Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

The Wrong Question: ‘Where Are the Athletes on Ferguson?’

LeBron James

LeBron James (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

In my sports/politics circles, the question has come in fast and furious: Where are the athletes—always code for “black male athletes”—speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson? It’s a very understandable question. It’s also the wrong question. It’s understandable, of course, because there is a history of black athletes being the faces and symbols of the struggle in the United States against racism. It is impossible to imagine early resistance to white supremacy and lynching without recalling the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. You cannot tell the story of the civil rights movement without creating space for the story of Jackie Robinson. The black power movement of the 1960s could not be told without Muhammad Ali and two brave souls, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.

People are also asking the question because the sight of black athletes making this kind of stand is hardly ancient history. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat led by LeBron James, and many other athletes posed with hoodies for Trayvon Martin, when it looked like George Zimmerman would not even be arrested for stalking Martin and taking his life. Kobe Bryant even felt a rather thunderous backlash when he was dismissive of these kinds of actions. Hell, there were NBA players threatening to wildcat strike over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants just a few months ago. People desperate to be inspired in very difficult times want to see more of this.

As Justice B. Hill wrote in a commentary on BET’s website,

[Black athletes] were quick to jump on Donald Sterling for his racism; they’ve been slow or silent altogether in standing up and speaking out about a killing that should never have happened… At some point—and this is that point—Black athletes like Doc Rivers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Torii Hunter must stand as a Black president did. They must insist that no more cop killings of unarmed Black men will be tolerated.

Given especially the twenty-first-century narcotics of fame, iconography and killer visuals, imagine what would happen to Twitter and assorted social media if we had a 2014 version of this press conference. Maybe Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, LeBron James, and Carmelo gathered together to say that the killing of two black men a week by police for the last six years has to stop.*

It is also understandable why many yearn for an athletic speakout on this, given the racial divide in the United States, with more white Americans believing in ghosts than in the realities of institutional racism. The thought is that black athletes with their white fan bases have an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to reach white America in a way that is unparalleled in the culture.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Yet this is also—to put it bluntly—the wrong question for those who want to see racial justice. Unlike the case of George Zimmerman, which involved an extremely repellent individual vigilante who hunted down Trayvon Martin and was not going to be arrested, this is a case of a police officer doing the killing. This is the case of challenging a very entrenched set of racist law enforcement practices both in the St. Louis metro area and throughout the country. These practices have become militarized in recent years, creating a reality where many communities feel less like neighborhoods and more like occupied territory. (The fact that as many have pointed out, the same company supplied the tear-gas canisters used in Ferguson and in Gaza speaks volumes.) This is not going to be challenged by players posing on Instagram with their hands up. This isn’t the damn “ice bucket challenge.” To uproot these police practices will take the kinds of mobilizations we have yet to see from organizations with the funds, members and capacity to take on the ways in which black neighborhoods are policed.

Instead of asking, “Where are the athletes?” We should ask. “Where is the AFL-CIO?” “Where is the climate justice movement?” “Where is Amnesty international and the ACLU?” “Where is the reproductive justice movement?” I know that some of these organizations are starting to move in pieces—some unions, some climate justice activists, some people in the repro justice movement—but we need the full weight of these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined. If an athlete is inspired by this level of activism and is willing to take on the pressure from the media, ownership and their own inner circle, and speak out, then that’s great. It also would be a true echo of the past. All of sports history shows that athletes tend to speak out in response to mass movements. They don’t start them. They amplify them. Let’s stop demanding athletes take actions that we don’t demand of ourselves or the organizations around us. There is real work to be done, and it doesn’t involve waiting for LeBron to save us.

* Yes, there have been moments, such as when the Washington football team ran out onto the field with their hands up. Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon also posed for an Instagram picture along with several teammates with his hands raised. Given the owner of the Washington football franchise, the racist brand that they represent and the pressure they are under to change their name—not to mention Garcon’s own vociferous defense of this brand—these actions can provoke as much cynicism as inspiration.

Read Next: For many politicians, Ferguson isn’t happening.

The Major Problem With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Powerful Essay on Ferguson

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at a panel discussion about race and sports. 2014. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

There is so much good in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Time magazine essay about the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that it almost feels churlish to raise any kind of criticism. After all, here is a basketball legend, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, the master of the skyhook, marshaling his platform to speak about poverty and class in the United States. Kareem even references the new book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by radical journalist Laurie Penny.

Everyone should read his piece. People in the United States with positions of authority rarely, if ever, talk about class. And yet here is Kareem putting not just Ferguson but the whole of the United States directly under that economic microscope saying, “We have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.”

Kareem says—and this is unarguable in my view—that if the 50 million people who live below the poverty line joined together, they would become “a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.”

He talks about the rise in poverty and the ways the modern media and “the 1 percent” keep the poor at each other’s throats. He even references how the mammoth success of dystopian teen fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games symbolizes the ways that so many young people feel hopeless and helpless about their economic futures.

Thank you, Kareem, for writing about class. Thank you for writing about the ways the wealthy divide to conquer. Thank you for quoting John Steinbeck and Marvin Gaye. The entire essay reminded me of the famous quote that if the poor could be organized to spit at the halls of power simultaneously, corruption would be washed away in a righteous flood.

