Where sports and politics collide.
There are certain phrases so imbued with history, their mere recitation evokes a reaction. To hear the words “I have a dream” or “we shall not be moved” is to be involuntarily flooded with awe. For an advertising executive, the operative emotion is not awe but opportunity: these are just phrases waiting to become slogans and the moment does not exist that's too sacred to be used to move merchandise.
No company is more effective at bleeding history of its content and turning into a brand, than the ad-people at Nike. These are the folks who gave us the “I am Tiger Woods” ads, drawing on the expression of ancient slave solidarity, “I am Spartacus," and turned the Beatles Revolution into a jingle. Well, Nike is at it again with Lebron James’s heavily hyped new sneaker ad. The commercial shows James suffering—at times comically, at times plaintively—over the way his image has taken a beating since his free agent exit from the Cleveland Cavaliers. It ends with James saying defiantly, “Do I have to be who you want me to be?” Then comes the swoosh and we fade to black.
The ad is slick, butter-smooth, and would make a Mad Man proud. It’s also, as Kevin Blackistone of AOL Sports wrote, “a desecration.” Lebron and Nike’s new slogan is a play on a famous phrase by the great Muhammad Ali who forty-five years earlier said, “I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be.”
Ali didn’t say these words because he was mourning the loss of his brand power. He said it because he was suffering the consequences of his own political principles and wanted to make it clear that he couldn’t be broken. Ali had turned his back on not just white society but the mainstream civil rights movement by joining the Nation of Islam. He then chose to become the most famous draft resistor in US history by refusing to fight in Vietnam.
That phrase, “I don't have to be what you want me to be,” perfectly symbolizes a radical time when familiar roles were being turned on their heads. Ali was a boxer who hated war. He was a black separatist who earned the affections of Dr. King. As the Champ, he was supposed to be violent, inarticulate and proudly patriotic. He chose to be none of that. He faced down death threats and federal prison and paid a tremendous price, not least of which was near-universal scorn.
On the question of near-universal scorn, Lebron does in fact have something in common with Ali. The reigning Most Valuable Player has gone from beloved to bad guy because he dared do things his own way. He exercised his rights of free agency, leaving his hometown team to play with his friends in Miami for less money. In the process, he incensed the owners, their mouthpieces in the press, assorted NBA legends, and a multitude of basketball fans. When James raised the issue of whether racism might have something to do with the reaction, much of the media roared in disapproval. It's certainly understandable why he'd beseechingly ask the question: “Do I have to be who you want me to be?”
Lebron has in the past expressed his admiration of Ali. This ad, though, is like expressing your admiration for Dr. King by launching “I Have A Dream Cereal” or a laxative called “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The ad-geniuses at Nike are sending a message that they are attempting to deliver Lebron from a fate worse than federal prison or even death: commercial irrelevance.
Ali was defined by defiance. His quote “I don’t have to be want you want me to be” was a slap in the face to doubters, haters and even killers in his midst. But in the hands of Nike, the commercial makes Lebron James sound more like a man imprisoned by relentless self-pity. I personally have no idea what I “want Lebron to be.” Never thought about it. But after watching the ad, I know what I don’t want him to be: the sort of person who would take Ali’s sacrifice and courage and put them at the service of selling sneakers.
He’s the answer to multiple trivia questions. Who was the only rookie to start in the 1977 World Series? Who invented the high-five? And who was the first Gay Major League Baseball player—to our knowledge—to be out of the closet in the presence of his teammates, if not the fans? The answer to all these questions in Glenn Burke, the subject of a brilliant new documentary, OUT: The Glenn Burke Story (debuting November 10 on Comcast Bay Area, DirecTV’s sports pack channel 696 and Dish Network’s multi-sports package channel 419). In a year of stellar sports documentaries—thanks largely to ESPN’s consistently strong thirty-for-thirty series—OUT is the best I’ve seen. What sets it apart is that it does more than explore an athletic hidden history. It speaks to today’s sports world about the stubborn endurance of the closet in the men’s locker room over the last thirty years.When thinking about LGBT athletes and what they’ve faced, people are very familiar with female jocks like tennis legend Martina Navratilova and basketball star Sheryl Swoopes. Maybe they also know male athletes who in recent years have come out after retirement like NFL player Esera Tuaolo and NBA center John Amaechi. But in Burke we have a story that hasn’t been told, and demands an audience. In the able hands of producer Doug Harris, we learn about an athlete who was more than just a two-sport Oakland Area legend, playing both baseball and hoops with pro potential. He was also a young man, growing up in the Bay, and confident about his sexuality. That confidence, for anyone, was rare back then, but to find it in a male star athlete is remarkable.
