Where sports and politics collide.
The awful cliché that tragedy occurs in threes became prophecy over the last week in the world of sports. A trio of towering athletes died, two from age and one decades before his time. These three shared something powerful in common, beyond their field of work. None were ever formally recognized as Hall of Famers for their play, yet all were truly iconic. They were the kinds of players that young sportswriters made pilgrimages to interview; the kind who could either silence a room or cause attendees to spontaneously rise to their feet. They also shared a deeper sociopolitical significance worth remembrance and appreciation. Their names were Earl Lloyd, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and Anthony Mason.
In 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to take the court in the National Basketball Association, making his debut three and a half years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Lloyd played nine seasons with a reputation as a gritty and tireless defender. He endured segregated accommodations and racial barbs from fans, but was undeterred, blazing a trail for a new generation of players that would reshape, reform and recreate the beautiful game. From Bill Russell to LeBron James, the black athlete in the NBA begins with the slings and arrows suffered by Earl Lloyd. As kind a person as I have met in sports, Lloyd was quoted in his New York Times obituary from 1992 saying, “…they’d yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa,’ My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.” Lloyd always took the time to speak about his experiences with a combination of detail and deep humility. His passing at the age of 86 is a tragedy for anyone in basketball who never had the chance to keep his company, even for a cup of coffee.
The Cuban-born Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was another trailblazer, becoming the first black player to ever suit up for a baseball team in the city of Chicago on May 1, 1951. He is perhaps best remembered for playing in five different decades, pinch-hitting in 1980 for the White Sox at the age of 55. But that gives short shrift to a brilliant Hall of Fame–quality playing career as one of the best hitting outfielders of his generation and pioneer of racial integration. As Adrian Burgos argues brilliantly at Sporting News, his rightful place is in the halls of Cooperstown. Beyond statistics, he should be honored for his role as a beacon, inspiring the great wave of Afro-Caribbean talent that first flowered throughout Major League Baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. As Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said to Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune, “Orestes Minoso was the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos; the first star who opened doors for all Latin American players. He was everybody’s hero. I wanted to be Minoso. [Roberto] Clemente wanted to be Minoso.” In a region that has nurtured more baseball talent per capita than anywhere on earth, Minoso broke down the cruelest and most backward of barriers: the one that for decades separated teammates and countrymen from making a joint jump to the Majors because of the different shades of their skin. No one is quite sure how old Minoso was upon his death. Maybe 90. Maybe 92. He always kept that number close to his vest. From Chicago to the Caribbean he will remain immortal.
Then there is Anthony Mason, the barrel-chested NBA point-forward who died from complications from a massive heart attack at age 48. He had a rap sheet and flaws that he wore with a shrug. But by torrents of accounts, he also had a beautiful and giving spirit, provoking people to be overwhelmed with grief upon hearing of his death. The outpouring of affection for “Mase” over the weekend must have been stunning to casual observers, his name trending at the top of Twitter ahead of llamas, dresses, CPAC and other frivolities. This is because an entire generation of established NBA writers became fans in the 1990s and for them Mason was a symbol of their dizzy, irrational young-love. That’s because the 1990s NBA was largely polarized around what you felt about Michael Jordan’s air-borne dynasty in Chicago. If you were not a Jordan guy, you were probably by necessity fiercely attracted to their antithesis, a New York Knicks team that played basketball like it was roller derby played on skates with square-shaped wheels.
In the days before League Pass and the NBA channel, when your pro hoops fandom was somewhat at the mercy of network television, you probably watched an incredible number of 75-72 Knicks victories, eked out with elbows and swagger. As Robert Silverman wrote at the Daily Beast, “That the product on the court was ugly is undeniable. It was a glowering, sweaty scrum masquerading as basketball, but that too seemed to be a New York response to Michael Jordan’s poetry.”
Those Knicks were built around center Patrick Ewing and head-butting shooting guard John Starks. But Anthony Mason was their personification: built like a bouncer with the handle of a guard, and sweet hair-stylings all his own. He was also, like Earl Lloyd and “Minnie” Minoso, his own kind of trailblazer. Mase was the kind of player who’d show up at neighborhood courts, appear in Diamond D videos, and get shout-outs by the Beastie Boys on the album Ill Communications with the line, “I get my hair cut correct like Anthony Mason / Then I ride the IRT right up to Penn Station.” He also makes an appearance smacking down a shot in the Beasties “Root Down video. If the Beastie Boys were a special kind of NYC cool that didn’t transcend race so much as build bridges to connect people across that great divide, then so was Anthony Mason and the city-wide love he inspired.
