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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Duke University Coach Mike Krzyewski Is a Profile in Cowardice

Mike Krzyewski

Duke head coach Mike Krzyewski (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“I’m only going to talk about my team and basketball and the Final Four. Just like when we get to Indiana, I’m not going to talk about social issues or poverty or anything else. I’m just going to talk about this Duke basketball team.”

The above words were said this morning by Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyewski in response to whether he would have anything to say about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which in a post-Hobby Lobby Era, is already granting businesses the “freedom” to discriminate against the LGBT community. Coach K’s curt comment could probably best be described as a profile in cowardice. His school, Duke University had already issued a statement where they said,

"Duke University continues to stand alongside the LGBT community in seeking a more equal and inclusive world, and we deplore any effort to legislate bias and discrimination. We share the NCAA's concern about the potential impact of the new law and will be vigilant to ensure that our student-athletes, supporters and indeed all citizens and visitors are treated fairly and with respect."

In fact, every Final Four University as well as the NCAA has made similar statements. Beyond basketball in the world of sports, even NASCAR took a public stand and condemned the law. When NASCAR is making you look like a political quisling, it might be a time for a spinal readjustment.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Coach K should come out and stand with the LGBT community, if that is not what he believes. The man is a longtime Republican donor who in 2002 deeply upset people in Durham when he held a fundraiser on campus at the Duke Inn and called his party Blue Devils for Dole. In other words, Coach K has a number of options for how he could respond to this mushrooming controversy. He could support the school that pays him an annual $10 million salary and stand with their statement. He could support the NCAA, an organization whose artificial restrictions of what his players can earn has made him an incredibly wealthy man. He could even join the many Republicans in the state of Indiana who oppose the law and make an “I Stand With NASCAR” joke. Or Coach K could take a deep breath, hike up his big boy pants and say, “You know what? Duke and the NCAA and NASCAR are wrong. I support this law because I believe in God, freedom, and heterosexual florists. Oh, and gay weddings are overrated, and it’s about damn time America woke up to that fact!”

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But instead, Coach K, like a certain fellow Nike pitchman, just gave us his version of “Republicans buy sneakers too.” It also looks particularly weak in the aftermath of the passing of Coach K’s great rival, Dean Smith. The passionately principled Coach Smith would not have only spoken out against the law. He would be leading a delegation to the statehouse to confront Mike Pence in between practices, no matter how much backlash it would have meant for him back home in North Carolina.

Normally, I am a big believer that we should not demand coaches or athletes to make political statements if they have no desire to do so. No one should be clamoring to hear what Coach K is thinking about the latest in Yemen. But there are moments when they actually do need to stand up and be counted. For example, when a billion-dollar tournament is about to be played in a state that currently is being confronted for codifying a 21st century viral variant of segregation. For example, when your school is being used to sell that very tournament. For example, when every coach in the country, is looking to you for leadership. That’s when you pick a side. Saying that you are just going to talk about your “team and basketball” and making snide comments that you are also not going to talk about “social issues” and “poverty” shows how great the gap is between principle and snark. It’s the same gap we see between the elder statesman coach speaking with the gravity of a small-parish priest to the media, and the guy cursing out teenagers on his sidelines. Mike Krzyewski once said, “I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” This isn’t leading. It’s not even following. It’s standing for no one but yourself.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on why the NCAA should move the Final Four out of Indiana

Moving the Final Four out of Indiana Would Be One Hell of a Political Statement

Dave Zirin

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has ignited a firestorm of controversy for its vague language that critics say will allow businesses to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin joined MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts yesterday to discuss why he and other pundits think the NCAA should move the Final Four out of Indianapolis to protest the egregious nature of the law.

While giving credit to the NCAA for setting a precedent for other sports organizations by coming out against the new law in a statement issued by their President Mark Emmert, Zirin said that moving the Final Four to nearby University of Cincinnati would be “one hell of a political statement.”

If the NCAA is serious about “actual concerns for student athletes, actual concerns for the safety of NCAA employees, one would think [Emmert] would see this as a moment of actual urgency,” said Zirin.

Today, Indiana Governor Mike Pence called for changes to the law but still defended the motives of state legislators, saying, “I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate.”

James F. Kelly


Read Next: Dave Zirin imagines a world of sports worth fighting for.

Why the NCAA Should Move the Final Four Out of Indiana

window sticker

A window sticker on a downtown Indianapolis business. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As the world now knows, Indiana has become synonymous with the kinds of backward looking bigotry best remaindered in history’s trashcan. The state’s Governor Mike Pence has signed legislation under the guise of “religious freedom” that gives businesses the right to not serve someone if they believe them to be part of the LGBT community. The looseness of this law is frightening. Could a pharmacist refuse someone their HIV medication if they assumed they must have gotten the virus through gay relations? Could the owner of a restaurant, with a wink to his buddies, deny service to anyone with brown or black skin and just say, “You look gay to me”? And what happens to a gay couple that sits at—gee, I don’t know—a lunch counter and is denied service? Will they be dragged away? At present there is an HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana so severe that Governor Pence has allowed needle exchanges to slow the spread of the disease. One hopes that the pharmacists and hospitals in that part of the state have a greater sense of humanity than the Indiana statehouse.

This law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is outrageous. It also raises immediate questions for one of the biggest operations in the state: the NCAA. The Final Four, the NCAA’s most lucrative shining moment, is being staged in Indianapolis next weekend, just miles from their $80 million headquarters. (Immediately after the legislation’s passage, a petition online to get the NCAA to move, surfaced.) Already, NCAA President Mark Emmert has issued a strongly worded statement against RFRA.

