Where sports and politics collide.
I was at the Saturday protests in Baltimore aimed at seeking justice for Freddie Gray, the young man who died while in police custody, his spine severed and neck broken. This column is about what took place inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where fans were told on orders from Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to stay inside the stadium following the O’s extra-innings victory over the Boston Red Sox, rather than risk the "violence" of protestors.
But before we go to the baseball field, let's make one thing clear: most everything the media reported about the Baltimore protests has skirted the line between the highly sensationalistic to the libelous. Every headline and photo has focused on property damage, allegedly done by those protesting for Freddie Gray. Played down or ignored is the Baltimore I saw: a place where more than two thousand people—including families and children—marched resolutely while helicopters and visible surveillance drones flew overhead.
This is not to say people are not enraged with a city police department that, beyond Freddie Gray, has a proven record of seeing black lives as expendable. A young woman named Tracey who told me she grew up in the same apartment complex as Freddie Gray said to me that she was marching because, "The police aren't going to stop making us afraid unless we show them that we're not scared. Not one more sister or brother should die at their hands."
That story, the one where a portion of the city—the Black, economically ignored portion—lives in dread of police violence and were marching not just for Freddie Gray but against the history of the Baltimore PD, was not the story the media chose to tell. Instead, they chose headlines like this, to tingle the synapses of those who have little to fear from police, poverty, or street-crime, but never seem to feel more alive than when they feel afraid. It's unconscionable, just as it was unconscionable for the Baltimore police union to call protestors "a lynch mob," just as it was unconscionable for the city to take the actions it did at Camden Yards.
On Saturday, after the Baltimore chief of police and mayor ordered the fans to stay inside Camden Yards, the Oriole faithful were “given instructions of areas [of the city] to avoid.” This detaining of thousands of fans for their own "protection," only lasted a few minutes but it's effects have been far-reaching. Whether intentional or not, it was more than just an overly cautious over-reaction. It was a message sent out across the country that this protest was not only unlawful but something to be feared.
Camden Yards morphed from a field into a fortress. It became a stadium dividing a city between haves and have-nots: a barrier erected on the foundations of racial and economic inequality dressed in the trappings of spectacle and sports. That it was built with the tax dollars of those on both sides of the divide just makes the situation all the more dismal.
Camden Yards is universally recognized as a terrific place to watch a baseball game. It was also the first of a wave of publicly funded urban old-timey ballparks that sprouted in cities throughout the 1990s. These extremely lucrative stadiums were aimed at aligning baseball commercially with nostalgia for the glorious past of the sport. As baseball fanatic Chris Rock recently pointed out, MLB’s fetishizing of its history over the last thirty years has paralleled a steep decline in popularity within the black community, and this is more than incidental. As Rock said, "Every team is building up bullshit fake antique stadiums that are supposed to remind you of the good old days. You know the good old days. Ruth, DiMaggio . . . Emmett Till."
As much as Major League Baseball likes to slather itself in the memory of Jackie Robinson and the idea that it has been a force for community cohesion, the reality is that it has done more to partition communities where the only way some residents can get into stadiums that they are subsidizing with their tax dollars and cable bills, is if they’re serving beers.
One could imagine a situation where people inside Camden Yards would have to confront with their own eyes the reality that a young man who did not look all that different from some of the people they were cheering on the field, was killed a short Uber ride from the field. They could confront the fact that the same police officers protecting them have a frightening history that is being dragged out into public view since the death of Freddie Gray. They could confront the bracing defense of the protestors that has actually come from Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos who took to Twitter in a series of messages and said in part,
We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.
Instead, on the mayor's orders they were locked in, a message sent not only to those inside but the world that the real enemies of civic peace are the ones looking for justice.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why it's time to put Barry Bonds in the Baseball Hall of Fame
Fifty-five million dollars. In sports terms, that’s not a great deal of money. It’s a healthy NBA contract or the kind of deal a Major League Baseball team would hand to a quality third baseman. But in the real world, as opposed to the sports world, $55 million is one hell of a stack. In governmental terms $55 million builds a new school. It reopens a public hospital. It repairs miles of roads. It saves lives. $55 million is also what the US Justice Department—mostly spent under Bush but finished under Obama—has wasted on what we can now officially call the failed prosecution of Barry Lamar Bonds. The Major League Baseball home-run king, assumed steroid user and Hall of Fame pariah on Wednesday had the government’s last thread holding him down—an obstruction of justice conviction—finally snipped on appeal.
In a brief statement Bonds said:
Today’s news is something that I have long hoped for. I am humbled and truly thankful for the outcome as well as the opportunity our judicial system affords to all individuals to seek justice. I would like to thank my family, friends and all of you who have supported me throughout my career and especially over the past several years. Your support has given me strength throughout this process and for that, I am beyond grateful. This has been a long and strenuous period in my life; I very much look forward to moving beyond it. I do so without ill will toward anyone. I am excited about what the future holds for me as I embark on the next chapter. Lastly and certainly not least, I would like to thank my legal team for their hard work and diligence on my behalf.
