Where sports and politics collide.
If you are a fan of the Denver Broncos more power to you. If you’re down with the Legion of Boom and the Seattle Seahawks, then put on your silver and blue, play some Macklemore—or Blue Scholars—and have a great Sunday. But let’s just say you happen to be somebody who has no rooting interest in the Super Bowl or, even better, are not a football fan but will find yourself at a Super Bowl party and want something to do other than rank the best commercials. Here is one reason to go all-in and root for the Seattle Seahawks. No, my one reason has nothing to do with Richard Sherman, although I bet his victory speech would be one for the ages. The reason to root for Seattle can be found behind center. And his name is Russell Wilson.
My rule on these matters is simple: when you don’t have a rooting interest, stand with a squad on the basis of the conversations beyond football that they can provoke. Put simply, if Russell Wilson wins this game, then the most retrograde voices on sports radio, at the neighborhood bar and in social media will have to shut their mouths.
If Russell Wilson holds the Lombardi Trophy amidst the swirling environs in New Jersey, here are some things we are never going to have to hear again. We are never going to have to hear that Doug Williams, way way back in 1988, remains the only quarterback of African descent to lead a team to Super Bowl victory. That tired line, usually said by an uncle after too many beers, will have to die.
The second thing we will never have to hear again—and believe me, this cannot come soon enough—is the backward-looking concept that you can only win a Super Bowl if you have some dropback pocket passer with feet encased in mafia-grade cement like a Tom Brady, Joe Flacco or, oh, I don’t know, Peyton Manning. The scouting groupthink is that if you are Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, then your style of play, no matter how “entertaining,” will lead to inevitable failure. Being able to run is a nice bonus for a quarterback, but irrelevant when it’s time to win. What I hate about this conventional wisdom is that racism runs through it like a jagged scar people pretend not to see. There is certainly a strong argument that the scampering Steve Young should have put all of this to bed in 1995 when he threw six touchdowns and led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl glory. Or even a player like Aaron Rodgers who led the Packers to victory in 2011 with mobility to spare. But no. The trope that mobile quarterbacks can’t win the big one lives on because all too often it is code for “mobile black quarterback” in the tradition of showstoppers from Randall Cunningham to Michael Vick. A generation of great college players like Jamelle Holieway, Brian Mitchell, Tony Rice and Tommie Frazier, to name only a few, never had a shot at playing quarterback in the NFL because, being mobile black quarterbacks, they did not fit the mold. What is so amazing about Russell Wilson—and I hope RG3 is taking notes—is that he absolutely is a “pocket passer,” only he redefines what we understand to be the “pocket.” Wilson scrambles and scurries every which way, but his eyes are downfield at all times.
Then there’s the height thing. Russell Wilson stands at 5' 10" tall. If he wins, he becomes the first under-six-foot quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. (Although I want to see true measurements on Drew Brees.) If Russell Wilson can make this happen in a copycat league, it opens up space for a lot of QBs who have the skills but don’t happen to look like Blaine Gabbert, one of a long list of 6' 4" first-round quarterback busts.
Russell Wilson was a third-round draft pick and the sixth quarterback taken in 2012. He was chosen by the Seahawks, even though they just gave a truckload of money to a free agent named Matt Flynn. Wilson was even picked one spot after the Jacksonville Jaguars (the team that drafted Gabbert) took a punter. Wilson was lightly regarded despite the fact that as a senior at Wisconsin, he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and set a single-season college football record for passing efficiency. Given how many teams sacrifice first-round draft picks on quarterbacks who miss as often as they hit, the ascendancy of Russell Wilson is also a living, breathing example of just how bereft of imagination and fearful twenty-first-century football scouting has become. For the scouts, Wilson just did not check enough of their precious 1970s boxes. Maybe if the Seahawks win, those boxes will change.
And then there is the last reason to root for Russell Wilson. He really is, PR and fluff aside, someone you want to root for. His grandfather Harrison Wilson Junior is a legend in HBCU (historically black college and university) circles, based on his two-decade tenure as president of Norfolk State. Over twenty years of stewardship, Harrison Wilson increased the number of students enrolled in the Norfolk State graduate program by 600 percent and the school graduated more African-American teachers than any institution in the country. Wilson did this openly, proudly and defiantly in the years 1977–96, a time when HBCUs were under constant attack both financially and ideologically. His ability to have Norfolk State thrive in that era is revered and often mentioned in HBCU circles as a stirring display of excellence, despite doubters and pitfalls on all sides. Harrison Wilson Jr. was not supposed to achieve the way he did. All the metrics and trendlines were supposedly against him. Suddenly, Russell Wilson’s bold belief and cool confidence that he could, against all conventional wisdom, be an NFL star makes a hell of a lot more sense.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on seeing Dan Snyder at an event to promote racial justice
On the Thursday of Super Bowl weekend in New York City, I was a guest at an awards ceremony being staged by the Fritz Pollard Institute, an organization that aims to challenge the NFL to improve racial diversity in the ranks of coaches and general managers. Among those in attendance were heroes of mine, including three people in this photo, Walter Beach, John Wooten and Jim Brown. Then the unexpected took place.
Just after the lights slightly dimmed and the program began, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder walked through the door. It was bracing, and not only because this is someone I have written about critically for years, without ever actually seeing face to face (surprisingly fit!). But the shock ran deeper than my own personal feelings. Having Dan Snyder at an event that celebrates minority hiring is like seeing Michele Bachmann at a mosque. The Redskins in their entire history have never hired a full-time African-American head coach* or general manager. Snyder just continued this dismal tradition by making Jay Gruden, a coordinator with a famous name and no head coaching experience in the NFL, his new man in charge.
But that is not, of course, the only reason it was a shock to see Snyder. His team has been under relentless fire from Native American organizations, a coalition of civil rights groups and African-American clergy for having a racial slur as their team brand. Snyder has rebuffed every effort to sit down with these groups. Instead, rather than taking the whole “reconciliation” approach, Dan brought in a professional consultant to help manage this crisis. His name is George Allen. That would be the same George Allen who is the brother of team president Bruce Allen—the same George Allen who was known for keeping a noose in his office when running for the US Senate in Virginia to highlight his “tough stance on law-and-order issues,” the same George Allen whose presidential aspirations went up in smoke when he was caught on camera making a bizarre racial slur. Yes, in an effort to keep accusations of racism at bay, Dan Snyder brought in the Macaca guy.
