Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

BREAKING NEWS: Packers Captain Charles Woodson Stands With Wisconsin's Workers

Already multiple members of the Super Bowl–winning Green Bay Packers have taken public stands against the frightening, dictatorial, antiunion rampage of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. These pro athletes have chosen to link arms with the tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and firefighters standing as one against Governor Walker’s efforts to destroy their unions and drive them into poverty. It’s been remarkable to see a steady stream of players from the only nonprofit, fan-owned team in American sports, lend their voice to this fight.

Yet none of the Packers who’ve spoken out, have had the profile, respect or cultural currency of the latest member of the team to stand strong with Wisconsin’s working families: Charles Woodson. Woodson is the team’s defensive icon. A former Heisman trophy winner at the University of Michigan, NFL defensive player of the year and perennial pro-bowler, his voice will evoke cheers at the capital and shockwaves in the Governor’s office. The team’s defensive captain is also the acknowledged emotional leader of the team, charged with pumping them up at halftime and making speeches after the game. He was the person who said during the playoffs, “The president [a Chicago Bears fan] doesn’t want to watch us in the Super Bowl? We’ll go see him! Say White House on three!” This much-watched YouTube moment certainly takes on a different meaning right now.

By the way, Charles Woodson is also one of the team’s union reps. Without further preamble, here is his statement announcing his stand with Wisconsin’s working families. (Aaron Rodgers? You’re on deck.)


Last week I was proud when many of my current and former teammates announced their support for the working families fighting for their rights in Wisconsin. Today I am honored to join with them. Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. These hard working people are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to have a voice and collectively bargain at work.

It is an honor for me to play for the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and be a part of the Green Bay and Wisconsin communities. I am also honored as a member of the NFL Players Association to stand together with working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against this attempt to hurt them by targeting unions. I hope those leading the attack will sit down with Wisconsin’s public workers and discuss the problems Wisconsin faces, so that together they can truly move Wisconsin forward.

Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packer cornerback and one of the team’s elected representatives to the players union.



Aaron Rodgers: We Need Your Voice for Wisconsin's Working Families

I believe in athletes having the freedom and space to take political stands without having to worry about media and corporate backlash. I believe in athletes having the freedom and space to not take political stands if that’s their choice. But I also believe that there are moments in history when silence itself becomes a political stand, a luxury we cannot afford. For Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl MVP quarterback, this is one of those moments. I’m just returning from Madison, Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, unionists and students, are fighting for their very lives. Day after day, I saw the crowds swell as people arrived on buses from across the state and even across the country. I saw feeder marches of 5,000 high school students chanting with an unguarded, proud fury you’d never know today’s teenagers possessed. I saw people dressed like King Tut with a banner saying they would “protest like Egyptians.” I spoke to nurses choking with rage that they would have to take second jobs or go onto food stamps if business as usual took place in the Capitol building. I saw thousands sing the Wisconsin Badger football fight song, ending with “Fight Fight Fight and We’ll WIN THE DAY!” and they weren’t talking about football.

They’re trying to stop their Governor Scott Walker, also known as “The Mubarak of the Midwest,” from gutting their pay, benefits and very right to collectively bargain. Walker has also threatened to bring in the National Guard if he can’t get his way. For those who don’t know, the budget “deficit” Walker is so concerned about is a result of tax breaks he handed to out-of-state corporate donors, gutting the state’s surplus. Now he wants the workers to pay.

Already, five current and former members of the Super Bowl Champ Green Bay Packers have spoken out against the bill. As Ed Garvey, the former head of the NFL Players Association and proud Wisconsinite, said to me, “More Packers have now stood up for Wisconsin workers than DC Democrats!” Already, the NFL Players Association has issued its own statement in support of Wisconsin’s working families. We must assume, that Aaron Rodgers, as the leader of the Packers and as the team’s union rep, has his fingerprints on both of these statements. But what we don’t have yet is Aaron Rodgers’s voice.

Rodgers is a graduate of Cal Berkeley, so he’s hardly unfamiliar with the power of protest. Also according to my sources at the NFLPA, he‘s a fantastic union rep, so he’s hardly unfamiliar with the critical necessity of collective bargaining rights. The crowds in Madison are aware of this as well. I saw dozens of Rodgers jerseys and signs that read, “Aaron Rodgers is a union rep!”

Governor Walker wants a state where anything that’s not nailed down is for sale to multinational corporations. If he had his druthers, Lambeau Field would be renamed Kraft Macaroni and Cheesehead Stadium. Or he would just sell the team to Los Angeles for fifty cents on the dollar. He’s that craven, that unprincipled, that callous about the future for the people of Wisconsin.