The courts have spoken, and the Justice Department looks awful. Not only for wasting these resources, but also for spending years and 55 million dollars on this case while a sliver of that has been allocated toward investigating the killing of Eric Garner in New York City, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the killing of Rekia Boyd in Chicago, the killing of so many at the hands of local police forces. Do you think the Justice Department is going through the trash of Officer Daniel Pantaleo the way they pieced through the waste of Barry Bonds and his family? Do you think they are entering police departments and seizing files without court orders as Special Agent Jeff Novitsky did in his pursuit of Bonds? They’re not. And that’s the problem. The only question left is whether the system is broken or if it is operating exactly as it was designed.
That’s the real-world injustice at play, but we’d be remiss to not mention the sports world injustice, which is the continual barring of Barry Bonds from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
My feelings on this are well-known and have been for sometime. I think Barry Bonds is by a country mile the greatest player I have ever seen in person. Barry Bonds is the smartest, most controlled player with a bat in his hand in the last 50 years, and talking to the old-timers, only Ted Williams is in that conversation with him. Hall of Fame voters will probably say that Barry Bonds’ numbers are tainted. But dear Lord, look at those “tainted” numbers. Of the top five OPS in history (that’s the number drawn from combining your slugging percentage and on-base percentage), this is what it looks like as taken from baseball-reference.com:
There it is: Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. (That cross by Ruth’s name connotes that he is in the Hall of Fame.… He’s blessed by baseball Jesus. Not sure what that makes Barry.)
Barry Bonds, due to the change of the shape of his body and unparalleled late-career success is of course often assumed to have used performance-enhancing drugs. But Babe Ruth, the only hitter in Barry’s class, had a couple of “performance-enhancing drugs” all his own: one was not having to hit against pitchers with complexions like Satchel Paige. The other was never having to set foot on a plane. Even though the players of Babe Ruth’s era all benefited from light travel schedules and the absence of non-white competition, we still tip our hat to Babe Ruth because his statistical achievements were so above and beyond his peers. In other words, the level of separation Babe created speaks for itself and transcends any kinds of asterisks. Barry Bonds also played in a tainted time, what is now known as “the steroid era.” I’m not saying every player used performance enhancing drugs, but I am inclined to believe based upon speaking with a lot of locker room and baseball guys that while you can’t say every player used, you can say that any player could have been using. Everyone had access and most of the greats, and even many of the not-so-greats, took what they took to keep up with the guy in the locker next door.
But even in the context of such a libertine era, Barry Bonds was above and beyond anyone else in the sport and anything baseball had seen since the days of the Babe. One year, he reached base 61 percent of the time he came to the plate. I mean, holy shit. That’s more incomprehensible to me than Wilt’s scoring 100 points or Peyton Manning’s throwing for 55 touchdowns. It’s like he was Neo and the ball was just a hapless bullet. Was his era stained by scandal? Absolutely. Was Babe Ruth’s? Hell yes.
So let’s get the now legally innocent Barry Bonds into the Baseball Hall of Fame. If the guardians at Cooperstown want to put some sort of comment on his plaque then so be it. Tack on some comments to Babe Ruth’s plaque while they’re at it.
One last point about Barry Bonds: a Twitter user who goes by @zaconbothsides pointed out to me that there is one eerie parallel between Barry Bonds and the late Eric Garner: both were in the crosshairs of the state because of “their failure to comply.” That was their great crime. It’s an incisive observation. In the end, why was Eric Garner choked to death by police? He was killed because he chose to not drop to his knees at the sight of Staten Island’s finest. He didn’t fight the police. But he chose to live, not cower, in their presence, which in this world will be seen as a form of active resistance. Say what you will about Barry Bonds but his obstruction-of-justice charges stem from the fact that he would not break in the face of prison threats, legal charges and the temptation of knowing that he could be free if he chose to play the role of the weepy athlete. Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but the Justice Department spent a lot of money to break him and they failed. Put that on his damn Hall of Fame plaque.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Cornel West is not Mike Tyson
As a sportswriter I am very sensitive to the use and misuse of boxing metaphors. Few analogies are either more powerful or more universally understood than comparing a public figure to an iconic fighter. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a panoramic, painfully personal, deeply researched 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West, published in The New Republic, has compared the 61-year-old professor to Mike Tyson. He describes West as someone who once “tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity,” but who has since devolved into a “faint echo of himself,” an ear-biting sideshow, more interested in celebrity than serious academic and political work.
With all respect to Dyson, who wrote the intro to my book Game Over and has been a friend to me on numerous occasions, this is in my view the wrong choice of championship pugilists. West is not Mike Tyson: he’s Muhammad Ali. Not the Muhammad Ali of ESPN hagiographies or Hollywood films starring Will Smith. But the real Muhammad Ali: effortlessly provocative, undeniably narcissistic, and unquestionably brilliant. The deeply hurtful quotes that West has aimed at Dyson (he has “prostituted himself intellectually”) and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry (“she is a liar and a fraud”) are 21st-century iterations of Ali’s regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.
