effort to Unionize”, where members of the Northwestern administration, trustees and alumni are devoting an incredible amount of time and resources to make sure that a few dozen teenagers know their place. CBSSports.com obtained a copy of a twenty-one-page anti-union manifesto distributed to players rife with portentous warnings about what a union could bring.
People may disagree about whether what Fitzgerald is doing is immoral. But is it illegal? Attorney Lester Munson said on ESPN.com, “As the employer, Fitzgerald [and his assistants] are entitled to urge "no" votes. They can try to explain to the players that the union is a bad idea for them and for the school, but they must be careful in what they say. Under the law that governs union elections, Fitzgerald and his crew may not indulge in statements that could be viewed as threats, promises, interrogations, [or] retaliation.” (my emphasis)
In attempting to understand, whether based solely on what we know, if Fitzgerald is acting in an illegal manner, I thought it would be best to ask a labor lawyer with some experience in these matters. I spoke with Tony Paris, lead attorney with the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice—a nonprofit organization, dedicated to issues that low-income people face around the country.
Mr. Paris said, “Unfortunately, coach Pat Fitzgerald may deserve a flag for encroachment on the legal line of scrimmage in that his comments seem to imply that there will be worse conditions at Northwestern if the union is voted in. This is especially true given the power dynamic between football coaches and their players and when you take into account that many of these athletes’ livelihoods depend on their future in the program. The coach is entitled to his opinion, but his claim that the downside of unionization is ‘much bigger’ – could arguably be construed as a threat and/or imply some sort of reprisal. This impairs the free and informed atmosphere needed to allow the players to fully express their choice in Friday’s election.”
I want to focus on one part of what Mr. Paris’ statement: “the power dynamic between football coaches and their players.” Anyone who has ever played or covered football knows that it is organized in a manner no one would confuse with a consensus-based organization. It is a structure both militaristic in design and authoritarian in culture. The NCAA in particular has designed college football in a way that makes players as powerless as possible. They serve at the pleasure of the coach. Their medical care, their travel schedules and even their ability to take the classes of their choice are subject to the whims of people whose bottom line and lucrative salaries are dependent upon their ability to win games. This structure is incredibly lucrative for coaches, administrators, and the bureaucracy of the NCAA and it is the resistance to this structure that they are trying so desperately to contain in Evanston, lest it become a national movement in locker rooms around the country. To do this, Pat Fitzgerald is clearly establishing an atmosphere where “threats” are more than implied: they’re omnipresent.
No matter how tomorrow’s vote goes, and it may take months before we know the results, the NCAA will never be the same. They are already offering up piecemeal reforms as a way to stem the tide, but the wine is out of the bottle and the horse has left the barn. As Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO said, “Just getting to the vote was a major victory for the players, whose major concerns about fairness, working conditions, safety and medical care—especially after their playing days are over but their injuries are not—were not being heard or addressed by Northwestern.” This is true. But even after the smoke has cleared, Pat Fitzgerald should be held accountable for his efforts to use his power over these young men to prevent them from having a seat at a table that has kept him very well fed.
Read Next: Brazil's World Cup will kick the environment in the teeth.
As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, a topic that plagues the country is the impact hosting these games will have on the local environment and various ecosystems. Despite efforts by soccer’s ruling body, FIFA, to “greenwash” the games—by holding “green events” during the World Cup, putting out press releases about infrastructure construction with recycled materials and speaking rhapsodically about the ways in which the stadiums are designed to capture and recycle rainwater—the truth is not nearly so rank with patchouli oil.
No matter the country, the environmental footprint of these sporting mega-events looks like a stomping combat boot. The impact of air travel alone, with private planes crisscrossing Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States, will be staggering. According to FIFA’s own numbers, internal travel in Brazil during the World Cup will produce the equivalent of 2.72 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s the equivalent of 560,000 passenger cars driving for one year.
Climate change, and advice from the Global North about how to treat the environment, is an extremely sensitive subject in Brazil. This is a country whose environmental concerns are of course global concerns, as it is home of the Amazon rainforest. Called the “lungs of the earth,” the Amazon rainforest creates 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen and 25 percent of its drinkable fresh water. It has also been razed and burned with shocking speed as Brazil’s economy has hummed, with double digit economic growth over much of the last decade.