Dan Snyder is one of the very few owners (I counted three as well as Commissioner Roger Goodell) who deigned to show up at this event. And good for him. But the question remained: Why would an owner under fire for having a racist name, and with no record of hiring African-Americans to executive or head coaching positions, be at an event to celebrate the movement to hire minority coaches? I wanted to ask him, but alas, he left early while the event was still in progress.
After the dinner, I contacted Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation, who has devoted considerable resources in the last year to push the team to change their name, including recently taking the issue to the United Nations. He pointed out that Dan Snyder not only has his own legacy to account for but the legacy of a team founded by arch-segregationist George Preston Marshall. “As the last NFL organization to integrate—and to only do so under threat of federal prosecution—the Washington team will always be remembered for being on the wrong side of history during the civil rights movement” he said. “If Mr. Snyder wants to make amends for that, he should finally stop using a dictionary-defined racial slur as his team’s name.”
Basically, if Dan Snyder believed in racial justice he could stop defending the legacy of the proud, Dixie-playing, Stars and Bars–waving confederate fetishist, George Preston Marshall.
I also spoke with Suzan Harjo of the Morningstar Institute, and the Spartacus of the decades-long struggle to change the name, about her thoughts on why Snyder would attend an event like the Fritz Pollard dinner. She said, “It reminds me of Senator Jesse Helms, who used to get funding for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to mask his contempt for African-Americans by showing support for another minority group.” Ouch.
I also gave a shout to David Whettstone, a radio talk show host at WPFW and an African-American organizer in DC fighting to change the name. He said to me, “Snyder probably feels that he has no problems with us folk [i.e., African-Americans] and probably thinks he is doing right by us. It’s a total disconnect from the reality: a study in non-engagement. We are all just consumeristic suckas in his book.”
The most surreal part of seeing Dan Snyder at this event was that the Fritz Pollard Alliance devoted the heart of the evening to honoring the late Johnnie Cochran, a civil rights attorney best known for representing O.J. Simpson, but also the person whose threats of a class-action lawsuit spurred the first movement toward the NFL’s adopting of “The Rooney Rule,” which mandates that owners must interview coaching candidates of color. Several speakers, in celebrating Mr. Cochran, made reference to his relentless twenty-seven-year effort to get the wrongly convicted Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt, a Black Panther revolutionary, out of prison for a murder he did not commit. Born Elmer Pratt, Geronimo took the name of the great Native American leader out of respect. It signified Mr. Pratt’s commitment of resistance to people like George Preston Marshall. I could only wonder what Snyder thought every time speakers spoke about Cochran’s efforts to liberate to a man named Geronimo. It was a crash course, if Snyder could hear it, in the difference between honoring a culture and making it into a cruel cartoon.
I had a very respectful short speech to say to Mr. Snyder after the event ended but, as mentioned, he left early—and quietly—while the formal program was still in progress. I considered getting up and disrupting the proceedings as he moved toward the door, but this was an event to honor minority head coaches and Mr. Cochran. Their families were in attendance and I had no right to raise hell in those surroundings. I can say that afterward, I learned I wasn’t the only person who had such temptations. There were several of us who gathered and talked about what we would have said if Dan Snyder had stuck around to socialize. We all had different angles and different tones, but it centered around a very basic idea: Dan, if you really care about social justice and aren’t here just for cheap public relations, then you’ll change the name.
Read Next: why Republicans protect the “honor” of offensive team names.
When you talk union in Chicago, you are telling the story of the Haymarket Martyrs, the nineteenth-century general strikes for the eight-hour day, and the rank-smelling stockyards captured in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In recent years, this tradition has been reignited with the 2006 May Day protests that brought the city to a standstill, the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors and the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike that made Mayor Rahm Emmanuel bluster and blink. What you don’t think about is Northwestern University, where tuition is $63,000 a year (holy shit, is that number even right? Yes, it is), and you certainly don’t think about the football team. Well, think again.
In news that will resonate far and beyond Evanston, Illinois, the Northwestern Wildcats football squad announced this week that they would be the ones: the first team in the history of college athletics to try to form a union. The team members, in a near-united fashion, filled out their union cards and filed their paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in the hopes that they can fight back against the NCAA, the cartel that runs college sports. Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association as well as organizers from the United Steelworkers Union aided their efforts, but this was all about the Wildcats.
At Northwestern, this move has been led by team quarterback Kain Colter, who was one of the players who wore the initials #APU, or All Players United, on his uniform last fall. “The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” Colter said to ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players—at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come…. Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
An even stronger comment was issued by a Northwestern player anonymously to the website Reddit. He wrote, “This isn’t about getting paid. What it is about is protection. Many of us will have numerous injuries throughout our playing careers. A group of those players will continue to feel the effects of those injuries long after their playing days are over. The goal is to have some sort of medical protection if we need surgeries stemming from injuries sustained while playing for our university.… Would it be nice to have some part of jersey sales or memorabilia sales? Absolutely. But that is not the goal as of right now.”
Not surprisingly, the NCAA’s chief lawyer, Donald Remy, who, I can guarantee, does not work for free, unlike the players he is attempting to smash, issued a statement that was about as contemptuous as you could expect. Remy said, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.”
Let’s forget the condescending “union-backed attempt” line as if the football team at Northwestern is just a hand puppet for that all-powerful ascendant force otherwise known as the United Steel Workers. Focus on Donald Remy using the phrase “student-athlete” five times in five sentences. For those who did not read Taylor Branch’s masterful takedown of this rhetorical swill, “student-athlete” is a legal phrase created by the NCAA in the 1950s to avoid paying workers' compensation benefits to the widow of a football player named Ray Dennison who died on the field.
But lawyers are not the only gatekeepers of this sinister status quo. Many of the forces that slurp at the college cartel gravy train are also up in arms over the temerity of Northwestern’s players. The winner of “most obnoxious comment” has to go to Doug Gottlieb, the CBS Sports college hoops analyst who tweeted, “The greatest gift you can receive in the world is a free college experience/education—the need for a greater gift is sickening.” (That was Doug’s bolding of the word “gift”, master of subtlety that he is). It is hard to know which part of that tweet to correct first, but suffice it to say, exploitation is not a gift. Seeing your coaches make millions off of your sweat while you are an unpaid billboard for Nike is not a gift. Missing classes because you have to fly to the Great Alaska Shootout is not a gift. Driving thirty straight hours while fighting staph infections is not a gift. Hell, seeing Doug Gottlieb make a ton of money that should by all rights be in your pocket is not a gift. The only thing “sickening” is the rank contempt Mr. Gottlieb has for a group of young people daring to stand up and be heard.