As OUT tells us, Glenn’s confidence was put to the test when he made the big leagues. Dodgers teammates like Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Reggie Smith, Rick Monday and Manny Mota, tell the story of a player whose sexuality was noticed, recognized and even accepted by some teammates but looked on with horror by management. After all, when you wear a red jockstrap in the locker room, people will start to talk. The story where the Dodgers organization offered Glenn $75,000 to get married is particularly gob-smacking. Later when Glenn was traded to Oakland, the pressures intensified. Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington tells this anecdote in OUT: “[A’s Manager Billy Martin] was introducing all the [new] players and then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.’” By 1980, Glenn was out of the game but the story doesn’t end there. OUT then tells the story of Glenn’s life after baseball: triumphantly coming out to Sport magazine and Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show; participating in the first Gay Games in 1982, and being a public figure in the San Francisco scene. But then Glenn’s life took a tragic turn as drugs, petty crime and the AIDS epidemic claimed his life. He died in 1995 at the too-young age of 42.
The grand unanswered question that hangs over the documentary is how good could Glenn Burke have been without the relentless pressures of homophobia? To hear Dusty Baker tell it, he could have been truly great. OUT is a must see for anyone who cares about LGBT rights and finally conquering what is in many ways the final frontier of homophobia in our society: the men’s locker room. If anything, by the documentary’s end I felt a sense of deep regret. I regretted that I wasn’t more familiar with Glenn Burke’s story. I regretted that I didn’t have an entire section on his life in my book A People’s History of Sports in the United States. I regretted that this hidden history has been shunted back so deeply in the athletic closet, it’s largely unknown. We owe Doug Harris and the entire team that produced, directed, wrote and researched OUT a tremendous debt. This is the kind of special documentary filmmaking that has the power to change lives. Every high school sports team in the country should watch this remarkable work so the next generation’s Glenn Burke can exist out of the closet and not out of the game.
In DC, it's not the elections garnering the lion's share of discussion. It's the late-game benching of Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb. The always classy McNabb has spent a career avoiding controversy like the plague. He may never seek controversy, but controversy always seems to seek him. It's hard to imagine an athlete who has been more milquetoast and manicured, and yet always finds himself as our sports generation’s unwilling lightning rod.
McNabb spent eleven years wrestling for the affections of Philadelphia’s uniquely surly fans. During that time, he had to deal with Rush Limbaugh bleating that he was getting a free ride because of his skin color, former teammate Terrell Owens questioning his leadership, and firestorms when he speculated in 2007 that black quarterbacks just might have a tougher time with fans than their white counterparts. Then McNabb became the first pro-bowl quarterback in history to be traded inside his own division when he was sent from the Eagles to the Redskins. He has then had to watch as the city of Brotherly Love that never loved him, embrace the far more controversial and far less polished Michael Vick. Through it all, McNabb has remained classy, always classy. This is just the McNabb way.
As he once said, "I try to handle myself with class. I try to handle myself with dignity. I think sometimes people look to players to act out, speak loudly, pretty much be an idiot. But that's not me."
The latest saga involves McNabb's bizarre benching against the Detroit Lions with 1:48 to go and his team down six points. Coach Mike Shanahan, who looks like George W. Bush with the John Boehner tan (seriously, it's as if his years as head coach of the Denver Broncos died his skin orange) took that moment of all moments to call on McNabb’s utterly incomptent backup Rex Grossman to win the game. True to form, Grossman coughed it up on his first play, his fumble returned for a touchdown, sealing the game.
The entire scenario, to put it mildly, was bizarre. With the game on the line, Shanahan sat his future Hall of Fame quarterback who had already equaled the team's win total of last year for a backup bust who couldn’t hit the earth if he fell from a plane. Other than Sports Illustrated’s Peter King praising Shanahan’s "stones", most thought he was just stone crazy.
In the bars, barbershops, and other circles I frequent, there was bewilderment over the move, but that was as far as it went. That shifted when Shanahan actually explained the method of his madness. In several rambling explanations, he first questioned McNabb’s conditioning. Then the next day Shanahan made clear that he felt McNabb just didn’t know the plays. In other words, McNabb isn’t just a bad option with the game on the line. He’s also fat and stupid. Well, now. Whether intentional or not, the race card had officially been dealt. Speaking for the bars, barber shops, chat rooms and radio stations, it was clear Shanahan had however subconsciously or unintentionally crossed a line. Fox Sports's Jason Whitlock spoke for many when he wrote, “Before the week is over, I fully expect Shanahan to suggest that fried-chicken grease prevented McNabb from properly gripping the football.”
Clearly, we’ve come far enough in the NFL that it's no longer a big deal if your quarterback happens to be black. But we haven’t come so far that a true trailblazer among black quarterbacks can be called fat, lazy and stupid by his head coach, and not have people start to talk.
For many, the coach going out of his way to embarrass Donovan McNabb is simply unacceptable. If only it was unacceptable for McNabb. Throughout the week, he’s been as calm and collected as he has been throughout his career. The media has once again been praising this “classy” demeanor. Former teammates, the talented but petulant Terrell Owens, and the simply petulant Freddie Mitchell piled on, saying that Shanahan must have had a point. Once again, Donovan stayed classy.
