Where sports and politics collide.
As the news that Officer Darren Wilson will not face trial for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown reverberated across the country, more than a few athletes took to social media to express their disgust, sadness, and even rage. With each message—whether from LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Serena Williams—I probably received ten to fifteen texts or e-mails from people asking, “Did you see what Serena/LeBron/Dwyane Wade said?” It is understandable why people, whether isolated in their depression, or marching in outrage, take solace that those who hold astounding cultural platforms,would say, “We feel the same way you do.” (Kobe’s tweet in particular, which read, “The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law #Ferguson #tippingpoint #change” was both piercing and extremely welcome.)
It is also understandable why people look explicitly to black athletes when it comes to speaking out on those matters. After all, Brown’s death speaks to the deadly nature of the intersection of racism and police violence. Anyone who heard “America’s Mayor’ Rudolph Giuliani, make his disturbingly cold-hearted, racist rant on Meet the Press knows that to be true. And in the long history of athletes who have used their elevated platform to say something political, it has been black athletes who have most dramatically and memorably taken the weight and used their platform to speak out for change. Whether Muhammad Ali, Wyomia Tyus or John Carlos and Tommie Smith, these are people who have shown the ways athletic activists don’t only reflect struggle but inspire it. To quote a person I met at the Facing Race 2014 conference in Dallas, given all that social-justice activists ask of the most vulnerable people in our society—undocumented immigrants, sexual assault survivors, low-wage workers—there’s nothing wrong with putting questions to people with cultural power about the rot that exists within the very culture that has brought them glory.
Yet this also speaks to the heart of the unbothered privilege of being a high-profile athlete who happens to be white. If you want to be political—Steve Nash—you can be, but if you just want to get paid, and play one game at a time and give 110 percent, that’s all you are asked to do. It’s a sweet gig: one where you can do your Papa John’s commercials and throw for 5,000 yards while the world burns, and few in the sports media will ever challenge you to do otherwise. The bar is “Be white, play hard, and the world is yours.”
Well, fuck all of this. Michael Brown is dead, and Officer Darren Wilson not only walks free but has $400,000 in donations for his troubles. Then there is 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland, shot dead this week for having a BB gun in his belt. Or Akai Gurley, unarmed and killed in East New York by police in a situation already judged to be a homicide by the medical examiner’s office. Once every twenty-eight hours, a black man is killed by police. This isn’t justice. It’s a virus.
It’s horrific that in 2014, we are still, as Funkadelic said in 1972, a nation that eats its young. It should be both an outrage and a shame that the burden is on black America to be the voice of anger when killings like this takes place. People need to stand up and be counted. All people. You either stand with the family of Michael Brown and believe that Officer Darren Wilson should have to stand trial for killing an unarmed teenager, or you believe Officer Wilson’s gobmacking story about what took place when his path crossed Mr. Brown’s in August.
Everyone in the hyper-exalted cultural firmament of sports should be asked if they have any solidarity—verbal or financial—to offer to the family of Michael Brown as well as those on the ground in Ferguson fighting for justice. “Everyone” means not just black athletes. Peyton Manning, Kevin Love, Tom Brady, Mike Trout, Aaron Rodgers: this is the culture that has made you famous. If you want its blessings, then share its burdens and call for justice for Michael Brown. Either black lives matter or they don’t. In other words, either the lives of your teammates matter or they don’t. It’s time, white athletes: take some of the damn weight.
Read Next: "Why Ferguson Burns"
A bevy of right-wing pundits, radio jocks and late-night comics will mock the passing of four-time DC mayor Marion Barry. In life and death, his enemies will take their shots without trying to understand why people—particularly the marginalized and criminalized—mourn his passing. Barry’s talent—and his sin in the eyes of the powerful—was the ability to organize a true urban political machine comprised of black residents in the old style of the white ethnic political bosses. Like the bosses of yesteryear, he gave and he took. He had vices both political and personal and he knew how to count votes. But Barry also understood social movements. He came out of the black freedom struggle in the 1960s where racists flicked lit cigarettes into his face. Barry always knew how to wear his scars like medals.
As the misinformation—and some lionization—flies, here are fourteen facts about Marion Barry to help decode the demonization, and a couple of memories about times our paths crossed.
1. Barry quit his graduate studies in chemistry at Fisk University to become an organizer in the civil rights movement—most famously with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was one of the more conservative members of SNCC where he fought alongside—and fought with—revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael. It was reform vs. revolution amidst the rapid real time of a black freedom struggle exponentially expanding.
2. After moving to Washington, DC, in the mid-1960s, Barry organized a citywide boycott in response to bus fare hikes and against police brutality. Barry also organized hundreds of working class and poor black men into an organization called Pride, which helped people get jobs as well as organizing them as a voting bloc.
