Where sports and politics collide.
The latest iteration of America’s favorite reality show, The NFL Has No Clothes, is taking place in Minnesota, where the Vikings have flipped and flopped and now flipped again on whether to suspend star running back Adrian Peterson, who has been indicted on child-abuse charges. Given the dynamics of this story, it seemed to make sense for me to talk to former NFL player Walter Beach. Walter is more than just the former starting defensive back for the 1964 Cleveland Browns. He also worked as a child welfare case worker in New York City after the end of his playing days.
Walter said to me, “This is not about child abuse. This is not about child endangerment. This is not about whether what Adrian Peterson did rises to the level of what we would call ‘imminent danger,’ which is the standard we would use when assessing whether or not to take the child out of the home. That is an issue for the courts. For the NFL, this is about public relations. They aren’t going to stop child abuse. They don’t care about anything but the money. It’s hollow…. What the Vikings did won’t save one child, but they think it’ll keep their angry sponsors from leaving.”
How could anyone disagree with Walter Beach, given the ways in which the Vikings have twisted and turned on Peterson’s case. The Radisson Hotel and Nike furrowed their brows and the Vikings leadership fell to their knees. The most egregious statement in this entire ordeal was by team owner Zygi Wilf.
Wilf said, “We made a mistake and we needed to get this right. It is important to always listen to our fans, the community and our sponsors.”
First of all, Mr. Wilf has been officially convicted on civil racketeering charges in the state of New Jersey. He is currently appealing a ruling where he and two family members have to pay $100 million to the people they wronged.
One wonders where he gets the chutzpah to be on any kind of a moral high horse, and one wonders why he is not currently suspended for violating the league’s “personal conduct policy.”
One also wonders where Mr. Wilf was in caring about the will of “the community” when he was threatening to move the team to Los Angeles, San Diego or some other parts unknown unless the cash-strapped state gave him $1 billion in public funds to build a new stadium.
Once all of the construction dust and piety has cleared, this is where the NFL is left. If you want to understand why the Vikings have flip-flopped so dramatically on whether or not Peterson is on the team, you can start with the $1 billion eyesore currently being developed in the middle of the great city of Minneapolis. First, the Vikings felt a tremendous pressure to suspend Peterson following the outcry over the way Ray Rice’s suspension was handled. Then, after their terrible Sunday defeat to the New England Patriots and fears about another lost season in Minnesota, they reactivated Peterson. And then the sponsors started to itch, and the next thing you know, Peterson once again is on the outside looking in. This is not a personal conduct policy. It is an amateurish, pandering and altogether odious exercise in public relations.
The real issue is not whether the NFL should have a policy where players are suspended at the mere allegation of impropriety or whether the call should be for the criminal and family courts to do their jobs and for the NFL to mind its own damn business. The problem is that there is no rhyme or reason for anything that Roger Goodell and the National Football League ownership cabal does. They always talk about protecting the shield. But all they really do is hide behind the shield, careening from one public relations disaster to the next. Roger Goodell and the National Football League need to jettison this personal-conduct-policy nonsense and sit down with the union to collectively bargain some system of dealing with off-field issues. No one should have any confidence that this is a job Roger Goodell and the owners can handle. They have no credibility with players, little credibility with fans and diminishing credibility with sponsors. It’s the restlessness of that last group which really makes those in the owners box sweat blood.
Roger Goodell has no place as commissioner of the National Football League. He is an amoral cover-up artist whose concerns—in the wake of the Ray Rice/Janay Rice video scandal—have been revealed as limited to profits and public relations. He is like the collective test-tube baby of the league’s ownership, a man who started working for the NFL over thirty years ago and has grown into adulthood as a crystallized reflection of their priorities.
For too long, and with much media burnishing, Goodell has played the role of “the Hammer,” the tough guy who will suspend and discipline players, all in the name of policing their “personal conduct.” His aphorisms, once the stuff of legend, are now the shovels being used to rightly bury his tenure in office. Oft-repeated phrases such as “Ignorance is never an excuse” and “My only responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Shield” are now apt justifications for him to leave. This tough demeanor now stands exposed as just another act of public relations, assuaging the public that, in a league 70 percent African-American, to have no fear because Commissioner Kipling is in control, civilizing his charges. He has played the “Mr. Drummond role” to the understandable chagrin of the players, and their public glee at his recent squirming is reason enough to show him the door.
Domestic violence has always been the exception to Goodell’s law-and-order reign. Public relations, along with a hyper-toxic masculinist culture, has made this the NFL way for decades, and Goodell has dutifully carried that tradition forward. During his tenure, fifty-six players were arrested on domestic violence charges, and have been suspended for a combined thirteen games. In the first fifty-five cases not caught on videotape, few noticed that this was happening, and Roger Goodell was only too happy to look the other way.