Walker also says he has the “quiet majority” of Wisconsinites on his side. Given the unique place the Packers hold in the hearts of cheeseheads and given their status as a nonprofit, fan-owned team, there are no words for how much it would mean if Rodgers would issue a personal statement of solidarity. Last September, Rodgers said to the Sporting News, “Hopefully the legacy I’ll leave is one of somebody who was of high character, did things the right way, cared about his teammates, was coachable and was good to the community he lived in.” If that’s what Rodgers wants his legacy to be, the time is now. Aaron, your community needs you. Time to get your Berkeley on and bring it to  Badger-Land. One press conference, one quote, hell, one tweet. Anything but silence.


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Green Bay Packers Sound Off Against Gov. Scott 'Hosni' Walker

Less than two weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers—the only fan-owned, non-profit franchise in major American sports—won the Super Bowl, bringing the Lombardi trophy back to Wisconsin. But now, past and present members of the “People’s Team” are girding up for one more fight and this time, it’s against their own Governor, Scott Walker.

Walker, after the Super Bowl victory, bathed himself sensuously in the team’s triumph, declaring at a public ceremony that February was now Packers Month. He oozed praise for the franchise named in honor of the state’s packing workers. But just days later, the Governor offered cutbacks, contempt, and even the threat of violence for actual state workers.

Walker has unveiled plans to strip all public workers of collective bargaining rights and dramatically slash the wages and health benefits of every nurse, teacher and state employee. Then, Walker proclaimed that resistance to these moves would be met with a response from the Wisconsin National Guard. Seriously.

Yes, in advance of any debate over his proposal, Governor Walker put the National Guard on alert by saying that the guard is “prepared” for “whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for.” Considering that the state of Wisconsin hasn’t called in the National Guard since 1886, these bizarre threats did more than raise eyebrows. They provoked rage.

Robin Eckstein, a former Wisconsin National Guard member, told the Huffington Post, “Maybe the new governor doesn’t understand yet—but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent. The Guard is to be used in case of true emergencies and disasters, to help the people of Wisconsin, not to bully political opponents.”

Already this week, as many as 100,000 people have marched at various protests around the state with signs that reflect the current moment like “If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can’t Wisconsin?,” “We Want Governors Not Dictators,” and the pithy “Hosni Walker.”

But also intriguing is the intervention from past and present members of the Super Bowl Champs. Current players Brady Poppinga and Jason Spitz and former Packers Curtis Fuller, Chris Jacke, Charles Jordan, Bob Long and Steve
Okoniewski issued the following statement:

“We know that it is teamwork on and off the field that makes the Packers and Wisconsin great. As a publicly owned team we wouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans. It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work. The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards. Wisconsin’s long standing tradition of allowing public sector workers to have a voice on the job has worked for the state since the 1930s. It has created greater consistency in the relationship between labor and management and a shared approach to public work. These public workers are Wisconsin’s champions every single day and we urge the Governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights.”

The players who signed on don’t have quite as high a profile as Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, but give it time. Rodgers is the Packers’ union representative in negotiations with the NFL, and on Tuesday the players union issued their own statement in support of state workers, writing:

“The NFL Players Association will always support efforts protecting a worker’s right to join a union and collectively bargain. Today, the NFLPA stands in solidarity with its organized labor brothers and sisters in Wisconsin.”

The support of the Packers players hasn’t been lost on those marching in the streets. Aisha Robertson, a public school teacher from Madison, told me, “It’s great to see Packers join the fight against Walker. Their statement of support shows they stand with us. It gives us inspiration and courage to go and fight peacefully for our most basic rights.”

Walker no doubt envisioned conflict when he rolled out his plan to roll over the workers of Wisconsin. But I don’t think he foresaw having to go toe-to-toe with the Green Bay Packers. As we learned in Egypt, envisioning unforeseen consequences is never an autocrat’s strong suit. As we’re learning in Wisconsin, fighting austerity is not an Egyptian issue or a Middle Eastern issue—it’s a political reality of the twenty-first-century world. And as Scott Walker is learning, messing with cheeseheads can be hazardous to your political health.

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DeMaurice Smith: On an NFL Lockout and Inspiration From Egypt

There is no form of entertainment in this country more popular than football, and there is no one, save Barack Obama, being scrutinized more closely these days than DeMaurice Smith. Smith heads the National Football League's Players Association—a union that’s being threatened with being locked out unless players give back substantial amounts in wages and agree to lengthen the season to eighteen games. NFL players make large sums of money but risk a lifetime of physical debilitation and the average career lasts only three and a half years. Owners are banking on the fact that players, with their short window to make money, will cave to every demand. Smith is banking on something bigger: a sense of history, sacrifice and community that's greater than sports.

