Where sports and politics collide.
As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, a topic that plagues the country is the impact hosting these games will have on the local environment and various ecosystems. Despite efforts by soccer’s ruling body, FIFA, to “greenwash” the games—by holding “green events” during the World Cup, putting out press releases about infrastructure construction with recycled materials and speaking rhapsodically about the ways in which the stadiums are designed to capture and recycle rainwater—the truth is not nearly so rank with patchouli oil.
No matter the country, the environmental footprint of these sporting mega-events looks like a stomping combat boot. The impact of air travel alone, with private planes crisscrossing Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States, will be staggering. According to FIFA’s own numbers, internal travel in Brazil during the World Cup will produce the equivalent of 2.72 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s the equivalent of 560,000 passenger cars driving for one year.
Climate change, and advice from the Global North about how to treat the environment, is an extremely sensitive subject in Brazil. This is a country whose environmental concerns are of course global concerns, as it is home of the Amazon rainforest. Called the “lungs of the earth,” the Amazon rainforest creates 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen and 25 percent of its drinkable fresh water. It has also been razed and burned with shocking speed as Brazil’s economy has hummed, with double digit economic growth over much of the last decade.
It is, of course, not difficult to understand why the last thing people in Brasília want to hear is lectures about climate change from the Global North. The Amazon rainforest has been plundered by foreign adventurers as well as multinational corporations for decades. As the former President Lula once said, “What we cannot accept is that those who failed to take care of their own forests, who did not preserve what they had and deforested everything and are responsible for most of the gases poured into the air and for the greenhouse effect, they shouldn’t be sticking their noses into Brazil’s business and giving their two cents’ worth.” He certainly has a point, although it says something damning about our world that the logic of our system dictates Brazil’s sovereign right to destroy the “lungs of the world.”
With statements that make destroying rainforests sound like a bold act of Global South defiance, Lula also disregarded the powerful history of Brazil’s own environmental community, which was one of the crucial forces in the founding of his own Workers’ Party and has been fighting for decades to preserve the Amazon. As legendary Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes put it, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
There’s no question the World Cup will put greater stress on Brazil’s critical ecosystem. This can be seen most clearly in the efforts to build a “FIFA-quality stadium” in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. The project has been a disaster since the first plant life was destroyed, before the cement was even poured. Building a new stadium doesn’t just ignore environmental concerns, it defies logic—the Amazon is already home to a stadium that draws far less than its capacity. And all of this to house a mere four World Cup matches.
Even those in Brazil who believe fiercely in the national autonomy of the rainforest region, without interference from international environmental bodies, are crying foul. Romário, the soccer star-turned-politician, called the project “absurd”. He said, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.” Since this particular white elephant seems to be uniting opposition of both the “wasteful spending” crowd and the “pro-breathing” crowd, the government is looking for options for the stadium after the World Cup that seem fiscally sound. One idea is to turn the entire stadium into a massive open-air prison—a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, and not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government. “Profits first, Brazil’s environment last,” is not a very peppy slogan but it would be more than fitting for the 2014 World Cup.
Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
When someone dies of decidedly unnatural causes, two words come immediately to mind: “closure” and “accountability.” The idea is that by holding the perpetrators of a crime accountable, we can both provide a measure of closure for the family and friends of the deceased as well as limit the possibility of such a fate befalling our own loved ones too.
It is difficult to imagine a death more “unnatural” than that of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, shot down in Afghanistan by his fellow troops in an incident classified as “friendly fire” ten years ago. Yet, despite the high-profile nature of his demise, those two words, “closure” and “accountability,” have been in incredibly short supply for the Tillman family. This is not just a tragedy for the Tillmans; it is a tragedy for anyone who thinks that government should not exist above the law.
The questions surrounding both the death of Pat Tillman, as well the response by the United States government to the news, has simply never been answered. This is not about conjuring conspiracy theories or raising the bizarre timing of Tillman’s being shot during a time when he was outspoken to fellow soldiers about his belief that the war in Iraq was “illegal.” This is not about Gen. Wesley Clark’s saying he believed it was “very possible” that Tillman was murdered. This is about extremely basic questions that the George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal have simply not been compelled to answer. Let’s go through them:
1) Why did the US Congressional Oversight Committee, after coming to the conclusion in April 2007 that the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death demanded investigation, stop investigating? Why did it accept, in its own words, that “the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall”? Why, instead of pursuing the matter, did it move on to investigating steroids in baseball?