There is a certain justice to the fact that it was people actually witnessing a shocking video of domestic violence with their own eyes that could lead to his downfall. So much of Goodell’s job description involves keeping people from thinking about how the NFL sausages are made. Whether the issue was head injuries or pain killer addiction, his job has been to either cover it up or make people believe that the league is “dealing with the problem.” Now the public has had two sobering weeks to taste the nitrates and hog anuses that comprise how NFL business is handled, and it is appalled. It’s been an up-close and personal view at how Commissioner Accountability pushes domestic violence under the carpet. Goodell, that master of public relations, has become a PR liability and has got to go. (His loudest supporter in the ranks of ownership is the reptilian boss in Washington, Dan Snyder. This is because Goodell backs Snyder’s use of a slur as a team name. The commissioner does this while enacting penalties for players who use slurs on the field. That’s so Roger!) But chanting “Goodell Must Go” is the easy part. A tougher task would involve exerting public pressure to get an anti-Goodell as the next commissioner.
Yes, so many of the game’s moral failings—the assembly-line creation of head injuries, for one —will endure no matter who runs the show. This sport is a dangerous, violent occupation, and any effort to pretend that it isn’t just brings us back into Goodell’s relativist, PR-driven hell. But there is also so much that the league can do. They can set up institutions and avenues so survivors of domestic violence can come forward in confidentiality. They can offer health care for life so players aren’t bankrupted as they hit middle age. It can cease being a sponge of corporate welfare and pay for its own damn stadiums. It can stop offering corporate cover for Dan Snyder’s monetized racism. Few, if any, NFL owners want any of the above, of course. That will require a bionic form of public pressure. It will also require an attention span that sports fans, not to mention the sports media, often lack. Almost certainly, if Goodell goes, Condoleezza Rice will probably be begged to take the gig. That would be a cynical end to the ugly chapter Goodell has written. Any hope for actual substantive change would smolder in ruins, in a mushroom cloud, if you will.
Here is a different ending: hire co-commissioners. Hire former NFL player Don McPherson and the first woman to score a point in an NCAA Division I football game, Katie Hnida. They should be hired not because of their football résumés but because Hnida and McPherson are two forward-thinking, whip-smart critics whose perspective on the sport starts from inside the locker room. Both are veterans of the football world who have devoted their public lives to raising consciousness on gender equity and violence against women in and out of the athletic industrial complex. Both would start their first day in office thinking about how the sport can use its massive cultural platform to do the most good and the least amount of harm. For what it’s worth, I have heard from both Ms. Hnida and Mr. McPherson over Twitter, and both, if asked, would serve.
Tragically, I don’t think this will ever happen. But if these two remarkable people were tapped to lead, it would be the first NFL move in a long time that wouldn’t make us feel like we need to shower with steel wool as penance for the blissful escapism that the league supplies. The sport has more money than it could ever spend. It is, as one TV executive said to me, “the tent pole holding up broadcast television in 2014.” Let Commissioners Hnida and McPherson lead the NFL to a new day, where domestic violence is confronted, not covered up, and wearing a hometown jersey is a source of pride, not shame. We can try and fight for this. But step one is that Goodell must go.
The pregame program of the profoundly awkward Thursday night CBS game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens was on a toboggan ride toward collective mortification. An NFL reeling from the revealed reality that it cares nothing about domestic violence—or women at all beyond their capacity to buy its crap—was in a drowning death grip with a CBS network that had spent billions on its new Thursday night NFL package. On the day of the broadcast, CBS realized that having a pregame video of Rihanna, who before this week could safely be called the most well-known domestic violence survivor on the planet, did not seem like the best of ideas. The network also belatedly came to understand that it could not just light some fireworks and pretend this was business as usual, not when Jon Stewart, gesturing for so many of us, took time Wednesday night to give the league a one-finger salute. Not when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was continuing in real time to drown in lies about what he knew and when he knew it.
So CBS responded to the mushrooming scandal by putting on its “Bizarro Olivia Pope” hat and revamped the entire operation. Struck from the set was the Rihanna opener. Smashed to smithereens was the pomp and fireworks. Instead, CBS presented an awkward, hybrid news/sports/entertainment set featuring respected members of its news division alongside the CBS and NFL Network jockocracy. “Norah O’Donnell and Deion Sanders break down domestic violence, only on CBS!” Clearly the golden goose had to be saved. All hands were on deck, and any pretense of a separation between CBS’ news and entertainment wings, or between CBS and the NFL, were out the window.
