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Dave Zirin | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

My Feelings About Tim Tebow, Summed Up Perfectly in 'Broadcast News'

Denver Broncos quarterback/culture war signifier Tim Tebow has given us some of the worst quarterback play in 2011 as well as some of the best. The Focus on the Family Spokesperson is now 7-1 as a starter without the apparent ability for much of a game to actually throw a football (on Sunday, he started 3-16 before heating up, per his mysterious way, in the fourth quarter).

I have already written two articles on Tebow, which you can find here and here.

But I've found my feelings about the Boy Scout with the biblical eye-black best explained in a movie almost a quarter-century old. Go to the 1:28 mark of the below scene from Broadcast News. My feelings about Tim Tebow are explained to perfection by the great Albert Brooks.

Chris Paul: The Occupier and the Occupied

In the #Occupy USA movement, there is a debate over the very use of the word “occupy.” One side claims that the history of the word—conjuring images of military occupation and stolen land—alienates People of Color at a time when the movement is striving for more diversity. The other side points out that there is a history in radical resistance movements—from Native Americans at Alcatraz to African American students “occupying” lunch counters—of people "occupying" their space and we should claim the word proudly. It all depends on who is doing the occupying; who has control and who is asserting their power.

We are dealing with a similar "occupy" dilemma in the NBA. On one side, you have the New Orleans Hornets, a team “occupied” by the NBA league offices. They are now officially owned by the other 29 NBA owners and will be league property until an actual owner is found. On the other side, you have the Hornets brilliant star point guard Chris Paul, whose contract ends at year's end and is looking to leave small market New Orleans. The Hornets General Manager Dell Demps has been trying to trade Paul so they don’t lose him for nothing in free agency. As Beckley Mason of Hoopspeak said smartly, “That's the thing some owners don't seem to get. Talent like [Paul’s] is the scarcest quality in the NBA. In market terms, that means he has all the power, all the leverage.”

This conflict between Paul's power and league control came to a head yesterday with two pieces of blaring, breaking news. The first was that the Los Angeles Lakers, in a three-team trade with the Hornets and Houston Rockets, had acquired Paul, pairing him with aging great Kobe Bryant. The Hornets would have received Lakers All-Star forward Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Rockets would then have received Gasol from New Orleans, in return for guards Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic and forward Luis Scola. It was a true blockbuster that spoke to Chris Paul’s talent and leverage. The Hornets were trying to get what they could without losing Paul for nothing in 2012 and Demps, in my judgment, did quite well. But then Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal by saying it “wasn’t in the best interests of the league.” Then came an email meant for Stern’s eyes only, in protest of the trade sent by Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It reads in part:

Commissioner,

It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed. This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets…..I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do. When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals? [The Generals are the team set up to lose in perpetuity to the Harlem Globetrotters.]

This is now being held as a smoking gun, revealing that the Hornets are actually occupied territory unable to make moves in the best interests of their team. It also reveals evidence of conspiracy on the part of the owners to limit Paul’s movement. It's one thing for the league office to make this decision, invoking “the best interests of the league.” For the owners to stop it out of Laker-hysteria is collusion and it’s illegal.  Let’s take a moment as well to marvel at the idiocy of Gilbert. The time stamp on the letter reveals it was sent AFTER the NBA made their decision to kill the trade. If he had even gone to the league website before hitting "send", there wouldn't be a collective migraine right now at the league offices.

The fallout has since been nuclear. Paul is taking steps to sue. Gasol is said to be “devastated” at the thought of leaving LA. Odom is in “disbelief.”  It has also sparked the kind of Internet rage usually reserved for star quarterbacks who fight dogs. Lakers fans are beyond furious. The Laker-Haters are slurping the schadenfreude.

But the conflict also reveals something profound about the way the issues supposedly resolved in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are still unsettled. The lockout was never as much about money as it was about power and who would be allowed to exercise it. There were three contenders, contesting for power: big market owners, small market owners, and the players. We now see that the CBA, done in the name of small-markets teams but still with loopholes aplenty for the big markets, didn't settle the question.

Stern, in attempting to assert control, weighing in on behalf of the small-market owners, looks like a tin-pot dictator, restricting player movement in a ham-handed, paternalistic, and possibly illegal manner. Most troubling for the NBA is not the griping of Laker fans but the fact that  many players took to twitter to express their disbelief. The most noteworthy was Pacers All-Star Danny Granger who tweeted, “Due to the sabotaging of the LA/NO trade by david stern, and following in the footsteps of my athlete brethren Metta World Peace and Chad Ochocinco, I'm changing my last name to "Stern's Bi#&h" #effectiveimmediately”

By not resolving the question of power, the CBA also didn’t resolve the critical issue at the heart of lockout: the zeal of small market owners— in the wake of Lebron and Chris Bosh joining the Miami Heat—to restrict, own and distribute the talents of their employees. It's a question at the heart of sports labor conflicts: whether the "talent" on the court is labor, or a product of labor and owned by others. This is why players, always to media outrage, turn at times to the metaphor of slavery and a plantation to explain their predicament. Not because they are comparing themselves to those who suffered under bondage but because owners constantly contest whether they are in fact the masters of their own talents. For players, it's unclear if they are the occupier of their own gifts and hard work or whether they are the occupied. The NBA’s decision to nix the Chris Paul deal shows that they have perfect clarity on the question. They own the talent and by definition can assert the right of occupation. The only certainty is that, CBA or not, this sets the stage for more conflicts to come.

