Where sports and politics collide.
Two games. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera dragging his unconscious wife-to-be Janay Palmer by the hair, after knocking her unconscious, and the National Football League has chosen to suspend him for two games. Rice in fact will return to the field just in time to wear the NFL’s pink-festooned uniforms to celebrate their deep commitment to breast cancer awareness—and their even deeper commitment to selling sixty-dollar jerseys marketed aggressively to their female fan base. In fact, the Ray Rice all-pink number is available for purchase right now. The NFL actually needs a Violence Against Women Month instead, to raise awareness about a killer that malignantly throbs in every locker room. But that is not going to happen, and it is worth understanding why.
The NFL, as many have been writing for too many years, has a violence-against-women problem. The incidents are too many to catalogue. But by suspending Ray Rice for two games, a lighter suspension than the league’s marijuana smokers receive, Roger Goodell and his coterie of owners are sending a message that it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know why anyone would expect more from a league notorious for racist nicknames, out-of-control owners and a locker-room culture that would shame some high schools. But still. Two games. I did not think the NFL had the capacity to stun me with its blockheadedness, but I was wrong.
There is without question an important discussion to have—an unheated discussion not made for sports radio—about why violence against women and football seem to walk arm-in-arm. We could discuss the inability for football players to compartmentalize violence, taking the hyper-aggression of their sport home with them—something that affects families in the armed forces as well. There is a discussion we need to have about its connection to traumatic brain injury, and the ways that some of the side effects according to the NFL’s own neurologists, are mood swings, fits of temper and the inability to connect emotionally with the people in their lives. There especially is a discussion we need to have about a culture of entitlement that starts in high school and runs even more profoundly in college football, where young men produce billions in revenue and are often “rewarded”, since they can’t be paid, with a warped value system that says women are there to be taken.
If we can confront how players deal with violence and with the women in their lives, then we can prevent tragedies before they take place. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown absolutely zero interest in taking this issue seriously. The league didn’t do anything after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovon Belcher killed the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manager.If they did not do anything then, they are not about to take it seriously now. It is very difficult to not be cynical about why it is so casually indifferent to this issue. To discuss violence against women means by necessity to talk about everything endemic in the NFL that creates this culture. The NFL has been aggressively marketing its sport to parents, telling them that, despite what they may have heard, football is as healthy for their children as a Flintstones vitamin. To discuss the causes of violence against women means to put its golden goose under the harshest possible light. It means producing negative publicity, and it means blowing wind on the brushfire movement of young parents who do not want their children playing this sport. To not discuss it, however, means not only ignoring a problem that won’t go away. It means sending a message to every general manager, coach, player and fan that the worth and humanity of women is at best negligible.
That is why when Rice’s coach John Harbaugh said, upon learning of Rice’s suspension, “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process,” he is just taking his cues from the league that provides him with employment. Harbaugh also said, “He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way.” Unfortunately, the only lessons that kids are going to learn from this episode is that the vaunted “shield” of the NFL protects perpetrators of violence against women, for the sake of what it sees as the greater good. When its “breast cancer awareness month” begins, people should take these jerseys and light a big old bonfire outside of NFL stadiums. They are symbols of a monstrous joke that sees women as either revenue streams, cheerleaders or collateral damage to what takes place on the field.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the transformation of safe havens in Gaza into warzones
When the Palestinian national soccer team secured entry into the 2015 Asia Cup, winning the right to play in an international tournament for the first time in its eighty-six-year history, crowds gathered by the hundreds to dance, play music and watch the triumph of their national team on large movie-sized television screens on the beaches on Gaza. The oceanfront represents the illusion of freedom for a land otherwise encircled by walls and checkpoints. People often gather on the beach to celebrate because it is a refuge from densely populated squalor that defines so much of an area that they have been compelled to call home. This is especially the case for children.
That brings us to the four Bakr boys. There was Mohamed Ramez Bakr, eleven years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both ten, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, nine. They were all killed by an Israeli Defense Forces military strike while playing on the beach in surroundings as familiar to them as a corner playground. The first shell sent them running. The second took their lives. Existing in a land where are you are always underfoot, the beach is one of the precious few places a child can freely roam. In Gaza City, which sewage and pollution could make unlivable by 2020, according to a United Nations study, this is one of the only places where the air feels clean in your lungs. In a land where soccer fields are constantly under bombardment—Israel says that parks and stadiums are popular places for Hamas to launch rocket attacks—the beach is where you go to play.
