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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

‘The Game Done Changed’: Reconsidering ‘The Wire’ Amidst the Baltimore Uprising

The Wire

HBO's The Wire (Photo courtesy of HBO)

I fanatically loved HBO’s Baltimore-based television drama, The Wire. It’s difficult to even imagine my pop-cultural brain without the presence of Omar Little, Stringer Bell, Bunk, and “McNutty.” When I started doing my sports radio show eight years ago, I scheduled interviews with as many of the actors as I could for no other reason than I wanted to breathe their air. Talking to Michael K. Williams about the method of Omar’s “long game” while he aggressively chewed on a sandwich will forever remain a career highlight. In every interview, I would always ask the same question: I wanted the cast to tell me whether working on this program was just another acting gig or if they all knew that they were doing something utterly unique in television history. When I asked this of Seth Gilliam, who played Officer Ellis Carver, he said, “It felt to us more like we were a movement, on a mission, in an army to bring awareness.” What really stoked me back then was the bracingly original political message that ran through The Wire compared to a typical Hollywood production. Most assembly-line entertainment is a variation on the shopworn theme of lone heroes confronting obstacles and then overcoming them. The connective thread of every Wire season, as described by show co-creator David Simon was that when individuals, no matter how heroic, fight to change entrenched power structures and bureaucracies—whether in the form of City Hall politics, police, or organized crime—the individual is going to lose.

That’s why I always shoved it to the back of my mind when my friends in Baltimore—I live about 45 minutes from the city—almost uniformly would tell me they either did not like or would not watch the show. People were hostile toward The Wire for a multiplicity of reasons. Some felt it was like gangster rap for a more sophisticated audience, glorifying black-on-black hyper-masculine street violence while selling itself as somehow more literate and ennobling to consume. My friend Mark once pissed me off fiercely when he told me that my favorite show was “NWA for people who read The New Yorker.”

My Baltimore friends who had seen the show also believed, given the police violence in their town, that The Wire’s view of Baltimore’s finest was almost comically kind. The one policeman who accidentally shoots someone (a fellow officer) not only isn’t prosecuted but gets reintroduced later in the series as a big-hearted public school teacher. And then other people just said to me that living in Baltimore was a struggle and the idea of anyone making commerce out of their pain was simply not their idea of entertainment.

I would casually dismiss these concerns, thinking people were being overly sensitive, overly critical, or just not “seeing” the brilliance in front of them. I also politically defended the show as one of the few spaces on television that, through its brilliant multiracial cast, looked at issues of crime, corruption, and urban blight in a systemic manner. The fact that it actually cared about the hopes, dreams, and lives of street criminals and not just cops felt more than radical. It felt revolutionary.

The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head. I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.

It is also impossible for me to separate David Simon’s view of people as either passive sheep or lone-wolf heroes from his comments about the events last week in Baltimore. Not his comments to “end the fucking drug war,” which are surely welcome, but his other public perspective.

With the fires in Baltimore just hours old, Simon wrote, “But now—in this moment—the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease … This, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death. If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.”

It’s always cringe-worthy when a wealthy middle-aged white guy lectures young black people about who they are and what they should do. In other words, if you had said two weeks ago—in the battle of prominent Baltimore Caucasians—that Orioles Manager Buck Showalter would represent himself better than David Simon, I think many would have been surprised. But his comments also revealed far more than was intended. The idea that David Simon, praised as someone with an ear to these Charm City streets like no one since H.L. Mencken, could look at what was happening in the Baltimore of 2015 and not see the social movements and organization beneath the anger, makes me wonder how much he truly “saw” when producing the show. That David Simon could tell people with bricks in their hand to “go home,” and have no direct words of condemnation for the violence displayed by the police made me remember my friend Dashon—from Baltimore—who told me he would never watch The Wire because he believed it to be “copaganda,” since it was created not only by Simon but by longtime Baltimore police officer Ed Burns.

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Now, I cannot help but recall all my favorite Wire moments through a lens that has me wondering if the show was both too soft on the police and incredibly dismissive of people’s ability to organize for real change. In the season that took place in the public schools, where were the student organizers, the urban debaters, and teacher activists I’ve met this past month? In the season about unions, where were the black trade unionists like the UNITE/HERE marchers who were—in utterly unpublicized fashion—at the heart of last Saturday’s march? In the season about the drug war and “Hamsterdam,” where were the people actually fighting for legalization? In the stories about the police, where were the people who died at their hands? It all reveals the audacity—and frankly the luxury—of David Simon’s pessimism. Perhaps this pessimism, alongside the adrenalizing violence, created, as Jamilah Lemieux put it in Ebony, a show steeped in the voyeurism of “Black pain and death” for a liberal white audience that “cried for Stringer Bell and a burned out CVS, but not Freddie Gray.”

I am not saying that art should conform to a utopian political vision of struggle like some dreck from the Stalinist culture mills. But I am asking a question that I wasn’t before: Why were those fighting for a better Baltimore invisible to David Simon? I don’t mean those fighting on behalf of Baltimore—the (often white) teachers, the social workers, and the good-natured cops who are at the heart of The Wire—but those fighting for their own liberation? Why was The Wire big on failed saviors and short on those trying to save themselves? And if these forces were invisible to David Simon, shouldn’t we dial down the praise of the show as this “Great American Novel of television” (Variety!) and instead see it for what it is: just a cop show? There’s no shame in that. I’ll even call it the greatest cop show ever, a cop show with insanely brilliant dialogue, indelible performances, and more three-dimensional roles for black actors than 99 percent of what comes out of Hollywood. But all the same—still just a cop show.

After reading stories like this, I think I’m done with cop shows for now. There’s a line from the Bible that says, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” In the wake of the Baltimore uprising, The Wire’s pessimism seems childish to me, and I’m going to put it away for a while. I could see myself revisiting it in the future, maybe amidst a more dreary political moment. But that moment isn’t now. Baltimore in 2015 shows that we can do more than just chronicle the indignities imposed by entrenched urban power structures—we can challenge them. David Simon should listen to the folks who are engaged in that collective project. As Cutty said, “The game done changed.”