“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” the statement read. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

This has received fulsome praise from many in the sports world, including Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel in an article called “NCAA’s response to Indiana’s ‘Religious Freedom’ law is perfect.” Wetzel wrote, “It’s a good and bold threat by Emmert. This is the NCAA leading for a change.” I agree with Wetzel that Emmert has correctly raised the stakes for Roger Goodell, Adam Silver and every sports commissioner that does business in Indiana to be heard. But I can’t agree that it’s perfect. Not even close.

If Emmert really wanted to make a statement, he’d move next week’s Final Four out of Indianapolis. Emmert could announce that they were moving the basketball semifinals and finals to Cincinnati, less than 100 miles from the locale, so anyone who had their plane tickets or driving plans set wouldn’t be egregiously inconvenienced. Play it at the University of Cincinnati—hell, play it at a Cincy YMCA—but just get it out of the clutches of Mike Pence. The economic cost to Indiana would be severe; hurting the hotel services industry as well as hundreds of low-wage workers. That’s deeply regrettable, but it also wouldn’t be the fault of the NCAA. It would be at the feet of lawmakers for passing such a discriminatory law. In other words, Charles Barkley, who has been wrong about so much in recent months, is absolutely dead-on when he said, “Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me. As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.”

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The only block to this happening by next weekend is that the NCAA gets over 90 percent of its annual operating budget from the Final Four and would lose millions of dollars. But Mark Emmert, even with his multimillion-dollar salary, always likes to talk about the NCAA’s “mission” as a nonprofit is to be a force for education. It’s why he says players can’t be sullied with payment, even as their jerseys are sold and the games are plastered with more commercials than a Daytona 500 race car. Here is a time to actually show it. Here is a time to say that despite the branding, the swooshes and the ads everywhere, money is really not the most important part of college athletics. Here is a time, for once, to not be a symbol of incompetence, hypocrisy or exploitation but something that truly matters. If Emmert really believes, as implied in his statement, that this legislation actually makes Indiana unsafe for student-athletes and employees, then he has a responsibility to move the Final Four. For Emmert to make such a move would be a show of actual principle and courage from an organization that has for too long lacked either.


Read Next: Dave Zirin's interview with economist Andy Schwarz on why college athletes should be paid

An Economist Explains Why College Athletes Should Be Paid

March Madness

Michigan Wolverines guard Trey Burke (right) walks off the court after losing to the Louisville Cardinals in the 2013 championship game. (Reuters/Jeff Haynes)

On Thursday I spoke  to Andy Schwarz, a leading anti-trust economist, for some straight common sense about about the NCAA, college sports and paying athletes. His words should be CliffsNotes for everyone watching March Madness.

On why NCAA athletes should receive some sort of monetary compensation:

I always say the question of whether they should get paid is the wrong one. I think the question is, “If the NCAA weren’t colluding against them, would they get paid?” And the answer is, “Yes, they would.” We all should have the right to earn what we’re worth, to go in and ask for it, and if we’re not worth much, we won’t get much. The fact that the NCAA is so adamantly insisting on enforcing a rule to prevent anyone from getting paid I think is a good sign that if the rule weren’t there, they would.

On what kind of system would make the most sense:

I think the simplest system is almost no system at all. Or if you insist on having some rules, have them at the conference level.

The best system is one where teams make their own decisions. In college, if you had each of the ten football conferences or thirty-two basketball conferences competing, they could make their own rules. They could set a level of parity among the schools within the conference and then go off and compete for talent in such a way that if a school up in Minnesota or Maine or Massachusetts thinks hockey players are worth something, then they would get paid. In most places, football and basketball players would get paid. I went to Stanford. Women’s basketball players would be in demand there. Probably at Connecticut as well.

On whether paying athletes would be either a legal violation of Title IX, or wreck women’s sports:

Both of those things are 180 degrees wrong. Title IX is really specific to what it does and doesn’t require. People probably think that Title IX requires that men’s sports and women’s sports get equally funded and it doesn’t say that at all. In 2009–10, Alabama spent $43 million on men’s sports and $13 million on women’s sports, and they weren’t in violation of Title IX because all Title IX says with respect to money is that, however many men you have playing sports, the money they get has to be proportional to the ratio. So if you’ve got 60 percent male and 40 percent female athletes, then the money that they specifically get in scholarships has to be 60:40, plus or minus a tiny margin for error. Now you have a system where the player “pay” is capped and the way that schools compete for talent is to pay coaches more and more to get them to recruit, This shifts money away from areas where Title IX does apply—the money that goes to players—to areas where it doesn’t apply. So if we change the system and we allow schools to compete for talent with pay, you’d see coaches’ pay go down, you’d see male athletes’ pay go up. But every time you increase the male athletes’ pay by a dollar, and it’s not quite a dollar in matching, but there would need to be, under the law, a matching payment to women.

On how paying players would control obscene college coaching salaries:

To be clear, tomorrow they won’t rip up a contract that’s in place. This is a five-to-ten-year transition. And if the NCAA were being proactive about it instead of scorched earth, they’d be planning for it. Effectively, when firms—and these schools when they’re out there hiring coaches and when they’re hiring athletes like a normal business—figure out what they want to pay a person and the benefits they get from increased quality, that sort of sets a market rate. But in the current system, players can’t be lured with pay, so a school comes up with a secondary means of payment: a nicer locker room, a waterfall in my hydrotherapy room, a promise of winning, a greater chance of playing pro. And good coaching is also a perk. But coaching is a relatively scarce resource, and the best coaches take advantage of that because they are in a free labor market. There was an attempt in the 1990s to cap coaches’ pay too. The coaches took them to court and the court slapped it down really, really fast. That’s called price-fixing. As a result, when you want to spend more dollars on talent and you can’t, you spend it on more facilities and you spend it on more coaches. In contrast, growth in revenue in the NBA and in the NFL mostly flows to the players. Coaches make about 5 percent of total payroll in those leagues and—even if you count the value of a scholarship as a fixed salary—coaches can make twice as much in football and seven times as much in basketball, as their team. [Editor’s note: Schwarz clarified that by this he meant that coaches can get 200 percent (in FB) or 700 percent (in BB) of what their athletes’ scholarships are priced at, in total across the whole team.]