It is, of course, not difficult to understand why the last thing people in Brasília want to hear is lectures about climate change from the Global North. The Amazon rainforest has been plundered by foreign adventurers as well as multinational corporations for decades. As the former President Lula once said, “What we cannot accept is that those who failed to take care of their own forests, who did not preserve what they had and deforested everything and are responsible for most of the gases poured into the air and for the greenhouse effect, they shouldn’t be sticking their noses into Brazil’s business and giving their two cents’ worth.” He certainly has a point, although it says something damning about our world that the logic of our system dictates Brazil’s sovereign right to destroy the “lungs of the world.”
With statements that make destroying rainforests sound like a bold act of Global South defiance, Lula also disregarded the powerful history of Brazil’s own environmental community, which was one of the crucial forces in the founding of his own Workers’ Party and has been fighting for decades to preserve the Amazon. As legendary Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes put it, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
There’s no question the World Cup will put greater stress on Brazil’s critical ecosystem. This can be seen most clearly in the efforts to build a “FIFA-quality stadium” in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. The project has been a disaster since the first plant life was destroyed, before the cement was even poured. Building a new stadium doesn’t just ignore environmental concerns, it defies logic—the Amazon is already home to a stadium that draws far less than its capacity. And all of this to house a mere four World Cup matches.
Even those in Brazil who believe fiercely in the national autonomy of the rainforest region, without interference from international environmental bodies, are crying foul. Romário, the soccer star-turned-politician, called the project “absurd”. He said, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.” Since this particular white elephant seems to be uniting opposition of both the “wasteful spending” crowd and the “pro-breathing” crowd, the government is looking for options for the stadium after the World Cup that seem fiscally sound. One idea is to turn the entire stadium into a massive open-air prison—a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, and not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government. “Profits first, Brazil’s environment last,” is not a very peppy slogan but it would be more than fitting for the 2014 World Cup.
Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
When someone dies of decidedly unnatural causes, two words come immediately to mind: “closure” and “accountability.” The idea is that by holding the perpetrators of a crime accountable, we can both provide a measure of closure for the family and friends of the deceased as well as limit the possibility of such a fate befalling our own loved ones too.
It is difficult to imagine a death more “unnatural” than that of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, shot down in Afghanistan by his fellow troops in an incident classified as “friendly fire” ten years ago. Yet, despite the high-profile nature of his demise, those two words, “closure” and “accountability,” have been in incredibly short supply for the Tillman family. This is not just a tragedy for the Tillmans; it is a tragedy for anyone who thinks that government should not exist above the law.
The questions surrounding both the death of Pat Tillman, as well the response by the United States government to the news, has simply never been answered. This is not about conjuring conspiracy theories or raising the bizarre timing of Tillman’s being shot during a time when he was outspoken to fellow soldiers about his belief that the war in Iraq was “illegal.” This is not about Gen. Wesley Clark’s saying he believed it was “very possible” that Tillman was murdered. This is about extremely basic questions that the George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal have simply not been compelled to answer. Let’s go through them:
1) Why did the US Congressional Oversight Committee, after coming to the conclusion in April 2007 that the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death demanded investigation, stop investigating? Why did it accept, in its own words, that “the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall”? Why, instead of pursuing the matter, did it move on to investigating steroids in baseball?
2) Why were Tillman’s uniform, his military notebook and his effects burned on the scene immediately after his shooting? In the words of a source of mine close to the events that day, “Every military protocol was ignored regarding the handling of Pat’s body and his equipment.”
3) Why did the coroner refuse for months to sign off on Pat’s autopsy?
4) Why were soldiers on the scene ordered not to tell the truth about the circumstances of the shooting?
5) Why has General John Abizaid never had to answer for the devastating San Francisco Chronicle investigation that shows he repeatedly misrepresented what he knew—and where he was—after Tillman’s death? He said he was in Iraq, which makes sense given that April 2004 was the bloodiest, most chaotic month of the war. Yet records show he was in Afghanistan talking to Tillman’s platoon leader. Why? And why lie about it?
6) Why does Lt. Gen McChrystal get to skate by with saying that there were “mistakes, missteps and errors” that occurred after Tillman was killed? Pat’s father described McChrystal’s actions as a “falsified homicide investigation.” If McChrystal did falsify the investigation, he belongs behind bars.