And yet… there is also a serious and extremely fundamental problem with Kareem’s piece. This is first seen when he writes that making Ferguson about the “fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass. Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people, then the unity of the 50 million poor people that Kareem wants to see will forever be a pipe dream.

The problems with Kareem’s argument come into sharper focus when he brings up the issues that “keep the poor fractured by distracting them.” He brings up “immigration, abortion and gun control” as reasons why poor people “never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.” Yet immigration and abortion are not “distractions.” They are about race, gender and, yes, class oppression. Immigrant workers are more likely to live below the poverty line than those who are native-born. If immigrant workers can be locked in a purgatory of unorganized, undocumented status and branded as “illegals,” then that serves to drive down the wages and political capital for all workers. Since so much of anti-immigrant rhetoric is built around anti-Latino invective, any kind of class unity will forever be illusory if fighting this kind of racism is not at the heart of how we organize.

The same principle holds true for abortion. The closing down of clinics, the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the fact that 87 percent of counties now have no abortion facilities, amount to an attack on the healthcare available to poor women, particularly black and brown women. If you don’t stand up for the reproductive rights of poor women, why would they want to join your 50 million–strong movement?

The point of all of this is to say that fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle. Oppression acts as a cancer on the solidarity necessary to fight for a better world. If Kareem wants to see class unity, then the people risking their lives in Ferguson should not be seen as people “fist-shaking for a racial agenda” but instead as the brave souls on the front lines in the fight for a better world: a world where people aren’t shot dead by cops because of the color of their skin. Kareem wants to see solidarity. It starts with solidarity with the people in the streets of Ferguson. It starts by arguing explicitly with white workers that their sympathies should lie with the people of Ferguson and not the politicians or the police. With one voice, we need to say that the real looters are on Wall Street, and without justice there can never be peace.


Take Action: Demand that Cops Stop Acting Like Soldiers

Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews MVP,  a pro wrestler who traveled to Ferguson.

INTERVIEW: Why Pro Wrestler ‘MVP’ Made the Trip to Ferguson

Pro wrestler Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP)

Pro wrestler Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP) made the trip to Ferguson as himself, “as Hassan.” (Wikipedia commons)

His name is Hassan Hamin Assad. But pro wrestling fans know him as Montel Vontavious Porter, otherwise known as MVP. In a sporting spectacle known for its profoundly backward representations of African-Americans, MVP has always chosen to showcase himself as a man of intelligence and confidence that—when playing the villain—could morph into grandiose cockiness. This past week, MVP—“acting as Hassan,” as he said to me, made the decision to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the police killing of Michael Brown and subsequent clashes with a shockingly militarized police force. I was able to speak with MVP while he was in Ferguson about why he felt compelled to make the journey.

DZ: Why did you, MVP, decide to make this trip to Ferguson?

MVP: Because, I was sitting on the couch, watching the footage coming in.… And, I’ve been saying this over and over, I just got tired of shaking my fist at the TV. My biggest issue was watching the militarized St. Louis County Police come in with a heavy-handed approach, to peaceful protesters. Media blackout, arresting journalists, and I just felt like I had to speak up about our Constitution being trampled on and our constitutional rights being violated.

You’ve now been there a couple of days, what’s your sense of what’s happening on the ground?

I’ve had had the opportunity to speak to a lot of the local residents who were there in the chaos. One guy who was actually, according to him, beaten up by the police in the process. And last night was extremely calm, there were peaceful protests… no violence. But there was no police presence. Earlier in the evening, there were a few black police officers, and I think the local police chief—it was, I think, a minimized police presence. The night, as it got darker and as it got later there were even less police. And, I’m sad to say, that much, much later in the evening—probably around 1 am—a few police responded to minor incident at a McDonald’s. There was nothing going on and they left. They didn’t bother anyone, and as they were leaving, some were throwing rocks and bottles at the police cars as they left. Which is counterproductive to do, but unfortunately you always have that angst.

So what’s your analysis of the approach of the police?

I‘ll paraphrase, because I believe the quote was that the St. Louis County Police Department… they hadn’t even had the opportunity to drill for that type of situation. So, what I think you have is a bunch of overanxious individuals with improper training responding to a situation not knowing how to do so. And as seen in some of the video that’s still shot as well as the accounts of some of the people who were there, you had officers on hand who were—instead of de-escalating the violence were intentionally escalating it. Mocking the citizens, there’s a still photo that I saw of some of the officers with their hands up… The major chant [of the protest] has been “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And there’ve been people walking up and down the street with their hands up and T-shirts that say “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Because allegedly, according to eyewitness accounts, Mike Brown had his hands up in a surrender position when he was shot. And there’s actually a still photo floating around that I saw, and a number of individuals related that they saw firsthand of officers raising their hands up, mocking the protesters and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose. That’s not professional, that’s not an attempt to de-escalate violence. There was talk of officers calling them animals. From what I understand it was just a complete lack of professionalism and leadership. Before this, where were the local community leaders? Where was the governor? Where was the mayor? Where was the city council? Where were the people who should have stepped in and called for peace? Where were the people who should have stepped in and said, “Wait a minute, this is not how we handle these sort of situations.”