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Makayla Gilliam-Price and Baltimore’s debt to a remarkable family

Makayla Gilliam-Price and Baltimore’s Debt to a Remarkable Family

Makayla Gilliam-Price and Dorie Ladner

Makayla Gilliam-Price at last night's packed panel in DC, posing with legendary civil rights veteran Dorie Ladner. (Photo by Dave Zirin)

The much-worn quote from Faulkner that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has never felt less clichéd and more searing to me than last night. I was at a packed town hall meeting in Washington, DC, featuring organizers and activists from Baltimore, and one of the speakers was a 17-year-old Baltimore City College high-school student named Makayla Gilliam-Price. Standing in front of 300 people and speaking without notes like she was alone in her living room, she potently communicated what it has been like to build a movement alongside a youth justice organization called City Bloc amidst the National Guard and curfews enforced at gunpoint. Ms. Gilliam-Price ended, however, not with a challenge to the police or Baltimore’s mayor but to the movement: “I want to ask those standing with the people of Baltimore, did we love Freddie Gray before he was killed or only now that he is gone? This needs to be a ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, not ‘Black Deaths Matter.’ This needs to be a movement of affirmation that expresses our desire to stop these killings before they happen and to love each other enough to do it.”

It was almost overwhelming to watch Makayla Gilliam-Price speak, and not only because of her clarity and strength. See, I had met Ms. Gilliam-Price before, but she had yet to become this powerful student organizer with shock-red dyed hair. It was the fall of 1998, and she was barely a baby. Over the course of that year, Baltimore was my second home because of a man named Tyrone X. Gilliam. Tyrone was on Maryland’s death row. He was also someone many of us believed to be innocent. Tyrone endured the long, indecent ritual towards execution right in the middle of Baltimore, the location of both the state’s death row as well as its lethal injection chamber. The Maryland death house, currently closed for business, was in a neighborhood defined at the time by disinvestment and dilapidation. Yet amidst the familiar urban decay, there was a brand-spanking new supermax prison equipped with the most cutting-edge death equipment the state of Maryland had to offer. It was obscene and it spoke volumes.

The fight to force the state of Maryland to spare Tyrone’s life had been led by his sister Zelda and her husband John. As we would march the nonexistent distance from the neighborhood apartments to the death house, they held in their arms this baby girl named Makayla.

Tyrone X. Gilliam wasn’t just a voiceless name or symbol to those of us on the outside, and not only because we knew his family. He was the inaugural participant of events we staged called “Live From Death Row,” where he called in to meetings packed with hundreds of people to answer questions about his case, profess his innocence, and describe life on the row. We knew him, as he developed politically and personally through these interactions with thousands of people he could not see. We fought, we marched, and we even prayed, but on November 16, 1998, Tyrone X. Gilliam was injected with poison as hundreds of us stood outside the death house. I will never forget that evening, as people from the neighborhood made their way out of their homes to stand in front of the only new building in the neighborhood and bear witness to a premeditated killing. Baby Makayla was not outside with us. The Gilliam-Price family kept her home as they mourned the loss of Tyrone, while we all waited fruitlessly for that 11th-hour cinematic reprieve from the governor, Democrat Parris Glendening.

After his death, I will never forget the words of Virginia Harabin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, who said in her eulogy, “Tyrone is a founder of the modern abolitionist movement. Hundreds know his name, and they have been inspired to join the movement to end the death penalty. As Frederick Douglass said of the abolitionist leader John Brown: ‘The future will write his epitaph upon the hearts of a people freed from slavery because he struck the first effectual blow.’”

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That blow is being felt in the Black Lives Matter movement and it is being delivered by Makayla Gilliam-Price. Makayla ended her remarks last night by saying, “We need to see the humanity in each other. Then we would be in a radically different world. That is all.” Looking on from the front row, beaming, was her mother, Zelda.

It takes your breath away. The Gilliam-Price family would have every reason to treat Baltimore the way Baltimore treated Tyrone and leave it for dead. Instead, they are fighting to reclaim it and demanding their rightful place in a city that took their blood. It’s a place they have more than earned.

Mike Stark, who was running Maryland’s Campaign to End the Death Penalty in 1998, chaired the meeting last night and said to me, “Sometimes even over 20 years of struggle against the death penalty and mass incarceration, you don’t always see and feel the tangible, visible results of struggle. In Makayla I saw a living breathing representation of the continuity in the struggle for justice. I marched with her when she was not even a toddler and to see her now, to see that her family hasn’t only not given up but is pushing forward … It’s overwhelming.”

The city of Baltimore has a brutal history. While it is tempting to see Makayla Gilliam-Price as the revenge of that history, it is also wrong. She’s not its revenge. When you listen to her message, you realize that she actually represents its redemption. This might seem like quite a weight for a 17-year-old woman to carry, but honestly, Makayla Gilliam-Price makes it look easy.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones and the power of seeing pain

Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones and the Power of Seeing Pain

Adam Jones

Baltimore Orioles player Adam Jones (photo courtesy of YouTube)

On Wednesday, I gave a lecture at the Community College of Baltimore County on the topic of sports and social change. It had been planned for months, but this morning, with encouragement from the terrific professors on campus, I changed my talk from one about the history of sports to one about the history being made a short ride from campus. Instead of talking about Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and the movements that shaped their desire to use sports as a political platform, we talked about the police killing of Freddie Gray. Instead of a “lecture,” we had a conversation.

We talked about the marches and curfews in Baltimore City. We talked about why demonstrators took their anger to Camden Yards and why police seem to see the protecting of sports arenas—and protecting each other—as more important than finding justice for Freddie Gray. We talked about the Baltimore athletes who have been in the streets helping the struggle and the ones who have been silent. My one regret from the day is that I spoke with sadness that Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos has made more important and more relevant comments about the city’s upheaval than any current Oriole players. It wasn’t a knock against Angelos’s words, but a statement that it should be the players, not the owners, stepping up at this time. That dynamic, however, changed later in the day, when Adam Jones, one of just two African-American starters on the team, took the time in a press conference to speak with love, support, and concern for the black youth in Baltimore and the future of the city. Unfortunately, the “shareline” sent out by The Baltimore Sun about his remarks bleated, “Adam Jones can relate to frustration of Baltimore’s youth, but says the actions are unacceptable.” This is damn-near a satirical microcosm of everything the media get wrong about everything. Jones’s comments were not at all centered around youth actions&rquo; being “unacceptable.” They were an aside in what was a beautiful statement. Here is an excerpt of his remarks (transcription by me):

There’s been a lot of good protesting, there have been a lot of people standing up for the rights that they have… The youth are hurting… It can look like no one’s fighting for you but there are people like myself. I say to the youth, your frustration is warranted. It’s understandable, understood. The actions I don’t think are acceptable but if you come from where they come from, you understand… This is their cry… They need hugs. They need love. They need support

I feel the pain of these kids. Let’s remember I grew up on similar tracks as them… It’s just not easy seeing a community [where ] you are trying to affect change in, seeing these kind of things, but it’s understandable because these kids are hurt. And these kids have seen the pain in their parents’ eyes, the pain in their grandparents’ eyes over decades and this is their way of speaking on behalf of their parents and behalf of their grandparents and people who have been hurt.

