Where sports and politics collide.
As the soccer world is still exhaling after the USA’s thrilling 2-0 semifinal victory over Germany, it is worth taking a moment to look backward at the tournament before the inexorable hyper-focus upon this weekend’s final against either Japan or England. The Women’s World Cup has been a showcase of brilliant, nail-biting soccer: the best of the beautiful game. It has also been an exercise in seeing just where we are on the question of the sport’s global development: an issue that wraps together questions of uneven international resources and imbalanced national gender politics. What we can see is that, to an even greater degree than the men’s game, there are profound inequities in development and attention between regions of the globe: North America, Japan, China, and Europe flourish, while countries in Africa and Latin America suffer. They suffer from FIFA neglect and conscious disinterest amidst their own country’s soccer leadership, some of which only recently have taken the first halting steps toward taking the women’s game seriously. Yet the Women’s World Cup has revealed something else as well: the heroic ability and drive from the teams on the African continent to achieve in spite of the obstacles laid out in front of them. They may have been knocked out, but their progress has been profound and in many respects is the story of this tournament.
The three African squads, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon, left it all out on the field. Cameroon, les lionnes, managed to get through to the knockout stages in their first World Cup appearance and their most indelible player, Gaëlle Enganamouit, who plays professionally in Sweden, proved to be a force, leading her team to a dominating 6-0 victory over Ecuador. Then they were sent home only after a 2-1 loss to Japan, the defending Women’s World Cup champions.
Nigeria perhaps did not live up to lofty expectations, but the fact that there were expectations that could be described as “lofty” is a story unto itself. Ranked 33rd in the world, they opened with an outstanding performance, tying 3-3 with Sweden, the world’s fifth-ranked team. The energy emanating from 20-year-old Liverpool striker and BBC Female Footballer of the Year Asisat Oshoala was unmistakable and augurs great things in the years to come. But it was not enough to help the team advance.
The Ivory Coast, ranked 67th, lost all three of their matches. Their inaugural content against world-superpower Germany resulted in a 10-0 loss, but even this was useful, showcasing the obvious gaps between the technical training and strength of the two-time World Cup champions and the Ivory Coast. It also provided an international platform for Ivory Coast manager Clementine Toure to bravely call out her national federation to improve support of women’s football in the West African coastal nation. The same country has produced world-class male players such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba and made an inspiring World Cup run in 2006. But the need for improved attention to the women’s game is critical. “At this point I want to say that we want to see a higher investment, so that we can prepare with friendly matches,” Clementine stated. “That’s what we need to take on the great teams. If we could get half the resources men do, that’s what we could do.”
For the World Cup to be the first time this Ivorian squad plays against a non-African country is unfathomable. This propels a vicious cycle where FIFA rankings dictate the strength of a team, but if a team does not get enough chances to play, there is no opportunity to climb up the list. Then there is compelling interest in a strong team playing a lower-ranked squad, a situation that African journalist Kahinde Odeogun calls “a vicious circle.”
Further evidence of what reproduces this “vicious circle” is seen inside the countries themselves. The Fédération Camerounaise de Football backtracked on promised World Cup bonuses for the players. In addition, of the 14 professional women’s teams in Cameroon, eight went on strike at different points in 2014 in protest of low stipends.
The Nigerian Football Federation has a better record of support, but more is needed. As sportswriter Janine Anthony wrote, soccer is the number-one sport for girls in Nigeria; she insists it is a misconception when people say Nigerians do not care about the women’s game. “But we need it to be more than enjoyment and entertainment, we need investment,” Anthony says, “When girls play on the streets, it’s just for fun. But there’s no career for them. That’s the barrier.”
For the few players with a chance to play in Europe, the training and focus on football development with proper coaching and financial support is possible. But in order to unite a national team, support from national federations is critical. As Laurent Dubois wrote in a piece for the #UpfrontOnside series at Sports Illustrated, “Cameroon has also profited from the fact that key players have found a way to professional careers in European professional leagues in France and Scandinavia. But they, and the next generation of Cameroonian players, would clearly profit from a more stable women’s league in their country, where they can play at home and grow the sport.”
FIFA’s continuous smorgasbord of corruption and scandal can exhaust even the most ardent soccer enthusiast, which is why the women’s game and this World Cup are refreshing reminders of what is still a wonderful and unmarred game. In order to nurture the players and continue to grow the sport, we need to make sure that the investment is real and the progress continues. The beautiful game deserves more. In the words of the lion-hearted Clementine Toure, “I want to make an appeal to not only our federation, but to all of Africa, that women’s football has arrived. We believe in our women. We have a good team. Today the Ivory Coast showed it deserves a place in the World Cup. But we also deserved to be better prepared. We didn’t deserve to be humiliated.” The Ivory Coast, and all of the women’s teams in the Global South deserve not humiliation but resources. This World Cup has shown that if the economic playing field could be leveled, the actual playing field could delight and thrill the world to an even greater degree than it has already done.
The Olympic Games are hybrid beast, at once alluring and appalling. The divine part of the Olympics takes place when we become immersed in the stories of individual athletes. We discover sports that normally languish in the shadows and see the sports media crawl out of their NFL-branded man cave to actually appreciate the genius of female athletes. Even ESPN stops devoting just 2 percent of SportsCenter to women’s athletics and it commentators cease their practice of sounding like they’re “eating their vegetables” when reporting on this part of the sports world.