Donovan McNabb is like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. He constantly smiles while coaches, teammates and the occasional shock-jock strip him down. He will always be the stump where even a heavyweight like Limbaugh can safely sit. He gave five NFC Championship Games in eleven seasons and a trip to the Super Bowl to Philadelphia, and was run out of town. He gave the Redskins four wins in seven games and a leader who, while at times erratic, was better than any we’ve had in this town in twenty years, and was benched for his trouble. He just gives and smiles tightly, controlling his emotions like a German innkeeper. Maybe that’s why he’s such a lightning rod for the Limbaughs of the world. Maybe that’s why coaches like Shanahan feel like they can disrespect him without repercussion. He’s let himself be an easy target. This is bad for the team, the city and himself. After the benching, teammate DeAngelo Hall said, "For us as players, we're employees. We're players. We have coaches. We do what the coaches say. If that means come out of the game, we come out of the game. If that's go in the game, we go in the game. So for us to not, I guess, rally behind what's being coached, that's not going to happen.”
Employees don’t get anywhere by just listening to the boss. You don’t build unity that way, just a culture of division, mistrust and fear. This is a team that cries for leadership. Donovan McNabb could stand to be a lot less classy and tell Mike Shanahan that he has his head up his ass. The team and the city, would love it because Donovan McNabb would finally be announcing to the world that he's nobody's stump.
In Portland, Oregon, professional baseball has become the latest casualty in a two-year battle with the local sports franchise bosses over whether the Rose City would become the latest locale to pay for a massive, publicly funded stadium. The people said no, so the owners shamefully sold the minor league Portland Beavers to an out-of-state buyer. Greed may have killed baseball in Portland. But these aren’t just any ordinary owners. They’re Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his 30-something son Merritt, who parachuted into Portland in 2007. The son is 80 percent owner, while the father—the Bush cabinet official who infamously flung a three-page TARP proposal in front of Congress that was “non-reviewable...by any court of law or any administrative agency”—holds the rest.
The Paulsons still hold sway over the Portland Timbers soccer team, but they’ve sold the baseball Beavers—to a group led by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad. The local media didn’t blame the Paulsons for selling out baseball from the city, but the people of Portland for not supporting the socializing of stadium debt. John Canzano, the lead sports columnist for the Oregonian, ranted that city leaders “sat in the shadows, shrugging at one another, afraid to ask Portland to act like a major city.… What kind of city does Portland want to be?”
Put simply, it’s a city that should be emulated across a country that has been soaked by public-funding stadium scams. Canzano’s yipping aside, the real story about how the city turned the Paulsons back, should be shouted from the hills.
In the Rose City, citizens banded together and stopped the shakedown. When boosters tried to foist the baseball stadium on the working-class neighborhood of Lents, residents across the political spectrum formed Friends of Lents, a group that heckled Paulson Jr. at public meetings and eventually scuttled the absurd proposal to divert already allocated scarce urban renewal funds to multi-millionaires.
After the citizens of Lents turned them back, Portland Mayor Sam Adams suggested tearing down the Memorial Coliseum, but war vets protested vociferously alongside angry architects who wanted to preserve the building’s unique glass frame as a “modernist marvel.” (Architects of Portland, unite! You have nothing to lose but your pocket protectors!). Then the Paulsons attempted to put the baseball team in suburban Beaverton where community organizers, local business owners and elected officials turned them away.
As the process unfolded, Merritt Paulson changed his company’s name from Shortstop LLC to Peregrine LLC. If you’re not an ornithologist, you should know that the peregrine falcon is a cosmopolitan bird of prey that swoops in and feasts on unsuspecting everyday birds like ducks and pigeons. Fortunately for Portland, activists have refused to play the role of sitting ducks.
What’s more, activists accomplished this in the face of unflinching pro-Paulson boosterism from the local newspaper, the Oregonian. While Merritt Paulson challenged critics “to find a better deal out there for the city,” the Oregonian chastised those who took up the challenge as “shortsighted.” The editorial board wrote condescendingly, “Portlanders have a bad habit of thinking small.” Even with the mainstream mass-media deck stacked against them, activists, their allies, and the independent media, pressed ahead, ultimately reducing the Paulsons’ audacious $85 million ask to $11.9 million in city loans that that will be repaid through a “spectator fund” comprised of parking and ticket revenue from NBA and MLS games. This money will go toward the new soccer stadium only, as the baseball team is now tragically gone.
That’s not to say it was a total victory. Taxpayers are still doling out nearly $12 million to the super-rich rather than putting that revenue toward social services, mass transit or the dilapidated infrastructure. In Portland, the Sellwood Bridge recently earned a National Bridge Inventory safety rating of two (out of one hundred), while the I-35W bridge that collapsed in 2007 scored a fifty. The true cost of such priorities was seen in Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2008, when the Mississippi River bridge collapsed the same week a $300 million public stadium was due to break ground.
Portland did not have to lose its baseball team. The Paulsons didn’t need the taxpayer to become their sugar daddy when Daddy Paulson is worth $700 million. And thanks to a loophole in the tax code, Paulson saved a whopping $100 million when he moved from Goldman Sachs to head the Treasury Department in 2006. By simply scoring a “certificate of divestiture” from the Office of Government Ethics, Paulson was free to sell off his 3.23 million Goldman shares—valued at approximately $484 million—without paying a penny of taxes. This gargantuan tax break alone would have covered the entire stadium-building scheme from start to finish without any public financing whatsoever. Clearly, they could have afforded land for their stadium-building venture, but going this route would have meant paying for the project themselves. That would have meant breaking the unwritten code of domino theory in owner-land. If you pay your own way, others might be pushed to do the same.