3. It has been commonly stated that in the years before home rule, Congress treated DC like a plantation. Bigoted Dixiecrat John McMillan of South Carolina blocked every move for home rule and routinely screwed over DC residents. When President Johnson appointee Walter Washington became the city’s first local mayor, McMillan sent a truckload of watermelons to Washington’s office.
4. At a decisive moment, Barry led the famous “Free DC Movement” for home rule, an extensive campaign that drew upon the strength of the civil rights movement. By the early 1970s, DC won an elected school board, nonvoting congressional representative, mayor and city council, but Congress still retained control over the city.
5. Marion Barry was one of just a handful of black mayors nationally when he first took office—inaugurated by Thurgood Marshall—in January 1979. He was re-elected three times, by a 67 percent margin, 30 percent margin and 15 percent margin in 1982, 1986 and 1994.
6. As mayor, Barry won the loyalty of tens of thousands of DC residents by creating jobs—most famously through his summer youth employment program (SYEP) which still exists today. He spent government money to create jobs that fueled the growth of the black middle class. DC was one of a few places in the United States that could claim improved economic status for African-Americans during the early Reagan years.
7. Yet for many black residents, dire poverty and underemployment persisted. Crack cocaine ravaged DC, but any efforts by Barry or any politician to expand drug treatment were hamstrung by a congressional ban on the commuter tax, which would have enhanced the District’s ability to tackle dire rates of poverty and underemployment. But, as in cities across the country, most of the economic growth flowed toward white developers and property owners.
8. The moment when Barry made national news after his videotaped 1990 arrest for using crack cocaine was tragic on many levels. First and foremost, it became a propaganda bonanza for President George H.W. Bush’s devastating war on drugs. The fact that it certainly looked like entrapment did not spare Barry, and DC began its journey toward losing political power and becoming a neoliberal laboratory for Congress.
9. The crusade against Barry that resulted in his infamous arrest, conviction and sentencing was led by US Attorney Joseph diGenova. DiGenova had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Interestingly, diGenova went on to help prosecute Teamsters union president and UPS national strike leader Ron Carey.
10. After Barry was re-elected mayor in 1994—following his sentence—the entire country unleashed a wave of thinly veiled racist vitriol directed at black DC voters. No one asked why tens of thousands of people—many affected by a war on drugs that imprisoned a generation of young black men, would forgive and support his leadership again.
11. In 1995, to punish DC voters for re-electing Barry, the Gingrich Congress stripped DC of home rule again—this time by stripping Barry of most of his mayoral powers and transferring them to an undemocratic, federally appointed institution known as the “Control Board.” The Control Board deserved the contempt it received at the hands of residents and Barry himself, but it came into being via federal law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton and shepherded by Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton.
12. By the time Marion Barry made his improbable return to the mayor’s office in 1994, the Democratic Party had moved to the right, and Barry’s politics drifted along with them. There was no old-style vote counting and deal making for Barry to make in a city run by a Control Board. It was mass social movement or concede. Needless to say, there were no mass social movements. I will never forget my friend the activist Angela C. Davis, saying to Barry in packed room, to serious applause, “We stand with the Barry of 1968, not the one of 1998.”
13. Marion Barry appeared at LGBT Pride events as far back as the early 1980s in Washington, DC—and won the loyalty of many gay residents years ahead of most other politicians. Tragically, he betrayed his own legacy by opposing marriage equality in 2009. The reasons for this are much debated. Fortunately his opposition did not stop it from becoming law and it passed 11-2.
14. Barry was a politician like any other—and committed the same sins that others did—but paid a much higher price.
The above constitute some reasons why people are mourning. But what made Marion Barry unique is that he was present. In a world where politicians—especially in this town—seem to operate in a bubble of bodyguards, Marion Barry was accessible on a street level. Everyone who has lived in DC—not Washington, but DC—has a Marion Barry story. I have two.
In 1997, I was getting my teaching provisional certification at the University of the District of Columbia and the city wanted to shut down the school. Barry was mayor, but this is when that lovely unelected Control Board was in charge of city finances, and trying to claim the real estate upon which UDC stood. As the closure was starting to commence, several hundred of us staged a sit-in to keep our school open. We had a simple slogan: “Control This.” It was becoming a high-profile media embarrassment for the hated Control Board. They sent in Mayor Barry and gave him instructions: draw on your past experience as a protest rabble-rouser, and tell the students to go home. We were silent when he walked into the room. Barry looked at us and said, “Shit, you’ve already learned most important lesson a student in this world can learn.” He then raised his fist and said, “The squeaky wheel gets the damn grease.” We erupted in cheers. And then he just walked out. UDC is still open for students.