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As the porcine know-nothings on cable news exploit this moment to stoke and stroke the fears of their audience, the words of Adam Jones have the power to not only resonate with Baltimore protesters but to reach those Orioles fans who are hard-wired to hate them. The power of his words is rooted in the fact that Adam Jones actually “sees” the young people who are self-organizing against police violence and poverty. In this climate, just “seeing” them and granting them their inalienable humanity is in itself a radical act.

Adam Jones’s comments reminded me of an exchange at the Community College of Baltimore County when a student asked if we should be concerned that people would now identify Baltimore with riots and fire. We responded by saying that the problem is not what people are seeing in Baltimore right now. The problem is that before the last week, people didn’t “see” the whole of Baltimore at all. The problem is that people thought of Baltimore and saw the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, the Ravens, and perhaps Little Italy, leaving the rest of the city, the rest of the people, and the entirety of their pain, in a state of invisibility. Getting all hot and bothered by binge-watching The Wire and quoting Stringer Bell in your corporate mission statements is not the same thing as “seeing” Baltimore.

Many this past week have quoted Dr. King’s famous phrase that rioting is the language of the unheard. It’s quoted so much because it’s so true. So many of people who live, work, and die in Baltimore have been unheard, unseen, and unacknowledged… until now. The way our current system operates, no one sees and hears the pain of the poor until they fight to make themselves seen and heard. Adam Jones sees them. Adam Jones hears them. At the very least, we all have to meet that standard.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Baltimore, urban America and Camden Yards

Apartheid Games: Baltimore, Urban America, and Camden Yards

Freddie Gray protests at Camden Yards

Protesters rally at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during a march for Freddie Gray on Saturday, April 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

If you don't understand Oriole Park at Camden Yards, then you can’t understand why Baltimore exploded this week. If you don't understand Oriole Park at Camden Yards then you can’t understand why what happened in Baltimore can replicate itself in other cities around the United States.

There was a moment at Saturday's protests—two weeks after the police severed the spine of Freddie Gray—when Baltimore PD revealed themselves. I was there and can tell you that for most of the day it was stunning how light the police presence appeared to be. They made the choice to turn the West Baltimore police station, whose officers arrested Freddie Gray, into an armed encampment, while giving the streets over to the march. Yes, helicopters and surveillance drones flew overhead, but police were largely absent. For me, this was not comforting. The only other times I have seen these kinds of security tactics at a demonstration was in Latin America and South Africa, where the appearance of no police would be given, but then you would turn a corner and they would explosively appear, sometimes out of a cloud of tear gas.

This is what happened as the march left the confines of West Baltimore and approached Camden Yards where the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox. As Jelani Cobb reported in The New Yorker,

There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters' most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, ‘They only care about the Orioles!'

Camden Yards has for twenty-five years been praised not only as the heart of Baltimore's “urban renewal" but also as a template for every city like Baltimore that had seen their manufacturing base disappear and with it, decent paying union jobs. That's why we have seen similar ballparks, big on charm and big on public subsidies, built over the last generation in—to name just a sampling—Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago's South Side, and Pittsburgh. All of these cities were at one time synonymous with industry and multiracial labor power. Now they have boarded up factories—or factories that have been transformed into coffee shops or bars—and sports stadiums. These stadiums were all built with the promise of an attendant service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centers, with restaurants mushrooming around the fun and games. If we didn't know it before, the scene at Camden Yards should carve it permanently into the tablets of history: this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure. It’s been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement. They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those who go to the game looking for low-income work.

Ironically, the only person who seems to understand this dynamic among the elites of Baltimore is Orioles COO John Angelos.

This is ironic not only because of his social position but because his father, team owner Peter Angelos—a man who grew up working-class and made his fortune in labor law—was involved in a bitter struggle with stadium workers, some who lived in area homeless shelters, over paying them a living wage. I covered this story in 2007 and can still recall the courage, bitterness and sadness of stadium workers who felt like they had no choice but to go on a hunger strike to draw attention to their treatment. During this struggle, the talk about the Orioles in West Baltimore wasn’t about whether the team could win the pennant but why the people were being treated with so much contempt.

This reality of sports-driven apartheid was made even clearer outside the stadium on Saturday, as a familiar scene to Orioles and Ravens fans—one I have seen countless times—entered the same oxygen as the West Baltimore demonstrators.

The panorama is as familiar to me as it is repulsive: almost exclusively young, white fans, from the surrounding suburbs or the city's gentrifying neighborhoods, show up and get absolutely shit-faced drunk and either aggressively hit on random women or fight. I've seen more scuffles outside of sporting events in the last decade than my wife has seen teaching in a DC public high school and it's not even close. On Saturday, these fans acted like they always act, except this time they turned their taunting, frat-house, Tucker Carlson comedy routines outward at the people who had marched the physically short but politically transgressive distance from West Baltimore. Not shockingly, confrontations ensued, although, with much of the cellphone video coming from inside the sports bars, the events have been wildly distorted.

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Whenever black people, out of frustration with police brutality, institutionalized poverty and neglect express this anger, there are endless cable news blatherings about what are called "pathologies" in poor black communities. The discussion about the "pathologies" of violent, largely white sports fans acting barbarically before and after games is long past due. But CNN’s Erin Burnett doesn’t hold debates about why it’s appropriate to call them “thugs.”

