Where sports and politics collide.
Much has been written about the Los Angeles Dodgers declaration of bankruptcy. Much has been said about the business practices of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his battle against the efforts of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to forcibly seize the team. But what does an insolvent Dodgers franchise say about the state of America in the 21st century? Maybe it says nothing at all. Maybe it’s as simple as saying that Frank McCourt's greed and incompetence ran a civic institution into the ground. Yes, it’s true that McCourt used the team as a personal ATM to live a lifestyle that would shame Caligula.
But that doesn’t explain the broader economic crisis in the sport. It doesn’t explain why the Texas Rangers in 2010, on the road to the World Series, had to be auctioned off at a bankruptcy sale. It doesn’t explain why the New York Mets, playing in the game’s biggest market, are flat broke after team owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz thought Bernie Madoff would make a fine personal investment banker. It doesn’t explain why Selig, when he crows about baseball’s rosy financial picture, sounds like he’s living in the last days of disco. But more than anything else, it doesn’t explain how – of all teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in this crucible of humiliation. The Dodgers are arguably the most culturally significant franchise in the history of American Sports. It’s the team of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, and Hideo Nomo. That’s more than just a tradition. That’s a Ken Burns epic
From their days in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were the franchise of the immigrants, the strivers, the ones who thought the American Dream was there for those willing to scratch and bleed for it. They were able to maintain this persona even when they broke Brooklyn’s heart and absconded for the Left Coast. There, they entered the hearts and homes of the Chicanos, Dominicans, and Asians that make up Southern California. Going to Chavez Ravine in the 1970s and 1980s was like going to a diverse people’s assembly that would shame the United Nations. They have always been baseball as baseball wants to be known: a melting pot that speaks to our best angels. Unlike the Yankees who simply won with remorseless efficiency, the Dodgers were interested in building a more perfect union.
Precisely because this team has always lived at the heart of the national Zeitgest, their bankruptcy should be seen as a brutal microcosm of the leveraged capital and dashed dreams that define the new century. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post, the Dodgers now represent “a particularly vicious form of capitalism that America has come to know too well the past few decades: a new owner takes over a venerable firm and extracts what he can for himself, decimating the company and damaging the community in the process.” In as public a way as possible, they are now the public symbol of a reality we often turn to sports to escape.
American author Alison Lurie once wrote, “as one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.” That future is now the site of income inequality on par with the Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Malaysia. It’s a place of fake riches and real pain. Official unemployment sits at a doctored twelve percent with youth unemployment at thirty-five percent. All of these numbers should be taken about as seriously as a Goldman Sachs balance sheet.
In such an environment, the team that was always supposed to represent the spirit of immigrant America now has a shrinking, demoralized base of support. Attendance has plummeted. Tailgating is dismal. After a brutal beating in the stadium parking lot on Opening Day, security is now run by the LAPD. They shadow every corner of the landscape, making the Elysian Fields feel like occupied territory. Instead of Dodgers Stadium being the place where you take your kids on your day off, it’s the place you either avoid or hope to find a job.
Perhaps the most emblematic moment of this entire saga has been seeing the name of Vin Scully on the team’s list of creditors.The 83-year-old Scully has been the Dodgers announcer for 62 years. Starting in Brooklyn and making his way with the team across the country, he has brought the exploits of immortals like Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Orel Hershiser and now Andre Ethier to life. As Meyerson wrote, “I’ve long believed that kids who grew up listening to Scully got at least a 30-point bump on their verbal SAT.” Now Scully is just another person the Dodgers went to court so they wouldn’t have to pay. Now he’s just another senior citizen wondering how a California dream could become so scarred. What does the Dodgers bankruptcy say about America? Everything.
It's difficult to imagine your heroes and she-roes arriving at greatness in "accidental" fashion. It’s hard to envision Magic Johnson as an "accidental basketball player", who just stumbled into a gym and started zipping no-look passes. No one thinks Adele sings like Adele because she was pushed onstage at a karaoke bar. We are taught that focused, hyper-competitive ambition is a prerequisite to achievement. The reality is often far more pedestrian.
Enter arguably the finest sportswriter above ground: Robert Lipsyte. Lipsyte has chosen to call his new memoir "An Accidental Sportswriter" and title alone raised my eyebrows. He really did come upon this brilliant career accidentally: a dizzying tale of luck, talent, and political acumen merging to create an indelible journalistic mark. His acclaimed New York Times column blazed new trails as an unabashedly progressive exercise in the politics of sports. But as we learn, it didn't rise out of any sort of grand design. Lipsyte had a summer job as an editorial assistant (which meant assisting in getting coffee for the editors) at the "Grey Lady." It was a pit-stop on the way to grad school and he never left. For several years he toiled for little pay at the disrespected corner known as the sports page. Then came a stroke of luck: the Times’s regular boxing writer wanted to cover a horse race rather than travel to Miami to see a blowhard young boxer named Cassius Clay get his behind handed to him by the fearsome champion Sonny Liston. The 26-year-old Lipsyte was dispatched down south to see the 22-year-old Olympian the papers called "Gaseous Cassius." While the older media was somewhat horrified by Clay's antics, Lipsyte's youth and politics allowed him to see what others could not: that the man who would be known as Ali was something special.
