Where sports and politics collide.
The NBA Finals may be determined by an act of police violence. This is an incendiary fact, yet a curious media silence surrounds the saga of injured Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. The nine-year pro has been absent from the playoffs after a group of New York Police Department officers broke his leg in April following a late-night confrontation outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police accounts about what took place conflict dramatically, with video that emerged of a group of officers surrounding Sefolosha, with one brandishing a nightstick. Sefolosha, with assistance from the National Basketball Players Association, is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York. How this is not a continual firestorm is, frankly, bewildering. Given that there is a national movement confronting racialized police violence, and given that last winter saw the most prominent players in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, even Kobe Bryant—speaking out in solidarity with this movement, it seems like a story too magnetic to ignore. It’s also unprecedented. My first editor told me, “The sun going up is beautiful, but it’s not a story. The sun not coming up, now, that’s a story.” This is the sun not coming up. It’s a narrative that would appear ripe for big-budget investigative reporting, regular updates, or even chatter. It would especially seem tailor-made for an era in sports media when everything is numbingly over-discussed; an era when Tom Brady’s vigorously rubbed footballs or the presence of adorable children at NBA press conferences qualifies as subjects of endless debate. But somehow it’s not.
Now, as the Hawks square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, this story should be re-emerging with a vengeance, and not only because Sefolosha is the only Hawk with deep playoff experience, as well as an effective defender of Cavs’ all-world superstar LeBron James. In game one, Hawks guard Demarre Carroll, their top playoff scorer and chief defender of James, went down with a knee injury. This has elevated Sefolosha’s absence from nettlesome to near-cataclysmic. Now, without Carroll or Sefolosha, the Hawks might as well assign a matador to guard James with a red cape. (Carroll’s situation, which initially looked gruesome, is officially day-to-day at this point, and he should be back later in the playoffs, although how effective he’ll be with a hyper-extended knee is anyone’s guess.)
Yet Carroll’s injury did not provoke a re-examination of what happened to Sefolosha. This near-silence has been across the sports media landscape, so it feels churlish to pick on one example, but it was both too high-profile and too evocative to ignore. On Thursday morning, Mike Greenberg, hosting ESPN’s national Mike and Mike radio show, talked about how the Hawks could possibly be able to guard LeBron without Carroll, and mentioned Thabo’s absence as well. In describing for his audience why Thabo isn’t playing, all Mike Greenberg said was, “We all know what happened there.” That was it. No mention of the NYPD, the conflicting stories, or the fact that NBA players have gone out of their way to speak about police mistreatment. Just “We all know what happened there.” Actually, we don’t all know what happened there, and that’s the point. Instead of retelling or even illuminating what we know, this line was dead on arrival. And yet “we all know what happened there” were six words more than most sports media offered this past week. Even the notably outspoken TNT team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley had nothing to say about it on Inside the NBA, broadcast immediately after the Hawks lost to Cleveland and in the aftermath of Carroll’s injury. Yes, given Shaq’s history as a volunteer police officer and Barkley’s own comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not have exactly been a rousing call for social justice, but to not even mention it was bizarre. Even Marv Albert discussed Sefolosha briefly during the broadcast. But to the TNT studio team, he was the invisible man.
I spoke to nine NBA journalists, editors, and television producers on and off the record about why this story has been objectively under-discussed. One might think they would say it’s because fans either don’t care about someone viewed as a role player or because it’s a polarizing topic and the audience will rebel if sports pundits get too political. But that’s not what I heard.
Michael Lee, The Washington Post’s national NBA writer, penned a terrific piece about the case with a series of quotes from NBA players and told me that it was his most viewed story of the entire season.
As far as a fan backlash, Sekou Smith of NBA.com and host of their Hang Time podcast has been one of the few to discuss it at length and e-mailed me that he has received “no backlash at all. I have no idea why it has gone so far off the radar. Perhaps he’s not a big enough name for our sensationalized 24-hour news cycle? The ignoring of it is just strange.”
