Where sports and politics collide.
“Tim Thomas has turned New Boston into Old Boston”
—Howard Bryant, author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston
As rapidfire as Twitter itself, what started as a moment of a sports euphoria turned decidedly ugly. There were the Washington Capitals beating the Boston Bruins 2-1 in Game 7 and moving on toward the National Hockey League's greatest prize, the Stanley Cup. Before my disbelieving eyes, the Caps' Joel Ward scored the winning overtime goal against last year’s Stanley Cup hero, Tim Thomas. But Ward is a black man, and before you could say “post-racial,” self-identifying Bruin fans tweeted a cascade of ugly invective, with the “N-word” being their epithet of choice.
For a small group of sad fools, the symbolism of the moment—Ward beats Thomas!—overtook them in the worst possible ways.
Tim Thomas is the player who created a sports media firestorm by refusing to join his team and meet with President Obama after the Bruins won the 2012 Stanley Cup. To be clear, I have zero problems with athletes refusing to be part of presidential photo ops, but his political reasons are not irrelevant to what caused last night’s spasm of hate. Thomas is a proud, financial supporter of the Tea Party. He counts Glenn Beck as a hero and once emblazoned the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on his helmet. When asked by reporters why he wouldn't meet with Obama, Thomas didn’t comment and instead referred people to his Facebook page, which had a paragraph about “out of control Federal government.”
To see no connection between the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and the politics of racial resentment is to subscribe to either blind ignorance or political cowardice. (Even Beck, last December, inferred that racism in the Tea Party drives anti-Obama animus.)
Howard Bryant, senior ESPN writer commented to me this morning, “The goal itself wasn't particularly important. [Barbadian-Canadian] Anson Carter was a Boston playoff hero during the 1999 playoffs. The significance of Ward's goal is that the man he beat, Tim Thomas, has through his thinly veiled racism undermined what should be a glorious revival of hockey in Boston. In turn, he encouraged the revival of an attitude that people wanted to think was out of fashion. I don't care if it was a lunatic fringe or a larger portion of the Bruins' fan base, but Thomas by himself turned new Boston into old Boston, and the embarrassing fan response to Ward's goal proved it.”
Old Boston is also part of this story, as much as many from New England don’t want to hear it. No city in the United States has a more tortured intersection of race and sports than our supposed cradle of liberalism and democracy. It’s the city whose Boston Red Sox was the last team to integrate, waiting until 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s the city that for decades rejected the greatest team basketball player in history, Bill Russell, because of his proud, unblinking opposition to racial intolerance. After dealing with years of everything from verbal abuse to the vandalizing of his home, Russell called the city “a flea market of racism.” Boston then embraced Larry Bird, to such a passionate degree his very jersey became a symbol of white arrogance, exemplified in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was also, paradoxically,(and fitting in a city this paradoxical), the first hockey town to integrate, when Willie O’Ree took the ice for the Bruins in 1958 (he would be the NHL’s last black player for sixteen years). Now, when Joel Ward plays the hero, the reflex is the “N” bomb. As Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”
Of course, racism is not a “Boston thing.” Of course, the sewers of the Internet overflow with bile if you have the stomach to look. Of course, we’ve just collectively witnessed the character assassination of the slain Trayvon Martin, with no regard for either his humanity or his grieving parents, so we should probably refrain from being too shocked. As sports writer Bomani Jones tweeted when people pointed out the anti-Ward hate, “Folks called a n-word repeatedly behind a dead teenager. of course someone would say it over a game 7.” None of that, however, should blind us to the basic truth. Today should be a day when we celebrate the unbelievable upset by a Caps team over the defending Stanley Cup champs. But racism is a reality in sports and in life. We can choose to ignore it, but the only thing willful blindness guarantees is that it will continue. All Bruins fans of conscience should take to Facebook and Twitter and say, “Not in my name.” The organization should release a statement as well.
After the game, both Thomas and the Bruins stayed on the ice, waited for the Caps celebrations to die down and congratulated their opponents. When speaking to the media, neither Thomas nor his teammates exhibited anything but class. There were no excuses, no resentments. America has a ways to go to catch up.
Metta World Peace, the winner of the NBA’s 2011 citizenship award and a player who has done more than any athlete alive to raise the curtain on the taboo sports subject of mental illness, is finding out today that the past is never really past. The player formerly known as Ron Artest delivered a dangerous, ugly and altogether unnecessary elbow to the back of the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden on Sunday. His elbow launched thousands of tweets and blog postings best described as two parts abject horror and one part snark. (After all, the guy changed his name to Metta World Peace—you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde to have fun with that.) But neither abject outrage nor humor feels particularly appropriate for this story.