7) How do we understand the actions of Senator John McCain? By all accounts, McCain was furious that, because of the Bush administration, he eulogized Pat Tillman at his nationally televised funeral as if he had died at the hands of the Taliban. He pledged to the Tillmans that he would get to the truth. For a while, McCain was their ally. Then he ran for president in 2008 and stopped helping them. As Mary Tillman said to me, “The investigation that he helped us get actually caused us to have more questions and at that point he started backing off. I think he thought that we were becoming sort of a political encumbrance to him, or could be.” John McCain should have to explain why he stopped helping the Tillman family.
These are only some of the questions. Peter King of Sports Illustrated, perhaps the most-read football writer in the United States, wrote on Monday, “The circumstances around the death [of Tillman], which took place in a firefight with enemy forces near the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, remain a mystery.”
They shouldn’t have to “remain a mystery.” The family is entitled to answers, and we collectively are entitled to the truth. The family has the right to closure, and we have the right to see those who broke the law held accountable. Our need to demand the truth is rooted less in solidarity with the Tillman family, and more in our desire to not have a government that believes covering up a killing is a part of its constitutional duties. We all suffer as long as the truth of Pat Tillman’s death remains hidden. This should be a criminal investigation. It is past time to pull George W. Bush away from his paintbrushes, to tell Stanley McChrystal to stop hawking his book, and to get their hands on some Bibles to swear to tell, at long last, the damnable truth.
Read Next: On the death and life’s work of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
“They can incarcerate my body but never my mind” —Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
For a man who spent nearly four decades of his seventy-six years under the restrictive eye of the US correctional system, few have ever touched as many lives as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The world-class boxer turned wrongfully accused prisoner, turned advocate for the rights of the unjustly incarcerated, has succumbed to cancer, but his memory and work will endure as long as there are people outside and inside the prisons of the world fighting for justice.
It is difficult to think of more than a handful of prisoners in history who have had their story memorialized in popular culture quite like Rubin Carter. After his own infamous homicide conviction, Carter’s case inspired an international human rights movement. There were rallies, marches and all-star musical concerts in his name. He was even the subject of a Bob Dylan Top 40 hit, the frenzied fiddle anthem Hurricane. Carter also wrote, while behind bars, the bestselling book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. Finally after his release, he was the subject of the Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington film The Hurricane.
Yet despite the overturning of his murder conviction as well as a Hollywood canonization, Rubin Carter never rested. After decades behind bars, no one would have blinked if he had coasted on his celebrity for the remainder of his days. Instead, Mr. Carter started a nonprofit organization in his adopted home of Toronto in 2004 called Innocence International, aimed at shedding light on the cases of the wrongly convicted. Rubin Carter believed that the only thing exceptional about his conviction was the fact that people were aware and outraged that it had happened. In a country with the highest prison rate on the planet, where quality legal representation is more privilege than right, Rubin Carter knew that he had left an untold number of sisters and brothers behind. He had lived the racism of the criminal justice system and he had lived among the poor and mentally ill behind bars. Following his release, he was determined to be their advocate. Carter wrote in February, as he lay dying, that he “lived in hell for the first forty-nine years, and have been in heaven for the past twenty-eight years.” For him, heaven was doing this kind of work and struggle was the secret of joy.
I had many an interaction with Rubin Carter, never revolving around boxing or his near-miss in 1964 to win the middleweight championship. Our shared work existed in the context of campaigns for prisoners' rights. Rubin Carter never refused any of my requests, no matter how obscure the case, to lend his name to a campaign. Like Denzel Washington said when he took Rubin Carter on stage with him when accepting the Golden Globe for best actor for The Hurricane, “He’s all love.”
Sure enough, during the last days of his life and in terrible pain, Rubin Carter was attempting to bring light to yet another prisoner he believed was being denied justice. On February 21, 2014, Carter published “Hurricane Carter’s Dying Wish,” in the New York Daily News. It detailed the case of David McCallum, who has been jailed for murder for almost thirty years, convicted at the age of 16. As Carter wrote, “McCallum was incarcerated two weeks after I was released, reborn into the miracle of this world. Now I’m looking death straight in the eye; he’s got me on the ropes, but I won’t back down…. My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now.”