Instead, we had Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti speaking about this being “a seminal moment for domestic violence” and a series of pregame news reports about the “sobriety” of this moment. The method was obvious: if CBS and the NFL—together!—could show that they take domestic violence seriously, then fans could exhale and, having its guilt at watching Goodell’s league expiated, sit back to enjoy the commodified violence on the field of play. It was just “Are you ready for some football?” except instead of Hank Williams Jr., Scott Pelley was on hand to get us in the mood. The entire operation felt about as sincere as Roger Goodell’s “independent” investigation into whether the NFL had seen the tape of Ray Rice removing his then-fiancée Janay from consciousness.
Then James Brown, the longtime anchor of CBS NFL coverage, actually brought something of profound value to the proceedings. Speaking directly to the camera, Brown said the following. (You are going to want to reread this and share it as widely as possible.)
Two years ago I challenged the NFL community and all men to seriously confront the problem of domestic violence, especially coming on the heels of the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins. Yet, here we are again dealing with the same issue of violence against women.
Now let’s be clear, this problem is bigger than football. There has been, appropriately so, intense and widespread outrage following the release of the video showing what happened inside the elevator at the casino. But wouldn’t it be productive if this collective outrage, as my colleagues have said, could be channeled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women? And as they said, do something about it? Like an ongoing education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.
And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘You throw the ball like a girl’ or ‘You’re a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion. Women have been at the forefront in the domestic violence awareness and prevention arena. And whether Janay Rice considers herself a victim or not, millions of women in this country are.
Consider this: according to domestic violence experts, more than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners. That means that since the night February 15th in Atlantic City [when the elevator incident occurred], more than 600 women have died.
So this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds and as Deion [Sanders] says to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.
Damn. Thank you, James Brown. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for using your platform for some good. The historian Howard Zinn famously once said, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” There is also no “internal investigation” deep enough, no pregame show somber enough, no press conference emotional enough, to cover the shame of how the the culture of the NFL has enabled violence against women both inside and outside the league. There are many roads that lead toward ending domestic violence: fighting poverty, creating more resources for survivors and building a less degrading society are all imperatives. But in addition to that, domestic violence will never end until men see it as both a political principle and a moral imperative to stand up and say, “No more.” In front of an audience of millions, James Brown has officially launched that conversation.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the beginning of the end for Roger Goodell
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s father was a senator from the great state of New York. A liberal Republican (those existed then) he spoke out against the Vietnam War, sponsoring the first bill to defund the carnage in 1970, earning “the wrath of Richard Nixon.” The response to Senator Goodell by Nixon was so unhinged that looking back it was a sign of the paranoia, the enemies lists, and the secret recordings that eventually did Nixon in. Now the younger Goodell, like his father’s nemesis, can see all of his power and privilege crashing down over a tape.
Roger Goodell, the most powerful man in the Sports World, is now officially fighting for his professional life following a report from the Associated Press that the league did in fact have a copy of the videotape, now public to the world, of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, into unconsciousness. The $40 million-a-year man has spent the last several days answering questions about whether or not he or anyone in the NFL executive suites actually saw the footage before issuing the now infamous two-game suspension to Rice. His answer has consistently been that no one saw the tape. The official statement from the NFL as reported by MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes was as follows: “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident including the video from inside the elevator. That video is not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.” There is no wiggle room, no equivocation, with this statement. But only media members who seem to live to feel the warmth of Roger Goodell’s glow have been buying this steaming pile of sanctimonious tripe.
The reasons for widespread skepticism were abundant. Given that the NFL security staff includes former members of the FBI and Secret Service amongst their ranks, given that the NFL was in regular contact with law enforcement officials in New Jersey after the assault, and given that the NFL is profoundly image-conscious and routinely does the most invasive possible deep dives into the personal lives of their employees, it strained credulity that they never had seen the tape before it was released. Now the strained credulity has officially snapped. A law enforcement official has gone to the AP to say that he sent an NFL executive this video five months ago. This official played the AP a voicemail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming that the video had made it to their offices. As the AP reported, “A female voice expressed her thanks and says ‘you’re right it’s terrible ‘”
Within minutes of the AP report, the NFL chose to double down. They released the following statement in response. “We have no knowledge of this. We are not aware of anyone in our office who possessed or saw the video before it was made public on Monday. We will look into it.”