The detestable part about the Olympics is that they have become politically indefensible. They deliver debt, displacement, and hyper-militarization to any city cursed with becoming a host. We sorely need a new Olympics that highlights athleticism, puts a focus on women athletes, and isn’t politically toxic. I therefore propose what can be known hereafter as the Bree Newsome Olympic Challenge. Unless you have been living inside NewsCorp headquarters, then you know Bree Newsome as the woman who climbed the flagpole on the capitol grounds of the Columbia, South Carolina, State House and took down the Confederate flag. Others have already written about the political and symbolic importance of someone”s bravely putting into action Dr. King’s dictum “Why We Can’t Wait.” I’d rather focus for a moment first and foremost on the remarkable physicality of what Ms. Newsome accomplished. Apparently, she had never even attempted such a feat before two days prior. This is to anyone who has done that kind of harness-based climbing. The combination of dexterity, strength, and badassery to pull it off is LeBron-worthy.
Then there was the arrest. Even before Ms. Newsome had been led away in silver bracelets, social media were swamped with queries about how to pay her bail. In rapid fashion, it was done. Finally, before the day had been completed, works of art began to flourish commemorating the moment.
After a mere 24 hours, the concept of what the Bree Newsome Olympic Challenge could be took shape in my mind: Competitors would travel the nation in an effort to dismantle flags, monuments, and commemorations of alleged “great leaders” who committed great crimes. The Confederate flag still flies over the state of Georgia and Mississippi (and South Carolina, for that matter), and a motley crew of slave owners, eugenicists, and architects of Native American genocide are given places of honor—absent of context—in cities and towns around the nation. The Andrew Jackson Relay Events alone would keep us busy for years. Our athletic handbook could be James Loewen’s brilliant Lies Across America, which documents every public square that is dedicated to defending indefensible acts in the name of rewriting or whitewashing US history.
The goal of competitors would be to capture a flag or construct some kind of public installation that would contextualize those unduly honored. The athletic aspect would involve not only the climbing of flagpoles, of course, but also finishing whatever action one is trying to pull off before the police slap on the cuffs. But have no fear, the next competition is “raising bail.” It was fascinating to watch how quickly the numbers flipped and continue to flip for Bree Newsome’s bail fund, like an old-school taxi meter. The first to inspire people to raise the necessary bail gets the gold in that particular aspect of the competition. And lastly, there is the art of the struggle: What kind of artistic remembrance does your struggle inspire? That part, per one aspect of the Olympic tradition, would be left to judges.
Unlike its parasitic step-sibling headquartered in Lausanne, the Bree Newsome Olympic Challenge requires no public expenditures and demands no corporate underwriting. It can be broadcast live over the web along with color commentary that speaks about the challenges each athlete activist faces, as well as the history the competitor is attempting to rectify. Think of it like The Running Man as rewritten by Howard Zinn. It’s the Bree Newsome Olympic Challenge: combining the thrill of athletic competition with the need to make sure that truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly—never ceases being a part of US history. Please e-mail me at email@example.com if you have any suggestions for locales and, if needed, I’ll do a follow-up column with the best ideas.
This needs to happen so… who wants to go for the gold?
It may be literally the least they could do, but it’s a victory for human decency that the Confederate flag will no longer be available at Walmart, Amazon, Sears, and eBay. Even though it is heartbreaking that it took the murder of nine people to get ghouls like Nikki Haley and Lindsay Graham as well as their corporate masters to see it as a public-relations liability, it also raises a question. If the Confederate flag is too toxic to sell, then how can Amazon and Walmart continue to peddle the merchandise of a Washington football team that bears the name of a racial slur? How can they stock the blood-red profile of a Native American chieftain’s head adorned with feathers and a brand—no matter what revisionists argue—that celebrates their violent death?
I contacted Jackie Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland and a founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. Her words should be read and reread:
“When I hear an spokesperson for eBay calling the Confederate flag ‘a symbol of divisiveness and racism’ after announcing that they are banning the sale of it from their site, I wonder why I can still search eBay and find over 100,000 Redskins items for sale. Studies and the APA [American Psychiatric Association] have repeatedly warned of the harm being pigeonholed and stereotyped does to Native youths’ self-esteem—and Native youth have the highest rates of suicide in the country, three and a half times that of their peers, but it happens where the rest of America does not look. Native men have the highest rates of police brutality and Native women the highest rates of murder and rape. These deaths are invisible to an America that does not weep for our dead. They cheer for the stereotype and paint themselves up in grotesque caricatures of us, but do they think about what cost we bear for that bit of fun? Is it worth it? I look forward to the day eBay and others like Walmart refuse to make a buck off of a bit of our soul.”
The Confederate flag, for those who believe it belongs not just in a museum but on fire, is a symbol not only of the Southern states or the Klan but of the great crime upon which this country was economically developed: the transatlantic slave trade. But that wasn’t the only crime. A prerequisite to the plantation economy was land acquisition and the near-eradication of the indigenous population. Part of acknowledging our history as a settler nation built on slavery is acknowledging that an entire systemic apparatus has developed to keep down those upon whom Plymouth Rock landed. I contacted Suzan Shown Harjo, the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist and president of the Morningstar Institute, to ask for her thoughts. She said, “There is no disconnect between the white supremacy against African-Americans seen in the rebel flag and that against Native Americans in the racist sports stereotypes. These symbols open deep wounds of ancestors massacred, skinned, and murdered just for being Indians. We hope some will gain awareness and courage, and will act on the racism within their reach,”
Harjo is right. There is especially “no disconnect” when we consider the person who named the Washington football team, its original owner George Preston Marshall. Marshall loved minstrelsy and was, in the words of his contemporary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, the NFL’s “leading bigot.” It is no coincidence that this owner of the last team to integrate in the NFL was also the person who named his team after a racial slur. It is no coincidence that this same owner, a man who insisted that “Dixie” be played at home games, was also a person who saw Native Americans as less than human.
