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Royce White on Larry Sanders, Mental Wellness and the NBA

Royce White

Royce White (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

When budding Milwaukee Bucks star Larry Sanders announced that he was voluntarily leaving the National Basketball Association to deal with his depression, anxiety and mental wellness, largely supportive comments emerged across the league. Yet there was one basketball opinion guaranteed to be more valuable and more honest than any others: that of former Iowa State All-American Royce White. The sixteenth pick in the 2012 NBA draft, White is currently not playing in the NBA. Just 23 years old, he has risked his career by confronting the NBA over its lack of a comprehensive mental health policy. I was able to interview Royce White for my radio show/podcast Edge of Sports. Here is an edited version of his comments:

On his gut reaction after hearing Larry Sanders was walking away from the NBA:

There’s a lot of sympathy there, especially dealing with anxiety myself. Not so much depression, but often the two intersect. I think that from the lens of being a mental health advocate, anytime somebody discloses the struggles they have it is a leap forward for the topic of mental health… because it’s just so taboo, it’s so hushed… At the same time, Larry is walking away from the game, and if he were staying in the game, there would be a whole different conversation that would be taking place.

On how the conversation would be different if Sanders was making the decision to stay:

I think there’d be much more resistance. It’s easy for everybody to say mental health is important when the player who’s dealing with the mental health condition is moving away from the game. But then it isn’t on [the NBA]. It isn’t still on their lap and that accountability that’s going to need to be taken. There’d be a lot more resistance if he was staying in the game.

On learning about how the Bucks were touting that they had a team psychologist on staff:

The conflict of interest is definitely there. I think if you’re going to be employing a psychologist, it should be in the form of giving the team workshops on sensitivity to mental health in the workplace. I think the risk for conflict of interest there is way too great, and that’s something that I talked about back in 2012: that independent doctors are what’s needed to make sure that the focus stays solely on health and what’s the player’s healthiest choice, not what’s the healthiest choice that can make him be the most productive basketball player because sometimes those might not intersect.

I think one of the things that’s tough about the mental health discussion is that there’s people who are all over the spectrum. And I think the NBA needs to first acknowledge the importance of mental health, and then be able to sift through, “How do we navigate getting better?” And there’s thirty individual clubs and they’ll all do what they think is best, but acknowledging the importance of mental health first is where it begins. The sports psychology thing has some validity to it as well, but the mental health discussion definitely supersedes the sports psychology discussion. But some of the reasons why guys might be nervous at the free throw line, or throwing up before games, or harping on the results of the game may also have a lot to do with mental health.

On hearing that an owner was quoted in an article about mental health in the NBA by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz saying, “I just gave him $30 million worth of mental health”:

It doesn’t surprise me. If I take you back to 2012, when I advocated strongly for there to be a mental health policy in the NBA, there was an article that was written where a GM said that he didn’t think that I was good enough to have my own set of guidelines as a player, regarding mental health. And the writer was [Yahoo Sports’] Adrian Wojnarowski, and later in the article he said other NBA owners and GMs feel that way so it’s not surprising at all. I think it’s scary, though… it’s very Donald Sterling–esque. Comments like that and articles like this sometimes go unnoticed and aren’t treated with the gravity that they should be. And what’s so sad to me is that if the owner that said that just knew a little bit more about mental health and what it means to be supportive, he would know that it’s not a money thing. It’s the policy and the power. I think an education process needs to happen, but ideas like that can’t allowed if we’re going to have the progress we want to have in terms of mental health in sports.

On the quote from someone in the NBA who said anonymously, “This is an important issue, but Larry is not the person to be the public face of it/He says all the right things, now he has no credibility”:

The first thing I thought when I read that comment was, “I pray to God that’s not somebody who Larry has been leaning on for support.” Because the number-one thing you do not do when attempting to support someone with a mental health condition is not believe them when they say, “I’m dealing with depression, anxiety, or I’m having suicidal ideation” or whatever it is. As far as him not being the public face of it, I think that’s neither here nor there. Him being the public face is not really even a factor.

