Where sports and politics collide.
I am so angered by the insane, over-the-top suspensions of Saints football coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, and pretty much everyone in New Orleans except for the cast of Treme, that I had to create a new word. I’m shock-raged. The entire 2012 season for a team that could rightly be called a Super Bowl favorite has been sliced to ribbons by the SportsWorld’s favorite judge, jury and executioner, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. By taking out the entire Saints brain trust, like he’s Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is sending one hell of a loud message. But cacophony is not the same as clarity. Most agree the Saints should have met with some punishment for having a “bounty system” against opposing players, but suspending the head coach for an entire season? Suspending the General Manager for eight games? Suspending former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely? Why?
Ask Roger Goodell, and he will say that the suspensions were so harsh because the league needed to protect players and take a stand against the culture of violence that bounties imply. But this fails the most basic of smell tests. If Goodell cared about player safety, he wouldn’t be pushing for an eighteen-game season. He wouldn’t have spent last off-season fighting the NFL Players Association on expanding health benefits or limiting “voluntary” off-season workouts. He wouldn’t be promoting Thursday-night games, which will accelerate injuries by giving players a shorter week to heal.
Goodell also said that the suspensions were so harsh because the Saints executives and coaches “misled” and “misrepresented” what was going on when called to his carpet. First of all, my own sources said that Payton and company arrived in Goodell’s lair with their hats in hand ready to name names like Elia Kazan on sodium pentothal. But even if they did “mislead” and “misrepresent” on bounties, think about the ways that Goodell has “misled” and misrepresented” the public about the true effects of violence in his sport. This is a league with a 100 percent injury rate, a concussion epidemic and a history of sending concussed players into games. It’s why they’re being sued by a large collection of former star players, including Jim McMahon, Mark Duper and Hall of Famers Carl Eller, John Hannah and Chuck Bednarik.
I am not saying that the Saints shouldn’t have been punished. There should be zero tolerance for any kind of a locker-room culture that abides a bounty system, but every NFL defense aims to “take out” the opposing team’s star player. They’ll say, and the Saints players have said, that the goal is always to do it “within the rules of the game.” I don’t doubt this. The problem is that the overwhelming number of crippling injuries all take place within the “rules of the game.” Violence is football and football is violence. That’s not a critique or value judgment. Just a fact.
The real reason Roger Goodell has smashed the Saints season is, as Jason Reid of the Washington Post put it, “brand protection at the highest level.” Goodell doesn’t work for the players. He works for the owners. No player on earth should believe he has their interests at heart. It’s just not his job. His job is selling the idea that the NFL, because of the padding, because of his wise rule changes, because of his system of deterrence, is violence without consequence. It’s just not true. He wants to send a message to all the skittish parents reading about concussions, to all the people complaining about a possible eighteen-game season and to the dozens of former players suing the league that the league’s violence can be controlled and regulated under his watchful eye. What an absolute sham. The sport is built on violence. If that’s too much for people to handle, then they can take their money elsewhere. If that makes a promising young player quit for other pursuits, so be it. But at least they’d be making an informed decision and not judging the game on fraudulent grounds.
If there’s a silver lining in all of this, hopefully we can finally dispense with the fiction that the NFL has a special place in its heart for the city of New Orleans. We can stop saying that after Katrina, the NFL is the best friend the city has. Instead, expect an ailing Saints team to cost the still rebuilding city millions. This league is not your friend, Saints fans. I hope the season-ticket holders organize themselves like the former players and take the NFL to court. Roger Goodell thinks he lives above the law. But he shouldn’t be allowed to do this to the Saints, their fans, and the city of New Orleans, without legal consequence. Maybe Goodell will then be shock-raged for a change.
Please, oh please: may the soon-to-be ex-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow sign with the Miami Dolphins. I know (at least I hope) you’re busy with issues other than the state of professional football here in the United States, but please hear me out. The Denver Broncos announced today that they would be signing four-time Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning to be their starting quarterback. They also made clear that their incumbent QB Tim Tebow, would be vanquished in short order.
I’m going to assume, although his fans think otherwise, that you have no idea who this Tim Tebow happens to be. He’s a star; a sports sensation; an idol to millions. He’s also, statistically, the twenty-eighth best quarterback in the National Football League. His completion percentage was 46 percent, dead last in the sport. To put it in terms you’ll understand, if David threw a slingshot like Mr. Tebow throws a football, Goliath would have been flossing his teeth with the future King.