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On whether paying college athletes would increase a culture of entitlement:

I think the people who are most entitled are athletic directors who were born rounding third base and think they hit a triple. They are being paid for effectively expropriating what the athletes would get in a market. When I hear coaches talking about this too, it’s like, well, the real market rate for all your talent has been doubled by the fact that you’re sucking money away from people from who, if they were allowed to earn based on their skill and hard work, would be making the most money, so that your salary can go up. I read yesterday that Michigan sent a letter to the girlfriend of a player to try to convince her to try to convince him to come to Michigan. Those are the sorts of crazy, indirect things you have to do when you can’t say we want you so much that we’ll up our offer by $10,000.

On the odd political alignments around the issue of paying athletes:

There is a strain of people on the left who see the whole process of rewarding people within a college structure for something that’s not academic to just be fundamentally wrong. So the idea that they have a market value in a system like that, it’s strikes them as being wrong and they might go to the point of saying it’s immoral. These people ought to be more interested in school. Your values should be the same as my values.

On the right wing—some of it is because unions have gotten involved and they’re just knee-jerk anti-union—people are conservative and change is hard. So the idea that this might change the nature of football, it might change the strict hierarchy as coach as father and players as children to something more like a partnership. That’s also threatening.

I wish we could see it as something along the lines of: let these people be. Young men, a lot of times, come from backgrounds of poverty. Let them use their entrepreneurial spirit to earn their keep. And to the left, I think we should say, “Isn’t this a great way to end what’s really a regressive tax, where the earnings of young black men are basically taxed at 100 percent to pay for the salaries of largely middle-class, middle-aged white men?”


Read Next: Dave Zirin on how Chris Borland has reframed the football debate

‘You’re Not a Commodity, You’re a Person.’ How Chris Borland Has Reframed the Football Debate

Chris Borland

Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The news that budding football star Chris Borland left the NFL on basic health and safety grounds is still reverberating, and not just in the sports world. On Sunday, Borland appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation and said that he will be returning most of his original signing bonus to the 49ers. He also responded to the league office’s reaction to his decision, which was that “the game has never been safer.” Borland said, “I think football is inherently dangerous and that’ll never change so long as we have football. Talking about the culture of safety is really irrelevant.”

He spoke about his passion for the “visceral” violence of the sport but also said, “That doesn’t mean football players are pieces of meat. I think the most important people to convey that message to is the football player himself. You’re not a commodity, you’re a person.”

Borland’s decision to leave the game has had major ramifications. Most critically, he has reframed the debate about tackle football from the one pushed by so many sports-radio time-fillers and right-wing radio jocks: that what we have is a fight between people who love the game and mollycoddled commie femi-nazis who want to bubble-wrap our children and then ban the sport. Borland has moved the discussion toward what the real debate actually is: on one side, there are people who believe that the NFL should be transparent about the health risks that come with the game, especially as they are now running football clinics around the country for children; and on the other side, we have a multibillion-dollar corporation obfuscating the actual dangers, relying instead on PR-meisters like Frank Luntz to come up with sound bites and action-plans to convince the public that all is well, and it is safe for your children to come out and play.

Borland has been able to reframe this debate by rooting his decision in very direct personal terms. This on its own has started a political dialogue about the league without his looking like he is in any way “grandstanding” or looking for the spotlight. He has done this with purpose. In attempting to figure out how he was going to make and then announce this decision, Borland spoke to many both inside and outside the game, but one such conversation is particularly fascinating, especially for those who know their political sports history: Dave Meggyesy. The one-time Cardinals linebacker played in the 1960s and then, like Borland, became part of that tiny group of players who walked away from the sport while still healthy and in demand. Meggyesy left not over health concerns but because he believed that the league’s violence made the country more desensitized to the war in Vietnam, which he vehemently opposed. In 1970 Meggyesy wrote and published the classic sports memoir, Out of Their League and went on to become West Coast director of the National Football League Players’ Association.

I spoke to Meggyesy this week. He told me that they first met after Meggyesy gave a lecture in one of Borland’s history classes at The University of Wisconsin. A group went out to dinner and Meggyesy found him to be “a very sharp, good guy and a person who was really looking at the game: mainly what he would need to succeed in the NFL.”

Before Borland made this decision, Meggyesy and he spoke again. As Meggyesy described it, “We had some e-mail communication back and forth over the past year. Over the phone we’ve talked a couple of times and at one point, he asked me if I knew how to connect him up with the Fainaru brothers, who wrote the book League of Denial that showed how the league has spent decades basically denying that there’s any connection or relationship between head trauma and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a debilitating brain disease). He was, at that point, in the research phase. I also talked to some friends that connected him to some neuroscientists who are researching this and getting a real good picture of what is going on out there. He really did his homework, and when he was done I don’t think he believed he could trust the league to give him the straight skinny on brain injuries. When we talked about a month ago, he told me he had made the decision, and because of these neurological concerns he was going to walk. He of course, asked me to keep it quiet—and I did—and wanted to know what my opinion was. I said I thought it was his decision, but it certainly made a lot of sense. I also said that how you leave the game is very important. I said, ‘If you are able to raise the question of the game’s safety for parents and concerned people, that would be a very important thing to do.’ And my sense of what he’s done, the way he did leave the game, clearly did raise that question. He’s done it with a great deal of integrity, a great deal of intelligence, and that’s why a lot of players have supported him.”