My belief from the beginning of this ordeal has been that the only way Goodell is forced out of office is if the owners decide he has become bad for business. His tenure has been rife with scandal and incompetence, yet he has grown in stature because the profit margins of the league are unmatched. He has benefited from the simple fact that when the glorious game starts, a narcotic perfume drowns the stench. But there is no covering up this particular odor. Week one of the NFL season just ended and all everyone is talking about, other than at the NFL’s own house network, is domestic violence and what Roger Goodell knew and when he knew it. The question is not “Who can challenge the Seattle Seahawks for NFL supremacy?” The question is, “Did Goodell see the tape?” Goodell loves talking about “responsibility” and “accountability.” He will be held to account. If there is tangible evidence he is hurting the owners” bottom line, they will coldly dispatch him like he was a seventh-round draft pick getting cut from training camp. They might anyway. If the NFL really wants to send a message that violence against women will not be tolerated, then they can at long last fire someone who either was so incompetent he did not seek out footage of Ray Rice’s violence against Janay Rice, or so venal, he saw it and did not care. Either way, one thing is without a doubt: we have a commissioner who did not think the substance of what took place in that elevator mattered until it became a crisis of public relations.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the revictimizing of Janay Rice
The video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice brutally striking and dragging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator raises the question: Does professional sports have a domestic violence problem? Appearing on Democracy Now! this morning, Dave Zirin explained that the NFL has a history of condoning domestic violence, and that Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension was treated as “a public relations crisis, not as a crisis about the ways in which the violence of the game spills over into people’s families.”
I was listening to a nationally syndicated sports radio show this morning about the release of the Ray Rice videotape that shows the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking his then-fiancée Janay unconscious in a casino elevator. We, the public, already knew this had taken place. We, the public, already knew Rice had been suspended for a much-criticized two games. We, the public, had not seen the actual physical blow that removed Janay Rice from her conscious self. Now we had, and the fallout was clearly going to be extreme.
The radio hosts posed question after question: What will the NFL do now that the tape has been released? How will the Ravens organization react to this? (Now we know. The Ravens have released Ray Rice.) How will the Baltimore fans who’ve been cheering Ray Rice respond? How will the media—oh, the poor media!—react to having perhaps been lied to about whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had seen the videotape?
The one question they did not glaringly ask is, How will Janay Rice react to the release of the tape? The absence of concern for Janay Rice—in the press, on social media, among my own colleagues—is the most disheartening part of this entire ordeal.
No one cares that she is now going to have to relive this incident over and over again. No one cares that the world has now become privy to what may be the most humiliating moment of her entire life. No one cares that she’s basically now being used as a soapbox with otherwise apolitical NFL commentators using her prone body to get on their high horse and safely blast the league. There is video, and those who never raised their voice publicly about the axis of domestic violence and the NFL before are now bellowing the loudest.
ESPN “NFL insider” Adam Schefter was enraged and called the entire situation “the biggest black eye in league history.” Unfortunate phrasing aside, even the statement speaks volumes. What about every other act of domestic violence in league history that wasn’t caught on videotape? What about the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher two seasons ago actually killing the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life? Why are these actions seen as less of a black eye? The answer, of course, is that this one was caught on videotape. In other words, it damages the league’s public relations. In other words, this is—again—not about Janay Rice. It is about the well-being of the league.
So if no one is going to talk about the welfare of the person who is actually subjected to the violence on that tape, let’s talk about it here. I spent the morning communicating with people who work on issues involving domestic violence and violence against women nearly every day of their lives. They all said the same thing, without dissent: releasing this tape to the world is incredibly damaging to Janay Rice. Just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly. If Janay Rice wanted to show this tape to the world, in other words if she had offered her consent, that is a different matter. But showing and reshowing it just because we can is an act of harm.
Tragically, it seems—especially judging by my Twitter feed—that very few people agree with this sentiment. Their belief—and to be frank, this is shared by a lot of people whom I respect—is that seeing the video will shock people, advance the conversation and force action. Even some of the same people saying that nude photo hacks shouldn’t be clicked on are saying people have an obligation to bear witness to what Rice did.
I have serious doubts about this. If you were outraged by violence against women before, will seeing this video really change your mind? If you are not outraged by violence against women, does this video actually make a damn bit of difference? My fear, and this happens whenever you have videos that spark outrage until the next new cycle, is that all it will provoke are the kinds of reactions that don’t necessarily help anybody, least of all the victims. I hear influential people like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg asking the question, “Why isn’t Ray Rice in prison?”
There is no thought given to restorative justice. Only how do we further punish, impoverish and crowd our prisons. As for Janay Rice, she has of course been standing with Ray Rice, even marrying him after the incident. I have no doubt that there are issues there, but they become our damn business only if Janay Rice wants them to be our damn business. I will ask again: What does Janay Rice want, and shouldn’t that matter? If it doesn’t matter, all we are doing is re-victimizing this person one click at a time.