This speaks to the stunningly different realities that exist in our cities: who gets policed and who gets to play. A publicly funded stadium is not the root cause of what plagues our cities, but it's a flashing, blaring sign of a set of economic priorities that like sports has created a country that defines people as winners or losers—but, unlike sports, a country where the happenstance of your birth determines on what side of that line you reside. This is not a Baltimore story. It's the United States in 2015.

The latest breaking news is that the Orioles have decided to return to the field this week after canceling several games due to the protests, but will do so in front of an empty stadium—no fans (or workers) allowed inside.

This locking out of spectators has long been done in European soccer leagues as punishment aimed at fan clubs for engaging in coordinated acts of racism or bigotry against either visiting fans or opposing players. That is not why the fans are being locked out in Baltimore, although perhaps that wouldn't be the worst idea in the world for everyone to take a time out.

This decision was clearly made on public safety grounds, but there will be something haunted about the visuals that will ensue. Whenever the Orioles play away from home, the surrounding commercial neighborhood can resemble a ghost town, revealing the inability of sports to act as an economic stimulus. Now the inside of the stadium will be the ghost town. No fans. No workers. No screaming. No cheering. As quiet as Freddie Gray.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Saturday’s protests at Camden Yards

Camden Yards and the Baltimore Protests for Freddie Gray

Camden Yards protest

Demonstrators gather near Camden Yards to protest against the death in police custody of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (Reuters/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

I was at the Saturday protests in Baltimore aimed at seeking justice for Freddie Gray, the young man who died while in police custody, his spine severed and neck broken. This column is about what took place inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where fans were told on orders from Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to stay inside the stadium following the Os’ extra-innings victory over the Boston Red Sox, rather than risk the “violence” of protesters.

But before we go to the baseball field, let’s make one thing clear: Most everything the media reported about the Baltimore protests has skirted the line between the highly sensationalistic and the libelous. Every headline and photo has focused on property damage, allegedly done by those protesting for Freddie Gray. Played down or ignored is the Baltimore I saw: a place where more than 2,000 people—including families and children—marched resolutely while helicopters and visible surveillance drones flew overhead.

This is not to say people are not enraged with a city police department that, beyond Freddie Gray, has a proven record of seeing black lives as expendable. A young woman named Tracey who told me she grew up in the same apartment complex as Freddie Gray said to me that she was marching because “The police aren’t going to stop making us afraid unless we show them that we’re not scared. Not one more sister or brother should die at their hands.”

That story, the one where a portion of the city—the black, economically ignored portion—lives in dread of police violence and were marching not just for Freddie Gray but against the history of the Baltimore PD, was not the story the media chose to tell. Instead, they chose headlines like this, to tingle the synapses of those who have little to fear from police, poverty, or street crime, but never seem to feel more alive than when they feel afraid. It’s unconscionable, just as it was unconscionable for the Baltimore police union to call protesters “a lynch mob,” just as it was unconscionable for the city to take the actions it did at Camden Yards.

On Saturday, after the Baltimore chief of police and mayor ordered the fans to stay inside Camden Yards, the Oriole faithful were “given instructions of areas [of the city] to avoid.” This detaining of thousands of fans for their own “protection,” only lasted a few minutes, but its effects have been far-reaching. Whether intentional or not, it was more than just an overly cautious over-reaction. It was a message sent out across the country that this protest was not only unlawful but something to be feared.

Camden Yards morphed from a field into a fortress. It became a stadium dividing a city between haves and have-nots: a barrier erected on the foundations of racial and economic inequality dressed in the trappings of spectacle and sports. That it was built with the tax dollars of those on both sides of the divide just makes the situation all the more dismal.

Camden Yards is universally recognized as a terrific place to watch a baseball game. It was also the first of a wave of publicly funded urban old-timey ballparks that sprouted in cities throughout the 1990s. These extremely lucrative stadiums were aimed at aligning baseball commercially with nostalgia for the glorious past of the sport. As baseball fanatic Chris Rock recently pointed out, MLB’s fetishizing of its history over the last thirty years has paralleled a steep decline in popularity within the black community, and this is more than incidental. As Rock said, “Every team is building up bullshit fake antique stadiums that are supposed to remind you of the good old days. You know the good old days. Ruth, DiMaggio … Emmett Till.”

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As much as Major League Baseball likes to slather itself in the memory of Jackie Robinson and the idea that it has been a force for community cohesion, the reality is that it has done more to partition communities where the only way some residents can get into stadiums they are subsidizing with their tax dollars and cable bills is if they’re serving beers.

One could imagine a situation where people inside Camden Yards would have to confront with their own eyes the reality that a young man, who did not look all that different from some of the people they were cheering on the field, was killed a short Uber ride away. They could confront the fact that the same police officers protecting them have a frightening history that is being dragged out into public view since the death of Freddie Gray. They could confront the bracing defense of the protesters that has actually come from Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos, who took to Twitter in a series of messages and said, in part,

We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.

Instead, on the mayor’s orders they were locked in, a message sent not only to those inside but the world that the real enemies of civic peace are the ones looking for justice.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on why it’s time to put Barry Bonds in the Baseball Hall of Fame

Now That the Justice Department Has Struck Out, It’s Time to Put Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Fifty-five million dollars. In sports terms, that’s not a great deal of money. It’s a healthy NBA contract or the kind of deal a Major League Baseball team would hand to a quality third baseman. But in the real world, as opposed to the sports world, $55 million is one hell of a stack. In governmental terms $55 million builds a new school. It reopens a public hospital. It repairs miles of roads. It saves lives. $55 million is also what the US Justice Department—mostly spent under Bush but finished under Obama—has wasted on what we can now officially call the failed prosecution of Barry Lamar Bonds. The Major League Baseball home-run king, assumed steroid user and Hall of Fame pariah on Wednesday had the government’s last thread holding him down—an obstruction of justice conviction—finally snipped on appeal.

In a brief statement Bonds said:

Today’s news is something that I have long hoped for. I am humbled and truly thankful for the outcome as well as the opportunity our judicial system affords to all individuals to seek justice. I would like to thank my family, friends and all of you who have supported me throughout my career and especially over the past several years. Your support has given me strength throughout this process and for that, I am beyond grateful. This has been a long and strenuous period in my life; I very much look forward to moving beyond it. I do so without ill will toward anyone. I am excited about what the future holds for me as I embark on the next chapter. Lastly and certainly not least, I would like to thank my legal team for their hard work and diligence on my behalf.

