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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Sepp Blatter’s Shocking End

Sepp Blatter

FIFA President Sepp Blatter pauses during a news conference at the FIFA headquarters. (Reuters/Ruben Sprich)

In news that knocked the sports world over with a feather, FIFA Boss, the 79-year-old 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 in 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 amongst 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.

Sepp Blatter Re-Elected Just In Time for the Women’s World Cup

Sepp Blatter

FIFA President Sepp Blatter (Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann)

Next week is supposed to be the launch of one of the crown jewels of international soccer, the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Instead, this adrenalizing tournament is threatened with being overshadowed by the unraveling ugliness of the international soccer body FIFA under the warped, now reelected leadership of Sepp Blatter. As Blatter starts his fifth term caked in scandal, with promises of "more bad news to come," the World Cup will fight for attention and space, their obstacle the monstrous ego of one man. It is a fitting metaphor for how Blatter has treated women's soccer since he took power in 1998.

FIFA’s racketeering scandal imperils what promises to be a dazzling event. The tournament will feature the world’s most talented players on earth, from German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer to US striker Abby Wambach; from Brazilian mega-star Marta to Christine Sinclair of the host country in Canada, from Célia Sasic of Germany to French badass Louisa Necib; from Nigeria’s 20 year old sensation Asisat Oshoala to Yuki Ogimi, the striker from the defending champions Japan. Yet Blatter may not even attend the tournament out of fear that he will be led away from it in handcuffs.

Blatter has called himself "The Godfather” of women’s soccer, but unless we are talking about either a Mafia Don or a very creepy uncle, this appellation does not fit. Yes, Blatter’s greater crimes are seen in the migrant workers, killed building the stadiums of Qatar and the destroyed homes of Brazil. But his warping of women’s soccer is enraging. In fact, Blatter’s ironclad grasp on the FIFA presidency has long been an impediment to pressing ahead developing those who aspire to be the future Wambachs and Martas of world soccer.

Blatter has long flung misogyny in every direction. In 2004, when asked how to jumpstart the popularity of women’s soccer, he suggested, “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”

A decade later Blatter was still at it. He said about the dearth of women inside the FIFA power structure was because “Football is very macho . . . It’s not easy for the ladies to have a position inside FIFA.”

It’s not easy for women at the awards podium either. US soccer phenom Alex Morgan recently told Time magazine that at the FIFA World Player of the Year ceremony in 2012, “FIFA executives and FIFA president Sepp Blatter didn’t know who I was. And I was being honored as top three in the world. That was pretty shocking.” Morgan stated, “I have experienced sexism multiple times [in FIFA], and I’m sure I will a lot more.” With Blatter’s reelection, the odds of blatant sexism in her future will only surge.

Lest we think Blatter has been cured of his inability to recognize the biggest stars in women’s soccer, the following year at the World Player of the Year Awards in Zurich, he mistook Abby Wambach’s wife, Sarah Huffman, for Brazilian soccer star Marta. Grant Wahl reported that Blatter ambled up to Huffman and bearhugged her, exclaiming, “Marta! You are the best! The very best!” Wambach said of the incident, “He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times . . . For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”

FIFA’s monomaniacal brand management cut with sexism, reared its greedy head again this week when a Swedish television station had the temerity to suggest that this summer’s soccer tournament simply be referred to simply as "The World Cup.” FIFA swiftly squelched such efforts to promote equality, insisting that Sweden’s TV4 only use the “FIFA Women’s World Cup” moniker. FIFA warned that if the Swedish TV station refused to abide by FIFA’s dictates, they could well be in breach of contract. In short, at FIFA, sexism is contractual.

With Blatter at the helm, it’s no wonder this summer’s World Cup in Canada is being played on artificial turf, despite the vociferous protests of soccer players and fans across the world. Holding the men’s World Cup on fake grass would be unthinkable. Megan Rapinoe, star of the US National Team who will feature in this summer’s World Cup got it exactly right when, speaking at a SXSW Sports event in March, she said simply, “Fuck FIFA.”

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There are many reasons to chant Rapinoe’s pithy mantra. In 2007 FIFA banned wearing the hijab. Citing feeble safety concerns with no basis in science, FIFA essentially outlawed Muslim women from playing the sport by disallowing the traditional head covering. Again, FIFA baked discrimination into everyday life. This wasn’t changed until 2014. As sports activist, writer and hardcore soccer fan Shireen Ahmed said to us, "When the hijab ban was formally lifted in 2014, FIFA's Secretary General Jérôme Valcke made the announcement. That made tremendous sense as Sepp Blatter's previous comments on female footballer's clothing was to recommend that they wear shorter shorts to attract supporters. His entire presidency is reminiscent of a series of stories from The Onion."

Given the global popularity of soccer, the growth of the women’s game has occurred in spite, not because, of Blatter's leadership. By all measures the women’s game has developed in a haphazard manner.

Yet the sport will always be bigger than Sepp Blatter, which is the root of not only his power but what is so amazing about soccer. Shireen Ahmed put it perfectly. "The timing of the FIFA investigations is unfortunate given that the Women’s World Cup is starting in less than two weeks. I don't think it should affect ticket sales or dampen the mood at all. Canada is hyped up and ready. This tournament is for young women and girls and for the world. Need to keep focus there. Spirits are high. What women's football has achieved is with the support of far more important players than the FIFA Ex-Co. This is a distraction. No one is bigger than the beautiful game. Especially not privileged men. And definitely not Sepp Blatter."

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the FIFA raids and the vote to suspend Israeli soccer

Will the FIFA Raids Scuttle the Vote to Suspend Israeli Soccer?