I spoke with Smith last Friday, the day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked away from the table during negotiations. I asked Smith, on a scale of one to ten, whether he felt there would be a lockout. “On a scale of one to ten, it's still fourteen," he said. "We’re preparing our guys for the worst, we’re hoping for the best. I’m going to keep negotiating. We’ve got our guys on standby right now to be virtually anywhere in the country whenever they want to talk. That’s the way we’re going to roll. I’ve told them that we’re going to negotiate day and night until we get it done, but it takes two.”

Smith is negotiating with—or trying to negotiate with—some of the most powerful, politically connected corporate actors in the United States. Their reach truly inspires awe. When the NFLPA produced a television ad in an effort to garner fan support, the networks first agreed and then refused to air it, presumably after pressure exerted by the league. DeMaurice Smith deemed the censorship “stunning.”

You might think, faced with such power, this would make him pessimistic about the prospects for players, but Smith finds himself inspired by events far removed from the world of football.

“You know,” he said, “we watched things unfold in a far-off country where a lot of the discussion preceding the protests was purely social media, people connecting. We have an ability to get our ‘let us play’ ad out. We know that anybody listening can type in ‘let us play’ and that ad will pop up and, frankly, if networks want to make a decision to boycott us, keep us off, those are the kind of things that get me fired up and let me know that I’m on the right side of right.”

The events in Egypt clearly put wind in Smith’s sails. And why not? After all, Roger Goodell seems much less intimidating when compared to Hosni Mubarak. As Smith said, “There are some socially and politically significant things occurring in the world that don’t have anything to do with the final score. So the other day I was with [Baltimore Ravens player] Dominique Foxworth, and he says, ‘I’ve just been glued to what’s been going on in Egypt and the way in which ordinary people are taking a stand against what they feel is oppression.’ And let’s get it clear, those folks are risking everything to take ownership of what their lives are going to look like. This is also Black History Month. That’s the time to remember and reflect that people across the generations have historically taken stands and been willing to risk everything for causes that they deem are important. The Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence knew that if they lost, they had signed their own death warrants with their names on that document. Well, that’s the spirit of our country and I dig it. And no, I don’t want to equate what [the NFLPA] is doing on that scale, but what I’ve asked our players to do is to recognize their place in history in this fight for a new collective bargaining agreement…. You have to realize that there is a solid line between players like Jack Youngblood, Deacon Jones, Boomer Esiason, Reggie White, Freeman McNeil on to players today like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brian Dawkins and those who are leaders in this fight.”

There is a social movement unionism aspect to how Smith is running this negotiation that stands apart from any sports labor conflict we’ve seen since the days of Curt Flood. The NFLPA had taken part in a press conference the previous day with the organization American Rights at Work and low-wage stadium workers in Detroit who would find themselves locked out if there are no games this fall. I asked Smith if this was aimed at placing pressure on Goodell and the owners by pointing out the thousands of workers who would be hurt by a lockout.

“I don’t know if it places pressure on him or not, whether it places pressure on the owners or not, and frankly, I don’t care. This is what we do. The business of football means that there’s over 150 thousand people who work in [businesses connected to game day during the season.] Whether it is car services, food services, trash removal, the moving of people to and from the game, the money in the bars and the restaurants, the hotels… this is the business of our business. So if you draw a circle around football it’s a $9 billion entity inside the circle. When you draw the concentric circle outside of football it’s got to be in the $20 to $30 billion range. So to say that we can live, work and operate in a world where we can intellectually or morally divorce ourselves from everything that’s going on outside of our circle, you can’t, you simply can’t.”

Smith’s pleasure reading of choice these days was also interesting: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch. Branch’s book focuses on the small, unsung struggles that made up the fabric of the civil rights movement. I heard Branch’s brilliant text in Smith's closing comments to me, a plea to owners who might be less rapacious than Goodell and the hardliners who are itching for a fight. “I just continue to believe, whether it’s the arc of history or the arc of moral justice, that more people than not want to do what’s right. And I know for a fact that there are owner families out there who are inextricably tied to their communities. You don’t have to look much further than Green Bay and Pittsburgh to know that those teams are defined by their communities, and vice versa.”

Smith has a fight on his hands but he is willing to make it as public as he has to in order to make sure that next season happens without imperiling the financial and medical futures of the players. I asked him if there could be any NFLPA action around the upcoming NFL draft, and for the first time he smiled ear to ear and said, “Well, you’re just going to have to wait and see.”