Whether or not the Northwestern players succeed in their efforts to unionize—and the NCAA will spend however many billions it takes to make sure this does not happen—their efforts today will long be remembered as the opening shot that cracked the NCAA Cartel. They deserve our support. They deserve our respect. Most of all, they deserve our solidarity. In 1922, that author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wrote, “College athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become a monstrous cancer.” I do not know what Sinclair would make of a twenty-first-century world where coaches make 100 times the salaries of professors. I think we can say safely, however, that the actions of the Northwestern football team would have made Mr. Sinclair very proud indeed.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews 1968 olympian John Carlos, who speaks out on LGBT rights.
This is not another column about everything the Grantland website, its editor Bill Simmons and journalist Caleb Hannan did wrong in the writing and publishing of the piece “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” If you are not aware of the story, in which a trans woman who invented a revolutionary golf club was outed by Hannan to an investor, and then, before the piece went to press, took her own life (a suicide mentioned at the article’s end by the author with a chillingly casual distance), read Kye Allums’s commentary posted last week at The Nation. Or you can read Christina Kahrl’s response posted after the uproar on the Grantland site. Or you can read this, this, or this. Frankly, the breadth of writing by the trans community is stunning in its passion and scope and I have nothing to add.
I do want to weigh in on another question: whether Grantland should just remove the piece from its site. In ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte’s blistering assessment of the piece, he asks that very question. Lipsyte quotes Kate Fagan, a terrific ESPN writer who is also gay. Fagan says, “I would hope Grantland would defer to the wishes of the trans community on that issue, especially since, as I understand it, the story causes so much pain. I understand Bill’s impulse to leave it online as a learning tool, but having the story stay up seems as if we are valuing Grantland’s right to learn over the trans community’s right to not feel anguished. As many members of the trans community have said on social media, ‘My life is not your teachable moment.’”
Simmons himself, in Lipsyte’s piece, says, “I feel really bad about the impact the piece had on transgender readers. I read all those anguished emails about how badly the piece made them feel, the dark places it took them to.”
I would only add that for those of us who have friends who are transgender, or have ever known someone who has attempted or succeeded in taking their own life, the piece also takes you to “dark places.” I have never read a profile piece where the subject’s suicide is tacked on at the end in such a blithe fashion. It is impossible to imagine any other story—say, about a depressed former football player or even an athlete’s struggle to come out of the closet—where their death would be treated with such callousness.
It is simply wrong for Grantland and Bill Simmons to say they are now more sensitive to these issues while still keeping the article up as is on the site. Yes, the piece now begins with a paragraph containing links to Simmons’s apology letter and Christina Kahrl’s response, but these could continue to be up at the site without the article itself.
“Dr.V’s Magical Putter” is best understood as a defective and, I would argue, dangerous product. If a company puts a defective and dangerous product on the market, and if their perfidy is discovered, they would make every effort to remove it from circulation. When we learn that there is poison aspirin on the market or an exploding Ford Pinto, we don’t shrug our shoulders and say, “Let’s keep these items in circulation. It’s a teachable moment!”
Newspapers and magazines, especially in the Internet age, take down articles all the time that are found to be legally problematic or flawed. Granted, this usually happens if the flaws are factual as opposed to moral. But many would argue that the mistakes made by Hannan and the editorial staff, according to Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) guidelines, are in fact factual in nature. Hannan and his editors factually make errors in their use of male pronouns in describing Dr. V’s gender. Hannan of course made a heinous SPJ error in outing his subject. The piece makes a series of other glaring journalistic mistakes, highlighted in this piece.
It is still stunning that many respected journalists—all cisgender men—praised the article when it first came out. Most, like David Carr of The New York Times, have since rapidly walked their praise back. If the Grantland editorial staff did not realize that the article was a failure of both form and content before, then they surely realize it now. To keep it up shames a site that is home to some of the best sportswriters working and produces, on a weekly basis, incredible content. To an avid fan of Grantland writers like Charles Pierce, Bryan Curtis, Wesley Morris and Louisa Thomas, it is painful that this piece gets to continue to live on amongst their work.
Some might say that to take down the article would be just another example of the sports world whitewashing its own history: the equivalent of pretending Reggie Bush never won a Heisman Trophy. That is hogwash. The choices, not unlike gender itself, are not so crudely binary. If Grantland truly wants their teachable moment, then they can continue to promote Kahrl’s piece or Bill Simmons could interview Kye Allums on his highly rated podcast “The B.S. Report” and continue the dialogue. Instead, judging from the last broadcast, Simmons is done with this. As he put it, “I have said everything I need to say in that piece. We are moving on.”
He should not move on from this until he has done right. And “right” will only happen once “the wishes of the trans community” are heard and that article is taken down.
* I reached out to Grantland, where I have been published three times, for comment. If I receive it, I will add to the piece
Read Next: Trans basketball player Kye Allums reflects on the Grantland controversy.
I was done writing about Super Bowl bound Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. I was done writing about the polarizing, perspicacious, Pro Bowler who with one iconic post-game interview morphed into our latest national Rorschach test about racism and sports. I was done partly because I had already written about him and partly because others have said it better. (Find great articles about Sherman and race here, here and here.) I also didn’t want to write again about the man who made the journey from Compton to Stanford to NFL glory because we seem to be entering a place where his five-star post-game rant has crossed a line from rebellion to commodification. His marketing agent, Jamie Fritz, has been making the media rounds, telling the advertising trades that since Sherman said “CRABTREE” at volume ten, his phone has been ringing off the hook. “We haven’t seen a guy like this in a while,” Fritz gushed to Ad Age. “Richard’s a guy who’s going to speak his mind. And that makes people very curious. We have data that Richard is single-handedly growing the Seattle Seahawks fan base in Middle America—where [Seahawks] fans would not exist.”
It just did not seem interesting to write about another athlete Madison Avenue was attempting to turn into a rebel with no cause. But then, Richard Sherman took the microphone again this week and said something that needed to be said, something that won’t help him sell Big Macs to pre-schoolers. Facing the press on Wednesday, Sherman spoke about the avalanche of racist garbage he has faced since Sunday, trash that includes not only the social media barrage of racial epithets, but also being called a “thug” repeatedly in the mainstream media.
