Where sports and politics collide.
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
On Thursday I spoke to Andy Schwarz, a leading anti-trust economist, for some straight common sense about about the NCAA, college sports and paying athletes. His words should be CliffsNotes for everyone watching March Madness.
On why NCAA athletes should receive some sort of monetary compensation:
I always say the question of whether they should get paid is the wrong one. I think the question is, “If the NCAA weren’t colluding against them, would they get paid?” And the answer is, “Yes, they would.” We all should have the right to earn what we’re worth, to go in and ask for it, and if we’re not worth much, we won’t get much. The fact that the NCAA is so adamantly insisting on enforcing a rule to prevent anyone from getting paid I think is a good sign that if the rule weren’t there, they would.
On what kind of system would make the most sense:
I think the simplest system is almost no system at all. Or if you insist on having some rules, have them at the conference level.
The best system is one where teams make their own decisions. In college, if you had each of the ten football conferences or thirty-two basketball conferences competing, they could make their own rules. They could set a level of parity among the schools within the conference and then go off and compete for talent in such a way that if a school up in Minnesota or Maine or Massachusetts thinks hockey players are worth something, then they would get paid. In most places, football and basketball players would get paid. I went to Stanford. Women’s basketball players would be in demand there. Probably at Connecticut as well.
On whether paying athletes would be either a legal violation of Title IX, or wreck women’s sports:
Both of those things are 180 degrees wrong. Title IX is really specific to what it does and doesn’t require. People probably think that Title IX requires that men’s sports and women’s sports get equally funded and it doesn’t say that at all. In 2009–10, Alabama spent $43 million on men’s sports and $13 million on women’s sports, and they weren’t in violation of Title IX because all Title IX says with respect to money is that, however many men you have playing sports, the money they get has to be proportional to the ratio. So if you’ve got 60 percent male and 40 percent female athletes, then the money that they specifically get in scholarships has to be 60:40, plus or minus a tiny margin for error. Now you have a system where the player “pay” is capped and the way that schools compete for talent is to pay coaches more and more to get them to recruit, This shifts money away from areas where Title IX does apply—the money that goes to players—to areas where it doesn’t apply. So if we change the system and we allow schools to compete for talent with pay, you’d see coaches’ pay go down, you’d see male athletes’ pay go up. But every time you increase the male athletes’ pay by a dollar, and it’s not quite a dollar in matching, but there would need to be, under the law, a matching payment to women.
On how paying players would control obscene college coaching salaries:
To be clear, tomorrow they won’t rip up a contract that’s in place. This is a five-to-ten-year transition. And if the NCAA were being proactive about it instead of scorched earth, they’d be planning for it. Effectively, when firms—and these schools when they’re out there hiring coaches and when they’re hiring athletes like a normal business—figure out what they want to pay a person and the benefits they get from increased quality, that sort of sets a market rate. But in the current system, players can’t be lured with pay, so a school comes up with a secondary means of payment: a nicer locker room, a waterfall in my hydrotherapy room, a promise of winning, a greater chance of playing pro. And good coaching is also a perk. But coaching is a relatively scarce resource, and the best coaches take advantage of that because they are in a free labor market. There was an attempt in the 1990s to cap coaches’ pay too. The coaches took them to court and the court slapped it down really, really fast. That’s called price-fixing. As a result, when you want to spend more dollars on talent and you can’t, you spend it on more facilities and you spend it on more coaches. In contrast, growth in revenue in the NBA and in the NFL mostly flows to the players. Coaches make about 5 percent of total payroll in those leagues and—even if you count the value of a scholarship as a fixed salary—coaches can make twice as much in football and seven times as much in basketball, as their team. [Editor’s note: Schwarz clarified that by this he meant that coaches can get 200 percent (in FB) or 700 percent (in BB) of what their athletes’ scholarships are priced at, in total across the whole team.]
On whether paying college athletes would increase a culture of entitlement:
I think the people who are most entitled are athletic directors who were born rounding third base and think they hit a triple. They are being paid for effectively expropriating what the athletes would get in a market. When I hear coaches talking about this too, it’s like, well, the real market rate for all your talent has been doubled by the fact that you’re sucking money away from people from who, if they were allowed to earn based on their skill and hard work, would be making the most money, so that your salary can go up. I read yesterday that Michigan sent a letter to the girlfriend of a player to try to convince her to try to convince him to come to Michigan. Those are the sorts of crazy, indirect things you have to do when you can’t say we want you so much that we’ll up our offer by $10,000.
On the odd political alignments around the issue of paying athletes:
There is a strain of people on the left who see the whole process of rewarding people within a college structure for something that’s not academic to just be fundamentally wrong. So the idea that they have a market value in a system like that, it’s strikes them as being wrong and they might go to the point of saying it’s immoral. These people ought to be more interested in school. Your values should be the same as my values.