But Mr. Tebow did lead the Broncos to their first playoff victory in six years and as awfully as he performed in the first three quarters of games, Mr. Tebow was terrific when it mattered the most. He played with the guts of a linebacker and he inspired his teammates with his joy in playing the sport. To put it in the most gentle terms, one could say he kept both teams in every single contest.
By now you’re probably asking, “What in My Name does this have to do with me?” Please don’t get too wrathful at Mr. Tebow, but you should know that he seems to believe that he speaks for you. He has a fan base of fervent followers who believe the same. They love him not just because he’s a loud and proud Christian, but more for his particular brand of Christianity.
Mr. Tebow believes that the path to your grace lies in supporting organizations that believe gay people need to be “cured” and women should “submit” to men as well as relinquish control over their own bodies. He constantly fundraises for his father’s expanding Mission in the Philippines, a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic. To be Catholic, in the eyes of this family, is to not be in God’s grace. As Bob Tebow writes about Filipinos, “It is estimated that over 64% of them do not have a single evangelical church. In a country of over 92 million, the number of people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ is staggering.” Tim Tebow also believes that to not be circumcised is a road toward Hell. Without medical training, the young man does his own snipping when amongst the heathen Filipinos. We all hope, in this endeavor, he’s more than 46 percent accurate.
I know it’s remarkable that someone who claims the same faith as Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and Sister Helen Prejean could act in such a manner but it’s less about faith than using faith to serve a political agenda. In fact, Mr. Tebow has already made clear that he has an interest in a future amongst that true den of thieves and moneychangers: the United States Congress.
Getting unceremoniously dumped by the Broncos takes some of the shine off of Tim Tebow’s evangelical glow, but his holy brand is lucrative and he will most certainly find a new home. The smart money is on that most unholy of states, Florida. This is the boyhood home of Tim Tebow and his return would make quite the splash, restoring his status as false idol. He could go to the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Miami Dolphins. Please, send him to Miami.
During his time in Denver, Tim Tebow had local media that asked him questions with the tenderness of a foot massage. Nearby Colorado Springs, the home of organizations like Focus on the Family, the New Life Church and a host of other entities that aim to harm others in your name provided Mr. Tebow with a ready base of power and public pressure. Tonight, they surely mourn.
In Jacksonville, Tebow’s hometown, we could expect more of the same. In Miami, he would have to face questions that reflect the city’s demographic reality. Your LGBT children gather often in Miami. Mr. Tebow would be asked if he believed they needed to be “cured.” The large Catholic population might want to know why his family ministry targets their religion for conversion and believes they haven’t heard the gospel. The young women of Miami would be curious why the new quarterback believes in banishing their birth control.
My hope is that by having to answer these questions, Mr. Tebow might, for the first time in his sheltered life, have to confront why he so desperately wants to change others. My hope is that this will lead him down to Miami neighborhoods like Liberty City, the boardwalks of South Beach and Overtown (formerly called “Colored Town” during Jim Crow). My hope is that he would go not to preach but to listen, and maybe he would then use his fame and fortune to empower others, instead of his own agenda.
Please deliver him to Miami. I know you have more pressing pursuits, but if it’s easy and quick, I’d be grateful. Also, if the Knicks could maybe win a championship in my lifetime, that would rock.
In struggle and sports,
This past weekend saw the sharpest possible demonstration of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, so thrilling as a sports spectacle and so repellent as a business. We witnessed two number-fifteen seeds win in the opening round, the first time that’s happened in tournament history. Lehigh vanquished the much-loathed Duke Blue Devils and an unknown Norfolk State squad beat a team with Final Four expectations, the Missouri Tigers. That was awesome. Then came ugly, otherwise known as the case of Kansas State center Jamar Samuels. Samuels, the team’s second leading scorer and a senior, was declared ineligible and summarily humiliated by the NCAA just twenty minutes before the Wildcats’ second-round game against Syracuse. What was Samuels’s crime? He’s accused of taking $200 from his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Curtis Malone. Samuels had to miss his last game as a collegian and watch his dispirited team lose to the top ranked Orange, 75-59. After the game, just being asked about Samuels, caused his coach Frank Martin, to grit his teeth with anger and grief.