Sherman said, “The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays. It’s like everyone else said the N-word and they said ‘Thug’ and they’re like, ‘Ah, that’s fine.’ That’s where it kind of takes me aback and it’s kind of disappointing.” He then brought up the decades long double standard of how fighting in the almost entirely white NHL is viewed with a yawn but so much as raised voices from black athletes are greeted as a national calamity. Referencing a recent brawl between the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames, Sherman said, “What’s the definition of a thug really? Maybe I’m talking loudly and doing something I’m not supposed to. But I’m not.… there was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey. They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Oh, man. I’m the thug? What’s going on here?’ ”
Richard Sherman said something that has needed to be said since Jack Johnson commented that he would be Jim Jeffries’s “master” a mere forty years after the end of slavery. It has needed to be said since the first time Dick Allen scowled from a batter’s box or Sonny Liston glowered from across a ring or Allen Iverson took the court with cornrows. It has needed to be said since David Stern hysterically started to enforce what NBA players could and could not wear on the road. It has needed to be said since Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Using the platform to tell harsh truths is not a recipe for being a Madison Avenue “brand.” It is a recipe for actually doing something that moves society forward.
James Baldwin once said that America was a country devoted to the death of the paradox. We want our jocks to be jocks, our poets to be poets, our ditch diggers to be ditch diggers and our black athletes from Compton to not have the ability to call out the dominant culture on its own hypocritical bullshit. Richard Sherman is that paradox. But unlike the athletic paradoxes of the past, he is also acutely aware of the ways in which twenty-first-century media are attempting to put him in that box and kill his paradox. Richard Sherman has the ability to use words as weapons and spit arguments as easily as he spits insults. That makes him interesting. That makes him provocative. That makes him dangerous. And Beats by Dre aside, that makes him difficult as hell to brand.
For many people watching the Super Bowl, the game will come down to whether you root for Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, or Richard Sherman. For many people that will mean “Peyton good” and “Sherman bad.” For many people, like John McCain, that means rooting for Peyton to shut up the “loudmouth.” If you’re going to root against the Seahawks and Richard Sherman, by all means do so. But please root against them for the right reasons, not so Richard Sherman gets some kind of lip-buttoning comeuppance. Whether you like the Broncos or Seahawks, you should hope for the greater good that Richard Sherman never shuts up.
Read Next: Dave Zirin’s initial reaction to Richard Sherman’s rant.
Get ready for two weeks of stories that pit the polished Peyton Manning against his supposed antithesis, Richard Sherman. Get ready for two weeks of interesting coverage about how the best quarterback in the game and probable 2013 MVP takes on the best cornerback in the game and the probable Defensive Player of the Year at the Super Bowl. Also get ready for two weeks of utterly uninteresting coverage that paints Peyton as a Southern gentleman in shining armor who will hopefully slay Richard Sherman, Compton’s “loudmouth” dread-locked dragon. There will be more articles, tweets and commentaries from the media bemoaning Richard Sherman’s lack of “class”. There will be even more tweets from so-called fans that sound like press releases from a White Citizen’s Council. There will be a running loop of Sherman’s already “insta-classic” WWE-infused “promo” rant after Sunday’s victory over their rival the 49ers.
There will be more stomach-churning racial coding than an episode of Fox & Friends featuring Ann Coulter and Billy Packer. There will be rightwingers like John Podhoretz on Twitter, the very people who always whine that the culture is becoming “too soft”, “too feminized” and “too PC,” who are as aghast as plantation belles stumbling toward the fainting couch over his behavior.
There will be less discussion about why so many of the chattering classes demand “class” from a game where people’s legs are broken in half and then replayed endlessly for our entertainment. There will be less discussion about the hypocrisy of demanding that “perfect gentlemen” play a game so dangerous that its own players, and even the president, wouldn’t want their own children on the field. There will be far too many sportswriters not admitting what Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel tweeted: that Richard Sherman is a welcome relief from pre-programmed athletes who “play one game at a time, good lord willing, play one game at a time… good lord willing.”
Sherman is the embodiment of what sports writing legend Robert Lipsyte once said to me was his true initial attraction to Muhammad Ali. “He made my job so incredibly easy,” Lipsyte said. “I just had to write down what he said and the copy was gold.” In fact Sherman has pointed to Ali as an inspiration, saying, “[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world. When he said, ‘The champ is here,’ he probably wasn’t that cocky. He created a persona. He was a leader, an entertainer, and he knew how to break people down in the ring. I didn’t really care about boxing, but I wanted to be like Ali.”
There will also be less discussion of who Richard Sherman actually is, and the genius of both his preparation and style of play. In fact, when it comes to smarts, skills and psychological gamesmanship, Sherman is in many respects the cornerback version of Peyton Manning. Just as Manning treats every trip to the line of scrimmage like he’s Hannibal Lecter trying to get into the head of Clarice Starling—OMAHA!—Sherman has a deeply cerebral method to his perceived madness. Read Lee Jenkins’ profile of the Stanford graduate in the July 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, titled Warning: Don’t Take The Bait. As Jenkins writes, “Whether you think cornerback Richard Sherman of the (NFC champion?) Seahawks is a smacktalk poet laureate or just another loudmouth doesn’t matter. He’s a shrewd, dedicated lockdown defender who doesn’t mind getting on his opponents’ nerves—in fact, he prefers it that way.”
The article reveals someone who has journeyed successfully from Compton, California, to Stanford, to fifth-round draft pick, to NFL star, which has a degree of difficulty somewhat higher than “son of quarterback becomes quarterback.” As Sherman says in the piece (and this is one of my favorite quotes of all-time), “I’m an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time, You’re not from here. And that’s the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you’re like me, people think you’re weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren’t going where you’re going. I know the jock stereotype—cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it.”
Richard Sherman is consciously an archetype that has been branded a threat as long as African-Americans have played sports: the loud, deeply intelligent black guy who uses this outsized cultural platform to be as bombastic as he wants to be. Whether the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson or Richard Sherman, they tend to be painted with only one dimension, which makes it easier for them to be denigrated and demonized. Broncos fans should hope their team does not see Sherman as just some kind of loudmouth. If Peyton Manning’s record-setting receiving corps does not see everything mentally and physically that Richard Sherman is bringing to the table, he will eat their lunch. As his teammate Kam Chancellor said, “I used to tell him to quiet down. Then I saw the results.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin presents basketball star and mental health advocate Royce White's last sports interview.