Saluting a Sick System: 'Sports Illustrated' Honors Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski

In a decision that speaks to the worst impulses of a proud magazine, Sports Illustrated has chosen the two active legends of College Basketball coaching, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt, as their Sportspersons of the Year. It’s impossible to quibble with the choice of Tennessee’s Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA hoops history, after thirty-eight seasons and eight championships leading the Lady Vols. The tough-as-leather coach who insists her players refer to her as “Pat” was diagnosed earlier this year with Alzheimer’s disease. She has insisted on coaching as long as her body will allow while also starting a foundation to fight the crippling illness. Coach Summitt is without question an absolute inspiration in how one can use sports to leverage the greater good.

The choice of Krzyzewski speaks to a far different impulse. Certainly his accomplishments speak for themselves. He recently set the all-time record for men’s coaching wins, but that is only part of the majesty of Coach K’s recent history. As Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff put it succinctly, “No other coach has ever won the Olympics, the NCAAs and the Worlds—and Coach K did so in a span of 26 months.”

But Wolff and company could not have picked a worse time in our sports history to burnish the legend of Coach K. I don’t object to the choice of Krzysewski because I dislike, as so many do, the elitist trappings of Duke University. I don’t object because, for all his pretensions of sportsmanship, Coach K swears at players and refs in a manner that would make his mentor, Bob Knight, blush. I don’t even object because I’m a proud fan of the University of Maryland. I object because of the unspoken reason he is receiving this honor. It’s because at no time in the history of amateur sports has the NCAA been so mired in crisis, crippled under the weight of its own culture of corruption. Sports Illustrated is not merely honoring Coach K but giving reassurance to a rotten system.

In 2011, we all learned just how low the NCAA and its member schools would go to defend their bottom lines. We learned how people in power at Penn State University would put the lives of children at risk, if it meant preserving the lucrative legend of Coach Joe Paterno. We learned what Syracuse University and the surrounding community would be willing to cover up—and how many children they would endanger—to protect their own Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim and the $19 million dollar annual cash cow of Syracuse hoops. We saw saw Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resign after a series of scandals that now look quaint, and we witnessed the University of Miami Athletic Department reel under the weight of the gutter economy of exchange between criminal boosters and the school’s President Donna Shalala.

This was also the year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, Taylor Branch, published The Cartel: The Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, which exposes just how corrupt and ugly the amateur industry is. As Branch writes, “ College Athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene….is to catch the whiff of the plantation.”

Coach K has acquired power by inhaling deeply this “whiff of the plantation.” His salary at Duke now stands at over $5 million a year. Nike also pays him seven figures so his players can advertise the Swoosh as they run up and down the court. He defended his income last year by saying, “If you’re at a program for a long time, if you’re at a school for a long time, you become much more than just a basketball coach at the school. You become an ambassador for the school.”

For an ambassador, that’s still one hell of a paycheck.

If we really need to honor an NCAA coach, I’d go with South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier. Not because his Gamecocks are particularly good, but because earlier this year he called for his fellow NCAA coaches to pay players out of their own salaries. As Spurrier said, “We make all the money. We need to get more to our players…. They bring in the money. They’re the performers.” Or SI could have chosen Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini, who had the guts to say, following Nebraska’s visit to Penn State just four days after Joe Paterno was fired, that the “game shouldn’t have been played…. It’s about what doing what’s right in society. It’s about doing what’s right and wrong…. It is a lot bigger than football, the NCAA, the Big Ten and anything else.”

Choosing Spurrier or Pelini—or even Taylor Branch—as Sportsperson of the Year would have been a powerful statement from SI that business as usual in the NCAA has to come to an end. The choice of Coach K is a choice that says: “Have no fear, villagers. We must keep faith in our all-powerful and benevolent Coach-God Rulers.” It’s an awful choice, serving a collegiate status quo currently residing in a moral abyss. Sports Illustrated should be leading the charge to democratize college sports, not burnishing the legend of our last Sun King, Mike Krzyzewski.

Syracuse, Penn State and the Problem with Sun Kings

Last night, Syracuse University men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim walked onto his home court at the Carrier Dome and received a rousing standing ovation. This wasn’t because he was starting his thirty-fifth season as the team’s head coach, or to commemorate the Hall of Famer’s forty-ninth year in association with the school as student, athlete and coach. It was a community-wide show of support for their embattled leader now facing pressure to resign after his longtime assistant and friend Bernie Fine was accused of being a pedophile.

If that sounds like a horrible echo of the happenings at Penn State University, the similarities don’t end there—and not only because Fine is accused of using his position as coach to find his alleged victims. (Two of his three accusers are former Syracuse ball boys.) It runs deeper: another example in our culture of athletic complicity.

Like the football at Penn State, the basketball program at Syracuse is the cultural, social, and even economic hub of the region. The Syracuse hoops program brings in $19 million in revenue per year, fifth most among basketball programs in the United States and more than storied programs like Kentucky and Indiana.