On learning that Sanders grew up in dire poverty and how that relates to mental health:

It’s definitely right-on point to bring up capitalism when you bring up mental health and the way that we price it in this country. And at the end of the day, if you look at impoverished communities, there are high rates of mental health conditions. And I think at the end of the day, when you go in and you start to deal with poverty, then the mental health improves all around. I think that’s one of proudest moments of the article, was him talking about where he came from, and how those people from that community have really risen up through him for him to be able to stand up for himself and say, “My health is important.”

On Sanders’s comparing himself to Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, and saying that being an all-world defensive player requires a degree of mania and perhaps throwing one’s mental health to the wind:

It’s tough to say. If he feels that way, then we have to use what he’s saying as a piece of data moving forward as a way of progressing in the field. Obviously he’s a high, elite competitive athlete, and he is a great defender, so we have to look at that now. Let’s not shut it off, let’s just take it and apply it to the motivation of what we’re going to do moving forward. There is a validity to what he’s saying about the correlation between mental health conditions and energy or hyper-creativity. Those correlations have been drawn before, and we see that a lot of people who are hyper-successful or hyper-creative do have mental health conditions, but there’s also people who aren’t hyper-creative who have mental health conditions as well, so I think a general respect for mental health would do the league justice, I don’t want them looking at just the great defenders.

On not falling back on the idea that the NBA “culture” is resistant to speaking about mental health because of “machismo”:

I think there’s a lot of machismo type ideology that’s playing a factor. But I think the NBA is getting off the hook, and I think a lot of other professional sports leagues are getting off easy with the “man argument,” that it’s a “man toughing it out” thing. I think that’s a scapegoat that they’re using that to say that this is our long-lasting ideology and you know, don’t fight us on that. I think what’s really going on, is that to support mental health, or to genuinely move forward and progress in the area of mental health, there’s a real level of accountability [in management] that needs to exist, and that accountability isn’t just a money or resources thing, it’s being in touch with the humanity between two people.

For example, if you know I have anxiety, the way you operate now, the way you make your decisions… everything is impacted. And we live in a world where people [in power] want to be less accountable, they don’t want to be more accountable, and I think that in the NBA, that heightened level of accountability on behalf of players with mental health conditions has a financial implication, and that’s what they’re afraid of.

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On what players should be pushing for when it comes to mental health and the collective bargaining agreement:

I think they should be pushing for independent doctors: third-party doctors that aren’t employed by the league. I think that would give it the cleanest process in dealing with players with mental health conditions, and the cleanest results. What the union will get is all about what they’re willing to sacrifice and how hard they’re willing to push. But it’s not that tough. And I always go back to the example of me being at Iowa State. As much as people talked back in 2012 [his NBA rookie year] about me needing a special set of guidelines, and I was trying to be treated special and I was just a pompous brat, the reality is that I went through an entire season at Iowa State. We barely had to do anything special for me. So the first thing I’d do is bring [Iowa State] Coach [Fred] Hoiberg in and tell them what he had to do so they can be a little more eased about what they may have to do. Like I said, we didn’t do anything special other than I drove a couple times and if I was ever feeling anxious I was able to go to Coach Hoiberg and talk about it, and our team doctor was involved, and maybe I needed some medication to get some extra sleep, or maybe I needed some medication to calm down some nausea, which is another effect of anxiety, before a big game. But all very little things that aren’t costly. And I think that that fear of that cost is what’s standing in the way.

On what the position of the NBPA should be:

If you break your ankle on the court, of course they have to keep paying you, because you got hurt on the job, and it’s not even a question whether you keep getting paid. But for some reason, Larry Sanders says he wants to go deal with his mental wellness and it’s like, “Oh, well, we definitely can’t pay you for not being here.” Yes. I would’ve liked to see a player like Larry Sanders who needs a year to get better be clear that after that time he wants to come back. Or maybe it’s not a guy needing a whole year to get more mentally healthy. Maybe it’s a week. Maybe it’s two weeks. The same thing if you had a bad back or you twisted your ankle or you’re having vision problems. Whatever it is, if it’s a medical condition, you should pay the guy. I don’t think that guys should be penalized for needing to recharge their batteries. Wouldn’t it make for such better basketball if we took into account for guys needing to recharge their batteries? I think it would just be an improvement for the NBA to take this step forward in the area of mental health and the collaboration of that and physical health, and we’ll realize a whole new holistic health.