MWP is probably the most physically strong wing player in the league not named LeBron James. After dunking on two Thunder players, he felt contact on the inbound and swung that elbow. If it was Thunder forward Kevin Durant bodying him up, the elbow hits his chest and this column isn’t written. But the shorter Harden caught it right behind his ear and didn’t move off the ground for a frightening full minute. He has since been diagnosed with a concussion. MWP will be suspended and the Thunder locker room was already referring to him as Ron, same as he ever was.
As upsetting as the endlessly repeated slow-mo elbow replay is, we should recognize several things. The breathless media coverage is not because of the injury to Harden. The commentary has already far outpaced that of similar cheap shots in the NBA. Kobe Bryant had his nose intentionally broken by Dwyane Wade during the NBA All-Star Game. Kevin Love stepped on Luis Scola’s face. Jason Smith and Russell Westbrook in recent weeks committed fouls that could have ended the careers of the NBA’s brightest lights, Blake Griffin and LeBron James. But those stories were one-day spectacles, no more and no less.
But Metta has his history, and with a history comes a narrative that allows the media to use past as prologue. In this case, the prologue unfolded eight seasons ago, at the “Malice in the Palace”, when Ron Artest brought a fistfight into the stands during a game in Auburn Hills, Michigan. For many fans, Metta came to embody the highly racialized symbol of the “NBA thug”. He received the longest suspension in NBA history (seventy-three games), and the question of whether he would even be allowed to return was very real. There was a current of racism—some veiled, some not—in this whole spectacle, as the “thug” Artest was held up for public scorn and ridicule for starting a “riot.”
But instead of falling under the assault on his character, this Ron Artest recognized he had a problem and rebuilt his own sense of self. His problem was depression and mental illness, and he didn’t care who knew it. Artest actually thanked his psychiatrist on national television after leading the Lakers two seasons ago to a victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. This off season, he changed his name to Metta World Peace and has been more open and honest about his psychiatric treatment than any athlete alive and has done a world of good for others by taking his mental health issues out of the closet.
Metta is quirky. He is irreverent. He is also a sweetheart of a person, whom I’ve met and can vouch for as an athlete of uncommon personal kindness. Of all the invective over the Harden incident, the most painful was to hear ABC’s Jon Barry call him “Metta Weird Peace.” It was “Artest the freak show” all over again. It’s what makes me want to point out that the NBA has far less in-game violence than the NHL or NFL, where the elbows are flying at all times and concussions are a daily fact of life for untold numbers. It makes me want to ask the media defenders of James Harden why they don’t get this worked up over the thousands of concussion victims in other sports, particularly the NFL. But MWP is an easy villain.
At the risk of sounding as overblown as those throwing dirt on Metta World Peace today, if that elbow above all else becomes his legacy, it would be a tragedy: a tragedy of someone who spent years finding redemption in his private life, only to lose it in a fraction of a second.
“Summitt earned the right to handle this on her own terms. She isn’t bigger than the program. She is the program.”
— David Climer, the Tennessean
Just weeks before the sports world celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, one of the true icons of both women’s sports and the sports world in general, Pat Summitt, is retiring as basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. It’s hard to imagine someone in our polarized society who has earned everyone’s respect as fully as Pat Summitt. She built a women’s sport in a red state and left all observers from every political stripe in awe of her intensity, her work ethic and her hawk-eyed smarts. As she once said, “I’m sure there were some good old boys who thought, ‘I’m not going to watch women’s basketball.’ But when they saw it, they saw something they didn’t expect.”
Late, great UCLA coach John Wooden once called Summitt the best coach in the sport, and the numbers back it up. This is someone who won more college basketball games than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,098) and more national championships than Coach K and Dean Smith combined (8). She is also still just 59 years old, but made the decision to say goodbye. It had to be done. Coach Summitt announced last year that she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. This season saw Coach Summitt occasionally drift and stare into the deep distance during practices, or clutch the edge of a table or clipboard to keep her hands steady. But still, even with Alzheimer’s, she led the Lady Vols to a 27-9 record, only losing in the Elite 8 to a Baylor team that was on its way to finishing 40-0.
It was time to step down, deal with her health, raise money for her foundation aimed at battling this evil, merciless disease, and after thirty-eight years, hand the clipboard to someone else.
As Ann Killion wrote for Sports Illustrated, “It’s been heart-wrenching to witness, even from afar. I can only imagine the pain suffered by those closest to Summitt—her assistants, her players, her son, Tyler. We saw a glimpse of it last month, on the night that Tennessee’s season ended—a night that many suspected would be the last for Summitt—when [assistant coach Holly] Warlick broke down in tears in the postgame interview. Her pain was so sharp, it took my breath away.”
It did for so many, as former and current players spent much of last season grieving with their coach. That’s the awful truth about Alzheimer’s. The person afflicted will be with us for some time, but you still need to hurry and say goodbye. Despite the emotional strain and endless well-wishers, Coach Summitt kept pushing forward until season’s end.