I’m not sure which part of this to be enraged by first. Let us count the ways.
1. How do NCAA players, old enough to vote and fight in wars, not even have the benefit of due process? Samuels was accused, no more no less. He had no rights to appeal or defend his name. His team had to figure out a new game plan with twenty minutes to spare, while administrators furiously tried to lobby officials to change their mind. The NCAA’s absolute authority as judge, jury and executioner, is a recipe for abuse.
2. Jamar Samuels’s suspension led to the following headline that simply says it all: “Jamar Samuels Ruled Ineligible For Trying To Feed His Family.” His former coach, Curtis Malone, admitted after the suspension that he had given him $200 so Samuels could buy groceries for his mother. “Yeah, I did,” he said. “It’s the same way when he played [for me] on road trips. When he didn’t have money to eat, he ate.” He later told CBSSports.com, that he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong. “If I knew it and wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently. The kid’s family doesn’t have anything and he called me for money to eat.” Neither Malone nor Samuels thought they were doing anything wrong. Malone had known Samuels’s mother for years and they live in a situation where poverty literally means not knowing how you will find food for the week.
3. Let’s say Samuels did take the $200. Let’s say he walked on the court with two Ben Franklin’s pinned to his shirt. My only problem with that would be that it wasn’t more money and didn’t come from the NCAA instead of Curtis Malone. This March Madness tournament brings in $10.8 billion in television funds alone, comprising 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget and underwriting the lavish salaries of everyone we don’t pay to watch. NCAA President Mark Emmert won’t disclose his salary as leader of his “nonprofit” but it’s thought to be in excess of $2 million a year. He has fourteen vice presidents, each of whom make at least $400,000 annually. They are paid to make sure Jamar Samuels and friends don’t get a dime. What proud work.
4. Jamar wears Nikes and the swoosh adorns his shoes and uniform. This is not personal brand preference. Nike is in the last year of a six-year, $12.3 million contract with Kansas State. Jamar has spent the last four years as a running, jumping human billboard for the global sporting apparel giant, with not a dime for his troubles. His coach, Frank Martin, with nary a swoosh on his body that we can see (I can’t speak for hidden tattoos or brands) makes $1.5 million a year.
5. It’s striking that Emmert didn’t issue any kind of a statement last week when Samuels’s teammate Angel Rodriguez endured the racist invective of the Southern Mississippi band, who chanted “Where’s your green card?” at the freshman guard. Why is that? My working theory is that there is no financial incentive for sticking up for Mr. Rodriguez, just a moral one. In contrast, regulating the financial life of their players, particularly whether or not their pockets possess more than lint, is the NCAA’s reason for being.
All players don’t suffer this level of scrutiny, however. Credit to DC sports host Ivan Carter for pointing out on Twitter that football and hoops are the only sports where you can’t go pro right out of high school. Play college hockey, you can have an agent and even be called up to the pros. Play college golf or tennis, and you can be a part of the most lucrative grand slam events on earth. There is no equal protection under NCAA law. It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to explain why. Basketball and football is about poor kids who generate billions, divided by coaches, colleges and the NCAA. It’s their orgy and players are expected to act the role of eunuchs, seen, not heard and definitely not paid. The NCAA’s arrogance is stunning. They are banking on us being oblivious to the fact that they destroyed a team as well as possibly the prospects of Jamar Samuels just to flex their “moral authority” over an utterly amoral system. Former LSU coach, Dale Brown, was absolutely correct when he said that the NCAA does little more in the end, than "legislate against human dignity." This is why it has to go.
Welcome to the New South, which at times can look and act one hell of a lot like the Old South. The NCAA Men’s basketball tournament staged a first round matchup between Kansas State and Southern Mississippi and KSU won, as expected, 70-64. The story of the game, however, was the members of the Southern Mississippi school band who gave us all another lesson that the past is not always past, by starting a chant as racist as it was ignorant.
They engaged in a chorus of “Where’s your green card?” aimed at Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez. Imagine being Angel Rodriguez and having that chanted in your direction at full volume, while trying to play a basketball game. This has about as much in common with normal rowdy fan behavior as a glee club has with a lynch mob. Rodriguez’s four free throws in the closing moments of the contest helped seal the victory, but that’s not nearly enough of a response given both the behavior of the fans as well as the exploding anti-immigrant climate in the state.