The Bakr boys were killed in an area they believed to be safe. Mohamed’s mother, grieving at the hospital, was quoted by CNN as saying, “Why did he go to the beach and play—for them to take him away from me?” Several reporters on hand were shocked at what happened. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC, tweeted: “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them #gaza.” After this, Mohyeldin was taken off the air, and was only allowed to return following an online campaign launched to defend him. The reasons behind NBC's decision to pull him and then return Mohyeldin to Gaza are still very much in depute. Whatever the cause, Mohyeldin was doing the kind of journalism that forced people to see Palestinians as actual human beings.
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When people write, tweet, and message me with their unquestioned belief that Hamas is using the children of Gaza as human shields, I often wonder whether they make these assertions out of unknowing ignorance or out of a deeper kind of “let them eat cake” cruelty.
Maybe they don’t know that these same “human shield” accusations, made in 2008 and 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead bombing of Gaza, were found to be without evidence by Amnesty International.
Maybe they don’t know that to even speak of “human shields” in Gaza is absurd, because the Strip is fenced-in and residents have little right to come and go as they please. Maybe they don’t know that Gaza City is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with most of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in the urban heart of Strip.
People in the United States may be ignorant about these overcrowded conditions, but the Israeli military commanders are certainly not. Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal quote that if the poor were starving and without bread, we should “let them eat cake,” has become Netanyahu’s “let them find shelter.” He says, “Let them evacuate” when the only truly safe place is on the other side of a checkpoint. Someone fleeing one missile strike may be heading directly into another.
Perhaps these four little boys are examples of the “telegenically dead Palestinians” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us we should disregard. Or perhaps what Netanyahu fears is people who see nothing “telegenic” about dead children. Perhaps he knows that there are people who cannot imagine anything more human than a group of children playing on the beach, and cannot imagine anything more inhumane than taking their lives from the sky.
When LeBron James made the decision (as opposed to “THE DECISION”) to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers after four seasons in Miami, many commentators praised the social conscience that seemed to amplify his desire to return home. They said that by leaving the South Beach scene for North Eastern Ohio, James was admirably demonstrating aspirations to be more than an athlete, and a yearning to be something beyond a Jordanesque “brand”.
This week we learned that admiration has limitations, particularly if the concerns of an athlete extend to Palestinian children. NBA players Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudamire, and Metta World Peace all received a withering backlash for daring to tweet a desire to see an end to the casualties caused by Israel’s relentless bombing campaign of Gaza. Metta World Peace, in a full defensive posture, was reduced to tweeting, “I’m not taking sides, I’m saying stop the BS and love the children. How can you do arts and craft when bombs and guns going off[?]” Amar’e Stoudamire who is Jewish and even has funded an Israeli basketball camp, was pressured to delete an Instagram picture of an Israeli and Palestinian child arm in arm with the caption “Pray for Palestine.” Yes, even this was too much.
But I want to focus on the person who has received a backlash from every side of this equation, Dwight Howard. First Howard was slammed by the pro-Israel crowd for daring to tweet #freepalestine after being sent images of the carnage. Then he was crushed by those who stand with the Palestinian people for tweeting a near immediate retraction, calling him “Howard the Coward.”
Howard clearly had a very human gut reaction to seeing the horror being inflicted upon the people of Gaza, and then was contacted by someone: his agent/publicist/team owner who told him to get that shit down and apologize for it as soon as possible. For those who wanted Howard to grovel for daring to even muse that Palestine should be free, he did not disappoint, tweeting, “previous tweet was a mistake. I have never commented on international politics and never will” and then, “I apologize if I offended anyone with my previous tweet, it was a mistake!” This was not enough for Zionist Organization of America chief Morton Klein who told TMZ(!) that Howard “should be publicly condemned as strong as Donald Sterling was.”
Yes, this is hardly a profile in athletic courage. Yes, I understand why some, frustrated by the craven US media coverage of the shelling of Gaza, were enraged that Howard ran away from a basic statement of solidarity. Yes, I cannot quite grasp why Dwight Howard dismissed what is happening in Gaza as “international politics”, given the fact that his own country delivers $8 million of military aid to Israel every day.
In addition to all of this, I share people’s teeth-grinding frustration that Dwight Howard’s former Rockets teammate the Israeli-born Omri Casspi has felt no pressure to apologize, nor has he taken down his tweet that said, “600 missiles been fired from GAZA by Hamas in the last 4 days. NUMBERS DONT LIE. STOP LYING.”