Federal agents

Federal agents load a van with boxes and computers taken from the headquarters of CONCACAF. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As the 2015 FIFA Congress remains roiled in disarray following the dramatic arrests of leading officials on corruption charges, the Palestinian Football Association is not deterred. The PFA is still moving forward with a Friday vote to suspend the Israeli Football Association unless it pledges to push its government to cease the detentions, imprisonments, and targeting of Palestinian players and clubs (here is a comprehensive list of their concerns). As PFA President Jibril Rajoub said, “Nothing has changed, the vote is still on the agenda.”

After a meeting with embattled FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, long desperate to avoid such a vote, as well as Arab and Israeli authorities, Rajoub said, “The meeting lasted about one hour, there were no results.”

Whether Rajoub is able to get this vote on the agenda given the chaos engulfing FIFA at the moment is a real concern that should in no way be discounted, but that doesn’t mean the recent high-profile arrests don’t also present opportunities for campaigners. Before seizing them, however, there is a need to first cast away the rampant theories that the US Justice Department’s transatlantic criminal sting was somehow timed to aid Israel. The much-trafficked belief is that the United States facilitated the timing of this operation in its efforts to help its greatest ally to avoid the humiliation of becoming the first country since apartheid South Africa to be suspended by FIFA. Surely the fires of such thoughts were stoked by editorials in The Jerusalem Times crowing that the arrests “couldn’t have come at a better time for Israel.”

But, typical of the Jerusalem Times editorial page, this makes little sense. It also ignores the ways in which the spotlight on FIFA has only grown in the last 48 hours, providing new leverage for those who want to make the soccer congress an arena to actually confront human-rights abuses instead of facilitating them.

The idea that a United States Justice Department that can’t even get its attorney general approved for six months, could pull off a multi-year, multimillion-dollar transatlantic sting operation with the perfect timing to stymy a vote whose existence was in doubt even days ago is to put it mildly, unrealistic. But even more pertinently, with these arrests the US Justice Department and Swiss authorities just gutted the North American delegation, the group most likely to support and lobby for Israel at the FIFA Congress. This would be like dropping Steph Curry on his head as part of a master plan to help the Warriors win the NBA title.

Another reason these arrests don’t help Israel is that the reptilian Blatter has been staunchly in the IFA’s corner, and ferociously working to get the Israel vote off of FIFA’s agenda. Until more pressing matters emerged, it was at the top of his to-do list. Now, in the wake of the arrests, Blatter’s political capital has been eroded dramatically, his ability to broker anything beyond the weekend’s catering very much a question.

The idea that these arrests were timed to aid Israel also makes little sense because now the eyes of the world are on the FIFA Congress, an event, which in years past only the most die-hard of soccer dorks even noticed. Now every move will be under a microscope. If the goal of the Palestinian Football Association was to raise international awareness of the plight of its players, it could not have asked for a better stage. This vote against Israel was never going to pass. It would have required 75 percent of delegates to approve Israel’s suspension and not even the most optimistic vote counters believed that this could happen. But now there is global attention and, given the plight of Palestinian players, the more attention the better for their human rights to be recognized.

Once again the shell-shocked madness could very well create a situation where the vote is scuttled, and that would crush many campaigners. But this could also reap awareness of the hardships that surround the life of an up-and-coming soccer player in Gaza, as well as the ways that the IFA launches official soccer teams on West Bank settlements to further erode the possibilities of a separate Palestinian state.

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My own concern, as someone who has written and spoken out for the besieged players in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is that these theories of US-Israeli coordination are just fatalism in disguise: the idea that no matter how much people organize, there will always be an elaborate transatlantic sting ready to wreck the work. That’s not what happened. These arrests are foremost about FIFA buckling under the weight of its own corruption. This is about a history of graft, human rights abuses, and contempt for any law but his own catching up with Sepp Blatter. This is the Enron of sports. I agree with Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: the Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, who said to me, “FIFA executives have run an almost unimaginably corrupt organization. Sepp Blatter has been the grand choreographer, chief enabler, prime instigator and main beneficiary of this system since 1998. It is now time to take down Blatter himself.”

If there are any questions worth asking about these arrests, it is whether the Justice Department would have undertaken such action if the United States instead of Qatar had been awarded the 2022 World Cup (no). I’d also like to know why the Qatari World Cup Committee—a group of slavers with the blood of hundreds of workers on its hands—gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, even as Bill Clinton was leading the US World Cup bidding delegation. But as for Israel, my own concern is that in searching for conspiracies of coordination, activists will only find fatalism and fantasy: the idea that no matter what they do, it will be for naught. The PFA has not succumbed to this kind of fatal fantasy. We should not either.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the possible demise of FIFA

Down Goes FIFA! Down Goes FIFA!

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces an indictment against nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives at a news conference in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It has been called “the day that FIFA has long dreaded”: the day that decades of graft and a level of ostentatious excess that would make Caligula blush caught up with the international soccer body. Fourteen people, including nine top FIFA officials, have been arrested on corruption charges levied by the US Justice Department. Seven were taken into custody in a dramatic arrest by Swiss law enforcement at a luxury hotel in Zurich. As the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote two decades ago, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.”

Well, the kingdom has been cracked open, and no one is sure what we will find out once all the deals have been cut and the whistleblowers have played their tunes. Make no mistake: We may look back upon today as the beginning of the end of FIFA as we know it. All of the 209 member representatives of FIFA had gathered in Zurich for their congress, which was expected to be “a boring affair,” where President Sepp Blatter would coast to re-election. Boring is the last word on anyone’s mind now.

The charges brought include money laundering, wire fraud, and international racketeering that alleges $150 million in bribes going back to the 1990s made by big sports-marketing honchos to get their brands associated with major soccer tournaments, but this will be just the tip of the iceberg. Here is what was said by US attorney general Loretta Lynch: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” (Lynch said the selection of the United States to host next year’s Copa América was facilitated by $110 million in bribes.)