The courts have spoken, and the Justice Department looks awful. Not only for wasting these resources, but also for spending years and 55 million dollars on this case while a sliver of that has been allocated toward investigating the killing of Eric Garner in New York City, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the killing of Rekia Boyd in Chicago, the killing of so many at the hands of local police forces. Do you think the Justice Department is going through the trash of Officer Daniel Pantaleo the way they pieced through the waste of Barry Bonds and his family? Do you think they are entering police departments and seizing files without court orders as Special Agent Jeff Novitsky did in his pursuit of Bonds? They’re not. And that’s the problem. The only question left is whether the system is broken or if it is operating exactly as it was designed.

That’s the real-world injustice at play, but we’d be remiss to not mention the sports world injustice, which is the continual barring of Barry Bonds from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

My feelings on this are well-known and have been for sometime. I think Barry Bonds is by a country mile the greatest player I have ever seen in person. Barry Bonds is the smartest, most controlled player with a bat in his hand in the last 50 years, and talking to the old-timers, only Ted Williams is in that conversation with him. Hall of Fame voters will probably say that Barry Bonds’ numbers are tainted. But dear Lord, look at those “tainted” numbers. Of the top five OPS in history (that’s the number drawn from combining your slugging percentage and on-base percentage), this is what it looks like as taken from baseball-reference.com:

There it is: Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. (That cross by Ruth’s name connotes that he is in the Hall of Fame.… He’s blessed by baseball Jesus. Not sure what that makes Barry.)

Barry Bonds, due to the change of the shape of his body and unparalleled late-career success is of course often assumed to have used performance-enhancing drugs. But Babe Ruth, the only hitter in Barry’s class, had a couple of “performance-enhancing drugs” all his own: one was not having to hit against pitchers with complexions like Satchel Paige. The other was never having to set foot on a plane. Even though the players of Babe Ruth’s era all benefited from light travel schedules and the absence of non-white competition, we still tip our hat to Babe Ruth because his statistical achievements were so above and beyond his peers. In other words, the level of separation Babe created speaks for itself and transcends any kinds of asterisks. Barry Bonds also played in a tainted time, what is now known as “the steroid era.” I’m not saying every player used performance enhancing drugs, but I am inclined to believe based upon speaking with a lot of locker room and baseball guys that while you can’t say every player used, you can say that any player could have been using. Everyone had access and most of the greats, and even many of the not-so-greats, took what they took to keep up with the guy in the locker next door.

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But even in the context of such a libertine era, Barry Bonds was above and beyond anyone else in the sport and anything baseball had seen since the days of the Babe. One year, he reached base 61 percent of the time he came to the plate. I mean, holy shit. That’s more incomprehensible to me than Wilt’s scoring 100 points or Peyton Manning’s throwing for 55 touchdowns. It’s like he was Neo and the ball was just a hapless bullet. Was his era stained by scandal? Absolutely. Was Babe Ruth’s? Hell yes.

So let’s get the now legally innocent Barry Bonds into the Baseball Hall of Fame. If the guardians at Cooperstown want to put some sort of comment on his plaque then so be it. Tack on some comments to Babe Ruth’s plaque while they’re at it.

One last point about Barry Bonds: a Twitter user who goes by @zaconbothsides pointed out to me that there is one eerie parallel between Barry Bonds and the late Eric Garner: both were in the crosshairs of the state because of “their failure to comply.” That was their great crime. It’s an incisive observation. In the end, why was Eric Garner choked to death by police? He was killed because he chose to not drop to his knees at the sight of Staten Island’s finest. He didn’t fight the police. But he chose to live, not cower, in their presence, which in this world will be seen as a form of active resistance. Say what you will about Barry Bonds but his obstruction-of-justice charges stem from the fact that he would not break in the face of prison threats, legal charges and the temptation of knowing that he could be free if he chose to play the role of the weepy athlete. Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but the Justice Department spent a lot of money to break him and they failed. Put that on his damn Hall of Fame plaque.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Cornel West is not Mike Tyson

Cornel West Is Not Mike Tyson

Cornel West

Cornel West (Bradley Siefert/CC BY NC 2.0)

As a sportswriter I am very sensitive to the use and misuse of boxing metaphors. Few analogies are either more powerful or more universally understood than comparing a public figure to an iconic fighter. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a panoramic, painfully personal, deeply researched 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West, published in The New Republic, has compared the 61-year-old professor to Mike Tyson. He describes West as someone who once “tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity,” but who has since devolved into a “faint echo of himself,” an ear-biting sideshow, more interested in celebrity than serious academic and political work.

With all respect to Dyson, who wrote the intro to my book Game Over and has been a friend to me on numerous occasions, this is in my view the wrong choice of championship pugilists. West is not Mike Tyson: he’s Muhammad Ali. Not the Muhammad Ali of ESPN hagiographies or Hollywood films starring Will Smith. But the real Muhammad Ali: effortlessly provocative, undeniably narcissistic, and unquestionably brilliant. The deeply hurtful quotes that West has aimed at Dyson (he has “prostituted himself intellectually”) and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry (“she is a liar and a fraud”) are 21st-century iterations of Ali’s regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.

These comments are vicious, and as someone who has benefited from the kindness offered me by both Dyson and Dr. Harris-Perry, they anger my blood. The restraint that Dyson has shown over the last several years as West has thrown out his assorted rabbit-punches should be acknowledged. But the sight of Dyson escalating what was a one-sided series of verbal taunts into a written treatise, and marshaling his intellectual powers toward a polarizing 10,000-word New Republic essay is to see nothing less—I suppose based upon your perspective—than the academic version of either George Foreman punching himself out in Zaire or “Smokin’ Joe” sending the champ to the canvas of Madison Square Garden. (I am well aware that in this metaphor, I’m the white sportswriter getting some copy out of the spectacle of two heavyweights throwing hands. Hopefully, I’ll be more Bob Lipsyte than Jimmy Cannon.)