Speaking of leadership, I don’t know if you knew this or not, MVP, but you are the first person from the world of athletics to actually make the trip to Ferguson and offer solidarity to what’s happening there. Were you aware of that, and are you actually trying to be an example for others to try to leverage their fame to bring attention to what’s happening there?

Well, I wasn’t aware of that, and I think it’s rather unfortunate. I can kind of understand why people wouldn’t want to get involved, but that’s part of my position… I’m so tired of apathy. I got tired of tweeting about it, I got tired of shaking my fist at the TV screen and talking about it. I didn’t come here as MVP, I came here as Hassan, a guy who wanted to stand up for my civil rights and everyone else’s. And if my visibility as MVP can bring more attention to the violation of civil rights and the trampling of the constitution, then that’s cool too. But I didn’t come as a “celebrity” or as a pro athlete, I just came as a citizen that was fed up.

I have to ask: you have always been a strong African-American character in an industry that does not have, to put it mildly, a history of strong African-American characters. Do you feel like you’re also making a statement to the world of professional wrestling that African-Americans need to be treated with more respect and less dehumanization than we’ve seen over the l decades?

While I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement, that thought never crossed my mind, actually. So, one had nothing to do with the other. What I said to a few people in Ferguson was, while the incident might have been set off by a racial distrust, disharmony, discord… whatever you want to call it. It quickly escalated to something much than that. In just this last month there were four African-American men who were unarmed and killed by police. I think that it has to be a conversation about use of force, use of deadly force, and excessive use of force. I think that, and I want to make this very clear, my father was a cop, my brother’s a cop, my sister-in-law’s a cop. I’m the black sheep in a family of cops. I understand how difficult the job is. I also understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and police officers have to be held to a higher standard because we entrust our society to their care. The problem is, when you deal with humans you deal with the frailty of the human psyche and the human ego, and people make mistakes. But when those mistakes are made, somebody has to be held accountable. And in this particular case, we don’t have all of the facts in yet about why this young man was shot, and whether the officer’s life was in jeopardy or whether it was justifiable, but eyewitnesses say that he turned with his hands up, and was surrendering, and was shot multiple times. If that is in fact the case, then somebody has to answer for that. And these other cases across the country… I’m not saying that all cops are bad. There are many who would like to say that. But I believe that you’re complicit by inaction if you witness something illegal take place and you don’t take a step to correct it.

Last question, and I wasn’t going to ask you this, but given that you come from a family of African-American police officers, and given that you’re clearly attuned to these issues it seems appropriate: How big a problem do you think we have in this country of racism in the police departments of the United States, racism in the criminal justice system of the United States? How big of a problem is there that needs to be confronted?

Wow. You got an hour? There are people who often, say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.” And, “Nobody’s racist anymore.” And, to that I say, all you have to do is go on Youtube and read the comments. That will tell you just how racist people will be if they can’t be called out on it. Where nowadays, racism isn’t as overt as, say, fifty years ago. It still exists, and I’m not just talking about white against black racism. There’s black against white racism. There’s Jewish against Muslim racism… All people, all cultures have some sort of racism. It’s a cultural thing and I think that part of the issue is that people aren’t necessarily taking the steps to be understanding and aware of other cultures. I think that people are willfully ignorant of other cultures, and black people, white people, Asian people… everybody’s guilty of it. And I don’t think, in the near future, we’re going to see racism disappear. In the criminal justice system, of course it exists. Just look at the disparity in sentencing between people who deal crack cocaine and people who deal powder cocaine. We know that crack cocaine is prevalent in the African-American communities and powder cocaine is a lot sexier, and it’s a little more expensive and therefore used by more affluent people. But if you’re caught with crack cocaine, the same amount of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, your sentence is—I think—five times more severe. There’s something to be said for that. I think that there is racism, just recently I believe in Florida there were two of three cops that were fired from the department because they were exposed to be active members of the Ku Klux Klan. It exists. You can’t deny that it exists, but racism is due to an unevolved thinking and as a society, as a human race, we have to become evolved thinkers. Our thinking has to evolve with our technology and everything else. If you don’t like somebody because of the God that they worship, or because of the color of their skin… there’s something wrong with you, not them. But, I’ll also say this, we don’t—and when I say “we,” I’m talking about the African-American community, the inner city—a dialogue has to be had with young black men about how to communicate with white police officers specifically. You don’t escalate the situation by saying, “Hey, man, why you fuckin’ with me?” You have to be able to communicate, and I think it happens on both sides. You have cops who, unfortunately, don’t de-escalate the situation and, by the same token, [young black men] don’t de-escalate the situation. And they say, “You know, I’m tired. I’m fed up with being racially profiled.” OK, when you’re being taken into custody, at that moment, that’s not the time to protest. That’s not the time to resist arrest. That’s not the time to cuss the cop out. Your best bet is to just be as polite as possible and go file a report or go do whatever you can within the proper channels. And as we know often enough, it gets swept under the rug. But if it happens enough, something has to be done.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