On what’s next for Royce White:

I’m going to play. I never stopped wanting to play. I think there’s a misnomer out there that I walked away from the game somewhat along the line of what Larry did, but I was just playing at the end of last season with Sacramento. If they would have kept me, I would have stayed. I want to play, and I’m going to play. If all teams think that they can’t use my services, then so be it, but I’m going to continue.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on why players, fans and the long-term success of MLS lose in the new CBA

Defeat: Major League Soccer Players Union Scores an Own Goal

Dimitry Imbongo

New England Revolution forward Dimitry Imbongo (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Major League Soccer Players Union did not organize to win its labor dispute with the league’s ownership, and now players and fans will have to live with the results. With the official start of the season less than forty-eight hours away, the MLS Players Union, which repeatedly stated its willingness to strike for free agency, buckled and signed a crap deal. Yes, there is now “free agency,” but only for players 28 years or older who have already accrued a staggering eight consecutive years of MLS experience. This will benefit a fraction of players in a league where the average age is 28 as many come to MLS from leagues across the globe. Free agency should be an incentive to draw young stars to MLS. This accomplishes the opposite, locking in a structure that protects bosses and aging superstars looking for one last payday.

Also in the CBA, it was established that the minimum salary would be raised to just $60,000 a year. This in a league where some franchises are listed as being worth as much as a quarter of a billion dollars.

It’s a bum deal and it did not have to happen. Twenty-four hours before the CBA was signed, team reps voted 18-1 (with one abstention) to strike. Yet with Friday’s opener looming, the union leadership caved without consensus to do so, and seven of the twenty reps voted to refuse the terms.

Sports Illustrated has several anonymous quotes from players, the common thread of all being words like “disappointed,” “upset” and this doozy: “Not only did this deal destroy the future of the American player, it barely helps the current group of players.”

This is what happens when you have a rank and file ready to strike and a young union leadership looking like Bambi’s mom and pop staring into the headlights.

In the weeks leading up to this moment, you didn’t need to be Marvin Miller to identify the deepening divergence between the players and the union. Player reps were going public, speaking with a bracing confidence about “unity,” “resolve” and doing whatever it took to make MLS more free for existing players and a magnet for young global talent at a time when soccer is on a major upswing in the United States. They spoke about a league where a couple of players make millions, while most made five-figure salaries. They said the league would never be the world-class operation that Commissioner Don Garber blathers about under such a structure. They spoke about this being their “Curt Flood moment.”

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The union, meanwhile, operating from offices in Bethesda, Maryland, did not look ready for prime time. While the news of a possible strike was roiling the sports media landscape and the extensive world of soccer social media, its website was absent of any updates, perspectives, or explanations as to why it was making this stand. Its website’s “press release” section hadn’t been updated since 2014. Its “in the news” section included no news articles about anything related to the negotiations. And most puzzlingly, as player reps spoke publicly about their willingness to sacrifice the entire season in the name of the principle of free agency, the union homepage was a 2015 season preview.

In addition, there was zero effort by the MLSPU to reach out to the league’s electric ultra fan clubs who undoubtedly would have supported the players in numerous cities. Imagine the District Ultras, the Sons of Ben, the Timbers Army, Tribal Rhythm Nation, Sektor Latino, the Kings of the North—to just name a few—holding their vibrant, colorful rallies outside the offices of management demanding that they settle. Any union going into a negotiation battle could only dream of such a set-up: a contract campaign of public support that’s not only pre-organized but would be catnip for a soccer sports media twiddling their thumbs looking for something to cover. Would this have worked? According to our own queries, some would have absolutely answered that call. But the players union made no overtures and would not respond to our questions as to why. The results are there to see.