In a sane world, Casspi would be roundly shamed—and not Twitter-shamed, but really shamed—for daring to say the words “numbers don’t lie” in relation to Israel-Palestine and not starting with the number of dead children in Gaza.
But I am actually not mad at Dwight Howard. I suppose I am not mad for the same reason that former NBA player Etan Thomas is not mad. Thomas has also been tweeting #freepalestine. I asked him for his thoughts about Howard and he said, “I see the fact that he tweeted anything at all as a step in the right direction. At least he did something and provoked conversation. That’s more than a lot of people are doing. Whether they deleted their texts or not respect to Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace for showing a social conscious.”
It’s a point well taken. If people are mad at Howard for actually saying and then deleting something, then where is our anger for those with a major platform who are choosing to say nothing? If anything, Howard performed a public service by demonstrating how Palestinian people are imprisoned not only by walls, barbed wire and checkpoints but also by Western hypocrisy. Here we have one of the most densely populated areas on earth, 1.7 million people, and half of them under the age of 16, being relentlessly bombed. At last count, the numbers are 1,500 wounded and 192 killed, including thirty-eight children. This is not a war in Gaza. This is a war crime. Everyone should be demanding that the targeting of civilians end. People should universally condemn scenes of Israelis going to the top of a hill and watching the bombing of Gaza like it is a night out at the theater or wearing neo-Nazi symbols at pro-war rallies in Tel Aviv. And yet, an athlete tweeting #freepalestine is smacked down with an immediacy that speaks to how desperate Israel and their backers in the United States are to keep them insulated from even a whiff of criticism. I am not mad at Dwight Howard. I want to thank him. I want to thank him for showing with utter clarity what few will say openly: that acknowledging the humanity of the Palestinian people comes with a price.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why LeBron James was destined to return to Cleveland
I am often asked, given my love of soccer and my criticisms of how the World Cup is organized, whether it is possible in the twenty-first century to have the spectacle of top-notch organized sports and have it done ethically? Or, can it at least be done more ethically than the neoliberal carnival of debt, displacement and militarization we normally see?
Well yesterday, I witnessed a better, more humane version of the mass spectacle of soccer, and feel remarkably rejuvenated for the experience. No, I’m not talking about the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany. I’m not talking about an event that is supposed to be the apex of “the people’s game” that the people cannot afford to attend. I’m not talking about an event surrounded by a one-kilometer exclusion zone and guarded by a small army for the pleasure of a den of thieves including Vladamir Putin, Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff and their pied piper of graft, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter.
I’m not talking about a final game that took place while protesters who had been promised by their government that they could assemble peaceably were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets at the supposed fan-fest put on by FIFA for tourist consumption.
I’m not talking about an event that displaced thousands of people for the almighty purpose of producing billions in profits for Brazil’s construction, real estate and surveillance industries. I’m not talking about an event that put a fortune in the hands of Israeli armament companies and counterinsurgency “advisers” who market themselves as bringing the hands-on experience they have had turning Gaza into an open air prison, and then sell that experience to countries hosting the Olympics in the World Cup. I’m talking about another game entirely.
I’m talking about the game yesterday between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers here in the Emerald City. It was just me and 65,000 of my closest friends chanting, screaming, yelling and of course standing for the full ninety minutes as the Sounders beat the Timbers 2-0, led by the inimitable Clint Dempsey, scoring Seattle’s opening goal and then hitting the cross bar at the end on a shot that would’ve been highlight material for the next year. Having recently returned from Brazil where I attended World Cup matches, it was not difficult to count off the ways that this experience was not only different but also “ethical” in the way a FIFA-run tournament could never be.
Let’s start with the ticket prices. We were right there just a few rows up from the field for $24 bucks a pop. Twenty-four dollars would pay for about two minutes of World Cup action, especially if you bought your tickets through FIFA’s don’t ask, don’t tell network of ticket brokers.
Speaking of the stadium, there was also not a one-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding it and people could actually—even without tickets!—get near the facility that their tax dollars purchased. It is also worth adding that the Sounders play in the home of the Seattle Seahawks. As of now, anyway, there are no demands to build a new publicly funded stadium just for them.
I loved everything about the Sounders-Timbers game. I loved the singing of Woody Guthrie songs. I loved the signs. I loved the colors. I loved the group-cussing (to each their own). I loved the chants and cheers that made it seem like everyone in the crowd had been rehearsing for hours before the start of game time. I loved that it seemed to be a combination of sports and Queen at Live-Aid.