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I asked Meggyesy if he believed we should view Borland’s decision as a personal or political statement. “Well, it’s kind of how you define political,” he said. “I think it’s definitely personal, but I think that Chris is a person who has a larger social conscience. So in the sense of it being political, in the sense of moving the larger social consciousness in a positive direction, yes, I think he basically did that. And he’s a kind of guy who thinks in those terms. He gets that it’s not just about him; it’s about what can have a positive impact and move things in a positive direction. I think that really did happen.”

As impressed as Meggyesy was with Chris Borland, he was disgusted beyond words with the response to Borland by the NFL and their immediate pivot toward saying that “the sport has never been safer” as well as their pointing to their own study that states, “Concussions are down 25% over the last three years.”

Meggyesy said, “Oh, you shouldn’t take those statistics seriously at all. Of course, the league is not going to support him in this. Of course they’re going to try to say football’s safe. Well, football’s not safe. They talk about concussions when what we’re really talking about is brain damage. If you play this game, you’re going to walk away damaged. That’s why Chris Borland, who loves this game, who was ready to star this season, left.”

That last point is what gives the NFL ownership night-sweats above all else. Chris Borland had a golden opportunity at football stardom. But he looked at the NFL Dream, then looked at reports on brain injuries, and decided it just wasn’t worth it. He won’t be the last.

[The interview with Dave Meggyesy was edited down strictly for flow.]

Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Chris Borland’s early retirement is a conscious act of resistance

Chris Borland and the Revenge of History

Chris Borland

Retired San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland (USA Today Sports/Brad Penner)

At age 24, promising San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland walked away from millions of dollars, unconditional adulation, and a shot at NFL stardom because he chose to value his future over the present. This might be because he knows something about the past. Borland earned a history degree at the University of Wisconsin and, to the shock of the football world, as well as the discomfort of the NFL brass, he chose to apply this knowledge and walk away from the game. If history is the greatest predictor of the future, then the path in front of Borland must have seemed horrifying. A majority of NFL players end up broke and physically damaged. Untold legions suffer from CTE, a brain ailment that affects motor skills, memory and impulse control. Early onset dementia and ALS can result from the kinds of repeated blows to the head that happen on every play of every game. The ignominious history of head injury casualties includes high-profile suicides of Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. It includes Dave Duerson who like Seau put a bullet in his chest instead of his head so his CTE-wracked brain could be studied. It also includes icons of the 1980s like Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett struggling with basic life-functions. History shows that playing NFL-level-football is like playing Russian Roulette with your future, and Chris Borland decided to do what so few have done and put the gun down. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

One can count the number of players in NFL history who have walked away in advance of injury and with their talent still in demand on two hands. They include running back legends Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. They also include linebacker Dave Meggyesy, who left the sport in 1969 as a political act against how he believed the violence of the football conditioned people to accept the war in Vietnam. He then wrote the classic sports memoir Out of Their League. Fittingly, Borland spoke to Meggyesy before his decision. As Meggyesy said to me, “This is a very sharp young man who did not make this decision lightly. He valued his ability to still walk away.”

According to a Sporting News survey, NFL players on social media largely gave Borland a great deal of respect, praising him for the courage of his convictions. Several high-profile NFL broadcasters were far less charitable, taking shots at Borland for making this choice. They sounded disturbingly like Bush, Cheney, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and the whole gang of those who used their advantages to avoid combat in Vietnam only to insist decades later that other people’s families sacrifice loved ones to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. As much as I despise the comparisons of sports and war, it is just too apt in this case; another example of how easy it is to stew in a whirlpool of toxic testosterone when it’s not your body, your mind, or your child at risk.

The worst response to Borland however came from the NFL itself. The easy move would have been for the league to do what the 49ers did, which was to make a classy statement that Borland was a good person, a valued member of the league, and simply wish him the best. Instead, Jeff Miller, the NFL senior VP of health and safety policy, gave a perfunctory slap on the back to Borland and then immediately pivoted to a full-throated defense of the safety of the sport, writing, “By any measure, football has never been safer.… Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”

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Unsourced statistics and Frank Luntz massaged PR offensives about “a growing culture of safety” don’t make the game seem safer. They just make the minders of the sport sound like tobacco execs braying about the safety of the new low-tar Virginia Slim with the extra-large filter.

Then there was Steelers team neurologist Joseph Maroon who showed up on the NFL network to claim that playing tackle football was safer than riding a bicycle.

But the most revealing quote came from Packers director of player personnel Elliot Wolf who tweeted, “Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days.”