After making honorable mention All-American at Iowa State, Royce White became the sixteenth selection in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. He was the first person in Cyclone history to lead the team in points, steals, rebounds, blocks and assists in one season. White made news last season by refusing to play unless concerns about the NBA’s and Houston Rockets’ mental health policies were addressed. This fall, he was among the final cuts for the Philadelphia 76ers. After a series of frustrating interactions with the sports media, he gives here what he is calling his “last interview with a sports journalist.” This is edited for flow. Listen to the entire interview here.
Dave Zirin: Why did you say this was going to be your last sports interview?
Royce White: I just found very, I want to say, not great success working with sports journalists. And not that the journalists individually aren’t good people, but when the story gets back and it gets edited and chopped up…. I’m just getting away from that altogether, because I think I’ve said everything that I could say and this is the last time of me speaking about my situation.
You were in training camp with the Philadelphia 76ers this past year. Did you think you were going to make the team?
I was pretty confident that I was going to make the team. I had earned the respect of my teammates and the coaches, and I had proven that I could play with the guys. Proven that I was a good teammate, proven that some of the things that were being questioned that maybe shouldn’t have been questioned—that I could travel on a plane at all? Which was a preposterous question in and of itself, but I proved that was not going to be an issue. Everything in my mind said that I was going to make the team, but I understand that that doesn’t always happen.
On October 24, USA Today had an article that said you were a “slam dunk” to make the roster, and you were cut on the 25th. People who are basketball fans know that the 76ers are rebuilding. Why do you think you were cut from the team?
Well, I think it’s hard to say… As much as I would say that my mental illness has something to do with it, which it does because of the way they evaluate players as commodities in the league. It’s taken into account when they’re drafted, even. But, I will give the NBA a break on the fact that the NBA is in the era of a shuffle format. Players are traded, cut and that type of thing for all kinds of reasons. And this has nothing to do with the politics of the sport or the mental health policy.
Sticking on the subject of the 76ers, before you went to training camp, did you have assurances from the team that they would respect your mental health concerns?
You know, coming into Philly, and knowing that [GM] Sam Hinkie had come from the Houston situation, I knew that he had an understanding of it and that gave me great reassurance that we would be able to go in good faith and tackle [mental-health] issues as they came. So, in actuality, a lot of the things we discussed in Houston never actually got to the table in Philly. We never had that real long discussion to sit down and say, “Ok, here are the things, right here. How are we going to attack them?” And I was cut before we had a chance to have that conversation.
There was that long team flight over to Europe for the preseason and you didn’t go. Was that in any way, shape or form connected to flying concerns?
My not going was definitely due to the fact that I suffer from aviophobia, and actually the last flight that I had before that one was one I took to Vegas with the Houston Rockets in the previous Summer League. So a whole calendar year had gone by, and we talked to doctors and I talked about how I was feeling right up to the flight and we just made a really sound and simple everyday decision in the medical field—that’s a big thing to go from not flying at all and going straight into a seven-, eight-, nine-hour flight.
At Iowa State, you flew twenty times. How did you get through that and what makes the NBA flight experience different?
I got through it a lot of different ways actually. And the number=one way I used was just letting myself experience the anxiety and the exasperation of the flight—which is probably not the healthiest way. And I also trying taking things like Benadryl, and Xanax. If you know anything about Xanax, about benzodiazepines, they’re some of the most addictive drugs on the market. So I tried those things at Iowa State, I did some of those things, and I got through a season at where I took basically every flight that the team took. And I think that played a big factor on going into the NBA, and realizing from a medical standpoint that the number of flights was almost quadrupling, meaning that the way that I got through it at Iowa State wasn’t going to work for a longer schedule and it definitely wasn’t going to work over a ten-year career, or however long my career was going to be. And it was unacceptable [to me] to be taking a sleeping pill every single time I got on a plane, which would be almost every day for six, seven months.
Do you still want to play in the NBA, and if so what assurances would you need from a team to make that a reality?
My situation’s got to a point where you can’t talk about how to proceed with mental illness as an individual without talking about procedure on an entire league scale. That’s just the way that the league’s got to do it at this point, because of liability and all those kinds of issues. Yeah, I definitely still want to play, I’m pursuing it and I’m trying to develop relationships with some teams and trying to clear a path where we can find that balance between supporting mental illness and what that means, and what the business is right now in the NBA. But again, like I said, when you talk about what I’ll need is tough to say. We really, in terms of me and my representation, we didn’t ask for anything more than when possible allow me to drive, and when necessary I’d have to fly; and I was OK with that as well. Outside of that, it’s really just respecting and regarding mental illness in the same format that you regard physical illness or injury. And the reason why you can’t do that, the reason why we tried to do that is because then we could just use what we already had in our collective bargaining agreement because there’s nothing in the CBA that pertains to mental illness—which causes a big problem, obviously, not having anything on the books on how to proceed.
You’re saying the most recent CBA, the one that was ironed out in 2011, it has nothing in there about mental health—zero?
It makes it tough. When I came into the league, obviously the big discussion was about the flying, and we actually got past that pretty quickly. The NBA did say after some tough dialogue back and forth, that we’ll let you go by bus. Now, once we were past that, we said, “Now what happens if I have an anxiety attack an hour before the game and I can’t play?” Or something of that nature, maybe I miss a practice because I’m having a bout with anxiety for a week? Mental illness will take you down in terms of functionality in your regular life and sometimes mirrors the actual time duration as physical injuries. Tearing a ligament, you hear about people not being able to leave the house for months, or feeling sick to their stomach for weeks, and that’s very common and well known to those in the mental health field. We go in and say, what if something like that happens? How will it be treated, how will we proceed?
If an anxiety attack takes place, do you get paid? Do you get cut? Is this something the team can live with? A lot of questions.
A lot of questions. Very rudimentary questions, actually. It’s something they’ve ironed out in most other scenarios. Concussions, and physical illness and injuries like that. We just don’t have it for mental illness. So, we had to have a tough discussion about, “OK, now what do we do in these situations?” And, if they would have said, we’ll treat it in the same way as physical injury, which is why I harped on that so much last year, then we could have used that format… but they didn’t want to do that. The reason being, it put too much power in the players’ hands, they thought [it would give an excuse for a player] to say “Oh, I don’t feel good.” And that comes from a lack of understanding of mental illness and the fact that there are just as many physical symptoms, a lot of times, with mental illness as there are with physical injury. And, at the end of the day, when a player comes back from a physical injury—as you and I know and people who are close to sports or who have played sports—it’s all verbal confirmation anyway. The doctor asks you, “How does it feel?”