It’s time for a change. But just as George Preston Marshall was a stubborn holdout against racial progress, the team today has another owner who is a proud dead-ender: Dan Snyder. The record of Dan Snyder’s defending this name and his various schemes to win public favor in Indian Country has produced one public-relations debacle after another. Reasons for his pigheaded obstinacy on this issue have been subject of much curiosity. Given the incredible list of tribal councils, organizations, media outlets, politicians, and former players that have called upon him to change the name, people wonder why he clings to this the way Lindsay Graham and Nikki Haley clung to that flag before the horrors of last week. It doesn’t really matter why Snyder won’t change the name, but allow me to speculate. Having observed Dan Snyder for almost two decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is not rooted in economics or Snyder’s privately nurtured bigotries.
When I first moved to Washington, DC, the name was something rarely discussed. As this conversation began to surface in recent years, Snyder was so bellicose, so unable to even sit down with those who disagree with him that he has developed a small cult following among a subset of fans of the team. Dan Snyder is the least popular owner in sports, seen as an interfering bully who has stood over two decades of futility of a once-proud franchise. He is also an awkward, sweaty, twitchy hot mess when out in public. But because of his sneering defense of the name, Snyder finally has a following. They chant “Keep the Name” in bars while Snyder grins and pumps his fist. He has taken this objectively racist name—a dictionary-defined slur—and turned it into the football version of the Confederate flag. But none of that matters to him, because finally, Dan Snyder has fans of his own. Hope he enjoys it in the present. Like those who have wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag, he will find that the future will not be so kind.
It is a rare day when we wonder what NCAA coaches are saying about racial justice and social change. But this is a moment to pay close attention. The massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, an act of white-supremacist terrorism—no matter what the FBI believes—has publicly revived the demand that the Confederate flag come down from the Columbia Capitol grounds. The horrific nature of the crime has even put diehard supporters of the Stars and Bars like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on their heels, saying with a quisling’s cowardice that the issue needs to be “talked about again.”
But maybe we wouldn’t have to relitigate this question and that toxic symbol of racist terror would not be flying with government sanction if the state’s NCAA coaches had been heard. Legendary University of South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier, a man of the South with a drawl so thick it sounds like he has a mouth full of honey, said in April of 2007, “My opinion is we don’t need the Confederate flag at our Capitol. I don’t really know anybody that wants it there, but I guess there are a lot of South Carolinians that do want it there.” The setting was an awards banquet and Spurrier “caught everyone by surprise” by speaking off the cuff about his disgust over a 2006 South Carolina–Tennessee game where in the background on national television at ESPN’s “GameDay,” he was appalled to see “some clown…waving that dang, damn Confederate flag behind the TV set. And it was embarrassing to me and I know embarrassing to our state.” Spurrier then said, “I realize I’m not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it. I’ve been told not to talk about that. But if anyone were ever to ask me about it, I certainly wish we could get rid of it.” Keep in mind, the “Ole” ball coach didn’t say “put it in a museum.” He said “get rid of it.”
Spurrier is not the first University of South Carolina football coach to come out against “that dang, damn Confederate flag.” In April of 2000, Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz was part of a 120-mile march from Charleston to Columbia to call for the flag to come down. He was joined by Clemson University football coach Tommy Bowden and the South Carolina and Clemson men’s-basketball coaches at the time, Eddie Fogler and Larry Shyatt. As Lou Holtz said in 2001, ”It is just not right. When I look into the eyes of my players and see how hurt they are, then I am disturbed about the Confederate flag.” Holtz also said, ”We need not to take a segment of our society and treat them with disrespect and that is the way our black players feel about the Confederate flag.”
All of these coaches are white guys: white guys whose professional prosperity in the state depended upon the ability to recruit and coach young black men. This is not to say that their feelings were not fueled by genuine moral outrage, but the pivot toward success or the unemployment line for every college coach is traced to that moment when they are sitting in living rooms with—more often than not—black families. The South Carolina and Clemson coaches are tasked with attempting to convince these families that their children will be not only safe but also valued in a state covered, as Jon Stewart said, with “racist wallpaper.”
The college football coach is allegedly a revered position in the Southeast of the United States. Yet on this issue their words were met with silence or derision. They were harangued with the same blinkered arguments about the flag’s being one of “heritage, not hate”—as if those two words couldn’t be one and the same, locked in their own Dixie death grip. Taking down that flag, which first flew over the Capitol in 1961 when it was raised in response to the civil-rights movement, wouldn’t end racism, but it would make the atmosphere just a little less poisonous. They say in politics that timing is everything. Steve Spurrier spoke out in 2007. All that did was turn some heads. If he said the same words now, it could be a true tipping point. Here is hoping he speaks out. Then, finally, “that dang, damn Confederate flag” would fly on the South Carolina Capitol grounds no longer.