After winning the SEC Tournament, Lady Vols senior Shekinna Stricklen said, “It’s been a hard thing to deal with, but I’d do it all over again if I could. We’ve all learned so much from Pat. She’s such an inspiration.”
This is true. But it’s an inspiration and a legacy that is greater than wins and titles and even more profound than the bravery with which she’s confronting this chapter of her life. In so many respects Pat Summitt is women’s sports in the United States: fearless, self-made and tough as hell. Just consider that Pat Summitt started coaching at UT in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX. Her salary that first year was $8,900. She was only 22 years old and the program was of such low stature, it made sense to her that players just call her “Pat,” a practice that has never changed.
Summitt had free reign to build the UT women’s hoops program because no one in the high profile, football-dominant, world of Tennessee athletics gave a damn whether it lived or died. One writer described it as the “step child” of the athletic department and based on how the program was deprioritized and under-funded, that description serves as a grave insult to stepchildren everywhere.
But her teams competed with the fierce intensity of their coach, traveling the country looking for opponents. Their grueling schedule and unreal success at home was noticed, and fans in Knoxville and beyond started to pay attention. As Coach Summitt said, “We’ve built this fan base not on scheduling patsies. We’ve built it on bringing in the top opponents throughout the country from a lot of conferences and our fans deserve that. We also think that to be the best you have to play the best.”
Summitt also recruited and coached players who became champions and icons of the sport: There were “The Meeks” Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall, Kara Lawson, Candace Parker, and three-time All-American Holly Warlick, who now takes over as head coach.
Summitt will still be a presence in the program, and has promised to be at games, offer advice when asked and even help recruit. But a chapter in the history of sports closed today, and while we celebrate the unbelievable legacy of Pat Summitt, we should also be brave enough to say that we are all weaker for her absence.
On April 6, 1987, all eyes in the world of sports were supposed to be on the fight to end all fights: Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. “Sugar” Ray Leonard. In this pre-Internet era, ABC’s award-winning news program Nightline with Ted Koppel was devoting its broadcast to that epic long-awaited encounter, but first they needed to kill some time. It was the fortieth anniversary of the date Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line and desegregated the sport, so they decided to produce what host Ted Koppel called a “wet kiss” to Robinson and his memory: something gauzy, soft-focused and without edges. But their first guest, Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel, was someone who hadn’t lived a gauzy, soft-focused life. A woman who never feared telling inconvenient truths, she said that Jackie, if alive, would feel a great disappointment at how little progress baseball has made over the last forty years in breaking the still existing color barriers that prevented African-American advancement toward management and front office positions.
Koppel decided on the spot to keep that line of thought alive in his next segment with the Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis, who was also a former roommate and close friend of Robinson. After the next several minutes, Hagler-Leonard would officially be the second most memorable sports story from that evening.
Koppel asked Campanis “to peel it away a little bit. Just tell me, why do you think it is? Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?”
Campanis answered, “No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that [African-Americans] may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” He later tried to prove his point by arguing that the reason there weren’t more African-American catchers, pitchers or quarterbacks in football was that these were thinking positions. He then added with a big smile on his face, for reasons that still aren’t clear, “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”
In the aftermath, Frank Robinson, baseball Hall of Famer and its first African-American manager, summed up the feelings of many when he said, “Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years—that black aren’t smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There’s a belief that they’re fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can’t handle it. Al Campanis made people finally understand what goes on behind closed doors: that there is racism in baseball.”
The furor that erupted resulted in Campanis’s immediate firing and a bounty of promises about change coming to the national pastime. But the promises were miles wide and an inch deep. Since 1987, baseball has hired five African-American general managers, but only two, Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Michael Hill of the Miami Marlins, have lasted longer than one season. There have been several prominent African-American field managers, from two-time World Series winner Cito Gaston to multiple-time Manager of the Year winner Dusty Baker, and the man who has guided the Texas Rangers to the last two World Series, Ron Washington. But the number of hires has been few and far between since Campanis “peeled it back a little bit” and Frank Robinson said that “there is racism in baseball.” Today, Washington and Baker are the sport’s only African-American managers. The most lasting change is that people in Campanis’s executive position are now far more polished and far more careful and have become, like a twenty-first-century politician, experts on being interviewed and saying absolutely nothing of substance. The Campanis lesson for Major League Baseball hasn’t been to take on racism in the sport but to find executives who can smile for the camera and talk a cat out of a tree.
But the bigger problem today is less the old school prejudice than something far more systemic. The number of African-American ballplayers has dropped from more than one-quarter of Major League players to 8 percent. In 2012, ten teams have one or zero African-Americans on their rosters. That means the pipeline of prospective managers is also drying out. This, coupled with the collapse in urban infrastructure, the shuttering of Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as the increasing costs of Little League baseball (and the chirping, unsubstantiated “conventional wisdom” that inner-city kids just don’t like the game because of changing cultural norms), means that African-Americans in positions of actual power will only become more scarce.