Janay Rice has released a statement on her instagram account about the last 24 hours. She comments on both the release of her husband from the Baltimore Ravens as well on seeing her abuse played and replayed on a loop. People will surely pick her statement apart and make all kinds of judgments about her state of mind in making this statement. They shouldn't. I would ask that people just read it, without analyzing it as if we are all now experts on domestic violence as well as having some kind of voyeuristic insight on the lives of two individuals many had not even heard of 24 hours ago.
"I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I'm mourning the death of my closest friend. But you have to accept the fact that reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted [opinions] from the public has cause my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don't you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow and show the world what real love is! Ravens nation we love you!"
There is another post afterwards that simply reads, "Hurt beyond words."
People by now have surely seen the video. Any site that actually cares about violence against women more than page clicks should take the damn thing down.
I really hope there is an “Edward Snowden” in the office of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. I really hope there is someone with a computer and a conscience who can tell us how the Atlanta Hawks franchise has come to be placed on the auction block. If you have missed the story, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has “self-reported” a 2012 e-mail detailing the tragedy of how there are too many black fans at Atlanta’s home games. He posits that the hip-hop music, the number of black cheerleaders and the “too black” kiss cam is keeping “40 year old white guys” away from the arena. Chastened by his memory of the e-mail, we now hear, Levenson has sent it to the commissioner and agreed to sell the franchise.
If you believe this story, then you might also think that Daniel Snyder just started practicing Native American philanthropy out of the goodness of his heart. There are really only two scenarios that make sense. The first is that, following the expulsion of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racism went audio, owners are vulnerable. This e-mail was going to leak, and rather than deal with the firestorm, Levenson is getting out in the off-season.
The second is just a tad more cynical: the Sterling Family Trust just sold the Clippers for 2.4 billion bucks. Levenson has wanted to unload this team for years, even selling it in 2011, only to have the league void the sale. Now, in the wake of the owner-friendly 2011 collective bargaining agreement, NBA teams have seen their values skyrocket. The sorry Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million earlier this year and Mavs owner Mark Cuban called this “a bargain.” Levenson gets a world of negative publicity, but his e-mail, which includes critiques of Southern whites’ “racist garbage” is ambiguous enough that it’s hardly a Don Sterling or Jimmy the Greek level of nuclear racist invective. In other words, he will still get invited to all the parties. He also probably spurs an NBA sponsored bidding war for his franchise. Maybe some owners think racism can be the new stock speculation, bringing publicity and putting air into the league’s financial bubble.
Either way, the NBA will help him because Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green. (Recommended here: David Leonard’s book After Artest: the NBA and the Assault on Blackness about the sport’s racial agenda in this era).
Levenson expressed those anxieties as clear as day. The most revealing and disturbing part of his e-mail is how many people with whom I have spoken find it to be defensible. This is not only because Levenson also blasts the “racist garbage” of white fans avoiding the team. It is apparently defensible because it is so transparently obvious that this is how the NBA has approached their business for decades. After all, does anyone honestly think that racial calculations were never discussed when Warriors owner Joe Lacob orchestrated his team’s move from Oakland to San Francisco or when the Nets relocated from Jersey to gentrifying Brooklyn? But to defend Levenson on that basis, while accurate, misses the larger point. It is a problem that this has been the NBA’s business plan for thirty-five years. To see it written out is to see in stark terms not just the reality of how owners talk about racial issues related to their business but also to how racism is actually organized in corporate circles.
Please read the entire e-mail. It’s fascinating (spelling errors aside). But here are a couple pertinent passages:
[W]hen digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games.…
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around [the arena] yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleader…, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy… i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”
There is more, but that is the section that demands reading and rereading. This is not just a “random Caucasian” spouting his racial theories, complaining that there is too much hippety hop at the games. This is a powerful CEO with the power to put flesh and bone on those ideas: to give away fewer tickets to poor black kids (something he complains about earlier in the e-mail), to fire cheerleaders who are too black, to make the game prohibitive economically or just unwelcoming to a black audience. Or put another way, to give it “red state appeal.” The fact that the NBA operates this way should not excuse Levenson. Instead, it should shine a spotlight on how widespread this kind of thinking has been in the league’s corporate offices. It should also remind us that racism is often a financial and institutional imperative.
“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”—Arundhati Roy
We don’t normally put “ESPN broadcaster” and “civil resistance” in the same sentence, but that is exactly what is happening at the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports. A group of high-profile broadcasters and reporters are saying that they will heed the requests of Native American tribal councils over the dictates of the National Football League and refuse to say the racial slur that brands the Washington football team.
