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Dave Zirin | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

'Drones, Missiles and Gunships, Oh My!' Welcome to the 2012 London Olympics

As many as 48,000 security forces. Thirteen thousand five hundred troops. Surface-to-air missiles stationed on top of residential apartment buildings. A sonic weapon that disperses crowds by creating “head splitting pain.” Unmanned drones peering down from the skies. A safe zone, cordoned off by an eleven-mile electrified fence, ringed with trained agents and fifty-five teams of attack dogs.

One would be forgiven for thinking that these were the counterinsurgency tactics used by US army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan or perhaps the military methods taught to third-world despots at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. But instead of being used in a war zone or the theater of occupation, they in fact make up the very visible security apparatus in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

London, which has the most street cameras per capita of any city on earth, has, for the seven years since the terror attacks of July 7, 2005, been a city whose political leaders would spare no expense to monitor its own citizens. But the Olympic operation goes above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen when a Western democracy hosts the games. Not even China in 2008 used drone planes or ringed the proceedings with a massive, high-voltage fence. But here is London, preparing a counterinsurgency, and parking an aircraft carrier right in the Thames. Here is London adding “scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints.”

Stephen Graham at the Guardian refers to the entire state of affairs as “Lockdown London” as well as “the UK’s biggest mobilisation of military and security forces since the second world war.” He is not exaggerating in the slightest. The number of troops will exceed the forces the UK has had in Afghanistan.

It’s not just the costs or the incredible invasion into people’s privacy. It’s the powers being given to police under the 2006 “London Olympic Games Act,” which empowers not only the army and police but also private security forces to deal with “security issues” using physical force. These “security issues” have been broadly defined to include everything from “terrorism” to peaceful protesters, to labor unions, to people selling bootleg Olympic products on the streets, to taking down any corporate presence that doesn’t have the Olympic seal of approval. To help them with the last part, there will be “brand protection teams” set loose around the city. These “teams” will also operate inside Olympic venues to make sure no one “wears clothes or accessories with commercial messages other than the manufacturers” who are official sponsors.

The security operation also means the kind of street harassment of working class youth that will sound familiar here in the United States. As the Guardian reported, “Officers have powers to move on anyone considered to be engaged in antisocial behaviour, whether they are hanging around the train station, begging, soliciting, loitering in hoodies or deemed in any way to be causing a nuisance.”

Not to shock anyone, but there are no signs that any of the security apparatus will be dismantled once the Olympics are over. Local police forces have just been given an inordinate number of new toys and the boxes have been opened, the receipts tossed away.

London will be left with a high-tech police force, terrible debt, higher taxes, with a camera around every corner. The only people who will leave this party enriched will be the private security industry, who will tout “the peace” as their personal accomplishment, encouraging more of the global 1 percent to get more guards, more walls and more separation from the great unwashed.

There is no reason that the Olympics have to be this way. There is no reason that an international celebration of sports—particularly sports more diverse than our typical high-carb diet of football, baseball, basketball and more football—can’t take place without drones and aircraft carriers. There is no reason athletes from across the globe can’t join together and showcase their physical potential.

But the Olympics aren’t about sport any more than the Iraq War was about democracy. The Olympics are not about athletes. And they’re definitely not about bringing together “the community of Nations.” They are a neoliberal Trojan Horse aimed at bringing in business and rolling back the most basic civil liberties.

In many ways, this is what the games have always been. From Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936, to the slaughter of students in 1968 in Mexico City, to the Gang Sweeps in Los Angeles in 1984, to Beijing’s mass displacement of citizens in 2008, the “crackdown” has always been a part of the Olympic games. But in the post 9/11 world, the stakes are even higher to expose this for what it is. The Olympics have become the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, and the medicine is that our elected leaders have seen the enemy, and it is all of us.

What If Kobe Bryant Were an Imprisoned Palestinian Soccer Player?

Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball—let’s say Kobe Bryant—had been traveling to an international tournament only to be seized by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without trial or even hearing the charges for which he was imprisoned. Imagine if Kobe was allowed no visitation from family or friends. Imagine if he was left no recourse but to effectively end any future prospects as a player by terminating his own physical health by going on a hunger strike. Chances are we’d notice, yes? Chances are the story would lead SportsCenter and make newspaper covers across the world. Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations—the IOC, FIFA—would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons that read, “Free Kobe.”

This is what has happened to Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud Sarsak. Sarsak, who hails from Rafah in the Gaza Strip, was seized at a checkpoint on his way to a national team contest in the West Bank. This was July 2009. Since that date, the 25-year-old has been held without trial and without charges. His family and friends haven’t been permitted to see him. In the eyes of the Israeli government, Sarsak can be imprisoned indefinitely because they deem him to be an “illegal combatant” although no one—neither family, nor friends, nor coaches—has the foggiest idea why. Now Sarsak is one of more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike to protest their conditions and lack of civil liberties. As the New York Times wrote last week, “The newest heroes of the Palestinian cause are not burly young men hurling stones or wielding automatic weapons. They are gaunt adults, wrists in chains, starving themselves inside Israeli prisons.”