These comments are vicious, and as someone who has benefited from the kindness offered me by both Dyson and Dr. Harris-Perry, they anger my blood. The restraint that Dyson has shown over the last several years as West has thrown out his assorted rabbit-punches should be acknowledged. But the sight of Dyson escalating what was a one-sided series of verbal taunts into a written treatise, and marshaling his intellectual powers toward a polarizing 10,000-word New Republic essay is to see nothing less—I suppose based upon your perspective—than the academic version of either George Foreman punching himself out in Zaire or “Smokin’ Joe” sending the champ to the canvas of Madison Square Garden. (I am well aware that in this metaphor, I’m the white sportswriter getting some copy out of the spectacle of two heavyweights throwing hands. Hopefully, I’ll be more Bob Lipsyte than Jimmy Cannon.)
The timing of the essay is also very disorienting. We are at a moment when a new movement is attempting to confront an epidemic level of police violence. Dyson and West have in word and deed both been important voices in this movement. As the challenges of sustaining this struggle grow with every police killing, it is an odd moment for a public figure like Dyson to write so particular, so personal, and so granular an attack against West over his lack of scholarship, his love of celebrity, and his at times highly intimate racialized attacks against President Obama.
The piece begins with Dyson’s thesis that Cornel West’s animus for the president is rooted in a love betrayed. West “hates” President Obama and uses such personal invective in his political critiques because he once loved him and feels wronged, both personally snubbed and politically ignored. It is difficult to escape the idea that this thesis mirrors Dyson’s perspective toward West. His anger is so intense toward Cornel West because his onetime mentor—someone with whom he would attend Anita Baker concerts in the 1980s for no reason other than to swoon—has branded him a sellout for not joining him in denunciation of the Obama administration. Dyson defends himself against these charges, writing that he has never relinquished his criticisms of President Obama but has also never relinquished either his love for the man or his respect for the accomplishment of becoming the first black president of a country founded on principles of white supremacy. He believes he has been principled and is demonstrably hurt that West has translated his political approach through the ugliest possible lens. There has been no give, no charity, in West’s public analysis of Dyson’s political tactics, and now Dyson is ready to return in kind. In honor of the boxing metaphors used by Dyson, several of his blows hit their mark, and Dyson is, frankly, too good a writer to not make this piece leave a bruise. West has exposed his chin through his acquisition of celebrity and absence of scholarship, and Dyson never forgoes taking a roundhouse punch, even when just a jab will do.
But there are several holes in Dyson’s piece that are glaring. To read the article, one would think that West’s anger toward Obama is solely rooted in snubbed invitations and unanswered phone calls. This ignores a series of key political criticisms that West has been raising for years.
Cornel West believes in Palestinian liberation. He believes in amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He believes that the bankers responsible for the 2008 crisis should be brought to justice. He believes that capitalism is a driving engine of much of the injustice in our world. He believes that Obama’s drone program is an act of state-sanctioned murder. One can choose to agree or disagree with these points, but one cannot ignore that West has been relentless in his efforts to place them in the political discourse. The word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does “Wall Street” or “immigration.” The word “drones” only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with. Does a “black politics” going forward need to have something to say about corporate power, Israeli occupation, immigration, and drone warfare? That’s the unspoken debate in this article, made all the more glaring because Dyson is sympathetic—and far closer to West than President Obama—on many of these questions.
Dyson says repeatedly that he is a critic of Obama but loves the man, while disagreeing with much of his “neoliberal” policy. Yet he also goes out of his way to write,
Obama believes the blessed should care for the unfortunate, a hallmark of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. West and Obama both advocate intervention for our most vulnerable citizens, but while West focuses on combating market forces that ‘edge out nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations,’ Obama, as [Jonathan] Alter contends, is more practical, offering Pell grants; stimulus money that saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of black state and local workers; the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity of sentences for powdered and crack cocaine; the extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which kept millions of working poor blacks from sliding into poverty; and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps, which helped millions of blacks.
One cannot read this as anything but an endorsement—and a very selective telling—of President Obama’s political agenda. One could also well ask how the hyper-militarization of our cities, the record number of deportations, the closing of public schools, and the “drill and kill” public-education testing regimen can be translated as the “blessed caring for the unfortunate.”
Then there is the specter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which hangs over every syllable in this piece. Aside from one dismissive mention of West’s getting arrested in Ferguson during a staged act of civil disobedience, it is not discussed explicitly. But, at least for this reader, it was impossible to divorce this major article coming out at a moment when the movement is publicly facing a series of questions: namely, whether it “should be moving in a more radical or conciliatory direction.”
It has to be noted that Dyson’s initial public critique against West came not with this article but last week at the National Action Network’s 16th annual convention, where he said,
Stop thinking that your way is the only way. It may be a great way, it may be a powerful way that works for you, but one size don’t fit all. So be honest and humble in genuine terms—not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.
NAN is of course the organization of Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton has also been, as Dyson mentions, a repeated target of West. Sharpton is currently in a battle against young activists—sometimes a literal battle—over the microphone of this movement. A new generation of leadership, less tied to the Obama administration, wants to be recognized as the leading organizational and political power against police brutality, but Sharpton is not going down easy. As he said to young activists in February, “It’s the disconnect that is the strategy to break the movement. And they play on your ego. ‘Oh, you young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face.’ All the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.”