This is why more than the timing of their deaths binds Earl Lloyd, Minnie Minoso and Anthony Mason. They are all people who reached outside their respective communities while never forgetting the soil that nurtured them. With a combination of a wink and a serious eye, they extended a hand to invite those around them to experience their culture, skill and spirit. Whether it was the segregated United States, the disrespected Caribbean or the demonized NYC Giuliani-era inner city, Earl Lloyd, Minnie Minoso and Anthony Mason broke through and then allowed those of us on the outside to see what we have been missing. Rest in peace. Rest in power. And thank you.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the potential Major League Soccer players’ strike
In just over one week, the Major League Soccer season is supposed to get underway and soccer to continue its ascent up the hierarchy of US sports. But a possible players’ strike in response to illogical, pigheaded and profoundly shortsighted greed on the part of MLS management could take these plans and send them to the showers. Without a collective bargaining agreement—since January—the MLS Players Union wants its demands met or its players will refuse to take the field. Steven Caldwell, a 34-year-old defenseman for Toronto FC who arrived in MLS in 2013 after a career in the English Premier League, said, “We are fully together.… I have never seen a more unified group of players considering the distances we cover and the amount of people our group entails. We are very unified and committed to what we are trying to achieve.”
What is it they are trying to achieve? Why are analysts saying a strike that could threaten the entire season is a distinct possibility?
I spoke with Anto Bianco, co-host of the Sirius XM soccer show Beyond the Pitch. He said, “It really comes down to a single phrase that is taken for granted in American sports: free agency. Each sport, whether it’s MLB, NFL, NBA or the NHL, has some form of free agency, and the sense one gets from MLS players is that they consider this a show stopper in terms of the current collective-bargaining process.”
We have so taken free agency for granted in other sports that there is no memory of what it looks like when a player is robbed of its liberties. In MLS, it means that even after a player’s contract has ended, the club still holds his rights. You are effectively club property. Free agency has certainly, as MLS owners fear, triggered dramatic salary hikes in the other sports leagues. But it has also been a factor in exponentially growing other major sports, adding to fan interest and excitement. Why would MLS owners be against it? As Bianco explains it, their logic makes little sense.
“The owners want to avoid it because they fear a loss of spending controls for a league that is still in a growing phase, but this stance to me opens up a couple of important questions. If the league is going to maintain a salary cap in future CBAs, doesn’t that very mechanism already serve as a counter-balance to those fears? The more significant issue to me arrives from Commissioner Don Garber’s own words. It’s his steadfast aspiration to see MLS become one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. If that is to be the case, I find it hard to believe that in seven years a league can attain that status given the globalized nature of the sport and a resistance to free agency. How do you acquire that talent when clubs in emerging markets in Asia, smaller European leagues and South American teams are already openly bidding for those very players?”
Former MLS Player and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman echoed a portion of this analysis to the New York Post, saying, “This is the Curt Flood moment for this league. This is the conversation that has to be had if they want the league to be where they say they want it by 2022.” In other words, it is necessary for both the financial health of the players and any hopes the league has reach its lofty ambitions.
I also spoke to Grant Wahl, senior editor and longtime soccer scribe for Sports Illustrated. He said, “The league’s opposition to free agency only applies to players. The new general manager for the Seattle Sounders Garth Lagerwey was signed after his contract ended with Real Salt Lake.”
Seattle hired Lagerway on January 6, as the players union was in a negotiations hearing about how free agency was never going to happen. It is hard to see how “free agency for executives but not players” could be interpreted as anything other than a slap in the face.
But if the players are angry, resolute and organizing, there are also potential pitfalls in their path to victory. Wahl referred me to the recent signings of high-profile international talent such Frank Lampard, Kaka and David Villa, saying, “I talked to a team executive who said he expects some of the highly paid foreign players, especially those who arrived this year or last, to want their salaries and want their paychecks. That could be an issue that threatens unity on the players’ side. If you’re a highly paid foreign player who has just came over, you might not have a stake or interest in the long-term security of the rank-and-file American player. So that’s going to be a big test for the union.”
There are also concerns that the war chest of the players is not nearly what it is in the other major sports. As agent and NYU professor Ted Philipakos tweeted, with a chart, it currently hovers around a scant $6 million. As Philipakos wrote, “Unfortunately, a young union means a small strike fund.”
But the biggest concern for those who want to see the players victorious is that there is no sign of a contract campaign: a concerted effort by the MLS Union and players to reach out to both fans as well as other unions, explain their position and seek their solidarity. You go to the MLS Union website and would never know that an earthshaking strike could be imminent. Given the incredible amount of fan interaction in MLS strongholds such as Seattle and Portland, this seems like a terrible mistake. It is easy to imagine the Woody Guthrie–singing fan clubs of the Pacific Northwest, the Emerald City Supporters and Timbers Army, supporting the players with marches, rallies and a creative gusto that would make the MLS bosses itch to make a deal.
I spoke with Jules Boykoff, a Timbers season-ticket holder, former pro soccer player and journalist. He said, “In Portland, the Timbers Army supporters group has a vibrant independent streak. By no means are they mere pawns of the Timbers owners. And there’s a strong social-justice current that flows through Timbers Army as well. Supporting the labor rights of the players they adore is not some far-fetched notion. Such commitment and sophistication chimes with the remarkable tifos they’ve made recently in support of LGBT rights and against homophobia. The support of Timbers Army would send a strong message.”