The Paulsons sold the Beavers down the Willamette River and out of Portland. We have to raise more options than either forking over tax dollars to aristocrats or losing the team. It’s time to start looking at what it would mean to press for public ownership if billionaires won’t play ball. What better city to start with than Portland? And who better to start with than the Paulsons?
There is a tempting political spin to impose on the 2010 World Series: it's the ultimate red-state/blue-state showdown. In one corner, you have the Giants from the People's Republic of San Francisco and across the ring you have the Texas Rangers, hailing from a state that repeats "Don't Tread on Me" like a religious catechism. The Giants best player is two-time Cy Young award winner and long-haired midnight toker Tim Lincecum. Their top reliever, Brian Wilson, sports a Mohawk, tattoos and an epic beard that would shame a Crown Heights Chasid. In contrast, the Rangers best player, top-line starter Cliff Lee, leads the team with a style that's more Johnny Appleseed than Johnny Rotten.
Then there's the owner's box: in the Giants luxury suite, you have Bill Neukom, who made his fortune as the chief attorney for Microsoft as it grew from garage startup to leviathan of digital doom. His team plays in a stadium, AT&T Park, that much to the chagrin of Major League owners was built with private funds. In the other owner's box, you have former Rangers Hall of Fame pitcher and proud political conservative Nolan Ryan. Ryan is seen on camera often this post-season with his dear friend, former Rangers "owner" George W. Bush.
Thanks to Bush, the Rangers play in a park that represents perhaps the pinnacle of taxpayer-gouging, public stadium financing. Two decades—not to mention two wars, a gutted economy and a wrecked New Orleans—ago, Bush and his team of owners threatened to uproot the team if the city of Arlington did not foot the bill for a new park. The local government caved and in the fall of 1990, forked over the entire near-$200 million tab. (One wonders if the bankers who received the largesse of Bush's Wall Street bailout were taking notes.)
But the scam did not end there. As part of the deal, the Rangers' ownership was given acres of free land around the stadium to create a dingy amusement park for the kiddies. But most of this land-gift was left to sit, increasing exponentially in value after the stadium's construction. To make this happen, the late Democratic Governor Ann Richards established the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority, which was granted the extraordinary power to seize privately owned land deemed necessary for stadium construction. Then Bush sold his stake in the team to billionaire and friend of the family Tom Hicks in 1998 for $15 million, making a 2,400 percent profit on his original $600,000 (borrowed) investment.
Seems pretty cut and dry for the political sports fan: you line up with either San Fran or Bush Country, right? But even though it would be great to see Dubya cry if the Rangers lose, people should resist easy political labels for either team. The field manager for the Rangers is Ron Washington, who could become the second African-American manager in baseball history to lead a team to championship glory. Washington must be as surprised as anyone to be in the World Series, let alone employed. To the credit of the Rangers organization, they kept Washington at the helm even after the 57-year-old manager failed a drug test during the 2009 season and then admitted this Spring that his drug of choice was cocaine. The Rangers are also led by another player many teams would have thrown overboard: probable 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton, who has been on and off the substance-abuse wagon so many times, his blood might be 90 proof.
Also, for those sneering at the red-state owners box in Texas, remember that the Giants ownership team is hardly the Grateful Dead. In addition to being the consigliere for the Microsoft Mafia, Bill Neukom's team has gobbled $80 million in public financing for park upgrades and untold millions in tax exemptions. They also have a sixty-six-year lease on the primo 12.5 acres of park real estate at a cost of just $1.2 million a year. Then there is the Giants organization's treatment of forcibly retired home run king and suspected steroid user Barry Bonds. The reviled Bonds is still popular in the Bay, and he sold out the park during the leanest years for the franchise. No one should nominate Bonds for sainthood, but he deserved far better than being released after leading the league in on-base percentage and having every last picture and memento from his historic career removed from team headquarters. Bonds did make a token appearance on the field before game three of the National League Championship Series, but maybe if he had played for Texas, they would have treated him more the way they've treated Ron Washington and Josh Hamilton: like a human being.
Far more interesting is what unites both franchises: failure. The San Francisco Giants, despite their storied history have never won a World Series since their 1958 move from New York to the Bay; and the Texas Rangers before this season, had never even won a playoff series. Both teams will be playing with a desperate ardor in front of tortured crowds conditioned for failure. Nope, there are no easy labels in this series: just two teams looking to make their mark on baseball history and two fan bases desperately waiting to exhale. I can't wait.
When the ESPN Zone restaurant chain shuttered most of its doors last June, eyebrows were raised in the business press. The restaurants had made bank ESPN brand with good food and of course, wall-to-wall sports. But as Rick Alessandri, senior vice president at ESPN put it at the time, "The economy has hit every facet of our country. We weren't immune."