Baseball could be investing more money into developing talent in the cities, but they’ve chosen a different path. Major League Baseball invests billions of dollars in the Dominican Republic where 15-year-olds can be signed on the cheap and enlisted in “baseball academies”, where they can be developed full-time into Major League prospects. It’s globalization, but instead of bats and gloves being cheaply stitched together for Major League use, it’s human beings. Latino players make up the spine of the sport at present, yet Bud Selig still feels such a casual disrespect for their contributions, not to mention their families, that he thought nothing of holding last year’s All-Star Game in anti-immigrant Arizona. Selig went ahead with the game despite the fact the several dozen players spoke out against rewarding the state that had become ground zero for ugly, racial profiling legislation.
Jackie Robinson, in very public fashion, never played in an Old Timers Game for the Dodgers because of the lack of advancement in African-American hires. The need now is for a new generation of truth-tellers inside the game to challenge baseball’s priorities.
After Al Campanis made his remarks, Frank Robinson commented about why more people didn’t call out the casual bigotry in the game. “Speaking up could be damaging,” he said. “Someone will get buried. The ownership might think, ‘He’s mouthing off. Who needs him?’ I won’t say that today they could blackball a smart player. But they could make it tough for him. At the end of his career, he might not get to play those extra years if they feel he’s a troublemaker.” If there was ever a sport that needed troublemakers in 2012, it’s Major League Baseball.
Ozzie Guillen just became the latest person from the world of sports to find out that free speech isn’t necessarily free. The Miami Marlins manager gave the offhand political opinion to Time magazine that he “respects” Fidel Castro for staying alive the last sixty years. He then found himself swamped in the attendant right-wing hysteria and was suspended for five games without pay; his job is still hanging in the balance. I know that people will say the First Amendment is solely about the government’s not restricting the rights to speech, but the idea that we don’t have the basic freedom to voice ideas that might offend our employers is both chilling and all too familiar in the world of sports. Guillen joins athletes like Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Rashard Mendenhall, Toni Smith and many others as high-profile cultural object lesson for everyone in the country: shut your mouth and don’t rock the boat.
Both the irony and urgency should be obvious. The space where we can reasonably be heard is becoming constricted exactly at the moment when people are beginning to break out of their shells. We have seen both the Occupy movement and the national struggle to win justice for Trayvon Martin present a new willingness to fight. Attacks on speech are efforts to strangle that impulse in its crib. That’s what makes the legal case of Northeastern Illinois University Professor Loretta Capeheart so critical for anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the ability for us to actually be able to shape our surroundings without fear.
Capeheart is a tenured professor at NEIU, perhaps the state of Illinois’s most affordable and diverse institution of higher learning. She is also a vocal union and anti-war activist of many years standing. Understandably, anti-war students sought her out as a group-adviser during President Bush’s war on Iraq. When two students were arrested for peacefully protesting a CIA recruitment station, the weight fell on Capeheart. School President Sharon Hahs denied Capeheart merit raises and department chair positions and attacked her in public meetings. Hahs also threatened students and other faculty, saying that everyone better be ready to “accept the consequences” for their actions.
Capeheart, despite the absence of any financial banking, went deeply into debt and took her case to court. After a four-year legal battle, a federal judge just ruled that he agreed with NEIU’s lawyers. He said professors have no right to free speech under the Supreme Court’s hideous 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case that denied public employees the right to criticize their superiors. But as awful as the Garcetti decision was, the High Court made clear in a footnote that their decision shouldn’t apply to academic settings. The judge in Capeheart’s case disagreed and gave not just Sharon Hahs and NEIU but every school license to crack down.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said that the judge’s ruling “is chilling and clear: university administrators need not tolerate outspoken faculty dissent on matters of broad public concern or on the university’s institutional response to those concerns.”
Now Loretta Capeheart, despite being $100,000 in debt, has made the difficult decision to appeal the ruling and if necessary take her case to the US Supreme Court. We should join Center for Constitutional Rights director Michael Ratner and professor Noam Chomsky and support these efforts. It’s not just the principle of solidarity or the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all” that should compel us to stand alongside her. It’s the reality that the defeat of Professor Capeheart will, as sure as night follows day, be used to destroy whistleblowers and truth-tellers on campuses across the country. It will isolate students attempting to organize for change and create atmospheres of fear and mistrust, making a mockery of the notion of universities as citadels of free debate and expression. Given the occupy movement’s challenge to the status quo and the casual tear gassing of students at UC Davis last fall, the need to feel fearless has never been more critical. The defeat of Loretta Capeheart is about the institutionalization of fear.