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Fox Be Damned: Why a Packers Victory Is the People’s Victory

The 2011 Super Bowl was between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers—two squads whose monikers speak to their roots as factory teams in the industrial heartland. As these teams prepared to face off in the almighty spectacle that is the Super Bowl, the game’s pre-game show involved a salute to Ronald Reagan on his hundredth birthday. Considering how Reagan gutted the aforementioned industrial heartland, a more appropriate pre-game show would have been an intimate meeting at the fifty-yard line between a Reagan-disguised tackling dummy and fearsome Steeler James Harrison. (The Black Eyed Peas at halftime, however, made me long for another Reagan tribute.) It was also, by the way, Bob Marley’s birthday, and I’m going to guess that far more Super Bowl parties in this country reflected Marley’s legacy than Reagan’s.

But it wasn’t just the film tribute that reminded viewers of the Reagan 1980s. The sheer tonnage of militaristic bombast with patriotic trimmings was like Top Gun on steroids and may have seemed over the top to the Gipper himself. Viewers were treated to a reading of the Declaration of Independence, coupled with Marines marching on the field, coupled with that twit from Glee singing “America the Beautiful,” coupled with more shots of the troops, coupled with a damaged Christina Aguilera stumbling through the National Anthem. By the time it was done, I was ready to get an American Flag tattoo and send my taxes to Hosni Mubarak like a Fox-Approved Good American. But fortunately for my sanity, I was watching the game with the DC Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against War at their annual Demilitarized Super Bowl Party. The vets, who booed every time Fox tried to use the troops to build its brand, made it clear that real war in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t have a damn thing to do with what the broadcast was selling. As Geoff Millard of Iraq Vets Against the War said to me, “We love sports but hate the way it’s used and hate the way the soldiers are used to sell war.”

And yet somewhere amidst the noise, the smoke, the Reagans and the Black Eyed Peas, a football game actually broke out, and it was a dandy. In every previous Super Bowl, no team had ever come back from more than a ten-point deficit, and before you could blink, the Steelers were down 18, 21-3. This was thanks to two costly interceptions by Pittsburgh quarterback and twice-accused rapist Ben Roethlisberger. An electric interception return for a touchdown by Green Bay safety Nick Collins reminded a lot of us why we love this game in the first place. But Pittsburgh is a team with two dozen players who were part of their Super Bowl championship team two years ago and they refused to quit. The game wound down with Green Bay leading 31-25 and Pittsburgh having the ball with just two minutes to play. Green Bay’s defense held and a fantastic game ended as the Pack came away with the win. Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers was absolutely brilliant completing 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and winning the MVP.

Yet for all the celebration of the Packers and their history, there was one brazen decision made by the show’s producers and announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman that was an insult to everything the team stands for. Often, the Super Bowl includes numerous shots of the two teams’ owners fretting in their luxury boxes like neurotic Julius Caesars. But the Packers are a team without an owner. They’re a community-run nonprofit owned by 112,000 fans. Rather than celebrate that fact, Fox didn’t mention the Pack’s unique ownership structure once. They also then didn’t include shots of the Rooney family, the most celebrated ownership family in the NFL.

After the game, during the traditional passing of the Lombardi Trophy to the winning team’s owner, the award was handed to the Packers’ “CEO and Chief Executive Officer” Mark Murphy, who barely looks old enough to shave. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as he threatens to lock the players out, clearly wants to hide the truth that the Packers have no single billionaire owner. They want it hidden because the team from Green Bay stand as a living breathing example that if you take the profit motive out of sports, you can get more than a team to be proud of: you get a Super Bowl Champion. It aint Tahrir Square, but it’s something, in our over-corporatized, hyper-commercialized sports world, to cheer. That is reason enough to celebrate the fact that the Lombardi Trophy has finally come home to Titletown.


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Washington Football Owner Dan Snyder Offends Everybody

I’m often asked who’s the best owner in professional sports. The answer is easy: it’s the 112,000 owners of the Green Bay Packers, the only fan-owned, not-for-profit team in the United States.

I’m also often asked who’s the worst owner in the wide world of sports. This has been a tougher nut to crack: do you go with people who bankroll the right-wing fringe, like the Orlando Magic’s Dick DeVos? Or do you choose the “Slumlord Billionaire,” Los Angeles Clippers owner Don Sterling, who had to pay out the largest housing discrimination settlement in the history of the United States?