After I fired off a series of tweets about why the media was not discussing this story more, three people from ESPN reached out to me to talk and say that they agreed. To be clear, this does not usually happen out of ESPN HQ in Bristol. People don’t air their anger with the company except in extreme circumstances. The only other time I’ve had that experience of people reaching out to me from inside the tent was when ESPN pulled out of its partnership with PBS’s League of Denial documentary about the NFL and head injuries. They did not want me using their names or exact words, out of concern of reprisals. Regarding Sefolosha, it’s fair to say that they were frustrated about the lack of resources, airtime, and enthusiasm devoted to what they saw as a monster story. They also said that they were rebuffed when they raised devoting regular time to it on ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter. The only concrete reason one received was “people not being particularly interested in the Hawks compared to other teams in the playoffs.” They all conceded that there was little audience appetite for more Hawks coverage, but believed that the story was bigger than just the fortunes of one team.
I was able to connect with Rob King, ESPN’s Senior vice president, overseeing SportsCenter, for comment. He e-mailed me the following: “The suggestion that there has been a broader decision to spike the story is ludicrous and disappointing. We understand with great clarity the potential significance of this story and continue to report it. As for ‘discussing it more on SportsCenter,’ this is a story that deserves greater illumination, which means information, not mere discussion. That takes reporting, and that’s how we’re proceeding.”
To be clear, no one suggested that the story was “spiked” just that it was deprioritized, which is self-evident given the absence of regular coverage. That said, King’s comments that the largest entity in sports media will be all over this story as it develops is very welcome. Yet there are aspects of King’s statement that raise questions. His dismissal of people who want to “discuss” this case, in other words to analyze it without new information, is peculiar given that ESPN just “discusses” issues that affect sports constantly. Also, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also doesn’t just report on breaking news but breaks the news through its own investigative reporting. The recent award-winning work on Qatar’s labor practices as they prepare for the World Cup by the E:60 team, led by Jeremy Schaap and seen across several of their media platforms, is evidence of this. (Another ESPN show, Outside the Lines, has frequently covered the broader landscape of NBA players and the Black Lives Matter movement.) Also, given the incredible access ESPN has to NBA players, it is unclear why they aren’t asked their thoughts about Sefolosha. This isn’t an irrelevant question. Almost the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team wore shirts against police violence and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Asking them about Sefolosha is more than logical. It’s obvious. But—at least by my research—it hasn’t happened on ESPN since the conference finals began.
One Cavs player, Kendrick Perkins who was a teammate of Sefolosha in Oklahoma City certainly hasn’t been shy about expressing his thoughts. He spoke at length to Michael Lee and said, “I was very shocked because Thabo is so laid back. He’s so not drama. He runs away from drama.” Other former teammates have also chimed in, like Pistons guard Reggie Jackson who said in a powerful piece by Vince Ellis for The Detroit Free Press, “I think a lot of people fear black males, so it’s scary. I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda unfair at times as a black male. Only thing that I feel protects us is probably the celebrity status and being an NBA player, but nobody’s off limits when you see what happens to a former teammate like Thabo.” This is a perspective that ESPN’s viewers, many of course who don’t have to deal with fears of police violence, ought to hear. There are no shortage of NBA players willing to give some copy on this issue if asked.
It is certainly true is that despite their 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks garner less national interest that any of the other teams remaining in the playoffs. But it doesn’t explain why the Atlanta media, as the team competes in their first NBA conference finals in franchise history, has been so lackluster on this story. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has 30 articles in its archives that contain the words “Thabo” and “police” although the overwhelming majority comprise either offhand mentions, wire reports, or short updates on the case. It’s not that there isn’t local interest. Just by tweeting about Sefolosha, my twitter handle trended in Atlanta, according to Trendsmaps. That’s kind of absurd. One Atlanta-based journalist said to me, “When it’s talked about on sports radio it’s just blame Thabo for being out late and move on. Not much deeper than that.”