It certainly would send a strong message. If only the union were asking its players to reach out and organize the fan clubs to speak on their behalf. The MLS Players Union seems to be counting on players’ anger, unity and the unassailable logic of their position to carry the day. We will see if that is enough. This is indeed, as Twellman said, the players’ “Curt Flood moment.” But remember that Curt Flood was drummed out of Major League Baseball, never able to enjoy the fruits of his sacrifice. Today’s players should not have to suffer the same fate.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the police surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Grand Central
I’ll never forget that night in 1993 when “teenage me” was sitting with my girlfriend at the midnight show of a flick written by the guy who did Reservoir Dogs. It was called True Romance. We swallowed whole a film about two adventure junkies on a road trip to Hollywood involving a suitcase full of coke, the Detroit mob, a dreadlocked Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt with a honey-bear bong, and young lovers. One was Ms. Alabama Worley, played by Patricia Arquette, and by the time the film finished, I was good and smitten. Maybe it was the scene where she used a Swiss army knife to take out a hulking sadistic mob hitman played by a young unknown named James Gandolfini. Maybe it was writing “youre so cool” (no apostrophe) on a napkin for her true love, Clarence. Maybe it was the look on her face in the final scene, no makeup, smiling on the beach. Whatever it was, Patricia Arquette immediately became someone whose career I never stopped tracking.
Over the last twenty years that career has included one of the most under-rated comedies ever made, Flirting with Disaster, amidst a series of clearly dwindling opportunities. She was looking like one of the subjects of her sister Rosanna’s searing documentary Searching for Debra Winger, about Hollywood actresses becoming expendable after the criminally young age of 40. That’s what made her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win last night for Boyhood so satisfying. Famously filmed over twelve years, it is really a film about her character as much as it is about her son. The film captures Ms. Arquette aging in real time, her body and face subtly altering like that of a normal human being. Maybe I was projecting, but it felt that the Richard Linklater film, as much as anything else, was about how cruel we are to see the wisdom and character earned through time as some sort of deficit.
It has been a joy to see Patricia Arquette get her due this award season, culminating with her Oscar. I had been playing a drinking game last night where I took a sip every time Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make me laugh so I was nice and toasty by the time her name was called. I have a friend who did some of the makeup for Boyhood, and she told me stories about Ms. Arquette talking to cast and crew about equal pay for women. I knew this was an issue close to her heart and when she spoke about it, I raised my glass, cheered and took a drink.
In other words, as soon as I heard, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America” I whooped and tweeted the following in a state of Arquette euphoria.
Ms. Arquette’s message to every Fox News fetishizing anti-feminist asshole: pic.twitter.com/TpzCnW60dq
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) February 23, 2015
But later that night, when she was asked to expand on her views backstage, the problems began. Ms Arquette said:
Equal means equal. The truth of it is the older an actress gets, the less money she makes. It’s inexcusable that we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and yet…we don’t have equal rights for women in America. It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now. (Emphasis mine.)
Part of me is very hesitant to attack an actor I deeply respect for having the courage to say anything about the important issue of equal pay for women, and to judge her views on the basis of what surely must have been an adrenaline-spiked high backstage at an awards show. I’m also hesitant as a man to say something when a woman—or anyone—actually has the courage to even raise these issues on such a profoundly elevated public space. But something really does need to be said about this. To quote Prof. Brittany Cooper’s Twitter feed, it is wrong to expect “Black feminists to do [the] labor” of breaking down exactly what is so problematic about Ms. Arquette’s message. Ms. Arquette’s words will be quoted extensively and applauded with the gusto shared by Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, so they demand a great many responses from a great many angles. Here is mine.
What is so aggravating is that Ms. Arquette’s comments could best be described as “anti-intersectional.” When you speak of equal pay for women and call upon “all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now” it states pretty clearly that you see your struggle as one of straight, white, native-born women for equal pay, as if there aren’t masses of people who live beneath the weight of multiple labels that would benefit from such reforms. It would have been so easy for Ms. Arquette to say something like, “If we had laws in this country ensuring equal pay for women, it would mean equal pay for all women of color and all of our LGBT sisters.” But she chose instead a “we fought for you now you fight for us” approach to fighting oppression.
Unfortunately this is not only cringe-inducing, but it’s also historically negligent. Saying “we fought for you, now you fight for us” implies that battles against racism, anti-LGBT bigotry and other forms of oppression owe a massive debt to the heroism of straight white, middle- and upper-class women. In the context of a year that has seen the #BlackLivesMatter movement expand consciousness about the realities of police violence, a criminally underreported spike in trans murders and the searing pain of the Chapel Hill killings, such a statement could not sound more tin-eared.