After today, I now I have an answer: it is without question the owner of Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder. Snyder already has a twelve-year track record of utter incompetence, with a dash of contempt for anyone in his line of vision. It was team legend John Riggins who once said that Snyder had a “dark heart.” He said it for good reason. This was, after all, a man whose club has taken grandmothers to court and bankrupted them for not being able to afford their season tickets and who has starred in a host of other incidents that boggle the mind in their small-mindedness. Snyder has done this while lording over a franchise with the most racist name in sports, a name that harkens back to team founder George Preston Marshall’s segregationist and proudly racist politics.

But today, Snyder really cemented his position as the worst of the worst. News has broken that the billionaire owner is trying to get longtime DC City Paper reporter Dave McKenna fired. (Team officials deny they are seeking McKenna’s ouster.) 

McKenna’s crime was writing an article last November called "Cranky Redskins Fans Guide to Dan Snyder." Now we know that Snyder has threatened to bankrupt City Paper with litigation unless some undisclosed action is taken. The letter from David Donovan, the Redskins General Counsel, addressed to the small-time Hedge Fund that owns City Paper, reads,

“Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation. We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.”

Especially disturbing to Snyder was a picture of picture of the Redskins owner in City Paper with a mustache, beard, and horns drawn on his face. This to Donovan, and by extension Snyder, stains City Paper with anti-Semitism. Donovan writes, “How would you react if you were vilified by an anti-Semitic caricature of you?” Then the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper wrote,

“Public figures, including an owner of an NFL team, are fair game for criticism and even derision. However it is inappropriate and unacceptable when a symbol like this—associated with virulent anti-Semitism going back to the Middle Ages, deployed by the genocidal Nazi regime, by Soviet propagandists and even in 2011 by those who still seek to demonize Jews today—is used on the front cover of a publication in our Nation’s Capital against a member of the Jewish community.”

City Paper. in a tart response titled On the Matter of Dan Snyder’s Horns, shot back, “The image of Snyder doesn’t look like an ‘anti-Semitic caricature’—it looks like a devil. But we at City Paper take accusations of anti-Semitism seriously—in part because many of us are Jewish, including staffers who edited the story and designed the cover. So let us know, Mr. Snyder, when you want to fight the real anti-Semites.”

Please let me take this a step further. As a Jew, I find the idea that accusations of anti-Semitism and the memory of the Holocaust and genocide are being casually used by Dan Snyder’s people because his feelings were hurt to be reptilian and beneath contempt. It trivializes every last person—whether Jewish, Roma, Gay, Catholic, trade unionist or Red—who died at the hands of Hiter’s Germany.

Also, lest we forget, Dan Snyder owns a team whose name and logo are a celebration of the genocide of our Native American brothers and sisters. Every Sunday the Redskins take the field, their namesakes' memory is slandered and suffering celebrated. If Dan Snyder was really an opponent of genocide, he’d change the name of his team. Until that happens, this incident reveals him to be worse than an insensitive dullard. It marks him as a hypocrite.

So to sum up, a billionaire gets zinged by a local rag with a modest readership and proceeds to trivialize the Holocaust and blackmail the paper with financial Armageddon. All in a day’s work for Dan Snyder. Go Packers. If you win, it will be a terrific statement that we don’t need the Dan Snyders of the world to enjoy professional sports. Sports without owners. Now there is a thought for Super Bowl Sunday.


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Invoking Dr. King, Charles Barkley Stands Strongly for LGBT Rights

The act of speaking on television, for me, always requires twisting into more contorted knots than my Grandmother's challah. When the camera turns on, you have to mind your words with care… while trying to entertain… while trying to say something politically strong… while trying to conform to whatever topic is being discussed… and all while having a microphone in your ear that contains a Smithsonian collection of earwax from previous esteemed guests.

This is why I am always astounded by Charles Barkley. It's not just that the NBA Hall of Famer-turned-announcer speaks without a filter. There is many a Howard Stern–Kathy Griffin–Jersey Shore–fungal spawn who do that on a nightly basis. It's that Barkley actually has something to say.

On TNT's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day NBA Double Header, Barkley was in fantastic form when speaking about the legacy of the great civil rights leader. First TNT showed a clip of Dr. King's daughter Rev. Bernice King, the current President of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Unlike her mother, Coretta Scott King, and allies of her father like Bayard Rustin and Julian Bond, King stands in stark opposition to the LGBT community and the notion that they have a stake in "civil rights." She even once led an anti-gay march to her father's gravesite.

On TNT, Bernice King, in an otherwise boiler-plate soundbite, said that she felt a "responsibility to continue" her father's legacy. When the camera swung back to the Round Mound of Rebound, he was ready. "His daughter said something that was very interesting," Barkley said.  "People try to make it about black and white. [But] he talked about equality for every man, every woman. We have a thing going on now, people discriminating against homosexuality in this country. I love the homosexuality people. God bless the gay people. They are great people."