But no organization has claimed Sarsak as a member or issued fiery calls for his freedom. All we have is a family and a team that are both bewildered and devastated by his indefinite detention. His brother Iman said, “My family never imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel. Why, really why?”

His family doesn’t understand how someone, whose obsession was soccer, not politics, could be targeted and held in such a manner. But in today’s Israel/Palestine, soccer is politics. Sarsak is only the latest Palestinian player to be singled out for harassment or even death by the Israeli government. In 2009, three national team players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe, were killed during the bombing of Gaza. The National Stadium as well as the offices of the Palestinian Football Association were also targeted and destroyed in the Gaza bombing. In addition, their goalie, Omar Abu Rwayyis, was arrested by Israeli police in 2012 on “terrorism charges.” If you degrade the national team, you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.

More than police violence is a part of this process of athletic degradation. Currently the Palestinian soccer team is ranked 164th in the world and they’ve have never been higher than 115th. As one sports writer put it delicately, “Given the passion for football that burns among Palestinians, such lowly status hints at problems on the ground.”

These problems on the ground include curfews and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza that often mean the forfeiting of matches. If Palestinians living in Israel’s borders want to play for the team, they have to give up any benefits of Israeli citizenship. The end result is that the Palestinian national team becomes dependent on the Diaspora, relying heavily on Palestinians who have lived for two and three generations in South America and Europe. This is why many of the key players on Palestine’s national team are named Roberto or Pablo.

In 2010, Michel Platini, president of European football’s ruling body—Israel plays in the European qualifiers—threatened Israel with expulsion from FIFA if it continues to undermine football in Palestine. Platini said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour.” Yet Platini never followed through on threats and quite the opposite, awarded Israel the 2013 Under-21 European Championships.

On Wednesday, the British organization Soccer Without Borders, said that they would be calling for a boycott of the tournament, writing:

Football Beyond Borders, a student-led organisation which uses the universal power of football to tackle political, social and cultural issues, stands in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak and all of the Palestinian political prisoners currently being detained by Israel on hunger strike, as together we protest the injustices being inflicted upon Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and draw attention to their plight. [We] take this opportunity to announce our official boycott of the UEFA 2013 Under-21 European Championships, which Israel has been awarded the honour of hosting.

Soccer Without Borders joined forty-two football clubs and dozens of team captains, managers and sports commentators in Gaza who submitted a letter to Platini in 2011 demanding that European football’s governing body reverse its decision to allow Israel to host the under-21 tournament.

Amidst all this tumult is Mahmoud Sarsak, a threat for reasons no one can comprehend and Israel will not reveal. As long as Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even being a part of the community of international sports. If Sarsak is to see the inside of a courtroom and if Israel is to, as Platini said, “face the consequences for their behaviour,” silence is not an option. After all, even a Celtic fan would surely agree, we’d do it for Kobe.

Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch: Our Ambassador From Atlantis

Adam Yauch

(AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file)

Editors note, August 5, 2014: Today would have been Adam Yauch’s 50th birthday. To mark the occassion, read Dave Zirin’s moving obituary to Yauch, from 2012.

“Born and bred Brooklyn U.S.A. They call me Adam Yauch but I’m M.C.A.”

In the ’60s they said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” When it comes to remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch, who died on May 4, I don’t trust anyone under 30. Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys stood for more than just hip hop and their personal “sounds of science.” They repped the soul of a city that no longer exists.

The Beasties were global ambassadors from a lost New York City since smothered under the weight of police violence and gentrification. It was a city that churned out hip hop and basketball legends with arrogant ease. It was a city where the question “what do you do” was less about your job than what you did after work. It was a city where the clubs you could get into were less important than the neighborhoods you could get into—and out of. It was a city where if you could see over the counter, you were getting served. It was a city where a scuffle on 42nd and Broadway might spark and you would not even blink.

It was a city that’s remembered as being “divided,” and those divisions were real. Few realized at the time that these divisions comprised two competing visions of the city’s future, particularly who would live, work and die in its borders. Not even the Beasties realized that "you have to fight for your right to party" would become Giuliani-era prophesy.

Those of us on our side of the barricades might not have gotten the seismic shifts about to take place, but we were never less alienated, never closer. We ran from the police, drank and smoked on corners, and slept on each other’s floors in rent-controlled apartments. (Younger readers can use Google to learn what “rent control” means.)