2) Why were Tillman’s uniform, his military notebook and his effects burned on the scene immediately after his shooting? In the words of a source of mine close to the events that day, “Every military protocol was ignored regarding the handling of Pat’s body and his equipment.”
3) Why did the coroner refuse for months to sign off on Pat’s autopsy?
4) Why were soldiers on the scene ordered not to tell the truth about the circumstances of the shooting?
5) Why has General John Abizaid never had to answer for the devastating San Francisco Chronicle investigation that shows he repeatedly misrepresented what he knew—and where he was—after Tillman’s death? He said he was in Iraq, which makes sense given that April 2004 was the bloodiest, most chaotic month of the war. Yet records show he was in Afghanistan talking to Tillman’s platoon leader. Why? And why lie about it?
6) Why does Lt. Gen McChrystal get to skate by with saying that there were “mistakes, missteps and errors” that occurred after Tillman was killed? Pat’s father described McChrystal’s actions as a “falsified homicide investigation.” If McChrystal did falsify the investigation, he belongs behind bars.
7) How do we understand the actions of Senator John McCain? By all accounts, McCain was furious that, because of the Bush administration, he eulogized Pat Tillman at his nationally televised funeral as if he had died at the hands of the Taliban. He pledged to the Tillmans that he would get to the truth. For a while, McCain was their ally. Then he ran for president in 2008 and stopped helping them. As Mary Tillman said to me, “The investigation that he helped us get actually caused us to have more questions and at that point he started backing off. I think he thought that we were becoming sort of a political encumbrance to him, or could be.” John McCain should have to explain why he stopped helping the Tillman family.
These are only some of the questions. Peter King of Sports Illustrated, perhaps the most-read football writer in the United States, wrote on Monday, “The circumstances around the death [of Tillman], which took place in a firefight with enemy forces near the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, remain a mystery.”
They shouldn’t have to “remain a mystery.” The family is entitled to answers, and we collectively are entitled to the truth. The family has the right to closure, and we have the right to see those who broke the law held accountable. Our need to demand the truth is rooted less in solidarity with the Tillman family, and more in our desire to not have a government that believes covering up a killing is a part of its constitutional duties. We all suffer as long as the truth of Pat Tillman’s death remains hidden. This should be a criminal investigation. It is past time to pull George W. Bush away from his paintbrushes, to tell Stanley McChrystal to stop hawking his book, and to get their hands on some Bibles to swear to tell, at long last, the damnable truth.
Read Next: On the death and life’s work of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
“They can incarcerate my body but never my mind” —Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
For a man who spent nearly four decades of his seventy-six years under the restrictive eye of the US correctional system, few have ever touched as many lives as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The world-class boxer turned wrongfully accused prisoner, turned advocate for the rights of the unjustly incarcerated, has succumbed to cancer, but his memory and work will endure as long as there are people outside and inside the prisons of the world fighting for justice.
It is difficult to think of more than a handful of prisoners in history who have had their story memorialized in popular culture quite like Rubin Carter. After his own infamous homicide conviction, Carter’s case inspired an international human rights movement. There were rallies, marches and all-star musical concerts in his name. He was even the subject of a Bob Dylan Top 40 hit, the frenzied fiddle anthem Hurricane. Carter also wrote, while behind bars, the bestselling book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. Finally after his release, he was the subject of the Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington film The Hurricane.
Yet despite the overturning of his murder conviction as well as a Hollywood canonization, Rubin Carter never rested. After decades behind bars, no one would have blinked if he had coasted on his celebrity for the remainder of his days. Instead, Mr. Carter started a nonprofit organization in his adopted home of Toronto in 2004 called Innocence International, aimed at shedding light on the cases of the wrongly convicted. Rubin Carter believed that the only thing exceptional about his conviction was the fact that people were aware and outraged that it had happened. In a country with the highest prison rate on the planet, where quality legal representation is more privilege than right, Rubin Carter knew that he had left an untold number of sisters and brothers behind. He had lived the racism of the criminal justice system and he had lived among the poor and mentally ill behind bars. Following his release, he was determined to be their advocate. Carter wrote in February, as he lay dying, that he “lived in hell for the first forty-nine years, and have been in heaven for the past twenty-eight years.” For him, heaven was doing this kind of work and struggle was the secret of joy.