The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.
This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.” Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years. Next year, in fact, was to be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church. It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War. It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions. (It was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.)
More violence against the church was to come, as one of its founders was Denmark Vesey. If you don’t know that name, then your US history class failed you. Vesey was born into bondage on St. Thomas Island where he was known as Telemaque. At age 32 in 1799, Vesey won a city lottery of $1,500 that allowed him to buy his freedom from slavery.
But his former master would not sell Vesey his wife or children. Under patriarchal master/slave law, this also meant that any future children they had would also be in bondage. This was not a state of affairs Vesey was willing to let stand. He achieved financial success as a skilled carpenter. He became a city leader. He also looked at Charleston, this majority-black city amidst lush plantations, and planned an insurrection. He said, "We are free but the white people here won't let us be so; and the only way is to raise up and fight the whites."
In 1822, Vesey was executed on charges of attempting to organize this unprecedented slave revolt. The plan—organized in meticulous fashion and involving thousands of adherents—was to sack the area plantations, liberate the slaves, and sail to Haiti, which had liberated itself from slavery 20 years earlier in its own revolution. The plan was audacious in its scope and remarkable in its reach, and as a result provoked mass hysteria throughout Dixie.
Vesey was one of five insurrection freedom fighters executed on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day. The proximity was said to have inspired Frederick Douglass’s speech delivered almost exactly 30 years later on July 5, 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” where he thundered,
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Douglass would later invoke Vesey to recruit for the all-black Civil War 54th Regiment, featured in the film Glory.
Even though Vesey’s plan never extended beyond the initial stages, there was a call by the genteel city leaders of Charleston for even more blood. Thirty more were executed that month, legal mass lynching meant to strike fear in the hearts of Charleston’s black community. What is remarkable is that more were not arrested or executed. This is attributed to a remarkable level of solidarity amongst Charleston’s black population. No one would talk about a popular campaign that turned slaves into active insurrectionists. As part of this campaign—which combined legal and extralegal terrorism—Mother Emanuel Church was burned to the ground. That did not stop people from gathering. It did not end the church.
The violence of this week will not end the church either. The killing of nine people inside Mother Emmanuel calls backward to the 1960s civil rights–era church bombings. It also calls to a present in 2015 where video after video is showing white America a policing system that sees black life as having little value, a present in 2015 where mass media relish black death but do not acknowledge black life, and a present in 2015 where Charleston’s Walter Scott can be calmly shot in the back by police. It also calls to a present where police officials and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speak solemnly about the Mother Emanuel martyrs, under that enduring symbol of racist terror the Confederate flag. This demonstrates with utter clarity that the past that Charleston leaders try to tuck away with a statue of Denmark Vesey - amidst the city's lucrative plantation tourism - is far from past.
In moments such as this, few words from the present can resonate as powerfully as the words of Frederick Douglass in his Fourth of July speech when he said,
Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
This is not history. It’s a guide to action. This action can be heard in the words of Mother Emanuel Reverend and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney. The Reverend was one of those killed on Wednesday. In a 2013 speech about “freedom,” Pinckney said, “…sometimes you’ve got to make noise…. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey.… Sometimes you have to march…”
My son goes to a sprawling public school that provides the majority of players for our local soccer rec league. He plays on a team of boys and girls where, as is often the case with 6–8 year olds, the girls frequently dominate on the field of play. In addition, his awesome classroom teacher played soccer at the most legendary women’s collegiate program in the United States. And yet, despite all of that, when recess happens, it’s just the boys playing soccer, while the girls watch. Despite all of that, my son came home to say that one little boy at his school told him and his friends that they “play like girls.” (I’m proud that my son knew that this was an utterly fucked-up thing to say.)
I write this preamble because this is a column about the sexism plaguing Brazilian soccer, but I want to be clear that this is not a South American issue, or an “over there” issue: It’s a global issue. Women’s soccer is not only the story of a sport. It’s the story of a fight for access and opportunity and respect, often against the very people who are supposed to be developing the game. Perhaps nowhere is that reality more evocative than in Brazil. As we know, Brazil still loves its soccer with a passion few countries can match, despite the foul aftertaste of the 2014 World Cup. The women’s team is well-positioned to win its first World Cup (taking place right now in Canada) and its best player, the transcendent Marta, just scored her 15th World Cup goal, making her the most prolific scorer in Women’s World Cup history. Now, like her one-named compatriot Pelé, she is without rival in international competition. And yet her goal did not even merit a mention in the main Brazilian newspaper, O Globo. Meanwhile a friendly match between the men’s national team and Honduras was on the front page. As Stephanie Nolen reported in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “Some Women’s World Cup games are being broadcast on Brazilian cable channels—but no one appears to be watching.”
Nolen was able to secure comment on this state of affairs from the head of women’s soccer for the Confederation of Brazilian Football, Marco Aurelio Cunha, and his analysis was infuriating in its predictability. Cunha said that he was hopeful for the future of the sport in Brazil because “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up. They go in the field in an elegant manner. Women’s football used to copy men’s football. Even the jersey model, it was more masculine. We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hairstyles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”
Cunha’s screeching sexism and subtle-as-a-blowtorch homophobia is a nasty echo of Sepp Blatter’s infamous comments from a decade ago that the women’s game would be more successful if they played “in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.” Even responding to these comments feels nauseating, but to be clear: This is not only morally wretched, it is a recipe for warping, if not destroying, the future of the sport. As proven in field studies by the Tucker Center for Women’s Sports, sexualizing women athletes is a road to neither attention nor respect. In fact, it is the opposite. As Mary Jo Kane of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center said to me, “For a female athlete, stripping down might sell magazines, but it won’t sell your sport.”