For those wondering how the Justice Department was able to facilitate these arrests in Switzerland, it used a prosecutorial authority often present in international terror cases. As The New York Times described, “Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider Switzerland’s treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.”

In this case, the US connection is CONCACAF, headquartered in the United States and, of FIFA’s six regional confederations, the one that includes North America. Described as “an organization clearly in crisis” by Lynch, they are as of now the central focus of the investigation. (This part is important for those following the possible FIFA vote on sanctioning or even expelling Israel for its practices related to detaining players and coaches in the Palestinian Football Association. It is impossible to tell the fate of that vote or any votes based upon the chaos produced by latest charges, but CONCACAF was viewed as Israel’s most reliable defenders in the FIFA body.)

The indictments however, will seek information well beyond the workings of CONCACAF and could be the string that, if pulled, will tear FIFA’s cashmere sweater to pieces. The indictment also makes mention of bribery related to the much-criticized awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The oil-rich fiefdom of Qatar has been under fire for its use of slave labor and a shocking pace of deaths of South Asian migrant workers, building new stadiums without adequate water or safety regulations. Russia has conducted its own damning internal audits related to its soccer leadership. Yet already, in a show of staggering arrogance, FIFA has issued a statement that no matter what the investigation roots out, there will be no revote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The hubris would be gobsmacking if we hadn’t heard it so many times in the past: the statement of blithely unaware confidence by a dictator right before the fall.

And speaking of dictators, the one name not mentioned in the indictments was that of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter: the sexist and homophobic troglodyte who has turned FIFA into a multibillion-dollar engine of corruption. His absence amongst the accused was so stunning that The New York Times headline reads: “FIFA Officials Arrested on Corruption Charges; Blatter Isn’t Among Them.”

Blatter was due to be reelected in a cakewalk on Friday, his only challenger Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussain, a 39-year-old Jordanian royal. Blatter’s power comes from strong support via Africa, Asia, and Oceania, where he has leveraged reverence like a mafia don by cagily distributing “sport for development and peace” funds, and then been none too concerned where those funds happen to land.

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Already FIFA has issued statements professing Blatter’s innocence and assuring the world that in an organization caked in filth, he somehow smells of sandalwood. Blatter still will likely be re-elected on Friday, which will only turn up the volume on how mockable the organization has become.

Transparency International, the campaigning NGO, wants Blatter to resign and the election to be delayed. Managing Director Cobus de Swardt said in a statement: “The warning signs for FIFA have been there for a long time. FIFA has refused to abide by many basic standards of good governance that would reduce the risk of corruption. These scandals have taken place under Sepp Blatter’s watch, which spans almost two decades. For the sake of the fans, and good governance of football, it is time for him to step down. The elections for president are not credible if they are tainted with these allegations by the highest prosecuting authorities.”

FIFA is paying for a culture that valorized dictatorship and excess while disregarding the concerns of people like the millions who took to Brazil’s streets in 2013. It was willing to be a neoliberal Trojan horse for the nations of the world, yet FIFA's arrogance and perhaps its unwillingness to cut in the United States, which hasn’t hosted the cup since 1994, caught up with it.

For those who have concerns about the Justice Department’s attacking FIFA while corrupt bankers go free, not to mention Attorney General Lynch’s using the FIFA presser to defend FISA, I share those concerns greatly. Trusting this Justice Department to prosecute the wealthy and powerful is like trusting Fox News to tell the truth. But this is a case of FIFA shaking its behind and daring law officials to take a free kick, and they did.

I wrote this a year ago and I will say it again: “Soccer is still unquestionably the most popular sport on the planet. But a cloistered, corrupt society like FIFA cannot function in a WikiLeaks world. It is past time to abolish FIFA. It is like a gangrenous limb that requires amputation before the infection spreads and the beautiful game becomes decayed beyond all possible recognition. Soccer is worth saving. FIFA needs to take its ball and go home.” The sooner the better, for anyone who loves this game.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Michael Sam’s move to Montreal

Montreal: Adopted Home of Jackie Robinson, John Carlos, and Now Michael Sam

Michael Sam

In 2014 Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

When it was announced that free agent linebacker Michael Sam was signing with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, many people’s thoughts turned to Jackie Robinson. Robinson famously spent a year playing for the minor league Montreal Royals before making his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was believed by Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, quite simply, that Montreal was less bigoted than the United States. Jackie Robinson would have the experience of playing without the weight of a dominant culture casually putting his humanity on trial with every at-bat. But I didn’t think right away of Robinson upon hearing news of Sam. I thought about 1968 fist-raising Olympian Dr. John Carlos. When John Carlos was shunned by the United States and struggling to earn a living after his Olympic protest, he signed and played in the CFL for Montreal in 1971. He once said to me, “Living in Montreal was like therapy for my family after all the hate back home.” Now living in Georgia, Dr. Carlos still speaks about Montreal like it was a wonderland. I called him and asked whether he felt it would be a good landing place for Michael Sam. He said to me, “Michael Sam deserves as much a chance as anyone else to follow their dreams. If the NFL was not going to be that place, I’m very glad that the CFL was an option. It’ll be good for his mind too. I was very well received by the people of Montreal and Canada. I loved Montreal. He will too. They don’t give a hoot in Montreal who you are … as long as you try to learn a little French.”

The connection between Michael Sam and Jackie Robinson is even more illustrative. There’s an old expression from Mark Twain that I tend to overuse: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Last year, I worked this phrase like a government mule because it seemed to fit Michael Sam’s odyssey to the NFL so well. No, he wasn’t Jackie Robinson aiming to break the color line in 1947 and the differences in their journeys cannot be ignored. Most obviously, the overcoming of the obstacles of race and sexuality have significant historical deviations. In addition, Robinson was attempting to break through in advance of a civil-rights movement, which is why Dr. King described him years later as “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” Michael Sam is coming to the NFL after decades of LGBT people fighting to be open in both the workplace and the world. If sports was ahead of the curve on racial issues, on sexuality it has long lagged in both men’s and women’s sports.