At this point, man, I want to make it very clear. They’re showing the video now about Michael Brown and the cigars that he stole and the shop owner who he apparently had a physical altercation with during that theft. However, now it’s being revealed that the officer who stopped him had absolutely no idea that he was involved in that crime. And, just because of that, I’m hearing people saying, “Oh, well now we have to take a look at this in an entirely different light.” Let’s not be distracted from the issue at hand—excessive use of force. And, that leading to an overt trampling of our Constitution. Even if you are the most overt racist and you are glad that Michael Brown is dead, another young dead nigger… that makes you happy… you can’t be happy about the response of the police department coming in and saying, “As of this moment, the constitution is not valid. It’s a media blackout, we’re arresting journalists who try to take our pictures. We’re going to ban satellite trucks from the area. There’s a no-fly zone so media helicopters can’t report on the situation.” This affects you too. This affects everyone. And, you know what? Today, it’s someone else’s kid, it’s someone else’s neighborhood. Tomorrow it could very easily be your kid and your neighborhood.

Robin Williams and a Moment of Magic

Robin Williams

Robin Williams performs. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP) 

When I was 12, I was trudging along on 77th and Columbus with my sister and father, another desultory post-divorce dinner with dad. Like it was yesterday, I remember looking up and doing a double take, then a triple take, then a quadruple take: Robin Williams was walking alongside us. Robin. Effing. Williams.

This would have been Robin Williams at the apex of his powers—at least in the eyes of a 12-year-old. After Mork and Mindy. After Popeye—which I was shocked to find out years later was “a bomb”—after Moscow on the Hudson, after his Night at the Met HBO special, a videotape of which we passed around school with the electric reverence of an illicit nudie magazine. Save Eddie Murphy, there was no one cooler. No one.

Seeing him walking next to me was as remarkable and otherworldly for me as if my own 10-year-old was walking to school and bumped into Finn and Jake from Adventure Time.

As I did speechless double and triple takes, Mr. Williams noticed me gawking at him, looked down and smiled. He was with a woman whose arm was entwined in his and she was bumping into him with her hip, smiling, as if to say, “Look at this goofy kid.” His smile turned into a wide grin beneath his beard as my eyes continued to expand.

At the corner, they crossed the street and I finally was able to find my tongue, turn to my father and sister and stammer, “Wobin Rilliams! Bobin Billiams! Yo! That was Robin Williams!!” I think my father, whose comedic tastes tended toward the cartoons of The New Yorker, may have grunted. My older sister—although I frankly can’t remember her response—almost certainly rolled her eyes, as if I had just said I saw a Sasquatch.

I remember grabbing them both and gesticulating at the couple across the street and saying, “I’m totally serious! That guy is Robin Williams!” After I was able to focus everyone’s disbelieving gaze, Robin Williams looked over at us, and danced. I’m completely serious. He did that Chuck Berry dance where you kick one leg up and down and hop up the street as if you are doing the guitar solo from Johnny B. Good. He looked over at us, and at at our walking pace, did that dance for about one quarter of a city block. Now it was my sister’s turn to have her jaw hit the ground. Then we cheered.

I have, obviously, never forgotten that small moment of pre-adolescent magic. As I’ve been reading the obituaries and remembrances of Mr. Williams it has been striking just how seamlessly that tiny story fits with the words of people who actually knew him. You hear the same things; He was uncommonly kind. He absolutely adored children. He gave of himself without desire for public relations. Hell, he walked picket lines. And he truly—even manically—cared about being loved. Some of the most heartbroken remembrances, tellingly, have come from adults who acted with the man when they were still kids. It’s a rare quality: those who take the time to actually be kind to children.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

I don’t want to speculate about why Robin Williams took his life. People trying to tie it to the vicissitudes of his career—his show was cancelled!—frankly need to stop. Depression in this day and age is that powerful. If it finds you in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can swallow you whole. It’s happened to people I’ve loved. It’s happened to Robin Williams. I hope if nothing else that people in a similar circumstance reach for a phone instead of whatever instrument of death is handy. I also hope that Robin Williams’ family knows that their dad was truly loved. Not just for his art but for the small anonymous moments that revealed who he actually was when the applause stopped. I wish I’d been able to meet him as an adult and simply thank him for gracing my young self with a dollop of magic.


Read Next: The NBA finally hires a female coach

Why Has It Taken This Long for a Men’s Pro-Sports Team to Hire a Female Coach?

Becky Hammon

Becky Hammon takes questions after being introduced as the assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. August 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

The biggest line of horseshit you will ever hear in professional sports not uttered by Dan Snyder is that no one in the executive suites cares if you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight. As long as you can help the team win, there is a place for you. Wrong. The pivot of all executive decisions is not “How can the team win?” but “How can I keep my damn job?”

The front office fear is that if they bring in a “distraction” and the team flounders, they’ll be scapegoated for bringing in this “distraction,” quickly dispatched, unemployed or otherwise ass out. (And Lord do I hate that word “distraction” as a stand-in for “triggers someone else’s bigotry.”)

That impulse to avoid difference rewards cowardice—politely called “risk-averse behavior”—as teams bypass players that differ from established norms, even if they can help. Someone has to choose to not be the coward. It took the St. Louis Rams’s Jeff Fisher to make the decision to not be another NFL milksop and draft Michael Sam at the end of the seventh round.