Women’s soccer will only achieve greater growth when we have a FIFA not run by sexist men. It will grow by pressuring the media to acknowledge the greatness of players like Marta. It won’t grow by saying her invisibility is understandable if she doesn’t dress in a bikini. Marta, who is still just 29, has been named FIFA’s player of the year five times and for 11 years has finished in the top three. This is without precedent in any sport. She is the most laureled soccer player on earth and is in position to lead her country to their first Women’s World Cup. Marta achieved this despite a childhood where she endured beatings for wanting to play. It’s a story for the ages. But her odyssey has been met with a call to turn the game she honors into a lingerie league. She is not being told to “shut up and play” but “shut up and pose.”
That moral midgets like Sepp Blatter and Marco Cunha have overseen Marta’s development says wondrous things about her resiliency and love of the beautiful game. It also says horrific things about the state of leadership in the sport. Their call to sexualize women’s soccer is a call to debase the game, repel the best young female athletes from playing, and justify the media’s ignoring women’s soccer on the basis of it not being a “serious sport.” It justifies a status quo in Brazil that I saw: where young boys played in the favelas and on the beaches in bare feet and the girls stood on the side watching. They watched with that yearning universal of children to run, jump, and play, but a force field of sexism kept them at bay. It’s not unlike the recess force field at my son’s school. It’s a force field we should be tearing apart with our bare hands. If FIFA’s sausage-fest of leaders stands in the way, let them be torn to pieces as well.
Tributes are pouring in for the late Virgil Runnels Jr. the influential pro wrestling impresario who passed away on Thursday at the age of 69. This is not a tribute to Mr. Runnels. This is a tribute to his alter ego, the man who “dined with Kings and Queens and slept in alleys eating Pork ’n’ Beans” otherwise known as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Pro wrestling is a morality play, a violent opera that splices together broad characterization and physical action to create a unique form of mass entertainment. At its nadir, which is often, it is racist, sexist, homophobic trash, not to mention unbearably boring. At its best, you would find the prime of Dusty Rhodes: the antithesis of “this business” at its worst.
He was shaped like a Russian Matryoshka Doll, had a pronounced lisp, and dressed like someone who found the only clothes that could fit his fluid full-figured physique at Goodwill and made the best of it. The character and the man behind him grew up dirt-poor in Texas and, like all the best wrestling characters, his on-screen persona was an amplification of his true self. That meant in a 1980s cultural landscape dominated by entertainment like Dallas and Dynasty and the male body-images of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, he was an actual and undeniable working class shape and voice.
Dusty Rhodes was the most public expression about surviving in the Reagan 1980s: a Jonathan Kozol book in tights armed only with a sharp tongue and a bionic elbow. Remembering this Dusty Rhodes matters because the historical amnesia about the Reagan years has been so total. An extremely well-funded right-wing campaign has whitewashed the truth of the era: that Ronald Reagan left a body count of victims due to an indifference as callous as it was calculated. The Reagan backlash spared no one, least of all industrial workers: the people who worked with their hands and sent children to college on a single union wage, without student loans. It sounds like another world, and it was: a world that Reagan’s agenda—with no small help from congressional Democrats—destroyed. Dusty Rhodes was the voice of the person getting crushed under the weight of Reagan and keeping his head held high, dignity not only intact but non-negotiable. No, he wasn’t a labor leader or trying to do any kind of protest. He was a voice: a fake character with an authentic presence, fighting in the ring for the people being left behind. This was seen most famously in what is known as his “Hard Times” promo.
Dusty Rhodes’s nemesis was the “limousine riding, jet flying” Ric Flair. Speaking to Flair through a camera lens, Rhodes said,
You don’t know what hard times are, daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the autoworkers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years—THIRTY YEARS—and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place daddy,” that’s hard times! That’s hard times! And Ric Flair you put hard times on this country by takin’ Dusty Rhodes out, that’s hard times. And we all had hard times together, and I admit, I don’t look like the athlete of the day supposed to look. My belly’s just a lil’ big, my heinie’s a lil’ big, but brother, I am bad. And they know I’m bad.
But Dusty Rhodes was no caricature, the working-class version of “Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter” or anything so ugly. Shining through “Dusty Rhodes” was Virgil Runnels, who not only grew up “Texas poor” but in the back pews of ramshackle black churches. He had something unique to the rural South, seen in the connective tissue of the Southern Baptist church: poor white people who learned how to preach from watching the black masters of the art. This was Virgil Runnels who, not unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, would sit in the black church, drawn by the energy, and soak up what he saw. Dusty Rhodes then translated that experience, bringing it to the wrestling world and in authentic fashion, had a Southern poor man’s cadence that a black audience instantly identified. This meant that Rhodes had a mass following among not only poor whites but poor blacks in the South. I remember watching Dusty Rhodes when I was a kid traveling through Georgia, staying at a hotel, and everyone—guests, workers, black and white—standing and just watching him cut his promos on a lobby television. It is no exaggeration to write that if you were trying to find points of unity in the post–Jim Crow South in the 1970s and 1980s, Dusty Rhodes was on the short list.