The chant, first and foremost, was both racist and stupid, given that Rodriguez is actually from Puerto Rico, and therefore has citizenship. But given that the state of Mississippi’s Republican electorate just voted for Rick Santorum, who recently said that Puerto Rico could only be a state if everyone learned and spoke English, their actions should anger but not surprise.
It also shouldn’t surprise given the fact that today—of all days—Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant saw his deeply punitive, racial-profiling anti-immigration House Bill 488 pass the state house. The bill will deal with what Bryant calls the “massive, uncontrolled” influx of “illegals.” It also gives local and state police the powers to demand the immigration papers of anyone they choose to stop. “If we pass this bill, it will set Mississippi back 60 years,” said Representative Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport. “Let us show America we are not the narrow-minded people they say we are.” Nice try, but instead Bryant celebrated the bill, saying, “Perhaps it’s boat-rocking time in Mississippi.“ Perhaps the students were just taking his lead, and trying to rock some boats.
Southern Mississippi School President Martha Saunders issued a statement a mere two hours after the game where she wrote:
We deeply regret the remarks made by a few students at today’s game. The words of these individuals do not represent the sentiments of our pep band, athletic department or university. We apologize to Mr. Rodriquez [sic] and will take quick and appropriate disciplinary action against the students involved in this isolated incident.
Yes, she misspelled Rodriguez’s name. And yes, treating this like an isolated incident is, pardon the expression given Mississippi’s history, a whitewash. Defenders of the Magnolia State will no doubt say that the state has changed dramatically from the days gone by. But given Bryant’s scapegoating, anti-immigrant agenda and given the extraordinary efforts taken by the state to deprive minority voting rights, it is, as Al Sharpton said, a change from Jim Crow to James Crow Jr. Esq. In other words, the depriving of rights and the threats to citizenship have erupted, yet now assume the language of legal niceties. But sometimes the bile rises to the surface, and from the mouths of Southern Miss. students, amidst a basketball game, the bile did runneth over.
In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympic games, taking a stand against the injustices they saw in their corner in the SportsWorld. The year 2012 is crying out for similar displays of athletic militancy but we shouldn’t have to wait for this summer’s Olympics. The time for action is right now during the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. We need young people of uncommon courage stepping forward into what sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards calls “the civil rights movement for our times,” the inequity and exploitation engineered by the NCAA.
In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as “March Madness.” There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.
It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection.… The college athletes are clearly the 99 percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that.
That “someone” may have been the great chronicler of the civil rights movement, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch. Branch, writing for The Atlantic Monthly last October, turned his eyes toward the NCAA. The genius of his subsequent piece, “The Shame of College Sports,” was that he was a fresh set of eyes, pointing out what many of us see every day but have become too calloused, too jaded or too bought-off to notice.
While college presidents cry about athletic department deficits, Branch pointed out that in 2010, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), “became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.”
Branch, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biographer, looked at the state of affairs and could come to only one conclusion:
For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not…
The NCAA tells us change is coming, yet the past year shows that no matter how many scandals erupt, we won’t see true reform and true justice without a movement built by the “student-athletes” themselves. This is not wishful thinking. Writing for Salon, Josh Eidelson, a former labor organizer, sheds light on a new organization, the National College Players Association (NCPA).
As Eidelson reports, “This past fall, hundreds of Division I college athletes at five schools —including every member of UCLA’s basketball team and most of its football team—signed an NCPA petition to the NCAA calling for a set of reforms: using new TV revenues to improve compensation and create an ‘educational lockbox’ that would reward players who graduate; allowing multi-year scholarships; and establishing that athletic injuries should not end athletes’ scholarships or leave them paying for their own medical treatment.”
The presence of the NCPA is critical because it brings instant credibility to the discussion and prevents the NCAA and their minions from writing off people like Branch as cranks and “outside agitators.”
But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any “jock for justice” willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind, and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It’s a risk worth taking, but don’t take my word for it. As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.”
Professional athletes, we are constantly told, are disloyal souls. They’re ungrateful. They’re selfish. They don’t care about the team, the fans or the community. They are only out for themselves. The perpetual prime example of this egomaniacal archetype is the person author Scott Raab called the “Whore of Akron”: basketball player Lebron James. The Ohio-born James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat and overnight became the Sports World’s number-one villain. Well, if Lebron James is the Whore of Akron, what does that make Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay?