That, in a nutshell, is the far more serious existential problem the NFL faces. It’s not that there won’t be people “literally begging” to play the game. It’s that college athletes like Chris Borland who don’t come from dire poverty will in greater and greater numbers choose to do something else with their minds and bodies. Many NFL players began their lives in destitute situations defined by hardship, but many others come to the league from stable, middle-class backgrounds as well. That middle-class player, especially those like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick who played multiple sports, will become scarce. Meanwhile, as ticket prices rise, we are facing a sport ready to go “full gladiator” as poor people, disproportionately black, damage one another’s brains for wealthy, disproportionately white crowds. For an NFL that likes to paint itself as synonymous with America and apple pie, this has the potential to just be an awful commercial look. It could become a disturbing revealed truth about where this country is headed. In history class, Chris Borland probably studied Rome. That didn’t end well. But he also surely learned that history could be altered through conscious acts of resistance against the way things ought to be. Mr. Borland gave us such an act this week. His career may by over. But I’d bet a great deal we will hear his name again.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on why not even John Oliver can shame the NCAA

Why Not Even the Mighty John Oliver Can Shame the NCAA

John Oliver

John Oliver covers the NCAA on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (Youtube)

If you haven’t witnessed John Oliver’s scabrous, side-splitting shreddage of the NCAA, stop reading for twenty minutes and watch. You will cackle, reach for the nearest stone, and while still joyously bent over, throw it in the general direction of the NCAA’s $85 million headquarters in Indianapolis. Oliver launches a merciless, unassailable argument that the NCAA and their multibillion-dollar machine of nonprofit amateurism is nothing but hypocritical rot. His portrayal of a truly “authentic” videogame deemed “March Sadness,” involving hungry, exhausted players, narcissistic, rageaholic coaches and administrators making snow angels in piles of money, should be watched as a precondition of filling out a bracket.

Yet there is a non-satirical sadness in seeing John Oliver so thoroughly dissect the hypocrisies and odious, sulphur-smelling injustices of the NCAA, because while perhaps never done as hilariously, it has also been done, and done and done again. It recalls Taylor Branch’s epic long-form article about the NCAA’s having “the whiff of a plantation,” a seeming slam-dunk if there ever was one. It recalls arguments made for years by sports columnists like Kevin Blackisone, coaches like Jerry Tarkanian, and an endless line of former NCAA athletes who found themselves used up and tossed aside. In fact, an entire generation of activist athletes, from 81-year-old Bill Russell to 26-year-old Richard Sherman, have argued that the system is unjust. Even the man who founded the modern NCAA, Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987, once said, “The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neo-plantation mentality on the campuses.” The argument against the NCAA is such an entrenched part of the public record, the burden is on those who dare stick their head above ground to defend it.

Yet the system not only survives. It thrives. The same college campuses where people are presumably taught about the importance of liberty, debate and winning the battle of ideas have evidence right on their campuses that none of these post-feudal intellectual staples are worth a damn outside the ivory tower.

The tragic reality was made plain a year ago by then Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who said, “Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.” Colter tried to organize a union, and the response was not only an ugly campaign against the project organized by his coach but state legislatures in Michigan and Ohio passing laws to make sure that players could not organize themselves.

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Yet despite the NCAA’s well-funded efforts, neither Colter nor the presence of an organized struggle are done. Last week, a new organization of university professors called the College Athletes Rights & Empowerment Faculty Coalition was launched, aimed at winning actual compensation for student-athletes. Kain Colter has lent his support to the initiative. The NCAA’s response to these efforts was the familiar blather from spokesperson Stacey Osburn that “We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees” and that “We want student-athletes—most of whom will never make it to the professional leagues—focused on what matters most, namely finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.” One wonders how Ms. Osburn could attach her name to something that reads like a Hallmark card paean to indentured servitude. Despite her words, the system is perversely set up to ensure that success in the classroom is a near impossibility. I just returned from Austin, where I learned that the University of Texas is sending their basketball team to China in the middle of next semester to build their burnt-orange brand. No discussion has been permitted either about the educational value of the trip or how “student athletes” will make up their work upon returning to campus. It will however aid the almighty mission of former NBA executive turned school athletic director Steve Patterson to build revenue up to a quarter of a billion dollars.

It is so damn easy to expose the NCAA, but it will never be enough because it is immune to argument and utterly oblivious to derision. Taylor Branch, John Oliver—hell, the reincarnated genetic splicing of Jonathan Swift, Dorthy Parker and James Baldwin could never bring even a hint of red to NCAA President Mark Emmert’s cheeks. It is, as Kain Colter described, a dictatorship, except its great weapon is not torture. It’s the absence of shame.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on how two college towns are dealing with racial injustice

‘Are We Still Thugs When You Pay to Watch Us Play Sports?’

OU football players

The University of Oklahoma football team stands arm in arm in response to the recent racist video from the now disbanded Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

It is difficult to imagine two more different university towns than Madison, Wisconsin, and Norman, Oklahoma. Madison has a reputation stretching back decades as liberal—even radical—territory. That ain’t Norman. This week however, both of these communities were connected by the resistance of black students—along with allies and supporters—against racism. Madison and Norman are bringing together different aspects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and demonstrating how this struggle is now firmly implanted among the young—and among young athletes—in a manner that for now seems set in stone. In Madison, several thousand high school students marched and sat in the streets demanding answers and justice after Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19-year-old, was killed by Madison police. In addition to protests and sit-ins, high school basketball fans, players and even coaches arrived at several games wearing either all-black or shirts that read #JusticeForTony or #BlackLivesMatter.

At Oklahoma, the campus has been roiled by a leaked video of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, caught on camera chanting racist slurs. The school immediately cut all ties with the frat and university president David Boren pledged immediately that the school would become “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue.”

That wasn’t enought for the Oklahoma Sooners football team, who canceled their practice and, wearing all black, walked off the field to join demonstrations. It is worth noting that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops joined his team and marched. It is also worth noting that Bob Stoops has already lost a top-rated high school recruit because of the video.