The more I spoke to people, the clearer it was that this story has not garnered more coverage because of how the media police themselves. One person at Yahoo Sports said to me, “We censor ourselves. We’re risk-averse. White columnists feel like they’d get the story wrong, and black columnists don’t want the responsibility and risk of having to be the ones to write about it. We end up in a state of paralysis.”
Not everyone has been paralyzed, however, and it’s not always the case that the media silence themselves. There are still those columnists willing to play police if one of the brethren gets out of line. Turner Sports sideline reporter and former longtime print journalist David Aldridge spoke lucidly and directly about Thabo case in the middle of a live telecast. In just over a minute of airtime, Aldridge managed to report on Sefolosha’s surgery and the reaction of the franchise, and had breaking news comments from the new executive director of the NBA Players Association, Michelle Roberts, who confirmed that it were conducting its own investigation and said, “The best I can tell you is that there is no video at all to justify the way the police treated them.”
For his trouble, he was treated to a column in the New York Post by the reliably awful Phil Mushnick titled “David Aldridge ignores stabbing details to unfairly bash NYPD.”
The “details” that Mushnick felt were omitted were basically that Sefolosha was asking for it by being out at 4 am. Charming.
But Mushnick plays the role of buffoon with regularity and is an easy foil. This kind of media policing is the exception. A more apt analysis is probably that the sports media world does not want to be perceived as criticizing or even discussing the role of police in our society, particularly in the black community. One can understand why someone in a position of authority on a newspaper or at a network could identify this as an excessively polarizing subject and, without breaking news generated by Thabo Sefolosha’s camp, unnecessarily hazardous. But not putting a spotlight on such an unprecedented set of circumstances also represents an impulse to not unnecessarily upset the police or their supporters. This impulse appears to be even stronger than the drive for ratings or page views. This impulse represents a timidity that takes a story which could act as a lens toward educating people about a national crisis and consigns it to the dustbin. Meanwhile as thousands march in solidarity with Freddie Gray’s family in Baltimore, or gather in New York’s Union Square to say that the lives of black women matter, Thabo Sefolosha is on crutches. His team needs him and the NBA Finals hang in the balance, but he has a broken leg courtesy of the NYPD. Nope, nothing to see here.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Brazil and the aftermath of the World Cup
In Brazil, a debate raged throughout 2013 about whether two plus two equals four, or if in fact the correct answer was five. Those arguing that two and two was four were the millions of workers, students, academics, and citizens who said that spending billions on building new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup was a criminal use of resources. They said that every shred of data we have shows that mega-events require mega-spending, which leads to mega-debt, mega-displacements, and mega-militarization. The other side said that the World Cup would be a glorious affair providing not only international acclaim but an economic tide that would lift all boats.
But the resisters would not be mollified by slick ad campaigns, bright billboards, and celebrity spokespeople They took to the streets to argue that this was not a battle of contrasting opinions or ideas. It was facts vs. faith: obvious blaring facts vs. cynical profiteering masquerading as faith. In the end it didn’t matter that the history of hosting these events painted a picture of the future so vividly bleak, Marley’s Ghost might as well have been standing there, chains rattling, imploring the faith-based World Cup boosters that this endeavor would fail. But all the logic, mass demonstrations, and counterexamples dotting the earth—like places destroyed by the mega-event monorail—didn’t matter. From the rotting Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing to the 2004 Olympic structures sheltering the homeless of Greece, facts were not only reframed as conjecture, but also met with tear gas, truncheons, and tanks. That’s what happens when the government, the arms industry, the real estate barons, and the construction magnates reach their own consensus that this is good for them. Might makes right and if they believe that two and two equals five, then people better just get with the new math.
Now, as NPR has reported, all the predictions made in the streets of Brazil have proven true, expressed in a Jackson Pollock splatter of tragedy and farce across the country (which is a more erudite way of saying “we can now see that FIFA vomited all over Brazil”). All the tragedy people were assured would be minimal—the displacements, the eradication of favela communities, the endless debt amidst austerity—have been super-sized.