The timing of the essay is also very disorienting. We are at a moment when a new movement is attempting to confront an epidemic level of police violence. Dyson and West have in word and deed both been important voices in this movement. As the challenges of sustaining this struggle grow with every police killing, it is an odd moment for a public figure like Dyson to write so particular, so personal, and so granular an attack against West over his lack of scholarship, his love of celebrity, and his at times highly intimate racialized attacks against President Obama.

The piece begins with Dyson’s thesis that Cornel West’s animus for the president is rooted in a love betrayed. West “hates” President Obama and uses such personal invective in his political critiques because he once loved him and feels wronged, both personally snubbed and politically ignored. It is difficult to escape the idea that this thesis mirrors Dyson’s perspective toward West. His anger is so intense toward Cornel West because his onetime mentor—someone with whom he would attend Anita Baker concerts in the 1980s for no reason other than to swoon—has branded him a sellout for not joining him in denunciation of the Obama administration. Dyson defends himself against these charges, writing that he has never relinquished his criticisms of President Obama but has also never relinquished either his love for the man or his respect for the accomplishment of becoming the first black president of a country founded on principles of white supremacy. He believes he has been principled and is demonstrably hurt that West has translated his political approach through the ugliest possible lens. There has been no give, no charity, in West’s public analysis of Dyson’s political tactics, and now Dyson is ready to return in kind. In honor of the boxing metaphors used by Dyson, several of his blows hit their mark, and Dyson is, frankly, too good a writer to not make this piece leave a bruise. West has exposed his chin through his acquisition of celebrity and absence of scholarship, and Dyson never forgoes taking a roundhouse punch, even when just a jab will do.

But there are several holes in Dyson’s piece that are glaring. To read the article, one would think that West’s anger toward Obama is solely rooted in snubbed invitations and unanswered phone calls. This ignores a series of key political criticisms that West has been raising for years.

Cornel West believes in Palestinian liberation. He believes in amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He believes that the bankers responsible for the 2008 crisis should be brought to justice. He believes that capitalism is a driving engine of much of the injustice in our world. He believes that Obama’s drone program is an act of state-sanctioned murder. One can choose to agree or disagree with these points, but one cannot ignore that West has been relentless in his efforts to place them in the political discourse. The word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does “Wall Street” or “immigration.” The word “drones” only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with. Does a “black politics” going forward need to have something to say about corporate power, Israeli occupation, immigration, and drone warfare? That’s the unspoken debate in this article, made all the more glaring because Dyson is sympathetic—and far closer to West than President Obama—on many of these questions.

Dyson says repeatedly that he is a critic of Obama but loves the man, while disagreeing with much of his “neoliberal” policy. Yet he also goes out of his way to write,

Obama believes the blessed should care for the unfortunate, a hallmark of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. West and Obama both advocate intervention for our most vulnerable citizens, but while West focuses on combating market forces that ‘edge out nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations,’ Obama, as [Jonathan] Alter contends, is more practical, offering Pell grants; stimulus money that saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of black state and local workers; the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity of sentences for powdered and crack cocaine; the extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which kept millions of working poor blacks from sliding into poverty; and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps, which helped millions of blacks.

One cannot read this as anything but an endorsement—and a very selective telling—of President Obama’s political agenda. One could also well ask how the hyper-militarization of our cities, the record number of deportations, the closing of public schools, and the “drill and kill” public-education testing regimen can be translated as the “blessed caring for the unfortunate.”

Then there is the specter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which hangs over every syllable in this piece. Aside from one dismissive mention of West’s getting arrested in Ferguson during a staged act of civil disobedience, it is not discussed explicitly. But, at least for this reader, it was impossible to divorce this major article coming out at a moment when the movement is publicly facing a series of questions: namely, whether it “should be moving in a more radical or conciliatory direction.”

It has to be noted that Dyson’s initial public critique against West came not with this article but last week at the National Action Network’s 16th annual convention, where he said,

Stop thinking that your way is the only way. It may be a great way, it may be a powerful way that works for you, but one size don’t fit all. So be honest and humble in genuine terms—not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.

NAN is of course the organization of Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton has also been, as Dyson mentions, a repeated target of West. Sharpton is currently in a battle against young activists—sometimes a literal battle—over the microphone of this movement. A new generation of leadership, less tied to the Obama administration, wants to be recognized as the leading organizational and political power against police brutality, but Sharpton is not going down easy. As he said to young activists in February, “It’s the disconnect that is the strategy to break the movement. And they play on your ego. ‘Oh, you young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face.’ All the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.”

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Sharpton is cracking down on those who would challenge his authority. In other words, while Dyson has been given ample provocation to strike back at West, there is also a political battle thrumming beneath the surface that we would be naïve to ignore. Dyson says that West’s fatal flaw lies in seeing that his way is the only way. It is true that no one has all the answers but we can’t settle the questions unless we depersonalize and get at the substance of the divisions: reform vs. revolt; working inside vs. working outside the corridors of power; and so many other “old” debates that have taken on, to use a much-abused phrase, the fierce urgency of now.

Cornel West is no Mike Tyson, and it has to be said that even in the land of metaphor, comparing West to a convicted rapist is difficult to read. But in comparing him to Ali, let’s also remember that the Champ had two careers: one where he was simply too quick to touch, and one, after he returned to the ring in 1970, where he was slower but still fighting with his gloves down and possessing a new strategy: one where he chose to take punch after punch after punch to the chin, until he either fell down or his opponent tired from exhaustion. Ali paid a dear price for this strategy, but it was devastatingly effective. West has chosen over the last several years to take numerous punches from his political opponents. I don’t believe any have punched quite as hard as Dyson. But with this 10,000-word escalation that increases the personal heat while brushing over the political differences, Dyson may have done exactly what West was tempting him to do. The tragedy is that there are so many others who should be higher on everyone’s list of those who need to be prodded, need to be provoked… and need to be knocked the hell out.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on how the NYPD broke an NBA player’s leg

A Police Story Unravels: How Did the NYPD Break an NBA Player’s Leg?