It sounds like their assumption, from management’s side, is that if given the choice a player won’t take the field. And that goes against we know about professional athletes who are much more likely to put themselves in harm’s way.
I think you’re hitting it right on the head. And I think, in terms of mental illness, there’s a lot of misconceptions and a lot of fears from management about what a player will do when the illness has to be respected and supported a certain way. And that’s why everyone that I talk to in the league, in terms of management and coaches, I say, “Go talk to Coach Hoiberg [Fred Hoiberg, head coach at Iowa State] and ask how many games I missed because of anxiety. Not one. How many practices have I missed, or how many times have I missed class? Not once. But that doesn’t mean, in the interim, we don’t need a policy in place just in case. I’m not arrogant enough to say that it will never come up. Because I do know the legitimacy and the logic behind mental illness and what that means. We may never need to use it, [but] we do need a policy.
Do you think that the league’s approach to mental illness speaks to the same old macho BS that links depression with weakness, and links mental illness with not being manly? That’s the vibe I’m getting from management’s approach to this. Am I off base?
I think that we’re not giving them enough credit. I think what they do know makes what they’re not doing even more heinous. Because, I don’t think that they’re so naïve or removed that they can’t connect the dots that having mental illness isn’t not being a man. I think they get that, but I think they’re allowing the media to say those things, like “man up”. Or “you gotta tough it out.” Or, “if you can’t get on the plane then you can’t be in the league.” I think they’re allowing those things to be said in defense of themselves and not saying anything about it, which is almost just as bad.
In a lot of ways it’s worse.
It’s worse, exactly. I mean, NBA.com would even have stories that say that, writers for NBA.com. And this is the NBA, this is their subsidiary. They would say, “If he can’t fly, he should play somewhere else.” Or, this is a day and age where you have to tough it out. And we know when we’re talking about mental illness, that’s not the same as saying I have turf toe. Or I’ve got a hangnail and tough it out. And I’ve toughed out plenty of injuries, and you can go back and talk to coach Hoiberg at Iowa State. I almost dislocated my finger in the first scrimmage. And I ended up playing on a torn webbing on my hand. My toughness should never have been in question. And I don’t think it was or it is. I think that mental illness is scary for corporations because when it comes to supporting it, there’s a fundamental approach that needs to be taken because of the work that the medical field has done. Organizations like NAMI, organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health, they’ve put in the work to know how to support these things and some people don’t want to sign up for that.
Have you ever had a Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying situation where you heard that kind of weakness rhetoric from teammates?
I would say, surprisingly, no. Maybe it’s the difference between football and basketball, but the basketball players and the basketball teams I’ve played on have been nothing but supportive. Nobody on my team has ever harassed me about it. In actuality, it’s been more intrigue and curiosity, and they want to learn more, and they really compare it to themselves. I hear players all the time going, “Oh, I deal with that too. What do you think that is?” And they ask me my opinion on what they deal with. It’s a real free-flowing conversation about mental illness and the line where it’s an illness and when it’s just stress. It’s been a really great experience with the players, actually.
How big a deal amongst players do you think undiagnosed mental illness is?
Oh, it’s the greatest social issue we face in America, not just sports. Mental illness and mental health, and what it means to support it in the right way. Not just putting somebody on meds, or not just sending somebody to yoga, or just counseling, but full-spectrum support. And getting that to be the norm in every city and in every community is the biggest issue we face in society today.
You would have to think among athletes, given the pressures, mental illness is a very undiagnosed reality inside the locker room.
Well, yeah. And I think that reason is that a majority of players come from humble beginnings. And those places are where mental illness goes undiagnosed for everybody. It’s not uncommon that you would find a player that didn’t know they were dealing with mental illness. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have known myself if I hadn’t started to have panic attacks so bad that I walked into high school one day and went to the nurse’s office and said, “This is what I’m dealing with. I need anything that can alleviate these panic attacks.” And then I was introduced to a doctor who would change my life and diagnose me and get me on medication to stop panic attacks. One day goes where I decide not to go and then maybe I don’t know, and I go to the league and I self-medicate and I get drunk. I start these extreme vices, and then plus on top of that the money allows the vices to be even more extreme. And then you hear me on the news now advocating for myself and for health, you hear it because I’ve put myself in a position where now I have no leverage and I’m begging for a chance, for anything.
What are your plans now, short-term, long-term?
Well Dave, I’ve always been into business, and into my own business. I started my own company when I was in my late teens, and it continues to be my focus to grow that. I believe in humanity. Obviously, I’m a big person on humanity. I’m also very big on creativity and entertainment. I believe in craftsmanship. I also believe in the process of craft in a number of different industries. In terms of what I’ll do, I think there’s no limit. I could start to list all the things I’m doing and what I plan to do… Right on par with the conversation, we are opening one of the first free mental health clinics in the Houston area in mid-February. I’m very excited about that. I will be there on day one when it opens as well. Providing free mental health care in any community is really huge, and I’m blessed to be a part of that progress in that area.
Any last words for your last interview?
I like to say that it’s never over. And my success is far from being seen, so if you’re a fan of me, be a fan of the human Royce White and the things that I love and things that I want to do. If it so happens that mental illness has put me in a place where basketball can’t be a goal I reach, still stay tuned to the things I’m doing, I think I’m doing some good things. Other than that, read between the lines… obviously going through a lot of things with journalism, and how mental illness is being talked about and represented. Read between the lines, because it’s not just for me, not for me as a fan of Royce, read between them for yourself so that you don’t get it misrepresented what mental illness means, because it’s probably present in your life. And finally, be well, because negativity is ever-present and the only weapon against it is positivity, so be well.
Read Next: Dave Zirin writes about the link between Israel, Palestine, Pinochet and a soccer jersey.
A new sports uniform has been accused of “fomenting terrorism” as well as inspiring “violence and hatred” and no, it’s not the Knicks’ hateful new bright orange duds. The accused team is a Chilean soccer club called Palestino ( Club Deportivo Palestino) and their offense was incorporating an image of historic Palestine on their jerseys.