But this is where the story gets ugly. His “realness” in the Southern territories was mocked mercilessly in meta-fashion by his expanding Northern-based competition, the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE), operated by boss Vince McMahon. As David Shoemaker writes in his terrific history of wrestling, The Squared Circle, McMahon created a black “slave” character named “Virgil”, owned by “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, as a way to mock Dusty Rhodes for “‘acting black’ in speech and mannerisms.” (This was an innocent pre-Internet era when few wrestling fans could have told you that Dusty’s real name was Virgil Runnels.)
Then in 1989 when Rhodes was—like almost everyone—sucked into the WWF universe, he was dressed in yellow polka dots and McMahon had him plunging toilets and yukking it up with a black woman known as “Sapphire.” The name “Sapphire” has a long history in minstrelsy dating back to the 19th century. As described at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, it marks the black woman playing “rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing.”
In the hands of the WWF, Dusty Rhodes was turned from working-class hero to working-class minstrel. McMahon, a decade later, became a wrestling character himself, the evil boss man Mr. McMahon. He was so effective at that because it was—not unlike the old Dusty Rhodes—the amplification of his true self. Vince McMahon is a ruthless right-winger with a pathological contempt for working-class people. Dusty Rhodes, in his eyes, was a clown. McMahon took a hero and brought him low, which in many ways was an unintentionally wicked reflection of the reality of working-class life by this time. The “hard times” of the early 1980s became the new normal. By 1990, “hard times” was just “times.”
The distance had never been greater between those “dining with kings and queens” and those “eating pork and beans” and it would only widen as the years commenced. But McMahon could not erase Dusty Rhodes. Others can write about the history of conflict between generations of the McMahons and the Runnels, how they would work together off and on in the subsequent decades. Again, this piece is not about Virgil Runnels. It’s about the power of Dusty Rhodes in very dark times to make a fake character as real as can be: the last gasp of a multiracial working-class culture being smothered to death by neoliberal economics and deindustrialization. Yet if Virgil Runnels had to die, Dusty Rhodes never will. He lives on in the form of a new wrestler with a big belly and big heinie named Kevin Owens, currently taking this world by storm. He also lives on anywhere that the poor of every color can find common space and language in a culture that thrives on division. In this world of sports fakery, he was real as hunger. He was “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, and in so many ways, more real than the dream itself.
The 2015 NBA Finals coaches, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers, have both reached this summit in their first year on the job, but that’s not all they share. The two rookies are also bonded by histories intimately tied to the conflicts that plague the Middle East. In an NBA Finals where children at press conferences have generated endless hot takes, this history has been discussed, if at all, in a remarkably shallow fashion.
David Blatt, born in Framingham, Massachusetts, holds dual citizenship in Israel by virtue of being of the Jewish faith. His Israeli citizenship (which I could also claim by virtue of my own familial Judaism) gives him a set of political and civil rights that non-Jews born on this land 5,500 miles from Framingham do not possess. After playing and coaching in Israel following a Princeton education, Blatt became in his own words, “much more Jewish and much more Zionist.”
Blatt’s proud Zionism means that he has been a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (the IDF), an experience described in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as “his most significant bonding experiences with the country.” He is also on a first-name basis with the nation’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. This friendship, which ABC broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy described at high decibels as “impressive” during Tuesday night’s primetime Finals broadcast, is so intimate, that Blatt boasts of being able to call Netanyahu “Bibi” when they speak. Blatt told The Plain Dealer that the prime minister “said all of Israel is behind the Cavaliers. That was great.”
What went unmentioned by Van Gundy, not to mention The Plain Dealer, are the ethical implications of an NBA coach beaming about his friendship with Netanyahu. “Bibi’s” last campaign was so riven with virulent anti-Arab racism, it was condemned across the globe. The aforementioned Israeli newspaper Haaretz printed an editorial about feeling “shame” that their “prime minister was a racist” after Netanyahu’s March election victory. The New York Times editorial page credited his triumph to a “desperate and craven” campaign that relied on a “racist rant” against Arab citizens of Israel to pull out a victory. Time’s Joel Klein wrote that Netanyahu’s victory represented an “appalling irony” that “brought joy to American neoconservatives and European anti-Semites alike.” I use these examples because they represent how even staunch supporters of Israel were nauseated by Netanyahu’s toxic political platform.
Blatt has evidenced no such concerns, but this should not surprise. Last year, as NBA players were being excoriated for just posting messages about the loss of innocent life during Israel’s war on Gaza, Coach Blatt, without consequence, publicly cheered a venture that, according to the United Nations, killed more than 2,200 people and over 500 children, 1,500 of whom were civilians. Israel lost six civilians in the fighting. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Globes, Blatt said, “In my opinion, this war is Israel’s most justified war I can remember in recent years. I’m really sorry about what’s happening in Gaza, but there’s no doubt that we had to act there, so that Israel will have quiet there once and for all.” He then reprimanded the people of the United States for not supporting Israel’s war more heartily, saying, “There’s support, although sometimes it’s not enough.”