We stood together because the city was breaking apart and we were clutching each other on the same piece of floating earth. There were the names we all knew: Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Yusef Hawkins. Places like Howard Beach. Bensonhurst and Crown Heights weren’t neighborhoods. They were crime scenes.

This was my New York. I was the 12-year-old Jewish kid on the Upper West Side who played basketball, listened to Kurtis Blow, UTFO and Whodini and was called a “rap nerd” in my overwhelmingly white school. My teachers told my parents that my music, my awkward anger, my awful grades, were just a phase. For me, the Beasties were like a sonic liberation army playing the Battle Hymn of the Misfits.

From the first time I saw them, in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, it was clear: They were Brooklyn, but they were Jewish. They were outsiders, but they were down. If you got the Beastie Boys, it meant you could get underground hip hop, get anti-racism as more than a pose and, f-ck it, get some damn friends. They taught us that you could fit in just by being true to yourself.

As DMC, of the great RUN DMC said of the Beasties, “The thing that worked with us was it was the same feeling but different expression. Their sneakers could be dirty and muddy and they could’ve had them since fifth grade, and our sneakers had to be clean, but we both rocked the music, the presentation.… You know what was good about them? It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t white rappers trying to be black—they were themselves, and we respected that. Real recognized real.”

MCA, Mike D, and Ad Rock, were my gateway to Public Enemy, Rakim, BDP and—of course—more Beastie Boys. Paul’s Boutique. Check Your Head. Ill Communication. Root Down. Hello Nasty. Always innovative, but never disconnected from their roots, even as the old neighborhoods were bring uprooted.

Over time, from adolescence to adulthood, the Beasties showed that being true to your music and politics didn’t have to be a phase but could be a way of life. For me, it was never about keeping up with them politically the way I did musically. It was just noticing out of my eye’s corner that we were on the same shit. They were against war whether launched by Clinton, Bush or Obama. They were anti-racist as a way of life. As the Beasties grew up, they recognized and publicly renounced the homophobia or sexism in their early music. Yauch rhymed famously, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/ The disrespect to women has got to be through/ To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”

Over one weekend in 1998, I was protesting Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan and Afghanistan. That Sunday night, there was MCA at the MTV Video Music Awards going out of his way to denounce the attacks from the stage. He spoke about anti-Arab racism in the United States and, in frighteningly prescient fashion, the dangers of what such indiscriminate bombing could eventually bring back to the States.

They stayed true to themselves, but even more importantly, they stayed true to ideals forged by a forgotten city. Now, New York of the 1980s is as gone as a thirty-five-cent subway ride. Manhattan is an off-shore boutique and Brooklyn is where everyone wants to be and no one can afford to move. If there was any kind of conflict in today’s Times Square, it’s easier to imagine Navy Seals rappelling down to break it up than any kind of scuffle. Our last hoops all-star was Ron Artest. 98.7 Kiss FM with DJ Red Alert is now, as of last week, ESPN radio. The Yankees and Mets play in publicly funded palaces while the city’s public schools and social services rot from neglect.

This past year, however, we saw some daylight in the darkness: the Occupy Wall Street movement represented the city’s first visible fight against the generational urban priorities of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. And there, marching with us, in between cancer treatments, was Adam “MCA” Yauch.

MCA leaves us something more valuable than memories. He leaves a compass we need to move forward. It’s a compass that points to how you can grow up but still stay real. It’s a compass that directs us to fight for the future of the Five Boroughs and not just revel in the past, because the old enchanted city is never coming back. It’s a compass that speaks to the best parts of ourselves: to stand up, to be heard and to always never forget that there is no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

Junior Seau's Family Will Allow His Brain to Be Studied, and the NFL Holds Its Breath


Luisa Seau, mother of former NFL football player Junior Seau, grieves in the driveway her son’s home, Wednesday, May 2, 2012, in Oceanside, California. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

[Over the weekend, Junior Seau's family put out oa statement that they were reconsidering donating his brain for study. The decision is incredibly difficult and raises many religious and cultural, in addition to emotional, questions for the family.]

Today brings news that the family of Junior Seau, the former ten-time All-Pro NFL linebacker who took his own life earlier this week, will be donating his brain for study. They want to know if brain injuries sustained during Seau’s twenty-year career may have contributed to his suicide.

“The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn’t want to make any emotional decisions,” Chargers team chaplain Shawn Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday night. “And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward.”

The ramifications of their decision cannot be overestimated. While we don’t know why Junior Seau committed suicide, there are stubborn facts around his death that can’t be ignored. We know that Seau was the NFL’s second suicide in the last two weeks. Former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling killed himself on April 19.