The controversy is, on the face, bizarre. The Seattle Seahawks have a picture of a bird on their helmets. The Denver Broncos have a horse. Of course, Palestino, an esteemed first-division club that has been around for almost a century, would picture Palestine. But, alas, in this day and age when Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are divided by a crisscross of concrete barriers, barbed wire fences and armed check points, the vision of an undivided country provokes rage among those who have a vested interest in walls.
To understand the controversy engulfing the Santiago-based soccer club, it is first worth knowing that there is no country in the Western world with a closer connection to the Palestinian territories than Chile. With over half a million residents of Palestinian origin, Chile was the primary destination for those fleeing the Middle East both before and during the wars that surrounded the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
In 1920, Palestinian émigrés started a soccer club to rally around called Palestino. (The club’s creation in 1920 is a rather inconvenient truth for a segment of Israeli hardliners who claim that a Palestinian identity did not exist until decades after Israel’s founding.)
Over the last ninety-four years, Palestino has represented the Palestinian national colors, held moments of silence during periods when the Gaza Strip was being bombed and engaged in numerous charitable efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugees. It is a team that has consciously positioned themselves over the years as a symbol of historic remembrance. In line with this history, they changed the number 1 on their uniforms to look like the shape of historic Palestine and the uniting of the current Israeli and Palestinian territories.
It is for this that the team was charged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with “fomenting terrorist intent.” Gabriel Zaliasnik, the former president of the Chilean Jewish Organization, said that the shirt incites “violence and hatred” and has pledged go to FIFA to get them banned.
In response, the most well known of Chilean soccer stars of Palestinian origin, Roberto Bishara, replied, “I hope they [leaders of the Chilean Jewish community] don’t go to FIFA because this is a question of football. So I wish that instead of worrying about a jersey, they worried about the children that die day after day in Palestine.”
Bishara is not alone. Many Chilean players of Palestinian origin have played for the Palestinian National Team and are taking this opportunity to come forward and speak about why the shirts are not only appropriate but also admirable.
Former coach of the Palestinian National Team, Nicola Hadwa Shahwan, had a letter published in the Chilean daily La Tercera. People should read the impassioned piece in its entirety. In part, it reads:
The gesture of Club Deportivo Palestino putting on its shirt the map of the country from which they come, and whose colors they defend, can only annoy those who want to appropriate the territory by force, without respecting the freedom of the people. Peace must be based on justice…. Sports, arts, culture and science are not oblivious to the reality of the people; on the contrary, they are the expression of the feelings and historical experiences of them. Therefore, Club Deportivo Palestino interprets the most sensitive feelings of the Palestinians and all who raise the banner of justice, peace and freedom…. I give my sincere congratulations and support to the club’s leadership and call sports fans to support this noble initiative.
There is another aspect to this as well, revealed to me by a Chilean colleague of Palestinian origin who asked to be referred to only as Hector. Hector said to me that sympathies to Chile’s Israeli community would be less than robust. He pointed out that the country’s dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron fist from 1973–90, bought military hardware from Israel for years, even when much of the world, particularly the Carter administration, would not sell the dictatorship weaponry and had deemed Pinochet a pariah due to his egregious human rights violations. Hector said to me, “Pinochet left power twenty years ago but his imprint is still strong. We remember who was on our side and who wasn’t. There were Jews in Chile who heroically fought the General [Pinochet] and Jews who supported him. There were also Palestinians who fought the General and also many who supported him. But there was never a question about what side Israel was on. I can’t be offended by a jersey. I’m more offended by that history.”
This is really less a fight about shirts than about memory. It is about the memory of who stood and who did not stand with Chile in their darkest moments. It is also about an aspiration among masses of Palestinian-Chileans that is not rooted in hate but in the dream that a land defined by walls could be one united country with equal rights for all. The question is less about the appropriateness of a shirt and more about why anyone would find that idea threatening.
(Thank you to Nation intern Dustin Christensen for translating several interviews for this piece.)
Read Next: how Ariel Sharon’s career affected both Israel and Palestine.
It is difficult to think of a brand that has bled out more credibility over the last six months than 60 Minutes. On Sunday night, they took a break from falsely feeding the Benghazi fever-swamps or doing infomercials for the NSA to puff-up the institutional power of Major League Baseball.
Just 24 hours after an MLB arbitrator suspended New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez for 162 games, the longest performance enhancing drug suspension in league history, there was 60 Minutes with a slickly produced package ready to air right after the NFL playoffs. Hosted by Scott Pelley, it was thirty minutes of reportage that repeatedly treated Rodriguez like an over-muscled piñata. (We will leave aside the irony of 60 Minutes waxing sanctimoniously about PEDs in baseball and using an NFL game as their own ratings "performance enhancer.")
Scott Pelley interviewed Rodriguez's alleged PED pusher Anthony Bosch who dropped piles of unsubstantiated nuggets from the silly ("Alex is afraid of needles") to the deadly serious (Bosch claims associates of Rodriguez threatened his life and he feared he “would not live to see the end of the year.”) They also spoke to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig who said of Rodriguez, "His actions were beyond comprehension and I am someone who has now been in the game for 50 years." Were Rodriguez’s actions less comprehensible than Selig’s own PED hypocrisy throughout the 1990s? “Scott," as Selig chummily called the 60 Minutes interviewer, did not ask. Instead, Rodriguez’s arbitration hearing, which was supposed to be a confidential process, was opened up for a primetime audience.
Understandably the Major League Baseball Players Association was apoplectic at this spectacle, and released a statement that said in part, "It is unfortunate that Major League Baseball apparently lacks faith in the integrity and finality of the arbitrator's decision and our Joint Drug Agreement, such that it could not resist the temptation to publicly pile-on against Alex Rodriguez. It is equally troubling that…Tony Bosch, MLB's principal witness, is appearing on the program with MLB's blessing.... As a result, the Players Association is considering all legal options available to remedy any breaches committed by MLB."
Major League Baseball, for its part, denied having any role in Bosch's decision to speak with 60 Minutes, saying, ".... he is not controlled by us and is entitled to speak however he chooses about his interactions with Mr. Rodriguez."
Considering that MLB is paying for Bosch’s legal fees, his private security, and also allegedly paid him for his testimony, this is risible. In fact Bosch's spokeswoman, yes he has a spokeswoman, said, "[Anthony Bosch] is glad to have the arbitration behind him and believes he can play a valuable role in the future by educating athletes about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs." (This statement is the polar opposite of Bosch’s own comments on 60 Minutes, which justified PED use. He said, "When you ask guys to play 100-plus games, jump on a plane, get off a plane, road trips—their bodies break down.")