But then there is the farce. All the new stadiums—festooned with their FIFA-quality bells and whistles—have become punch lines. As NPR reported last week, they now seem to exist as satirical props. In Brasilia, the $550 million stadium is now a being used as a “parking lot for buses.” In Natal, the soccer field—again built with public funds—can be rented out for weddings and kids parties. In Manaus, the Amazon’s much publicized new arena has been suggested by politicians as a possible open-air prison. In Curitiba at their new stadium, it was found that the locker rooms had been broken into and were being used by the homeless. This proved, if nothing else, that at least some folks in Brazil aside from the dissenters, learned from the Olympic disaster in Greece.
My one problem with the NPR report is that it describes what is happening in Brazil as a “World Cup hangover.” That implies a party where people drink heedlessly and pay a price. This is more like a populace being forcibly strapped down and given medication “for their own good,” only to have an intense allergic reaction.
I spoke to Joao, a street merchant I became friendly with when in Rio, and he said, “We were angry in 2013 because no one wanted this. I want to say people are angry now and they are. I want to say that anger is going towards resisting austerity, but I cannot. Dilma and the Workers Party are seen as the left wing, and people are scared that challenging them will open the door even further for a right—a fascist right—I haven’t seen so confident in years. In 2013 it looked like a new movement could emerge. Now the right is banging their pots. The anger is real, and they are answering it even though their solutions don’t address any of the problems the World Cup brought.”
Rio is a particularly perilous place at the moment, because even as people are still reeling from their World Cup sickness, the 2016 Olympics are right around the corner.
The 2016 Rio Olympics—with all of their hidden and attendant costs—now present an irony for Brazil too wearying to contemplate but too enraging to ignore. Ninety percent of this recently built World Cup infrastructure won’t be worth a damn for the Olympics, since the World Cup is a national operation, with stadiums splayed out across a country larger than the continental United States. The Olympics, of course, are all about Rio, with the infrastructure projects, dislocation, displacement, and militarization falling upon one city. This outmoded style of organizing the games should have the effect of muting national protest against the Olympic monolith by confining the social disruption to the Rio coast, even though the entire country—once again amidst austerity—will be financing it, its future tied to public works projects that will become the squatter shelters, wedding party backdrops, and parking lots of tomorrow.
As we speak, another team of business leaders, former politicians, and star athletes are attempting to use their combined charm and resources to convince the people of Boston that two and two equals five, and their city should host the 2024 Olympics. Yet people in Boston are fighting back. As those in Brazil have learned, when dealing with the Olympic vultures, being right is never, ever enough. Keeping the Olympics out of your city isn’t a “battle of ideas” on a level playing field, but it is in fact a battle. To win, you can’t just raise arguments, you have to raise hell.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Roger Goodell and Deflategate
For most of this week I’ve resisted delivering a steaming hot take about this “deflategate” story because I could not force myself to give even the slightest of fucks. It’s been difficult to care about the bereaved and aggrieved Patriots nation of fans who are in full froth over their Super Bowl–winning team being branded as cheaters. I also wasn’t overly concerned with the tarnishing of quarterback Tom Brady’s legacy. If anything, this story only mattered to me insofar as I truly wondered—since the NFL believes that the Patriots swindled their way through the playoffs—why they didn’t have to just give up their precious Lombardi Trophy. After all, forfeiting the championship was the brutal judgment delivered unto the USA Little League Champions Jackie Robinson West. I wanted to challenge Roger Goodell to go to the South Side of Chicago and hold a public lecture on why a billion-dollar football entity and their jet-setting golden boy quarterback was not being held to the same standard as the first all African-American Little League team.