I loved the fact that the 6-year-old I was with had the time of his life and didn’t sit down for ninety minutes. And I loved the play. Maybe it wasn’t World Cup semifinals quality but it was passionate and powerful. Its very existence stands as a threat to FIFA: a living embodiment of the idea that there is an alternative to their wretched stench.
The Sounders-Timbers game, coming just hours after a desultory World Cup Final, entirety convinced me like little else that sports truly is like a fire and you can use a fire to cook a meal or burn down your house. In the hands of FIFA, the house of international soccer is burning down while they play a chorus of discordant violins. But this doesn’t have to be the case. If we want ethical soccer on a local, national or global scale, then along with the out-of-control flames of greed, corruption displacement and match fixing, FIFA itself will need to be extinguished.
In 2013, I predicted that LeBron James would shock the world and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many, “insiders” with pipelines into executive suites and owners’ boxes said there was no way this would happen. The consensus was that the four-time-MVP would never marry the last years of his prime to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise and a wretched team owner, Dan Gilbert, who insulted James like a bratty adolescent on his way out of town.
All logic said they were right. But I still thought they were wrong and was confident, even throughout this last Bynum-and-Bailey circus of a season in Cleveland, that LeBron would find his way home. I apologize for this self-aggrandizing “snoopy dance” over my predicting something correctly, especially when my personal record of predictions is, on the whole, wretched. (My belief that a Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry–led Knicks team would make the 2008 NBA finals remains a sore subject.)
But for me, the idea that James would return to Cleveland, no matter how much of a train wreck of a franchise it had become, seemed preordained, even obvious, to anyone paying attention to his off-court persona. First of all, LeBron James is the most “meta”, self-aware, consciously cinematic athlete we have ever seen. If Michael Jordan was the superstar of his own blockbuster movie, LeBron has always aspired to be actor, producer and director. Every step he takes has one eye on posterity. “The Decision” of 2010, when LeBron “took [his] talents to South Beach”, which brought him the rings that he craved but left hurt feelings and bad vibes in its wake, did not fit the script that LeBron James had already written in his own mind. If LeBron sees himself as Martin Scorsese, The Decision was his Bringing Out the Dead. By coming home to possibly bring a sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964, LeBron James can make Goodfellas. He can produce and direct his own magnum opus even—perhaps especially—if it means an ending where he’s eating egg noodles and ketchup.
Securing a title for Cleveland would establish a legend far greater than winning multiple championships in Miami. Dragging a snake-bitten city to the heights of the sports world and smashing on all of the Modellian bad karma in his path would establish a narrative singularly his own. Choosing to return to Cleveland, a city that has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last two decades, makes him a prospective folk hero.
LeBron, as I wrote in 2013, has always aspired to be something more than a collection of specialty sneakers. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a “global icon like Muhammad Ali” without the clearest sense about what that meant. In recent years, by speaking out for Trayvon Martin or becoming the first prominent NBA player to say that Donald Sterling had no business in the league, it seemed like he was figuring out what Jordan never did: that “being Ali” meant standing for something bigger than yourself.
By going back to Cleveland, LeBron is embracing his power as someone transformative, someone who could be, without cliché or Nike branding, more than an athlete. By making all the haters, from Dan Gilbert to the fans who burned his jersey, to the vicious media voices, sob in gratitude over his return, he is making this about more than just his own redemption, but theirs as well. Even by insisting on maximum money and not succumbing to the owner-friendly media-driven narrative that stars should accept less “for the good of the team”, he is doing right by young players currently getting hosed by a boss-friendly collective bargaining agreement. It may take some time to make it all work in Cleveland, but by shouldering the burden of a city’s collective damaged psyche and demonstrating the power to rebuild the most burned of bridges, LeBron is going for folk-hero status. He is attempting to produce the ultimate movie of his athletic life. Succeed or fail, it will be a collective thrill to see him try to write the final act. In other words, he’s already won.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Real Losers of the World Cup
The key numbers in Brazil are not 7-1, the score of yesterday’s historically lopsided World Cup semifinal loss to Germany. Yes, those numbers matter. Yes, it was a dark day in the history of Brazilian sports that will be remembered in shocked silences for as long as a soccer ball is kicked around in the country. Yes, it may even sway a presidential election in the country this October. But these are still not the key numbers.
Here are some other numbers that will have much more bearing on both Brazil’s present and future. These are the numbers that animate far more debate and discussion inside of Brazil than the US media, with their view from Copacabana beach, have portrayed.