ESPN’s mother-ship, the Walt Disney Company, made the decision to engage in some creative destruction and the ESPN Zones were just part of the fat that was trimmed. This included the very popular locale in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But there was one problem with this hard-nosed business decision: the 150 workers in Baltimore, shocked that their high-traffic restaurant closed, were told with less than a week’s notice. Federal law, according to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires sixty days of notice and severance. Instead, the workers at ESPN Zone were given the bum’s rush. Even worse, many didn’t hear the wrenching news through their boss. Instead, many found out their jobs were yesterday’s news in the Baltimore Sun or even on Facebook.
Now the workers are fighting back and fighting mad. On Monday, October 25, the former employee filed a class action lawsuit against ESPN’s parent company, Disney, to get the Mouse to comply with the penalty associated with violating federal labor law. The penalty for violating the WARN Act requires that Disney pay workers for sixty days at the rate of their last paycheck. The severance that Disney offered, which is shameful, is separate from this penalty. Their attorney, Andrew D. Freeman said, “Disney’s severance payments were inadequate as a matter of law and as a matter of human decency.” The lawsuit also shines a spotlight on the most vulnerable people in today’s economy: people who live day in and day out working non-union, service industry jobs that can be here today and gone tomorrow.
A cook at the ESPN Zone, Winston Gupton, was put out on the street after losing his job. Speaking at a June 30 press conference, Gupton said,
“I never thought that a place that I dedicated myself to for seven-and-a-half years would reciprocate with such disrespect by shutting down with no notice at all. We were stunned. It was like walking through a dream. We were just devastated, and immediately, I had to figure out what I was going to do because I have a 6-year-old daughter that I take care of. I was even forced to find other living arrangements, because the income I was expecting during this busy summer season was now drastically diminished."
It would be comforting to think that the Winston Gupton story is his and his alone: a man who became collateral damage in this particular instance of cold corporate number crunching. But it's a story being told across the country. It is particularly common in the neighborhood where his former place of business rusts: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The Inner Harbor is a collection of high brand, national restaurant-chains like the Cheesecake Factory and Phillips Seafood, built to capitalize on tourist dollars and close proximity to the publicly funded Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the home of the Baltimore Ravens, MB&T Bank stadium
There is a movement afoot to turn this tourist zone into a “Human Rights Zone” and it’s being led by the same people who issued the class action suit on behalf the ESPN Zone employees: a group called the United Workers. The UW is an organization of low-wage workers that was founded by homeless day laborers in 2002. Today they have a membership of hundreds of workers trapped in that world between steady work and abject poverty. Their goal is to enter agreement with the restaurant chains to ensure basic human rights standards for workers across the harbor, including living wages, healthcare and education. When a chain abruptly shuts its doors, like ESPN Zone did, the UW wants to be treated like workers and not disposable equipment. As Debra Harris, a former ESPN Zone cook said,
“We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect."
Organizing the service industry has proven nationally to be a Sisyphean task for the AFL-CIO. But the independent United Workers have been successful in the past by waging highly visible grassroots campaigns, with the workers themselves in positions of leadership. They also relish taking on powerful corporations with national brands like ESPN and Disney, because they think by exposing the brand, they can get a seat at the table. Every corporation has a bottom line. The United Workers want to make sure there is at least some justice, dignity and humanity in the process.
Was National Public Radio correct to fire Juan Williams, their National News Analyst, for saying, “…when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous"? The answer is a simple one: you betcha. This is, as The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan wrote, "anti-religious bigotry in its purest, clearest form." How could NPR employ an ostensibly unbiased “national news analyst” who admits an irrational bias against Arabs and Muslims? What would our reaction be had he voiced similar sentiments toward any other religion or ethnicity? As Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald made plain, “If we're going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing prohibited ideas against various groups, it's long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most—if not the single most—pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America."
It’s no coincidence that Williams happened to express these views on Fox News. In the Obama era, the cable network has chosen to become a fully functioning engine of racism, operating what can be described as a fifty-state Southern strategy, playing to white anxieties about an increasingly multicultural America. Sure enough, Fox gave Juan Williams, the day after his firing, a $2 million contract. Islamophobia pays, especially when voiced by an African-American who touts his own liberal credentials. (As Fox Anchor Brit Hume said affectionately of Juan Williams on Sunday, he’s a "Bill Cosby Liberal." Nope, no racism at Fox.)
In addition to being very well compensated, Williams has received full-throated support from the usual suspects of intolerance. Figures of the right like Fox News employees Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, along with the utterly repellent professional Islamophobe Pam Gellar, have rushed to Williams’s defense on First Amendment grounds. These figures, to put it mildly, lack a degree of credibility on any issue pertaining to “free speech.” They all celebrated the firing of CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr for tweeting sympathies after the death of Lebanon’s Ayatollah Mohammad Hussain Fadlallah, a cleric who became the spiritual leader of the Lebanese resistance after the 1982 Israeli invasion. They laughed it up when their press-pool nemesis Helen Thomas was forced to retire in disgrace after saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” But when Dr. Laura Schlessinger was pushed out after using the n-word repeatedly on the air, Palin rushed to her defense; and now as Juan Williams is punished for expressing his Islamic paranoia, Fox & Friends reveal the only kind of speech they fight to defend.