On the right wing—some of it is because unions have gotten involved and they’re just knee-jerk anti-union—people are conservative and change is hard. So the idea that this might change the nature of football, it might change the strict hierarchy as coach as father and players as children to something more like a partnership. That’s also threatening.
I wish we could see it as something along the lines of: let these people be. Young men, a lot of times, come from backgrounds of poverty. Let them use their entrepreneurial spirit to earn their keep. And to the left, I think we should say, “Isn’t this a great way to end what’s really a regressive tax, where the earnings of young black men are basically taxed at 100 percent to pay for the salaries of largely middle-class, middle-aged white men?”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how Chris Borland has reframed the football debate
The news that budding football star Chris Borland left the NFL on basic health and safety grounds is still reverberating, and not just in the sports world. On Sunday, Borland appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation and said that he will be returning most of his original signing bonus to the 49ers. He also responded to the league office’s reaction to his decision, which was that “the game has never been safer.” Borland said, “I think football is inherently dangerous and that’ll never change so long as we have football. Talking about the culture of safety is really irrelevant.”
He spoke about his passion for the “visceral” violence of the sport but also said, “That doesn’t mean football players are pieces of meat. I think the most important people to convey that message to is the football player himself. You’re not a commodity, you’re a person.”
Borland’s decision to leave the game has had major ramifications. Most critically, he has reframed the debate about tackle football from the one pushed by so many sports-radio time-fillers and right-wing radio jocks: that what we have is a fight between people who love the game and mollycoddled commie femi-nazis who want to bubble-wrap our children and then ban the sport. Borland has moved the discussion toward what the real debate actually is: on one side, there are people who believe that the NFL should be transparent about the health risks that come with the game, especially as they are now running football clinics around the country for children; and on the other side, we have a multibillion-dollar corporation obfuscating the actual dangers, relying instead on PR-meisters like Frank Luntz to come up with sound bites and action-plans to convince the public that all is well, and it is safe for your children to come out and play.
Borland has been able to reframe this debate by rooting his decision in very direct personal terms. This on its own has started a political dialogue about the league without his looking like he is in any way “grandstanding” or looking for the spotlight. He has done this with purpose. In attempting to figure out how he was going to make and then announce this decision, Borland spoke to many both inside and outside the game, but one such conversation is particularly fascinating, especially for those who know their political sports history: Dave Meggyesy. The one-time Cardinals linebacker played in the 1960s and then, like Borland, became part of that tiny group of players who walked away from the sport while still healthy and in demand. Meggyesy left not over health concerns but because he believed that the league’s violence made the country more desensitized to the war in Vietnam, which he vehemently opposed. In 1970 Meggyesy wrote and published the classic sports memoir, Out of Their League and went on to become West Coast director of the National Football League Players’ Association.
I spoke to Meggyesy this week. He told me that they first met after Meggyesy gave a lecture in one of Borland’s history classes at The University of Wisconsin. A group went out to dinner and Meggyesy found him to be “a very sharp, good guy and a person who was really looking at the game: mainly what he would need to succeed in the NFL.”
Before Borland made this decision, Meggyesy and he spoke again. As Meggyesy described it, “We had some e-mail communication back and forth over the past year. Over the phone we’ve talked a couple of times and at one point, he asked me if I knew how to connect him up with the Fainaru brothers, who wrote the book League of Denial that showed how the league has spent decades basically denying that there’s any connection or relationship between head trauma and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a debilitating brain disease). He was, at that point, in the research phase. I also talked to some friends that connected him to some neuroscientists who are researching this and getting a real good picture of what is going on out there. He really did his homework, and when he was done I don’t think he believed he could trust the league to give him the straight skinny on brain injuries. When we talked about a month ago, he told me he had made the decision, and because of these neurological concerns he was going to walk. He of course, asked me to keep it quiet—and I did—and wanted to know what my opinion was. I said I thought it was his decision, but it certainly made a lot of sense. I also said that how you leave the game is very important. I said, ‘If you are able to raise the question of the game’s safety for parents and concerned people, that would be a very important thing to do.’ And my sense of what he’s done, the way he did leave the game, clearly did raise that question. He’s done it with a great deal of integrity, a great deal of intelligence, and that’s why a lot of players have supported him.”
I asked Meggyesy if he believed we should view Borland’s decision as a personal or political statement. “Well, it’s kind of how you define political,” he said. “I think it’s definitely personal, but I think that Chris is a person who has a larger social conscience. So in the sense of it being political, in the sense of moving the larger social consciousness in a positive direction, yes, I think he basically did that. And he’s a kind of guy who thinks in those terms. He gets that it’s not just about him; it’s about what can have a positive impact and move things in a positive direction. I think that really did happen.”
As impressed as Meggyesy was with Chris Borland, he was disgusted beyond words with the response to Borland by the NFL and their immediate pivot toward saying that “the sport has never been safer” as well as their pointing to their own study that states, “Concussions are down 25% over the last three years.”