$11-14 billion. That is how much the World Cup is going to end up costing the country. No one in government, when asked, is actually even sure as to what the final bill is going to be. This is not unique to Brazil by any means. Mega-events produce this kind of economic uncertainty and graft wherever they nest. But in a country where health and education are pressing issues, it stings.
250,000. That is the number of people—overwhelmingly poor—who may be displaced by the time all the confetti has been swept away. Many of those losing their homes live in Brazil’s favelas. These communities, under constant attack by real estate speculators and the military police, have formed the backbone of Brazil’s urban culture for over a century. Several of these communities have been under military occupation during the Cup leading to brave, albeit uncovered, protests far from the public eye.
2016. That’s the year the Olympics are coming to Rio de Janeiro. If people in Brazil were this upset about hosting a soccer tournament, how will they feel about paying for Olympic golf? Also if people in Brazil found FIFA to be imperious, wait until they get a load of the IOC. One of their lovely aristocrats in charge will undoubtedly say some variant of “Let them eat horse dressage” before it’s all said and done.
Yes, a 7-1 loss is a brutal way to exit the World Cup. But masses of people throughout the country have already committed themselves to fighting a different kind of brutality: the hosting of mega-events on their backs. That anger isn’t going anywhere. The question will be whether Brazil can sustain the level of militarization that has muted the protests during the World Cup. It is probably economically unsustainable to maintain the FIFA police state for the next two years. That will open more space for dissent, and these dissenting voices must be heard. It’s Brazil now. FIFA and the IOC have both stated their desires to return the Olympics and World Cup to the United States. Unless we want to experience this brand of weaponized gentrification-on-steroids, we would do well to amplify Brazil’s fighting voices and encourage those around us to listen. It’s not about solidarity. It’s about common survival.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the truth about militarization and the World Cup
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was strutting like a rooster over the weekend about the absence of mass protests during Brazil’s World Cup. “Where is all this social unrest?” he asked in mocking snark that, along with bribery and corruption, has become his trademark. Then Blatter waxed rhapsodic about how “football is more than a religion” in Brazil, as if that explains the absence of millions of people marching on his “FIFA quality stadiums”. Similar, sentiments were expressed by Brazil’s Deputy Minister of Sports Luis Fernandes , who said that “during the World Cup, the passion for football has taken over.”
This position has been echoed continuously in the US media. The Washington Post has carried headlines that have read, “In Brazil,smiles, parties have replaced protests” and “A nation’s haves, have nots unite for a common cause.” No need to pick on the Post, as this has been “the line” in multiple media outlets over the last several weeks.
As is often the case with the mainstream media, they have started with an indisputable truth and then have chosen to draw conclusions that match their own embedded perspective: a perspective shaped by Sepp Blatter, his broadcast partners and a blinkered reality of hotels and black SUVs. It is certainly true that the million-person protests have not taken place during the World Cup, as they did during the 2013 Confederation’s Cup. But the conclusion that now everything is awesome and “parties have replaced protests” is simply not true. I recently returned from Brazil and saw a different reality. The fact is that there are protests, strikes and battles with police happening every day. In the favelas, there are demonstrations against the police occupations that are happening because of the Cup. (Here is a terrific photo essay by Andalusia Knoll that shows images from all the World Cup protests that are not happening.)
If the protests are far smaller than the ones a year ago, it is because the streets are militarized down to the last inch, ruled by a military police force who are tear-gassing any group of people who attempt to gather and raise political demands.
I attended one of these “FIFA Go Home” demonstrations, and it was a fearful exercise in state intimidation. The gathering was at a public square. An hour before the start of the march, the square was already surrounded by riot police with machine guns in hand. One would have had to gently push aside and say “excuse me” to someone with a machine gun and a badge just to get there. This was daunting for me as a gringo journalist. Imagine if you are someone with a family, a job and a life that you had to return to following the Cup.
Then once we gathered together, the police would, every few minutes, randomly pick out someone in the crowd of 500 and search their bag. People would chant and yell at the police, but five other officers surrounded the one doing the searching, all with their fingers on the trigger of their automatic weaponry. One protester took out a horn and played Darth Vader’s theme music from Star Wars, but other than that there was little anyone could do. Then when the march was finally underway, the demonstrators were gassed by the military police. One police officer, as caught by the Associated Press, fired live ammunition in a panicky fashion over the heads of protesters. Then the riot police moved in with baseball bat–sized batons.