Lipsyte has a front row seat when, in one of the great pop cultural collisions, the Beatles visited Clay's training camp.
As he writes,
"As I climbed the splintery stairs, there was a hubbub behind me. Four little guys around my age in matching white terry-cloth cabana jackets were being herded up. Someone said it was that hot new British rock group on their first American tour....A British photographer traveling with the Beatles had tried to pose them with Sonny Liston, but the champ had refused-"Not with them sissies," he was supposed to have said-and now they were settling for a photo op with the challenger. At the top of the stairs, when the Beatles discovered that Clay had not yet arrived, John Lennon said, "Let's get the fuck out of here." But two huge security guards blocked their way and crowded them into an empty dressing room. I allowed myself to be pushed in with them, figuring to get a few funny quotes. Had I understood who those four little guys were, I might have been too shy to become, briefly, the fifth Beatle. But then I was also clueless about Clay. The Beatles were cranky in that damp dressing room, stomping and cursing. I introduced myself, rather importantly, I'm afraid, and they mimicked me. John shook my hand gravely, saying he was Ringo, and introduced me to Paul, who said he was John. I asked for their predictions. They said that Liston would destroy Clay, that silly little overhyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves again. Silly little overhyped wankers, I thought. Suddenly the locker room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much larger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He seemed to glow. He was laughing. "Hello there, Beatles!" he roared. "We oughta do some road shows together, we'll get rich." The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they'd met before and choreographed their routine. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. They lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay's jaw. The five of them began laughing so hard their impromptu frolics collapsed. That photo op is a classic (Check YouTube; you might even see me.) After the Fab Four left, Clay jumped rope, shadowboxed, and sparred as his court jester, Drew Bundini Brown, hollered, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble!" Afterward, stretched out on a dressing room table for his rubdown, Clay pretended to fall asleep as reporters asked him what he was going to do after he lost. Finally, a crabby old reporter from Boston said, "This whole act is a con job, isn't it?" and Clay pretended to wake up and he said, "I'm making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it's warm." The Boston reporter shut up. I think that was the moment when I began to wish this kid wasn't going to get his head knocked off, that somehow he would beat Liston and become champion or at least survive and keep boxing. He would have been such a joy to cover, I thought. Too bad he's got no chance. Too bad he's only passing through, a firefly fad like those Beatles. We could all have had a blast."
This is only one gem in a book packed with stories alternately hilarious and moving about Mickey Mantle, Howard Cosell, and people at the gritty grass roots of sports in New York City. While I still don't fully understand Lipsyte's attraction to NASCAR the descriptions of him taking the wheel and burning rubber around the track at over 120 mph made me want to grab a helmet and ride shotgun.
But the book is more than a stroll down memory lane. In the most striking sections, he interrogates his old columns and laments how he would write about great female athletes like Wilma Rudolph or Billie Jean King. He examines his own assumptions about race, class, and gender and charts how they changed from the 1960s to today. Honestly, I've read many books like these and I have never seen a journalist put themselves under this kind of magnifying glass. It's brave and very affecting.
I should say in the name of full disclosure that Bob Lipsyte writes some very kind things about me in the final chapter. I should also say that even if he had chosen to say that I was little more than an oozing boil, this review would read exactly the same.(except I probably would write, “I could have done without the whole ‘Dave Zirin is an oozing boil’ section.)
This is a book to be read, shared, and treasured. It's beach reading. It's classroom reading. It's storytelling at its finest. In other words, it's pure Bob Lipsyte.
After a wretched start to the 2011 season, the Boston Red Sox are back in the driver’s seat, leading the American League East. Red Sox Nation, in all its obnoxious glory, knows that their meteoric rise has been fueled by the play of new off-season acquisition Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez is having a monster year, leading the AL in batting average, hits, doubles and runs batted in. The former number one over-all draft pick is a shoo-in to make the 2011 AL All-Star team. This honor is well deserved and I’ve confirmed with the Boston Red Sox and Gonzalez himself that, whether elected by fans or selected, he will in fact be playing at the All-Star Game in Arizona.
That’s very good news for Major League Baseball and many fans. But it’s bad news for immigrant rights activists who have looked to Gonzalez to boycott the game because of Arizona’s horrific “papers please” immigration law SB 1070. Last year, as protests gathered outside twenty Major League ballparks with a focus on moving the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona, Gonzalez became the highest profile player to indicate that he wouldn’t participate if the “midsummer classic” went ahead as planned. He said last May, “It’s immoral. They’re violating human rights. In a way, it goes against what this country was built on. This is discrimination. Are they going to pass out a picture saying ‘You should look like this and you’re fine, but if you don’t, do people have the right to question you?’ That’s profiling.”