Now we have ESPN’s Tom Jackson, Lindsay Czarniak, Keith Olbermann, Lisa Salters and even Mike Tirico, the play-by-play voice of its top-rated Monday Night Football, who have said that they either will not use the name or, in Tirico’s case, will use it as little as possible. (Czarniak, who comes from the DMV and was a local sportscaster, is a particularly powerful name on this list. As she said to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitch, “I prefer not to use the name. If it is offensive to someone and if we know that, that’s all we need to know.”) To this I would add what may be the best article I have ever read about the need to change the name by veteran sportswriter Steve Wulf, which just happened to appear on ESPN.com.
Another act of quiet civil resistance is seen in what has happened to the franchise’s merchandise revenue. The months leading up to the NFL season usually mean a spike in sales in their assorted brands. The league as a whole saw a modest 3 percent rise in this revenue during the last financial quarter. Not great, but hardly a crisis. Washington’s sales? They plummeted 35 percent. In an NFL that pools its merchandizing money, this could mean pressure on Dan Snyder to change the name from the one group he’s always had in his corner: other owners.
Not surprisingly the person hired to clean up behind team owner Dan Snyder, team spokesperson Tony Wylee, got out his burgundy-and-gold shovel and said it had nothing to do with people’s not wanting to wear something increasingly identified as “racist.” He said to CNN, “Unfortunately, team performance on the field is a major factor in the apparel business, and a 3-13 season doesn’t do much to help sales. However, we are working hard to improve that record and we look forward to the season opener this weekend.”
There are two rather glaring problems with this argument. First of all, the team has been largely terrible for the last twenty-two years, making the playoffs only four times, without its merchandise sales dropping 35 percent. In fact, the brand was so powerful, it was always one of the top sellers in the NFL despite the mediocre on-field product. Second, if the team does “turn it around” and advance deep into the playoffs, it will only bring more publicity, more protest, more pressure and more opportunities for Dan Snyder to be on camera. The bright lights are simply not his friend. In Washington, DC, a football town if there ever was one, not buying the jersey, refusing to fly the flag from your car and basically not being an unpaid advertiser for this brand constitutes an act of civil resistance.
Like many people in this area, I have cheered for this team. I also once had a gig analyzing games as a fill-in anchor on Comcast Sports Net and never gave a great deal of thought or inquiry into the history of the name or how it affects people in the twenty-first century. I started looking into it more after a young girl of Native American ancestry saw the logo on a media folder in my bag and asked me fearfully why “the man’s head had been chopped off.” To paraphrase Arundhati Roy, once you know the history and hear the voices of those who have to live with the way these images define their lives and their place in this country, it is extremely difficult to pretend you haven’t. Or as Cris Collinsworth, the NBC football analyst, said last October, “I have to admit, as I was watching the game Sunday night and I was saying the word Redskins, in my brain it was coming out red skin. And there was something about that that just didn’t feel right.” Dan Snyder is wrong. The truth, despite what he says, is not on his side. Despite his belligerence, he will lose. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
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Six hours after I published the below piece on Michael Sam, the Dallas Cowboys announced that they would in fact sign the co-SEC defensive player of the year to their practice squad. This was a relief to everyone who believed that Michael Sam—on merit—had earned a place in the National Football League with his stellar pre-season performance for the St. Louis Rams.
It was also a relief given what I wrote in the below article: that the hobgoblins of homophobia seemed to be preventing Sam from getting an opportunity. Under the code word of “distraction”—the distraction being his sexuality—Sam was being denied a place on an NFL roster. Given the endless actual “distractions” belched into the culture from the pro football—from brain damage to racist mascots to domestic violence—one didn’t know whether the "distraction" fears of general managers was an outrage or a farce.
While it is a relief that Sam will get his chance, it is also a thrill that he is landing with the Dallas Cowboys for a series of reasons. Unlike the St. Louis Rams, the Cowboys are decimated on defense so Sam will actually get something that would have been difficult to find in St. Louis: the opportunity to play. In addition, Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is respected as someone who knows how to get the most out of players with Sam’s ability to get downfield and pressure the quarterback. Then there is the city of Dallas itself. Contrary to stereotypes people may have about Texas, Dallas is home to a significant community of LGBT individuals and allies. The city’s elected Sheriff is a gay Latina, Lupe Valdez. Sam could play anywhere, but it is good to know that his new city would be place where he could find support. That gets to the last reason why Dallas is such a quality landing spot for Sam: he is from Texas. Michael Sam has come home. In a sport practically defined by bad news this offseason, Michael Sam actually gives many people a sense of hope. If the people in Roger Goodell’s office did not realize this before, they certainly do now.