The best possible tribute to Rubin Carter would not be to listen to some Bob Dylan or read a few obits. It would be to contact new Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson—his “action line” phone number is 718-250-2340—and ask him to fulfill Hurricane’s request to reopen the case of David McCallum. After all, this was the dying wish of the Hurricane.
Read Next: We built this country on inequality.
Forty years after breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs, Hank Aaron is still receiving racist hate mail—and he keeps it all. After some of Aaron’s comments in an interview with USA Today, he received a whole new batch of derogatory mail. In the interview, Aaron defended President Obama, who he said “is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.” “The bigger difference,” he went on to say, “is back then [racists] had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” Appearing on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This with host Antonio Mora, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin came to Aaron’s defense, saying that, “For someone like Henry Aaron, who’s 80 years old and has already endured so much, I imagine he has far less patience” for the “tidal wave of vitriol” that was inevitably unleashed on the first president of color in the United States.
The best sports biography of the last several years was, for my money, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant. The book makes the case that, in an age of cynicism, we need to study what exactly makes someone heroic, with Henry Aaron being Bryant’s particular profile in courage. What makes The Last Hero particularly compelling is that Bryant doesn’t quantify Aaron’s heroism as being measured by his 755 homeruns but by his ability to keep moving forward while resisting concentrated, poisonous doses of racist invective the likes of which few have ever had to endure. Aaron’s great crime, of course, was challenging the most hallowed record in sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, while black. (The racists of 1974 were untroubled by the widespread belief in the baseball world of the 1920s that Babe Ruth, an orphan, was a black man “passing” as white.)
Aaron, as Bryant reveals, was always silent until he wasn’t. This man born in the Deep South from a family of sharecroppers, would on occasion uncork a smackdown to the collective racists in this country, like it was an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate. He was, pardon the cliché but it fits, a still water that ran deep.
Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the fortieth anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Then Aaron, just like in his playing career, transgressed his image as a stoic who did not encroach on the world outside the diamond and spoke his mind.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Mr. Henry Aaron, a man on a US postage stamp, just said that the children of the old school racists he tangled with, now have a home in the Republican Party. It is basically 1991 and it is Chuck D saying, “These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits.”
Forget for a moment the fact that I believe many of us are past the image of President Obama as someone who would be doing the right thing if only it weren’t for these Republicans. From immigration deportation to the drone war, the list of complaints against this administration on social justice grounds is very real. But consider the reality that a White House occupied by an African-American family has provoked a level of bigotry from the right that, no matter what Bill Kristol says, is undeniable. Consider how seeing that family subject to reservoirs of racism would resonate with someone of Aaron’s life experience. Yet above all, consider that Aaron’s main point was that much of the progress on racial issues since 1974 is illusory, and after he said so has been deluged with racist letters and phone calls. The Atlanta Braves organization reports that it has received “hundreds” of threats levied against Aaron. The only difference between 2014 and 1974 is that many of these threats are coming in e-mail form.
One of these lovely notes came from a person named “David” who vowed to burn his copy of Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero. (Given the content of The Last Hero, which discusses the history of racism in the United States for several chapters before even getting to Aaron, I wonder if “David” ever cracked the spine.) It seemed appropriate for me to actually reach out to Bryant and ask why it is that this 80-year-old, soft-spoken man, someone who never joined the Black Panthers or burned a flag, has been able to produce what can only be described as an Aaron Derangement Syndrome in the darkest corners of this country?
Bryant e-mailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.
“When Henry was playing, there were other people who said what he felt. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali were more charismatic, better quotes than Henry on civil rights,” Bryant wrote. “But the reason he keeps getting all this mail and taking this abuse is because he’s unflinching. He sees the game better than the rest of us because he’s lived it long enough to know that once you get past the smiles and the handshakes, very little has really changed. Henry knows that if you wait long enough and say a little of the truth, the face behind the mask will reveal itself, just as it did Tuesday night. He’s not going to accommodate you. He’s going to stay quiet and let the silence speak for itself until the words can say it better.”