Nowhere did 60 Minutes analyze or even mention the fact that Rodriguez’s suspension will mean that the powerful New York Yankees organization, much to their glee, is saving $27.5 million. Nowhere did they ask about why, if according to the Joint Drug Agreement, Rodriguez should have received 50 games for a first offense, he ended up with 162. Nowhere did they comment on Rodriguez’s own statement on Saturday, when he said in part, “This injustice is MLB’s first step toward abolishing guaranteed contracts in the 2016 bargaining round, instituting lifetime bans for single violations of drug policy, and further insulating its corrupt investigative program from any variety defense by accused players, or any variety of objective review.” Neither Selig nor MLB COO Rob Manfred, also interviewed at length, was asked about these charges.
You may have noticed that I am consciously not commenting on whether Alex Rodriguez has been a habitual user of PEDs or if Tony Bosch was in fact just a "nutritionist." I have no clue beyond what 60 Minutes has chosen to tell me. I'm also not commenting on the credibility and character of Alex Rodriguez, which, as people who live in the slums ten minutes from my house can attest, is more than lacking. I am commenting on the way 60 Minutes chooses to report a story in a fashion that the MLB Network could not have done more effectively, with the Philly Phanatic subbing in for Scott Pelley. Despite the nostalgia for the days of Mike Wallace making people sweat bullets, this is a program that has always been more comfortable on the side of the protected and the powerful. Whether its objective is to try and stoke further war in the Middle East or rehabilitate the NSA or shine up the bruised legacy of Bud Selig, 60 Minutes has now become a part of every story it covers. They say that they are just the messenger. But the messenger has now become part of the message.
Read Next: How has PED use affected the Baseball Hall of Fame voting process?
It is shooting extremely comatose fish in a barrel to trash the Baseball Writers Association of America after this week’s Hall of Fame votes were tallied. The BBWAA once again, because of the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs, kept out baseball’s all-time home run leader Barry Bonds and the greatest right-handed pitcher since integration, Roger Clemens. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza were also all Hall of Fame–caliber players of their generation shut out because of admitted, openly suspected or quietly rumored steroid use.
Meanwhile Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are in, because the voters, who one can only assume have the all-seeing powers of the blinded Cordelia on American Horror Story: Coven, were able to divine that these three were in fact “clean.” The BBWAA, relying on the “integrity” clause in the voting process have decided that “integrity” means not using PEDs during a time when Major League Baseball had no drug-testing policy and many of these same writers spent the 1990s praising people like McGwire for their “Bunyanesque” physiques.
The top baseball writers, the owners, the sports networks and the managers all were enriched by the go-go steroid ’90s and now the weight of the entire post-party hangover has fallen on the shoulders of the players. The greatest farce of all will be seeing manager Tony LaRussa become a Hall of Famer after spending a career shielding his PED-popping players and slandering the few writers, like Howard Bryant, trying to get to the bottom of the story. (The BBWAA does not vote for managers).
This has driven some of these voters to extreme acts, such as ESPN’s Dan LeBatard, who we now know is the secret sportswriter that gave his vote to the rebel sports website Deadspin. As Dan wrote and people should read his entire justification, “I feel like my vote has gotten pretty worthless in the avalanche of sanctimony that has swallowed it. I have no earthly idea if Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas did or didn’t use steroids. I think I understand why the steroid guys were the steroid guys in this competition-aholic culture. I hate all the moralizing we do in sports in general, but I especially hate the hypocrisy in this: many of the gatekeeper voters denying Barry Bonds Hall Of Fame entry would have they themselves taken a magical, healing, not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs, especially if lesser talents were getting the glory and money. Lord knows I’d take the elixir for our ESPN2 TV show if I could.”
This led to some “ESPN on ESPN violence,” as Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon of the show Pardon the Interruption took turns pummeling LeBatard and dropping cubic zirconia gems that should be quoted back to them for years like, “There’s nothing more democratic than the Baseball Hall of Fame vote” (Kornheiser), “Don’t tell me that the process is flawed” (Wilbon) and my personal favorite from Kornheiser, “”I know [Dan] believes in anarchy. But this is not the set of the Big Lebowski” (to a Lebowski fan, that previous statement makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I suppose he meant nihilists, but anarchists have an ethos).
Kornheiser and Wilbon aside, even the BBWAA’s greatest defenders admit there are tremendous flaws in the voting process. There are too many voters who no longer watch games, too many experts who are not allowed to vote, and too many like LeBatard, who—as he fully admits—have no idea what they're doing.
What gets lost, however, in the slings and arrows we gleefully toss at the BBWAA is why so many in the organization have taken this position to leave out the players with even a hint of PED scandal attached to their names. Having interviewed more than a few of these voters, it should be noted that they vote the way they do because they feel like they don’t have a choice. They believe that Major League Baseball and Bud Selig dropped the ball so egregiously in the 1990s, creating a hypocritical moral swamp, that they are the last group of people who can do anything to provide some kind of clarity to the era. I disagree with their reasoning, but it is a rationale that actually is rational. It is certainly more rational than finding a place in Cooperstown for Tony LaRussa, while his own players like McGwire need a ticket to get inside. I wish people taking their potshots at the BBWAA would reserve 99 percent of their ire for Bud Selig. For that matter, I wish members of the BBWAA were more public with their disgust for Selig and everything he has done to create this collateral damage across baseball’s history. That would be a profoundly more principled and more honest take.
As for the Hall, I personally believe that if we remember the 1990s as the “PED era,” then the best players of that era should be enshrined. The “whites-only era,” the “spitball era,” the “dead-ball era,” the “greenies era,” all are represented at the Hall of Fame. If a player like McGwire came up dirty, put it on his plaque. Don’t whitewash the history, but don’t eradicate it either. Don’t exclude undeniably epic athletes. That takes us to Barry Bonds. Bonds is the greatest player I have ever had the privilege to see, someone for whom I would arrive early to watch take batting practice. A Baseball Hall of Fame without him is, for my money, not worth its name. Someday, without question, Selig himself will be inducted, while Bonds remains with his face pressed up against the glass. At that point, they may as well just padlock the doors to Cooperstown and turn it into what it is slowly becoming: a restricted country club that celebrates the power of the few over the aspirations and memories of the many.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the racism behind the “Seminoles” and the “Redskins.”