Meggyesy said, “Oh, you shouldn’t take those statistics seriously at all. Of course, the league is not going to support him in this. Of course they’re going to try to say football’s safe. Well, football’s not safe. They talk about concussions when what we’re really talking about is brain damage. If you play this game, you’re going to walk away damaged. That’s why Chris Borland, who loves this game, who was ready to star this season, left.”
That last point is what gives the NFL ownership night-sweats above all else. Chris Borland had a golden opportunity at football stardom. But he looked at the NFL Dream, then looked at reports on brain injuries, and decided it just wasn’t worth it. He won’t be the last.
[The interview with Dave Meggyesy was edited down strictly for flow.]
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Chris Borland’s early retirement is a conscious act of resistance
At age 24, promising San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland walked away from millions of dollars, unconditional adulation, and a shot at NFL stardom because he chose to value his future over the present. This might be because he knows something about the past. Borland earned a history degree at the University of Wisconsin and, to the shock of the football world, as well as the discomfort of the NFL brass, he chose to apply this knowledge and walk away from the game. If history is the greatest predictor of the future, then the path in front of Borland must have seemed horrifying. A majority of NFL players end up broke and physically damaged. Untold legions suffer from CTE, a brain ailment that affects motor skills, memory and impulse control. Early onset dementia and ALS can result from the kinds of repeated blows to the head that happen on every play of every game. The ignominious history of head injury casualties includes high-profile suicides of Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. It includes Dave Duerson who like Seau put a bullet in his chest instead of his head so his CTE-wracked brain could be studied. It also includes icons of the 1980s like Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett struggling with basic life-functions. History shows that playing NFL-level-football is like playing Russian Roulette with your future, and Chris Borland decided to do what so few have done and put the gun down. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
One can count the number of players in NFL history who have walked away in advance of injury and with their talent still in demand on two hands. They include running back legends Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. They also include linebacker Dave Meggyesy, who left the sport in 1969 as a political act against how he believed the violence of the football conditioned people to accept the war in Vietnam. He then wrote the classic sports memoir Out of Their League. Fittingly, Borland spoke to Meggyesy before his decision. As Meggyesy said to me, “This is a very sharp young man who did not make this decision lightly. He valued his ability to still walk away.”
According to a Sporting News survey, NFL players on social media largely gave Borland a great deal of respect, praising him for the courage of his convictions. Several high-profile NFL broadcasters were far less charitable, taking shots at Borland for making this choice. They sounded disturbingly like Bush, Cheney, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and the whole gang of those who used their advantages to avoid combat in Vietnam only to insist decades later that other people’s families sacrifice loved ones to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. As much as I despise the comparisons of sports and war, it is just too apt in this case; another example of how easy it is to stew in a whirlpool of toxic testosterone when it’s not your body, your mind, or your child at risk.
The worst response to Borland however came from the NFL itself. The easy move would have been for the league to do what the 49ers did, which was to make a classy statement that Borland was a good person, a valued member of the league, and simply wish him the best. Instead, Jeff Miller, the NFL senior VP of health and safety policy, gave a perfunctory slap on the back to Borland and then immediately pivoted to a full-throated defense of the safety of the sport, writing, “By any measure, football has never been safer.… Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”
Unsourced statistics and Frank Luntz massaged PR offensives about “a growing culture of safety” don’t make the game seem safer. They just make the minders of the sport sound like tobacco execs braying about the safety of the new low-tar Virginia Slim with the extra-large filter.
Then there was Steelers team neurologist Joseph Maroon who showed up on the NFL network to claim that playing tackle football was safer than riding a bicycle.
But the most revealing quote came from Packers director of player personnel Elliot Wolf who tweeted, “Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days.”
That, in a nutshell, is the far more serious existential problem the NFL faces. It’s not that there won’t be people “literally begging” to play the game. It’s that college athletes like Chris Borland who don’t come from dire poverty will in greater and greater numbers choose to do something else with their minds and bodies. Many NFL players began their lives in destitute situations defined by hardship, but many others come to the league from stable, middle-class backgrounds as well. That middle-class player, especially those like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick who played multiple sports, will become scarce. Meanwhile, as ticket prices rise, we are facing a sport ready to go “full gladiator” as poor people, disproportionately black, damage one another’s brains for wealthy, disproportionately white crowds. For an NFL that likes to paint itself as synonymous with America and apple pie, this has the potential to just be an awful commercial look. It could become a disturbing revealed truth about where this country is headed. In history class, Chris Borland probably studied Rome. That didn’t end well. But he also surely learned that history could be altered through conscious acts of resistance against the way things ought to be. Mr. Borland gave us such an act this week. His career may by over. But I’d bet a great deal we will hear his name again.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why not even John Oliver can shame the NCAA