All right, "I love the homosexuality people" probably won't rival "I Have a Dream" in the annals of political poetry, but anyone who is aware of the shameful homophobia and tortured justifications of Bernice King and her self-described "spiritual father", the scandal-plagued Bishop Eddie Long, knew exactly why Barkley chose that particular moment to raise the issue.

Barkley is also no dilettante on the issue of LGBT rights, especially impressive in the often-homophobic hamlet of professional sports. As early as August 2006 on Fox Sports, the NBA Hall of Famer said, "I'm a big advocate of gay marriage If they want to get married, God bless them."

In 2008, speaking to a rather rattled Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Barkley said, "Every time I hear the word 'conservative,' it makes me sick to my stomach, because they're really just fake Christians, as I call them. That's all they are.... I think they want to be judge and jury. Like, I'm for gay marriage. It's none of my business if gay people want to get married. I'm prochoice. And I think these Christians, first of all, they're not supposed to judge other people. But they're the most hypocritical judge of people we have in the country. And it bugs the hell out of me. They act like they're Christians. They're not forgiving at all."

On MLK day, Barkley also didn't stop there. He said "We have discrimination against Hispanic people in this country and we need to answer to that."

This echoed his comments last Cinco de Mayo, after the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 law where he said, "Immigrants aren't the problem. The only people screwing it up are the politicians. You know, living in Arizona for a long time, the Hispanic community, they're like the fabric of the cloth. They're part of our community and any time you try to do any type of racial profiling or racial discrimination is wrong."

Dr. King once said, "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." It says something unfortunate about our times that we have a "molder" calling basketball games, and a "searcher" in the White House. But we should take the molders where we can get them. Carry on, Sir Charles. Keep speaking truth until "God Bless the Gays" rings from every pulpit, including the one occupied by Bernice King. That's certainly what Coretta would have wanted. 

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'I'm a Negro Who Speak Up': Remembering Football Great Cookie Gilchrist

With the passage of time, there are two establishment responses to the great political rebels in sports. You either see them commodified and defanged—think Muhammad Ali—or they are simply erased from history. Count Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist among the erased. Gilchrist, a former Buffalo Bills running back, died of cancer on January 10 at the age of 75. His legacy as both a player and athletic rebel are well worth restoring.

Gilchrist, the 1962 American Football League MVP, died the day before a remarkable anniversary not exactly celebrated by the world of professional football. On January 11, 1965, Gilchrist led an African-American boycott of the AFL All Star game, which was to be played in New Orleans. In 1965, an informal Jim Crow system ruled the Crescent city, and African-American players talked among themselves about their inability to get cabs, be served in restaurants or stay at certain hotels. Gilchrist organized all twenty-two African-American All-Pros to approach AFL commissioner Joe Foss and make clear that unless the game was moved, they wouldn't be playing. White players also announced that they would stand in support of their black teammates. Foss had no choice but to accede to their demands, and moved the game to Houston's Jeppesen Stadium.

The actions of Gilchrist and his fellow All-Pros inspired Dr. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans to launch the Olympic Project for Human Rights, calling for an African-American boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Gilchrist's courageous organizing also echoes today as Latino baseball stars like Adrian Gonzalez and Yovani Gallardo have indicated that they won't play in the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, because of harsh anti-immigration legislation signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer.

Gilchrist later said that his role leading the boycott was "better than anything I did playing football." That's quite the statement because we are talking about one of the great players to ever put on cleats.

Gilchrist was signed, in violation of NFL rules, by Cleveland Browns owner Paul Brown right out of high school. The NFL voided the signing and Gilchrist, who was now also ineligible to play college ball, had to trek up north and ply his trade in the Canadian Football League. In Canada, starting as a teenager. Gilchrist made six consecutive all-pro teams before moving to the AFL. There he dominated, becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher in league history, and setting the record for rushing touchdowns in a season. In one 1963 game against the New York Jets, Gilchrist rushed for 243 yards and five touchdowns.

For someone named Cookie, there was no sweetness to his game. As teammate Paul Maguire remembered to writer Tim Graham on ESPN.com,

"On the football field, he was one of the nastiest sons a b------ I ever met in my life. There was absolutely no fear in that man."

Before one critical playoff game, as Maguire remembered, "Cookie stood up 'I'm going to tell you something. If we don't win this game, I'm going to beat the s--- out of everybody in this locker room.' " Then Cookie pointed at coach Lou Saban. "'And I'm going to start with you, Coach. I'm going to kick your ass first.' I just sat back in my locker. I knew he meant it.' "

But Cookie wasn't seen as a leader just because he could play. He was outspoken He was loud. He was unapologetic.