The usual suspects of intolerance don’t defend Islamophobia because they’re bigots, although that certainly helps. There is a wing of the political establishment with a pressing stake in anti-Muslim paranoia this election season. Candidates around the country like Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle are running for office on idiotic planks of fending off creeping “Sharia law” in the United States and stopping a “Ground Zero mosque” in New York City that is neither a mosque nor at “Ground Zero.” While Fox News has of course been the engine of breathless coverage against Muslim Americans, this has not just been the province of the right. Both Democratic Senatorial Majority Leader Harry Reid and liberal favorite Howard Dean have luridly railed against the “Ground Zero mosque.” As for President Obama, we are still trying to decipher his position.
Beneath the election year fear-mongering lies an even more ugly and genocidal reality. More than a million Arabs and Muslims have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the bipartisan "Global War on Terror" began nine years ago. The Obama administration has of course upped the ante in Afghanistan while accelerating deadly drone attacks in Pakistan, and we know from Wikileaks that accidental deaths of civilians in these countries is a regular reality. Racism and Islamophobia are primarily about dehumanizing Arabs and Muslims. A significant portion of the United States can accept the horrific crimes against humanity in the Middle East only if there is consensus that those dying are less than human.
As for Williams, he has not only refused to apologize. He has taken this moment of infamy to burnish his credentials for his new bosses on Fox. He has made the rounds decrying “political correctness” and “left wing orthodoxy” at NPR, calling them "worse than Nixon." He has even called for his employer of fifteen years to be defunded. In doing so, Williams joined calls by Tea Party leader Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who announced that he is introducing legislation to "defund NPR." The bill calls to “end subsidies” and make NPR “play by the rules of the free market.” That might sound great on Fox News (subsidized by Rupert Murdoch), but the problem is that Congress doesn't actually fund NPR, which gets just 2 percent of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By piously defending free speech while demogoguing against NPR, DeMint sounds like his Tea Party brethren who rail to "keep the government out of my Medicare!"
To be clear there is nothing “left-wing” about National Public Radio. This is the network that gave airtime to right-wing ideologue David Horowitz the day after the death of Howard Zinn, as an authority to assess the beloved historian's legacy. Yet in this case they were absolutely correct. Finally, at long last, an institution drew a line against the ceaseless media bigotry faced by Arabs and Muslims.
A quarter of a century ago, there was a person who would have been part of drawing that line. Tragically, he is no longer with us. He was a principled antiracist who wrote the classic civil rights text Eyes on the Prize. In 1986 he said, "Racism is a lazy man's substitute for using good judgment.… Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me." His name was Juan Williams. It would be nice if he were still around.
With each passing week, I hear from football fans saying that it's getting harder to like the game they love. They've spent years reveling in the intense competition and violent collisions so central to the sport, but this is the first time these NFL diehards feel conscious about what happens to players when they become unconscious.
In August, to much fanfare, NFL owners finally acknowledged that football-related concussions cause depression, dementia, memory loss and the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Now that they've opened the door, this concussion discussion is starting to shape how we understand what were previously seen as the NFL's typical helping of off-field controversy and tragedy. When Denver Bronco wide receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide, the first questions were about whether football-related head injuries led to the depression that took his life. When the recently retired Junior Seau drove his car off of a cliff the day after being arrested for spousal abuse, questions about whether head injuries sustained during a twenty-year career affected his actions, soon followed. Such conjecture is not only legitimate; it's necessary and urgent.
This season a typical NFL game is starting to look like a triage center. On concussions alone, a reader at deadspin.com compiled the following list of players who have borne the brunt of a brain bruise in 2010:
PRESEASON: Ryan Grant, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Joseph Addai, Mark Clayton, Nick Sorensen, Aaron Curry, DJ Ware, Louis Murphy, Scott Sicko, Mike Furrey, Darnell Bing, Freddy Keiaho
WEEK 1: Kevin Kolb, Stewart Bradley, Matt Moore, Kevin Boss, Charly Martin
WEEK 2: Clifton Ryan, Jason Witten, Randall Gay, Craig Dahl, Zack Follett, Evan Moore
WEEK 3: Anthony Bryant, Cory Redding, Jason Trusnik
WEEK 4: Jordan Shipley, Willis McGahee, Jay Cutler, Asante Samuel, Riley Cooper, Sherrod Martin
WEEK 5: Aaron Rodgers, Darcy Johnson, Jacob Bell, Landon Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Rocky McIntosh
WEEK 6: Josh Cribbs, Desean Jackson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Zack Follett, Chris Cooley
In assessing the list, the most striking aspect is its randomness. There is a mix of star quarterbacks, shifty running backs, burly tight ends and anonymous linemen. All play different roles in the game, and all wear different kinds of equipment.
Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, after a weekend where he says he saw "six or eight shots where you wondered, ‘Is that guy getting up?' " proposed some solutions: "It's time to start ejecting and suspending players for flagrant hits…. Don't tell me this is the culture we want. It might be the culture kids are used to in video games, but the NFL has to draw a line in the sand right here, right now, and insist that the forearm shivers and leading with the helmet and launching into unprotected receivers will be dealt with severely. Six-figure fines. Suspensions. Ejections.