Like Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Boeheim is more than a coach: he’s an institution. The Syracuse hoops program resembles a kingdom overseen by a benevolent dictator, who, as one source said to me, “tends to see what he wants to see.”

Like Penn State, there is a history of student/athletes having a wide array of misdeeds defended by Boeheim, often in a manner that seems to expect the campus equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

(Unlike Penn State, Jim Boeheim originally, and to his great shame, went after Fine’s accusers calling them “liars”—something for which he has since apologized.)

Like Penn State, allegiance to the program runs deeply in the marrow of the community and well beyond the boundaries of the school. The police chief who heard the original abuse claim against Fine in 2002 is named Dennis DuVal. DuVal played for the Syracuse Orange hoops team from 1972–74, leaving one year before Boeheim took over the top job. DuVal and his underlings kept no written record of the accusations against Fine, telling former ballboy Bobby Davis that “the statute of limitations” had expired, making an investigation impossible. The police department announced this week that they were now changing policy and keeping files of every child abuse accusation going forward.

Like Penn State, Syracuse knew about the allegations for years and conducted their own internal investigation independent of the authorities. In 2005, the school investigated, allegedly—and frankly unbelievably—without telling Boeheim. They buried their findings until turning them over this week.

Like Penn State, there is an incriminating piece of evidence that was entombed for years: at PSU it was graduate assistant Michael McQueary witnessing a shower rape of a 10-year-old; at Syracuse, it was a recorded phone call between Bobby Davis and Bernie Fine’s wife, Laurie, in which Fine’s behavior is acknowledged.

There is one aspect of this scandal that could make it mushroom even beyond Penn State‘s. That’s the role the media played—or didn’t play—when they were given the tape in 2003. They made the decision not investigate or hand it over to the authorities. ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news Vincent Doria defended that decision this week, noting that they had no one to corroborate Davis’s story in 2003. He also said, “It’s not necessarily the journalist’s role to go to the police with potential evidence that at the time we didn’t believe was strong enough to report ourselves.”

ESPN did release the tape this week, after other Fine accusers emerged.

Former ESPN anchorman Dan Patrick and many others have blasted ESPN for not taking the recording to the police, strongly implying that ESPN was more interested in protecting their relationship with Boeheim and the powerful Big East athletic conference. An ESPN employee, requesting anonymity, told me, “Also don’t discount the influence of the ‘Syracuse mafia’—it seems sometimes like every other person at Bristol is a graduate of this place.” (For what it’s worth, I personally agree strongly, no matter the motivation, that it’s not the journalist’s role to turn their stories over to the police or report on stories they cannot corroborate.)

Finally, like Penn State, if it’s found out that Boeheim even had the slightest indication that his friend of four decades acted inappropriately toward children, he’ll be gone, unceremoniously dumped, a victim of his own power and success.

If it’s proven that Boeheim truly knew nothing, many will crow about his vindication. But no one is vindicated when these kinds of charges surface: there are only degrees of suffering and culpability. Bernie Fine maintains his innocence and he will have his day in court. But there is already demonstrable guilt of a different kind: it’s the guilt that hangs on a powerful institution that feared the allegations of child molestation more than they feared the possibility that a child predator could be hurting more kids. It’s the guilt that hangs on a whole community seeing a sports program as “too big to fail” and then warping every pretension of a moral compass to make sure it doesn’t. We saw this at Penn State. We see it at Syracuse. We could see it at more schools in the months to come.

One thing is certain: we need coaches, educators and teachers at our universities. We don’t need benevolent dictators with clipboards. We don’t need collegiate Sun Kings. We don’t need coaches who look across their expansive campuses and say “L’école c’est moi.”

NBA Lockout Ends and Players Get Played

The news blared with the electric intensity of a Black Friday taser. The NBA is back, baby! A sixty-six-game season! Returning on Christmas Day, no less! As former journalist and current NBA talking head Michael Wilbon cheered, “The league couldn’t stage a more satisfying comeback. Even if those games are all moved to TNT, I’ll feel the same way about the Christmas Day return.”

There were those bitter adversaries, NBA Commissioner David Stern and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter, grinning ear-to-ear, discarding their suit jackets and wearing bunchy, seasonal sweaters from the Heathcliff Huxtable collection. Stern was smiling so wide, it appeared that if you poked his middle, he’d giggle like he was Poppin’ Fresh. Hunter, no doubt feeling relieved that he at least fought off a “hard cap” and other demands from ownership, was clearly in the holiday spirit as well. Only NBPA President and LA Lakers Co-captain Derek Fisher, wearing a suit, not a sweater, his eyes bleary from the marathon bargaining session, resembled someone who’d just endured one of the more bitter sports/labor negotiations in history. He looked like he’d just emerged from a Turkish prison.

Judging by facial expressions alone, I’m going to stand with Fisher on this one. Forget the cuddly sweaters. Ignore President Obama’s personal “good deal” thumbs up. Disregard the avalanche of tweets from your favorite star player about how excited they are to get back to work. The players were dunked on and Stern is wagging his tongue while hanging from the rim. If you ignore the bells and whistles and wipe away the confetti, we have what at the bottom line is a massive transfer of wealth from players to owners: $3 billion over the next decade, to be more precise. Three billion dollars extracted from those we pay to see, to those who have spent the last twenty years treating fans and taxpayers like the cowering abused partners we are.