The players, in addition, held an impromptu press conference saying that they wanted to use this opportunity to also speak about their own grievances about how they are treated on campus. On Thursday, Sooners Quarterback Trevor Knight issued a statement on behalf of the team. People should read it in its entirety because it is a powerful piece of work. The money quote in my mind is:

As a team, our goal first and foremost is to raise awareness of racism and discrimination on college campuses nationwide…. But before we can change the nation, we make it our mission to change our campus. We seek to accomplish this goal by stepping out of the spotlight and integrating the student-athlete experience and the student experience. As student athletes of all races, classes and creeds, we hope to show the university and the community that we are defined by more than the numbers on our jerseys, and that we are human beings that desire to get to know our classmates as we all attempt to end the culture of exclusivity on this campus. Secondary to accomplishing these goals, we also seek disciplinary action for those responsible.

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The simultaneous real-time demonstrations for #BlackLivesMatter in these two seemingly polar opposite places of Madison and Norman speak glaringly to the fact that what they have in common is greater than what separates them. Both are state schools with small percentages of black students. Madison, with more than 40,000 students, has a black population of 2.3 percent, and OU, with an enrollment of about 30,000, has a black population of about 5 percent. Both schools field football teams that are nationally ranked, financially lucrative and highly dependent on black talent. This also means that on both campuses sports might be the most integrated public space. Several players at Oklahoma, as sports writer Aaron Leibowitz pointed out, have taken to social media to spell out the ways so-called “student athletes” can be deified on campus while being disrespected when the uniform comes off.

Both the stories out of Madison and Norman brought to mind a sign held up by University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long when attending a Black Lives Matter rally on campus that read, “Are we still thugs when you pay to watch us play sports?” The answer for too many seems to be yes. We learned this week that the cities of Madison and Norman had more in common than college life and big time football. Here is hoping that as the Oklahoma football team confronts how it is going to “step out of the spotlight” and “raise awareness of racism,” its vision includes Tony Robinson and the growing list of unarmed black women and men felled by police violence.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on Chip Kelly, John Carlos and the “R-word”

Chip Kelly, John Carlos and the ‘R-Word’

Chip Kelly

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

In the fall of 2011, I was touring around the country with 1968 Olympian, anti-racist campaigner and protest icon Dr. John Carlos. For the uninitiated, he was the guy on the medal stand along with Tommie Smith, with his jacket open and arm bent, ready to take on the hatred of the world for the greater principle of human rights. Whenever we visited a big-time sports university, we made sure the athletics department was aware of it, just in case they wanted Dr. Carlos to speak to the student-athletes. Some of the smaller programs graciously said yes. The overwhelming majority either did not return our calls or replied with a curt no. After all these years, Dr. Carlos is still radioactive in the eyes of the risk-averse caretakers of college football and basketball. It makes sense, given their dependence not only on unpaid black labor but on the passive compliance of that labor. If your star players choose to raise their fist instead of play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or take the floor for March Madness, the entire multibillion-dollar economic setup of college athletics would implode. There may not be laborers more exploited or in possession of more labor-power, than the disproportionately black revenue-producing college athletes and that makes the entire setup a racial and economic tinderbox.

We realized that it would take actual courage for a big-time NCAA football or basketball coach to ask John Carlos to address their locker room. Of all the places we visited together, only one asked him to speak to their team and that was Chip Kelly at Oregon. I called Dr. Carlos last night to see what he remembered about the experience, and he recalled how Kelly introduced him to the Ducks as a person of principle and resolve and said that any successful team needs to share those kinds of principles if they want to rise above being ordinary. He remembered that Kelly was passionate in having his players know the history of 1968, and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of black athletes.

I recalled this story yesterday because there was a volcanic thread over social media about Chip Kelly, now the coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, making personnel decisions that are being labeled as racist. I gleaned somewhat that this had been started by ESPN First Take’s bombastic co-host Stephen A. Smith, and was discussed after a series of moves by Kelly to clear out, trade or not re-sign a group of popular African-American players in Philly. These moves have also included holding on to white wide receiver Riley Cooper for two seasons after Cooper was caught on camera making a drunken racial tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert.

By evening, having always felt grateful to Kelly for bringing Dr. Carlos in to speak to the team, I tweeted the following: “Hard to hear the ‘Chip Kelly is a racist’ slander when I saw Coach Kelly bring in ‘68 Olympic protester John Carlos to address Ducks in 2011.” And then “After John Carlos spoke, Chip Kelly said that players should emulate his conviction. This is John Carlos. Racists don’t like John Carlos.”

I still stand by that. But what I did not expect—and I cannot believe I was this naïve—was a tidal wave of anti–Stephen A. Smith invective in my timeline aimed at him for even broaching the question. I did not even mention Smith in my tweets because it felt like the topic was beyond him, but he had become the piñata for everyone angry that this discussion was happening. It was over the top and very ugly, as if the act of talking about racism was in fact racist. It felt particularly stunning to read this on the very day that thousands marched in Madison, Wisconsin in the name of Tony Robinson and the players on the Oklahoma football team were walking out of spring practice clad in all black, fed up with the racism of fraternities that worship them on the field and mock them once the uniforms are off.

I don’t entirely agree with Stephen A. Smith at all, but before damning him, let’s examine his exact words, because it contains something worth serious discussion. He said, “We’re sitting here looking at some of the decisions that Chip Kelly has made and I’m like, ‘What’s up with that?’ It looks like you got to be his kind of guy. And I’m like, ‘Riley Cooper is your kind of guy?’ You got brothers walking the streets going, ‘What’s up with Chip?’ It does strike me as a tad bit odd.… Gone: LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson. Staying: Riley Cooper. Really? OK.”