King's suggestions are not unlike those who told 1950s children to hide under their desks case of nuclear attack. The hits that cause concussions aren't just the kind of helmet-to-helmet collisions that make King shudder but often come from routine tackles. Frequently, brain bruises aren't even diagnosed until the game has ended. In other words the most devastating hits are often the most pedestrian. This was seen in utterly tragic fashion during Saturday's college contest between Rutgers University and Army. Rutgers linebacker Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the waste down on a play described as a "violent collision." But if you look at the replay, the only thing "violent" about the play is its horrific outcome.
It's also not, as King writes, "the culture" that celebrates this violence. It's the NFL itself. The video games that the NFL promotes and sponsors deliriously dramatize brutal tackles. Highlight shows on the NFL Network relish the moments when players get "jacked up." Anyone who saw HBO's Hard Knocks, their behind-the-scenes look at the New York Jets preseason, heard it loud and clear. Whenever a player would "jack-up" the opposition, Coach Rex Ryan would whoop and yell, "That's a guy who wants to make this team!"
Here's the reality check to Peter King and all who want their violence safely commodified for Sunday: there is no making football safer. There is no amount of suspensions, fines or ejections that will change the fundamental nature of a sport built on violent collisions. It doesn't matter if players have better mouth guards, better helmets or better pads. Anytime you have a sport that turns the poor into millionaires and dangles violence as an incentive, well, you reap what you sow.
It is what it is. I think it's a waste of time to feel "guilty" about being a football fan. If people are disgusted by the violence visited on these players, they should vote with their feet and stop watching. If people are at peace with the fact that they are enjoying something that wrecks people's bodies, then that's their business as well. But for goodness sakes: if you are to remain a football fan, at least support the players in their upcoming negotiations with ownership. Reject the idea of an eighteen-game season as "good for the game." Reject the idea that players need to have their pay cut for the league's "financial health." Reject the idea that owners shouldn't have to contribute to the medical well-being of players after they retire. Recognize the humanity of the carnage on the field so you can do something to support the humanity of players when the pads come off. That's what I pledge to do… for now. But in the interests of full disclosure: I might be a Desean Jackson-Dunta Robinson moment away from ditching the game for good.
You may have noticed an abundance of pink on the fields of the National Football League this month. Between the pink sneakers, pink mouth guards and pink wristbands, one would be excused for wondering how the machismo-drenched league became so fabulous overnight. Welcome to the NFL’s celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness month. But there are reasons beyond the altruistic for the league’s sudden concern with women’s health. In September the league launched a $10 million public relations effort to woo female fans, which included the marketing of NFL jeans, sandals and yoga mats. The thirty-three men that run the NFL have determined that this explosion of pink is just another way to say, “We care about our female fans—from their yoga to their tumors.”
Courageous as it may be to take a stand on the polarizing issue that is breast cancer, the NFL’s new efforts to woo the female fan come off as desperate and patronizing. Women go to the games for the same reason as men: to have fun and cheer themselves hoarse. But the NFL has taken on this campaign because there are those in the owner’s box who fear the league has financially peaked. In a country where teams ensconced in Buffalo and Jacksonville are struggling to stay solvent, the internal expansion market has run dry. In a nation still in the grips of a Great Recession, attendance is down across the board. In a world where hatred of American football is a point of national pride, the NFL isn’t going to find revenue streams overseas. In an economic climate where the well of public subsidies is parched, the need to expand the fan base has become something of mania. Enter the pink.
This concern for female sensitivities is also the reason why Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Farve might be in a whole world of trouble. For those living in witness protection, Favre is being investigated by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The website deadspin.com posted voice messages and penis pictures Favre is alleged to have sent to team employee Jenn Sterger, when both were with the New York Jets. Two Jets masseuses have since emerged with similar stories, albeit without the now-ubiquitous photos of Favre’s “Mississippi burning.” These photos now wallpaper the Internet and yes, this is another one of those sports stories that makes us all want to bathe in bleach. Brett Favre’s dong is like Lebron James: we are all witnesses.
It also puts Favre in the position of now having to scramble to defend his career, legacy and status as an athletic icon. Love him or hate him, Favre has had without question, one of the most remarkable careers in the history of sports. In nineteen NFL seasons he has, as of this writing, 290 consecutive starts, 500 touchdown passes, and 70,000 yards passing: all records. Now his consecutive-start streak could be snapped along with his reputation. The sad truth is that in an era where sports scandals swirl all around us, redemption is a young person’s game. If you are Michael Vick or Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriguez, and can emerge from disgrace to excel on the field, much is forgiven and forgotten. If you are Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, the last memory becomes indelible. It doesn’t matter if your crimes are misdemeanors or felonies or just an inability to control your libido. The field is like Lourdes and you are a SportsCenter highlight away from forgiveness. Favre, however, is 41, missing throws he used to make in his sleep and, for the first time in his long career, hearing from columnists that he should be benched. Roger Goodell, longing for that pink dollar, might agree. But if Goodell thinks that female football fans will be twirling their parasols and raising their mint juleps in gratitude for his chivalry, then the Commish clearly hasn’t spent enough time in the stands of NFL games. If Goodell really wants to respect female fans, he should ban the cheerleaders, ban the sexist beer commercials and continue to enforce equity and access for women journalists. All the rest of this is smoke and mirrors for a league flailing for dollars. Favre may have royally crossed the line but larger concerns will determine the price that he pays.