It also blatantly ignores—instead of owning—the ways in which white-led middle-class feminist movements have in many instances historically ignored or even opposed the movements of workers, people of color and other oppressed groups. There are so many scholars and activists trying to actually own this history and change the ways in which people interact and organize in the future. It was difficult not to feel the pain of every person carefully trying to build those fragile alliances, only to have Ms. Arquette remind many precisely why those alliances need to be constructed in the first place.
This is a moment when the need for people to come together, fight with and for each other and most critically listen to one another, has never been more vital. No one is going to come together if they feel that they are not being heard. We should hear Patricia Arquette’s righteous and urgent call for fair pay. We should hope Patricia Arquette hears why that message will need a rewrite if she wants the support such a movement will demand.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the police surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Grand Central
When Metro Transit Authority police officers were looking for a surveillance spot to film #BlackLivesMatter protesters in Grand Central Terminal, they chose a particularly juicy location: the balcony level overlook provided by the high-end restaurant chain known as Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. Oh me, oh my, where to begin…
This past season in the NBA has seen an unprecedented level of political expression by players, prodded and provoked to speak out and align themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police violence. The reason players from LeBron and Derrick Rose to David West and Nik Stauskas went public with their solidarity was because a mass in the streets—and on social media—was both loud and powerful enough to enter their rarified air.
Michael Jordan, the greatest NBA player to ever breathe and current owner of the Charlotte Hornets, decided, unsurprisingly, to not be a part of this. Jordan has long been a symbol of the apolitical star athlete more concerned about his branding and commercial appeal than social statements. In the wake of the on-court protests, many observers have noted that the Jordan Way was starting to appear to be as passé as butt-hugging shorts, with this generation of social media–savvy, socially aware jocks creating a new template. That’s why the use of a restaurant that bears the Jordan name to monitor protesters is more than a bad look. It projects the idea that His Airness is not only disinterested when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter, he’s actually on the other side. One e-mail I received about this, from the group Shut It Down NYC, reads in part, “With the light cast on Michael Jordan’s implicit support of state intimidation of Black Lives Matter protesters, we hope that he will stop his cooperation. Otherwise we will just stop buying his products.”
There is also a change.org petition up asking Jordan to “stop cooperating with surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters.”
Is this a fair assessment of the situation, or more a case of “If the Jordan Dub Zero fits”? My Nation colleague James Kelly and I have been trying… and trying to find out whether the use by police of the Grand Central restaurant that bears his name was something that would require Jordan’s approval. In other words, how complicit is Jordan in this process? What we learned is in many ways almost as disturbing than the notion that Michael Jordan wants his steakhouses to be a strategic masthead against the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Let’s start with Grand Central Station itself. I grew up in New York City and always assumed it was public, City-owned space. It is actually owned by a private real estate concern called Argent Ventures. The MTA pays in excess of $2 million annually to run trains through the facility. As for the Michael Jordan Steakhouse, it operates as a high-end franchise, with the one on the north balcony of Grand Central owned by the Glazier Group, namely Penny and Peter Glazier. According to The New York Times, the financial arrangement between Michael Jordan and the Glaziers is not for public consumption.
We spoke to Penny Glazier about whether police need any kind of permission from a private restaurant to conduct this kind of surveillance. Ms. Glazier said, “The building is owned by New York State. We’re just tenants and we have to abide by their rules.” As mentioned earlier, this is not the case, as “the building” is owned by Argent Ventures. We also received a callback from their son Matthew Glazier, who described himself as the “general counsel” for the group. He told James Kelly, “We don’t comment on that type of stuff…. ask the MTA, it’s public knowledge.” He also said, “If the MTA comes in and says anything, we’re going to respect what they say.”
Matthew Glazier also did not confirm what was widely witnessed, that the MTA was in his restaurant on February 9, but maintained, “If they say they’re coming in, they’re coming in.”
What is bizarre is that we spoke to an MTA officer who also said that Grand Central Station is owned by the City. He told us that permits are required for approval by station managers to conduct surveillance. In addition, here is video from February 9 of an independent Internet reporter trying to ask an MTA officer why demonstrators are being filmed and getting this response: “You don’t have a right to know anything.” (This statement is a little different from Glazier’s assumption that “it’s public knowledge.” Maybe “You Don’t Have A Right To Know Anything” should just be emblazoned on police cars, the new “To Protect and Serve.”)