We know that Seau took his life by shooting himself in the chest and not the head. This was the method of suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson in February 2011. According to Duerson’s much-publicized final note, he said he was putting a bullet in his heart instead of his head so his brain could be sent to the Boston University School of Medicine for study. His family complied, and it was found that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions. Medical professionals link these injuries to depression, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and as a tragic corollary, suicide. His family is now suing the league in a wrongful death suit.

We also now know that not once in twenty years was Seau ever diagnosed with a concussion on an injury report. This is either a miracle akin to dancing between raindrops, or Seau and team doctors just didn’t report concussions when they occurred. When asked if her husband had ever suffered a concussion, Seau’s ex-wife Gina told ESPN, “Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing. He’s a warrior. That didn’t stop him. I don’t know what football player hasn’t. It’s not ballet. It’s part of the game.”

In a heartbreaking column, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter reflected on the violent passing of his dear friend. He also revealed Seau’s thoughts about head injuries as well as his response to those who say that new safety rules are making the sport “too soft.”

“Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don’t have a father who can’t remember his name because of the game,” Seau said to Trotter. “I’m pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids’ name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn’t there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren’t changing. That’s not right.”

As the Seau family mourns, their deeply courageous decision to submit Seau’s brain for study can have mammoth ramifications far beyond the National Football League. If Seau is proven medically to be another casualty of the inherent violence of tackle football, questions will be raised that have consequences well beyond cosmetic changes like putting up warning posters in NFL locker rooms or moving the kick-offs to the forty-yard line. Should we be allowing children as young as 5 years old to be playing in tackle football leagues around the country? Should anyone under the age of 18 be permitted in partaking in something that, like smoking, is demonstrably proven to kill you before your time? Should NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell be absolutely obligated to give up his demands to make the season eighteen games, given the risk involved? Should Roger Goodell and the other NFL owners stop fighting the now 1,500 former players suing the NFL for their pain and suffering in retirement and just settle these cases now and come up with some sort of plan moving forward? Does the US Congress need to get involved and empower a team of neurologists not tied to the NFL to come up with a definitive risk assessment of playing tackle football?

There is a temptation to compare the modern NFL game to the ancient gladiator battles of Rome, with the publicly funded megadomes our modern coliseums. But that actually gives the NFL too much credit. Everyone in ancient Rome knew they were watching a blood sport with life or death consequences. The NFL sells itself as entertainment for the entire family. The death of Junior Seau means an end of the innocence. If the autopsy produces what we all expect, it will be time for everyone, from fans, to players, to the media, to owners, to Roger Goodell, to grow the hell up.

NFL Player Junior Seau Takes His Own Life


Former San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau is inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame during a halftime ceremony in an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

It’s been confirmed that 43-year-old former NFL star Junior Seau has taken his own life with a gunshot to the chest. Seau was a towering legend in San Diego and Southern California, where he starred in three sports at San Diego’s Oceanside High School, was an All-American at USC, then became a ten-time All-Pro for the San Diego Chargers. Seau was also active in his own San Diego–based foundation and was known for being an active presence throughout the city. Warning signs blared two years ago, when Seau, after being questioned on charges of domestic violence, drove his car off of a cliff. He later said that he fell asleep at the wheel. The local police accepted his word and let it go.

This is the second suicide by an NFL player in the last two weeks. On April 19, Ray Easterling, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons and a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NFL for their handling of head injuries, took his own life. Seau is also the eighth player from the 1994 AFC Champion San Diego Chargers team to die. Two of those deaths were freak occurrences. Doug Miller was struck by lightning twice and Rodney Culver died in a plane crash. The other six deaths—suicide, drugs, alcohol, obesity—are ailments the National Football League is getting to know all too well.

These are issues NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the various team owners are loathe to discuss, but with Seau, they won’t have a choice. In Seau, a larger than life Hall of Fame player, we have someone with friends throughout the ranks of the league and especially in the media. It will be incredibly difficult to keep this under wraps. People will want answers. Over the summer, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his own life with a gunshot to the chest so his brain could be studied for the effects of concussive injuries. Junior Seau now joins him, a gunshot to the chest. There is a discussion that the NFL is going to have to have with a team of doctors, players and the public. Right now, this is not a league safe for human involvement. I have no idea how to make it safer. But I do know that the status quo is absolutely unacceptable.

Memory and the May Day Martyrs

In the United States, communities of the poor are accustomed to a constant police presence. Upon visiting Población La Victoria, a small, self-contained suburb outside of Santiago, Chile, I saw the opposite.

During the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet, La Victoria was a citadel of resistance, where police feared to tread. I was told that to this day, not only police, but also ambulances and the fire department kept their distance. I saw community wheelchairs stationed on some corners so the injured or the sick could be wheeled to the edge of town and dropped off for emergency care.