But then something about this story burrowed under my skin like an inch-sized tick: the financial penalty levied against the Patriots. While Boston wept over Brady’s four-game suspension and howled over the team’s loss of draft picks, that $1 million fine stuck in my craw. I know a million bucks seems like piffle for a franchise with a market price in excess of $2.5 billion. But like nothing else, this $1 million fine signifies the rebooted and refortified arrogance of Roger Goodell. After a year when the commissioner’s job was on the ropes as he stood humbled over his historic bungling of domestic violence issues in his league, Goodell is feeling his oats. This fine represents an audacious, “Empire Strikes Back” level of self-regard. He might as well find an aircraft carrier to land on, with a Mission Accomplished banner in the background.
So what makes this seemingly small fine such an act of hellacious hubris? According to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL cannot issue any fine in excess of $500,000. How did this become 1 million bucks? Well, according to “Goodell logic” the Patriots are fined $500,000 for deflating the balls and another $500,000 for Tom Brady’s “refusal to cooperate” with the investigation. Like Kuato from Total Recall, it’s a fine within a fine! In other words, Brady would not disclose his phone records and assorted affects that could tie him to the conspiracy of the flaccid balls and Goodell is sending a message that not coming clean is a punishable as well as unpardonable sin.
My goodness. Roger Goodell punishing people for not disclosing data would be like Mike Huckabee criticizing people for intolerance. This is the same Roger Goodell who refused to open the NFL’s financial books during the lockout out of 2011 when the union asked for proof about his laughable contention that some teams were losing money. This is the same Roger Goodell who has refused to disclose the NFL’s treasure trove of medical data and scientific theories regarding the long-term affects of the head traumas that take place during every game. This is the same Roger Goodell who made sure that when the 2013 concussion lawsuit, involving over 4,500 former players, was settled, a condition of that settlement would be that these records would forever remain under lock and key. This is the same Roger Goodell who claims a historic drop in the number of concussions in the 2014 season without disclosing the data or methodology that emboldens him to assert this, even as the league’s numbers are scoffed at by medical professionals. This is the same Roger Goodell who does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge while issuing denials that there is any connection between football and ALS. This is the same Roger Goodell who says that his soccer-playing daughter has a concussion risk “almost greater than” a pro football player’s. This is the same Roger Goodell who has done nothing to disclose to NFL families the new data that suggest bruising to the frontal lobe of the brain could affect temper and impulse control among players, putting families at risk of intimate partner violence. We are talking about a man who lives in an igloo of secrecy but wants players to open up their lives or risk sanction and humiliation. This is the person in charge of the NFL: a man who wants full disclosure for the benefit of the league but won’t disclose a thing for the benefit of the general public.
It was announced today that the Patriots would be appealing the fine and suspension levied by the league. The person they are appealing to? That would be Commissioner Goodell. Everyone is talking about Tom Brady, but, honestly, we’ve been looking in the wrong direction. It’s not Tom Brady we should be worried about. It’s Roger Goodell. The balls on this guy…
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Department of Defense and the NFL
All-star first baseman Carlos Delgado was not a fan of the numerous military appreciation events taking place at the ballpark a decade ago. These were staged to bolster support for the Iraq war and doubled as recruitment stations, using sports to increase the ranks of the armed forces, which had thinned dramatically after George W. Bush decided to call for a permanent era of armed conflict. As Delgado said, “I won’t stand for this war.… It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.”
Now we can not only see that these events were politically transparent propaganda for a flagging war effort. We know they were paid for by us. We know that the US Department of Defense doled out $5.4 million from 2011 to 2014 to fourteen NFL teams to stage these warm-hearted “Salute the Troops” events, as well as do product placement, advertising, and “casual” (otherwise known as “subliminal”) mentions.
National Guard spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt, in a statement that was actually supposed to defend and explain this practice said,
This isn’t, as some might think, payment for unfurling a flag or to welcome a soldier home on the field. This is more about spending for marketing and advertising, for signage, for website takeovers.… We have hundreds of [sponsorship agreements] with teams, including minor league baseball and at high school. We have found that spending in sports to help us recruit in our 18-24 demographic works out for us.