Sharpton is cracking down on those who would challenge his authority. In other words, while Dyson has been given ample provocation to strike back at West, there is also a political battle thrumming beneath the surface that we would be naïve to ignore. Dyson says that West’s fatal flaw lies in seeing that his way is the only way. It is true that no one has all the answers but we can’t settle the questions unless we depersonalize and get at the substance of the divisions: reform vs. revolt; working inside vs. working outside the corridors of power; and so many other “old” debates that have taken on, to use a much-abused phrase, the fierce urgency of now.
Cornel West is no Mike Tyson, and it has to be said that even in the land of metaphor, comparing West to a convicted rapist is difficult to read. But in comparing him to Ali, let’s also remember that the Champ had two careers: one where he was simply too quick to touch, and one, after he returned to the ring in 1970, where he was slower but still fighting with his gloves down and possessing a new strategy: one where he chose to take punch after punch after punch to the chin, until he either fell down or his opponent tired from exhaustion. Ali paid a dear price for this strategy, but it was devastatingly effective. West has chosen over the last several years to take numerous punches from his political opponents. I don’t believe any have punched quite as hard as Dyson. But with this 10,000-word escalation that increases the personal heat while brushing over the political differences, Dyson may have done exactly what West was tempting him to do. The tragedy is that there are so many others who should be higher on everyone’s list of those who need to be prodded, need to be provoked… and need to be knocked the hell out.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how the NYPD broke an NBA player’s leg
At the risk of stating the utterly obvious, most black men and women who suffer physical violence at the hands of the police aren’t millionaires. They don’t have lawyers on speed dial and lack the resources of a well-funded union leaping to their defense. But most black men and women aren’t NBA players. In other words, they aren’t Thabo Sefolosha. The Atlanta Hawks guard will now miss the playoffs after an encounter with the NYPD left him with a fractured leg and an arrest record. In his first comments following the late-night scuffle outside a Chelsea club, Sefolosha made clear that while his attorneys asked him to be silent for now, “I will simply say that I am in great pain, have experienced a significant injury and that the injury was caused by the police.”
Already, the gap between the initial police accounts—reprinted as objective narration by some media outlets—and the version that’s coming to light, should be giving NYPD Commissioner William Bratton night sweats. The official story was that Thabo and teammate Pero Antic were arrested after being asked “six times” to leave a crime scene where NBA player Chris Copeland was stabbed. Then, as the original police report proclaimed, “the defendant Thabo Sefolosha [ran] in an aggressive manner towards the direction of Police Officer Daniel Dongvort” and “Officer Dongvort’s back was facing the defendant at the time.”
Yet facts are stubborn things, and the most stubborn fact that makes this story feel like fantasy is that the arrest took place well over 40 yards away from the stabbing. I went down to the block where the stabbing and subsequent arrest took place. The distance is considerable in the light of day. So imagine how far apart the two places would have seemed with dozens of people crowding a narrow Tenth Avenue sidewalk between the stabbing and the retreat toward the team’s hotel. The idea that police were yelling on six separate occasions over the heads of throngs of people—amidst ambulances and all matter of chaos—for two men to walk away seems absurd.
An alternative version of what may have happened was told to SI’s Greg Hanlon by an anonymous source who had spoken to several people on the scene.
In this version, as people were dispersing following the Copeland stabbing, “one officer focused on Sefolosha, and then he continues to track him down the block like a D-back tracking a receiver.” Then according to Hanlon’s source, “Sefolosha turns to him and asked in substance what the officer’s problem was with him.” Sefolosha was subsequently knocked to the ground, where according to video, an officer is clearly unsheathing and raising some kind of baton.
What sounds more realistic? That Thabo Sefolosha, whose off-court reputation is pristine, decided to bum-rush a police officer whose back was turned, or that a pissed-off cop, adrenalized over a melee involving a stabbed NBA player, chose to get aggressive with the other black NBA player on the premises?
These kinds of confrontations do not happen every day, but they do happen. Police engage in racial profiling and NBA players, who could not be in the league without healthy egos, don’t like being treated like shit by cops. It’s simply a recipe for conflict. Remember the pepper-spraying of Chris Webber, when he wouldn’t get off his phone quickly enough for an officer who pulled him over in his car, or the tasing of Dale Davis, after the Indiana Pacers power forward dared police officers to shoot him. Those are only two examples, and I could list several more. What I cannot find is an instance with an NBA player seeing a police officer and just going on the attack. Perhaps that is why Internal Affairs is now investigating the arresting officers.
What happened to Thabo Sefolosha has happened before. But this case is also different. It is the first one to take place amidst the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence; the first “cops vs. jocks” story to happen in simultaneous fashion with stories such as the execution shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager and the recording of a police officer responding to the dying Eric Harris’ plea that he could not breathe because of a police bullet in his back with “Fuck your breath.” It is the first one to happen after a fall of NBA players taking the court to say that they stand with the thousands who believe that the police have a responsibility to not kill the unarmed.