I don’t believe that Michael Jordan, the human being, gave any kind of OK to the MTA or the NYPD to use the steakhouse that bears his name for surveillance purposes. I don’t even think the Glaziers gave any kind of explicit permission to the police, because it is highly doubtful that they were asked. The police in the New York City of 2015 go where they want to go. But I do know that Michael Jordan should care about what happens under his name. If Jordan put out a statement that he does not want police using his restaurants as surveillance hotspots for Black Lives Matter protests, I bet they would be looking for a new location mighty quick. It is not just that it’s a “bad look.” To allow the Michael Jordan Steakhouse to be Surveillance HQ is a slap in the face to every NBA player that risked their brand appeal, commercial viability and incurring the wrath of their fans by standing with this movement. Jordan was never the best of teammates. But perhaps as an owner he should care whether the new generation of players wonders whether he believes that their lives matter.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the significance of NBA star Steph Curry’s dedication to a victim of the Chapel Hill murders
— Golden St. Warriors (@warriors) February 15, 2015
“I’m going to send them the shoes I wore yesterday. And hopefully they know that I’ve been thinking about them.” —Steph Curry
It can seem like such a small thing, but in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry made the most important statement of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. As the smooth-shooting Curry proceeded to win Saturday’s heavily branded, hyper-commercialized Three-Point Contest in dynamic fashion, he chose to do so while having #CurryFORDEAH and #RIPDEAH written on his shoes. Both were in reference to Deah Barakat, the young dental student murdered along with his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. All three were beautiful people who took part in numerous community charities and activities. Deah was someone who traveled to the Middle East to do free dental work for 200 Palestinian refugee children in 2013. He was also a hoops fanatic, who would wear jerseys with Curry’s number 30 on them and described himself on social media as an “aspiring Splash Brother,” a reference to Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson.
For Curry to even know that there was this extraordinary person who admired his play and lost his life happened because of the efforts of those trying to make sure that Deah, Yusor and Razan are not forgotten. The killings, which one can believe was either an anti-Islamic hate crime or “a parking dispute,” have sparked widespread mourning and outrage. Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s All In, said, “It feels to me, as someone observing this admittedly from the outside, like a galvanizing moment for Muslim Americans—a Trayvon Martin moment, a Michael Brown moment—for Muslim America.” Their funeral drew thousands. Demonstrations against anti-Islamic bigotry have taken place in several US cities. Vigils have been organized as well, one of which I attended in DC, where freezing evening weather did not stop hundreds from gathering. Their killings also sparked the much debated but very effective Twitter hashtag #muslimlivesmatter, which played a critical role in pushing the story from being largely unreported in the mainstream media to the subject of widespread discussion. All of this—the demonstrations, the hashtags, the vigils—has been an effort to fight the invisibility of actual real life Arabs and Muslims in the United States, beyond scapegoating and beyond the Fox News/Bill Maher caricatures.
And then there is Steph Curry, a leading candidate for NBA MVP as well as a leading candidate to be the new face of the league, saying after the Three-Point Shootout, “Once I got to know who Deah was as a person and the stories that everybody was telling about him, it only seemed right to honor him and his family and let them know people were thinking about them, they’re not alone and hopefully to give them some kind of peace and comfort. He was a special guy. I just did my little part to shed that light toward him.”
This matters. I spoke to Ramah Kudaimi who has been active organizing remembrances in DC. She is also a serious sports fan. Ramah said to me, "In the past few days the media has gone from ignoring the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan to trying to pass it off as a parking dispute issue in an attempt to not discuss anti-Muslim bigotry in this country due in part to US policies like the war on terror. Steph bringing attention to these three wonderful people and their families sends a message that everyone should know what happened and their story needs to be told. It was a beautiful gesture and hopefully will bring some solace to their families knowing people do care about the lives of their children.”
Deah’s family has said that the 23-year-old loved “basketball and anything Stephen Curry.” For one night, basketball and Steph Curry loved him back. As Curry said, “Even though we never met, I think it will hopefully mean a lot to his family and friends that knew what kind of a basketball fan he was to have some kind of peace knowing that people are thinking about him and they’re not alone.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the real scandal surrounding Jackie Robinson West
The fact that United States Little League baseball champs Jackie Robinson West have been stripped of their 2014 title, for using “players who live outside the geographic area that the team represents” is a slap in the face to everyone trying to keep baseball, a sense of community and even public education alive in the cities of the United States. This would read like scabrous satire from the pen of a writer whose DNA was part Runyon and part Baldwin if not for the fact that there are very real children being victimized by this decision in the city of Chicago.
But before we dissect just what exactly is so pugnaciously ignorant about the actions of Little League Inc., a brief request for sportscasters like ESPN’s Karl Ravech to refrain from further comment. This morning, Ravech tweeted, “Beyond unfortunate that few in JRW Little League deemed winning at all costs outweighed fair play. Kids caught in middle of childish adults.”
ESPN both through game broadcasts and breathless SportsCenter coverage of the Little League World Series has made the conscious choice to be a cog in the professionalization of youth sports. They are obviously not alone in this, but anyone who monetizes the amateur experiences of children and then gets moralistic about those breaking the rules needs at bare minimum to choose silence as this story unfolds. These are kids, and the intensity that surrounds this story is partially a function of ESPN’s choice to cover Jackie Robinson West like they were the 1998 Yankees. It would be a better look for Ravech and company to either not comment or own their complicity.