For those interested in the finer points of the proposed “amnesty provision” for releasing players or the “stretch clause,” please search elsewhere, although I will say that giving teams the right to invalidate guaranteed contracts is a severe concession for the union to make. It also will do more to help big-market teams that spend carelessly than the much-discussed poor, small-markets squads. In other words, there is nothing in this collective bargaining agreement that changes the basic contours for reaching a championship: teams that draft well and manage their cap will thrive no matter the size of their region (see San Antonio and Oklahoma City), and teams that spend blindly (the Knicks and Nets) or are owned by people proud to be stupid (the Kings or the Suns) will suffer. The deal won’t make LeBron’s sphincter unclench in the playoffs and it won’t make Carmelo play defense. It won’t make Kobe any younger or Bynum any healthier. The league will still be The League. There are no promises that the owners will plow this newfound lucre into their teams. In fact, there are now greater restraints on spending than before. There are no assurances that any funds will be earmarked for coaches or scouts. There are no announcements that any of these savings will translate into lower ticket prices or NBA package discounts for fans. All it means is that the owners have received a financial windfall because they own and we don’t. Now Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, can buy some more slums. Now Phil Anschutz, minority-boss of the Lakers, can keep fighting the teaching of evolution in schools. Now Dick Devos of the Orlando Magic can give even more generously to Focus on the Family. Now every shadowy Koch brothers/Karl Rove political outfit that takes unlimited contributions will get a serious windfall just in time for the 2012 elections. Break out the bubbly.

This should sting every player, because coming off a year with record revenues, they should have been getting more, and instead they took historic cuts. Instead, their contracts are now not fully guaranteed. Instead, they are weakened. They are weakened even though they are the game. For the millions who paid good money to watch the Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan soar, no one ever paid a cent to see the Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan molt. Athletes are different than typical workers, and not just because their paychecks tower over our own. They are different because they fulfill the roles in production as both workers and product. They are the shoemaker and the shoe. Or as former Washington football great Brian Mitchell said to me, “In a restaurant, a chef cooks a steak. In sports, we are the chef and we are the steaks.”

For fifteen years, young stars picked in the draft’s first round have seen their salaries constrained. Derrick Rose, the NBA’s 21-year-old MVP, has the 126th-highest salary in the league. On an open market, he would make maybe five times his current income. There are also new provisions, still to be finalized, on raising the age of eligibility and whether owners will have the power to send players to their developmental league, along with dramatic salary reductions. Still, expect the players to approve it, because in the end, players average six years in the league. Giving up one-sixth of the expected earnings for your entire life was not an option.

I understand that, but it didn’t have to be this way. This deal is just all so very pre–Occupy Wall Street. I wish more players had spoken out and not let David Stern’s PR machine define them as “greedy millionaires, insensitive to the public’s suffering in these hard economic times.” I wish more had directly raised the issues of Occupy Wall Street, like eleven-year veteran Etan Thomas, who wrote, “While the issues raised by the Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this lockout, aren’t there obvious parallels in power imbalance? Who is in the same position of power as the 1%? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”

I wish they had taken their fight out of the boardroom and into the public sphere. Make no mistake, I’m an NBA junkie and I’m thrilled to be watching ball sooner rather than later. But with every game of this warped, bastardized sixty-six-game season, I’ll remember that we had a lockout where the rich got richer, the players got played and the fans didn’t get a damn thing.

Two Scandals, One Connection: The FBI link between Penn State and UC Davis

Two shocking scandals. Two esteemed universities. Two disgraced university leaders. One stunning connection. Over the last month, we’ve seen Penn State University President Graham Spanier dismissed from his duties and we’ve seen UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi pushed to the brink of resignation. Spanier was jettisoned because of what appears to be a systematic cover-up of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial child rape. Katehi has faced calls to resign after the she sent campus police to blast pepper spray in the faces of her peaceably assembled students, an act for which she claims “full responsibility.” The university’s Faculty Association has since voted for her ouster citing a “gross failure of leadership.” The names Spanier and Katehi are now synonymous with the worst abuses of institutional power. But their connection didn’t begin there. In 2010, Spanier chose Katehi to join an elite team of twenty college presidents on what’s called the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, which “promotes discussion and outreach between research universities and the FBI.”

Spanier said upon the group’s founding in 2005, “The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board promises to help universities and government work toward a balanced and rational approach that will allow scientific research and education to progress and our nation to remain safe.” He also said that the partnership could help provide “internships” to faculty and students interested in “National Security issues.”

FBI chief Robert Mueller said at a press conference with Spanier, “We knew it would not be necessarily an easy sell because of the perceived tension between law enforcement and academia. But once we’ve briefed President Spanier on the national security threats that impact all of you here at Penn State and at other universities, it became clear to all of us why this partnership is so important. “

But the reality of this partnership is far different. Its original mandate was about protecting schools from “cyber theft” and “intellectual property issues.” As has been true with the FBI since Hoover, give them a foothold, and they’ll take off their shoes and get cozy. Their classified mandate has since expanded to such euphemisms as “counter-terrorism” and “public safety.” It also expanded federal anti-terrorism task forces to include the dark-helmeted pepper-spray brigades, otherwise known as the campus police.