Gregg Popovich, coach and Kaiser of the San Antonio Spurs, is no one’s idea of cowardly. So predictably, even obviously, it was Coach Pop who made the decision to hire Becky Hammon as the first full-time female assistant coach in any major professional men’s sport in the United States.

“I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff,” Popovich said. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”

Hammon comes to the Spurs after sixteen years in the WNBA, her last eight with the outfit in San Antonio where she got to know the Spurs operation. But Becky Hammon on a bench was going to happen. As Kate Fagan wrote in her indispensable piece on the hire, “If you know Becky Hammon, one thing has always been clear: She would become a coach after she finished playing….

“She could see a play once and know all its options and offshoots, categorize them from most to least effective. And she could do this for every position on the court, instantly—as if the X’s and O’s had been coded into her DNA.”

Becky Hammon by all accounts has the skills to coach. Yet that glass ceiling would have been a glass fortress if not for Pop’s being Pop. Of course it was going to be Coach Pop. Beneath the military crew-cut and Roger Murtaugh demeanor, Coach Pop lives his life as the reality of Phil Jackson’s image. He doesn’t talk in New Age riddles and hang out with lefty celebs while, when it matters, scoffing about keeping politics out of sports.

Instead, Coach Pop looks for real ways to make his corner of the world a little more just. Hiring Becky Hammon on the merits of her ability—while not giving one holy hell about the fallout in Texas or beyond—is how he does it. I don’t know if a part of Pop is also fighting for the idea that there is a place for women in sports beyond being sexist clickbait, but that’s the result. I do know from my interactions with the man that he admires those who have historically risked their perch of privilege in pro sports to impact the works. He thinks about the world beyond sports and wants it to be better.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

American sports—structured and codified over a century ago as a leisure pastime created by men for male consumption—just got marginally better, and that is cause for celebration. While the NFL seems to see disrespecting its female fan base as part of its mission statement, Coach Pop—by just being Pop—lives by a different code. Because of that code, Becky Hammon will be a coach in the NBA. It feels great to tell my young daughter about the news. Hell, it feels great to even type the words.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on the needless killing of a Palestinian soccer legend

His Name Was Ahed Zaqout: Former Palestinian Soccer Star Killed in Gaza

Palestine soccer fans

Palestinians cheer as they watch their team play in the AFC Cup final. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem) 

All it took was a recording of Donald Sterling insulting Magic Johnson in a derogatory manner for the twenty-four-hour news world to stop on its axis. Now imagine if Donald Sterling—in all of his paranoid, racist fervor—had an army at his disposal and bombed Magic Johnson in his home, killing him in his sleep.

If such a scenario sounds like hacky Phillip K. Dick fan fiction as written by Mike Lupica, then you have not been paying attention to the dystopian, genocidal panorama in Gaza, where no one is safe. You are unfamiliar with the name Ahed Zaqout.

Ahed Zaqout was a 49-year-old sportscaster and television host in Gaza, a national sports voice for a people without a nation. Two decades ago, he was a soccer star: the midfielder for the Palestinian national soccer team. On Wednesday, he was killed in his bed by the bombs of the Israeli Defense Forces.

As Gaza sports journalist Khaled Zaher told Reuters, “Palestine has lost one of its best players, he may have been the best midfielder we ever had.”

Why the IDF was “defending” itself against Zaqout is a mystery. He was no Muhammad Ali, using sports to advance any kind of political cause. He was that most conventional and familiar of person in sports: the ex-star jock turned broadcaster. But in Gaza, what we may see as conventional can become political. Zaqout was someone whose voice, sharp wit, and trenchant analysis was a source of joy and escape for a people under constant siege. Providing escape to the trapped of Gaza was in and of itself a political act.

Was Zaqout actually targeted, or did he die in yet another pitiless IDF bombing of civilians? If we believe Netanyahu and his defenders—that the reports by journalists and the United Nations of indiscriminate mass killings are a fabrication—then it is worth asking, Why did Ahed Zaqout have to die?

Based on the description and reports of the bombing, it is doubtful that his was a pinpoint assassination. Far more likely, Zaqout was a victim of Netanyahu’s mania for total war—a mania that makes my earlier Donald Sterling comparison frankly insulting to Mr. Sterling. But if he was in fact targeted, it would be yet another example of the ways in which Israel has attacked the soccer community of Gaza as a way to choke any respite or relief that the people could possibly possess.

Soccer is about people feeling a sense of collective joy and hope. It creates scenes, like the ones in earlier this year—it feels like a lifetime ago—of thousands of people on the Gaza beach celebrating the ascension of their national team.

Attacking soccer is about attacking these very national aspirations. It’s the inhumane act targeting a collective expression of humanity.

Currently FIFA is debating sanctions against Israel’s membership in the organization because of formal accusations that it has used state violence to stunt the Palestinian national team

Ahed Zaqout should be a part of this debate. Whether Zaqout was targeted or was caught up in an indiscriminate killing should be irrelevant to FIFA. One of their own was killed, and that has to count for something.