As he said to Sports Illustrated in 1964, "People think I'm an oddball because I'm a Negro who speak up. But I have a lot on my mind. It's an internal disease, and it'll eat me alive if I don't get it out of my system what I think about things."

Cookie took his anti-racist tenacity and applied them to his dealings with management. He sent an open letter to the club owner Ralph Wilson before one season that read, "Gentlemen, it unfortunately becomes necessary again for me to formally request that you make efforts to trade me to some other football club." He received his raise. But he wanted more.

As he said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "I wanted a percentage of the hot dog sales, the popcorn, the parking and the ticket sales," Gilchrist said. "[Coach Saban] said that would make me part owner of the team. I was a marked man after that."

Gilchrist spent his retirement utterly unapologetic about his outspoken ways. He was offered enshrinement in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and Gilchrist became the first person to simply say no. He said that the racism and financial exploitation he suffered in the CFL could not simply be forgotten. He also for years refused induction in the Bills Ring of Honor because of his life-long conflict with Ralph Wilson, still the Bills owner today at age 87.

But late in life Gilchrist softened his stance, after receiving an outpouring of love from Buffalo when the news being public that he was battling cancer. Even Ralph Wilson wanted to reconcile and spoke to Cookie the weekend before his death. "I have a whole box of cards and letters," Gilchrist said. "I was surprised; it brought tears to my eyes. I thought Buffalo was mad at me." They weren't mad Cookie. They just didn't know what they had until it was gone.

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It's Not a Game: Sarah Palin and the Madness of March

In the wake of Saturday's horrific shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen other victims, long overdue attention is being paid to Republican Party heroine Sarah Palin's brazen use of violent language and symbols. It's hard to recall a national political figure since George Wallace who played so fast and loose with images of gunplay, demonization and death. For me, it was last March when I wondered if "going rogue" meant going off the deep end. This was when Palin strayed from the realm of politics and directed a particularly toxic stream of consciousness into the world of sports.

At the time, Palin and other GOP party members were facing criticism for using violent, inflammatory rhetoric against their Democratic opponents in the healthcare debate. In a misguided attempt to defend herself, Palin tried to show that violent rhetoric is used across American culture, most notably in the world of sports. In a rambling response that evoked Jonathan Swift crossed with Larry the Cable Guy, Palin took to Facebook to offer satirical words of encouragement to the NCAA hoops teams in the throes of March Madness. She wrote:

To the teams that desire making it this far next year: Gear up! In the battle, set your sights on next season's targets! From the shot across the bow —the first second's tip-off —your leaders will be in the enemy's crosshairs, so you must execute strong defensive tactics. You won't win only playing defense, so get on offense! The crossfire is intense, so penetrate through enemy territory by bombing through the press, and use your strong weapons—your Big Guns—to drive to the hole. Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win. Focus on the goal and fight for it. If the gate is closed, go over the fence. If the fence is too high, pole vault in. If that doesn't work, parachute in. If the other side tries to push back, your attitude should be "go for it." Get in their faces and argue with them. (Sound familiar?!) Every possession is a battle; you'll only win the war if you've picked your battles wisely. No matter how tough it gets, never retreat, instead RELOAD!

To be as charitable as possible, the aim of Palin's "satire" was to point out that violent, martial imagery is constantly used in sports and therefore is an absolutely legitimate metaphor for political debate. Let's leave aside for a moment that unlike sports, politics in the United States has a consistent tradition of unhinged violence sparked by demagoguery. Let's also concede that the world of sports is rife with unconscious military metaphor and language. This is most apparent in football of course, where quarterbacks are field generals, throwing bullet passes and bombs as they encroach on enemy territory.

But the subject at hand was NCAA basketball and this is where we enter the bizarre recesses of Palin's brain. Please take my word for it as a professional sportswriter, a columnist for SLAM magazine and someone who has been playing basketball since he was in utero: I've been around this game my whole life and never heard the opening tip called "the shot across the bow." I've never heard "the crossfire is intense" used to describe anything on a court. I've certainly heard calls from coaches to "shoot with accuracy," but never heard any coach call for players to "aim high." And I've met more than a few coaches who were blithering idiots, but none so blithering as to say, "Every possession is a battle; you'll only win the war if you've picked your battles wisely."