Professor Capeheart in a recent speech, gave the issue context. She said,
A recent news report exposed that two former vice presidents at NEIU are “double dipping” by taking six-figure retirement incomes at the same time that they continue to work at NEIU, earning six figures here as well. Will faculty be allowed to speak against this perceived abuse of the retirement system, student resources and state dollars? Or will the university claim that such speech is…punishable? The university is spending untold dollars to assure that they can impose the latter. Don’t question, don’t engage, just agree. We must fight these abuses and take back our rights to speak.
Sports, of course, have not been strangers to scandal on college campuses. Consider the serial cover-ups by officials at Penn State over accused child predator Jerry Sandusky. Or think about University of Notre Dame where a recent investigation revealed that female students who accused players on the football team of sexual assault received horrible treatment at the hands of school officials, which may have been an aggravating factor in a 19-year-old’s suicide.
Now imagine a world where Penn State professors would be fired for speaking out on the Sandusky case. Or consider an adjunct denied tenure for raising questions about the way sexual assault victims are treated at Notre Dame. The stakes are high. If it’s true that change will only come from below, we should recognize that the powers that be at NEIU want to take the ground out from under our feet. It’s time to stand with Loretta Capeheart because silence is not something any of us can afford.
For more information about how you can help, visit http://justice4loretta.com/
Short of a hurricane or an armed taxpayer revolt, this had to have been Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria’s worst nightmare. Loria was opening a new state-of-the-art, tax-funded stadium in Little Havana that will cost the city $2 billion over the next forty years. He also paid out several hundred million dollars in salary for free agents, making his new ballplayers the nation’s wealthiest public employees. This was the last, best, chance to sell baseball in South Florida. Loria desperately needed a hot start for his team and some sugary-sweet media coverage for his new ballpark. Then his new manager, Ozzie Guillen, decided to share his views about Cuba and Fidel Castro. Guillen tends to talk without a filter, and in an interview with Time magazine, he revealed that he happens to not believe that Castro is Satan incarnate. Saying that he “loved” Castro, Guillen explained, “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a b—— is still here.”
Casual kind words for Castro in Miami is akin to looking at a leaky bottle of kerosene and thinking it could use a match. Now, we haven’t seen outrage like this in South Florida since butterfly ballots and hanging chads.
The Miami Marlins immediately released a condemnation of Guillen, but that couldn’t stop a volcanic political explosion. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called on the organization “to take decisive steps” against Guillen in the name of “freedom-loving people.” Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez demanded Guillen’s resignation. Cuban-American State Senator and Hispanic caucus chair Rene Garcia—in record time!—sent an open letter published in the Miami Herald calling Guillen’s comments “appalling” and said he was “looking forward to further actions taken against him for his deplorable comments.” Garcia also stuck Loria in the ribs by including, “What I also consider disturbing is the fact that the Miami Marlins received tax dollars from this community, including Cuban-American exiles, to fund the construction of the new stadium.” Suffice it to say, many a sports commentator also want Guillen fired or suspended. In their frothy anger, they have a common demand with the Cuban hardline exile group Vigilia Mambisa. An organization that has never shied from street violence and intimidation, Vigilia Mambisa has called for protests in front of the stadium until the Miami Marlins manager is fired.
As for Guillen, he has crumbled under the weight of all this, saying that he is now flying back to Florida to apologize in person to every animal, vegetable and mineral he might have offended. “I want them to know I’m against everything [in Cuba] 100 percent—I repeat it again—the way [Castro has been] treating people for the last 60 years.”
Let’s leave aside the rather glaring irony that the politicians, sports commentators and Cuban exiles want to show their love of freedom by taking Guillen’s job for the crime of exercising free speech. The fact is that when looking for political consistency and clarity, Ozzie Guillen is not the best place to start. The Venezuela-born Guillen’s comments on Castro are not very different from what he has always said about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He has made comments very favorable about Chávez and very negative. He said, “Viva Chávez” after his Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. He has also been one of Chávez’s most high-profile critics.
Trying to make sense of Guillen based on public utterances is a fool’s errand. As someone who knows people that talk to Guillen when the cameras are off, I will try to explain his actual politics on Venezuela and Cuba. Guillen is big on a collective Latin American pride and will not abide anti-immigrant and anti-Latino words or deeds. He has a great deal of respect for the way Castro and Chávez stand up to the United States. He opposes efforts by the United States to impose its will on these countries and wishes the rest of Latin America would show similar mettle. It’s not a question of the relative good or bad of Cuba’s internal politics. It’s a question of independence. He’s also as gung-ho for the United States as any manager in baseball, going as far as to fine players for not showing proper respect for the National Anthem, a practice I criticized in 2005. I know that people love portraying Ozzie Guillen as an out-there, crazy kind of guy, and that’s in part because he is an out-there crazy kind of guy. But what’s crazier? Guillen’s views on Cuba or the fact that an aging coterie of people who mourn for the strong hand of Fulgencio Batista control the political debate in South Florida?