In a different interview he said, “If they leave it up to the players and the law is still there, I’ll probably not play in the All-Star Game. Because it’s a discriminating law.”
He now says that he always meant his comments to mean that he would follow the lead of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association on whether or not boycott. Last May, the MLBPA issued a stern statement that read in part,
“The Major League Baseball Players Association opposes this law as written. We hope that the law is repealed or modified promptly. If the current law goes into effect, the MLBPA will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.” From my contact with sources in the union, I can confirm what’s now become obvious: that they have no plans to call for any kind of a boycott. Their belief is that since the most controversial aspect of SB 1070—requiring police officers to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally—has been struck down by the courts, the urgency for action has waned.
It’s certainly welcome news that the courts saw the lunacy of SB 1070 for what it was, but I would argue that the MLBPA and Gonzalez are mistaken for thinking that the worst is behind us. Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer is appealing directly to the Supreme Court for a full reinstatement of the law. Other parts of the legislation such as stiffer prison sentences and preventing municipalities from declaring themselves “sanctuary cities” are unchallenged and now on the books. Most critically, SB 1070 has spawned even harsher copycat legislation in Alabama and Georgia.
The attacks demand a response and the All-Star Game is a critical place for our voices to be heard. A boycott and protest outside the stadium gates has been called and rightfully so. Baseball depends on Latino talent for its very survival. Twenty-seven and one-half percent of all players were born in Latin America. They fill the ranks of every All-Star roster and are a near plurality of all minor league players. Commissioner Bud Selig, by financially rewarding the state of Arizona as well as the Diamondbacks’ owner, right-wing financier Ken Kendrick, is now underwriting bigotry. The way that Bud Selig continues to sponge himself luxuriantly in the spirit and memory of Jackie Robinson while ignoring the injustices of today—something Jackie would have never done—is, frankly, nauseating. As Enrique Morones, former Vice President of the San Diego Padres said to me, “If Bud Selig was around in the 1940s, he would have dithered and Jackie Robinson never would have gotten his chance.”
Here’s hoping that when Gonzalez takes the field, as the cameras turn toward him, he makes some sort of visible stand for those who are forced to live in the shadows. If he doesn’t, those outside the stadium will just have to shout that much louder.
In an era defined by endless war, we should recognize a day in history that won’t be celebrated on Capitol Hill or in the White House. On June 20, 1967, the great Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston for refusing induction in the US armed forces. Ali saw the war in Vietnam as an exercise in genocide. He also used his platform as boxing champion to connect the war abroad with the war at home, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” For these statements, as much as the act itself, Judge Joe Ingraham handed down the maximum sentence to Cassius Clay (as they insisted upon calling him in court): five-years in a Federal penitentary and a $10,000 fine. The next day, this was the top-flap story for the New York Times with the headline, “Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison.”
The sentence was unusually harsh, and deeply tied to a bipartisan Beltway effort to crush Ali and ensure that he not develop into a symbol of antiwar resistance. The day of Ali’s conviction the US Congress voted 337-29 to extend the draft four more years. They also voted 385-19 to make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag. Their fears of a rising movement against the war were well-founded.
The summer of 1967 marked a tipping point for public support of the Vietnam “police action.” While the Tet Offensive, which exposed the lie that the United States was winning the war, was still six months away, the news out of Southeast Asia was increasingly grim. At the time of Ali’s conviction, 1,000 Vietnamese noncombatants were being killed each week by US forces. One hundred US soldiers were being marked as "casualties" every day, and the war was costing $2 billion a month.
Antiwar sentiment was growing and it was thought that a stern rebuke of Ali would help put out the fire. In fact, the opposite took place. Ali’s brave stance fanned the flames. As Julian Bond said, “[It] reverberated through the whole society…. you could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war before began to think it through because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.”
Ali himself vowed to appeal the conviction, saying, “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand—either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.”
Already by this point, Ali’s heavyweight title had been stripped, beginning a three-and-a-half-year exile. Already Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had begun to distance themselves from their most famous member. Already, Ali had become a punching bag for almost every reporter with a working pen. But with his conviction came a new global constituency. In Guyana, protests against his sentence took place in front of the US embassy. In Karachi, Pakistan, a hunger strike began in front of the US consulate. In Cairo, demonstrators took to the streets. In Ghana, editorials decried his conviction. In London, an Irish boxing fan named Paddy Monaghan began a long and lonely picket of the US Embassy. Over the next three years, he would collect more than twenty thousand signatures on a petition calling for the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title.
Ali at this point was beginning to see himself as someone who had a greater responsibility to an international groundswell that saw him as more than an athlete. “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.”
Eventually justice did prevail and the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in 1971. They did so only after the consensus on the war had changed profoundly. Ali had been proven right by history, although a generation of people in [Southeast] Asia and the United States paid a terrible price along the way.