The differences are real, but the similarities however have been too glaring to ignore. Michael Sam was going to have the burden of being "a first". His journey would be chronicled extensively and in turn force a lot of people who did not want to think about the issues LGBT people face, to acknowledge their existence. This sounds a great deal like the effect Jackie Robinson had on the country in the arena of race. Even the excuses long used to discourage LGBT athletes from coming out were common to the old color line: the shower and the locker room. Just as white athletes had to get over their irrational prejudice over sharing showers, we would see resistant football player - both straight and those grappling with their own sexuality - doing the same. Then there was the trope of “the distraction”: teams saying that it was less about prejudice than not wanting to deal with the uproar. History rhymes up a storm on that one. Unfortunately, Michael Sam did not have his Branch Rickey: the NFL executive who decided come hell or high water that this was going to happen. Yes, even if Rickey’s reasons were often less about social justice than the future value of the franchise, he should always get credit for persevering when his fellow owners told him to stand down. Michael Sam did not have a similar champion, despite both a college career and an NFL preseason that should have made him worthy of receiving the opportunity.

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Now however, Michael Sam’s football career lives and once again we have a mirroring of the Jackie Robinson story. The legacy of Robinson is part of what makes this feel so right. As Montreal talk radio host Dave Kaufman said to me, “Montreal is a city that still proudly boasts that Jackie Robinson got his start here. He will be embraced and accepted, and most importantly, he will be given the chance to concentrate on football. Plus, there’s no better place to be in North America in the summertime. I think he’ll fall in love with Montreal, and vice versa.”

The Canadians I know are always very quick to tell me to not talk about their country like it is some kind of social democratic paradise, free of oppression. They will be quick to point out all the ways in which Canada falls short of its ideals and has more in common with the worst aspects of the United States than is often acknowledged. I was even accused once of wearing “maple leaf goggles” by a friend in Toronto. Perhaps that is true. But I also know that Malcolm X said, “As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South.” Living in a country where “I can’t breathe” has morphed from a man’s dying words to a protest slogan with which thousands identify, it is possible that people just breathe a little easier in the great north. Michael Sam could soon discover that same joy. Like Jackie Robinson, he’ll show just how well he can play without a vocal minority of people psychologically over-invested in his failure.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the sports media silence surrounding the saga of Thabo Sefolosha

An NBA Player Is Missing the Playoffs Because the NYPD Broke His Leg—Why the Sports-Media Silence?

Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha

Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha (AP Photo/David Tulis)

The NBA Finals may be determined by an act of police violence. This is an incendiary fact, yet a curious media silence surrounds the saga of injured Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. The nine-year pro has been absent from the playoffs after a group of New York Police Department officers broke his leg in April following a late-night confrontation outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police accounts about what took place conflict dramatically, with video that emerged of a group of officers surrounding Sefolosha, with one brandishing a nightstick. Sefolosha, with assistance from the National Basketball Players Association, is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York. How this is not a continual firestorm is, frankly, bewildering. Given that there is a national movement confronting racialized police violence, and given that last winter saw the most prominent players in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, even Kobe Bryant—speaking out in solidarity with this movement, it seems like a story too magnetic to ignore. It’s also unprecedented. My first editor told me, “The sun going up is beautiful, but it’s not a story. The sun not coming up, now, that’s a story.” This is the sun not coming up. It’s a narrative that would appear ripe for big-budget investigative reporting, regular updates, or even chatter. It would especially seem tailor-made for an era in sports media when everything is numbingly over-discussed; an era when Tom Brady’s vigorously rubbed footballs or the presence of adorable children at NBA press conferences qualifies as subjects of endless debate. But somehow it’s not.

Now, as the Hawks square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, this story should be re-emerging with a vengeance, and not only because Sefolosha is the only Hawk with deep playoff experience, as well as an effective defender of Cavs’ all-world superstar LeBron James. In game one, Hawks guard Demarre Carroll, their top playoff scorer and chief defender of James, went down with a knee injury. This has elevated Sefolosha’s absence from nettlesome to near-cataclysmic. Now, without Carroll or Sefolosha, the Hawks might as well assign a matador to guard James with a red cape. (Carroll’s situation, which initially looked gruesome, is officially day-to-day at this point, and he should be back later in the playoffs, although how effective he’ll be with a hyper-extended knee is anyone’s guess.)

Yet Carroll’s injury did not provoke a re-examination of what happened to Sefolosha. This near-silence has been across the sports media landscape, so it feels churlish to pick on one example, but it was both too high-profile and too evocative to ignore. On Thursday morning, Mike Greenberg, hosting ESPN’s national Mike and Mike radio show, talked about how the Hawks could possibly be able to guard LeBron without Carroll, and mentioned Thabo’s absence as well. In describing for his audience why Thabo isn’t playing, all Mike Greenberg said was, “We all know what happened there.” That was it. No mention of the NYPD, the conflicting stories, or the fact that NBA players have gone out of their way to speak about police mistreatment. Just “We all know what happened there.” Actually, we don’t all know what happened there, and that’s the point. Instead of retelling or even illuminating what we know, this line was dead on arrival. And yet “we all know what happened there” were six words more than most sports media offered this past week. Even the notably outspoken TNT team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley had nothing to say about it on Inside the NBA, broadcast immediately after the Hawks lost to Cleveland and in the aftermath of Carroll’s injury. Yes, given Shaq’s history as a volunteer police officer and Barkley’s own comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not have exactly been a rousing call for social justice, but to not even mention it was bizarre. Even Marv Albert discussed Sefolosha briefly during the broadcast. But to the TNT studio team, he was the invisible man.