But this issue is bigger than Guillen and it’s bigger than Cuban exiles who dream of returning to a smoldering “free Havana,” with Castro’s head on a pike. It’s bigger than the petty hypocrisies of those who stand for freedom by denying it for others. It’s now about whether the ire produced by Guillen’s words will be directed against Loria, his grab of public funds and the entire Miami baseball operation. If that happens, this issue won’t die, but the Marlins might.
On April 22, the royal family of Bahrain is determined to stage its annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This might not sound like scintillating news, but whether the event goes off as planned is a question with major ramifications for the royal Khalifa family, as well as for the democracy movement in the gulf kingdom. It will also be viewed closely by the US State Department and human rights organizations across the globe. From a renowned prisoner on a two-month hunger strike to a British billionaire fascist sympathizer, the sides have been sharply drawn.
For the Bahraini royals, staging the Formula 1 race is a chance to show the people that normalcy has returned following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests. In 2011, the race was cancelled to the rage of the royals. Now, the royal family is hoping that the sixty people slaughtered by Bahraini and Saudi forces, as well as the thousands arrested and tortured, can be forgotten in the roar of the engines.
For those protesting in the name of expanded political and personal freedoms, the return of the F1 racing series as a slap in the face, given all they’ve suffered in the last year and continue to suffer today. Now the protest movement and human rights organizations are calling upon Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula 1 Grand Prix, to cancel the race.
Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said:
The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place. The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year’s martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.
At a mass anti-F1 rally, Ali Mohammed commented to the AP, “We don’t want Formula  in our country. They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”
Then there is prominent activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than fifty days. Calls for his immediate release have merged with calls for the F1 cancellation. Protesters are described as holding al-Khawaja’s picture in one hand, and a “no to F1” sign in the other.
1996 F1 champion Damon Hill of the UK, who is now a commentator for Sky News also expressed his concern, saying, “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about. Looking at it today you’d have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”
One might think that all of this would pose a moral and ethical quandary for 81-year-old Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. One would be wrong. The multi-billionaire Ecclestone, the fourth richest man in England, has done little more than roll his eyes. In February, when hundreds were arrested and tortured for protesting on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, he was asked if the F1 race would be pulled. He said, “I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.”
In March, Ecclestone said of the plans for Bahrain, “It’s business as usual. I don’t think the people who are trying to demonstrate a little bit are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did they would be a little bit silly…. The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to.” There is no word as to what color the sky is in Ecclestone’s world or if at the conclusion of this interview, he released the hounds.
Not to shock anyone, but this 81-year-old British billionaire has in the past expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, and by “past” I mean 2009. During an interview in July of that year, Ecclestone said, “Apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done…. If you have a look at a democracy it hasn’t done a lot of good for many countries—including this one.”
This is an ugly twisted old brute, but say this for him: at least he commented when asked about Bahrain. That’s far more that we can say for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote, “President Obama…loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.” This isn’t just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another fifty years. It appears that this favor has bought silence and that’s exactly why we need to be loud. The call has gone out form inside of Bahrain to call upon Formula 1 to cancel this race. We should do our part.
First, the facts: Sounding like Garrison Keillor doing an impression of Robert De Niro as Al Capone, we now have audiotape of former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams telling his team to intentionally maim their playoff opponents, the San Francisco 49ers. Recorded without his knowledge, Williams is heard saying, "We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill [49er running back] Frank Gore's head.” Of quarterback Alex Smith, he says, "Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head." Williams was already serving an indefinite suspension issued by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for placing bounties on players from opposing teams.
Documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released the damning audio, recording Williams during the process of following former Saint Steve Gleason who is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Gleason was supposed to have say over what Pamphilon recorded and made public, and said that he was "deflated and disappointed" that Pamphilon released the audio without his approval.
Pamphilon also released the audio the day before Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and Assistant Coach Joe Vitt were to appear before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an effort to get their own Gregg Williams/bounty related suspensions reduced.
In a statement, Pamphilon said,
If this story hadn't broken and been made public, I would not have shared this. I would not have compromised my personal relationships and risked damaging Steve Gleason's relationship with the Saints. I would have crafted these words and sentiments for another forum, perhaps years down the road. ...If it weren't for the fact I feel deeply that parents of children playing football MUST pay attention to the influence of men who will sacrifice their kids for W's, I would not have written this. ...Some will call me releasing this audio for fame or money grab. True haters will call it exploitation. People of character and conscience call it was it is: true.