It’s that last part which really singes the eyes. Far too many people are outraged about this story just because the taxpayers were on the hook for something people thought was being underwritten by red, white, and blue NFL owners. Hell, this story was originally broken (in part) by Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake railing against “pork-chop” spending. Granted, the idea of any of our money going into the welfare-king pockets of NFL owners is stomach-churning. But the highly manipulative recruitment practices aimed at “18-24 year olds,” which Jeff Flake has no problem with, are being let off the hook. I know as the expression goes, you throw your line where the fish happen to gather or as Willie Sutton said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” But this isn’t like opening a new gourmet burrito food truck in a neighborhood going hipster. This is preying on the young and using their love of sports to lure them into the arena of war. While football and fighting in war have traumatic brain injury in common, everything else—from the military metaphors used by announcers to the four-star-general fixations of head coaches (even NBA coaches think they’re fighter pilots!)—is worlds apart.
It would be wise to listen to the mother of the one NFL player who made that journey from “combat” on the field to the real combat overseas, the late Pat Tillman. As his mom, Mary, said to me last year, “A feeling of camaraderie is important to all humans and I think the camaraderie of sport provides the most reward. Many young men join the military in order to get that feeling of belonging, that feeling of brotherhood. It is irresponsible to try to entice young people into military service with subliminal messages.”
Now we know: not only subliminal but on our dime. One thing is certain: Carlos Delgado was right a decade ago. This is just the stupidest damn war ever.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the proposal to ban Israel from FIFA
We have before us a point of agreement between Netanyahu’s Israel and the militarily vivisected area of land at times referred to as the Palestinian territories: the idea that sports and politics should not mix. Tragically—not unlike words such as “life,” “liberty,” and that whole “pursuing happiness” thing—the phrase means far less as it journeys from abstraction to reality. Israeli Football Association Chairman Ofer Eini and Chief Executive Rotem Kamer traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, last week to meet with reptilian FIFA chief (and self-described women’s soccer “godfather”) Sepp Blatter. Their mission? To change a meeting agenda item. The Palestinian Football Authority is scheduled to propose having Israel banned as a FIFA member country at the May 29 meeting of the organization’s global congress. Eini and Kamer want to get that proposal and all debate on the subject removed, with Eini describing the vote as “a flagrant move that seeks to mix politics with sport—something that is completely contrary to FIFA’s vision.” (For brevity’s sake, we will leave aside unpacking how “not mixing politics with sport” has about as much in common with “FIFA’s vision” as a KFC bucket of extra crispy has with “PETA’s vision.”)
Then there is Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Authority. Rajoub says that he is pushing this proposal for the same reason that Israel is trying to prevent it from coming forward. “What I am trying to do is separate completely football and politics,” said Rajoub in an interview with Middle East Eye. “Sport is a tool to bridge gaps, to build bridges with all people all over the world.”
Rajoub wants Israel sanctioned because he believes that the travel restrictions and checkpoints, imposed by the Israeli government on the Palestinian Territories—not to mention the militarized separation of the West Bank and Gaza—has made the development of Palestinian soccer nearly impossible (this despite their recent historic qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup). Rajoub also plans on citing the detention and mistreatment of Palestinian national players by the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as the recent comments by Beitar Jerusalem coach Guy Levi, who said on the radio last month that their team would “never” sign an Arab player.
“The Israelis are enjoying the status afforded by being part of FIFA, while depriving a neighbouring administration of their rights to play football,” said Rajoub. “For years we have asked confederations in Asia and Europe to interfere and stop the suffering of Palestinian footballers…. When that didn’t work, we decided to go directly to FIFA’s general assembly.”
The PA would need 75 percent of the 209 global associations, which is unlikely, but if it passes, Israel, in the words of Kamer, would see “all its international activities…come to a halt,” It would also be an isolating public relations nightmare for Netanyahu’s already beleaguered government. Just as the prime minister has been trying to get the stink of a highly racialized re-election campaign off his body, he has been under fire for the treatment by Israeli troops of Ethiopian Jews staging their own unprecedented #BlackLivesMatter protests against state violence. Israel and Netanyahu have also been waging a furious public relations campaign against the accusations of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that they are an apartheid country not unlike South Africa. If FIFA suspends Israel, it would become the first country banned by the soccer federation since—yikes!—apartheid South Africa.