Years later upon reflection, Ali said he had no regrets. “Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war. Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted.”
How do we understand the riots that exploded in Vancouver after the beloved Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Finals? How do we understand the burning cars, broken glass and injuries that stand as an enduring coda of their game seven defeat at the hands of the visiting Boston Bruins? Having communicated with several dozen people in “the most livable city in the world,” I think I have a modest perspective on why the Canucks’ 4-0 loss was followed by fire.
One thing was made abundantly clear to me, please disregard the “analysis” of TSN’s Bob McKenzie a k a “The Hockey Insider” who blamed “left wing loons” for the rubble. Mackenzie tweeted that he was sure responsibility lay with “anarchists and some organized extremists…many of the same people and groups who orchestrated riots in Toronto last summer at the G8.” This is unsupported and profoundly irresponsible garbage with no basis in fact. Vancouver activist Harsha Walia said to me, “It’s ridiculous that even a hockey riot needs a scapegoat. A deliberately created media circus of sports fervor, millions of alcohol advertising dollars and City-sanctioned street party zones all over downtown will unsurprisingly lead to a massive street brawl."
Let’s also dispense with the fiction that this was the fault of all “Canuck fans.” The fans on the whole were actually in fine form after the game. They gave Conn Smythe winner, Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, a standing ovation and also rose and cheered for every Bruin from Vancouver, British Columbia. Of the millions of Canuck supporters, this was a minuscule mob. As Shiema Ali of Vancouver wrote to me, “I live in Vancouver and left the downtown core just before the game started. There were tons of people coming into the city who were already drunk and rowdy (in a bad way) —win or lose those people were ready to riot.”
What happened after the game was neither in the spirit of people at the arena not the spirit of those who bravely protested the G8. As activist and hockey fan Derrick O’Keefe said to me, “Sometimes a riot is the ‘language of the unheard,’ in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. But sometimes a riot is just an expression of young male stupidity and violence— this was the case last night in Vancouver.”
Another person said to me, “There were lots of [LGBTQ people] down there, some got roughed up, some dental care needed. There are also attempts to pin this on ‘black bloc’ and references to ‘protesters.’ There are lots of frustrated young men for sure lashing out at authority but no analysis of what might be spurring this.”
I did receive this incisive bit of analysis from Dru Oja Day, an editor at the Media Co-op. “If you ask people to pour all of their emotions and anger into a game, then a major event (Montrealers have rioted after first round game 7 wins!) is going to occasion some outbursts. Hockey commentators like Hockey Nights’ Don Cherry are constantly associating hockey with the troops overseas (he went to Afghanistan and fired a live shell, for chrissakes) and promote fighting and big open ice hits. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
John Ward-Leighton also pointed out on his blog the role that the liquor lobby placed in turned an entire area around the arena into a branded “Entertainment Zone” larded with bars and free-flowing liquor.
“It was clear that a lot of of the participants in last night’s riot and looting were at the very least impaired and looking for trouble,” said Ward-Leighton. “This ‘zone’ has nothing to do with entertainment and much to do with the almost criminal profit taking of the proprietors of the establishments who far from ‘serving it right’ pour drunken idiots into the streets nightly to brawl and drive drunk….The fault for last night's idiocy was not about losing a hockey game or the police response, the bomb had its fuse lit with the myth that the only way you can have fun is to get stinking drunk.”
And yet the action —or inaction of the police is garnering attention as well. Alex Kerner, a law student and activist said to me, “How the police dealt with this riot compared to the G20 in Toronto last summer is instructive. While the destruction of police cars, property and lighting of fires was much more extensive this time, the police tended to focus only on those who committed the acts of vandalism. Some tear gas was used, but for the most part the targets were the actual rioters. Contrast this to the G20, where police used much more limited property damage by anarchists during the protests to sweep through the entire protest and arrest a record number of participants, irrespective of their actions. This sends a pretty sharp message from police that being around a pointless hockey riot is much safer than being at a protest with an actual purpose.”
It’s also worth noting that of the dozens of people who have needed medical attention, the overwhelming majority have required treatment for “exposure to tear gas or pepper spray” from, of course, the police. In addition, the push from police and the media for people to “post on Facebook” pictures of rioters so they can be identified and prosecuted signifies some kind of queasy step toward “social media as police state” that we should reject. Today a sports riot, tomorrow a demonstration.
One aspect that’s not getting nearly the publicity as the riots themselves are the people who risked danger, going in the street doing volunteer cleanup, while the streets still raged. As O’Keefe said to me, “Here in Canada, we’re dealing with a federal government hell bent on cutting back public services—they’re about to legislate postal workers back to work—but these are exactly the working people who tended to the wounded and put out the fires that night. In a way, we could thank the testosterone-laden morons for reminding a hockey crazed city that the real heroes in society don’t play a game for money; the real heroes fight fires, drive ambulances, treat the sick and clean up garbage.” The real heroes are also those who try to connect with the angst and alienation that leads to such destruction and channels it into protesting the very people “hell bent on cutting back” the services we so dearly need.