Those are facts. Now some opinion: color me very skeptical of this entire story. I’m skeptical of the timing of the audio being released the day before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt plead for mercy to try and salvage their 2012 season. I’m skeptical of the media outrage roiling from coast to coast. And most of all, I’m deeply skeptical of Roger Goodell.
Imagine if we had audio of all thirty-two NFL locker rooms. Imagine how our stomachs would turn at the way grown men are riled into fits of violence for our collective entertainment. To think that this kind of language is in New Orleans alone is to live in a demented kind of denial. Over the last month, I’ve spoken with former and current NFL players — on and off the record — who say the same. Many of Williams’s former players swear by him. Many other players shrug their shoulders and say variants of, “This is the life we have chosen.” It’s a violent game where violent words are used to compel violent deeds. To pretend otherwise, is to play the fool.
In addition, I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motives, but it’s very difficult to not look at Mr. Pamphilon with anything but deep suspicion. It’s not his self-serving statement where he seems to see himself as some cross between Michael Moore and Karen Silkwood. It’s not the Linda Tripp move of releasing the audio of someone who didn’t know he was being recorded. It’s not even the fact that he consciously abused the trust of the ALS suffering Steve Gleason, which just feels scummy. It’s the fact that Mr. Pamphilon, a mainstream documentarian who directed one of the acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30 films, chooses to drop this bomb right before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt's appeal. If he wanted optimum damage aimed at further boosting Goodell’s public image as Wyatt Earp of a lawless Saints franchise, he couldn’t have picked a better moment to develop a conscience.
In the end, it all comes back around to Roger Goodell and his motives. Yes, Gregg Williams’ language and coaching "instructions" are contemptible. Yes, he is now officially radioactive and will probably never work again. Payton might also now be unemployable, at least with the Saints. But if Goodell were serious about stopping bounties and violent directives that precede violent deeds, then every team would be investigated. Dozens of coaches would be suspended. Every week for the next several years would bring more revelations about the violence and rot that exists beneath the three hours of highly commodified violence we enjoy every Sunday. If Goodell were serious about making the league safer, he would finally abandon his fierce efforts for a longer eighteen game season. He’d improve the access to medical care for retired players. He’d settle amicably with the more than 1,000 former NFL players seeking redress for head injuries endured while playing the game. But he doesn't because it’s far easier to have the Saints be exampled and take the weight for the entire league. Goodell isn’t so much Wyatt Earp as he is Game of Thrones' King Joffrey: vicious, callow, and in the most profound sense, a hypocrite. This is not about changing the lucrative status quo. It's about preserving it and having the Saints carry the sins of an entire league.
A very common narrative, as we approach the men's NCAA basketball finals between Kentucky and Kansas, is that after this year’s round of March Madness, change will truly be on the march. The argument goes that scandal is so widespread, the NCAA will have to enact common sense reforms or risk collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. As the great Charles Pierce wrote for Grantland, “The paradigm is shifting under their feet, and the people running the NCAA know it….It's taken longer than it did for golf and tennis, and even longer than it took for the Olympics, but the amateur burlesque in American college sports is on its way to crashing and the only remaining question is how hard it will fall. The farce is becoming unsupportable.”
As much as I’d like to believe that shame and scandal would cause the NCAA to change in a positive fashion, the past tells us a different story. It’s worth remembering the NCAA's post-war scandals and the change they wrought. This shows in stark terms that when it comes to the NCAA, change doesn’t always mean progress.
The post WW II terrain in college sports was a wild west of gambling, point shaving and pay for play scandals. The mass expansion of higher education and the growth of radio and television technology created new alliances, new audiences and new revenue streams in every corner of the country. Jeff Cravath, the football coach at USC said that the game, "Reduced players to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos. The alumni demand winning football teams. To get winning teams, colleges must violate the rules they themselves have made." Jim Aiken, the head coach at the University of Oregon was more blunt: "If you have to choose between breaking the rules and losing games, wouldn't it be better to break the rules? If you lose your games you're certain to be fired. If you break the rules, you have to get caught to be fired."
No where was the corruption seen more visibly than at the City College of New York. City College was the preeminent basketball power in the country, having won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950. The following season, it all came tumbling down. In February 1951 three players were arrested on bribery charges, and that was just for openers. By the end of March, seventeen New York City college basketball players had been arrested. Eventually, District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested thirt-two players from seven colleges who fixed eighty-six games between 1947 and 1950.
As the great sports writer Maury Allen wrote, "That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism. For these guys to sell out their school and themselves and their careers for eight hundred dollars, for a thousand dollars, for fifteen hundred dollars was just such an emotional blow....You never really recover from something like that. It is a wound in your psyche that lasts all your life."
In Allen's words we see the dominant view of the scandal: the players were sellouts. They had sold out their school and their sport, and they were bought cheaply.