It was an altogether ugly exercise that provoked chants calling FIFA “Brazil’s new dictatorship.” In other words, the demonstrations aren’t bigger because the military police have created a reality that it is terrifying for people to express their dissent, all to the joy of Sepp Blatter.
Larissa, an activist from São Paulo, explained the size of the demonstrations to Al Jazeera by saying, “Some of us are in jail, others are just being cautious. During our latest protests at Rio’s Maracana stadium, fifteen of us were arrested and are now in jail. The police beat many of us…. I love football. I actually play football myself. I just hate the whole industry around it, which—in the name of FIFA—has been eating up whole neighbourhoods here in Brazil. They think they can do anything in the name of football.”
It would be helpful—even novel—if the US media would tell this story: a population angry about the Cup, but terrorized into compliance. But to tell that story one would actually have to talk to Brazilians who aren’t their cab drivers and concierges. There is still time in the next week, before the World Cup ends, for the media to wear out some shoe leather, hire some translators and tell the truth about what is happening in Brazil. With the 2016 Olympics coming to Rio, the anger and discontent over these mega-events is not going anywhere. The next two years should be a time when the stories of regular Brazilians are told and reckoned with, instead of ignored in the name of nerfy, feel-good narratives.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA’s negligence and the Belo Horizonte overpass collapse
At least two people are dead and nineteen have been injured in the World Cup host city of Belo Horizonte after the sudden collapse of an unfinished highway overpass. The overpass had been constructed to handle the bus lines to and from the World Cup games being held at Mineirão soccer stadium, less than three miles away. Instead, unfinished, it fell upon two construction trucks, a commuter bus and an automobile.
This tragedy now casts a shadow over the remainder of the tournament. It is a tragedy not only because it happened but because it did not need to happen. Brazil’s politicians and assumedly FIFA as well, had been warned as early as January that this was a possibility according to ESPN’s Leonardo Bertozzi. Make no mistake about it: this blood is on the hands of the international soccer governing body FIFA and Brazil’s ruling Workers Party. To conclude otherwise would be an act of willing blindness, but not only because of the early warning. It would be an act of blindness to the ways in which infrastructure projects were rushed with little regard for commuter safety or workers rights.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, FIFA went on a public relations blitz against Brazil’s lack of readiness for the tournament. This is a tried and true FIFA tactic that I saw firsthand in South Africa in 2010. Using a combination of threats, insults and public shaming, they bring their whip-hand down upon a host country, demanding that the promised infrastructure, security and stadiums be built on time and on schedule.
It started in January with reptilian FIFA chief Sepp Blatter’s saying that Brazil “is the country which is the furthest behind since I’ve been at FIFA.” This was only the beginning. In what was described as a “stark warning” by NBC sports in a headline that blared, ‘FIFA warns host cities in Brazil, as rush to finish venues continues’, FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke said in February that “none of the twelve cities can afford to sit back and relax.” One host city, Curitaba, was told that its games would be pulled if it did not step up the pace and that it would be “monitored on a daily basis.” In March, Valcke said specifically that Brazil’s transport infrastructure needed “a kick up the backside.” In May, Valcke said, “We’ve been through hell” in Brazil. With thirteen days before the start of the cup, Valcke described the country as being in a “race against time.” Most egregiously, in April, Valcke seemed to pine for Brazil’s old dictatorship remarking, “Working with democratically elected governments can complicate organizing tournaments.”
FIFA was whipping the Brazilian government to crack down on strikes and safety regulations to get the massive construction projects done, as if laborers were just undermotivated to finish. Workers endured eighty-four-hour work weeks, and rotating twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week shifts. This was not implemented without resistance. There were a series of strikes in response to the speedups and unsafe conditions. According to workers I spoke with, they also struck against overflowing toilets and cafeteria food described to me as “infested with vermin.” As Antônio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of São Paulo, said to Al Jazeera earlier this week, “The construction workers are among the poorest in Brazil and are often not aware of their rights. And the world soccer body FIFA has never shown any concern about the workers.”
True to form, rather than address these conditions, the government’s response was either to summarily fire the complainers or promise bonuses for the extra work. They were using either the carrot or stick, with the goal of getting these projects done by any means necessary. These were the orders from Zurich to Brasilia, and President Dilma Rousseff committed to making this a reality.
The pressure on the Workers Party came not only from FIFA but Brazil’s all-powerful, politically connected construction industry. The almighty Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht employed their own private security force to make sure that news cameras were kept at bay and workers kept their heads down. We have already seen the bitter fruits of these priorities in previous months as nine workers died in construction accidents in the rush to provide “FIFA quality infrastructure.”