As Wired magazine put it in 2007, “presidents are being advised to think like ‘Cold Warriors’ and be mindful of professors and students who may not be on campus for purposes of learning but, instead, for spying, stealing research and recruiting people who are sympathetic to an anti-U.S. cause.”

Chancellor Katehi said in 2010 that despite these concerns, she was proud to join the NSHEA because “it’s important for us to learn from the FBI about the smartest, safest protocols to follow as we do our work, and it is equally important that the FBI has a solid understanding of matters of academic freedom.”

Sacremento’s FBI special agent in Charge, Drew Parenti, praised her involvement, saying, “The FBI’s partnership with higher education is a key component in our strategy of staying ahead of national security threats from our foreign adversaries…. we are very pleased that Chancellor Katehi has accepted an appointment to serve on the board.”

As for the actual meetings between the presidents of academic institutions and the FBI, those discussions are classified. If you are a rabble-rousing faculty member or a student group stepping out of line, your school records can become the FBI’s business and you’d be none the wiser.

Chris Ott, from the Massachusetts ACLU, said of the NSHEA, “The FBI is asking university faculty, staff, and students to create a form of neighborhood watch against anything that is so called ‘suspicious.’ What kinds of things are they going to report on? Who has the right to be snitching? One of the scary things is who [on the campuses] will take it upon themselves to root out spies?”

In the wake of the scandals that have enveloped and now destroyed the careers of Spanier and Katehi, the very existence of the NCHEA should now be called to question. Given the personal character on display by these two individuals, why should anyone trust that the classified meetings have stayed in the realm of “cyber theft” and intellectual property rights? What did the FBI tell Chancellor Katehi about how to deal with the peacefully assembled Occupiers? Was “counter-terrorism” advice given on how to handle her own students?

As for Spanier, how much of Sandusky’s actions at Penn State, which were documented on campus but never shared with the local police, was the FBI privy to? Why did the school hire former FBI director Louis Freeh to head up their internal investigation? Does that in fact represent a conflict of interest? And most critically, did  the “chilling effect” of a sanctioned FBI presence at Penn State actually prevent people from coming forward?

When Spanier was asked in 2005, if he was concerned about whether a formal partnership with the FBI would cause objections he said, “If there is an issue on my campus, I’d like to be the first person to hear about it, not the last.” In the context of recent events, it’s probably best to let those words speak for themselves. But fear not for the futures of these two stewards of higher education and academic freedom. Maybe Spanier can put his experience as a federal informant to good use from inside a federal prison. As for Katehi, if, as suspected, she’ll be unemployed shortly, perhaps she can take advantage of one of those fabulous internship opportunities having the FBI on campus provides.

Tebow Redeemed?

“You are what your record says your are.” It’s a classic lunchpail NFL phrase, courtesy of retired coach Bill Parcells. It means forget how good you or your team think you are. Forget your stats. Forget all the ways you came up just short. The end results define the entire journey. It’s the amoral slogan of the sports world’s soul. It allows us to cheer for unsavory individuals and root for teams that vacuum our wallets clean. You are what your record says you are, and winning excuses all.

But this consecrated commandment of sports is being challenged like never before. If you are what your record says you are, what does that possibly tell us about the man with the top jersey sales in the NFL, Tim Tebow? The Broncos quarterback is 4-1. His presence has undeniably revived a moribund team. He has led the Broncos on winning fourth-quarter drives in all four of his victories. If you are what your record says you are, then Tebow at 4-1 must be considered at this moment, one of the best. And yet… he’s just awful. I don’t write that because Tebow is a Focus on the Family spokesperson who has a series of religiously tinged political views I find abhorrent. I write it because I have been watching football since I was sucking a bottle, and I have two working eyes.

Tim Tebow’s completion percentage is 44.8 percent. Take away his magical fourth quarters and the number is closer to 30 percent. This kind of awful is in the “Shaq free-throw percentage, Mario Mendoza batting average” sports hall of fame. But he’s not awful in the turgid unwatchable way that, say, a Kate Hudson movie is awful. He’s fascinating/awful. He’s Reefer Madness awful. He’s old Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss awful. Tim Tebow throws a football like someone heaving a ham-shaped grenade. It needs to be seen to be believed. I’ve never used this phrase to describe an NFL quarterback, and hope I never have to again, but he’s thrillingly campy. Watching him is like watching Sarah Palin be interviewed by someone off the Murdoch payroll. Disaster lurks, but the prurient/erotic ardor of their admirers fills the air around them and you cannot look away. National Review’s Rich Lowry once said, presumably while crossing and recrossing his legs, that Sarah Palin “sent little starbursts through the screen.” Tebow’s fans shake with the same puritanical spasms, as they wear number 15 jerseys with Jesus, instead of Tebow stitched on the back. He’s the promise ring of NFL quarterbacks and I see a spectacle from which I cannot avert my eyes.

Thrilling and campy. In the last three games, he’s gone 9-20, 10-21 and a simply unreal 2-8 passing the ball. He’s inspired sentences like, this one from ESPN’s Ian O’Connor: “As a professional football player, Tim Tebow makes no sense. He is among the most unartful dodgers in NFL history, a god-awful quarterback for about nine-tenths of your average game before voila, just like that, he is magical enough to make a New York Jets season go poof in the night.”