I had many an interaction with Rubin Carter, never revolving around boxing or his near-miss in 1964 to win the middleweight championship. Our shared work existed in the context of campaigns for prisoners' rights. Rubin Carter never refused any of my requests, no matter how obscure the case, to lend his name to a campaign. Like Denzel Washington said when he took Rubin Carter on stage with him when accepting the Golden Globe for best actor for The Hurricane, “He’s all love.”
Sure enough, during the last days of his life and in terrible pain, Rubin Carter was attempting to bring light to yet another prisoner he believed was being denied justice. On February 21, 2014, Carter published “Hurricane Carter’s Dying Wish,” in the New York Daily News. It detailed the case of David McCallum, who has been jailed for murder for almost thirty years, convicted at the age of 16. As Carter wrote, “McCallum was incarcerated two weeks after I was released, reborn into the miracle of this world. Now I’m looking death straight in the eye; he’s got me on the ropes, but I won’t back down…. My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now.”
The best possible tribute to Rubin Carter would not be to listen to some Bob Dylan or read a few obits. It would be to contact new Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson—his “action line” phone number is 718-250-2340—and ask him to fulfill Hurricane’s request to reopen the case of David McCallum. After all, this was the dying wish of the Hurricane.
Read Next: We built this country on inequality.
Forty years after breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs, Hank Aaron is still receiving racist hate mail—and he keeps it all. After some of Aaron’s comments in an interview with USA Today, he received a whole new batch of derogatory mail. In the interview, Aaron defended President Obama, who he said “is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.” “The bigger difference,” he went on to say, “is back then [racists] had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” Appearing on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This with host Antonio Mora, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin came to Aaron’s defense, saying that, “For someone like Henry Aaron, who’s 80 years old and has already endured so much, I imagine he has far less patience” for the “tidal wave of vitriol” that was inevitably unleashed on the first president of color in the United States.
The best sports biography of the last several years was, for my money, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant. The book makes the case that, in an age of cynicism, we need to study what exactly makes someone heroic, with Henry Aaron being Bryant’s particular profile in courage. What makes The Last Hero particularly compelling is that Bryant doesn’t quantify Aaron’s heroism as being measured by his 755 homeruns but by his ability to keep moving forward while resisting concentrated, poisonous doses of racist invective the likes of which few have ever had to endure. Aaron’s great crime, of course, was challenging the most hallowed record in sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, while black. (The racists of 1974 were untroubled by the widespread belief in the baseball world of the 1920s that Babe Ruth, an orphan, was a black man “passing” as white.)
Aaron, as Bryant reveals, was always silent until he wasn’t. This man born in the Deep South from a family of sharecroppers, would on occasion uncork a smackdown to the collective racists in this country, like it was an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate. He was, pardon the cliché but it fits, a still water that ran deep.
Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the fortieth anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Then Aaron, just like in his playing career, transgressed his image as a stoic who did not encroach on the world outside the diamond and spoke his mind.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Mr. Henry Aaron, a man on a US postage stamp, just said that the children of the old school racists he tangled with, now have a home in the Republican Party. It is basically 1991 and it is Chuck D saying, “These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits.”
Forget for a moment the fact that I believe many of us are past the image of President Obama as someone who would be doing the right thing if only it weren’t for these Republicans. From immigration deportation to the drone war, the list of complaints against this administration on social justice grounds is very real. But consider the reality that a White House occupied by an African-American family has provoked a level of bigotry from the right that, no matter what Bill Kristol says, is undeniable. Consider how seeing that family subject to reservoirs of racism would resonate with someone of Aaron’s life experience. Yet above all, consider that Aaron’s main point was that much of the progress on racial issues since 1974 is illusory, and after he said so has been deluged with racist letters and phone calls. The Atlanta Braves organization reports that it has received “hundreds” of threats levied against Aaron. The only difference between 2014 and 1974 is that many of these threats are coming in e-mail form.
One of these lovely notes came from a person named “David” who vowed to burn his copy of Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero. (Given the content of The Last Hero, which discusses the history of racism in the United States for several chapters before even getting to Aaron, I wonder if “David” ever cracked the spine.) It seemed appropriate for me to actually reach out to Bryant and ask why it is that this 80-year-old, soft-spoken man, someone who never joined the Black Panthers or burned a flag, has been able to produce what can only be described as an Aaron Derangement Syndrome in the darkest corners of this country?