A critical voice in this debate is FIFA’s European President Michel Platini. Platini has been sharply critical of Israel yet also has championed the staging of tournaments there over international objections. Platini was also once a great player for the French national team. In a 1994 friendly match between France and the Palestinian national squad, Platini played across a fair-haired whippet named Ahed Zaqout. Perhaps he will remember his name as this debate moves forward.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

I know it is stunning to think that FIFA could be any kind of force for social justice, but unlike the United Nations, the United States can’t unilaterally block FIFA’s decisions. And unlike the United Nations, FIFA could do something that would have teeth and that people across the world would actually notice. Perhaps in the face of the bloodshed in Gaza and in the memory of Ahed Zaqout, it will send a message that a country that imprisons another has no place in the world of international sports. If the politicians won’t act, then perhaps the world of sports must. After all, even Magic Johnson just cancelled an event in Jerusalem.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on the luxury of medical care in a country where hospitals aren’t bombed

At Least My Hospital Isn’t Being Bombed

Air strike gaza

Air strike in Gaza, July 2014 (Reuters/Stringer) 

I’m in the hospital as I write this, getting ready to be cut open for some kind of intestinal surgery. I feel stressed, a little scared, yet given the news in the world, oddly grateful. I’m grateful that this clean facility, and its overworked but exceptionally kind staff, is not in the process of being bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

It is a sick sign of our times that human beings throughout the world cannot take for granted the concept that your hospital will not have a bullseye on its roof, but this is exactly where President Benjamin Netanyahu has dragged us. He is not the first, and he will not be the last, to take this tactic as a legitimate means of war. But defending these actions by saying, “George W. Bush has done it!” or “Assad does it, too!” is only an argument the morally bankrupt could possibly make.

No part of Israel’s war on Gaza—or any war—is more unconscionable than the targeting of hospitals. The shelling of institutions where people go to heal not only adds to the spiraling body count, it also creates mortality figures that will never ever be uttered by Wolf Blitzer, as the sick, the dying and the pregnant find themselves imperiled by Netanyahu’s slaughter. The reports from the UN about the effects in Gaza on pregnant women makes one wonder when fetuses became enemy combatants—their mothers, human shields.

Then there is Al-Wafa hospital, the only facility equipped to handle brain and spinal injuries in Gaza, which is now a “smoldering ruin.” According to Jonathan Miller of NBC News, in a devastating report, patients had to be evacuated from the hospital and carried to the center of Gaza City in blankets.

As of this writing, Al Shifa hospital, the most well-equipped in Gaza, has been under bombardment. Israel is arguing that Hamas has bombed their own hospital. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC News, who witnessed the shelling, reported otherwise, although the story from NBC has changed repeatedly without explanation.

This is yet another example of Netanyahu’s—as he speaks of his war on Gaza being one of “civilization vs. barbarism”—violating Geneva protocols.

As Allison Deger summed up in her searing report on Al-Wafa hospital,

According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) hospitals are protected sites. Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: ‘The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit…acts harmful to the enemy.’ The Geneva Convention also requires ‘a reasonable time limit,” for allowing an evacuation. If a hospital is used to launch weapons, under IHL it can only be targeted when there is an imminent strike originating from the location. Even storing caches of weapons do not meet international law’s stringent threshold for firing on humanitarian sites.

As for Al-Wafa, there were no weapons, no rockets. Just doctors, nurses and patients. Just teenagers, like Aya, paralyzed with a tumor on her spine, being transported with makeshift gurneys into an open space. Just bodies. Just civilians increasingly seen as legitimate targets by the IDF.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

One final point. I write this from a hospital bed in the middle of the night, with help from a bedside lamp and extension cord attached to my computer. In other words, I have electricity.

The main power plant of Gaza has been bombed, plunging the city into darkness. CNN reported that this was either an accident of the IDF or Hamas took out their own power. (If Wolf Blitzer said Hamas was killing Israeli unicorns with the key to eternal life at this point, no one in Atlanta would blink.) Fox News was more blunt, saying that Israel was “striking at symbols of Hamas’s power.” How the media spin this is irrelevant to the pressing fact that it has imperiled every health facility for a place with a population three times the size of Washington, DC. I have a lot of worries right now, but the absence of electricity is not one of them. Nothing exposes the lies underpinning Netanyahu’s battle for “civilization” quite like this kind of savagery. Nothing feels more illustrative of the horrors Israel has unleashed quite like feeling privileged that my hospital isn’t under lethal attack from the skies.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on violence against women in the NFL

Here’s What Happens When an NFL Player Beats His Fiancée Unconscious

Ray Rice

Ray Rice. 2014 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) 

Two games. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera dragging his unconscious wife-to-be Janay Palmer by the hair, after knocking her unconscious, and the National Football League has chosen to suspend him for two games. Rice in fact will return to the field just in time to wear the NFL’s pink-festooned uniforms to celebrate their deep commitment to breast cancer awareness—and their even deeper commitment to selling sixty-dollar jerseys marketed aggressively to their female fan base. In fact, the Ray Rice all-pink number is available for purchase right now. The NFL actually needs a Violence Against Women Month instead, to raise awareness about a killer that malignantly throbs in every locker room. But that is not going to happen, and it is worth understanding why.