As one of those real heroes, Harsha Walia said to me, “There is a sense that people rioted over a ‘stupid apolitical hockey game.’ While I too wish people were motivated by social justice issues, the hockey game is not apolitical by any means. The riots were a fundamentalist defense of a type of nationalism, most evident in the beatings of Bruins fans in Vancouver last night. NHL hockey is not simply a game, it is representative of obedience to consumerism and is part of the state’s attempt to forge a false identity—despite vast differences and inequalities across race, class and gender, through the spectacle of sport.”
The state does reap what the state sows. We should remember that as the hand-wringing by police and government officials commences in the wake of Vancouver’s Great Hockey Riot.
The most polarizing athlete in sports, playing for the most polarizing team, just gave us the most polarizing post-game quote in living memory. Lebron James, after his Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and after playing profoundly beneath his Herculean stature, said the following:
“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
Damn. Those who aren’t sports fans—or I guess it’s more appropriate to say, “fans of the many soap operas that swirl around sports”—might not realize what a break from the book of clichés this statement represents. Most post-game comments are so polished and filed down, they’d make a Mitt Romney speech look edgy. Players routinely behave for the cameras like they just graduated from the Madeira School for Girls. It’s like athletes went to a Meet the Press seminar on “how to say nothing.”
After last night’s crushing loss, Lebron’s All-Star teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were predictable portraits of propriety. Wade said, “First of all we give credit to the Dallas Mavericks…. We ran into a team that was obviously better than us.” Lebron, after a season that saw him ditch his hard-luck teammates in Cleveland, take his talents to South Beach and transition from hero to heel, chose to go a different route.
As one could imagine, he is getting crushed across the sports columns and the interwebs for letting the mask slip and speaking his mind. It’s being read as the ultimate statement of the “spoiled, arrogant” athlete. One headline read, “Lebron: reminding you that he’s super rich and you’re not.” Jalen Rose on ESPN said, “He needs to learn to speak to the media. He puts his foot in his mouth time and time again.” The NBC sports site Pro Basketball Talk blared the headlined, LeBron has a few arrogant words for those who hate him. Writer Kurt Hellin wrote, “LeBron is never going to win over many of those haters. But calling them jealous loses some on the fence…. Lebron has a long line of public relations blunders in the past year. You can add this one to the list.”
When I read Lebron’s words, frankly, I did a triple take. It’s practically a pro-wrestling quote designed to bring audience “heat” as an end unto itself. I kept thinking of former WWE heel Rick Rude starting matches by saying, “What I’d like to have right now is for all you fat, out of shape, [insert city] sweat-hogs to keep the noise down while I take my robe off and show all the ladies what a real man is supposed to look like.” But even in the scripted world of professional wrestling any heel knows that you rile people up before matches, not after.
There’s little point in mining Lebron’s psyche for his intentions. Was he being defensive? Insensitive? Even cruel? I have no clue and don’t really care. But I do think the quote deserves examination on its own terms. How can we deny the truth that many of us look to sports as a distraction from the trials and tribulations of our own lives? How can we deny that the reason so many of us read the sports page before the front page is that one is both bearable and comprehensible while the other simply isn’t?
We live in a crumbling nation with epic unemployment, 2 million people behind bars and vast wealth inequality, while being told that we inhabit the best country on earth and to think otherwise is heresy. In such a world, sports become more than an escape: it’s a refuge. It’s much easier—and emotionally manageable—to hate Lebron James than face our collective future.
Make no mistake, I’m not arguing that Lebron James was trying to point out the way sports deflects attention from other realities. I don’t put his comments in league with those of another hated athlete, Barry Bonds, who in 2005 asked why Congress had time to investigate steroids while people were dying in New Orleans. But his words should give us pause. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with sports being a sweet evening escape from the problems that face us the next morning. There is something wrong with seeing athletes as avenues for our aggression when the real culprits exist outside the arena.
Soccer is the great global game: the closest thing we have to a connective cultural tissue that binds our species across national and cultural borders. But only in a world so upside down could “the Beautiful Game” be run by an organization as corrupt as FIFA and by a man as rotten to the core as FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Only Sepp Blatter, whose reputation for degeneracy approaches legend, would hire a war criminal like Henry Kissinger to head "a committee of wise persons" aimed at “rooting out corruption” in his organization. And only these two twinning avatars of amorality would use "the Beautiful Game" as an instrument of Islamophobia.
On Sunday, moments before Iran’s women’s team was due to take to the pitch and play in an Olympic qualifier against Jordan, the team was disqualified for wearing their traditional full-body tracksuits and hijabs. Jordan was granted a 3-0-forfeit victory, crushing the lauded Iranian team’s chances to go to the 2012 London Games.