The Denver coaching staff, who turned to Tebow after a listless 1-4 start, have turned their playbook into an index card. It’s the offensive equivalent of the flat tax. And like the flat tax, it fails miserably for the great majority. The Broncos punted eight straight times versus the Jets. Tebow started 6-15 passing. Yet their defense is stalwart and more importantly they believe in Tebow. In other words, they feel that if they can keep the game close, Tebow will find a way to pull it out for them in the fourth quarter. He hasn’t let them down. But how?

Denver coach John Fox has broken with decades of NFL orthodoxy by allowing Tebow to use a system that gives the quarterback the option to run the ball. Here he looks in his element, playing with purpose. Tebow is hardly a Michael Vick, but he’s big, strong and hits an open hole as good as most running backs. He’s rushed for almost 400 yards at about seven yards a carry.

That Tebow has been given the chance to run the option is testament to his coach. It’s also a testament to the racial double standards that have historically defined the quarterback position. The best option qbs over the decades like Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway or Nebraska’s Tommy Frazier, were terrific runners and NCAA national champions, albeit with questionable arm strength. They were also African-American and NFL opportunities were nonexistent. If they did get a chance, like the great Brian Mitchell who was a star college quarterback, they were told to change positions. This stereotype of what makes a good “field general” affected white option quarterbacks as well, like Heisman winner Eric Crouch of Nebraska. Despite a set of unorthodox talents, they were told they didn’t fit the mold. When running quarterbacks showed up with the proper arm strength—like Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick—the player would be harangued by the press and coaching staff that they had to change their style top-to-bottom if they wanted to succeed in the NFL. They were informed that they had to drop back and run only as a last resort.

It’s good to be Tim Tebow. You get to be adored while going 2-8 passing. You get a playbook simplified and tailored to your strengths. You get to prove all your haters wrong. But it’s not Tim Tebow who’s been redeemed. Not yet, anyways. Not after five games. Its every option qb—black or white—told that the NFL wasn’t for them. You are what your record says you are, and Tim Tebow is 4-1. Let’s see, if nothing else, if this provides more opportunities for quarterbacks who didn’t fit the mold and were blocked at the door.

NBA Players: Welcome to the 99 Percent

If I were an NBA player, I’d be mighty confused right now. I wouldn’t be confused about why the entire 2011–12 season is now in jeopardy. I wouldn’t be confused about rejecting the ultimatums and “last, final offers” of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Instead, I’d be confused as hell by the media’s reaction to my union’s collective and unanimous stand.

The 21st century athlete—particularly the twenty-first-century African-American athlete—gets regularly blasted for being a weak, watered-down shadow of their more principled forebears and only caring about the money. Entire books (see Shawn Powell’s Souled Out) have been written examining their ego-driven materialism and absence of social conscience. Yet here are today’s players rejecting a deal from David Stern that would have guaranteed them their entire current contracts if they were only willing to sell out the ballers of the future. All Kobe Bryant, who was due the biggest payday of his career, would have had to do was raise his hand in dissent. All NBPA President, Derek Fisher would have had to do is blink. All Lebron/Wade/Bosh, the supposedly selfish Miami Heat Big 3, would have had to do was holler. Stern’s offer would have been accepted and they all would have been paid and paid well.

But after the players had given back $300 million in revenues, the owners wanted more. They wanted the freedom to limit the future compensation for the sport’s “middle class” role players and to be able to send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to five years while dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players, without dissent, said no.

In this day and age, such action should be seen as admirable. Supposedly selfish athletes are sacrificing their own game-checks for the players of the future.

Instead, the media bile runneth over. JA Adande at ESPN wrung his hands that the players just couldn’t be more greedy. Seriously. He wrote, “The biggest problem with the NBA is that the principal players in this lockout saga weren’t selfish enough…. If the key figures had been thinking of themselves and their legacies, we’d be looking ahead to the Celtics playing the Heat this week…. I still can’t believe that after the players made the huge sacrifice of $300 million a year by dropping down to a 50 percent share of revenue, they would balk at the thought of a few million dollars for a few players.”

Well believe it. Players actually stood together against their economic self-interest. Say it was about ego. Say it was about pride. Say it was about fairness. But you can’t say it was about the money. As NBA veteran, Roger Mason, Jr. tweeted, “Fans talk of NBA players being greedy. But what about the guys willing to sacrifice their big pay day for what’s fair and just for others?”

Absent a coherent narrative, a flailing punditocracy has now resorted to crudely class-baiting the players for being out of touch with “economic reality.” Michael Wilbon, perhaps the most read—and most paid—sports columnist in America, wrote, “I’m tired of the debate, tired of what seems like whining over billions of dollars at a time when so many Americans are searching frantically for a second job just to pay the rent…. They keep telling us how going from approximately $5.4 million (on average) to $5 million is draconian…when my idea of ‘not fair’ is when a 58-year-old single mom with three children has her teacher’s aide salary slashed. Tell her about what’s not fair.”