Now the ball is in Thabo Sefolosha’s hands. He is clearly preparing a lawsuit against the NYPD and if successful, good for him. As the head of an NAACP branch who asked his name to be withheld said to me, “The police are like any business. You sue. You take their money. You get the bureaucrats nervous and hopefully that means you change their behavior.” This is a valid point. But we have also seen big-city police departments pay out millions with little to show for it in changed behavior. New York City alone has belched up half a billion dollars since 2009, to settle police brutality civil suits out of court. This payout did not save Eric Garner anymore than it spared Thabo Sefolosha. But if Thabo chooses to mount a public campaign and if NBA players choose to amplify it during the playoffs, then we could have something powerful on our hands that hastens the changes in policing whose necessity is made so desperately obvious with every felled black body. Whatever path Thabo Sefolosha selects may be a personal and business decision before it is a political one. But going public is the best way for Thabo to take the “great pain” he is in, and give some back.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the debt owed to Eduardo Galeano
In Sunday night’s premiere of the HBO series Game of Thrones, two of the more admirable characters are speaking about the future and one says, “Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there’s no other way.” I mumbled to no one in particular, “Some screenwriter’s been reading their Galeano.”
The next day, the news broke that Eduardo Galeano, that master of the written word who could integrate magical-reality lyricism into to the all-too-real history of empire without breaking a sweat, had died of cancer at 74. No, I’m not a future-telling Warg, I don’t have a third eye, or the soul or a raven (or whatever the hell Game of Thrones reference is appropriate here). Galeano had been on my mind, as his failing health had been well known, and I’d felt the weight of debt that we owe the Uruguayan legend. It’s a debt owed by anyone who refuses to “grow used to horror” as an act of conscious resistance. It’s a debt owed by those who choose to witness our sick world from the carnage in Gaza to the #FuckYourBreath killing of Eric Harris and don’t become lost in the cynicism of a society that sometimes seems intoxicated by its own inhumanity. It is impossible to read Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and leave not only distraught over the bloody legacy of US imperialism but also hopeful at the ways brave, if fruitless, resistance can resemble the lush vitality of epic poetry.
I also owe a very particular, specific debt to Galeano. Yes, Galeano is known for his writings on empire. But he also penned what for my money is the finest book that sits at the intersection of sports and politics, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. In just 300 pages, Galeano spins a social history of the sport in achingly artistic sketch lines, some broad, others exact. It’s like a rollicking but incisive freestyle rhyme expressed through a massive quill pen. The art of his writing allows him to explain just what makes the beautiful game so endlessly alluring in spite of the ugliness that surrounds it. He writes, “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.” That’s Galeano: he made you believe it was not only possible to be both an internationalist and fan, but also a necessity if you hope to have your feet planted in this world with your mind on the next.
Last summer, a dream came true, when my hero the sports/politics writer Mike Marqusee reviewed my World Cup/Olympics book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil and immediately “got” that “Eduardo Galeano is the book’s presiding spirit.” Throughout the book I started almost every chapter with a Galeano quote, mainly because there is no one more quotable. Anytime you can write a book and frame chapters with phrases like, “There are no right angles in Brazilian soccer just as there are none in the Rio Mountains,” or, “In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison,” or, “Where opulence is most opulent… misery is most miserable,” you do it.
Quoting Galeano to frame chapters was a method to allow just a little of his diamond dust to grace my own pages. There was a thrill in bringing Galeano’s ability to make words dance to my own pages, which upon rereading still make me feel as light-headed as a clod-footed student being taken for a whirl by Josephine Baker. But that wasn’t all. As Marqusee wrote, Galeano was also meant to be the book’s “presiding spirit,” the person who could embrace how sports can express the best and worst angels of our nature: how it can be used as an instrument of exploitation while also wielded as a weapon of hope.
Now it is just nine months later, and both Marqusee and Galeano are dead, both killed by cancer. The obvious instinctive takeaway from this is “fuck cancer” and fuck all in this world that is turning our bodies into wars of competing poisons. But when you exhale and look at the contributions of both writers, there is a different legacy: It’s the dare. They dared in a world of sound bites to compose graceful sentences plump with metaphors so thick you could get lost and found between the capital letter and the period. They taught us that it’s better to fail at writing something indelible than to be like everyone else. And most of all, they taught that no one should ever make you feel ashamed or embarrassed for refusing to acclimate yourself to the horrors of the present. That, above all else, is the debt we owe the memory of Eduardo Galeano. Whether you see yourself as writing history or making history, fortune favors the bold. And if you want to find a place in the collective memory, always strive to be memorable.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on NBA player Thabo Sefolosha’s encounter with the NYPD
Let’s not “bury the lead” here. At a moment when people across the country are reckoning with the deadly reality of police violence and the terror it imposes on black communities, the New York Police Department fractured the leg of a player in the National Basketball Association. The NYPD had an interaction with Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks, and they broke his damn leg.