One could imagine Marvin Miller in heaven, arms crossed with steam coming out of his ears, saying the labor mantra, “If you want to avoid a strike, you damn well better prepare for one.” The union didn’t and until 2020, the players, the fans and the future prospects of the league are the big losers. The penny wise, pound foolish, parsimonious, pig-headed plutocrats in power won the day, and we are all worse for it.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the passing of three interconnected icons

The Passing of Three Interconnected Icons: Earl Lloyd, Minnie Minoso and Anthony Mason

Minnie Minoso

Minnie Minoso, Major League Baseball's first black player in Chicago, stands during the national anthem before a Chicago White Sox game. (AP Photo/David Banks)

The awful cliché that tragedy occurs in threes became prophecy over the last week in the world of sports. A trio of towering athletes died, two from age and one decades before his time. These three shared something powerful in common, beyond their field of work. None were ever formally recognized as Hall of Famers for their play, yet all were truly iconic. They were the kinds of players that young sportswriters made pilgrimages to interview; the kind who could either silence a room or cause attendees to spontaneously rise to their feet. They also shared a deeper sociopolitical significance worth remembrance and appreciation. Their names were Earl Lloyd, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and Anthony Mason.

In 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to take the court in the National Basketball Association, making his debut three and a half years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Lloyd played nine seasons with a reputation as a gritty and tireless defender. He endured segregated accommodations and racial barbs from fans, but was undeterred, blazing a trail for a new generation of players that would reshape, reform and recreate the beautiful game. From Bill Russell to LeBron James, the black athlete in the NBA begins with the slings and arrows suffered by Earl Lloyd. As kind a person as I have met in sports, Lloyd was quoted in his New York Times obituary from 1992 saying, “…they’d yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa,’ My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.” Lloyd always took the time to speak about his experiences with a combination of detail and deep humility. His passing at the age of 86 is a tragedy for anyone in basketball who never had the chance to keep his company, even for a cup of coffee.

The Cuban-born Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was another trailblazer, becoming the first black player to ever suit up for a baseball team in the city of Chicago on May 1, 1951. He is perhaps best remembered for playing in five different decades, pinch-hitting in 1980 for the White Sox at the age of 55. But that gives short shrift to a brilliant Hall of Fame–quality playing career as one of the best hitting outfielders of his generation and pioneer of racial integration. As Adrian Burgos argues brilliantly at Sporting News, his rightful place is in the halls of Cooperstown. Beyond statistics, he should be honored for his role as a beacon, inspiring the great wave of Afro-Caribbean talent that first flowered throughout Major League Baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. As Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said to Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune, “Orestes Minoso was the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos; the first star who opened doors for all Latin American players. He was everybody’s hero. I wanted to be Minoso. [Roberto] Clemente wanted to be Minoso.” In a region that has nurtured more baseball talent per capita than anywhere on earth, Minoso broke down the cruelest and most backward of barriers: the one that for decades separated teammates and countrymen from making a joint jump to the Majors because of the different shades of their skin. No one is quite sure how old Minoso was upon his death. Maybe 90. Maybe 92. He always kept that number close to his vest. From Chicago to the Caribbean he will remain immortal.

Then there is Anthony Mason, the barrel-chested NBA point-forward who died from complications from a massive heart attack at age 48. He had a rap sheet and flaws that he wore with a shrug. But by torrents of accounts, he also had a beautiful and giving spirit, provoking people to be overwhelmed with grief upon hearing of his death. The outpouring of affection for “Mase” over the weekend must have been stunning to casual observers, his name trending at the top of Twitter ahead of llamas, dresses, CPAC and other frivolities. This is because an entire generation of established NBA writers became fans in the 1990s and for them Mason was a symbol of their dizzy, irrational young-love. That’s because the 1990s NBA was largely polarized around what you felt about Michael Jordan’s air-borne dynasty in Chicago. If you were not a Jordan guy, you were probably by necessity fiercely attracted to their antithesis, a New York Knicks team that played basketball like it was roller derby played on skates with square-shaped wheels.

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In the days before League Pass and the NBA channel, when your pro hoops fandom was somewhat at the mercy of network television, you probably watched an incredible number of 75-72 Knicks victories, eked out with elbows and swagger. As Robert Silverman wrote at the Daily Beast, “That the product on the court was ugly is undeniable. It was a glowering, sweaty scrum masquerading as basketball, but that too seemed to be a New York response to Michael Jordan’s poetry.”