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The tweet sent by one of my favorite football writers, Mike Freeman speaks volumes: “GM tells me: ‘Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.’ To me, that’s cowardice. But that’s just me.” It is not just you, Mike. This is cowardice writ large: risk-averse corporate executives unwilling to improve their team because they fear that the “distraction” of openly gay linebacker Michael Sam is not worth the effort.
For those unaware of the latest news, Michael Sam was among the last cuts of the St. Louis Rams. Despite a stellar preseason where he was among the team leaders in sacks, tackles and snaps. Sam found himself on the outside when the final roster was announced. This in and of itself was not surprising. In a league where pass-rushers are a premium, St. Louis has perhaps the deepest crew of quarterback sackers and run stoppers in the NFL. This made their original drafting of Sam somewhat curious, and it was always unclear how he would in fact make the team. Given Sam’s terrific preseason, though, football scribes took to Twitter and assured the public that Sam would be signed by another team, or at the very least, assigned to the Rams ten-person practice squad. Implicit in these tweets, whether the writers intended this or not, is the NFL’s most treasured public relations point: this is a league that cares about winning above all else, and Michael Sam, who more than proved himself this preseason, would find himself a home.
Now we know that, as of today, Sam was not signed to the Rams practice squad and furthermore has drawn no interest from the dozen or so teams desperate for edge rushers that also run defensive schemes suited to his skills. The 2014 co-SEC defensive player of the year, who just rocked the preseason, is officially on the outside looking in.
Peter King, the senior football writer for Sports Illustrated echoed Mike Freeman’s point about why this was the case, albeit without Freeman’s direct moral judgment. King wrote, “I talked to three [NFL] team architects over the weekend. They’re concerned about the circus coming to town with the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster.”
Just look at the language employed by King, because it’s language that meshes together to form a bucket to carry public relations water for the league. NFL executives, you see, are “architects” conjuring for the mind, as George Costanza could tell you, a respectable individual sitting behind a desk, coolly calculating what is in the best interests of his organization. An architect is solemn, constructing something built to last that is of value to a community. Irrationalities like “prejudice” and “gay panic” never enter the thought process, not when you are building the football equivalent of the new wing at the Guggenheim. Michael Sam, meanwhile, and the media who care about his journey constitute a “circus.” What could possibly be less serious and more frivolous than a circus? For that matter what could possibly be less “manly” than a circus? A drag show, perhaps? (To Peter King’s credit, he did write two lines about why Sam is not the “circus” that GM’s believe him to be, as if that is a rational debate.)
The very language that Michael Sam is a “distraction”—which Freeman is one of the few to have the courage to call out—is a way to project and justify one’s own bigotry. Michael Sam is not a distraction. A “distraction” is when a team invites HBO’s Hard Knocks into its locker room. A “distraction” is when an owner proudly and loudly defends a racial slur on national television. A “distraction” is when a player commits a crime like spousal abuse and is then aggressively defended by his organization like all he did was chew gum in class. To equate being open about one’s sexuality and then just playing football (no Oprah reality shows, no special interviews) with being this kind of “distraction” is to traffic in rank prejudice. Once again, to say otherwise, is to practice public relations.
Some argue that teams are not homophobic but it is the media that is in fact to blame because they have created the “Michael Sam circus.” Yes, it is certainly true that there hasn’t been a late-round draft pick to garner this kind of attention, but the interest in Sam is not a media creation. It’s a popular upsurge. Michael Sam has the sixth top selling jersey of 2014 (and you better believe, the NFL is not returning that money). Among draftees, his jersey sales are second only to the phenom that is Johnny Manziel. For people who recognize the ways in which sports has been used to sanctify homophobia, his emergence was a revelation: the hope that the “last closet” could finally be breached. Maybe all of the old tropes like “gays in the shower”, the bricks and mortar that keeps gay athletes in the closet, could finally become a memory. Perhaps Michael Sam would destroy stereotypes and make some history. The hope is that he still can. Maybe Sam plays in Canada next year. Maybe a team does step up and say that on merit, he deserves a chance. However the Michael Sam saga ends, let us please stop acting like the NFL is a hermetically sealed homophobia-free zone. Selling that lie is, frankly, not just bad journalism. It’s a distraction.
Read Next: Dave Zirin questions the NFL’s “commitment” to being a force against domestic violence.
Before we discuss the content of the NFL’s new guidelines relating to domestic violence, let’s be clear: the NFL has about as much of a commitment to do something about violence against women as British Petroleum—or is it Beyond Petroleum—has to cleaning up the environment.