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I wish Stephen A. Smith had an internal editor, because some of this is just flat-out wrong. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was a free agent and left for a bigger payday that Philly was not going to match. Running back LeSean McCoy was also due a big day and will now be replaced by a new running back who is also black, Frank Gore. [Breaking news: it looks like Frank Gore is changing his mind and signing with the Indianapolis Colts.] Looking at other signings, there is no racial realignment in the Eagles locker room, which Smith implies. But the jettisoning of wide receiver DeSean Jackson last season, and the leaking that he had some form of gang affiliations to justify it, was among the more noxious things as we have seen in the NFL in some time—and dear Lord, that is really saying something. (Whether Kelly was responsible for that leak is a disputed question.) The best part about that episode was that it led to a defense of Jackson by his childhood friend Richard Sherman that stands, in my mind, as one of the most politically important written statements an athlete has made since the days of John Carlos.

Then there is the keeping of Riley Cooper. It is difficult to not compare and contrast the institutional response at Oklahoma University to the frat racial eruption and the response of the Eagles franchise to Cooper. OU immediately severed ties with the frat and school president David Boren pledged immediately that the school will become “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.” The frat is gone, but Cooper has stayed. Chip Kelly, after a series of off-season power moves is the management of the Eagles franchise and the decision to hold onto Cooper, will very understandably continue to be critiqued.

Couple the Jackson and Cooper episodes with the extremely complicated history in Philadelphia at the intersection of sports and racism, and one can see why this is a discussion some in Philly, beyond Stephen A. Smith, want to have. This is a city where the Phillies threatened Jackie Robinson and where the Phillies fans and team showered 1960s All-Star Dick Allen with the kind of racial vitriol that still should bring a sense of shame. This is the city that for decades genuflected in front of a statue of a fake white boxer in Rocky Balboa and shunned their own real-life Rocky, Joe Frazier. This is the city where Donovan McNabb, the best QB in Eagles history, was disrespected in a manner that was both implicitly or explicitly racist. The sins of the past become a part of the present, and Chip Kelly has to be conscious of that history and navigate his role far more effectively. How Stephen A. Smith phrased that question might have been sloppy, but we have to stop treating racism as if it is the “R-word,” something that people are vilified for even raising. I will always be grateful to Chip Kelly for bringing in John Carlos. Coach Kelly wasn’t afraid of discussing racism and its history. We should not be afraid of that discussion either.


Read Next: An interview with Royce White on Larry Sanders, mental wellness and the NBA

Royce White on Larry Sanders, Mental Wellness and the NBA

Royce White

Royce White (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

When budding Milwaukee Bucks star Larry Sanders announced that he was voluntarily leaving the National Basketball Association to deal with his depression, anxiety and mental wellness, largely supportive comments emerged across the league. Yet there was one basketball opinion guaranteed to be more valuable and more honest than any others: that of former Iowa State All-American Royce White. The sixteenth pick in the 2012 NBA draft, White is currently not playing in the NBA. Just 23 years old, he has risked his career by confronting the NBA over its lack of a comprehensive mental health policy. I was able to interview Royce White for my radio show/podcast Edge of Sports. Here is an edited version of his comments:

On his gut reaction after hearing Larry Sanders was walking away from the NBA:

There’s a lot of sympathy there, especially dealing with anxiety myself. Not so much depression, but often the two intersect. I think that from the lens of being a mental health advocate, anytime somebody discloses the struggles they have it is a leap forward for the topic of mental health… because it’s just so taboo, it’s so hushed… At the same time, Larry is walking away from the game, and if he were staying in the game, there would be a whole different conversation that would be taking place.

On how the conversation would be different if Sanders was making the decision to stay:

I think there’d be much more resistance. It’s easy for everybody to say mental health is important when the player who’s dealing with the mental health condition is moving away from the game. But then it isn’t on [the NBA]. It isn’t still on their lap and that accountability that’s going to need to be taken. There’d be a lot more resistance if he was staying in the game.

On learning about how the Bucks were touting that they had a team psychologist on staff:

The conflict of interest is definitely there. I think if you’re going to be employing a psychologist, it should be in the form of giving the team workshops on sensitivity to mental health in the workplace. I think the risk for conflict of interest there is way too great, and that’s something that I talked about back in 2012: that independent doctors are what’s needed to make sure that the focus stays solely on health and what’s the player’s healthiest choice, not what’s the healthiest choice that can make him be the most productive basketball player because sometimes those might not intersect.

I think one of the things that’s tough about the mental health discussion is that there’s people who are all over the spectrum. And I think the NBA needs to first acknowledge the importance of mental health, and then be able to sift through, “How do we navigate getting better?” And there’s thirty individual clubs and they’ll all do what they think is best, but acknowledging the importance of mental health first is where it begins. The sports psychology thing has some validity to it as well, but the mental health discussion definitely supersedes the sports psychology discussion. But some of the reasons why guys might be nervous at the free throw line, or throwing up before games, or harping on the results of the game may also have a lot to do with mental health.

On hearing that an owner was quoted in an article about mental health in the NBA by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz saying, “I just gave him $30 million worth of mental health”:

It doesn’t surprise me. If I take you back to 2012, when I advocated strongly for there to be a mental health policy in the NBA, there was an article that was written where a GM said that he didn’t think that I was good enough to have my own set of guidelines as a player, regarding mental health. And the writer was [Yahoo Sports’] Adrian Wojnarowski, and later in the article he said other NBA owners and GMs feel that way so it’s not surprising at all. I think it’s scary, though… it’s very Donald Sterling–esque. Comments like that and articles like this sometimes go unnoticed and aren’t treated with the gravity that they should be. And what’s so sad to me is that if the owner that said that just knew a little bit more about mental health and what it means to be supportive, he would know that it’s not a money thing. It’s the policy and the power. I think an education process needs to happen, but ideas like that can’t allowed if we’re going to have the progress we want to have in terms of mental health in sports.