Those Knicks were built around center Patrick Ewing and head-butting shooting guard John Starks. But Anthony Mason was their personification: built like a bouncer with the handle of a guard, and sweet hair-stylings all his own. He was also, like Earl Lloyd and “Minnie” Minoso, his own kind of trailblazer. Mase was the kind of player who’d show up at neighborhood courts, appear in Diamond D videos, and get shout-outs by the Beastie Boys on the album Ill Communications with the line, “I get my hair cut correct like Anthony Mason / Then I ride the IRT right up to Penn Station.” He also makes an appearance smacking down a shot in the Beasties “Root Down video. If the Beastie Boys were a special kind of NYC cool that didn’t transcend race so much as build bridges to connect people across that great divide, then so was Anthony Mason and the city-wide love he inspired.

This is why more than the timing of their deaths binds Earl Lloyd, Minnie Minoso and Anthony Mason. They are all people who reached outside their respective communities while never forgetting the soil that nurtured them. With a combination of a wink and a serious eye, they extended a hand to invite those around them to experience their culture, skill and spirit. Whether it was the segregated United States, the disrespected Caribbean or the demonized NYC Giuliani-era inner city, Earl Lloyd, Minnie Minoso and Anthony Mason broke through and then allowed those of us on the outside to see what we have been missing. Rest in peace. Rest in power. And thank you.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the potential Major League Soccer players’ strike

Can Players Win a Strike Against Major League Soccer?

Landon Donovan challenges Brad Evans

LA Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, center, challenges Seattle Sounders midfielder Brad Evans. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In just over one week, the Major League Soccer season is supposed to get underway and soccer to continue its ascent up the hierarchy of US sports. But a possible players’ strike in response to illogical, pigheaded and profoundly shortsighted greed on the part of MLS management could take these plans and send them to the showers. Without a collective bargaining agreement—since January—the MLS Players Union wants its demands met or its players will refuse to take the field. Steven Caldwell, a 34-year-old defenseman for Toronto FC who arrived in MLS in 2013 after a career in the English Premier League, said, “We are fully together.… I have never seen a more unified group of players considering the distances we cover and the amount of people our group entails. We are very unified and committed to what we are trying to achieve.”

What is it they are trying to achieve? Why are analysts saying a strike that could threaten the entire season is a distinct possibility?

I spoke with Anto Bianco, co-host of the Sirius XM soccer show Beyond the Pitch. He said, “It really comes down to a single phrase that is taken for granted in American sports: free agency. Each sport, whether it’s MLB, NFL, NBA or the NHL, has some form of free agency, and the sense one gets from MLS players is that they consider this a show stopper in terms of the current collective-bargaining process.”

We have so taken free agency for granted in other sports that there is no memory of what it looks like when a player is robbed of its liberties. In MLS, it means that even after a player’s contract has ended, the club still holds his rights. You are effectively club property. Free agency has certainly, as MLS owners fear, triggered dramatic salary hikes in the other sports leagues. But it has also been a factor in exponentially growing other major sports, adding to fan interest and excitement. Why would MLS owners be against it? As Bianco explains it, their logic makes little sense.

“The owners want to avoid it because they fear a loss of spending controls for a league that is still in a growing phase, but this stance to me opens up a couple of important questions. If the league is going to maintain a salary cap in future CBAs, doesn’t that very mechanism already serve as a counter-balance to those fears? The more significant issue to me arrives from Commissioner Don Garber’s own words. It’s his steadfast aspiration to see MLS become one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. If that is to be the case, I find it hard to believe that in seven years a league can attain that status given the globalized nature of the sport and a resistance to free agency. How do you acquire that talent when clubs in emerging markets in Asia, smaller European leagues and South American teams are already openly bidding for those very players?”

Former MLS Player and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman echoed a portion of this analysis to the New York Post, saying, “This is the Curt Flood moment for this league. This is the conversation that has to be had if they want the league to be where they say they want it by 2022.” In other words, it is necessary for both the financial health of the players and any hopes the league has reach its lofty ambitions.

I also spoke to Grant Wahl, senior editor and longtime soccer scribe for Sports Illustrated. He said, “The league’s opposition to free agency only applies to players. The new general manager for the Seattle Sounders Garth Lagerwey was signed after his contract ended with Real Salt Lake.”

Seattle hired Lagerway on January 6, as the players union was in a negotiations hearing about how free agency was never going to happen. It is hard to see how “free agency for executives but not players” could be interpreted as anything other than a slap in the face.