Town squares, community centers and even streets were named after political figures who sacrificed their lives in the struggle against Pinochet’s police state. On one corner, I looked and found myself on an avenue called Los Mártires de Chicago. That stopped me cold. Even the most-Spanish language deficient among us would know the translation: “the Chicago Martyrs.”

Despite a basic knowledge of US labor history, my first thought was that this street must be a tribute to the thousands “disappeared” by Pinochet’s secret police. The dictator’s economic blueprint was authored by a group of right-wing Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago and known to all in frightened whispers as “the Chicago Boys.” Mass torture and execution of radical and labor leaders were preconditions for the Chicago Boys’ Chilean economic laboratory. This street, I thought, must be for those who gave their lives to fighting gunpoint-austerity.

But I was told with a surprised laugh that Los Mártires de Chicago had nothing to do with the University of Chicago and the fevered fantasies of Professor Milton Friedman. The avenue was in fact named after Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel: four Chicago socialist/anarchists executed in Illinois in 1887 for the crime of being leaders of the mass labor struggle for the eight-hour work day. They are the men remembered the world over on May 1, otherwise known as May Day.

Officially, they were hung for a bomb that went off among police at a labor rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But not even the prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, carried the pretension that they were actually guilty.

As Grinnell said in his summation to the jury,

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they are leaders. They are no more guilty than those thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.

Their hanging was supposed to kill the movement as well. But as Spies said so famously in his last words at trial,

If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery—the wage slaves—expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

It’s a remarkable testimony to Spies’s words and courage that their memory continues to blaze in a small corner of Chile, not to mention in massive gatherings and protests the world over.

Today in 2012, their memory should animate this day more than ever. At a time when millions have been inspired by the Occupy Movement, the idea of vigilant resistance, especially to the worst excesses of the criminal justice system, has never been more pressing. Just as in the time of Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer, we have all learned this past year that justice must always be demanded and not expected if we expect to see it at all. We should remember the Chicago Martyrs in the same breath with which we remember Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Jasmine Thar, Devontae Sanford, Dane Scott Jr., Ramarley Graham and everyone killed by police and the courts because it’s easier, as Troy said so memorably, than not killing them. This is their day as well. It’s a day to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.

Our living memory is part of history’s revenge on Julius Grinnell, Augusto Pinochet and everyone who has tried to drown resistance in blood. Pinochet executed the labor and radical leaders of Chile as sure as the state of Illinois hung Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel. But that’s the stubborn thing about subterranean fires. They cannot be extinguished no matter how heavy the iron heel.

Want to Understand the 1992 LA Riots? Start with the 1984 LA Olympics

If you don’t light the fuse, the bomb won’t blow. But striking the match and lighting the fuse are only the final steps in a process of creating a deadly explosion. The match that set off the 1992 LA Riots was struck when a videotape showcasing five police officers brutally beating African-American motorist Rodney King was released to the public. It lit the fuse on the bomb when a near all-white jury (ten whites, one Latino, one Asian) in Simi Valley found the officers innocent of all charges. The blast then spread over the next five days in the form of the largest urban uprising in the history of the United States. When the shrapnel had stopped flying, the damage amounted to $1 billion, fifty-three deaths and thousands of injuries.

The match and wick had done their job, but as we reach the twentieth anniversary of that day, we should recognize that the gunpowder was packaged to the bursting point by urban neglect and rampant, unchecked police violence. It was the 45 percent unemployment-rate of African-American males in South Central. It was Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and his violent programs of police enforcement like the infamous Operation Hammer. It was deindustrialization and the loss of union jobs. It was the Bush recession, the longest the nation had seen since World War II. But there was an accelerant that started the city on the road to rebellion, and it’s what is regarded to this day as one of the city’s most shining moments: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The 1984 Olympics were supposed to show the vibrancy and virility of Ronald Reagan’s America. The games were actually opened by a speech from Reagan, the first time a world leader had launched the games in Olympic history. These games were nationalist theater, an absolute gold glut for the United States since the countries behind the Iron Curtain boycotted in protest of the American refusal to attend the 1980 games in Moscow.

The Los Angeles Olympic Games are remembered as as success because, appropriately for the Reagan era, they were the first privately financed Olympics in history. They ended with an announced surplus of over $200 million and spurred the creation of 70,000 new jobs. Olympic organizer Peter Uebberoth was the Time magazine Man of the Year and given the job as commissioner of Major League Baseball. Also lauded were Mayor Tom Bradley and Chief Gates for keeping the peace.

But the Olympics weren’t a glorious affair for everyone. Gates kept calm by expanding his infamous police gang sweeps (later immortalized in the NWA video for Straight Outta Compton) and keeping entire areas of the city, especially South Central and East LA, under conditions of military occupation. Politicians and judges conspired to revive old, anti-syndicalist laws to jail masses of black youth, though the overwhelming numbers of people arrested were never charged.