The NFL, as many have been writing for too many years, has a violence-against-women problem. The incidents are too many to catalogue. But by suspending Ray Rice for two games, a lighter suspension than the league’s marijuana smokers receive, Roger Goodell and his coterie of owners are sending a message that it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know why anyone would expect more from a league notorious for racist nicknames, out-of-control owners and a locker-room culture that would shame some high schools. But still. Two games. I did not think the NFL had the capacity to stun me with its blockheadedness, but I was wrong.

There is without question an important discussion to have—an unheated discussion not made for sports radio—about why violence against women and football seem to walk arm-in-arm. We could discuss the inability for football players to compartmentalize violence, taking the hyper-aggression of their sport home with them—something that affects families in the armed forces as well. There is a discussion we need to have about its connection to traumatic brain injury, and the ways that some of the side effects according to the NFL’s own neurologists, are mood swings, fits of temper and the inability to connect emotionally with the people in their lives. There especially is a discussion we need to have about a culture of entitlement that starts in high school and runs even more profoundly in college football, where young men produce billions in revenue and are often “rewarded”, since they can’t be paid, with a warped value system that says women are there to be taken.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

If we can confront how players deal with violence and with the women in their lives, then we can prevent tragedies before they take place. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown absolutely zero interest in taking this issue seriously. The league didn’t do anything after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovon Belcher killed the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manager.If they did not do anything then, they are not about to take it seriously now. It is very difficult to not be cynical about why it is so casually indifferent to this issue. To discuss violence against women means by necessity to talk about everything endemic in the NFL that creates this culture. The NFL has been aggressively marketing its sport to parents, telling them that, despite what they may have heard, football is as healthy for their children as a Flintstones vitamin. To discuss the causes of violence against women means to put its golden goose under the harshest possible light. It means producing negative publicity, and it means blowing wind on the brushfire movement of young parents who do not want their children playing this sport. To not discuss it, however, means not only ignoring a problem that won’t go away. It means sending a message to every general manager, coach, player and fan that the worth and humanity of women is at best negligible.

That is why when Rice’s coach John Harbaugh said, upon learning of Rice’s suspension, “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process,” he is just taking his cues from the league that provides him with employment. Harbaugh also said, “He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way.” Unfortunately, the only lessons that kids are going to learn from this episode is that the vaunted “shield” of the NFL protects perpetrators of violence against women, for the sake of what it sees as the greater good. When its “breast cancer awareness month” begins, people should take these jerseys and light a big old bonfire outside of NFL stadiums. They are symbols of a monstrous joke that sees women as either revenue streams, cheerleaders or collateral damage to what takes place on the field.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on the transformation of safe havens in Gaza into warzones

Four Little Boys and the Price of Play in Gaza

Bakr children

Palestinians mourn over the lifless bodies of four Bakr Children. July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

When the Palestinian national soccer team secured entry into the 2015 Asia Cup, winning the right to play in an international tournament for the first time in its eighty-six-year history, crowds gathered by the hundreds to dance, play music and watch the triumph of their national team on large movie-sized television screens on the beaches on Gaza. The oceanfront represents the illusion of freedom for a land otherwise encircled by walls and checkpoints. People often gather on the beach to celebrate because it is a refuge from densely populated squalor that defines so much of an area that they have been compelled to call home. This is especially the case for children.

That brings us to the four Bakr boys. There was Mohamed Ramez Bakr, eleven years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both ten, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, nine. They were all killed by an Israeli Defense Forces military strike while playing on the beach in surroundings as familiar to them as a corner playground.
 The first shell sent them running. The second took their lives. Existing in a land where are you are always underfoot, the beach is one of the precious few places a child can freely roam. In Gaza City, which sewage and pollution could make unlivable by 2020, according to a United Nations study, this is one of the only places where the air feels clean in your lungs. In a land where soccer fields are constantly under bombardment—Israel says that parks and stadiums are popular places for Hamas to launch rocket attacks—the beach is where you go to play.

The Bakr boys were killed in an area they believed to be safe. Mohamed’s mother, grieving at the hospital, was quoted by CNN as saying, “Why did he go to the beach and play—for them to take him away from me?” Several reporters on hand were shocked at what happened. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC, tweeted: “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them #gaza.” After this, Mohyeldin was taken off the air, and was only allowed to return following an online campaign launched to defend him. The reasons behind NBC's decision to pull him and then return Mohyeldin to Gaza are still very much in depute. Whatever the cause, Mohyeldin was doing the kind of journalism that forced people to see Palestinians as actual human beings.

* * *

When people write, tweet, and message me with their unquestioned belief that Hamas is using the children of Gaza as human shields, I often wonder whether they make these assertions out of unknowing ignorance or out of a deeper kind of “let them eat cake” cruelty.

Maybe they don’t know that these same “human shield” accusations, made in 2008 and 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead bombing of Gaza, were found to be without evidence by Amnesty International.

Maybe they don’t know that to even speak of “human shields” in Gaza is absurd, because the Strip is fenced-in and residents have little right to come and go as they please. Maybe they don’t know that Gaza City is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with most of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in the urban heart of Strip.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

People in the United States may be ignorant about these overcrowded conditions, but the Israeli military commanders are certainly not. Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal quote that if the poor were starving and without bread, we should “let them eat cake,” has become Netanyahu’s “let them find shelter.” He says, “Let them evacuate” when the only truly safe place is on the other side of a checkpoint. Someone fleeing one missile strike may be heading directly into another.