Both sides want to keep sports and politics separate, which makes this a fascinating look at what people mean when they make that kind of a plea. In sports it is very common to hear this sentiment from owners, media, and fans but it is rarely if ever used to critique the hyper-militarization of sporting events or the use of public funds to build stadiums (or, in a recently exposed synthesis, the use of public funds to celebrate the military). In other words, it is not sports and politics that they want to keep separate but sports and a certain kind of politics. “Keep sports and politics separate” morphs into code for ‘just shut up and play.’”
In this case, the Israeli Football Association is saying, “Do not use sports as a way to argue for statehood. Sports is not the place for that kind of rhetoric.” The Palestinian FA is saying, “We can’t compete because the politics of the Israeli occupation makes developing soccer a near-impossibility.” This is a very tough argument for the Israeli FA to win. If sports and politics were truly kept separate, then the Palestinian Football Authority would be able to travel freely, receive foreign visitors, and enter international tournaments without the fear of not being able to show up. As I’ve argued here many times, attacking the ability of Palestinian soccer to develop is also about attacking fun, play, and hope. While the Palestinian FA has facts on their side, no observer expects them to win 75 percent of the vote. But if Blatter even prevents this from even being raised on May 29, it would be an ugly gesture from an ugly individual. FIFA is hardly a moral force in this world, but soccer certainly can be. It is the closest thing we have to a united global obsession that links every country. FIFA’s sole organizational obligation is to make sure that everyone has a chance to play. What worries Netanyahu is that discussing this issue in soccer then becomes like pulling a thread on a sweater. If soccer is warped by occupation, then what about education, healthcare, or basic staples of civil society? That’s a question the Israeli FA is now scrambling to see unasked.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on James Dolan’s controversial decision to hire Isiah Thomas
Given the myriad ways that the teams we love don’t always love us back, it’s a wonder more sports fans don’t abandon the squads of their youth. A sports organization can have a criminal owner or an economic agenda that involves syphoning millions of dollars in public money, or employ players that are genuinely awful human beings, and we will still irrationally love them. Yet everyone has a line that if crossed, will cause them to say goodbye to the team of their prepubescent heart. I have friends in DC who “bled burgundy and gold” their entire lives, but then quit rooting for the Washington football team when owner Dan Snyder’s boorish, bigoted belligerence became too much to endure. I have friends who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers until it seemed that the team cared more about sheltering accused rapist Ben Roethlisberger than the reputation of of its storied uniform. For me, the team I had to tearfully divorce was the New York Knicks.
I loved that team. I was raised with that Knickerbocker blue and orange as a second skin. A Bernard King number-30 jersey was nailed to my wall. I had a poster of The Bomb Squad (Johnny Newman!) I even once head-butted an opposing player as a tribute to John Starks. But in 2007, after over two decades, I turned in my Knicks fan card. For me, my own line was crossed when a jury awarded $11.6 million to Knicks Vice President Anucha Browne Sanders in a sexual harassment lawsuit. The highest-ranking woman executive in men’s sports, Sanders—who was once the greatest basketball player in Northwestern University history—had convinced a a jury that team president and NBA legend Isiah Thomas and Knicks owner James Dolan had created a workplace so toxic, that she simply couldn’t do her job. Dolan was then judged to have fired Sanders for the crime of complaining about Thomas’s abusive words and inappropriate touching.
Thomas in his trial testimony, infamously said, “A white male calling a black female a bitch is highly offensive. That would have violated my code of conduct.” But a black man calling a black woman a “bitch,” would bother him “not as much. I’m sorry to say, I do make a distinction.” Dolan matched Isiah’s awfulness. In videotaped testimony, after hemming and hawing, he was pushed to finally admit that it was wrong to call a woman a “black bitch.” Then he said with a shrug, “It is also not appropriate to murder anyone. I don’t know that that happened, either.”