Before the Olympics, Gates was on thin ice as police chief. In 1982, he infamously said that African-Americans died under a chokehold used by police officers because “the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.” But Gates emerged from the Olympics as an untouchable hero. Every incentive for him and his department was to stay in “Olympic mode.” Treating the city as occupied territory became institutionalized.

From 1984–89, there was a 33 percent spike in citizen complaints against police brutality. The complaints went nowhere. According to a Los Angeles Times investigative report, the district attorney’s office chose not to prosecute the “vast majority” of complaints. Between 1986 and 1990, 1,400 officers were investigated on suspicion of using excessive force, less than 1 percent were prosecuted. Frustration, as Langston Hughes predicted decades earlier, “festered like a sore.”

Gates and Bradley, still basking in Olympic glow, were oblivious to the rising anger. As Gates said blithely, “I think that people believe that the only [policing] strategy is to harass people and make arrests for inconsequential types of things. Well that's part of our strategy, no doubt about it.

1968 Olympian John Carlos, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, said to me that constitutional rights just didn’t exist for those “shut out of the Olympic party.” He remembered, “The police were on a mission to make sure whole sections of the city were on lockdown by any means necessary.”

Then there was the economic side of the 1984 Olympic legacy. Many in Mayor Bradley’s office celebrated those official reports that showed 70,000 jobs were created by the games. But all of those jobs were non-union, temporary employment and disappeared with the recession as quickly as they arrived. If replaced at all, it was with more service industry jobs. Masses of working people, in union-dense Los Angeles, had turned a corner toward a more precarious future. As Mike Davis wrote in 1990, “Southcentral LA has been betrayed by virtually every level of government. In particular, the deafening public silence about youth unemployment and the juvenation of poverty has left many thousands of young street people with little alternative but to enlist in the crypto-Keynesian youth employment program operated by the cocaine cartels.”

Institutional support of police brutality against a workforce either unemployed or limited to service jobs was the flammable mix saturating the streets of Los Angeles, which caught fire when Rodney King hit the nightly news.

There are lessons here, if we are willing to learn them. For cities like London and Rio, the host cities of the next two Olympic Games, attack the working poor of your country in the name of “Olympic security” at your own peril. For the citizens of these cities, be vigilant against efforts to bestow absolute power into the hands of twenty-first-century versions of Daryl Gates. But above all else, the lesson is about what happens when people are brutalized and their anguished cries are ignored. The lesson is about how people will respond if unchecked poverty and police violence put a continual odor in the air that stinks like rotten meat. When the people have no voice, no community and no power, their frustration is left no physical choice but to explode.

Washington Capitals Win Over Boston Bruins Spurs Spasm of Racism

“Tim Thomas has turned New Boston into Old Boston”
            —Howard Bryant, author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston

As rapidfire as Twitter itself, what started as a moment of a sports euphoria turned decidedly ugly. There were the Washington Capitals beating the Boston Bruins 2-1 in Game 7 and moving on toward the National Hockey League's greatest prize, the Stanley Cup. Before my disbelieving eyes, the Caps' Joel Ward scored the winning overtime goal against last year’s Stanley Cup hero, Tim Thomas. But Ward is a black man, and before you could say “post-racial,” self-identifying Bruin fans tweeted a cascade of ugly invective, with the “N-word” being their epithet of choice.

For a small group of sad fools, the symbolism of the moment—Ward beats Thomas!—overtook them in the worst possible ways.

Tim Thomas is the player who created a sports media firestorm by refusing to join his team and meet with President Obama after the Bruins won the 2012 Stanley Cup. To be clear, I have zero problems with athletes refusing to be part of presidential photo ops, but his political reasons are not irrelevant to what caused last night’s spasm of hate. Thomas is a proud, financial supporter of the Tea Party. He counts Glenn Beck as a hero and once emblazoned the “Don’t Tread on Meflag on his helmet. When asked by reporters why he wouldn't meet with Obama, Thomas didn’t comment and instead referred people to his Facebook page, which had a paragraph about “out of control Federal government.”

To see no connection between the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and the politics of racial resentment is to subscribe to either blind ignorance or political cowardice. (Even Beck, last December, inferred that racism in the Tea Party drives anti-Obama animus.)

Howard Bryant, senior ESPN writer commented to me this morning, “The goal itself wasn't particularly important. [Barbadian-Canadian] Anson Carter was a Boston playoff hero during the 1999 playoffs. The significance of Ward's goal is that the man he beat, Tim Thomas, has through his thinly veiled racism undermined what should be a glorious revival of hockey in Boston. In turn, he encouraged the revival of an attitude that people wanted to think was out of fashion. I don't care if it was a lunatic fringe or a larger portion of the Bruins' fan base, but Thomas by himself turned new Boston into old Boston, and the embarrassing fan response to Ward's goal proved it.”