Sefolosha’s damaged fibula comes after a season when NBA players spent last winter making statements against police violence, after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It also comes at a time when police brutality is under an exacting microscope following the execution of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. In the blinkered reality of the sports world, the big story is that the damage to Sefolosha has happened right when the Atlanta Hawks are about to enter the playoffs with the best record in the Eastern Conference, jeopardizing what has been a dream season. Now, unless they make a deep playoff run, it will be remembered as a dream trapped between nightmares; a squad whose season began under a cloud of racist controversy, with the ugly leaked interactions between owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry, and now ends under a similarly colored cloud.
How in the hell did the NYPD come to injure Thabo Sefolosha? One moment fellow NBA player Chris Copeland and Copeland’s girlfriend Katrine Saltara were being stabbed at a trendy Chelsea nightclub (both are in stable condition), then Sefolosha and his Atlanta Hawk teammate Pero Antic were being arrested for obstruction… and then a broken leg. As for how Sefolosha’s fibula was fractured, there is the police version of what went down and then there is Thabo’s version. Stunningly, several outlets including ESPN first printed the police’s version as fact. If nothing else, the death of Walter Scott should be a lesson to all of us that there is a chasm between what the police can say happened and the reality of a situation.
The police version, to quote ESPN’s original article, was, “Sefolosha sustained the injury while resisting arrest outside a Manhattan night club early Wednesday morning. Sefolosha was arrested along with teammate Pero Antic for interfering with local police’s efforts to set up a crime scene following the stabbing of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland.”
A great deal of credit should go to the author of this piece, Kevin Arnovitz, who changed the wording in the article after a social media pushback. But the original text should be a reminder, especially this week of all weeks, that we should never take police versions as synonymous with reality. Sure enough, Sefolosha and Pero Antic deny this version of events. Their only statement has been the following:
As members of the Atlanta Hawks, we hold ourselves to a high standard and take our roles as professionals very seriously. We will contest these charges and look forward to communicating the facts of the situation at the appropriate time. We apologize to our respective families, teammates, and the Hawks organization for any negative attention this incident has brought upon them. We are unable to provide further comment as this is an ongoing legal matter.
We do have a videotape of what took place*, but all it reveals is multiple police officers jumping the rail-thin 6'7" 220 pound Sefolosha. Ironically, or tellingly, his fellow-arrestee, Pero Antic, has an appearance we’ll describe as ornately terrifying. Tattooed, bald, seven feet tall and over 260 pounds, he is a Macedonian guy who happens to be white. Sefolosha is a Swiss guy who happens to be black. The terrifying seven-footer walked away and the guy from Switzerland was jumped. Whether or not racial bias was involved, the optics of this are very familiar to anyone who has followed the methodologies of the NYPD.
In time, we will find out what happened. Sefolosha has the deep pockets and the lawyers to either wrest some justice out of this situation or, if it is determined that he did obstruct justice, make it go away. But in the league, it will be seen as bigger than one case, one confrontation, one injury. This is the year when the NBA intersected with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Perhaps after a several month lull, players or the NBPA** will have something to say, if not about Walter Scott, then about Thabo Sefolosha. The message from NBA players last winter was that “what happened to Michael Brown or Eric Garner could happen to me.” Well, police violence has come home. This is bigger than the damage the Hawks have suffered to their title dreams. It’s about whether fame and fortune can buy safety in the United States, if one also happens to be living while black.
* Since the publishing of this article, another video of the arrest has been released, which shows a member of the NYPD unsheathing a nightstick and either expanding it or striking Sefolosha while he is on the ground.
** The NBPA has announced that they will be launching their own independent investigation into the arrests. Their full statement: "The players union is concerned about the circumstances of Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic's arrest and is doing its own investigation of the situation. The union was fully engaged in supporting all three players in court and in the precinct this week, and will continue to stay engaged as each situation evolves,"
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Badgers
It was agonizingly close. The Wisconsin Badgers in all their public university glory almost beat big, bad Duke for the NCAA basketball championship. As an East Coaster, I’ll say that there has been a shimmer around Wisconsin sports teams that pulls me into their corner time and again. Whether it’s the “Greek-Freak” Bucks, Pack or Badgers, the last several years of pro sports (and yes, the NCAA should be seen as a pro sport with godawful salaries) has made me say time and again that there is just something about Wisconsin. There is also just something about their sports teams that for some reason compels the state’s Governor Scott Walker to truly reveal just how ignorant he believes the electorate of the United States to be. In December, it was Walker during the NFL playoffs proclaiming his undying loyalty to the Green Bay Packers, even though that is a team whose fan-owned ownership model is anathema to everything that the governor, not to mention the billionaire Koch brothers , who currently hold the receipt on Walker’s soul, stand for. For Scott Walker, the fact that members of the Packers team have actually lobbied against his efforts to crush the public unions of his state, is just a detail, as he affixes a foam cheese to his skull.
Monday night, it was the Wisconsin Badgers—who play their games a brisk walk from Walker’s Madison offices—almost being crowned as NCAA basketball champions over the evil empire that is Duke. Before the night’s contest, there was Governor Scott Walker preening about his wager with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, as Politico.com reported, of “an assortment of Wisconsin cheese, sausage and root beer” (The idea that the NC governor was claiming Duke as his team, a private institution where an overwhelming majority of students come from out of state, might be a story for another time).