I spoke to nine NBA journalists, editors, and television producers on and off the record about why this story has been objectively under-discussed. One might think they would say it’s because fans either don’t care about someone viewed as a role player or because it’s a polarizing topic and the audience will rebel if sports pundits get too political. But that’s not what I heard.

Michael Lee, The Washington Post’s national NBA writer, penned a terrific piece about the case with a series of quotes from NBA players and told me that it was his most viewed story of the entire season.

As far as a fan backlash, Sekou Smith of NBA.com and host of their Hang Time podcast has been one of the few to discuss it at length and e-mailed me that he has received “no backlash at all. I have no idea why it has gone so far off the radar. Perhaps he’s not a big enough name for our sensationalized 24-hour news cycle? The ignoring of it is just strange.”

After I fired off a series of tweets about why the media was not discussing this story more, three people from ESPN reached out to me to talk and say that they agreed. To be clear, this does not usually happen out of ESPN HQ in Bristol. People don’t air their anger with the company except in extreme circumstances. The only other time I’ve had that experience of people reaching out to me from inside the tent was when ESPN pulled out of its partnership with PBS’s League of Denial documentary about the NFL and head injuries. They did not want me using their names or exact words, out of concern of reprisals. Regarding Sefolosha, it’s fair to say that they were frustrated about the lack of resources, airtime, and enthusiasm devoted to what they saw as a monster story. They also said that they were rebuffed when they raised devoting regular time to it on ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter. The only concrete reason one received was “people not being particularly interested in the Hawks compared to other teams in the playoffs.” They all conceded that there was little audience appetite for more Hawks coverage, but believed that the story was bigger than just the fortunes of one team.

I was able to connect with Rob King, ESPN’s Senior vice president, overseeing SportsCenter, for comment. He e-mailed me the following: “The suggestion that there has been a broader decision to spike the story is ludicrous and disappointing. We understand with great clarity the potential significance of this story and continue to report it. As for ‘discussing it more on SportsCenter,’ this is a story that deserves greater illumination, which means information, not mere discussion. That takes reporting, and that’s how we’re proceeding.”

To be clear, no one suggested that the story was “spiked” just that it was deprioritized, which is self-evident given the absence of regular coverage. That said, King’s comments that the largest entity in sports media will be all over this story as it develops is very welcome. Yet there are aspects of King’s statement that raise questions. His dismissal of people who want to “discuss” this case, in other words to analyze it without new information, is peculiar given that ESPN just “discusses” issues that affect sports constantly. Also, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also doesn’t just report on breaking news but breaks the news through its own investigative reporting. The recent award-winning work on Qatar’s labor practices as they prepare for the World Cup by the E:60 team, led by Jeremy Schaap and seen across several of their media platforms, is evidence of this. (Another ESPN show, Outside the Lines, has frequently covered the broader landscape of NBA players and the Black Lives Matter movement.) Also, given the incredible access ESPN has to NBA players, it is unclear why they aren’t asked their thoughts about Sefolosha. This isn’t an irrelevant question. Almost the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team wore shirts against police violence and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Asking them about Sefolosha is more than logical. It’s obvious. But—at least by my research—it hasn’t happened on ESPN since the conference finals began.

One Cavs player, Kendrick Perkins who was a teammate of Sefolosha in Oklahoma City certainly hasn’t been shy about expressing his thoughts. He spoke at length to Michael Lee and said, “I was very shocked because Thabo is so laid back. He’s so not drama. He runs away from drama.” Other former teammates have also chimed in, like Pistons guard Reggie Jackson who said in a powerful piece by Vince Ellis for The Detroit Free Press, “I think a lot of people fear black males, so it’s scary. I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda unfair at times as a black male. Only thing that I feel protects us is probably the celebrity status and being an NBA player, but nobody’s off limits when you see what happens to a former teammate like Thabo.” This is a perspective that ESPN’s viewers, many of course who don’t have to deal with fears of police violence, ought to hear. There are no shortage of NBA players willing to give some copy on this issue if asked.

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It is certainly true is that despite their 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks garner less national interest that any of the other teams remaining in the playoffs. But it doesn’t explain why the Atlanta media, as the team competes in their first NBA conference finals in franchise history, has been so lackluster on this story. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has 30 articles in its archives that contain the words “Thabo” and “police” although the overwhelming majority comprise either offhand mentions, wire reports, or short updates on the case. It’s not that there isn’t local interest. Just by tweeting about Sefolosha, my twitter handle trended in Atlanta, according to Trendsmaps. That’s kind of absurd. One Atlanta-based journalist said to me, “When it’s talked about on sports radio it’s just blame Thabo for being out late and move on. Not much deeper than that.”

The more I spoke to people, the clearer it was that this story has not garnered more coverage because of how the media police themselves. One person at Yahoo Sports said to me, “We censor ourselves. We’re risk-averse. White columnists feel like they’d get the story wrong, and black columnists don’t want the responsibility and risk of having to be the ones to write about it. We end up in a state of paralysis.”

Not everyone has been paralyzed, however, and it’s not always the case that the media silence themselves. There are still those columnists willing to play police if one of the brethren gets out of line. Turner Sports sideline reporter and former longtime print journalist David Aldridge spoke lucidly and directly about Thabo case in the middle of a live telecast. In just over a minute of airtime, Aldridge managed to report on Sefolosha’s surgery and the reaction of the franchise, and had breaking news comments from the new executive director of the NBA Players Association, Michelle Roberts, who confirmed that it were conducting its own investigation and said, “The best I can tell you is that there is no video at all to justify the way the police treated them.”

For his trouble, he was treated to a column in the New York Post by the reliably awful Phil Mushnick titled “David Aldridge ignores stabbing details to unfairly bash NYPD.