Old Boston is also part of this story, as much as many from New England don’t want to hear it. No city in the United States has a more tortured intersection of race and sports than our supposed cradle of liberalism and democracy. It’s the city whose Boston Red Sox was the last team to integrate, waiting until 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s the city that for decades rejected the greatest team basketball player in history, Bill Russell, because of his proud, unblinking opposition to racial intolerance. After dealing with years of everything from verbal abuse to the vandalizing of his home, Russell called the city “a flea market of racism.” Boston then embraced Larry Bird, to such a passionate degree his very jersey became a symbol of white arrogance, exemplified in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was also, paradoxically,(and fitting in a city this paradoxical), the first hockey town to integrate, when Willie O’Ree took the ice for the Bruins in 1958 (he would be the NHL’s last black player for sixteen years). Now, when Joel Ward plays the hero, the reflex is the “N” bomb. As Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”

Of course, racism is not a “Boston thing.” Of course, the sewers of the Internet overflow with bile if you have the stomach to look. Of course, we’ve just collectively witnessed the character assassination of the slain Trayvon Martin, with no regard for either his humanity or his grieving parents, so we should probably refrain from being too shocked. As sports writer Bomani Jones tweeted when people pointed out the anti-Ward hate, “Folks called a n-word repeatedly behind a dead teenager. of course someone would say it over a game 7.” None of that, however, should blind us to the basic truth. Today should be a day when we celebrate the unbelievable upset by a Caps team over the defending Stanley Cup champs. But racism is a reality in sports and in life. We can choose to ignore it, but the only thing willful blindness guarantees is that it will continue. All Bruins fans of conscience should take to Facebook and Twitter and say, “Not in my name.” The organization should release a statement as well.

After the game, both Thomas and the Bruins stayed on the ice, waited for the Caps celebrations to die down and congratulated their opponents. When speaking to the media, neither Thomas nor his teammates exhibited anything but class. There were no excuses, no resentments. America has a ways to go to catch up.

Metta World Peace—Alias Ron Artest—Did Bad but Deserves Better

Metta World Peace, the winner of the NBA’s 2011 citizenship award and a player who has done more than any athlete alive to raise the curtain on the taboo sports subject of mental illness, is finding out today that the past is never really past. The player formerly known as Ron Artest delivered a dangerous, ugly and altogether unnecessary elbow to the back of the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden on Sunday. His elbow launched thousands of tweets and blog postings best described as two parts abject horror and one part snark. (After all, the guy changed his name to Metta World Peace—you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde to have fun with that.) But neither abject outrage nor humor feels particularly appropriate for this story.

MWP is probably the most physically strong wing player in the league not named LeBron James. After dunking on two Thunder players, he felt contact on the inbound and swung that elbow. If it was Thunder forward Kevin Durant bodying him up, the elbow hits his chest and this column isn’t written. But the shorter Harden caught it right behind his ear and didn’t move off the ground for a frightening full minute. He has since been diagnosed with a concussion. MWP will be suspended and the Thunder locker room was already referring to him as Ron, same as he ever was.

As upsetting as the endlessly repeated slow-mo elbow replay is, we should recognize several things. The breathless media coverage is not because of the injury to Harden. The commentary has already far outpaced that of similar cheap shots in the NBA. Kobe Bryant had his nose intentionally broken by Dwyane Wade during the NBA All-Star Game. Kevin Love stepped on Luis Scola’s face. Jason Smith and Russell Westbrook in recent weeks committed fouls that could have ended the careers of the NBA’s brightest lights, Blake Griffin and LeBron James. But those stories were one-day spectacles, no more and no less.

But Metta has his history, and with a history comes a narrative that allows the media to use past as prologue. In this case, the prologue unfolded eight seasons ago, at the “Malice in the Palace”, when Ron Artest brought a fistfight into the stands during a game in Auburn Hills, Michigan. For many fans, Metta came to embody the highly racialized symbol of the “NBA thug”. He received the longest suspension in NBA history (seventy-three games), and the question of whether he would even be allowed to return was very real. There was a current of racism—some veiled, some not—in this whole spectacle, as the “thug” Artest was held up for public scorn and ridicule for starting a “riot.”

But instead of falling under the assault on his character, this Ron Artest recognized he had a problem and rebuilt his own sense of self. His problem was depression and mental illness, and he didn’t care who knew it. Artest actually thanked his psychiatrist on national television after leading the Lakers two seasons ago to a victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. This off season, he changed his name to Metta World Peace and has been more open and honest about his psychiatric treatment than any athlete alive and has done a world of good for others by taking his mental health issues out of the closet.