Walker said, “Duke is a formidable opponent, but this is Wisconsin’s year to bring home the victory. Make ’em believe!” Yes, these kinds of wagers by politicians hoping for a little bit of refracted glow have been made for eons. Yet there is something almost flagrantly irresponsible about the news media—even if we agree for the sake of argument that Politico counts as news media—reporting on these wagers like it is all fun and games, while ignoring that Scott Walker has made it his mission to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the very public university system bringing glory to the state.
This is who Governor Scott Walker is: a soulless vessel for Koch-brothers cash who in the name of a career advancement to the White House is willing to both mercilessly attack any and all expressions of public life, while at the same time using sports to shamelessly bank on what he imagines to be the ignorance of the US electorate. He does not care that Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig happens to be not only one of forty-two Native American athletes playing Division I basketball but also someone who opposes the use of mascots. As Brian Ward wrote here at TheNation.com, “In 2013, Walker signed a bill that makes it harder for public schools to change racist mascots and names. The law, which he claimed to support to defend the First Amendment, requires 10 percent of a district’s students to sign a petition within a 120-day period to earn a hearing regarding changing a mascot name. A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Indian Education Association called the law, ‘an example of institutionalized racism.’”
That might be one of the only “institutions” Scott Walker defends. The Final Four itself took place in a state whose hastily amended codified discrimination laws were defended by Walker even as they were condemned by the NCAA. Even as such left-wing organizations like NASCAR pilloried the bill, Walker described those who opposed it as “people who are chronically looking for ways to be upset about things.” That would actually be a good definition of Scott Walker who has never found a teacher, a firefighter or—I don’t know—a public university that wasn’t worth demonizing for his own political gain.
Wisconsin is called the Badger State not because of the abundance of the bucktooth mammal, but because it was an early nickname for the state’s miners. Walker has recalled this history when he has made efforts to increase the power of the private mining companies with their eyes on the state, no matter the cost to the environment. It speaks volumes that Walker hears “Badgers” and hears a tribute to mining and not miners. Similarly, when he hears the cheers for the Badgers in their run to a title, he does not hear a celebration of a brilliant public university but a clarion call for his own White House run. Don’t let him brand his campaign with the Badgers pride. The Koch brothers have made sure he’s already had their full agenda burned into his flesh, another governor for their collection, wearing their mark like a prize steer. Maybe someday Scott Walker will recognize the difference between branding and being branded.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Coach K’s reaction to questions about Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law
Editor’s Note: In the time since this article was published all four men’s Final Four coaches have released a joint statement endorsing the positions of the NCAA and their respective institutions on Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law.
“I’m only going to talk about my team and basketball and the Final Four. Just like when we get to Indiana, I’m not going to talk about social issues or poverty or anything else. I’m just going to talk about this Duke basketball team.”
The above words were said this morning by Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski answering the question about whether he would have anything to say on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which in a post-Hobby Lobby Era, is already granting businesses the “freedom” to discriminate against the LGBT community. Coach K’s curt comment could probably best be described as a profile in cowardice. His school, Duke University had already issued a statement where they said,
“Duke University continues to stand alongside the LGBT community in seeking a more equal and inclusive world, and we deplore any effort to legislate bias and discrimination. We share the NCAA’s concern about the potential impact of the new law and will be vigilant to ensure that our student-athletes, supporters and indeed all citizens and visitors are treated fairly and with respect.”
In fact, every Final Four University as well as the NCAA has made similar statements. Beyond basketball in the world of sports, even NASCAR took a public stand and condemned the law. When NASCAR is making you look like a political quisling, it might be a time for a spinal readjustment.
To be clear, I am not arguing that Coach K should come out and stand with the LGBT community, if that is not what he believes. The man is a longtime Republican donor who in 2002 deeply upset people in Durham when he held a fundraiser on campus at the Duke Inn and called his party Blue Devils for Dole. In other words, Coach K has a number of options for how he could respond to this mushrooming controversy. He could support the school that pays him an annual $10 million salary and stand with their statement. He could support the NCAA, an organization whose artificial restrictions of what his players can earn has made him an incredibly wealthy man. He could even join the many Republicans in the state of Indiana who oppose the law and make an “I Stand With NASCAR” joke. Or Coach K could take a deep breath, hike up his big boy pants and say, “You know what? Duke and the NCAA and NASCAR are wrong. I support this law because I believe in God, freedom, and heterosexual florists. Oh, and gay weddings are overrated, and it’s about damn time America woke up to that fact!”
But instead, Coach K, like a certain fellow Nike pitchman, just gave us his version of “Republicans buy sneakers too.” It also looks particularly weak in the aftermath of the passing of Coach K’s great rival, Dean Smith. The passionately principled Coach Smith would not have only spoken out against the law. He would be leading a delegation to the statehouse to confront Mike Pence in between practices, no matter how much backlash it would have meant for him back home in North Carolina.