Bryant e-mailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.
“When Henry was playing, there were other people who said what he felt. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali were more charismatic, better quotes than Henry on civil rights,” Bryant wrote. “But the reason he keeps getting all this mail and taking this abuse is because he’s unflinching. He sees the game better than the rest of us because he’s lived it long enough to know that once you get past the smiles and the handshakes, very little has really changed. Henry knows that if you wait long enough and say a little of the truth, the face behind the mask will reveal itself, just as it did Tuesday night. He’s not going to accommodate you. He’s going to stay quiet and let the silence speak for itself until the words can say it better.”
I do not personally believe that in the world of sports Henry Aaron really is “the last hero.” People from Richard Sherman to Britney Griner to Kain Colter are showing that heroism—as something more than a brand—can still exist in a cynical age. But I do believe that if this new generation of athletes is going to “advance the ball” of social justice, they should learn the manifest lessons from the life of this extraordinary individual. The bigots should also know, as if the last sixty years weren’t proof enough, you are simply not going to scare Henry Aaron.
Read Next: Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the tale of two anniversaries
Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other.
On Monday, April 21, the Boston Marathon will take place, and we will be compelled to remember the horror of last year’s bombing attack at the finish line. Three were killed and more than 250 were injured. Two immigrant brothers, driven by their anger, ideology and alienation towards what is called the “Global War on Terror” set the blasts. Two brothers: one now dead the other facing state execution.
Now, one year later, we’ll have what will surely be an emotionally raw celebration of what makes the city that hosts the marathon “Boston-Strong.” Expect round-the-clock media coverage. Expect the names of the dead to be remembered. Expect every politician with a pulse to exploit their particular version of what last year’s bombing “means.” (Here’s hoping that they learn the lesson David Gregory of Meet the Press discovered, and not blithely tread upon the post-traumatic stress of those who were damaged a year ago. The media’s “reality television” just might be someone else’s reality.)
As everyone follows the—we hope and pray—safe and successful completion of the marathon, there is a very different kind of anniversary the following day. April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.
Compelled by the attacks on 9/11, Tillman exited the NFL in his prime, leaving millions of dollars on the table to join the Army Rangers. Square-jawed, Caucasian and handsome as hell, he was a dream for people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, David Frum and everyone who drooled at the thought of a glorious, post-9 /11 clash of civilizations. Yet after several missions into Iraq, in a war Tillman believed was “fucking illegal,” he started to read the work of people like Noam Chomsky and other critics of the war. Upon his return to the United States, Tillman even expressed a desire to meet Chomsky .
On April 22, Pat Tillman was killed. The first story, repeated at his nationally televised funeral, was that he was shot down by the Taliban in a ferocious firefight. He was posthumously given a Silver Star, which is awarded when a soldier falls at the hands of enemy combatants. The Bush Pentagon public relations machine was in overdrive, using Pat Tillman in death in a manner he refused when still alive. As his mother Mary Tillman said to me in 2008, “What’s so disturbing about after Pat’s death is the way the media ran with the perception they had of him, some kind of caricature of who they thought he was. It was so off that it was like he died twice.”
As if exploiting his death to aid the Iraqi war drive wasn’t obscene enough, the truth then emerged—Tillman actually died at the hands of fellow Army Rangers, killed in an incident described as “friendly fire.” His military journal and his uniform were burned on site. His death report was falsified.
Tillman’s family has undergone a decade-long quest to find out what actually happened and why they were lied to about his death. As Mary Tillman said to me in 2011, “If it had happened to someone else, Pat would be busting through walls to find the truth.”
But the truth has been hard to find. The person who oversaw what Pat’s father, Pat Tillman Sr., called a “falsified homicide investigation,” Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, wasn’t indicted or brought up on charges. Instead, he was promoted by President Obama, before eventually resigning in disgrace so he could write a book and appear on The Colbert Report.