The point is not that Sarah Palin lacks the intellectual faculties to be hired as an NBA coach (honestly, I shouldn't even joke about the prospect, lest Clippers owner Donald Sterling get any bright ideas.) The point is that that Palin revels in the idea that "reloading" against those she doesn't deem to be "real Americans" is a completely legitimate part of national discourse. The point is that behind her flawless façade and frontierswoman packaging, Palin draws strength from visions of violence. The fact that she is a national political figure with an obsessive right-wing cult following makes it all the more disturbing.

We should be honest and say that were Sarah Palin a Muslim, producing gun-sight propaganda aimed at Congressional candidates, she'd be being interviewed by the Feds right now. I personally don't want the Feds interviewing anybody for their words, no matter where they fall on the political scene. But that doesn't mean we the people don't have a collective accountability to stand up to Palin and all who feed the right-wing hate machine. If this weekend taught us nothing else, it's not enough to just "change the channel." It's not enough to say that articles like this one "just give Palin the attention she wants" and "all she cares about being is a reality TV star." No. This isn't about reality television. It's about reality. It's about understanding that the radical right needs to be politically challenged and Sarah Palin—it needs to be said loudly—should have long disqualified herself from national politics. Any political leader that continues to defend her should be seen as endorsing the very discourse she promotes. This isn't about stifling speech. It's about laying down a marker after this weekend, and saying that this is not a game.

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Roger Goodell's Message to NFL Players and Fans: Drop Dead

Leave it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to end a thrilling NFL regular season on a sour, ugly note. As football fans, sports radio devotees and chat-room obsessives gathered Monday to discuss the playoff seedings, Goodell issued an ill-timed letter laying out the state of negotiations with the NFL Players Association. Both sides are striving to secure a new collective bargaining agreement and avoid labor Armageddon, but based on Goodell's letter, that's where the similarities end.

In the letter, Goodell seems to be following a tried-and-true strategy: blame the union and sow resentment between the fans and the players they pay to watch. But in taking a closer look at his musty missive, Goodell also establishes himself as a stalking horse for a broader, systemic strategy being used by governors and captains of industry across the country. It’s a strategy that for all the focus-tested language has one end-goal: getting workers to work harder for less.

First, blame the economy: Goodell writes: "Economic conditions have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all. Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it." Does he get it? There is nothing about lowering prices for tickets, concessions or parking. Instead he goes on to blame the greedy unions for making decent wages and benefits as the reason there may be no football in 2011. As Goodell writes, "Yes, NFL players deserve to be paid well. Unfortunately, economic realities are forcing everyone to make tough choices and the NFL is no different." This is the sporting version of something far broader and more pernicious, as public sector workers are becoming the Willie Hortons of our economy. They have become the 2011 scapegoat of choice as politicians impose the coming austerity. AFSCME has even started a campaign called "No More Lies" to counter the myths of the greedy unionists destroying state budgets.

Goodell goes on to lay out his vision for a brighter future. This brighter future includes players not only playing for less but also working more. As Goodell writes, "An enhanced season of 18 regular season and two preseason games would not add a single game for the players collectively, but would give fans more meaningful, high-quality football." Then without irony and with no transition, Goodell leaps right into his deep care and concern for players' health, writing, "Our emphasis on player health and safety is absolutely essential to the future of our game." Yes, play longer but nothing is more essential than the health of the players. As Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver Hines Ward said in comments aimed at Goodell, "If you were so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games? They don't care about the safety of the game.... They're hypocrites."

Then Goodell goes after the salaries of rookies, calling for a "rookie pay scale." He writes, "All we're asking for is a return to common sense in paying our rookies. Other leagues have done this and we can too." This is also ridiculous if not immoral. Any sport where each play can be your last should reject any notion of a pay scale. Players in this most violent of games should be able to make as much as the market will bear and not a penny less.

Goodell finally ends with some blather about wanting to achieve this kind of "forward looking CBA" and "protecting the integrity of the game." But there is no integrity in Goodell's vision: only the same blueprint for workers we are seeing across the country: work more, take less. I am sure that there are many who would read this with little sympathy for NFL players as workers. But please consider: a typical NFL career is three and a half years, and as NFL player Scott Fujita said to me, "We're the only business with a 100 percent injury rate." The ratings for the NFL this season have never been higher and no one ever paid hundreds of dollars to see Jerry Jones stalk the sidelines.

But it's even bigger than all of that. Goodell finishes this ill-timed screed by writing, "This is about more than a labor agreement. It's about the future of the NFL." It's also about the future of this country. We are living in a time of severe economic crisis. Whether the bosses or workers are made to pay for this crisis will be decided in battles large and small taking place around the country. But for all of these conflicts, there will be no greater stage or more amplified battleground than that between NFL owners and players. The vast majority of fans have a side in this fight. And it's not with Roger Goodell.

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