Normally, I am a big believer that we should not demand coaches or athletes to make political statements if they have no desire to do so. No one should be clamoring to hear what Coach K is thinking about the latest in Yemen. But there are moments when they actually do need to stand up and be counted. For example, when a billion-dollar tournament is about to be played in a state that currently is being confronted for codifying a 21st-century viral variant of segregation. For example, when your school is being used to sell that very tournament. For example, when every coach in the country, is looking to you for leadership. That’s when you pick a side. Saying that you are just going to talk about your “team and basketball” and making snide comments that you are also not going to talk about “social issues” and “poverty” shows how great the gap is between principle and snark. It’s the same gap we see between the elder statesman coach speaking with the gravity of a small-parish priest to the media, and the guy cursing out teenagers on his sidelines. Mike Krzyzewski once said, “I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” This isn’t leading. It’s not even following. It’s standing for no one but yourself.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why the NCAA should move the Final Four out of Indiana
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has ignited a firestorm of controversy for its vague language that critics say will allow businesses to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin joined MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts yesterday to discuss why he and other pundits think the NCAA should move the Final Four out of Indianapolis to protest the egregious nature of the law.
While giving credit to the NCAA for setting a precedent for other sports organizations by coming out against the new law in a statement issued by their President Mark Emmert, Zirin said that moving the Final Four to nearby University of Cincinnati would be “one hell of a political statement.”
If the NCAA is serious about “actual concerns for student athletes, actual concerns for the safety of NCAA employees, one would think [Emmert] would see this as a moment of actual urgency,” said Zirin.
Today, Indiana Governor Mike Pence called for changes to the law but still defended the motives of state legislators, saying, “I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate.”
—James F. Kelly
Read Next: Dave Zirin imagines a world of sports worth fighting for.
As the world now knows, Indiana has become synonymous with the kinds of backward looking bigotry best remaindered in history’s trashcan. The state’s Governor Mike Pence has signed legislation under the guise of “religious freedom” that gives businesses the right to not serve someone if they believe them to be part of the LGBT community. The looseness of this law is frightening. Could a pharmacist refuse someone their HIV medication if they assumed they must have gotten the virus through gay relations? Could the owner of a restaurant, with a wink to his buddies, deny service to anyone with brown or black skin and just say, “You look gay to me”? And what happens to a gay couple that sits at—gee, I don’t know—a lunch counter and is denied service? Will they be dragged away? At present there is an HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana so severe that Governor Pence has allowed needle exchanges to slow the spread of the disease. One hopes that the pharmacists and hospitals in that part of the state have a greater sense of humanity than the Indiana statehouse.
This law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is outrageous. It also raises immediate questions for one of the biggest operations in the state: the NCAA. The Final Four, the NCAA’s most lucrative shining moment, is being staged in Indianapolis next weekend, just miles from their $80 million headquarters. (Immediately after the legislation’s passage, a petition online to get the NCAA to move, surfaced.) Already, NCAA President Mark Emmert has issued a strongly worded statement against RFRA.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” the statement read. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
This has received fulsome praise from many in the sports world, including Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel in an article called “NCAA’s response to Indiana’s ‘Religious Freedom’ law is perfect.” Wetzel wrote, “It’s a good and bold threat by Emmert. This is the NCAA leading for a change.” I agree with Wetzel that Emmert has correctly raised the stakes for Roger Goodell, Adam Silver and every sports commissioner that does business in Indiana to be heard. But I can’t agree that it’s perfect. Not even close.
If Emmert really wanted to make a statement, he’d move next week’s Final Four out of Indianapolis. Emmert could announce that they were moving the basketball semifinals and finals to Cincinnati, less than 100 miles from the locale, so anyone who had their plane tickets or driving plans set wouldn’t be egregiously inconvenienced. Play it at the University of Cincinnati—hell, play it at a Cincy YMCA—but just get it out of the clutches of Mike Pence. The economic cost to Indiana would be severe; hurting the hotel services industry as well as hundreds of low-wage workers. That’s deeply regrettable, but it also wouldn’t be the fault of the NCAA. It would be at the feet of lawmakers for passing such a discriminatory law. In other words, Charles Barkley, who has been wrong about so much in recent months, is absolutely dead-on when he said, “Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me. As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.”
The only block to this happening by next weekend is that the NCAA gets over 90 percent of its annual operating budget from the Final Four and would lose millions of dollars. But Mark Emmert, even with his multimillion-dollar salary, always likes to talk about the NCAA’s “mission” as a nonprofit is to be a force for education. It’s why he says players can’t be sullied with payment, even as their jerseys are sold and the games are plastered with more commercials than a Daytona 500 race car. Here is a time to actually show it. Here is a time to say that despite the branding, the swooshes and the ads everywhere, money is really not the most important part of college athletics. Here is a time, for once, to not be a symbol of incompetence, hypocrisy or exploitation but something that truly matters. If Emmert really believes, as implied in his statement, that this legislation actually makes Indiana unsafe for student-athletes and employees, then he has a responsibility to move the Final Four. For Emmert to make such a move would be a show of actual principle and courage from an organization that has for too long lacked either.
Read Next: Dave Zirin's interview with economist Andy Schwarz on why college athletes should be paid