As the Iranian players and officials tearfully objected, they were told that they had violated FIFA rules that state, "Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits." The team was also informed that since 2007 FIFA has held the view that wearing a hijab while playing “could cause choking injuries.”
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it’s asinine. “Hijab soccer choking deaths” doesn’t exactly send the Google search engine a-humming. But far more problematic is that the team had already received assurances from FIFA that the uniforms were in compliance. They had even had played preliminary rounds without a blip from Blatter.
Iranian women’s soccer director Farideh Shojaei told Reuters TV in an interview, “We made the required corrections and played a match afterwards. We played the next round and were not prevented from doing so, and they didn’t find anything wrong. That meant that there are no obstacles in our path, and that we could participate in the Olympics.... This [uniform] is neither religious, nor political, nor will it lead to harm a player…. and Mr. Sepp Blatter accepted this."
So what is really going on here? First of all, we should dismiss any of FIFA's concerns about the welfare of the women involved. Blatter is an unreconstructed sexist and without resistance, women's soccer would look something like the Lingerie Football League. The man who bans the hijab proposed in 2004 that women players wear "hot pants" on the pitch to boost the sport's popularity. He said that the "tighter shorts" would produce "a more female aesthetic." In addition, for years, human rights organizations have asked Blatter to take a stand and say something about the horrific influx of sex-slave trafficking that accompanies the arrival of the World Cup. Blatter’s cold response, "Prostitution and trafficking of women does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of an international sports federation but in that of the authorities and the lawmakers of any given country.” In other words, he’s not exactly Susan Faludi.
Conversely, by denying the team the opportunity to show their genius in full Muslim dress, Blatter becomes an agent of their oppression. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote for Think Progress, “If we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence.” I would add that Blatter's decision only feeds the profound Western ignorance regarding the position of Iranian women since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The literacy rate for women before 1979 was 35 percent. Now it’s over 75 percent. In the days of the Shah, only one-third of women were enrolled in institutions of higher education. Now that number is 50 percent. One in three Iranian doctors are female. In the United States, that number is one in five.
The new presence of Henry Kissinger, pardon the expression, unveils what this kabuki theater is all about. Kissinger hasn’t been shy about his views on Iran, openly calling for war and saying, “We must work for regime change from the outside.” Given the way women’s rights has been used as a red herring to justify war on the Muslim world, this is about perpetuating the stereotype of the Muslim damsel in distress, denying those very women a powerful and visible presence on an international stage. This is about isolating Iran to continue the drumbeat of war. But most of all, at bottom, this is about Kissinger—and Blatter—using sports for their own political ends.
Those who bleat that “sports and politics” should be kept separate when an athlete dares express an opinion, should turn their outrage toward Blatter, Kissinger and FIFA’s decision to see soccer as a tool to sideline Muslim women. We should call upon FIFA to revoke the forfeits and adhere to the three words that should bind all leagues, all countries and all people who believe that sports can reflect the best of our species: let them play.
Photo: Washington Post
The Women’s Tennis Association could not be happier today. With her victory in the French Open on Saturday, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. Her historic triumph brings an unprecedented opportunity to market the sport to China’s perceived fan base of 1.3 billion people. According to Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Li’s finals match against Francesca Schiavone drew a Chinese audience of 116 million.
The press has compared Li to basketball player Yao Ming because she carries a wink and an edge that could stand to make her popular beyond the tennis crowd. As CNN-Beijing’s Xiaoni Chen wrote somewhat primly, “She has a tattoo, has dyed her hair many different colors and has even been known to yell at her husband in public.” When speaking about her victory over Schiavone, Li said in halting English, “Of course I was nervous. But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.” By “cheating” she meant “acting.”
She’s funny, smart, and good enough to contend in every Grand Slam tournament. Like Yao, she could become that holiest of holy grails in sports marketing: a brand. The clay had not even been smoothed on the courts of Roland Garros before the Wall Street Journal was asking the question, “As China celebrates Li Na’s victory in the French Open the next question is how she—and the world’s biggest brands—will cash in on her celebrity. Which labels will she represent? How will she be marketed? And who will pay the big money for her endorsement?”
The irony at work should be readily apparant. In the Eastern bloc, athletics was seen as a way for athletes to forge individual identities. Often times, as in the case with Czech tennis great Martina Navratilova or Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez, it meant defecting to the West so they could reach greener pastures and flower freely.
Now Li seems set to bloom: and the fertlizer is coming in bags labeled Nike and Rolex. Rolex is Li’s biggest sponsor and as the Wall Street Journal explained, “A Rolex watch is a status symbol among China’s wealthy set.” As for Nike, Li’s entourage was all wearing canary-yellow Nike shirts that read “Achieve Yourself” in Mandarin lettering. The savvy Li pointed out in her victory-press conference that Nike had produced very few of these shirts for the Chinese market. She said, “I think now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts.”