As for the decision itself, ironies abound. Jackie Robinson West was the first entirely black team to represent the United States in the Little League World Series. And yes, waiting until Black History Month to strip JRW of their title is at best tin-eared. But that insult shouldn’t blind us to the greater injury. Recall their damnable offense: Jackie Robinson West didn’t use 16-year-old ringers or cork their bats. They had players suit up who lived “beyond their geographical boundary.” The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids. A plurality of Major Leaguers is made up of people from either the US suburbs or the baseball factories of the Dominican Republic. Many of the few African-American players on Major League rosters actually come from the suburbs. This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate. That’s what made JRW such a profound anomaly. In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.
I reached out to Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey who said to me, “Mayor Rahm closed half a dozen schools in Jackie Robinson West’s part of the city, and tried to close the school, Marcus Garvey, where the founder of JRW—Joe Haley—worked. Then Chicago Public Schools cut funding for high school freshman sports, laid off a thousand teachers. CPS put forty kids in physical education classes and doesn’t even put a librarian in most of the school libraries in [the South Side district of] Auburn Gresham.”
As for the Little League seizing JRW’s championship, Sharkey said he stands with the statement of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who said, in part:
To strip Jackie Robinson West of its title nearly six months after securing the win tarnishes the efforts of our children who have dodged bullets, school closings and reductions in their school athletic programs in order to compete and win on the playing field…. I remain proud of our students securing their place in history as the first all-African-American Little League team to win the coveted Little League national championship. It is not lost on my community that they are named for a sports and civil rights icon that also had to break down barriers of racial hatred, segregation and the 1 percent’s total disregard for his right to exist as a human being. Jackie Robinson West should retain its title, be issued an apology, and every player should receive full-ride scholarships for college sponsored by the people who have humiliated these boys, their families and their community.
Jackie Robinson himself once commented, “I won’t ‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.” Little League Inc. is attempting to separate the children in Jackie Robinson West not only from their title but from their dignity. It is beneath contempt. It is also beyond their power. At a press conference held Wednesday, JRW player Brandon Green said, “We weren’t involved in anything that could have caused us to be stripped of our championship, But we do know that we’re champions, our parents know that we’re champions, and the team’s parents know that we’re champions, and Chicago knows we’re champions.” Damn right.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the return of Serena Williams to the Indian Wells Tournament
Dean Smith, perhaps the most visible white anti-racist of the last half-century, died on Sunday at the age of 83. He also of course coached a little bit of basketball. In legendary fashion, Coach Smith led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for thirty-six seasons, and retired with the most wins in college hoops history. His players spanned multiple eras, from Billy Cunningham to Michael Jordan to James Worthy to Vince Carter. They also all swore by him, loyal to the last. Jordan, by consensus the greatest player of all time, said in a statement released on his passing, “He was more than a coach—he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”
When Coach Smith is remembered this week, we will see tributes to both his basketball acumen as well as his words and deeds against the Jim Crow laws that plagued North Carolina at the start of his career. This included his recruitment of Charlie Scott, the first black player to suit up for Tar Heels. Coach Smith endured threats to his job as well as his life and was undeterred.
But these are in many respects easy and palatable things to celebrate. After all, even Rand Paul realizes that opposing the Civil Rights Act is political suicide. It is worth remembering however, the parts of Dean Smith’s politics that were daring then and remain controversial today. As Jay Bilas—A Duke grad—said on ESPN, “Dean knew what was right and stood up for what was right no matter what the cost was professionally or personally.”
There is no issue where this rings truer than that of the death penalty. Current approval of the death penalty in the US is at its lowest level in forty years, but is still favored by 63 percent of the population. Dean Smith opposed capital punishment publicly his entire life, even when support for it nationally was over 80 percent and even in a state where the death penalty was a matter of bipartisan consensus. Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition to capital punishment, but he had to go beyond the realm of the religious to explain his opposition in North Carolina, where pro–death row politicians have never been shy about using the Bible as justification for the noose. Therefore, Dean Smith also spoke about the racism that infests death row cases. He spoke about his fears that the innocent could be killed. He spoke about the system of capital punishment being, in his words, “barbaric.” As he once said, “If it’s a deterrent, as some people say, why don’t they hold the execution in a shopping mall so everyone can attend?”
He also never hesitated speaking truth to power. This was never clearer than in 2003 when Coach Smith was part of a delegation visiting North Carolina’s governor Jim Hunt, pleading for the life of a mentally ill death row prisoner named John Noland. Smith had met Noland on one of his trips to “the row.” As reported by Bonnie DeSimone of the Chicago Tribune, Smith erupted at Hunt, saying, “You’re a murderer!” He then stuck out his finger at Hunt’s apparatchiks saying, “And you’re a murderer—and I’m a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers.”