New York City police officers

New York City police officers on patrol in Brooklyn. (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

At the risk of stating the utterly obvious, most black men and women who suffer physical violence at the hands of the police aren’t millionaires. They don’t have lawyers on speed dial and lack the resources of a well-funded union leaping to their defense. But most black men and women aren’t NBA players. In other words, they aren’t Thabo Sefolosha. The Atlanta Hawks guard will now miss the playoffs after an encounter with the NYPD left him with a fractured leg and an arrest record. In his first comments following the late-night scuffle outside a Chelsea club, Sefolosha made clear that while his attorneys asked him to be silent for now, “I will simply say that I am in great pain, have experienced a significant injury and that the injury was caused by the police.”

Already, the gap between the initial police accounts—reprinted as objective narration by some media outlets—and the version that’s coming to light, should be giving NYPD Commissioner William Bratton night sweats. The official story was that Thabo and teammate Pero Antic were arrested after being asked “six times” to leave a crime scene where NBA player Chris Copeland was stabbed. Then, as the original police report proclaimed, “the defendant Thabo Sefolosha [ran] in an aggressive manner towards the direction of Police Officer Daniel Dongvort” and “Officer Dongvort’s back was facing the defendant at the time.”

Yet facts are stubborn things, and the most stubborn fact that makes this story feel like fantasy is that the arrest took place well over 40 yards away from the stabbing. I went down to the block where the stabbing and subsequent arrest took place. The distance is considerable in the light of day. So imagine how far apart the two places would have seemed with dozens of people crowding a narrow Tenth Avenue sidewalk between the stabbing and the retreat toward the team’s hotel. The idea that police were yelling on six separate occasions over the heads of throngs of people—amidst ambulances and all matter of chaos—for two men to walk away seems absurd.

An alternative version of what may have happened was told to SI’s Greg Hanlon by an anonymous source who had spoken to several people on the scene.

In this version, as people were dispersing following the Copeland stabbing, “one officer focused on Sefolosha, and then he continues to track him down the block like a D-back tracking a receiver.” Then according to Hanlon’s source, “Sefolosha turns to him and asked in substance what the officer’s problem was with him.” Sefolosha was subsequently knocked to the ground, where according to video, an officer is clearly unsheathing and raising some kind of baton.

What sounds more realistic? That Thabo Sefolosha, whose off-court reputation is pristine, decided to bum-rush a police officer whose back was turned, or that a pissed-off cop, adrenalized over a melee involving a stabbed NBA player, chose to get aggressive with the other black NBA player on the premises?

These kinds of confrontations do not happen every day, but they do happen. Police engage in racial profiling and NBA players, who could not be in the league without healthy egos, don’t like being treated like shit by cops. It’s simply a recipe for conflict. Remember the pepper-spraying of Chris Webber, when he wouldn’t get off his phone quickly enough for an officer who pulled him over in his car, or the tasing of Dale Davis, after the Indiana Pacers power forward dared police officers to shoot him. Those are only two examples, and I could list several more. What I cannot find is an instance with an NBA player seeing a police officer and just going on the attack. Perhaps that is why Internal Affairs is now investigating the arresting officers.

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What happened to Thabo Sefolosha has happened before. But this case is also different. It is the first one to take place amidst the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence; the first “cops vs. jocks” story to happen in simultaneous fashion with stories such as the execution shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager and the recording of a police officer responding to the dying Eric Harris’ plea that he could not breathe because of a police bullet in his back with “Fuck your breath.” It is the first one to happen after a fall of NBA players taking the court to say that they stand with the thousands who believe that the police have a responsibility to not kill the unarmed.

Now the ball is in Thabo Sefolosha’s hands. He is clearly preparing a lawsuit against the NYPD and if successful, good for him. As the head of an NAACP branch who asked his name to be withheld said to me, “The police are like any business. You sue. You take their money. You get the bureaucrats nervous and hopefully that means you change their behavior.” This is a valid point. But we have also seen big-city police departments pay out millions with little to show for it in changed behavior. New York City alone has belched up half a billion dollars since 2009, to settle police brutality civil suits out of court. This payout did not save Eric Garner anymore than it spared Thabo Sefolosha. But if Thabo chooses to mount a public campaign and if NBA players choose to amplify it during the playoffs, then we could have something powerful on our hands that hastens the changes in policing whose necessity is made so desperately obvious with every felled black body. Whatever path Thabo Sefolosha selects may be a personal and business decision before it is a political one. But going public is the best way for Thabo to take the “great pain” he is in, and give some back.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the debt owed to Eduardo Galeano

The Debt Owed to Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano (Mariela De Marchi Moyano, CC BY NC 2.0)

In Sunday night’s premiere of the HBO series Game of Thrones, two of the more admirable characters are speaking about the future and one says, “Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there’s no other way.” I mumbled to no one in particular, “Some screenwriter’s been reading their Galeano.”

The next day, the news broke that Eduardo Galeano, that master of the written word who could integrate magical-reality lyricism into to the all-too-real history of empire without breaking a sweat, had died of cancer at 74. No, I’m not a future-telling Warg, I don’t have a third eye, or the soul or a raven (or whatever the hell Game of Thrones reference is appropriate here). Galeano had been on my mind, as his failing health had been well known, and I’d felt the weight of debt that we owe the Uruguayan legend. It’s a debt owed by anyone who refuses to “grow used to horror” as an act of conscious resistance. It’s a debt owed by those who choose to witness our sick world from the carnage in Gaza to the #FuckYourBreath killing of Eric Harris and don’t become lost in the cynicism of a society that sometimes seems intoxicated by its own inhumanity. It is impossible to read Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and leave not only distraught over the bloody legacy of US imperialism but also hopeful at the ways brave, if fruitless, resistance can resemble the lush vitality of epic poetry.

I also owe a very particular, specific debt to Galeano. Yes, Galeano is known for his writings on empire. But he also penned what for my money is the finest book that sits at the intersection of sports and politics, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. In just 300 pages, Galeano spins a social history of the sport in achingly artistic sketch lines, some broad, others exact. It’s like a rollicking but incisive freestyle rhyme expressed through a massive quill pen. The art of his writing allows him to explain just what makes the beautiful game so endlessly alluring in spite of the ugliness that surrounds it. He writes, “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.” That’s Galeano: he made you believe it was not only possible to be both an internationalist and fan, but also a necessity if you hope to have your feet planted in this world with your mind on the next.