The Patriots trade of superstar wide receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings for a third-round draft pick represents everything I despise about NFL "conventional wisdom," the New England Patriots organization and their dyspeptic toad of a head coach, Bill Belichick.
For twelve years, the football media have derided Moss as a malcontent, a "diva," even a cancer. And yet, as the hate has been rained down upon his head with annual monotony, do you know who loves Randy Moss? Quarterbacks. Moss is the kind of singular talent who turns average qbs into Pro Bowlers, and Pro Bowlers into Hall of Famers. Just look at his history since coming into the league way back in 1998. In Moss's first season he caught a rookie-record seventeen touchdowns on a Minnesota Vikings team that set the mark for most points scored in a season. His quarterback, Randall Cunningham, had the best run of his star-crossed career and was named Player of the Year. When Cunningham played poorly in 1999, his backup, the talented but bumbling Jeff George, was finally consistent, which he achieved by tossing up remarkable spirals that Moss snatched out of the air. After George, Moss gave new quarterback Daunte Culpepper two of the best statistical seasons in NFL history. When Moss left the team for the Oakland Raiders, Culpepper's career left as well. The two years in Oakland were uneventful—as are most years in Raider-land—but when Moss signed with the Patriots, he showed that he was truly an all-timer.
The already accomplished Tom Brady had a season for the ages, throwing a record fifty touchdowns, with twenty-three of them going to Moss, also an all-time mark. That Patriots team broke the record of Moss's old Vikings team for points in a season. The presence of Moss opened the field for Brady to find underneath receiver Wes Welker who has more catches over the last three years than any player in the NFL. This is why Tom Brady recently called Moss the greatest deep threat in NFL history. This is why Brady is miserable today and Brett Favre is so elated you'd think they made Wranglers with an elastic waist. Favre has pined for Moss since the 1998 draft when he begged the Packers to take the Marshall University standout and then watched as Moss tormented the Pack for years.
That last word is key: years. For all the talk of the "mercurial Moss," his career has actually been one for the ages. Moss has the second most touchdown catches in NFL history and is still just 33 years old. The one receiver picked ahead of him in the 1998 draft, Kevin Dyson, hasn't played in seven years. And yet, despite twelve years of putting up Hall of Fame numbers and being the object of desire for every QB in the game, he is still branded a problem player. Every team should have such problems. NFL writers who still beat this dead horse sound like geriatric country clubbers crying about the end of the gold standard.
We've seen this again in the wake of Wednesday's trade. Kerry Byrnes of Sports Illustrated, before the bags were even packed, wrote, "At the end of the day, the Patriots were a better team without Moss." He also dismissed Moss's impact, writing, "Wide receivers, even the all-time great wide receivers, are little more than shiny hood ornaments on NFL offenses." For proof of this, Byrnes looked at the Packer teams of the 1960s and the Steeler dynasty of the 1970s, pointing out that they lacked a dominant receiver. This is idiocy writ large and not just because, last I checked, Pittsburgh receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were in the Hall of Fame. In today's NFL, where changes in the rules heavily favor the passing game, if you don't have a top receiving corps, you are not going anywhere. Instead of looking at the Canton Bulldogs, or whoever Byrnes was holding up as an example of wide receiver irrelevance, look at the last four Super Bowl teams: in 2009 it was the Arizona Cardinals led by receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the Steelers and their Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. In 2010, the Saints and the Colts passed first and ran the ball just to keep the other side guessing.
But forget the stupidity that the Patriots are better without Moss. This is just another reason why the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick deserve every last dollop of our collective contempt. Over the last five years, Belichick has coldly disemboweled the team that won three Super Bowls in four years from 2002–2006. Remember their clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri, or linebacker Mike Vrabel, or Super Bowl MVP Deon Branch, or All Pro tackle Richard Seymour? They were all expendable. Other than Brady, the only surviving player is—now injured—running back Kevin Faulk, who has been on the team so long he must have pictures of Patriots owner Bob Kraft snuggling livestock. For all the talk of Randy Moss being a narcissistic diva, it's really Belichick who believes that it's all about him. Until I see that cranky, diva hobbit run past Darrelle Revis and catch a touchdown with one hand, I will continue to think otherwise. As for Moss, he has the chance now to end his career in Minnesota where it all began. As he said to Vikings coach Brad Childress, "I'm just happy to be coming home." So is everyone in the land of ten thousand lakes. We should cheer the Vikings and jeer the Patriots for this move. But if you take a moment and listen very carefully, you can hear a very soft thumping sound. It's Tom Brady banging his head against a wall.