First, I would like to meet the “58-year-old single mom with three children [who has had] her teacher’s aide salary slashed” with whom Michael Wilbon is in regular dialogue. Then, I’d like the entire varied punditocracy to just admit the truth. The players stood up to a group of the most powerful men in the country, and these same men, through broadcast partnerships with networks like ESPN or even direct employment, pay the six- and seven-figure salaries of Wilbon and his cohorts.

As Wilbon’s longtime PTI partner, Tony Kornheiser said when asked why he wouldn’t critique Washington football owner Dan Snyder’s ugly lawsuit against the Washington City Paper, “There are two companies that provide me with the economic opportunity that I’ve had in recent years, which has been very beneficial to me. And in the words of my colleague Bomani Jones, I’m not gonna mess around with where the money comes from, OK?” (Kornheiser’s daily radio show is on a network Snyder owns. I also believe Bomani Jones deserves better than to be lumped in with this idiocy.)

The players ARE “messing around with where the money comes from” and the response by sports talkers has been robotic in rejection as they bleat, “Does Not Compute!”

No one in these negotiations has been more clear-headed in intent and less decipherable to the press during the lockout than eleven-year vet and NBPA executive board member Etan Thomas. I believe that the union—both players and officials—on the whole has done a very poor job getting the message out. But Thomas has been an exception, regularly posting columns that have had the same message: “No matter what you hear, we are united and we will not sacrifice the future for the present.”

Last week, Thomas who had been working in New York City to get a deal done, took a time out to visit Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

Afterward he wrote very thoughtfully, “A few friends of mine told me that although they appreciated my support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I would never be considered as part of the 99 percent (they made the distinction that I was more like the 5 percent). My question is, if an Occupy the NBA were to happen, would the players be lumped in with the 1 percent because of million-dollar salaries? While the issues raised by the Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this lockout, aren’t there obvious parallels in power imbalance?

“Who is in the same position of power as the 1 percent ? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”

Thomas, rather predictably, was slammed for daring to even raise the issue that players, despite their personal wealth, might have more in common with the 99 percent, no matter their bank accounts.

Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote,”I could not believe how out of touch [Thomas] was to view the mission of his union as having anything at all in common with the movement to Occupy Wall Street…[with] people who are unable to feed their families, who have lost their homes to foreclosure and who believe they have been neglected by employers and government?”

I spoke to Thomas about this, and he sounded the same bewildered note as Mason. “If you don’t stand up for yourself, the media is all over you. ‘You’re no Bill Russell.’ But then you do, and it’s ‘How dare you?’ But they can say what they want. We know what we’re fighting for.”

Maybe they’re fighting for a reason so basic, we’ve missed it. Maybe it’s because they overwhelmingly come from the ranks of the working poor, have career lengths of six years and have been facing off against the ranks of true generational, aristocratic wealth in all it’s arrogance, personified by the snide, oozing contemptuousness of David Stern. Maybe they’re just tired of being treated as less than men by the people who write their checks.

Maybe they just hate to lose. NBA players: welcome to the 99 percent.

Penn State Alum/Leader of NOW Calls Out Penn State's Trustees for Toothless Internal Investigation

Earlier this week, in my column The World Joe Paterno Made, I referenced a 2006 incident where the former Penn State coach joked about the suspected rape of a female-student at Florida State. I quoted the Pennsylvania President of the National Organization for Women, Joanne Tosti-Vasey, who spoke with what I called “chilling unintentional prescience,” given the alleged child-rapes and cover-ups involcing former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Tosti-Vasey said, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted."

The Penn State alumnus is still President of Pennsylvania NOW and still fighting to change the culture on campus. After reading my column, Tosti-Vasey wrote to me and explained her current campaign to make sure that the current scandal enveloping the school actually leads to concrete change.  As you''ll read, the institutional gears of obfuscation and indifference are already in motion. Check out how, in her own words, she and others are fighting back.

I truly wish that I hadn’t been “prescient” as you stated in your article when you referred to my call in 2006 for Penn State to address campus violence. Due to these newest allegations of child sexual assault and the possible cover-up that may have occurred, I have once again referred to this climate of indifference and minimization of abuse towards others, particularly in the Athletics Department.

On Monday, November 7, I contacted the Penn State Board of Trustees and asked them to expand the focus of their “independent” review to include all forms of violence.  On Friday, November 12, the press release on the PSU website from the Board that announced that, “The complete committee membership will be determined and announced in the near future and is expected to be composed of a majority of Board of Trustee members with representatives from each of the board's constituencies as well as representatives of the Penn State community including faculty, students and alumni.”

A committee that is made up solely of members of the Penn State Community is NOT an independent review board.  Community members by themselves often have a vested interest in down-playing an issue in an attempt to put the best light on bad situations.  We believe that as corporate stewards of this world-class public university, PSU would want to take immediate and far-reaching actions to ensure that the Penn State students, staff, and the families in the surrounding community never have to see this kind of behavior and resulting exposé ever again. Appointing outside people to the committee will help do this.

This review must also be expanded to include all forms of campus violence. PSU, like many other universities, has a long history of minimizing sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking of mostly women. The alleged child sexual assaults occurred due to a general climate that minimizes and ignores campus violence in general.

For almost 20 years, we have challenged Penn State’s dismissive attitude toward violence against women, particularly within the Athletics department. It is time to stop this insular focus.  It is time to make sure that NO form of campus violence – sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking – is ever again tolerated.   Against any child.  Against any adult.  Against any member of the PSU community or a visitor to any of our campuses (yes, I am alum). 