On Wednesday, Irsay released his future Hall of Fame quarterback, 35-year-old Peyton Manning. In Manning, we have a player who exemplifies everything we say we want in athletes. He revered the tradition of the franchise. He involved himself in the community. He even built a hospital, for goodness sake. At the press conference announcing his release, he started to cry when talking about how much he’ll miss the equipment manager at the team’s practice facility.
This is someone who led his team to an NFL record 115 wins and nine straight playoff appearances over the last decade, while winning four most-valuable-player awards. This is someone who started 208 straight games. This is that rare player, like the Yankees’ Derek Jeter or the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who is almost impossible to imagine in another uniform.
Despite this remarkable record of accomplishment, Manning, in Irsay’s eyes, was seen as expendable. No loyalty. No humanity. Just business. But you aren’t seeing sports writers, commentators or bloggers ripping Irsay apart for his lack of fidelity. No one is burning their Colts jerseys in protest. Those kinds of brutal character assaults are reserved for the Lebron Jameses of this world. Instead, we hear that while Manning’s release might have been a tough decision, it had to be done. As Andrew Brandt wrote at SportsIllustrated.com, “In the end, Irsay’s decision to part with Manning is an understandable business decision, ruling from his head rather than his heart. Organizations must evolve. Leaders must respect the past, but not be controlled by it.” Brandt’s words have been echoed as the conventional wisdom across the sports landscape.
Yes, Peyton missed the entirety of last season with a neck injury, but that’s not stopping suitors across the league from drooling at his door. Yes, Peyton was due a massive signing bonus from the team if they didn’t release him, but this pales in comparison to the cash he has put in the owner’s pocket. This includes the hundreds of millions of dollars Irsay received in the construction of the publicly funded Lucas Oil Stadium, which can be fairly called “the house that Peyton built.” But Jim Irsay, in an action that should brand him as the Newt Gingrich of NFL owners, cast Peyton aside for a younger, prettier option. Peyton’s injury sank the Colts this season, landing them the coveted number-one draft pick and the opportunity to select shiny rookie Andrew Luck from Stanford. Not personal, just business.
Whenever owners release star players, the media applauds with somber respect. But the Lebrons of the world, despite their commercial value and cultural capital, are treated less like business people than ungrateful wards of the state. It’s a deeply condescending and highly racialized dichotomy that reaches back to Major League Baseball player Curt Flood’s perilous efforts to win free agency. If you play a children’s game, then the media and fans expect you to act as grateful and loyal as a child. If owners like Irsay are praised for “ruling from his head rather than his heart”, we never grant players that same respect. But even when a player comes along like a Peyton Manning, who meets every expectation and satisfies our every unreasonable demand, it’s still not enough.
Never talk to me again about what players “owe” their teams. Never ask why athletes aren’t more grateful to the people who sign their checks. Never refer to Lebron as "the whore of Akron” unless you are willing to call owners like Jim Irsay out as the pimps that they are.
There is no morality in war—but that doesn’t stop our political and military leaders from insisting otherwise. Invariably, the enemy consists of immoral, medieval cave dwellers who respect neither human life nor the sacred rules of combat. Our side, on the other hand, engages in “surgical strikes” to limit “collateral damage” in a noble effort to liberate the shackled from tyranny. They tell us to ignore the innocent killed in drone attacks, the piling body counts, and just remember that our enemies are savages because they don’t play by civilized rules.
This Orwellian staple came to mind when news broke of the NFL’s latest public relations debacle: that the New Orleans Saints defense targeted opponents with a “bounty” system. Normally we should have little patience with comparing the reality of war to a game like football. But here the metaphor works because we have that same heightened hypocrisy where the overlords of official violence condemn the carnage outside of their control.
Because former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instituted this “bounty program” that allegedly involved paying players for “knockout” or “cart-off” hits, the Saints will face an avalanche of suspensions, fines and penalties. The players involved and Coach Williams might, according to Sports Illustrated, even be liable for criminal prosecution. They will also have to carry the shame of “all that’s wrong with sports” as columnists try to out-fulminate their competitors. [There are so many overwrought words to choose from, but the winner of the Scarlett O’Hara Award has to go to Bill Plaschke for calling these matters “sanctioned evil.”]