Today, in Fenway Park, the Army has used the post-marathon Boston-Strong narrative of recovery and community to aid its recruitment efforts. As the blog WMTC discussed, the many screens of Fenway Park now show ads that blare, “There’s strong and then there’s Army Strong!” The message could not be clearer: there is Boston Strong, there is Army Strong and one is only as, well, strong as the other. If you want to keep Boston strong and prevent more bombings, you better join up and make sure than the Army is strong as well. There are no ads to suggest that maybe occupying countries, sending in armed drones and conducting dirty wars in remote lands will create conditions that bring the war back to the United States.
The Army and the government can’t use the Tillmans like they use the Boston Marathon for the simple reason that the Tillmans refuse to be used. That’s also what makes the Tillman anniversary so difficult for the mainstream media, the armed forces and the NFL to commemorate. By continuing to search for the truth, by refusing to let Pat be turned into a prop for war, the Tillmans have no value to those who benefit politically or economically from this era of endless war. For the rest of us, however, the Tillmans are invaluable. They deserve something the US Congress, the NFL and the mainstream media have refused to give them over the last decade: our unconditional solidarity and support as they search for the truth.
Read Next: Why is Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald playing the union buster?
The first thing you have to understand are the power dynamics that exist inside of a college football locker room. The football coach is Zeus, God of Thunder. He—and it is always he—does not just determine your playing time, your media exposure and your overall status in the group. He also determines whether or not your scholarship will last past the year. You go to school at his pleasure. In the best-case scenarios you are gifted a benevolent despot. In the worst, he never lets you forget the power he holds over your head.
Enter Pat Fitzgerald, the esteemed coach of the Northwestern football team. The former star Wildcats player has led his team to a 55-46 record during his time in charge. Fitzgerald has played the role of school ambassador, rainmaker and recruiter. His team wins and his players graduate. Now, however, he is playing another role, that of union buster. Northwestern Wildcat football players are due to vote on April 25 about whether to formally unionize, following the earthshaking National Labor Relations Board ruling that stated they were in fact not student-athletes but employees at the school, and Fitzgerald is on a full-court press to prevent that from happening. Although it is against the law for him and his staff to openly threaten players who want to vote union, Fitzgerald is lobbying hard to make sure that a no-vote takes place in two weeks.
As he said publicly, “I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no. With the research that I’ve done, I’m going to stick to the facts and I’m going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that. We’ll give them all the resources they need to get the facts.” [my emphasis]
It is unclear what “facts” Fitzgerald is trafficking in, but one wonders if included in his antiunion truth kit is the fact that Fitzgerald is the school’s highest-paid employee, with a salary of $2.2 million per year. He is the first sports coach to ever be the highest-paid employee in school history. Another fact is that Fitzgerald received a $2.5 million loan from the school upon signing his last contract. The players, meanwhile, are asking for a seat at the table and an extension of health and educational guarantees. Even if they vote yes, there will be years of appeals. In fact, Northwestern filed suit on Friday, to appeal the original NLRB ruling. Yet despite all of this, it is too much for the ball coach to abide.
Why is Fitzgerald, a former player, pushing back so hard against the efforts to unionize? Is it pressure from the NCAA, which sees unionization as a threat, in its own words, to “blow up” its entire operation? Is it those in power on a Northwestern University campus that has been hostile to any kind of on-campus organizing? Is it pressure from well-heeled alumni who are being very public about why the players need to vote no? Does Fitzgerald simply not want to break the time-honored power dynamic in a college locker room of Coach as God? Maybe it is as simple as the words of ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson who said, “Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is now in the position of being an employer whose employees are entitled to vote on whether to unionize.” Like so many bosses, maybe he does not want his workers to have a seat at the table. Clearing the table, maybe, but not a seat.
Whatever the backroom reasons, they are collectively less important than his influence. Since Fitzgerald has started to flex his muscle, a team that almost unanimously signed cards to apply for union membership now has numerous players speaking out publicly against the April 25 vote. Despite this, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who was leading this struggle before his graduation, is confident that April 25 will go their way. I was at an event with Kain Colter at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, last week. He acknowledged that the players are under pressure to vote no, but still felt a strong degree of confidence that the vote would go their way. Colter said, “I think it’s tough when you have some criticism that they’ve got. Some people came down [on the players], hollered, and even people within the Northwestern alumni base. That’s obviously tough, but I think they are strong and they still believe in the issue.” Colter believes, with unblinking self-assurance that the basic message they carried will win out over any efforts at intimidation. “I’m very confident,” he said. “All it boils down to is do you want to vote for having rights or not.”