Remarkably, this received very little publicity at the time, and one can’t help but wonder how social media would have dissected this man. Coach Smith did not only oppose the death penalty. He stood up to the war in Vietnam, opposed nuclear weapon proliferation and supported LGBT rights. Perhaps most controversially, he did not merely do this on his own time but engaged his players in dialogue and debate. He even took them to North Carolina’s death row and the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana to actually interact with prisoners. He had a moral calling to leverage his legend to make change. It’s long been rumored that Dean Smith advised Michael Jordan and his family to not seek the death penalty against the two men who murdered Jordan’s father in 1993. Smith denied this, but the Jordan family did not in fact seek lethal injection for the killers and the currency of the story speaks volumes.
I contacted Reverend William Barber II, organizer of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina to ask about what it meant to have Dean Smith as a recognized abolitionist. He said,
“Dean Smith was clear in his opposition to the death penalty. He knew death did not solve death and that the sentencing was racially biased. He knew that like a fixed game the results were unfair. Right now in North Carolina, we have had over seven individuals, mostly black, in recent years exonerated from death row declared wrongfully charged and convicted who would have been executed. This is more than any other state in the country. Based on this reality we can surmise that through the death penalty and the faults of racial and class bias we have probably killed innocent black and poor white persons in our state. We should have and still need to listen to Coach Smith’s vocal opposition and abandon the death penalty.”
His legacy of fighting for the school’s African American Studies department and caring about the exploitation of college athletes also stands in sharp contrast to the current state of the Tar Heels basketball program. As UNC Professor Altha Cravey, a member of the school’s Progressive Faculty Network said to me, “Dean Smith taught courage, fairness and leadership. As I learn more about the way he lived his life—confronting white supremacy, opposing imperialist war— understand more what we have lost. It is ironic to note that the university’s so-called leaders—the ones celebrating his life today—have been engaged in five years of stonewalling, whitewashing and cover-up about misdeeds in UNC’s basketball program, the very program in which Dean Smith demonstrated that doing the right thing is always more important than winning or looking good.”
The state of UNC basketball and its grade-fixing scandals are, of course, not just a UNC problem but reflect the far deeper rot in the NCAA’s system of for-profit amateurism. It is difficult to think about Dean Smith and not feel like today’s mercenary, multi-millionaire coaches suffer dramatically in comparison. There was only one Dean Smith, but it would be the best possible tribute to his memory if more coaches—and more people—made the effort to emulate his character.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the return of Serena Williams to the Indian Wells Tournament
“Serena and her big sister Venus brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a white background.’… Serena and Venus win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been booed and cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.”—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Tennis icon Serena Williams and her older sister Venus have spent their careers not only surviving but thriving in a hostile space: a white background that often threatened to swallow them whole. As Serena’s individual legend flourished, so did her antagonists in the aristocratic, imperious world of professional tennis. Biased judges, grotesque mockeries and other indignities (“crip walk”?) pock her career. While accumulating scars and enduring the burden imposed by the “white background,” the girl known for years as “Venus’s little sister” has also— remarkably—made herself into perhaps the greatest player to ever pick up a racket. The numbers speak for themselves: nineteen Grand Slam wins, fifty-six singles titles, along with twenty-two doubles championships, and all done with wicked flair in dazzling technicolor.
Now Serena Williams, for all she has accomplished, is attempting to enter a club even more restricted than those that host certain events on the WTA tour. It is reserved for the few defined by history as being “more than just an athlete.” Ms. Williams has announced both in a video message and the pages of Time magazine that she will be returning to play at the Indian Wells Tournament after a fourteen-year absence. Serena and Venus have famously boycotted Indian Wells since 2001 when “racist slurs” and “false allegations” of match fixing were levied against the Williams family. As she recounted in Time, their father, Richard, had “dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.”
Serena Williams’ has decided, after years of apologies and invitations from the new directors at Indian Wells, to “forgive freely,” “follow [her] heart” and return to place she describes as “nightmare,” a place where at the age of 19 she spent “hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001…feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever—not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality.”
In an effort to grasp the momentousness of all of this, I asked Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson for his thoughts. He said:
“Serena’s decision to return to Indian Wells suggests the majestic arc of forgiveness in black life that has helped to redeem America. Without such forgiveness, America may have well flowed in the blood of recrimination and revenge. Instead black folk have consistently proved to be moral pillars of American conscience, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sybrina Fulton, black athletes in particular have carried the water of grievance for black life, sometimes against their wills, and have represented the heartbeat of black resistance to racism. Serena’s—and her family’s—painful experiences at Indian Wells was a low moment in American sports history. She was right to remain visibly absent. She let her lack of presence do the speaking—a protest of strategic absence. Her decision to return is equally effective. She has decided that Indian Wells will no longer be an individual sore spot, and therefore no longer a collective one for her or her fans or the black Americans who love and support her. As the most dominant athlete of her generation, Serena carries huge symbolic capital. This gesture of principled forgiveness once again proves that black athletes at their best have been thermostats who changed the temperature of society rather than thermometers that merely recorded the temperature.”