The NFL is of course, aghast and appalled. In the words of Commissioner Roger Goodell, “The [anti-]bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”
And here we have the problem.
This is the same Roger Goodell who once employed a league doctor that denied a connection between football and concussions.
This is the same Goodell whose sport sees its retired players die decades before the typical American male; whose employees face patterns of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and suicidal depression.
This is the same Goodell whose sport saw former Chicago Bear great Dave Duerson, crippled by mental illness, end his life by shooting himself in the chest. Why the chest? He wanted his brain studied so the world would know what professional football did to him.
This is the same Goodell who almost cancelled the entire 2011 season because he wanted the players to have to endure two more games. More games means more money, health be damned. In other words, Roger Goodell isn’t exactly Gandhi here. He’s more like General Westmoreland, insisting that all is moving in the right direction while napalm stings the nose.
Goodell is nervous because if there is anything that could endanger this golden goose, it’s the idea that the three and a half hours of commodified violence we hold so dear might have an ugly and invisible human cost. Owners want us to imagine that players are like “Cleatus the NFL on Fox robot”: an indestructible, faceless, cyborg. If we start to register the real effects of NFL Sunday and that encourages generation of parents take their own children off this assembly line of concussions, the league’s cultural and financial dominance will be in peril.
The players’ response has also been in line with this effort to keep the realities of violence out of the public eye. Almost to a person, they have stepped forward to say, in the words of one, “ ‘Pay for performance’ systems are a time-honored locker room tradition.”
On the NFL’s website, former Saint Darren Sharper is quoted as saying, “I think this is something that, from when I got in the league in 1997, has happened thousands and thousands of times over.”
NFL.com also quotes a series of Twitter messages from players, best summed ex NFL player Damien Woody who tweeted, “This ‘bounty’ program happens all around the league…not surprising.”
They even quote New York Jet Trevor Pryce, who said to the New York Times, “It’s pretty much standard operating procedure. It made our special teams better. I know dudes who doubled their salary from it. Trust me, it happens in some form in any locker room. It’s like a democracy, the inmates governing themselves.”
Leave aside that curious but revealing characterization of the NFL as a “democracy” whose citizens are inmates. The NFL’s website—think Pravda with better graphic design—seems to be saying by highlighting these comments, both “this violence will not stand” and “this is just the way things happen in the locker room.” All the sports radio debates have been framed the same way. One side is appalled that violent motivators like a “bounty system” exists. The other rolls their eyes and says, “It happens on every team. Get over it.”
Neither side gets at the truth. This is an inherently dirty game with a real body count. Its main business isn’t a race to the Super Bowl but to present raw violence in a way that’s palatable for mass consumption. The more comfortable we are with violence, the more successful the NFL becomes. The minute we squirm, they lose. Like war, as long as the reporters are embedded and no one sees the coffins, business can proceed as planned. The tragedy is that often its only after players retire that they see the reality of an unequal partnership where only one side really walks away from the table.
The president of Georgetown University, John J. DeGioia, has written a letter (see below) to the university community that condemns Rush Limbaugh for his sick, hateful and altogether disturbing comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. There is an argument that says, “When you pay attention to Limbaugh, you give him just what he wants.” On one level, this is true. He’s a hacky carnival barker whose made millions by trading on racism, sexism and homophobia—and our attendant outrage. But Limbaugh crossed a line this week. He called a private citizen a “slut” because she testified to Congress about a friend who lost an ovary. He rose on top of his reinforced bully pulpit and invited violence and harassment on someone for daring to answer an invitation to speak before members of Congress. This could be his “Don Imus moment.” But that will depend on our level of commitment to get this bigot off of our airwaves and into his basement where he can join Glenn Beck in virtual anonymity. Here is a link to his sponsors.
Also, given the role that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s loud and proud Catholicism has played in the Republican primary race, every candidate should be asked if they agree with President DeGioia and join him in his condemnation of Limbaugh’s misogyny. I can’t wait for to hear both of Mitt Romney’s answers. Without further ado, below is the text of President DeGioia’s letter.
In recent days, a law student of Georgetown, Sandra Fluke, offered her testimony regarding the proposed regulations by the Department of Health and Human Services before a group of members of Congress. She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression. And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position – including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels – responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.
In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives. We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.
In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.”