I reached out to Christopher Gaffney, a Rio-based activist and journalist who has been monitoring the planning for the World Cup. Gaffney said to me, “The repercussions of the collapse will reveal the extent to which Brazilian authorities can be held accountable for the projects associated with the World Cup. These hastily conceived, quickly built projects have dubious benefits for the long term and when the basics fail, it is even more difficult to have confidence in the so called legacy.”
The unfinished overpass had been lauded as yet another of the World Cup infrastructure legacy projects that would benefit all Brazilians. That is clearly not the case. Like the favela children living under military occupation, killed or injured by police since the start of the World Cup, today’s tragedy in Belo Horizonte did not need to happen. They are what results when breakneck neoliberalism arrives with a soccer ball in one hand and a gun in the other.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Exporting Gaza to Brazil
When I was in Brazil for those first days of the World Cup, I was—with many other journalists—tear gassed by military police. I saw sleek, urban-outfitted tanks in the streets and I felt concussion grenades send subsonic shrapnel crashing into my eardrums. I didn’t see the drones flying overhead, but then again, no one without a Hubble telescope is supposed to see the drones.
I also saw militarism that was less high-tech, and more of the traditional boots-on-the-ground variety. Several of the favelas—precarious communities of the poor that were once sanctuaries for both outlaws and revolutionaries—are under full-scale occupation. This has sparked protests by favela residents against the violence of living under constant police subjugation
The level of high-tech hardware on display is hardly different from what we have seen at previous World Cups and Olympic games. Gunships and missile launchers have over the last dozen years become as much a part of the scenery as the FIFA Fan Park and Olympic Village. The problem, though, is not really how the media has yawned past these kinds of post 9/11 security imperatives (although this is a problem). It’s the way that in too many host countries the militarization does not go away when the mega-events end. Instead, it becomes the new reality. If you buy a drone you are not, as a security official in London told me in 2012, “going to just put it back in the box.” Surveillance culture becomes normalized, and through the Trojan horse of sports, a fresh Orwellian reality is born.
Brazil’s leaders are unashamed of this overwhelming show of force. The state has expressed grave concern, at different times, about protesters, crime and terrorism. Tragically, if not predictably, they have also chosen to see protest as an act of crime and even an act of terrorism unto itself. I witnessed this repeatedly, with the effect of turning the World Cup host into, as one activist said to me, “a facsimile of the old dictatorship.”
Concern about protesters, crime and terrorism have all undoubtedly played a role in the security buildup, but Brazil has also built up its armed forces dramatically in recent years as a way to show the world that its new global economic might would be matched militarily. Yet the presence of such overpowering—not to mention high tech—weaponry raises a critical question: Who is arming Brazil? Who supplies—and profits—from their new normal?
The answer is found in Haifa, Israel, at two different multibillion-dollar weapons and electronics manufacturers: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems. Rafael is a for-profit company owned by the Israeli state, while Elbit is a private corporation. Elbit’s earnings are up dramatically, with its drone airplanes providing crowd surveillance during the World Cup. As Chief Executive Officer Bezhalel Machlis said in an interview with Bloomberg, “The intelligence-gathering electronic and optics technologies of Elbit and our Brazilian partners are perfectly suited for the homeland security challenges at these events.” The providing of high-tech militarism caused their second-quarter net income to “rise 30 percent to $50 million.” Bloomberg News wrote antiseptically that Brazil’s desire to increase purchases of Elbit’s weaponry was “given fresh impetus after the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June  prompted record numbers of people to take to the streets in protest at a range of issues including spending on state-of-the-art stadiums.”
As for Rafael, it was founded in 1948 by the newly established state of Israel to arm the country against those who once resided in its territory. Rafael has an even stronger foothold in Brazil than Elbit. As Flavie Halais, writing for Open Democracy reported last year, “Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has bought a 40 percent stake in Brazilian GESPI Aeronautics. Back in 2010, Brazil and Israel signed a security cooperation agreement, with news reports stating the agreement dealt specifically with the World Cup and Olympics. Since then, officials from both countries have met to develop partnerships for mega-events and Israeli security experts have given several conferences and workshops for Brazilian officials and members of the Municipal Guard.”