The “details” that Mushnick felt were omitted were basically that Sefolosha was asking for it by being out at 4 am. Charming.

But Mushnick plays the role of buffoon with regularity and is an easy foil. This kind of media policing is the exception. A more apt analysis is probably that the sports media world does not want to be perceived as criticizing or even discussing the role of police in our society, particularly in the black community. One can understand why someone in a position of authority on a newspaper or at a network could identify this as an excessively polarizing subject and, without breaking news generated by Thabo Sefolosha’s camp, unnecessarily hazardous. But not putting a spotlight on such an unprecedented set of circumstances also represents an impulse to not unnecessarily upset the police or their supporters. This impulse appears to be even stronger than the drive for ratings or page views. This impulse represents a timidity that takes a story which could act as a lens toward educating people about a national crisis and consigns it to the dustbin. Meanwhile as thousands march in solidarity with Freddie Gray’s family in Baltimore, or gather in New York’s Union Square to say that the lives of black women matter, Thabo Sefolosha is on crutches. His team needs him and the NBA Finals hang in the balance, but he has a broken leg courtesy of the NYPD. Nope, nothing to see here.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Brazil and the aftermath of the World Cup

Having a Wedding? A Sweet 16? Consider One of Brazil’s World Cup Stadiums!

Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

In Brazil, a debate raged throughout 2013 about whether two plus two equals four, or if in fact the correct answer was five. Those arguing that two and two was four were the millions of workers, students, academics, and citizens who said that spending billions on building new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup was a criminal use of resources. They said that every shred of data we have shows that mega-events require mega-spending, which leads to mega-debt, mega-displacements, and mega-militarization. The other side said that the World Cup would be a glorious affair providing not only international acclaim but an economic tide that would lift all boats.

But the resisters would not be mollified by slick ad campaigns, bright billboards, and celebrity spokespeople They took to the streets to argue that this was not a battle of contrasting opinions or ideas. It was facts vs. faith: obvious blaring facts vs. cynical profiteering masquerading as faith. In the end it didn’t matter that the history of hosting these events painted a picture of the future so vividly bleak, Marley’s Ghost might as well have been standing there, chains rattling, imploring the faith-based World Cup boosters that this endeavor would fail. But all the logic, mass demonstrations, and counterexamples dotting the earth—like places destroyed by the mega-event monorail—didn’t matter. From the rotting Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing to the 2004 Olympic structures sheltering the homeless of Greece, facts were not only reframed as conjecture, but also met with tear gas, truncheons, and tanks. That’s what happens when the government, the arms industry, the real estate barons, and the construction magnates reach their own consensus that this is good for them. Might makes right and if they believe that two and two equals five, then people better just get with the new math.

Now, as NPR has reported, all the predictions made in the streets of Brazil have proven true, expressed in a Jackson Pollock splatter of tragedy and farce across the country (which is a more erudite way of saying “we can now see that FIFA vomited all over Brazil”). All the tragedy people were assured would be minimal—the displacements, the eradication of favela communities, the endless debt amidst austerity—have been super-sized.

But then there is the farce. All the new stadiums—festooned with their FIFA-quality bells and whistles—have become punch lines. As NPR reported last week, they now seem to exist as satirical props. In Brasilia, the $550 million stadium is now a being used as a “parking lot for buses.” In Natal, the soccer field—again built with public funds—can be rented out for weddings and kids parties. In Manaus, the Amazon’s much publicized new arena has been suggested by politicians as a possible open-air prison. In Curitiba at their new stadium, it was found that the locker rooms had been broken into and were being used by the homeless. This proved, if nothing else, that at least some folks in Brazil aside from the dissenters, learned from the Olympic disaster in Greece.

My one problem with the NPR report is that it describes what is happening in Brazil as a “World Cup hangover.” That implies a party where people drink heedlessly and pay a price. This is more like a populace being forcibly strapped down and given medication “for their own good,” only to have an intense allergic reaction.

I spoke to Joao, a street merchant I became friendly with when in Rio, and he said, “We were angry in 2013 because no one wanted this. I want to say people are angry now and they are. I want to say that anger is going towards resisting austerity, but I cannot. Dilma and the Workers Party are seen as the left wing, and people are scared that challenging them will open the door even further for a right—a fascist right—I haven’t seen so confident in years. In 2013 it looked like a new movement could emerge. Now the right is banging their pots. The anger is real, and they are answering it even though their solutions don’t address any of the problems the World Cup brought.”

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Rio is a particularly perilous place at the moment, because even as people are still reeling from their World Cup sickness, the 2016 Olympics are right around the corner.

Displacements and police violence, centered on the favelas, continue. The favela I reported from, Vila Autodromo, has been nearly eradicated.

The 2016 Rio Olympics—with all of their hidden and attendant costs—now present an irony for Brazil too wearying to contemplate but too enraging to ignore. Ninety percent of this recently built World Cup infrastructure won’t be worth a damn for the Olympics, since the World Cup is a national operation, with stadiums splayed out across a country larger than the continental United States. The Olympics, of course, are all about Rio, with the infrastructure projects, dislocation, displacement, and militarization falling upon one city. This outmoded style of organizing the games should have the effect of muting national protest against the Olympic monolith by confining the social disruption to the Rio coast, even though the entire country—once again amidst austerity—will be financing it, its future tied to public works projects that will become the squatter shelters, wedding party backdrops, and parking lots of tomorrow.