On the quote from someone in the NBA who said anonymously, “This is an important issue, but Larry is not the person to be the public face of it/He says all the right things, now he has no credibility”:

The first thing I thought when I read that comment was, “I pray to God that’s not somebody who Larry has been leaning on for support.” Because the number-one thing you do not do when attempting to support someone with a mental health condition is not believe them when they say, “I’m dealing with depression, anxiety, or I’m having suicidal ideation” or whatever it is. As far as him not being the public face of it, I think that’s neither here nor there. Him being the public face is not really even a factor.

On learning that Sanders grew up in dire poverty and how that relates to mental health:

It’s definitely right-on point to bring up capitalism when you bring up mental health and the way that we price it in this country. And at the end of the day, if you look at impoverished communities, there are high rates of mental health conditions. And I think at the end of the day, when you go in and you start to deal with poverty, then the mental health improves all around. I think that’s one of proudest moments of the article, was him talking about where he came from, and how those people from that community have really risen up through him for him to be able to stand up for himself and say, “My health is important.”

On Sanders’s comparing himself to Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, and saying that being an all-world defensive player requires a degree of mania and perhaps throwing one’s mental health to the wind:

It’s tough to say. If he feels that way, then we have to use what he’s saying as a piece of data moving forward as a way of progressing in the field. Obviously he’s a high, elite competitive athlete, and he is a great defender, so we have to look at that now. Let’s not shut it off, let’s just take it and apply it to the motivation of what we’re going to do moving forward. There is a validity to what he’s saying about the correlation between mental health conditions and energy or hyper-creativity. Those correlations have been drawn before, and we see that a lot of people who are hyper-successful or hyper-creative do have mental health conditions, but there’s also people who aren’t hyper-creative who have mental health conditions as well, so I think a general respect for mental health would do the league justice, I don’t want them looking at just the great defenders.

On not falling back on the idea that the NBA “culture” is resistant to speaking about mental health because of “machismo”:

I think there’s a lot of machismo type ideology that’s playing a factor. But I think the NBA is getting off the hook, and I think a lot of other professional sports leagues are getting off easy with the “man argument,” that it’s a “man toughing it out” thing. I think that’s a scapegoat that they’re using that to say that this is our long-lasting ideology and you know, don’t fight us on that. I think what’s really going on, is that to support mental health, or to genuinely move forward and progress in the area of mental health, there’s a real level of accountability [in management] that needs to exist, and that accountability isn’t just a money or resources thing, it’s being in touch with the humanity between two people.

For example, if you know I have anxiety, the way you operate now, the way you make your decisions… everything is impacted. And we live in a world where people [in power] want to be less accountable, they don’t want to be more accountable, and I think that in the NBA, that heightened level of accountability on behalf of players with mental health conditions has a financial implication, and that’s what they’re afraid of.

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On what players should be pushing for when it comes to mental health and the collective bargaining agreement:

I think they should be pushing for independent doctors: third-party doctors that aren’t employed by the league. I think that would give it the cleanest process in dealing with players with mental health conditions, and the cleanest results. What the union will get is all about what they’re willing to sacrifice and how hard they’re willing to push. But it’s not that tough. And I always go back to the example of me being at Iowa State. As much as people talked back in 2012 [his NBA rookie year] about me needing a special set of guidelines, and I was trying to be treated special and I was just a pompous brat, the reality is that I went through an entire season at Iowa State. We barely had to do anything special for me. So the first thing I’d do is bring [Iowa State] Coach [Fred] Hoiberg in and tell them what he had to do so they can be a little more eased about what they may have to do. Like I said, we didn’t do anything special other than I drove a couple times and if I was ever feeling anxious I was able to go to Coach Hoiberg and talk about it, and our team doctor was involved, and maybe I needed some medication to get some extra sleep, or maybe I needed some medication to calm down some nausea, which is another effect of anxiety, before a big game. But all very little things that aren’t costly. And I think that that fear of that cost is what’s standing in the way.

On what the position of the NBPA should be:

If you break your ankle on the court, of course they have to keep paying you, because you got hurt on the job, and it’s not even a question whether you keep getting paid. But for some reason, Larry Sanders says he wants to go deal with his mental wellness and it’s like, “Oh, well, we definitely can’t pay you for not being here.” Yes. I would’ve liked to see a player like Larry Sanders who needs a year to get better be clear that after that time he wants to come back. Or maybe it’s not a guy needing a whole year to get more mentally healthy. Maybe it’s a week. Maybe it’s two weeks. The same thing if you had a bad back or you twisted your ankle or you’re having vision problems. Whatever it is, if it’s a medical condition, you should pay the guy. I don’t think that guys should be penalized for needing to recharge their batteries. Wouldn’t it make for such better basketball if we took into account for guys needing to recharge their batteries? I think it would just be an improvement for the NBA to take this step forward in the area of mental health and the collaboration of that and physical health, and we’ll realize a whole new holistic health.

On what’s next for Royce White:

I’m going to play. I never stopped wanting to play. I think there’s a misnomer out there that I walked away from the game somewhat along the line of what Larry did, but I was just playing at the end of last season with Sacramento. If they would have kept me, I would have stayed. I want to play, and I’m going to play. If all teams think that they can’t use my services, then so be it, but I’m going to continue.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on why players, fans and the long-term success of MLS lose in the new CBA

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