The second story took place in 2010. I was emceeing a remembrance of the late, great people’s historian Howard Zinn. Speakers such as Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Ralph Nader and many others were there to pay tribute, and in between every speaker, I would rush up on stage from my seat in the front row of the packed house and introduce the next one. At one point, I scurried up to introduce spoken-word artist Damian Smith’s dramatic reading of a speech by Muhammad Ali. When I attempted to return to my seat, Marion Barry was just sitting there. The mayor took my seat. “Hello, Mayor Barry,” I said to the person who had not held that office in a dozen years. “Hello, young brother,” he said. “Nice emceeing up there.” I did not ask him to move. Instead I said, “This is the perfect place for you to sit, Mayor.” “It’s the place to be,” he responded.
I looked at Damian who had just finished up and he said to me, “I guess you realized that Marion Barry can sit wherever he damn well pleases.” Let the hate on Barry fly in the days to come. But when Marion Barry entered a room, wherever he was, it immediately became “the place to be.”
This article could not have been written without the help of DC Public Schools Washington DC History teacher Michele Bollinger.
On the Dan Patrick Show today, Dave Zirin called out Roger Goodell for “basically using a beaten 4-year-old child as a stepping stone to reclaim the moral highground that was lost after the Ray Rice scandal.” Zirin points out that you can both be repulsed by what Adrian Peterson did to his son, and see what Roger Goodell is doing for what it is: “a profoundly cynical exercise in personal and professional brand rehabilitation.”
- Jessica McKenzie
Let’s be clear: the recent raid on five NFL teams by the Drug Enforcement Agency to see if teams were doubling as illegal painkiller dispensaries has little to do with concerns about how our nation’s Sunday heroes Novocain themselves for gridiron glory. The fact that the NFL and their teams of doctors and nurses give out prescription pills like Halloween candy and break out syringes to top off sessions of physical therapy has been public knowledge for over forty years. Player memoirs like the 1970s Out of their League, by Cardinal linebacker Dave Meggyesy, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent’s semi-autobiographical bestseller North Dallas Forty, addressed such things with a nonchalant frankness bordering on the blasé. These practices are also discussed by former players with a shrug as just the price they pay for keeping the trains—those same trains carrying billions of dollars in revenue—running on schedule. Players tend to come from poverty and play an average of just three and a half years on largely non-guaranteed contracts. They will do what they have to do to get out there on Sunday, and teams will be only too happy to oblige.
The real story here is that these raids happened at all. The NFL employs twenty-six full-time lobbyists and spends about $1.5 million per election cycle to make sure that the feds leave the league alone and no one looks too closely at how the sausages are made. Pro football is supposed to be an entity that operates in a magical constitution-free zone of antitrust exemptions and tax breaks, with numbing opiates in every locker. But those days appear to be as dead as playoff hopes in Oakland.
A combination of the bumbling Clouseau-esque stewardship of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, public pressure and a never-ending cascade of scandals has created a relationship between the NFL and the federal government described to me by a hill lobbyist as “something south of toxic.” In September they hired democratic operative Cynthia Hogan to head their lobbying operation in an effort at making their relationship with this administration at least better than poisonous, but this is beyond Cynthia Hogan. Hell, this is beyond Olivia Pope. The federal government is out for a chunk of Roger Goodell’s flesh and the evidence of this is there for anyone who cares to look.
Over the last three months, we have seen the Federal Communications Commission—a body appointed by the Obama administration—both rescind the decades-old NFL blackout rule and threaten to ban the dictionary-defined slur that brands the Washington football team from being uttered over broadcast television. We have seen rage by public officials over how the NFL and especially Roger Goodell has ignored or even covered up issues of violence against women. We have seen Goodell again and again, whether in the Ray Rice domestic violence case or in his recent ruling on Adrian Peterson’s season-long suspension for hitting his child with a stick, careening from one crisis to the next, absent of a moral compass while thumbing his nose at the Players Association, public pressure or common sense. We have seen the open questioning on Capitol Hill of the NFL corporate office’s tax-free status, something estimated to save the league $10 million dollars a year—a move championed by now-retired Republican senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn. We have also seen the unthinkable: senators asking the “Emperor has no clothes” question of why the NFL gets any special treatment at all.
When politicians see the once bullet-proof NFL shield, with all of its cultural capital, as a target for scoring easy political points, it speaks volumes all by itself. This humiliating DEA raid is really just a dash a salt on an already simmering stew. Goodell’s league has long carried itself like the sporting equivalent of Goldman-Sachs; simply too big to fail. Those days of anti-accountability are over. Roger Goodell and the collection of owners that pull his string are failing at the most fundamental task of a league built on the broken bodies of its players: keeping people’s attention firmly focused on the field. Now people—and politicians—are looking at what is behind the curtain and scrutiny does them no favors. It is perfectly understandable why many would see conflict between the federal government and the powers that be in the world of football as the Kang vs. Kodos of political battles. But this is a sport that is being victimized less by big government than by their own arrogance and negligence. Whether we are talking about the covered-up dangers of youth football, the plantation economy of the NCAA, or the corporate culture of the NFL, the feds are not done with the people who run this sport. Not by a longshot.