If you were part of the 99 percent in the United Kingdom, you’d be forgiven for being somewhat befuddled at the moment. Deep spending cuts, austerity and privatization plans are the political agenda in Parliament, yet the country also is preparing full-blast for a little trifle called the Olympic Games. The games’ pricetag has exploded from $3.7 billion to more than $14.5 billion (US dollars). In addition, there will be at least 13,500 British troops in the UK for the Olympics, more than are stationed in Afghanistan. Beyond the numbers of official troops, there will be at least 10,000 private guards and contractors. The esteemed Royal Navy’s largest battleship will be docked in Greenwich, to safeguard the equestrian events. Bomb-disposal units, helicopters, fighter jets and ground-to-air missiles will also be on standby. Welcome to “conservative” governance in the twenty-first century: a militarized, budget busting, carnival of neoliberalism disguised as sport.
Len McCluskey, the leader of the country’s largest union, Unite, has looked at this state of affairs and raised the specter of strike-action during the Olympics. McCluskey, in an interview with the Guardian said that the attacks on public sector workers were “so deep and ideological” that they had every right to target the games. He said, “The idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable. Our very way of life is being attacked. By then, this crazy health and social care bill may have been passed, so we are looking at the privatisation of our National Health Service. I believe the unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting.”
McCluskey also urged the public to engage in “all forms of civil disobedience within the law.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband set a land-speed record for throwing the union under the bus, tweeting, “Any threat to the Olympics is totally unacceptable and wrong. This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted.”
Miliband’s response shouldn’t be shocking. It was Labour leaders Tony Blair and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone who secured the Olympics as part of their Cool Brittania initiative. Blair is now disgraced. Livingstone was voted out, yet the Games remain.
Following Miliband’s case of the shakes, all political parties are falling over themselves to condemn McCluskey’s remarks. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron twisted the knife. “Unite is the single biggest donor to the party opposite [Labour], providing around a third of their money, and had more role than anybody else in putting the right honourable gentleman [Miliband] in his place,” he said. “It’s not good enough for them just to put out a tweet. They need to condemn this utterly and start turning back the money.” A spokesman for Cameron further called the threats “unacceptable and unpatriotic.”
Conservative leaders aren’t just talking. They have been trying to pass anti-strike legislation, to fine and imprison workers involved in any work stoppages. Current London Mayor Boris Johnson wants a law that makes any strike action prohibited unless unions get a majority of every single member on the rolls to vote in favor walking out. McCluskey’s response to these threats has been to dig in. “If [ministers] make these attacks against us, trying to limit the type of strike action…. if they push us outside the law, they are going to have to live with the consequences of that,” he said. “Because if we need to break the law in order to defend what are our basic human rights—right of association—then we will do that.”
We will see if McCluskey can wrangle concessions on pay for UNITE workers during the Olympics or whether he and the 200,000 (including 28,000 transportation workers) walk out and cripple the Olympics.
If you listen closely, you can hear IOC officials wishing every Olympics could be held in China so dissenters like McCluskey can be rounded up and dealt with in efficient fashion. If the unions and British left aren’t vigilant, the IOC may get their wish.
[This article was co-written with Ari Russell, on loan from Beyond U Sports]
Rare are the times when an NCAA football player at a Division 1 Bowl Championship Series eligible school stands up for issues related to social justice. The reasons for this silence are manifold. From their legal and organizational powerlessness as “student-athletes,” to the annual renewal needed for their scholarships, to just the sheer amount of time players are asked to invest in their teams along with their isolation from the broader campus, silence is often the easiest option. This is the first part of what makes the case of University of Virginia football player Joseph Williams so exceptional. Williams, along with a group of fellow classmates, is currently engaged in a hunger strike organized by the Living Wage Campaign. The group is demanding that the service employees who work on the campus receive wages that keep up with the cost of living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Williams is doing nothing less than risking his football career and his health in order to stand up for the voiceless on campus.
What makes this story even more remarkable is Williams’s own voice. His essay on why he joined the hunger strike makes for powerful reading. Our interview with him was no less impressive. This is a jock for justice, laying it on the line for a cause deeply personal to him. If publicity of his stand inspires other college football players to be heard, the NCAA will find itself in difficult and unchartered waters.
Why was it important for you to take this stand?