The absence of public criticism or even discussion about Blatt’s politics represents a head-spinning double standard. If another NBA coach had served in another country’s army, boasted about a first-name friendship with a foreign head of state who had just won an election on racist grounds, and said that a war that killed 500 children was “justified” and would “bring quiet,” would they be criticized? If they actually chided the United States for not supporting this government’s bombardment of enemy civilians with sufficient relish, would it at least be commented upon? Most likely, Skip Bayless’s head would explode. Instead, we only get Jeff Van Gundy saying, “Impressive!”
While David Blatt thinks nothing of broadcasting his friendship with someone who has come to power on a crest of “anti-Arab bigotry,” Steve Kerr arrives from much different stock. The basics are widely known: His father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, was killed in 1984 by two unknown assailants (with responsibility later taken by the group Islamic Jihad) while he was serving as president of The American University of Beirut. Few know, however, that Dr. Malcolm Kerr wrote what is considered a work of genius, the foundational text of Middle East politics in the ’60s, The Arab Cold War, or that he is the author of the celebrated book Islamic Reform, which profiles the most influential Muslim modernists of the early 20th century. Even fewer probably know that the Middle East Studies Association, an academic organization of over 2,700 academics, names its annual award for the best dissertation after Dr. Kerr. This same Middle East Studies Association has voted overwhelmingly to debate the boycotting of Israeli institutions in the aftermath of the Gaza war.
Dr. Kerr was a giant to those who care about the future of peace and justice in the region. This is why, when he was killed, Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said told The New York Times, ”No one could doubt either his perceptiveness and knowledge or his understanding.”
As Middle Eastern professor and author Abdullah Al Arian said to me, “Before his tragic death, Dr. Malcolm Kerr was a preeminent scholar and indeed, a pioneer in the field of Middle East studies. But beyond the groundbreaking studies that he authored, Kerr was exceptional in his desire to give back to the people of the region that he studied, a rarity among many Western scholars of the region. He committed his life to enhancing the level of education for Arab populations at institutions in Egypt and Lebanon and preferred life in a Beirut reeling from civil war and Israeli occupation to the comfortable confines of Southern California. Those of us who continue to research the region in the hopes of heightening the understanding of the Arab world are indebted to him.”
Dr. Malcolm Kerr sought the position as president of The American University of Beirut despite the civil war plaguing the country because he believed that understanding and education could end conflict. This has impacted his son. While one could understand how his murder could have turned Steve Kerr against this way of thinking, the lessons of his father have become embedded in Coach Kerr. Over this last decade of US war in the Middle East, Kerr has made comments such as, “You have to consider the political landscape. The number-one question we should all have, is why do people hate us? Why is there a faction of people in the world so against what we stand for?” He has also likened the idea of blaming all Arabs and Muslims for terrorism to “blaming Americans for Timothy McVeigh.” Suffice it to say, these are not the political views of those currently holding power in the Knesset.
Steve Kerr, without fanfare and without a bullhorn, walks in the path of the late Dr. Malcolm Kerr. It’s a path that sees peace as arriving only through education, empathy, and justice. It honors Dr. Kerr’s towering memory to say, without hesitation, that David Blatt’s political compass is an unapologetic path to more conflict. Using his platform as an NBA coach to steer more people onto this path demands criticism. It’s difficult to imagine that Dr. Kerr would have had nothing to say about it, even if his son is currently dealing with more immediate concerns. David Blatt is entitled to believe whatever he likes about Israel, Netanyahu, and war in Gaza. But it makes no sense whatsoever that these views have to be met with puffery or silence, instead of vigorous debate.
I had the thrill to spend this past weekend in Oakland, and the the sheer wide-eyed joy over the long-awaited arrival of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals was everywhere. T-shirts, buttons, baseball caps, even flashing messages on the city buses: It was a “Dubs Nation” festival of awesomeness.
There was also a rumbling sense of unease beneath the joy. The Warriors have called Oakland home since 1971, yet the team will almost certainly move to San Francisco by 2018, for a new stadium and a massive parcel of land. Yes, San Francisco is just across a bridge, but if you know the history of the SF and Oakland divide—and how deeply that divide has been symbolized by the cities’ sports rivalry—then you know that bridge crosses a moat more than a bay. Joe Lacob, the venture capitalist who has owned the Dubs for less than five years, sees that sweet stadium land and any sense of history flies out the window. Real estate in San Francisco is the new gold rush. It’s 1849 on BALCO steroids, and Joe Lacob is a crusty old prospector in a nicer suit.
If only it were just the Dubs. This seminal sports town is having its franchises bled out by owners who seem to care little about the deep, near-religious connections between teams and city residents.
Few franchises are more iconic than the Oakland Raiders, the legendary silver and black. When late owner Al Davis absconded with the team to Los Angeles in 1981, no one foresaw that he would return the Raiders in 1995 with a vengeance. Davis and city leaders delivered a notoriously awful deal for the people, even by sports-standards. The Raiders have soaked $400 million out of the city amidst deep cuts to social services and the treasury continues to pay $12 million a year until 2026 for stadium upkeep according to USA Today. Now his son, Mark Davis, wants to relive this history. He is salivating over moving the team to a $1.7 billion stadium in Carson, California outside of LA. The best hope for keeping the Raiders in Oakland rests not in a stadium deal but in that the greed of NFL owners collectively may overpower the rapaciousness of the Davis clan. NFL owners love a Los Angeles without pro football. The LA Market has boundless value for the league as a stalking horse, a living threat for other cities that if they don’t pony up, their team will go to La La Land. People in the Twin Cities can attest how that very threat was used by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf to secure his status as the Welfare King of Minnesota.