But before the new Li Na Rolexes and designer swoosh-wear roll off the assembly line and into the eager arms of consumers in the People’s Republic, we should take a moment and see what this actually tells us about twenty-first-century China: the great economic partner and political bogey-man of the United States. Along with explosive economic growth over the last decade, class divisions in China have sharpened dramatically. This has been reflected in a tennis boom, seen as the symbolic sport that marks you as “elite.” In 1988 1 million people played tennis in China. Today that number stands at 14 million. Playing tennis is a sign that a family has status and it differentiates the new elites from those migrating from province to province struggling to survive. An article by Reuters published just last Thursday highlights this reality: “High-rise towers are under construction and luxury cars roll past bars and cafes catering to the city’s entrepreneurial class, many of whom have become rich from real estate and stock market speculation. But inside the town’s factories, it’s another story.”
This “other story” was typified by an explosion last month at an iPad polishing factory where three workers died and 15 were injured. The catastrophe made international news. But accidents of the sort are “business as usual” in China. “Business as usual” in 2010 meant 360,000 industrial accidents across the country that were directly connected to the deaths of nearly 80,000 people. The brutal realities of “business as usual” have also spurred thousands of strikes and factory occupations over the last several years, even as workers risk imprisonment, torture and death for their militancy. Independent unions, factory councils and pitched battles in the streets are as much a feature of modern China as the McDonald’s on the corner.
We can cheer the beauty and artistry of Li Na’s ability on the court. But please don’t call it a victory for China. Part of this remarkable country will cheer and play more tennis. A very separate and unequal part will die making those canary-yellow shirts: the last thing they see being that market-tested exhortation: “Achieve Yourself.” These contrasting realities are a recipe for the kind of social conflict for which Nike has no slogan.
It’s fitting that Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day. This is, perhaps, the most misunderstood holiday on the books: a day used by politicians to celebrate war, which was first organized by freed slaves to honor Union soldiers buried in a Charleston, South Carolina, mass grave. The connection lies in the deception.
In the process of leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to annual glory and becoming the highest-paid public employee in the state, Tressel gave the appearance of a humble, God-fearing, small-town Ohio coach who had somehow landed his dream job. He was Coach Norman Dale from Hoosiers, if Norman Dale had landed the head job at Indiana University. Yes, there were ethical lapses along the way, but that was always put on the shoulders of the morally fallible teenagers under his charge. Over two decades in coaching, Tressel cultivated the persona of the last honest man in Sin City.
But the hammer did fall. Tressel, after months of stalling and dissembling, finally resigned on Memorial Day because he knew Tuesday would bring a Sports Illustrated exposé that would have provoked outright dismissal. According to the scathing report by George Dohrmann with David Epstein, dozens of players under Tressel’s charge traded OSU memorabilia, including championship rings, for everything from tattoos to marijuana. Buckeye gear was their currency in Columbus. Sports Illustrated uncovered that Tressel knew this was happening as far back as 2002, which is a far different story than what he’s told school officials and the NCAA. For a coach, being aware of violations but refusing to report them is the ultimate cardinal sin. The private Tressel has been exposed as more concerned about wins and losses than complying with NCAA rules—or the standards of ethical behavior he endlessly espoused in public.
Maybe all the adulation, the $3.5 million annual base salary and the free access to a private jet warped a once-virtuous man. When OSU President E. Gordon Gee was asked when the scandal first broke if he had given any thought to firing Tressel, he joked, “I'm just hoping that the coach doesn't dismiss me.” Maybe Tressel started to actually believe that he was, as a book about him was titled More than a Coach. Or maybe he’s been ethically flexible from the moment he put a whistle around his neck. One thing is certain: Tressel’s “integrity,” “humility” and “paternal nature” have been exposed as a heavily marketed commercial persona. Instead of having character, he has now become a character: the hypocritical sports moralist, who sits in judgment of others while wearing nothing beneath the robe.
The Sports Illustrated exposé is a terrific piece of investigative journalism—and yet it fails in one respect. It doesn’t take a step back and ask whether a system is insane in which players trade the rings off their fingers or the shirts off their back to get the college-age amenities most students take for granted. As more and more obscene amounts of money have poured into so-called amateur sports—the Big Ten conference signed a television contract worth $770 million—these kinds of scandals are endemic. Consider that Ohio State’s legendary coach Woody Hayes made $43,000 at the peak of his powers. It’s a different world for everyone—except the players themselves.
As OSU English professor Pranav Jani said to me, “I guess there's something positive in the fact that that we've created a climate in which Tressel's tremendous success couldn't excuse his unethical behavior. But I'm waiting for the day when we ask bigger questions. Why should universities facing steep budget cuts pay, oh, about $3.5 million a year or so for top coaches? What if student athletes, who create so much revenue by their play, were actually paid for it—and didn't feel like they had to sell merchandise to find deals on cars? It's easy, and even entertaining, to point to the hypocrisy of someone like Tressel, who lied through his teeth while writing books to teach people about responsibility and ethics. But the rot is much deeper than this. Tressel is the symptom, not the disease."