Perhaps these four little boys are examples of the “telegenically dead Palestinians” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us we should disregard. Or perhaps what Netanyahu fears is people who see nothing “telegenic” about dead children. Perhaps he knows that there are people who cannot imagine anything more human than a group of children playing on the beach, and cannot imagine anything more inhumane than taking their lives from the sky.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on Cowardice, The NBA and #FreePalestine

On Dwight Howard and #FreePalestine

Dwight Howard. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

When LeBron James made the decision (as opposed to “THE DECISION”) to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers after four seasons in Miami, many commentators praised the social conscience that seemed to amplify his desire to return home. They said that by leaving the South Beach scene for North Eastern Ohio, James was admirably demonstrating aspirations to be more than an athlete, and a yearning to be something beyond a Jordanesque “brand”.

This week we learned that admiration has limitations, particularly if the concerns of an athlete extend to Palestinian children. NBA players Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudamire, and Metta World Peace all received a withering backlash for daring to tweet a desire to see an end to the casualties caused by Israel’s relentless bombing campaign of Gaza. Metta World Peace, in a full defensive posture, was reduced to tweeting, “I’m not taking sides, I’m saying stop the BS and love the children. How can you do arts and craft when bombs and guns going off[?]” Amar’e Stoudamire who is Jewish and even has funded an Israeli basketball camp, was pressured to delete an Instagram picture of an Israeli and Palestinian child arm in arm with the caption “Pray for Palestine.” Yes, even this was too much.

But I want to focus on the person who has received a backlash from every side of this equation, Dwight Howard. First Howard was slammed by the pro-Israel crowd for daring to tweet #freepalestine after being sent images of the carnage. Then he was crushed by those who stand with the Palestinian people for tweeting a near immediate retraction, calling him “Howard the Coward.”

Howard clearly had a very human gut reaction to seeing the horror being inflicted upon the people of Gaza, and then was contacted by someone: his agent/publicist/team owner who told him to get that shit down and apologize for it as soon as possible. For those who wanted Howard to grovel for daring to even muse that Palestine should be free, he did not disappoint, tweeting, “previous tweet was a mistake. I have never commented on international politics and never will” and then, “I apologize if I offended anyone with my previous tweet, it was a mistake!” This was not enough for Zionist Organization of America chief Morton Klein who told TMZ(!) that Howard “should be publicly condemned as strong as Donald Sterling was.”

Yes, this is hardly a profile in athletic courage. Yes, I understand why some, frustrated by the craven US media coverage of the shelling of Gaza, were enraged that Howard ran away from a basic statement of solidarity. Yes, I cannot quite grasp why Dwight Howard dismissed what is happening in Gaza as “international politics”, given the fact that his own country delivers $8 million of military aid to Israel every day.

In addition to all of this, I share people’s teeth-grinding frustration that Dwight Howard’s former Rockets teammate the Israeli-born Omri Casspi has felt no pressure to apologize, nor has he taken down his tweet that said, “600 missiles been fired from GAZA by Hamas in the last 4 days. NUMBERS DONT LIE. STOP LYING.”

In a sane world, Casspi would be roundly shamed—and not Twitter-shamed, but really shamed—for daring to say the words “numbers don’t lie” in relation to Israel-Palestine and not starting with the number of dead children in Gaza.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But I am actually not mad at Dwight Howard. I suppose I am not mad for the same reason that former NBA player Etan Thomas is not mad. Thomas has also been tweeting #freepalestine. I asked him for his thoughts about Howard and he said, “I see the fact that he tweeted anything at all as a step in the right direction. At least he did something and provoked conversation. That’s more than a lot of people are doing. Whether they deleted their texts or not respect to Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace for showing a social conscious.”

It’s a point well taken. If people are mad at Howard for actually saying and then deleting something, then where is our anger for those with a major platform who are choosing to say nothing? If anything, Howard performed a public service by demonstrating how Palestinian people are imprisoned not only by walls, barbed wire and checkpoints but also by Western hypocrisy. Here we have one of the most densely populated areas on earth, 1.7 million people, and half of them under the age of 16, being relentlessly bombed. At last count, the numbers are 1,500 wounded and 192 killed, including thirty-eight children. This is not a war in Gaza. This is a war crime. Everyone should be demanding that the targeting of civilians end. People should universally condemn scenes of Israelis going to the top of a hill and watching the bombing of Gaza like it is a night out at the theater or wearing neo-Nazi symbols at pro-war rallies in Tel Aviv. And yet, an athlete tweeting #freepalestine is smacked down with an immediacy that speaks to how desperate Israel and their backers in the United States are to keep them insulated from even a whiff of criticism. I am not mad at Dwight Howard. I want to thank him. I want to thank him for showing with utter clarity what few will say openly: that acknowledging the humanity of the Palestinian people comes with a price.


Read Next: Dave Zirin on why LeBron James was destined to return to Cleveland

Syndicate content