The labor movement slogans that have guided generations include “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “solidarity forever.” But my favorite—because it speaks most directly to strategy—is, “The best way to avoid a strike is to prepare for one.” In other words, bosses will only back down and blink if they survey your side and think that they can lose.
That is why anyone who cares about the rights of labor on the highest possible public platform has to be inspired by the recent comments of new NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts. In an interview with Pablo Torre of ESPN the Magazine, Roberts took a step back from the decades of established labor practices that have governed sports and basically said, “This is bullshit.”
Because of various congressional shields and anti-trust exemptions, pro sports operate in a constitution-free zone, without the customary rights accorded in labor law. You get drafted to your city of work, a salary cap determines what you can make and, arbitrarily, you can be deemed not old enough to work.
Most of the sports media—not to mention fans—have either scoffed at or ignored these realities, saying that the exorbitant salaries—the NBA average is $4.5 million a year—more than justify any hardships. But that does not change the fact that wages are artificially capped, with the supposed business geniuses that own NBA franchises protected from their own checkbooks like over-caffeinated teenagers. It does not change an accepted narrative that trickles down into the main vein of US life: that the bosses always know—and do—what’s best.
Michele Roberts took a blowtorch to this narrative, saying, “I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because. It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”
She also said that the current revenue split, where 50 percent goes to ownership, was ridiculous and would change when the players opt out of the current CBA—a CBA that shifted billions of dollars in wealth from players to owners—and renegotiates in 2017.
“Why don’t we have the owners play half the games?” Roberts said. “There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money.”
Every quote from Roberts is a gem, the sort of thing player and labor advocates have been saying on the margins for decades. Whether blasting the rookie wage scale, the “monopoly” practices of the league, or the hypocrisy of owners, she is reframing consecrated conventional wisdoms with a sandblaster.
Not surprisingly, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who took a break from his recent campaign to get the owners a cut of the $400 billion illegal gambling industry, released a statement blasting Roberts’s assertions.
“We couldn’t disagree more with these statements,” Silver said. “The NBA’s success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players. No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or ‘un-American’ in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employees—in fact, that’s the norm…. We will address all of these topics and others with the players association at the appropriate time.”
Make no mistake what this is about. The league is about to be engorged by television revenue, $24 billion over six years, as live sports has become the tent pole of commercial television in our live streaming and DVR’d universe. Roberts is sending a shot across the bow that the owners will not be the primary beneficiaries of this broadcast bonanza and they will no longer, as she put it, “control the narrative.”
You don’t become the first woman elected to head a men’s sports union by playing nice. Adam Silver, a child of privilege from the New York City suburbs, should take note of Roberts, who has traveled from a housing project in the South Bronx to becoming a professor at Harvard and a high-powered attorney called “the finest trial lawyer in the nation.” “My past,” she told a room of NBA players, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” If Adam Silver did not take Roberts seriously before, he had better start. In the new narrative, Silver and the owners have a debt to pay.
As someone who has reported from most of the Olympic sites since 2002, I have written—often—that these games, so treasured by athletes and fans, operate off-camera as a colossal scam. It doesn’t take Naomi Klein to see that the games arrive with a shock doctrine of debt, displacement and militarization of public space. This has always been the case, but since 9/11, as the security needs for the Olympics have exploded alongside the profit margins of private security and tech firms, it has become an utter disaster for host cities. In fact, staging the games has become so burdensome that the only countries which seem to want the them are places that have a more, let’s just say, dictatorial method of handling cost overruns and dissent among the general populace.
This however is not stopping the United States Olympic Committee from undergoing a full court press to host the 2024 summer games, and in fact the USA is considered “the favorite” to win the bid by Olympic watchers. The cities in play are Boston, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with DC and Boston said to be the front-runners. Consider this column a clarion call to these four remarkable cities: start organizing now to keep the games the hell out of your town.
In Boston, they are already erecting the political barricades. An organization called No Boston Olympics has launched an effort in advance of the USOC’s December decision as to which city will represent the United States in the bidding process. One of their members, Chris Dempsey, responded to my query by e-mail:
The core of No Boston Olympics is a group of young local residents who believe that an Olympics would be a costly distraction from more important and pressing civic priorities. Our grassroots campaign is focused on three priorities: (1) direct outreach to USOC members to make them aware of independent public polling that shows Massachusetts voters do not support a Boston bid, (2) educating civic leaders and citizens about the substantial downsides of an Olympic bid, and (3) exploring opportunities to provide the public with a voice in a process that has otherwise been conducted behind closed doors.