Now more than ever, the NCAA is the disease: a gutter economy so lacking in moral direction they can provide the television show South Park’s avatar of amorality Eric Cartman the ethical high ground. Cartman, in his efforts to build a slave economy around his “crack baby basketball league” (please don’t ask), approaches the president at the University of Colorado to inquire “Like yourself I am in the slave trade…. So how do you get around not paying your slaves?” Although outraged at Cartman’s impudence,the college president can’t explain how his players aren’t in fact slaves. South Park is, in my humble view, tired, toilet humor for emotionally retarded libertarians. But on this point, they pancake-block the NCAA into oblivion.
A plantation-economy nonprofit really has no place in a civil society. College football needs to be shut down and reopened under new management. Give players a stipend, guarantee scholarships for four years, cap salaries of head coaches, and start over because the current model has failed: morally, ethically and economically. Maybe it’s appropriate that Tressel resigned on Memorial Day. Maybe we can remember this day as the start of a mourning process: mourning the death of both our feigned innocence and do-nothing cynicism about the reality of big-time college sports.
On Monday, while Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was being fined for using a homophobic slur against a fan, a commercial for LGBT marriage rights was released featuring Suns All-Star Steve Nash. Last month, the same day Kobe Bryant was caught on camera using the same invective against a referee, Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley were filming a public service announcement where they spoke out against using the word “gay” to mean stupid, dumb, or worthy of disrespect. Last month, when Suns executive Rick Welts became the highest ranking executive to ever come out of the closet, sports radio needed the vapors to recover. When the most famous Phoenix Sun ever, Charles Barkley spoke at length in support of Welts, the media obsessed over his comments that he had gay teammates. Ignored was when he said, “It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
There are two conclusions we can draw from this unprecedented recent collision between the National Basketball Association and the politics of LGBT rights. The first is that the Phoenix Suns organization must be the most gay-friendly workplace on earth: an absolute Shangri-La of rainbows and good vibes. The other conclusion is that while homophobic outbursts are still very much a part of the vocabulary of professional sports, more and more players are saying this is not acceptable. It was beautifully bracing to hear ESPN announcer Mark Jackson sounding legitimately upset during the Oklahoma City Thunder/Dallas Mavericks playoff game on Monday when he heard that Noah’s fine was $50,000, only half of Kobe Bryant’s fine. “That is a human being [Noah] said that to. You don’t speak that way to another human being. Why the double standard?” When told that Noah was being taunted in awful terms by the fan, Jackson said, “Then throw the fan out of the building. Don’t have it come to this.”
The fact that it’s Joakim Noah, of all players, who was caught on camera is in and of itself illustrative. Noah is someone who spoke out against the war in Iraq. He's called for college players to be paid by the NCAA. He put his name to a statement in defense of the Jena 6—African-American teenagers facing decades in prison for a schoolyard fight. I met Joakim Noah and he came across as one of the good guys: a true Jock for Justice. If he would drop an “f-bomb” in the heat of a game, it really says something about how ingrained it is in the language of pro-competitiion.
But history shows that change will come. I recently had the privilege to screen Peter Miller’s documentary Jews and Baseball. The film documents the use of anti-Semitic language against Jewish players in the early decades of the game. It was an all-purpose insult thrown at everyone from hall of famer Hank Greenberg to bench guys. But Jewish players challenged fans and opponents, sometimes with their fists, until it was no longer a part of the conversation. The same story can be told about Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and every player of color who had to hear insults in the heat of athletic battle until a combination of movements in the streets and the attendant political confidence of players made it a memory. Fast–forward to today: we have visible struggles for LGBT rights. Hell, Focus on the Family, just announced that it was throwing in the towel on fighting LGBT marriage saying they’d lost the generation under 30.
It would certainly help in sports if players came out of the closet, and it was not left to straight-supporters like Nash, Hill and company. But one thing is certain: the league can and needs to do much more than just levy fines on players who happen to be caught speaking slurs on camera. NBA Commissioner David Stern, who is a political liberal and a long-time friend of Rick Welts, said of gay rights. "I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue." No kidding. We don't need to see David Stern wave the rainbow flag. And honestly if it didn’t have a swoosh on it, I don’t think he ever would. But the Commissioner could make discussion of homophobia part of every rookie orientation. I’ve been to the NBA’s rookie symposiums and everything is discussed from dealing with women on the road to how to balance your checkbook. How about a discussion that language like that used by Noah and Bryant won’t be tolerated any longer? How about statements from the NBA that if any rookies in the room happen to be gay, the NBA will stand as a workplace where their sexuality won’t only be “tolerated” but embraced? The NBA clearly sees homophobia isn’t good business. But for LGBT fans, writers, players and their families and friends, this isn’t business. It’s personal.