I do not personally believe that in the world of sports Henry Aaron really is “the last hero.” People from Richard Sherman to Britney Griner to Kain Colter are showing that heroism—as something more than a brand—can still exist in a cynical age. But I do believe that if this new generation of athletes is going to “advance the ball” of social justice, they should learn the manifest lessons from the life of this extraordinary individual. The bigots should also know, as if the last sixty years weren’t proof enough, you are simply not going to scare Henry Aaron.
Read Next: Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the tale of two anniversaries
Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other.
On Monday, April 21, the Boston Marathon will take place, and we will be compelled to remember the horror of last year’s bombing attack at the finish line. Three were killed and more than 250 were injured. Two immigrant brothers, driven by their anger, ideology and alienation towards what is called the “Global War on Terror” set the blasts. Two brothers: one now dead the other facing state execution.
Now, one year later, we’ll have what will surely be an emotionally raw celebration of what makes the city that hosts the marathon “Boston-Strong.” Expect round-the-clock media coverage. Expect the names of the dead to be remembered. Expect every politician with a pulse to exploit their particular version of what last year’s bombing “means.” (Here’s hoping that they learn the lesson David Gregory of Meet the Press discovered, and not blithely tread upon the post-traumatic stress of those who were damaged a year ago. The media’s “reality television” just might be someone else’s reality.)
As everyone follows the—we hope and pray—safe and successful completion of the marathon, there is a very different kind of anniversary the following day. April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.
Compelled by the attacks on 9/11, Tillman exited the NFL in his prime, leaving millions of dollars on the table to join the Army Rangers. Square-jawed, Caucasian and handsome as hell, he was a dream for people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, David Frum and everyone who drooled at the thought of a glorious, post-9 /11 clash of civilizations. Yet after several missions into Iraq, in a war Tillman believed was “fucking illegal,” he started to read the work of people like Noam Chomsky and other critics of the war. Upon his return to the United States, Tillman even expressed a desire to meet Chomsky .
On April 22, Pat Tillman was killed. The first story, repeated at his nationally televised funeral, was that he was shot down by the Taliban in a ferocious firefight. He was posthumously given a Silver Star, which is awarded when a soldier falls at the hands of enemy combatants. The Bush Pentagon public relations machine was in overdrive, using Pat Tillman in death in a manner he refused when still alive. As his mother Mary Tillman said to me in 2008, “What’s so disturbing about after Pat’s death is the way the media ran with the perception they had of him, some kind of caricature of who they thought he was. It was so off that it was like he died twice.”
As if exploiting his death to aid the Iraqi war drive wasn’t obscene enough, the truth then emerged—Tillman actually died at the hands of fellow Army Rangers, killed in an incident described as “friendly fire.” His military journal and his uniform were burned on site. His death report was falsified.
Tillman’s family has undergone a decade-long quest to find out what actually happened and why they were lied to about his death. As Mary Tillman said to me in 2011, “If it had happened to someone else, Pat would be busting through walls to find the truth.”
But the truth has been hard to find. The person who oversaw what Pat’s father, Pat Tillman Sr., called a “falsified homicide investigation,” Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, wasn’t indicted or brought up on charges. Instead, he was promoted by President Obama, before eventually resigning in disgrace so he could write a book and appear on The Colbert Report.
Today, in Fenway Park, the Army has used the post-marathon Boston-Strong narrative of recovery and community to aid its recruitment efforts. As the blog WMTC discussed, the many screens of Fenway Park now show ads that blare, “There’s strong and then there’s Army Strong!” The message could not be clearer: there is Boston Strong, there is Army Strong and one is only as, well, strong as the other. If you want to keep Boston strong and prevent more bombings, you better join up and make sure than the Army is strong as well. There are no ads to suggest that maybe occupying countries, sending in armed drones and conducting dirty wars in remote lands will create conditions that bring the war back to the United States.
The Army and the government can’t use the Tillmans like they use the Boston Marathon for the simple reason that the Tillmans refuse to be used. That’s also what makes the Tillman anniversary so difficult for the mainstream media, the armed forces and the NFL to commemorate. By continuing to search for the truth, by refusing to let Pat be turned into a prop for war, the Tillmans have no value to those who benefit politically or economically from this era of endless war. For the rest of us, however, the Tillmans are invaluable. They deserve something the US Congress, the NFL and the mainstream media have refused to give them over the last decade: our unconditional solidarity and support as they search for the truth.
Read Next: Why is Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald playing the union buster?