And then there are the A’s. The Oakland Athletics, the team of Moneyball, the Bash Brothers, and the greatest mustaches of the 1970s, has been attempting to escape Oakland for years. They are owned by 80-year-old real estate tycoon Lew Wolff, whose love for Oakland is so deep, he lives in Los Angeles. Wolff could not be more appropriately named. Six years ago, he attempted to take the team out of Oakland to Fremont. More recently, he tried to get them to San Jose, where Wolff effectively owns much of the city. Now the discussion is for, altogether now, public subsidies to refurbish the stadium they currently share with the Raiders.
What is so particularly noxious about all of this is that sports franchises don’t even pretend anymore to make the 1990s-era argument that public subsidies are necessarily for their survival. We all see it in the skyrocketing salaries, the multibillion-dollar television deals, and the ballooning costs for franchises: The money is there. The NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA could build new stadiums for all of these Oakland institutions and not even blink at the costs. But it’s not about giving back for Lacob, Davis, Wolff or the leagues. The entire state of affairs direly reflects a country where the desires of the “haves” violently out-prioritize the needs of the “have-nots”.
The people of Oakland with whom I spoke are anxious but are also adamant about not being screwed over again. They love their teams, but won’t sacrifice their city for the privilege. It’s admirable, and in this climate it’s a recipe for merciless defeat. Lacob, Davis, and Wolf are simply absent of shame. The great people of Oakland deserve better. They also, not unlike their basketball team at the moment, need to get out of their defensive stance and start lighting it up on offense.
This is Oakland: the city of the Black Panthers, Berkeley, the Brown Berets, and Boots Riley. It is almost shocking that there is not a public campaign to demand at least a partial public seizure of these teams, given the public expenditure already invested. I asked a slew of people this past weekend why this campaign has yet to cohere, and the answers ranged from it’s being unrealistic to there being “more pressing campaigns” than trying to untangle sports-league bylaws. But the mega-profits being produced by today’s leagues could actually aid those campaigns, providing new revenue streams for cash-strapped schools and hospitals. Here is where the city could take something from the history of the once-fearsome Raiders: Sometimes scaring the piss out of an opponent can be a very effective tactic. Occupy these Oakland franchises and demand that these owners acknowledge that the teams of the East Bay were yours long before these owners arrived for the great plunder. They can share the wealth or they can spend their own money or they can sell out. But the teams remain. As a T-shirt I saw this weekend said, “Oakland: the people that lead the world.” When it comes to turning the table on sports owners, it’s time for Oakland to lead.
In news that knocked the sports world over with a feather, the 79-year-old FIFA boss Sepp Blatter resigned Tuesday at an impromptu Zurich press conference. Just three days after winning re-election for the fifth time amidst unprecedented scandal, Blatter’s 17-year reign has come to an end. He took no questions and gave no concrete reasons for his departure, making speculation the order of the day. But pompous, bizarre, and off-key to the last breath, Blatter lectured the world that he “will organize an extraordinary congress for a replacement for me as president…. I am now free from the constraints of an election. I will be in a position to focus on profound reforms. For many years we have called for reforms. But these are not sufficient.”
The most “profound reform” that Blatter could possibly pull off has now been completed, relieving the soccer body of himself. Blatter was a dark cloud over the sport: a walking, talking gaffe machine and despot. Imagine a more pompous George W. Bush without a teleprompter and you can get an idea. The Women’s World Cup kicks off in days, and the play promised to be overshadowed by the possibility of indictments against Blatter, as well as reliving endless examples of his sexism.
The indictment question is a very live one. As The New York Times reported Monday, Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s secretary general, allegedly accepted $10 million in bribes. Blatter has said he knows nothing of this. Today’s resignation makes one wonder. Then there are the threats from European leagues to boycott the 2018 World Cup that came after Blatter’s reelection.
But the greatest reason is rooted in skittishness by the only entities more powerful than Blatter and his coterie: the sponsors. FIFA already lost second-tier sponsors like Johnson & Johnson and Castrol in January due to scandal fatigue. Now there has been a campaign linking top sponsors like McDonalds, Adidas, and Budweiser to the mass deaths of migrant workers in Qatar. Tragically and also predictably, their word is more powerful than the millions of Brazilians who took to the streets.
Blatter’s abdication creates an opportunity to truly reform FIFA in a manner I discussed last year: break it up so there can be a separate entity in charge of transparency, investigations, and oversight. Currently the FIFA foxes luxuriate among the chickens.
Then there are the larger issues of debt, displacement, and militarization of public space that plague countries that host the games. Blatter turned FIFA into a neoliberal Trojan horse and there is no indication that any of the “reformers” coming from Western Europe give a damn about those priorities. Then there is the specter of the United States playing the role of hero. It is difficult imagining issues such as guaranteeing a voice in FIFA by African nations and solidarity with the embattled Palestinian Football Association finding support under the US flag.
Dangers loom, but, if nothing else, Blatter’s leaving in shame is a moment of joy for anyone who has suffered under his rule by graft and shameless love of dictatorship and autocracy. It creates an opening for campaigners to make the ruling body of international soccer worthy of the game. In his press conference, Blatter said, “I only want to do the best for FIFA.” It may not have been by choice, but on this day he certainly did.