My disgust with James Dolan was total. The awful decision-making and terrible on-court escapades certainly didn’t help, but it was about how he could run a franchise where sexual harassment was not only ignored but accepted. I was done.
Today all of this history was dredged to the surface when James Dolan announced that he was bringing his friend Isiah Thomas back into the fold as president and part owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Most people’s jaws hit the floor. How the hell could Dolan do this? Why would Isiah say yes? Did they really think the 2007 trial wouldn’t gurgle to the surface and used as yet another sign of Dolan’s irredeemable awfulness?
On my Facebook page, Liberty season-ticket holder Tara Polen summed up the feelings I have seen today on various message boards when she wrote, “Considering the WNBA is feminism in action to me, I find the allowance of Thomas to head a team to be incredibly offensive. If he wants to invest in a team and be a partial partner, that’s one thing. That is, in some ways, putting your money where your ‘restitution’ mouth is. But to run the show? At a charter franchise? GTFOH.”
Polen is right. But believe it or not, when I heard the news I was hopeful. I had been able to interview Isiah in recent years and saw someone with a strong social conscience, as well as someone who had been through a hellish period in his life and was coming back. It had been eight years since the Sanders case, and I assumed that surely there was no way that James Dolan and Isiah would venture into the WNBA without having some serious groundwork laid down beforehand. I assumed there had been private meetings. I assumed there had been apologies for past errors. I assumed that this had to be a story rooted in some kind of redemptive narrative about people reckoning with past misogyny and now trying to build the institution of women’s sports. I assumed way too much.
Embarrassingly, I did not account for the enduring, entitled aristocratic idiocy of James Dolan. There had been, according to my reporting, no groundwork put down, no prepping of concerned parties and no sit-downs. There was just James Dolan impulsively making an awful decision with little care for the consequences. There was just James Dolan—again—being James Dolan. Born into unimaginable wealth, Dolan is not merely someone who, to use a cliché, “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” This is someone who as a baby surely flung his own poop and had people tell him that he was Sandy Koufax. WNBA president Laurel Richie, in a statement that arrived with more ice than the Planet of Hoth, told the press, “The Madison Square Garden organization announced that Isiah Thomas has been named president of the New York Liberty and that he will take an ownership interest in the team, pending WNBA approval. New owners are approved by our WNBA Board of Governors, and this process has not yet begun.”
When asked about whether, given the sexual-harassment case, this move was wise, the comments from Dolan’s office were chosen not only to be antagonistic but positively pugnacious. “We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now. We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility.” (For the record, this makes no sense.)
I am stunned that Isiah Thomas would again tie his destiny to James Dolan, which is the equivalent of thinking that nothing adds to the fun of air travel like sitting in a back-row middle seat and flying into a mountain. I am also stunned that I even considered that James Dolan might have planned this move with a modicum of forethought and grace. And I suppose I am stunned that James Dolan can dress himself in the morning, although I am without firm confirmation that this is something he can in fact accomplish.
After the announcement, I heard from the biggest Knicks fan I know, journalist Robert Silverman (read his own take on this over here). He said to me, “Honestly, I’m ready to walk away from the team after decades of fandom. I’ve survived all of Dolan’s blinkered, arrogant, narcissistic bungling and accepted that like clockwork he will eventually do something so unimaginably stupid, so preposterously wrongheaded that it boggles the imagination. What I can’t stomach is this: James Dolan doesn’t give a fuck about women. If I stick around, I’m complicit.” Join the club, Bob. We all have our line as sports fans. When it comes to the Knicks. James Dolan looks at that line and, with apologies to Marge Simpson, throws up on it. Our only power is to walk away.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on HBO’s The Wire and the Baltimore uprising
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.
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
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.’”
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
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.
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
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.
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