It was very important to me to take this stand for several reasons. For one, it is a very personal issue because my family has gone through many of the same economic struggles that these UVA workers—some of whom work full-time at the University and still can’t pay their bills—are going through now. It really struck a chord in my heart, especially because the vast majority of them are afraid to speak out for themselves because it will put their jobs, and thus their livelihoods, in jeopardy. Secondly, it is important to me because I am close with several employees who work for UVA or its subcontractors who are being marginalized and exploited by the current University policies—for instance, Mama Kathy at Newcomb or Miss Mary at the C3 Store. And finally because of what the University itself stands for. I, as well as many other students, came to the University to participate in the “caring community” and the much-lauded honor system for which the University is known. However, I don’t believe that the way that the University is treating a large portion of their employees is either “honorable” or “caring” and I would like to see these employees treated with the same regard and respect as is afforded to the students, faculty, and even [UVA President] Teresa Sullivan herself.
What’s the reaction been from teammates and coaches?
The vast majority of the feedback I’ve received is positive—including feedback from teammates and coaches. Obviously, though, not all people have the same ideas concerning certain issues, so some people have expressed their discontent with how the Living Wage Campaign has engaged in the hunger strike—disregarding the fact that we’ve tried to negotiate countless times over the last fourteen years to no avail. Still though, the majority of the concern from coaches and teammates is directed at how my involvement in the hunger strike will affect my health and my ability to recover from an ankle injury I sustained last semester.
What do you say to people who believe that as an athlete you should, “just shut up and play”?
I believe that in a democracy it is the right and the responsibility of any engaged citizen to use their voice, and in certain situations their actions, to speak out against injustice. Also I would say that I am a student-athlete and the things that I will learn and discover about myself while engaging that student aspect is by far more important than anything I will achieve in the athletic arena. More important, though, I am a human being and I deeply care about all of those individuals who are also a part of the human race. To disregard their struggle would be like turning a blind eye to a dying family member, and that is something I am neither willing nor able to do.
Are you inspired by anyone historically, particularly athletes who have taken political stands?
Obviously I am inspired to a certain extent by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and countless others who have engaged in movements of nonviolent resistance and succeeded in overcoming daunting obstacles to achieve some of their goals. As far as athletes, I appreciate a number of individuals who have been able to use the platform of athletics to stand up for a cause they believed in. Some of the first names that come to mind are Tommie Smith and John Carlos who used the platform of the Olympics to stand up against injustices against African-Americans in the US. Also athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Paul Robeson who, while many in the public may have disagreed with their political views, still withstood enormous pressure in supporting a cause they believed was right (even if I disagree with many of Robeson’s communist views).
Why do you think more college football players don’t take stands on political issues facing their campus?
I’m sure I’m not the only college football player who has taken a political stand on their campus, I’m just lucky enough that my involvement has gotten media attention and has helped our campaign gain momentum. As for reasons why more aren’t politically involved, the schedule for college football players is very demanding and you have to make a concerted effort to manage your time if you plan on engaging in any other serious time-consuming activities. There’s a certain amount of things you have to sacrifice as a college football player—including much of your social life—if you want to get more involved in political activism or really any cause. However, many of my teammates have been present at Living Wage rallies and meetings, so they definitely support us even if I’m the only one hunger striking.
Many believe “student-athletes” at a school like Virginia, and other BCS schools, are also exploited workers. Do you agree with that? Should college athletes be compensated?
I think that student-athletes at BCS schools, and increasingly smaller schools as well, are exploited to a certain extent but I don’t know if the solution is to just give them more money. Obviously that would help in a lot of situations, particularly for the many student-athletes whose families are financially unstable, however I would like to see colleges spend more time getting their student-athletes to become engaged in the academic and political arenas rather than simply athletics. I feel as if many athletes miss out on most of the opportunities to learn and grow as students, individuals, and citizens that college provides simply because so much of their time is focused on sports and on growing and improving as an athlete. Also, I would like to see a greater level of mentoring for athletes at the college level because, as you well know as a member of the media, many college athletes are prone to making unwise decisions which are further magnified due to the amount of media attention they receive. All in all, I do agree that college athletes are being exploited and I believe they should be provided with a number of services, including possibly increasing financial benefits, in order to help them become more well-rounded, informed and engaged citizens.
CONTACT INFORMATION FOR DECISION MAKERS:
Helen E. Dragas
Rector of the BOV
Chief Student Affairs Officer
Chief Human Resources Officer