Whether or not the Northwestern football team votes “yes,” this issue is not going anywhere. The NLRB has still cleared the way to organize at other private universities. As Ned Resnikoff reported, state legislatures are at work trying to either make this ruling apply to public universities (Connecticut) or block its extension (Ohio). The issue is not going anywhere because the system itself is manifestly unjust, and Northwestern’s efforts to strangle this movement in the crib will fail. Pat Fitzgerald is a fine coach. He should stick to coaching and get out of the union-busting business.
Read Next: Dave Zirin talks sports mascots with members of Idle No More.
Idle No More is an indigenous persons– or First Nations–led movement that has had an electric effect on indigenous activism throughout North America. Emerging into public consciousness in Canada in December 2012, Idle No More has become a touchstone for a host of indigenous-led movements ranging from economic and ecological justice to the battle to stop the mascoting of First Nation’s people. I interviewed Idle No More members Alexandria Wilson and Erica Lee about their thoughts on mascoting and why they see it as a connected part of their struggle. Dr. Alexandria Wilson is a Cree and the professor and director of the Aboriginal Education Research Center at the University of Saskatchewan. Erica Lee, who is also Cree, is an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Saskatchewan. Ms. Lee recently led a successful movement to change the name and logo of her high school team, the Bedford Road Redmen, in Saskatoon, Canada.
Dave Zirin: Alex, people who want to keep names like Redmen, Redskins, Indians, Braves—like Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football team—often say, “There are bigger problems in indigenous communities than mascoting. Focus on the real problems and not on sporting events.” How do you respond to that?
Dr. Alexandria Wilson: My response is that all of these things are connected, so when people try to minimize the overall impact of racist caricatures and mascots, what they’re doing is erasing the true history of what happened to indigenous people—not just in North America, but elsewhere in the world as well.
Erica, can you talk about the movement to get the Bedford Road Redmen to change their name?
Erica Lee: I’ve been working on this for the past two and a half to three years now. And before that, when I was a student at Bedford Road, in high school, I was working on it. But I definitely didn’t have the courage or the support structure to be able to change it at that point. We had a good foundation, because back in the 1990s there was a group of First Nations people who tried to change the logo but they felt overwhelmed and couldn’t continue the fight. So, what it is about to me is just continuing, being persistent, showing that we’re not going to go away on this, that we’re not going to forget, that we’ll still stand. I think the folks who are fighting the Washington team name are doing a great job on that.
Erica, What’s the connection between Idle No More—and perhaps you can tell us a bit about what Idle No More is—and what you were able to do at Bedford Road?
EL: Sure, Idle No More is a movement that started here in Canada. And it’s about a fight that started against a few bills that were laid down by the Canadian government which limit the rights and the sovereignty of First Nation’s people in Canada, and do a lot of environmental damage as well. So we started Idle No More to get discussion going and to get resistance going on issues that effect indigenous people. Mascots—like Redmen, like the Washington team—are issues that effect indigenous people. Like [Alex] said, it’s not just a small thing on the side, it’s all part of a bigger narrative.
Alex, let’s bring it back to DC. The latest gambit by the owner of the team, Dan Snyder, was to start something called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charitable foundation. I was just curious, what was your reaction when you heard that this was going to be his response to all of the criticism that he’s been receiving?
AW: I thought that it was kind of juvenile, and once again a way to commercialize our identities. And, honestly, it’s quite ridiculous. And so, rather than making a change that would have some sort of social impact, he’s trying to buy people’s votes, buy people’s public opinion. I think, from a marketing perspective, if he really wants to make money out of this, he could merchandise a new logo and there would be a whole new commercialized aspect. But I think that this is all in line with people who want to erase our stories, and actually just want to erase the visibility of indigenous people in North America.
Erica, you also hear people unfamiliar with the issue ask, “Why are we talking about this Washington football team issue now? Why not five years ago, why not ten years ago?”
EL: I think people forget too is that it’s just recently that this issue has received prominence, but the reality is that we’ve been fighting these things for decades, so it’s not something new. The resistance has always been around, and it’s powerful to know that we now can finally start to make a difference with our voices.