But if the players are angry, resolute and organizing, there are also potential pitfalls in their path to victory. Wahl referred me to the recent signings of high-profile international talent such Frank Lampard, Kaka and David Villa, saying, “I talked to a team executive who said he expects some of the highly paid foreign players, especially those who arrived this year or last, to want their salaries and want their paychecks. That could be an issue that threatens unity on the players’ side. If you’re a highly paid foreign player who has just came over, you might not have a stake or interest in the long-term security of the rank-and-file American player. So that’s going to be a big test for the union.”

There are also concerns that the war chest of the players is not nearly what it is in the other major sports. As agent and NYU professor Ted Philipakos tweeted, with a chart, it currently hovers around a scant $6 million. As Philipakos wrote, “Unfortunately, a young union means a small strike fund.”

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But the biggest concern for those who want to see the players victorious is that there is no sign of a contract campaign: a concerted effort by the MLS Union and players to reach out to both fans as well as other unions, explain their position and seek their solidarity. You go to the MLS Union website and would never know that an earthshaking strike could be imminent. Given the incredible amount of fan interaction in MLS strongholds such as Seattle and Portland, this seems like a terrible mistake. It is easy to imagine the Woody Guthrie–singing fan clubs of the Pacific Northwest, the Emerald City Supporters and Timbers Army, supporting the players with marches, rallies and a creative gusto that would make the MLS bosses itch to make a deal.

I spoke with Jules Boykoff, a Timbers season-ticket holder, former pro soccer player and journalist. He said, “In Portland, the Timbers Army supporters group has a vibrant independent streak. By no means are they mere pawns of the Timbers owners. And there’s a strong social-justice current that flows through Timbers Army as well. Supporting the labor rights of the players they adore is not some far-fetched notion. Such commitment and sophistication chimes with the remarkable tifos they’ve made recently in support of LGBT rights and against homophobia. The support of Timbers Army would send a strong message.”

It certainly would send a strong message. If only the union were asking its players to reach out and organize the fan clubs to speak on their behalf. The MLS Players Union seems to be counting on players’ anger, unity and the unassailable logic of their position to carry the day. We will see if that is enough. This is indeed, as Twellman said, the players’ “Curt Flood moment.” But remember that Curt Flood was drummed out of Major League Baseball, never able to enjoy the fruits of his sacrifice. Today’s players should not have to suffer the same fate.



Read Next: Dave Zirin on the police surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Grand Central

Patricia Arquette’s Equal Pay Message Needs a Drastic Rewrite

Patricia Arquette

Patricia Arquette accepts the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Boyhood at the 87th Academy Awards. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

I’ll never forget that night in 1993 when “teenage me” was sitting with my girlfriend at the midnight show of a flick written by the guy who did Reservoir Dogs. It was called True Romance. We swallowed whole a film about two adventure junkies on a road trip to Hollywood involving a suitcase full of coke, the Detroit mob, a dreadlocked Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt with a honey-bear bong, and young lovers. One was Ms. Alabama Worley, played by Patricia Arquette, and by the time the film finished, I was good and smitten. Maybe it was the scene where she used a Swiss army knife to take out a hulking sadistic mob hitman played by a young unknown named James Gandolfini. Maybe it was writing “youre so cool” (no apostrophe) on a napkin for her true love, Clarence. Maybe it was the look on her face in the final scene, no makeup, smiling on the beach. Whatever it was, Patricia Arquette immediately became someone whose career I never stopped tracking.

Over the last twenty years that career has included one of the most under-rated comedies ever made, Flirting with Disaster, amidst a series of clearly dwindling opportunities. She was looking like one of the subjects of her sister Rosanna’s searing documentary Searching for Debra Winger, about Hollywood actresses becoming expendable after the criminally young age of 40. That’s what made her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win last night for Boyhood so satisfying. Famously filmed over twelve years, it is really a film about her character as much as it is about her son. The film captures Ms. Arquette aging in real time, her body and face subtly altering like that of a normal human being. Maybe I was projecting, but it felt that the Richard Linklater film, as much as anything else, was about how cruel we are to see the wisdom and character earned through time as some sort of deficit.