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Last summer, a dream came true, when my hero the sports/politics writer Mike Marqusee reviewed my World Cup/Olympics book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil and immediately “got” that “Eduardo Galeano is the book’s presiding spirit.” Throughout the book I started almost every chapter with a Galeano quote, mainly because there is no one more quotable. Anytime you can write a book and frame chapters with phrases like, “There are no right angles in Brazilian soccer just as there are none in the Rio Mountains,” or, “In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison,” or, “Where opulence is most opulent… misery is most miserable,” you do it.

Quoting Galeano to frame chapters was a method to allow just a little of his diamond dust to grace my own pages. There was a thrill in bringing Galeano’s ability to make words dance to my own pages, which upon rereading still make me feel as light-headed as a clod-footed student being taken for a whirl by Josephine Baker. But that wasn’t all. As Marqusee wrote, Galeano was also meant to be the book’s “presiding spirit,” the person who could embrace how sports can express the best and worst angels of our nature: how it can be used as an instrument of exploitation while also wielded as a weapon of hope.

Now it is just nine months later, and both Marqusee and Galeano are dead, both killed by cancer. The obvious instinctive takeaway from this is “fuck cancer” and fuck all in this world that is turning our bodies into wars of competing poisons. But when you exhale and look at the contributions of both writers, there is a different legacy: It’s the dare. They dared in a world of sound bites to compose graceful sentences plump with metaphors so thick you could get lost and found between the capital letter and the period. They taught us that it’s better to fail at writing something indelible than to be like everyone else. And most of all, they taught that no one should ever make you feel ashamed or embarrassed for refusing to acclimate yourself to the horrors of the present. That, above all else, is the debt we owe the memory of Eduardo Galeano. Whether you see yourself as writing history or making history, fortune favors the bold. And if you want to find a place in the collective memory, always strive to be memorable.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on NBA player Thabo Sefolosha’s encounter with the NYPD

So... the NYPD Just Broke an NBA Player’s Leg

Thabo Sefolosha escorted out of the 10th Precinct

NBA player Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks is escorted out of the NYPD’s 10th Precinct with a fractured fibula on April 8, 2015. (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

[UPDATED]

Let’s not “bury the lead” here. At a moment when people across the country are reckoning with the deadly reality of police violence and the terror it imposes on black communities, the New York Police Department fractured the leg of a player in the National Basketball Association. The NYPD had an interaction with Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks, and they broke his damn leg.

Sefolosha’s damaged fibula comes after a season when NBA players spent last winter making statements against police violence, after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It also comes at a time when police brutality is under an exacting microscope following the execution of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. In the blinkered reality of the sports world, the big story is that the damage to Sefolosha has happened right when the Atlanta Hawks are about to enter the playoffs with the best record in the Eastern Conference, jeopardizing what has been a dream season. Now, unless they make a deep playoff run, it will be remembered as a dream trapped between nightmares; a squad whose season began under a cloud of racist controversy, with the ugly leaked interactions between owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry, and now ends under a similarly colored cloud.

How in the hell did the NYPD come to injure Thabo Sefolosha? One moment fellow NBA player Chris Copeland and Copeland’s girlfriend Katrine Saltara were being stabbed at a trendy Chelsea nightclub (both are in stable condition), then Sefolosha and his Atlanta Hawk teammate Pero Antic were being arrested for obstruction… and then a broken leg. As for how Sefolosha’s fibula was fractured, there is the police version of what went down and then there is Thabo’s version. Stunningly, several outlets including ESPN first printed the police’s version as fact. If nothing else, the death of Walter Scott should be a lesson to all of us that there is a chasm between what the police can say happened and the reality of a situation.

The police version, to quote ESPN’s original article, was, “Sefolosha sustained the injury while resisting arrest outside a Manhattan night club early Wednesday morning. Sefolosha was arrested along with teammate Pero Antic for interfering with local police’s efforts to set up a crime scene following the stabbing of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland.”

A great deal of credit should go to the author of this piece, Kevin Arnovitz, who changed the wording in the article after a social media pushback. But the original text should be a reminder, especially this week of all weeks, that we should never take police versions as synonymous with reality. Sure enough, Sefolosha and Pero Antic deny this version of events. Their only statement has been the following:

As members of the Atlanta Hawks, we hold ourselves to a high standard and take our roles as professionals very seriously. We will contest these charges and look forward to communicating the facts of the situation at the appropriate time. We apologize to our respective families, teammates, and the Hawks organization for any negative attention this incident has brought upon them. We are unable to provide further comment as this is an ongoing legal matter.

We do have a videotape of what took place*, but all it reveals is multiple police officers jumping the rail-thin 6'7" 220 pound Sefolosha. Ironically, or tellingly, his fellow-arrestee, Pero Antic, has an appearance we’ll describe as ornately terrifying. Tattooed, bald, seven feet tall and over 260 pounds, he is a Macedonian guy who happens to be white. Sefolosha is a Swiss guy who happens to be black. The terrifying seven-footer walked away and the guy from Switzerland was jumped. Whether or not racial bias was involved, the optics of this are very familiar to anyone who has followed the methodologies of the NYPD.

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In time, we will find out what happened. Sefolosha has the deep pockets and the lawyers to either wrest some justice out of this situation or, if it is determined that he did obstruct justice, make it go away. But in the league, it will be seen as bigger than one case, one confrontation, one injury. This is the year when the NBA intersected with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Perhaps after a several month lull, players or the NBPA** will have something to say, if not about Walter Scott, then about Thabo Sefolosha. The message from NBA players last winter was that “what happened to Michael Brown or Eric Garner could happen to me.” Well, police violence has come home. This is bigger than the damage the Hawks have suffered to their title dreams. It’s about whether fame and fortune can buy safety in the United States, if one also happens to be living while black.

Since the publishing of this article, another video of the arrest has been released, which shows a member of the NYPD unsheathing a nightstick and either expanding it or striking Sefolosha while he is on the ground. 

** The NBPA has announced that they will be launching their own independent investigation into the arrests. Their full statement: "The players union is concerned about the circumstances of Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic's arrest and is doing its own investigation of the situation. The union was fully engaged in supporting all three players in court and in the precinct this week, and will continue to stay engaged as each situation evolves,"

 

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