As we speak, another team of business leaders, former politicians, and star athletes are attempting to use their combined charm and resources to convince the people of Boston that two and two equals five, and their city should host the 2024 Olympics. Yet people in Boston are fighting back. As those in Brazil have learned, when dealing with the Olympic vultures, being right is never, ever enough. Keeping the Olympics out of your city isn’t a “battle of ideas” on a level playing field, but it is in fact a battle. To win, you can’t just raise arguments, you have to raise hell.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Roger Goodell and Deflategate

It’s Not Tom Brady We Should Be Worried About—It’s Roger Goodell

NFL football commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL football commissioner Roger Goodell (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

For most of this week I’ve resisted delivering a steaming hot take about this “deflategate” story because I could not force myself to give even the slightest of fucks. It’s been difficult to care about the bereaved and aggrieved Patriots nation of fans who are in full froth over their Super Bowl–winning team being branded as cheaters. I also wasn’t overly concerned with the tarnishing of quarterback Tom Brady’s legacy. If anything, this story only mattered to me insofar as I truly wondered—since the NFL believes that the Patriots swindled their way through the playoffs—why they didn’t have to just give up their precious Lombardi Trophy. After all, forfeiting the championship was the brutal judgment delivered unto the USA Little League Champions Jackie Robinson West. I wanted to challenge Roger Goodell to go to the South Side of Chicago and hold a public lecture on why a billion-dollar football entity and their jet-setting golden boy quarterback was not being held to the same standard as the first all African-American Little League team.

But then something about this story burrowed under my skin like an inch-sized tick: the financial penalty levied against the Patriots. While Boston wept over Brady’s four-game suspension and howled over the team’s loss of draft picks, that $1 million fine stuck in my craw. I know a million bucks seems like piffle for a franchise with a market price in excess of $2.5 billion. But like nothing else, this $1 million fine signifies the rebooted and refortified arrogance of Roger Goodell. After a year when the commissioner’s job was on the ropes as he stood humbled over his historic bungling of domestic violence issues in his league, Goodell is feeling his oats. This fine represents an audacious, “Empire Strikes Back” level of self-regard. He might as well find an aircraft carrier to land on, with a Mission Accomplished banner in the background.

So what makes this seemingly small fine such an act of hellacious hubris? According to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL cannot issue any fine in excess of $500,000. How did this become 1 million bucks? Well, according to “Goodell logic” the Patriots are fined $500,000 for deflating the balls and another $500,000 for Tom Brady’s “refusal to cooperate” with the investigation. Like Kuato from Total Recall, it’s a fine within a fine! In other words, Brady would not disclose his phone records and assorted affects that could tie him to the conspiracy of the flaccid balls and Goodell is sending a message that not coming clean is a punishable as well as unpardonable sin.

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My goodness. Roger Goodell punishing people for not disclosing data would be like Mike Huckabee criticizing people for intolerance. This is the same Roger Goodell who refused to open the NFL’s financial books during the lockout out of 2011 when the union asked for proof about his laughable contention that some teams were losing money. This is the same Roger Goodell who has refused to disclose the NFL’s treasure trove of medical data and scientific theories regarding the long-term affects of the head traumas that take place during every game. This is the same Roger Goodell who made sure that when the 2013 concussion lawsuit, involving over 4,500 former players, was settled, a condition of that settlement would be that these records would forever remain under lock and key. This is the same Roger Goodell who claims a historic drop in the number of concussions in the 2014 season without disclosing the data or methodology that emboldens him to assert this, even as the league’s numbers are scoffed at by medical professionals. This is the same Roger Goodell who does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge while issuing denials that there is any connection between football and ALS. This is the same Roger Goodell who says that his soccer-playing daughter has a concussion risk “almost greater than” a pro football player’s. This is the same Roger Goodell who has done nothing to disclose to NFL families the new data that suggest bruising to the frontal lobe of the brain could affect temper and impulse control among players, putting families at risk of intimate partner violence. We are talking about a man who lives in an igloo of secrecy but wants players to open up their lives or risk sanction and humiliation. This is the person in charge of the NFL: a man who wants full disclosure for the benefit of the league but won’t disclose a thing for the benefit of the general public.

It was announced today that the Patriots would be appealing the fine and suspension levied by the league. The person they are appealing to? That would be Commissioner Goodell. Everyone is talking about Tom Brady, but, honestly, we’ve been looking in the wrong direction. It’s not Tom Brady we should be worried about. It’s Roger Goodell. The balls on this guy…

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Department of Defense and the NFL

Why Are We Paying the NFL to Help the Pentagon Recruit Troops?

New York National Guard members

New York National Guard members are sworn in during halftime of a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

All-star first baseman Carlos Delgado was not a fan of the numerous military appreciation events taking place at the ballpark a decade ago. These were staged to bolster support for the Iraq war and doubled as recruitment stations, using sports to increase the ranks of the armed forces, which had thinned dramatically after George W. Bush decided to call for a permanent era of armed conflict. As Delgado said, “I won’t stand for this war.… It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.”

Now we can not only see that these events were politically transparent propaganda for a flagging war effort. We know they were paid for by us. We know that the US Department of Defense doled out $5.4 million from 2011 to 2014 to fourteen NFL teams to stage these warm-hearted “Salute the Troops” events, as well as do product placement, advertising, and “casual” (otherwise known as “subliminal”) mentions.

National Guard spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt, in a statement that was actually supposed to defend and explain this practice said,

This isn’t, as some might think, payment for unfurling a flag or to welcome a soldier home on the field. This is more about spending for marketing and advertising, for signage, for website takeovers.… We have hundreds of [sponsorship agreements] with teams, including minor league baseball and at high school. We have found that spending in sports to help us recruit in our 18-24 demographic works out for us.