Metta is quirky. He is irreverent. He is also a sweetheart of a person, whom I’ve met and can vouch for as an athlete of uncommon personal kindness. Of all the invective over the Harden incident, the most painful was to hear ABC’s Jon Barry call him “Metta Weird Peace.” It was “Artest the freak show” all over again. It’s what makes me want to point out that the NBA has far less in-game violence than the NHL or NFL, where the elbows are flying at all times and concussions are a daily fact of life for untold numbers. It makes me want to ask the media defenders of James Harden why they don’t get this worked up over the thousands of concussion victims in other sports, particularly the NFL. But MWP is an easy villain.

At the risk of sounding as overblown as those throwing dirt on Metta World Peace today, if that elbow above all else becomes his legacy, it would be a tragedy: a tragedy of someone who spent years finding redemption in his private life, only to lose it in a fraction of a second.

Are We Brave Enough to Say Goodbye to Pat Summitt?

“Summitt earned the right to handle this on her own terms. She isn’t bigger than the program. She is the program.”
                         —
David Climer, the Tennessean 

Just weeks before the sports world celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, one of the true icons of both women’s sports and the sports world in general, Pat Summitt, is retiring as basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. It’s hard to imagine someone in our polarized society who has earned everyone’s respect as fully as Pat Summitt. She built a women’s sport in a red state and left all observers from every political stripe in awe of her intensity, her work ethic and her hawk-eyed smarts. As she once said, “I’m sure there were some good old boys who thought, ‘I’m not going to watch women’s basketball.’ But when they saw it, they saw something they didn’t expect.”

Late, great UCLA coach John Wooden once called Summitt the best coach in the sport, and the numbers back it up. This is someone who won more college basketball games than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,098) and more national championships than Coach K and Dean Smith combined (8). She is also still just 59 years old, but made the decision to say goodbye. It had to be done. Coach Summitt announced last year that she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. This season saw Coach Summitt occasionally drift and stare into the deep distance during practices, or clutch the edge of a table or clipboard to keep her hands steady. But still, even with Alzheimer’s, she led the Lady Vols to a 27-9 record, only losing in the Elite 8 to a Baylor team that was on its way to finishing 40-0.

It was time to step down, deal with her health, raise money for her foundation aimed at battling this evil, merciless disease, and after thirty-eight years, hand the clipboard to someone else.

As Ann Killion wrote for Sports Illustrated, “It’s been heart-wrenching to witness, even from afar. I can only imagine the pain suffered by those closest to Summitt—her assistants, her players, her son, Tyler. We saw a glimpse of it last month, on the night that Tennessee’s season ended—a night that many suspected would be the last for Summitt—when [assistant coach Holly] Warlick broke down in tears in the postgame interview. Her pain was so sharp, it took my breath away.”

It did for so many, as former and current players spent much of last season grieving with their coach. That’s the awful truth about Alzheimer’s. The person afflicted will be with us for some time, but you still need to hurry and say goodbye. Despite the emotional strain and endless well-wishers, Coach Summitt kept pushing forward until season’s end.

After winning the SEC Tournament, Lady Vols senior Shekinna Stricklen said, “It’s been a hard thing to deal with, but I’d do it all over again if I could. We’ve all learned so much from Pat. She’s such an inspiration.”

This is true. But it’s an inspiration and a legacy that is greater than wins and titles and even more profound than the bravery with which she’s confronting this chapter of her life. In so many respects Pat Summitt is women’s sports in the United States: fearless, self-made and tough as hell. Just consider that Pat Summitt started coaching at UT in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX. Her salary that first year was $8,900. She was only 22 years old and the program was of such low stature, it made sense to her that players just call her “Pat,” a practice that has never changed.

Summitt had free reign to build the UT women’s hoops program because no one in the high profile, football-dominant, world of Tennessee athletics gave a damn whether it lived or died. One writer described it as the “step child” of the athletic department and based on how the program was deprioritized and under-funded, that description serves as a grave insult to stepchildren everywhere.

But her teams competed with the fierce intensity of their coach, traveling the country looking for opponents. Their grueling schedule and unreal success at home was noticed, and fans in Knoxville and beyond started to pay attention. As Coach Summitt said, “We’ve built this fan base not on scheduling patsies. We’ve built it on bringing in the top opponents throughout the country from a lot of conferences and our fans deserve that. We also think that to be the best you have to play the best.”

Summitt also recruited and coached players who became champions and icons of the sport: There were “The Meeks” Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall, Kara Lawson, Candace Parker, and three-time All-American Holly Warlick, who now takes over as head coach.

Summitt will still be a presence in the program, and has promised to be at games, offer advice when asked and even help recruit. But a chapter in the history of sports closed today, and while we celebrate the unbelievable legacy of Pat Summitt, we should also be brave enough to say that we are all weaker for her absence. 

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