Both are multibillion-dollar corporations with one job and one job only, and that is to maximize their bottom line. Sometimes that project demands acknowledging public relations nightmares, especially when consumers recoil in horror.
Just as British Petroleum invested millions in green technologies and environmental cleanups after the seething outrage that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the NFL found itself embroiled in a public relations disaster after suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games following release of a video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer by her hair out of a hotel elevator.
This week, there was a near-universal outcry that the NFL’s moral compass was disturbingly out of whack and the organization was behaving like a proudly belligerent totem of misogyny, as Brandon Meriweather was suspended for two games for an on-field hit, and Josh Gordon received a year’s suspension for allegedly smoking weed.
The din coupled with the PR hit was too much for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to stomach, and he admitted as much in his statement outlining the league’s new policies, saying, “My disciplinary decision [regarding Ray Rice] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”
There was no such statement after Kasandra Perkins was killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who then took his life in front of his coach. Instead, the game went on as planned. The outcry from the media after that in-season tragedy was mild. The only person among the NFL’s sports media partners to even speak about it politically was Bob Costas, who turned the focus to gun access and not violence against women. That was brave, as the backlash against him demonstrated. It was also a wasted opportunity.
Now, because there is an uproar about Ray Rice in the dog days of summer, without the distraction of actual games, the league realized it was paying a price, and Goodell is attempting to use his unparalleled public relations machine to reclaim something the Ray Rice decision cost him: a moral high ground as the Great White Father committed to disciplining his unruly charges and armed with ownership over every aspect of their personal lives.
Under the leadership of Goodell, as Aaron Gordon has written brilliantly, the NFL has attempted to market itself not only as a corporation, not only as a sport, but as a moral force: an institution to provide ethical guidance for us all. But taking moral guidance from the NFL is like being lectured about diplomacy by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a commissioner who talks on and on about his concern for the health and safety of players, while trying to extend the season to eighteen games. This is a commissioner who has pledged to penalize players for using on-field slurs, yet defends the name of one of his billion-dollar brands, a dictionary-defined slur. This is a commissioner who talks about how much the NFL cares about communities, while demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for billionaires, as meanwhile our schools and hospitals remain in disrepair. This is a commissioner desperate to increase his market share among women football fans and who believes that coming down hard on domestic violence is the way to do it.
As for the plan itself, the best part, as Jessica Luther expressed, is that the NFL has pledged to spend much more time and energy at rookie and player orientations to actually discuss domestic violence. This is important. I’ve been to rookie orientation sessions, and when women are discussed, if discussed at all, they are talked about as people whom players should look at as predators trying to get pregnant or always ready to falsely accuse players of sexual assault. The discussions are how to avoid such situations. Any efforts to discuss women with young players as actual human beings should be welcomed. Luther talks about other initiatives aimed at education and awareness, which hopefully will actually be implemented.
But the section of the new conduct policy that is far more problematic is what we could call the carceral part. Roger Goodell has decided to place the passing of judgment of domestic violence completely under his own power as commissioner without any input from the NFL Players Association. It now resides beneath the umbrella of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That means Goodell has total control as judge, jury and executioner over punishment on the basis of his assessment of what happened in a family’s personal life.
He has pledged to suspend players on a first offense for six games and then give them as much as a lifetime ban for a second infraction. Under the personal conduct policy, he can do this in advance of any trial or any sort of anything in a court of law.
These kinds of punishments could very well serve to discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward, because of the price that could potentially be paid by having their partner lose their career. Anything that discourages a process where women can turn to the league in confidentiality for legal help or guidance is simply wrong.
In other words, it is missing any concept of “restorative justice”: the idea that solutions to domestic violence may require approaches that don’t reside in the punitive, or in harming the economic lives of the women and children in danger.
There is also nothing in the plan that addresses one of the uglier parts of the Ray Rice fiasco: the ways the Baltimore Ravens media machine defended and protected Rice with a big “no big deal” as the team response. This is classic Goodell: go after the players, protect the teams.
But perhaps most glaringly, the plan is missing any conversation about what role the combat of the game itself and the ill effects of head injuries may play in bringing the violence home. Why is it missing this? Because, once again, that might make people actually stop watching the sport, and that’s not the purpose this plan is supposed to serve. This is about reaching women and securing their connection to the league as potential consumers for NFL products and merchandise. Goodell’s slogan might as well be “Hate the player, don’t hate the game.”
Roger Goodell and the NFL—like many corporations before and since—were pressured and embarrassed into doing something. Tragically, in the hands of a league that journalist Steve Almond calls “a nihilistic engine of greed,” every move must be put under this kind of scrutiny and subject on principle to skepticism. That is something they have well earned.
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