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It’s that last part which really singes the eyes. Far too many people are outraged about this story just because the taxpayers were on the hook for something people thought was being underwritten by red, white, and blue NFL owners. Hell, this story was originally broken (in part) by Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake railing against “pork-chop” spending. Granted, the idea of any of our money going into the welfare-king pockets of NFL owners is stomach-churning. But the highly manipulative recruitment practices aimed at “18-24 year olds,” which Jeff Flake has no problem with, are being let off the hook. I know as the expression goes, you throw your line where the fish happen to gather or as Willie Sutton said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” But this isn’t like opening a new gourmet burrito food truck in a neighborhood going hipster. This is preying on the young and using their love of sports to lure them into the arena of war. While football and fighting in war have traumatic brain injury in common, everything else—from the military metaphors used by announcers to the four-star-general fixations of head coaches (even NBA coaches think they’re fighter pilots!)—is worlds apart.

It would be wise to listen to the mother of the one NFL player who made that journey from “combat” on the field to the real combat overseas, the late Pat Tillman. As his mom, Mary, said to me last year, “A feeling of camaraderie is important to all humans and I think the camaraderie of sport provides the most reward. Many young men join the military in order to get that feeling of belonging, that feeling of brotherhood. It is irresponsible to try to entice young people into military service with subliminal messages.”

Now we know: not only subliminal but on our dime. One thing is certain: Carlos Delgado was right a decade ago. This is just the stupidest damn war ever.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the proposal to ban Israel from FIFA

Israel and Palestine Agree: Keep Politics Out of Soccer

Palestinian national soccer team players

Palestinian national soccer team players. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

We have before us a point of agreement between Netanyahu’s Israel and the militarily vivisected area of land at times referred to as the Palestinian territories: the idea that sports and politics should not mix. Tragically—not unlike words such as “life,” “liberty,” and that whole “pursuing happiness” thing—the phrase means far less as it journeys from abstraction to reality. Israeli Football Association Chairman Ofer Eini and Chief Executive Rotem Kamer traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, last week to meet with reptilian FIFA chief (and self-described women’s soccer “godfather”) Sepp Blatter. Their mission? To change a meeting agenda item. The Palestinian Football Authority is scheduled to propose having Israel banned as a FIFA member country at the May 29 meeting of the organization’s global congress. Eini and Kamer want to get that proposal and all debate on the subject removed, with Eini describing the vote as “a flagrant move that seeks to mix politics with sport—something that is completely contrary to FIFA’s vision.” (For brevity’s sake, we will leave aside unpacking how “not mixing politics with sport” has about as much in common with “FIFA’s vision” as a KFC bucket of extra crispy has with “PETA’s vision.”)

Then there is Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Authority. Rajoub says that he is pushing this proposal for the same reason that Israel is trying to prevent it from coming forward. “What I am trying to do is separate completely football and politics,” said Rajoub in an interview with Middle East Eye. “Sport is a tool to bridge gaps, to build bridges with all people all over the world.”

Rajoub wants Israel sanctioned because he believes that the travel restrictions and checkpoints, imposed by the Israeli government on the Palestinian Territories—not to mention the militarized separation of the West Bank and Gaza—has made the development of Palestinian soccer nearly impossible (this despite their recent historic qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup). Rajoub also plans on citing the detention and mistreatment of Palestinian national players by the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as the recent comments by Beitar Jerusalem coach Guy Levi, who said on the radio last month that their team would “never” sign an Arab player.

“The Israelis are enjoying the status afforded by being part of FIFA, while depriving a neighbouring administration of their rights to play football,” said Rajoub. “For years we have asked confederations in Asia and Europe to interfere and stop the suffering of Palestinian footballers…. When that didn’t work, we decided to go directly to FIFA’s general assembly.”

The PA would need 75 percent of the 209 global associations, which is unlikely, but if it passes, Israel, in the words of Kamer, would see “all its international activities…come to a halt,” It would also be an isolating public relations nightmare for Netanyahu’s already beleaguered government. Just as the prime minister has been trying to get the stink of a highly racialized re-election campaign off his body, he has been under fire for the treatment by Israeli troops of Ethiopian Jews staging their own unprecedented #BlackLivesMatter protests against state violence. Israel and Netanyahu have also been waging a furious public relations campaign against the accusations of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that they are an apartheid country not unlike South Africa. If FIFA suspends Israel, it would become the first country banned by the soccer federation since—yikes!—apartheid South Africa.

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Both sides want to keep sports and politics separate, which makes this a fascinating look at what people mean when they make that kind of a plea. In sports it is very common to hear this sentiment from owners, media, and fans but it is rarely if ever used to critique the hyper-militarization of sporting events or the use of public funds to build stadiums (or, in a recently exposed synthesis, the use of public funds to celebrate the military). In other words, it is not sports and politics that they want to keep separate but sports and a certain kind of politics. “Keep sports and politics separate” morphs into code for ‘just shut up and play.’”

In this case, the Israeli Football Association is saying, “Do not use sports as a way to argue for statehood. Sports is not the place for that kind of rhetoric.” The Palestinian FA is saying, “We can’t compete because the politics of the Israeli occupation makes developing soccer a near-impossibility.” This is a very tough argument for the Israeli FA to win. If sports and politics were truly kept separate, then the Palestinian Football Authority would be able to travel freely, receive foreign visitors, and enter international tournaments without the fear of not being able to show up. As I’ve argued here many times, attacking the ability of Palestinian soccer to develop is also about attacking fun, play, and hope. While the Palestinian FA has facts on their side, no observer expects them to win 75 percent of the vote. But if Blatter even prevents this from even being raised on May 29, it would be an ugly gesture from an ugly individual. FIFA is hardly a moral force in this world, but soccer certainly can be. It is the closest thing we have to a united global obsession that links every country. FIFA’s sole organizational obligation is to make sure that everyone has a chance to play. What worries Netanyahu is that discussing this issue in soccer then becomes like pulling a thread on a sweater. If soccer is warped by occupation, then what about education, healthcare, or basic staples of civil society? That’s a question the Israeli FA is now scrambling to see unasked.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on James Dolan’s controversial decision to hire Isiah Thomas

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