AW: I’d like to add to that too. Suzan Shown Harjo was in a class action suit against the team back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so like Erica said, there’s been resistance going not for just five, ten, twenty years, but hundreds of years on addressing racism towards indigenous peoples. And so, I think one of the significant things that has happened lately is the Idle No More movement, but also its connection to social media. So now we’re able to share information quickly—articles, teach-ins, educational materials that help people understand to put the mascot issue into the larger context of racism. Not only racism, but also sexism and misogyny and hypermasculinity and homophobia and how those are linked too. And I think that’s a really important issue for sports fans, commentators and cultural critics to take into consideration.
Alex, You mentioned misogyny and hypermasculinity. When you speak to indigenous people and you speak about issues of mascoting, do you find it to break on gender lines at all?
AW: I do find in our own indigenous communities, of course the impact of colonization has been internalized, so there is sexism throughout our whole community. That is something that we have to address.
And Erica, when you were working around the high school name, who were the people who sided with you and who didn’t side with you? What alliances were there?
EL: I remember the first time I ever started complaining about this mascot or raising the issue was in high school, grade eleven. And there wasn’t too much backlash from my peers at the time, but actually teachers who really defended the logo and said, “It’s an honor. You should be honored, this is your culture.” And that’s why I backed off, I thought, “Oh, this is an authority figure telling me, then I must be wrong.” And that’s why it’s so frustrating to see so many teachers and educators reinforcing these stereotypes in the minds of young First Nations kids, and students in general at that school and all around the city. It’s the job of educators to encourage critical thought, not to tell them to blindly follow stereotypes of First Nations people. These have real consequences and effects on our everyday lives.
Last question. How can people find out more about Idle No More?
AW: Well we have a website, idlenomore.com or idlenomore.ca. And people can visit that website, and then there are about four hundred and some Facebook pages… So if people just Google ‘Idle No More,’ and there are different regional groups as well. That’s probably the best way to find out information.
Read Next: The UConn Huskies win “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo.”
Congratulations to the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program, which won its fourth championship in the last sixteen years all while holding up a mirror to the most corrupt, amoral entity in American sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). UConn just absolutely nailed a game we could call “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo” in ways that not even NCAA President Mark Emmert’s Dorian Gray, Kentucky coach John Calipari, could have accomplished.
Just look at the boxes the UConn Huskies have checked off, and keep in mind that this is a basketball program being called a “model” now that the team has won twice as many championships as any other school’s over the last two decades. Get out your Nike-swoosh adorned NCAA Bingo cards and let’s have a look at everything UConn tells us about so-called amateur student-athletics.
Have the worst graduation rate of any school in the NCAA tournament, with only 8 percent of their players (one in twelve who enrolled eight years ago) earning a diploma? Check!
Win your title after two years of tournament probation for your school’s abysmal academic efforts? Check!
Have your star player, Shabazz Napier, speak with pride about how probation motivated their efforts and say on national television at the trophy ceremony, with a figurative middle finger aimed at Mark Emmert, “This is what happens when you ban us?” Check!
Also have your star player, the aforementioned Mr. Napier, tell the world that he is so poor, “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities?” Check! (Napier even calls his team “the hungry Huskies,” and it is not clear if he means they are hungry for championships or protein.)
While Shabazz and his teammates starve, have him win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy in front of a crowd of 79,000 people paying $500 a pop for tickets, on a network shelling out $10.8 billion to watch him play? Check!
Have commentators speak repeatedly—with ears made out of the purest tin—about how “underpaid” UConn coach Kevin Ollie is since he “only” makes $1.3 million a year and will “only” receive $166,666 for winning the big game? Have them state with relief that Ollie is now in for a big raise? Check!
Now that UConn has achieved the ultimate NCAA Bingo (plus one for good measure), all you need is for the students at UConn’s Storrs campus to have an impromptu, entitled, alcohol-fueled riot and celebrate their school pride by smashing the windows of their university’s buildings and setting fires. Hey! That happened too! (Do we have to mention how different the Storrs police response would have been if, say, it were the student-athletes themselves smashing windows instead of the overwhelmingly white student fanboys?)
So let us recap: we have a team of majority African-American basketball players not getting an education and not getting paid, but generating millions of dollars for their coach and billions of dollars for the NCAA, CBS and the assorted sponsors. We have a state college suffering budget cuts and tuition hikes, that has been trashed by students thrilled that their team of unpaid mercenaries has brought them a measure of reflected glory. All the evening was missing was a war in the Middle East to get everyone truly good and frothy.