It has been a joy to see Patricia Arquette get her due this award season, culminating with her Oscar. I had been playing a drinking game last night where I took a sip every time Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make me laugh so I was nice and toasty by the time her name was called. I have a friend who did some of the makeup for Boyhood, and she told me stories about Ms. Arquette talking to cast and crew about equal pay for women. I knew this was an issue close to her heart and when she spoke about it, I raised my glass, cheered and took a drink.

In other words, as soon as I heard, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America” I whooped and tweeted the following in a state of Arquette euphoria.

But later that night, when she was asked to expand on her views backstage, the problems began. Ms Arquette said:

Equal means equal. The truth of it is the older an actress gets, the less money she makes. It’s inexcusable that we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and yet…we don’t have equal rights for women in America. It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now. (Emphasis mine.)

Part of me is very hesitant to attack an actor I deeply respect for having the courage to say anything about the important issue of equal pay for women, and to judge her views on the basis of what surely must have been an adrenaline-spiked high backstage at an awards show. I’m also hesitant as a man to say something when a woman—or anyone—actually has the courage to even raise these issues on such a profoundly elevated public space. But something really does need to be said about this. To quote Prof. Brittany Cooper’s Twitter feed, it is wrong to expect “Black feminists to do [the] labor” of breaking down exactly what is so problematic about Ms. Arquette’s message. Ms. Arquette’s words will be quoted extensively and applauded with the gusto shared by Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, so they demand a great many responses from a great many angles. Here is mine.

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What is so aggravating is that Ms. Arquette’s comments could best be described as “anti-intersectional.” When you speak of equal pay for women and call upon “all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now” it states pretty clearly that you see your struggle as one of straight, white, native-born women for equal pay, as if there aren’t masses of people who live beneath the weight of multiple labels that would benefit from such reforms. It would have been so easy for Ms. Arquette to say something like, “If we had laws in this country ensuring equal pay for women, it would mean equal pay for all women of color and all of our LGBT sisters.” But she chose instead a “we fought for you now you fight for us” approach to fighting oppression.

Unfortunately this is not only cringe-inducing, but it’s also historically negligent. Saying “we fought for you, now you fight for us” implies that battles against racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and other forms of oppression owe a massive debt to the heroism of straight white, middle- and upper-class women. In the context of a year that has seen the #BlackLivesMatter movement expand consciousness about the realities of police violence, a criminally underreported spike in trans murders and the searing pain of the Chapel Hill killings, such a statement could not sound more tin-eared.

It also blatantly ignores—instead of owning—the ways in which white-led middle-class feminist movements have in many instances historically ignored or even opposed the movements of workers, people of color and other oppressed groups. There are so many scholars and activists trying to actually own this history and change the ways in which people interact and organize in the future. It was difficult not to feel the pain of every person carefully trying to build those fragile alliances, only to have Ms. Arquette remind many precisely why those alliances need to be constructed in the first place.

This is a moment when the need for people to come together, fight with and for each other and most critically listen to one another, has never been more vital. No one is going to come together if they feel that they are not being heard. We should hear Patricia Arquette’s righteous and urgent call for fair pay. We should hope Patricia Arquette hears why that message will need a rewrite if she wants the support such a movement will demand.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the police surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Grand Central

The #BlackLivesMatter Surveillance Special at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse

#BlackLivesMatter protest in Grand Central Terminal

#BlackLivesMatter protesters gather in Grand Central Terminal. Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, on the north balcony, is visible in the background. (The All-Night Images, CC-BY NC 2.0)

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.”

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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

It Matters: Steph Curry Honors Victim of Chapel Hill Murders

Steph Curry's sneakers

“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.”

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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

Gentrification Is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West

Jackie Robinson West

The Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team celebrates the US Little League Championship. Little League International has stripped Chicago's Jackie Robinson West team of its national title after finding the team falsified its boundary map. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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.”

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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: On the Passing of a Death Penalty Abolitionist

Michael Jordan and Dean Smith

Michael Jordan (left) and Dean Smith (right) (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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.

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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 Williams, Indian Wells and Rewriting the Future

Serena Williams

Serena Williams (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer)

“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.”

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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

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