Pennsylvania NOW and National NOW have therefore called on the Board of Trustees to make the investigative committee transparent and independent by including experts in relationship violence, survivors and people not associated with the University.  And we are also urging the committee to broaden its investigation to include all forms of campus violence, which should include but not be limited to -- sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. The panel should review policies and reporting methods across the board at Penn State and specifically within the Athletic Department.

So far we have not heard anything from either the Chair and Vice-Chair of the investigative committee or from the PSU Board of Trustees.   We are still awaiting a response to our concerns.

As with all grassroots activism, we have created a petition at to help pressure the Board to expand their investigation and make their committee more transparent and independent.  We have, in less than two days, gathered almost 500 signatures.  We hope that this pressure, in addition to our direct communications with the University administration and the Board of Trustees, will help make sure that policies campus-wide are reviewed, revised, created (where necessary), and enforced AND that the wall of indifference is torn down so that we no longer have to endure such maltreatment of another human being ever again.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey
President
Pennsylvania NOW, Inc.

The World Joe Paterno Made

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. (AP Photo/Daniel Shanken)

Meet John Matko. John Matko is a 34-year-old Penn State class of 2000 alumnus, distraught by the recent revelations that Coach Joe Paterno and those in charge at his alma mater allegedly shielded a serial child rapist, assistant Jerry Sandusky. He was livid that students chose to riot on campus this week in defense of their legendary coach. He was disgusted that the Board of Trustees decided to go ahead as planned with Saturday’s Nebraska game just days after the revelations became public. John Matko felt angry and was compelled to act. He stood outside Saturday’s Penn State–Nebraska game in Happy Valley and held up two signs. One read, “Put abused kids first.” The other said, “Don’t be fooled, they all knew. Tom Bradley, everyone must go.” (Tom Bradley is the interim head coach.)

The response to Matko gives lie to the media portrayal of last Saturday’s game. We were told the atmosphere was “somber”, “sad” and “heart-rending”, as “the focus returned to the children.” The crowd was swathed in blue, because, we were told, that is the color of child abuse awareness (also the Penn State colors). The team linked arms emerging from the tunnel. They dropped to a knee with their Nebraska opponents at midfield before the game. Once again, broadcasters told us, “the players were paying tribute to the victims of child abuse.” We were told all of this, and I wish to God it was true.

I don’t doubt the emotions in Happy Valley are genuine. I don’t doubt the searing shock and pain that must be coursing through campus. But this is the pain of self-pity not reflection. It’s the pain of the exposed not the penitent. Let’s go back to John Matko. Matko stood with his signs behind a pair of sunglasses. He wasn’t soapboxing, or preaching: just bearing silent witness. It was an admirable act, but no one bought him a beer. Instead, beer was poured on his head. His midsection was slapped with an open hand. Expletives were rained upon him. His signs were also kicked to the ground and stomped.

As the Washington Times wrote, “Abuse flew at Matko from young and old, students and alumni, men and women. No one intervened. No one spoke out against the abuse.”

One disapproving student said, “Not now, man. This is about the football players.”

And with those nine words, we see the truth about Saturday’s enterprise. It was about the football program, not the children. It was morbid theater where people were mourning the death of a jock culture that somewhere along the line, mutated into malignancy. It’s a malignancy that deprioritized rape victims in the name of big-time football.

The signs of this malignancy did not emerge overnight. Looking backward, there are moments that speak of the scandals to come. In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.” Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania, was not amused. With chilling unintentional prescience, Tosti-Vasey responded, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted.” They called for Paterno’s resignation and short of that, asked to dialogue with Paterno and the team. Neither Paterno nor anyone in the power at Penn State accepted the invitation.

This is the world Joe Pa made. It’s a world where libraries, buildings and statues bear his name. It’s a world where the school endowment now stands at over $1 billion dollars. It’s a company town where moral posturing acted as a substitute for actual morality. In such an atmosphere, seeing the players and fans gather to bow their heads and mourn Saturday wasn’t “touching” or “somber” or anything of the sort. It was just sad. It was sad because they still don’t get it.

One PSU student, named Emily wrote the following to si.com’s Peter King,

Truth is, if not for Paterno’s philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn’t be here right now. If not for Paterno…Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good man.

Bullshit. Emily’s words ring as false as the apologists for the Vatican, Wall Street, the military command at Abu Ghraib and any industry deemed “too big to fail.” The same moral code that Emily praises absolutely cannot be the same moral code that covers up child rape. To do so is to make the very notion of morality meaningless. Emily’s gratitiude that her school isn’t “30 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart” can’t justify defending Paterno. To do so, makes you complicit in the crimes and the cover-up. It also ensures that such a thing could happen again.

On Saturday, while Matko endured the physical and verbal rage of the PSU faithful, hundreds gathered around the Paterno statue outside the stadium, laying down flowers and gifts. The pain might run deeply in Happy Valley, but the cancer runs deeper. To really move forward, the malignancy must be removed. Fire everyone. Shut down Happy Valley football for a year. Rebuild a healthier culture. Do whatever you have to do to make sure that the world Joe Paterno made has seen its last day.

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