Here is hoping that activists throughout the city of Boston are successful. I spoke with someone connected to the International Olympic Committee who told me that Boston has rocketed to the top of their consideration list because of how the city was able to shut itself down after the Boston Marathon bombing. Few things expose the disturbing thought processes of the IOC quite like this logic. The post-marathon paralysis of police and surveillance and the frightening exercise of total power that was whipped out as quickly and lethally as a switchblade would become the Olympic-norm for three weeks. Anyone who felt a particularly neon-bright target on their back in those chilling days, because of their religion, their dress or the color of their skin, would have that affixed to them like a semi-permanent tattoo for a full year in the lead-up to the lighting of the Olympic torch. A city that brands itself as a cradle of liberty would be defined by drones, thousands of new cameras and a level of military hardware that—based upon what I saw in Rio for the World Cup—has to be seen in order to be believed. Imagine August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, except with fleeting glimpses of Olympic horse dressage, seen through the haze of military-grade tear gas, and you can understand why No Boston Olympics is fighting back.
As for the other cities in contention, I would ask the people of the Bay Area and Los Angeles to think about the gentrification-on-steroids that is already taking place in their cities, pushing people to spend $750 a month to sleep in someone’s laundry room, and then imagine all of these issues worsening dramatically. In the case of DC, the Olympic viruses of debt, displacement and militarization are business as usual in the nation’s capitol. The idea that the Olympics could actually exacerbate these profound problems can seem unimaginable, but to paraphrase Lawrence Fishburne in Deep Cover, the thing about cities is that the reality can always get worse.
To be clear, this missive is not a call for the people of the United States to band together, in the spirit of NIMBY, and kick out the Olympics in the hope that a nation with even greater social ills than the USA has to shoulder the burden. It is the hope that the cities of Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and DC join the international community of cities, such as Oslo and Krakow, that have, because of public pressure, just said “hell no” to hosting the games. If every city followed their lead, we could hound the IOC back to their tax haven in Lausanne, Switzerland… a place, come to think of it, that would make one hell of a host city for the next twenty Olympics.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how sports disseminates the burdens of racism
Over the weekend, we learned that NASCAR star Kurt Busch was being investigated by police for assaulting his ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. Driscoll has requested both a restraining order and that the court compel Busch to seek counseling after he allegedly “accused her of ‘having spies everywhere and having a camera on the bus to watch him’ ” and then “jumped up, grabbed her face and smashed her head three times against the wall next to the bed.”
Busch’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin—yes, the same Rusty Hardin who repped Roger Clemens in his steroid trial—accused Driscoll of a “complete fabrication by a woman who has refused to accept the end of a relationship.” (The fact that Driscoll is a DC-based executive who runs a nonprofit for vets has not stopped Hardin from rehashing the same sexist clichés of a lying woman scorned, which tells its own story about the limits of “respectability” as a safeguard against sexism.)
Yet one thing did not happen after the news broke of the alleged assault: no one asked Peyton Manning for his thoughts. For that matter, no one asked Clayton Kershaw, Kevin Love or Sidney Crosby if they had any specific insight into how this could have happened. The absence of both that inquiry and any kind of broader uproar speaks volumes about one of the more pernicious aspects of racism in the sports world. This is the way in which the crimes of white athletes are seen as the moral failings of an individual, while the crimes of black athletes are processed by the media as a collective commentary on everyone who both happens to play sports and have black skin.
The video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay and knocking her consciousness not only launched a national discussion about domestic abuse and the NFL’s near-pathological serial cover-up of violence against women, but also a parallel discussion about violence against women in “the black community,” as if black athletes—and black men in general—were uniquely predisposed to hurting the women in their lives. Despite the fact that there is not a legitimate domestic violence counselor or study on earth that argued violence against women is a “black problem,” the media were undeterred.
This goes well beyond Ray Rice. Adrian Peterson beats his son bloody with a switch, and Bill Maher—to take just one of many examples—wanted to relate it to black culture, as if child abuse doesn’t happen in white households. Michael Vick fights dogs, and every black athlete gets a mic in their face to ask about the responsibility of black culture—or often the coded “hip-hop culture”—to stand up to cruelty to animals, all the while ignoring the fact that arrests for dog fighting span every shade in the racial rainbow. A white athlete, like Kurt Busch, is under investigation for assault, and no one asks what kind of music he’s listening to or the bagginess, or lack thereof, of his jeans. Hockey players fight, and fans cheer. NBA players fight, and politicians hold press conferences about the absence of “role models.” White athletes are enforcers. Black athletes are “thugs,” a word that Seattle All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said so adroitly has become “an accepted way of calling somebody the n-word.” But when Jeff Gordon—another NASCAR hero—tries to assault another driver, “thug” is the furthest word from anyone’s mind.