As Stanley Cohen wrote,
They were poor, most of them, they needed the money. But that is a reason, not an explanation. It explains only why they were willing to dump for relatively small sums. None of the players had about him the mood of a criminal. If they had not been college basketball players, it is not likely they would have ended up in the courts. They would not have stolen the money. They would not have robbed banks or knocked over gas stations or rolled drunks in Central Park. The likelihood is that most of them had committed the one crime for profit of which they were capable. They of course, functioned in an environment in which it might have been more difficult to play it straight than it was to accept a bribe. For point-shaving was as much a part of college basketball in the forties and fifties as the two-hand set shot.
Cohen was correct. This was a far more pervasive issue than just City College or New York City. Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky coach, blamed it on East Coast gamblers, saying, "They couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." He was wrong. Three players from the Wildcats' 1949 championship team were found to be involved and Kentucky had to suspend its basketball program for a year.
As for the City College team, most came from poor working class backgrounds and the NCAA made sure that all the weight of scandal was on their young shoulders. The NCAA pointed at these 20-year-old bogeymen and promised change and a new system of accountability. And change they did. Power was consolidated in what former NCAA President Walter Byers described as a top down, authoritarian, "plantation system." Now as a matter of course, when scandal struck players would always take the fall, coaches would be absolved just by going to another program, and the NCAA would have the power to spread the gospel of sham-amateurism from a throne of gold. Never would the NCAA look at the system with the critical eye expressed by Aiken and Cravath. Never would the NCAA taken a step back and acknowledge that the root of the problem might be that they were making billions off of unpaid labor. Their delusions that they are somehow moral agents of amateur sports has only actually strengthened with each scandal. Charles Pierce relayed that after the Final Four, the NCAA press officers repeatedly harangued reporters at the post-game press conference to not refer to the Kentucky and Kansas jocks as “players” but as “student athletes.” But they are players: players who are still getting played.
The headline was as exciting and engaging as the man himself. “Magic Johnson buys Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion dollars.” Whoa. You don't know which part of that newsflash to start with first. Like one of his signature no look passes, it's a headline that commands attention and sends your eyes in numerous directions.
There's that price tag of $2 billion dollars, the highest amount by far ever paid for a pro sports franchise. There's the fans' relief that the Dodgers, buried under the dubious accounting practices of former owner Frank McCourt, aka “Frank McBankupt,” would finally be on secure financial ground. But most of all, there is Magic himself.
Just as he, along with Larry Bird, is credited with transforming the NBA from something destitute to a feel-good global brand, he would now try to do the same for the Dodgers. Magic would be the King of Los Angeles, rehabilitating a team whose reputation had been shredded in the eyes of the local populace and fell short last year of 3 million in home attendance for the first time in two decades.
This headline also held the promise of history. In buying the team of Jackie Robinson, Magic would be desegregating the ownership suites of Major League Baseball.
But like a Magic pass, this headline also held its share of misdirection. The real players behind the curtain are a financial services firm called Guggenheim Partners. The actual General Managing Partner of the team, the true owner, is Guggenheim CEO Mark Walter. “Mark Walter buys Dodgers” is a decidedly less flashy headline.
We don't actually know how much of his own money Magic paid. This is because Major League Baseball and the Dodgers are classified as private companies and are under no obligation to disclose the details. This is in itself criminal given the billions of public dollars larded into MLB coffers for the construction of new ballparks. The books should be wide open for all to see. The Dodgers have also received a flood of public funds in the refurbishing of their own stadium and the fact that last year, the LAPD on the city's dime took over stadium security a San Francisco Giants fan was almost beaten to death in an unlit and unsupervised parking lot.
Most likely, Magic is a figurehead on a buy that looks worse the further you look beyond that billion dollar smile.
Based on early reports, this is a highly leveraged deal and Guggenheim Partners are counting on securing a massive new cable television contract to pay back their costs. According to the LA Times, this will mean higher cable bills for all Angelenos whether you are a baseball fan or not. In other words, the cost of buying of the Dodgers will passed on to the already strapped city of Los Angeles. The real buyers, therefore, are not Magic and the Guggenheims but the people of Los Angeles, most of whom will never set foot inside the stadium.
It didn't have to be this way. Over the last two years, there was a movement of fans trying to buy the team, making it publicly owned in the model of the NFL's Green Bay Packers. Representative Janice Hahn was even elected to Congress on the promise that she would challenge the Byzantine anti-trust laws that prevent such a purchase. But instead of a situation where fans buy the Dodgers and profits are funneled back into the community—like Green Bay—we get Guggenheim Partners, a leveraged buy, and the public shouldering the cost. No matter how good Magic Johnson makes us feel, remember that his great talent was for misdirection. What we are witnessing in Los Angeles is not magic. It's a grift.