It is difficult to not recall the press conference of NCAA President Mark Emmert over the weekend who spoke out with mottle-faced passion against the mere concept that NCAA athletes should ever form unions. He does not want NCAA student-athletes having any kind of a seat at the table so they can discuss everything that is manifestly and obviously poisonous in the NCAA system of student-athletics. Emmert said that if student athletes were unionized employees, “it would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.” The response to that should be two simple words: “You promise?”
Read Next: Boomer Esiason, Mike Francesa, and toxic masculinity
This is not another shooting-fish-in-a-barrel commentary about the antediluvian swinishness of Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa. This is not another swipe at their comments criticizing the efforts of Mets second basemen Daniel Murphy for missing opening day to be with his wife for the birth of their child. For those who missed it, Esiason opined, “I would have said, ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to, because I’m a baseball player.’”
Fellow troglodytic troll of the NYC sports radio airwaves Mike Francesa commented, “You’re a major league baseball player. You can hire a nurse.” Francesa also called the paternity leave at his own company “a scam-and-a-half.”
I spoke to my friend Martha, who is a midwife—and a Mets fan—about their comments. She said simply, “I would ask if they knew how it sounded, talking about this woman like she is a human incubator to be cut open in a dangerous, often unnecessary surgical procedure so Murphy can make it to Citi Field on time. I would ask that, but honestly, if you can’t see why the asshole-levels on these comments are off the charts, then I can’t help you.”
I also spoke with Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and someone who has devoted his life to challenging the ways in which sports have the capacity to communicate a toxic, destructive brand of masculinity. Ehrmann said, “I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values.”
Ehrmann also pointed out the ways in which these statements create a culture that normalizes the alienation between fathers and children. He said, “Comments like these put every man in a position to think about career and co workers opinions ahead of father/husband/partner roles. So even in companies with paternity leave, many new dads won’t or feel like they can’t take advantage of leave without a stigma being attached to them…. This is one more arena where sports/athletes could be a metaphor for social change and elevate the birth/nurture/fatherhood role and responsibilities over work.”
He then said to me that this kind of sexist mentality not only harms families, not only harms men, but also quite specifically harms athletes. “I’m convinced the number-one common denominator in locker rooms is father-child dysfunction,” he said. “It’s what pathologically elevates many performances. ‘I will prove to [the coach/father figure] I am worthy of my dad’s love and acceptance,’ at the expense of self and others. If any group should understand need for dads in delivery rooms it should be athletes and the athletic world.”
I would also add that the only reason Daniel Murphy even had the option to take this time off is because it was collectively bargained into his contract by his union. There are millions of men in nonunion jobs who don’t even have this option, not to mention millions of women who risk their employment in the United States by taking time off after the birth of their child.
I think there is something else going on as well. The comments from Boomer and Francesa smack of a kind of existential fear from an older generation of sports radio jockeys about the ways in which definitions of masculinity and sports have been rapidly changing. There have been two dominant kinds of masculine archetypes for the last thirty years in sports. Either you could be heterosexual, misogynist, talking loudly but saying nothing with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand; or you could be a heterosexual evangelical Christian, talking humbly with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand. Those who strayed outside of these norms have only done so with considerable risk to their standing in the media or even their job.
But in the last two years, these archetypes have changed. We have seen players such as Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam break new ground as gay athletes. We have seen Royce White and Brandon Marshall speak out about their mental health challenges and show that this kind of openness does not demonstrate weakness but courage. We have a new cultural consensus that does not see concussions as a bizarre badge of honor but a danger sign. We’ve had Jonathan Martin go public about being bullied by teammates, forcing the NFL to confront long-standing locker-room behaviors. Poisonous, narrow definitions of masculinity are being challenged. A player’s missing opening day to be with his wife on the birth of their child clearly caused Boomer’s and Francesa’s brains to rupture. Their idealized sports world as a masculinist cocoon absent of progress and insulated from the real world, where every day is 1985 (or even 1955), is withering before their eyes. People are deciding that ruining your life and your relationship with family in the name of a code that impresses the Mike Francesas of the world isn’t worth it. This is progress, but as in any time when we see progressive healthy change, the hounds of reaction will still nip at its heels.
Read Next: Richard Sherman defends his dirt.