This is how racism functions throughout the United States. It’s the privilege of being seen as an individual, rather than the collective burden—and collective punishment—of being seen as part of an indistinguishable mass. The great irony of this is that we would be far better off as a society if Peyton Manning were asked about Kurt Busch. Not because he has some sort of magical insight from being white but because, as a high-profile male role model in the world of sports, he should feel a responsibility and, yes, a burden to stand up to violence against women, especially when it reveals itself in the sports world. Similarly, the burden of ending racism—no matter what Piers Morgan may think—begins with white people’s seeing the fight against prejudice as essential to a better world; standing with Michael Brown, not Darren Wilson; standing with Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman; and assuming responsibility for the cultural pathologies in the United States that result in violence in both the home and around the world.
Alex Rodriguez and Ray Rice: a middle-aged, steroid-addled baseball star from Miami and a young Pro-Bowl running back caught on camera striking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, have a couple of things in common these days. Owners and masses of fans want to each of these men to just go away, disappear, never heard from again. Each of their respective leagues would love nothing more than to be able to “pull a Stalin” and erase them from every photo, every video and every memory from their respective worlds. But neither is going anywhere, quietly or otherwise.
Alex Rodriguez, who is still owed $61 million over the next three years from the New York Yankees, is now the most publicly exposed liar since that guy who liked to play fighter-pilot dress-up told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After over a full year of A-Rod saying both publicly and privately that he absolutely in no way, shape or form took performance-enhancing drugs, The Miami Herald revealed that in exchange for immunity he told all to the Feds last January. He testified to every syringe, every supplement and every bathroom injection that took place between 2010–12.
Even more nauseating—at least for me—is that Alex Rodriguez gave this testimony in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Part of this was aimed at his cousin, the alleged go-between who secured the PEDs from the now-shuttered Biogenesis of America clinic in South Florida. The cousin was allegedly blackmailing Rodriguez, yet it’s an odd form of justice—or maybe a disturbing metaphor for our entire justice system—to see a wealthy star drop a dime on his lackey family member for the crime of securing him his drugs. He may be immune from prison, but now Alex Rodriguez irrevocably owns more than just some MVP trophies and a series of dilapidated slums in Prince Georges County, Maryland. He has also shouldered a legacy as liar and turncoat.
Then there is Ray Rice. This week Rice is in front of Federal Judge Barbara Jones, where he is arguing that he should be able to play again in the NFL and that he has been victimized by the capricious, morally adrift personal-conduct policy of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Rice as well as the NFL Players Association is arguing that the league has in effect suspended him twice. First he received a two-game suspension for being arrested on the initial assault charges. Then when video footage actually emerged of the punch that removed Janay Rice from consciousness and the league found itself with an epic public relations crisis, Goodell changed his ruling from a two-game suspension to an indefinite one. Goodell’s argument is that the tape showed a different story than the one told to him by Ray and Janay Rice. That new information gave him the leeway, as judge, jury and executioner in the non–collectively bargained conduct policy, to change the suspension.
To believe Goodell, you would have to believe that Ray Rice lied to him about what happened and that the commissioner had never seen the videotape before it was posted at the gossip site TMZ. Ray Rice, not to mention numerous executives in the Ravens organization, have said that Rice was honest about what took place on that tape from day one, suggesting that Goodell is lying. Rice and his attorney will argue that the only thing Goodell did not see when he first saw and heard what took place on that elevator was the threat to his own power. A source in the NFLPA told ESPN, “We think the League knew everything about what happened inside, outside the elevator before they even spoke to Ray Rice. We think we can prove it. We’ll see.”
On Wednesday, Goodell, after fighting it legally for weeks, was compelled to testify for several hours in front of Judge Jones. There is a gag order, but we do know that the Judge, based upon her reputation, would have had little patience for the greasy evasions Goodell adopted in his instantly infamous press conference last September. He will have to say what he knew and when he knew it.
Ray Rice has become Exhibit A of not only domestic violence in the NFL but also the profound hypocrisy that lurks in the league’s corridors of power. And here we see the other thing that Rice and A-Rod have in common. Whatever you might think of these two as individuals, both of them are being held up as scapegoats for something that runs much deeper in both leagues. Baseball has incentivized the use of performance-enhancing drugs for decades. The greatest explosion of steroids took place under the watchful eye of the retiring commissioner Bud Selig, who now gets to walk away and retire from the sport with the honorific that he “cleaned up the game,” by suspending people like A-Rod. Painting Selig as an anti-PED warrior is really the “giving Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize” of sports.