This flow of arms from Israel to Brazil has sparked a movement in Brazil led by the Frente em Defesa do Povo Palestino–SP (Front in Defense of the Palestinian People–São Paulo), which is composed of dozens of Brazil’s civil society organizations and unions, and is a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Last year they protested at the Latin American Aerospace and Defense fair in Rio attended by arms manufacturers from around the world all competing—with the help of scantily clad models—to arm Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics. The event was seen as a triumph for the thirty Israeli arms manufacturers who were, according to an insider,given special access to Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer and Secretary of Defense Celso Amorim.
“What Rafael, Elbit and Global Shield are doing is exporting the very tactics used on the Gaza Strip,” said one activist to me in Rio. “They are taking neighborhoods of poverty and anger and creating Gaza in the favelas of Brazil. The goal of anyone who sees themselves as a part of civil society should not be more Gazas.” From even the most basic humanitarian perspective, this is unassailable, particularly given the events of this week, as collective punishment, bombings and demolitions, have been the state response to the discovery of three dead Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. We should be figuring out how to demilitarize Gaza so the 1.8 million people who call that strip of land home have freedom of movement and opportunity without the constant specter of military incursion. Exporting the “Gaza security model” to the cities of the future is a recipe for dystopia. Using the World Cup—and our collective love of soccer—to create that new normal is both frightening and enraging. This sport, created and nurtured by the poor across the world, is now being played in exclusion zones under the watchful eyes of drones in the skies and boots on the ground. We may be rejoicing in the beautiful game right now, but we also need to fight to reclaim it.
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This is not a pro–Luis Suárez column. This is not an article in defense of his taking a chomp out of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s 1-0 World Cup victory. This is not a piece that will make apologies for Mr. Suárez, who has some longstanding issues when it comes to getting peckish with opponents, so much so, it was reported that 167 people won a “prop bet” that he would bite someone during the World Cup.
Suárez should be suspended because what he did should not be a part of the sport and is, frankly, kind of gross. But for the sports media to climb their branded pulpits and say that Suárez demands suspension precisely because young, impressionable, wide-eyed youngsters the world over would emulate him and start adopting a particular kind of paleo diet on the pitch, is absurd.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that if your kid is biting people, they probably have issues that need addressing above and beyond just their affection for Luis Suárez. But all that aside, there is something so profoundly noxious about the thought of Boss Sepp Blatter and FIFA doing anything for anyone’s children, and being permitted to bathe themselves in that particular kind of sanctimonious light.
This is an organization that loves children when they are needed for commercials or to release “doves of peace” before an international audience. But when the cameras are away, its record is less dovish and more akin to vultures. FIFA has long cared for children only insofar as they show up to work on time to stitch the very balls kicked around the pitch. The organization, which is a stakeholder in soccer equipment produced the world over, has held a public opposition to child labor since 1997. Yet even its own commitment to “raising awareness of and attempting to curb child labour” has left a great deal to be desired.
In 2010, right before the World Cup in South Africa, the International Labor Rights Forum released a report titled “Missed the Goal for Workers: the Reality of Soccer Ball Stitchers.” The study outlined how child labor in sweat shop conditions was still a part of the FIFA production line in Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, concluding, “The existence of child labour and other labour abusive practices were found to varying degrees in all four FIFA licensed supply chains.”
Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign said in the report, “As fans worldwide get excited about the games, the public expects FIFA and the soccer ball industry to finally live up to its promises.”
But at least FIFA gives lip service and even throws some money at organizations that aim to curb the use of child labor. It says and does nothing about the children of Brazil getting removed from their homes or having them occupied militarily in the name of World Cup security. These children are the invisible casualties of the World Cup, victimized by FIFA’s security and stadium demands as well as the Brazilian government’s efforts to use these mega-events as a way to displace impoverished communities that sit upon valuable land. In one destroyed favela I visited, the wreckage of a child’s toys was all that was identifiable amidst the rubble. As families are compelled to move with little time and preparation, it was stunning to see what was left behind. Then there are the favelas that are still standing but are occupied by the police and military for the duration of the World Cup. A 14-year-old boy suspected of robbery was reported to have been shot and killed by Brazil’s military police after being taken into custody.
The Suárez incident for me highlights less that a player has a biting problem than the fact that international soccer is run by vampires. It highlights the need for a body that oversees international soccer that doesn’t do symbolic acts “for the children,” while aiding and abetting the robbery of their childhoods. It showcases the need for new leadership and new principles to guide the beautiful game. Sepp Blatter and company may lower the boom on Luis Suárez’s biting, but it will only serve to highlight the fact that they are all bark. On issues that require real leadership, FIFA is actually part of the problem.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the invisibility of indigenous people in sports