In football we are talking about a situation that is far more insidious. As I’ve written before, the United States has a domestic violence and violence-against-women problem. Singling out NFL players for specific scorn is more than counterproductive. It’s scapegoating. But what the NFL does have is a cover-up problem. Over the course of decades domestic violence is an issue that the NFL has brushed aside and it would still be brushing it aside in the case of Ray Rice if not for that videotape.
I am not against individual accountability for Alex Rodriguez and Ray Rice. I am strongly against the idea that the weight of Major League Baseball’s historic hypocrisy around PEDs should be ignored so we can feel better as we toss metaphorical flaming bags of dog poop at Alex Rodriguez. I am strongly against fastening a legacy of ignoring or even winking at violence against women on the individual shoulders of Ray Rice. Let each of them deal with what they have wrought. But if they are erased from the collective consciousness, we are ensuring that history will repeat itself. Instead, if they are going to be pariahs, let Roger Goodell and Bud Selig join them in the circle of shame. It is truly the least they deserve.
On Sunday, as many as 5,000 people marched on the Minnesota-Washington football game in the Twin Cities, with a simple message for DC’s seething carbuncle of an owner, Dan Snyder: change the damn name of your franchise. Change your mascot from the dictionary-defined slur of Native Americans and enter the twenty-first century.
Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, who live-tweeted the protest, quoted activist Samuel Wounded Knee, who told to the crowd, “My kids don’t want to be your mascots. Our culture is not for your fun and games.” Other speakers, from American Indian Movement veteran Bill Means to Native American environmental leader Winona LaDuke to civil-rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, spoke out openly against what protester Julie Tilsen described to me as the “three c’s: colonization, commodification, and capitalism.” Even US Congresswoman Betty McCollum, the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, was compelled to “speak truth to power” and called out the “genocide” that makes a name like “Redskins” a reality.
Tilsen also pointed out the chills produced by seeing retired Minnesota North Stars veteran Henry Boucha, speak out as “an indigenous person, and as a Minnesotan,” and Spike Moss, a local African-American community leader calling upon black NFL players to learn the long history of intertwined resistance between between indigenous and black communities.
It was a collection of confident voices, as people “across genders, ages and other social locations” were “calling shit out left and right,” signifying a movement in its ascendancy. But to understand how this anti-“Redskins,” anti-racist resistance has exploded onto the landscape, far too many people are finding its source in individual sports media members who refuse to use the name, or they identify it in a mass revulsion to Snyder’s political halitosis. But the answer actually lies north of the border, where a new generation of First Nations people are on the march, inspiring pueblos and reservations in the United States and beyond. The movement is known as Idle No More, and if you don’t understand Idle No More, then you cannot understand why the thousands gathered to demonstrate outside of a football game.
I spoke with Erica Lee, a Cree Idle No More organizer in Canada. Lee first cut her political teeth by organizing to end the racist mascot at her high school. She told me:
The strength of today’s protest demonstrates the growing shift in consciousness around issues of Indigenous representation. As we come up on the second anniversary of the first Idle No More teach in, there are now more and more Indigenous voices entering and changing discourses on mascots, land claims, and historical events. Thanks to social and alternative media, we now have the opportunity to tell our own stories, rather than someone speaking for native people and claiming they know what “honors” us. Snyder and the Washington team are fighting a losing battle. At this point, it’s clear that the issue won’t simply go away. Our voices and resistance are only growing stronger.
I also communicated with Canadian based anti-racist organizer and author of the book Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia, about the roots of Idle No More and its connections to what we saw today. “The Idle No More movement has been informed by decades of land reclamations and Indigenous resurgence bursting across Turtle Island/North America,” she said.
These actions range from blockades against pipelines to fights against mountain top removal, from mobilizing against the Olympics to marches for missing and murdered Indigenous women. All these fissures coalesce around a central point—that there can be no justice on stolen native land and that the racism and marginalization that Indigenous peoples face is part of ongoing settler colonialism and corporate development without consent. The debate around R*dskins also occurs within this context. The term is not only racist; the mascot is an attempt to relegate Indigenous people to the past and obscures the fact that diverse Indigenous nations continue to survive despite genocidal attempts at erasure.
Idle No More’s great accomplishment has been the overlooked act of inspiring Native Americans and solidarity activists to recognize their own ability to reshape the power relationships that have defined indigenous communities for centuries. Dan Snyder has certainly felt this intimately. One of the central activists in the anti-mascot struggle is Jackie Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland and a founder of the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM). Catching up to her after today’s demonstration, she made the connection between the upsurge in Canada and her own organizing against the Washington name: “I know for me personally Idle No More got me reactivated,” she said. “I was working with Idle No More PDX (Portland) last year. And a lot of EONM’s support base grew out if that. Even now, a high percentage of EONM members are Idle No More PDX members.”
The inspiration that Keeler feels has even reached Snyder’s backyard here in the DC, Maryland and Virginia area. It electrified Brian Justin Ward, who has become a prominent Washington-based American Indian solidarity activist. He said to me:
Idle No More has reinvigorated indigenous communities across North America connecting the historical injustices in the past to the injustices of today. We have not seen this level of indigenous activism in North America since the 1970s. Idle No More has helped create the space for people to say no to racist mascots and see these mascots as part of the larger issue of unquestioned racism towards Native people in our society. Activists now have a new sense of confidence in building #ChangeTheMascot campaigns whether it be their local high school or professional sports.
Ward, like myself, is based the Washington DC area. We work and live in the shadow of this relentlessly promoted racial degradation masquerading as a football team. Today, as people in the Twin Cities took to the streets, I was reminded of how Dr. King would often point out the toxic effects racism has not only on oppressed communities but on those who perpetuate this poison. We in the DC area owe a collective thank you to the people of Minnesota. Thank you for moving us one step closer to putting the Washington football mascot where it belongs: in a museum as a reminder of a past we should loath to repeat.
At some point in the near future, a Canadian tribunal will determine whether or not the 2015 Women’s World Cup will be the setting not only of guts, goals and glory but torn ligaments, stretched hamstrings and a profound level of disrespect. A group of the top players in the world, including US stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, are suing soccer’s international ruling body, FIFA as well as the Canadian Soccer Association, over their insistence that the Cup be played on artificial turf. German great Nadine Angerer, and Brazil’s international icon Marta are also supporting the suit. This is nothing more than an issue of sexism and, in the words of US midfielder Megan Rapinhoe, a “frustrating” level of “gender discrimination.” They have received support from across social media, including words of solidarity from US men’s soccer goalie Tim Howard.
— tim howard (@TimHowardGK) August 26, 2014
For Howard, this is hardly an abstract issue. Both female and male World Cup players overwhelmingly prefer playing on natural grass. It is a softer surface with more give and less propensity to catch your treads in the surface and have something in your legs dislocate or rip apart. It is also far less abrasive when you slide or fall. The ball moves faster, but players are less likely to slide or dive. In other words, it changes the game for the worse. But while the men’s World Cup was played entirely on natural grass, FIFA has decided to stand with the Canadian organizers who have cited weather concerns to justify their turf-only cup. It is not inclement weather, however, that compels Canada’s committee to defend turf-ball. After all, natural grass was used amidst Brazil’s rainforest region for goodness sake. It’s the fact that turf does not need to be cared for. You save pennies at the margins, even if it risks the very physical health of the players. As Ken Baxter pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, it would cost $3–6 million to cover the artificial fields with natural grass, which is just a fraction of the $27 million FIFA bafflingly spent on an unwatchably self-serving biopic about their exalted grand leader, the corrupt sexist doorknob, Sepp Blatter.
If the women’s players do not get the decision they seek or if FIFA simply finds a way to not comply with what the court rules—their head of women’s soccer said recently, “We play on artificial turf and there’s no Plan B”—the women’s players may have to rely on more drastic action and simply refuse to play unless the field meets their safety requirements. There is precedent for this. In the lead up to 1996 Olympics in Atlanta the double standards afflicting the women’s and men’s game in the United States became too much to bear. Despite the fact that they were gold-medal favorites and the men’s team was middling at best, the women were being treated like afterthoughts. They were set to earn $1,000 a month, a fraction of the men’s take, with a bonus kicking in only if they won the gold. The men, in addition to a higher stipend, were set to get their bonus no matter how they medaled. The players decided to get advice from someone who knew a thing or two about fighting for equal pay and respect: the great Billie Jean King. King, in addition to her history as an all-time tennis great and outspoken opponent of sexism in sports, had also campaigned for years to achieve a measure of prize-money equity in her sport. Through that work, she became a founder of the first-ever women’s athletic union. (King also came from a working-class background, her father a firefighter, who hardly came out of the country clubs and academies that birthed most tennis stars of her day.) In recounting the advice she gave to the 1996 team, King said, “I told them, you just don’t play. That’s the only leverage you have.”
The players unified and basically had what one called a “wildcat strike,” refusing to report to practice. USA soccer caved, providing a lesson that hopefully has not been forgotten. There is no spectacle, no show, no nothing, without the players. Today, the women soccer players of the world should cross their arms and stand on the sidelines unless FIFA throws down a few million for some decent grass. If not, they should stand proudly with the words of the great baseball player Dick Allen, who said, “If a cow can’t eat off it, I don’t want to play on it!”
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