What is particularly stunning about this return to Indian Wells is that Williams is not only writing a narrative of her own racial reconciliation but also linking it to a broader anti-racist struggle that touches millions of lives. She has announced that fans could enter a raffle for ten dollars, the winner getting to “stand with me at Indian Wells.” All raffle proceeds are going to the Equal Justice Initiative, which fights racism and class bias in the jails and courts by providing legal representation to those lost in the catacombs of the Prison Industrial Complex. This is an organization dedicated to ending our system of deeply racialized mass incarceration, and Serena Williams is leveraging the “white background,” that corporatized, country club world of pro tennis, to assist them in their fight.
I contacted Andrew Jones, a reporter at The Intercept and a freelance sportswriter who perhaps knows more about tennis than anyone under 30 in the United States. He e-mailed me about the joyous “shock” he felt upon learning that Serena was using this moment to promote the work of EJI. “No one expected her to do that,” he wrote. “No one. It was quite the rare sight seeing a notable figure, celebrity or celebrity athlete, highlight a criminal justice organization. That was so unexpected and it added even more awesomeness to her returning to Indian Wells. Her going back to the tournament was one thing. But her support for a criminal justice law firm located in the Deep Southern town of Montgomery, with its racist past and systematic racist present, was staggeringly tremendous.”
He is absolutely right. Sportswriter Jessica Luther put it this way: “Serena is literally using her return to the most racist incident in her career to raise money for an organization that actively works to dismantle the systemic racism that plagues the criminal justice system. Serena is inspiring. She’s inspiring on the court, no doubt. But she and her sister have inspired me for many, many years now. This is a good example of why.”
Jon Wertheim, editor and senior writer for Sports Illustrated said to me that he believes, “as trite as it sounds, it’s a proud day for tennis. All credit to Serena for having the strength to take a principled stand for all these years; and then the intellectual and emotional flexibility to soften and reverse that stance. I credit the tournament, too, for reaching out repeatedly and making it clear that—while respectful of Serena’s decision throughout the years—she would be welcomed back. I can’t imagine she receiving anything other than a warm reception next month.”
Wertheim is certainly correct that the people at Indian Wells, not to mention the Women’s Tennis Association, will breathe a sigh of relief over her return. At this point in her career, the WTA needs Serena Williams more than Serena Williams needs the WTA. As she wrote, “I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”
The background to Serena Williams is still sharply white. But she is showcasing a power to sculpt that background into an alabaster marble platform. She is changing tennis, choosing to rewrite its future instead of being victimized by its past. Nineteen career Grand Slam wins, fifty-six singles championships, twenty-two doubles championships. And utterly fearless.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the conspiracy theory surrounding the Super Bowl Bowl’s final moments
I reported earlier this week that right after the Super Bowl, in a Seahawks locker room clearly in a state of profound distress, some were talking conspiracy. People connected to the team, shocked at the play call that led to an interception from the Patriots one-yard line with the game in their grasp, were saying that the reason why bruising running back Marshawn Lynch was not given the ball was because the coaching staff wanted the hero to be quarterback Russell Wilson. The NFL Network’s Mike Silver also reported that this was being articulated inside the locker room. Whether true or ridiculous, it was a belief rooted in the divisions in the Seahawks locker room that Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported on earlier this season, when the team was on the brink of imploding. After a couple days to cool down, I was in touch with my contact and asked him if he still believed that factors other than “What is the best football play for this moment?” played into coach Pete Carroll’s decision. All he said was, “I don’t even know if I believe that anymore. I don’t know what to believe. I just can’t believe it ended like that.”
After I reported on this earlier in the week and speculated upon exactly why these particular conspiratorial thoughts might find purchase in a shell-shocked locker room, I was on the receiving end of a great deal of social media ugliness. The hate rolled in from a combination of right-wingers egged on by the often disturbing fringe website The Daily Caller and sexual harasser -turned presidential candidate turned radio host Herman Cain. It has also come from New England Patriots fans who believed that I was somehow denigrating their moment of triumph.
Let’s forget about the hard-right faithful for the purposes of this article, because I don’t believe honestly that they actually read the piece. Their critique centered on the fact that I had conjured up some kind of racialized conspiracy theory, as opposed to actually reporting something that was being said in the locker room. They can have their strawman on their own time. (And at the risk of stating the obvious, I sure as hell have it worlds easier in this country than their usual targets).
But I actually do want to address Patriots Nation quite directly on this. Any Boston sports fan who remembers the 1980s has no excuse for thinking that a manager or coach would never choose sentiment over strategy or wouldn’t jeopardize a victory in the name of having a favored player get the glory over the person better suited to do the job.
The moment I’m referencing—the one that Bill Simmons called the greatest gut punch in the history of sports—was of course game six of the 1986 World Series when New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson hit the grounder that dribbled through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs.
Bill Buckner was a great player, a multiple All-Star whose twenty-year career ended with over 2,700 hits. In 1984 after a long stretch with the Chicago Cubs, he joined the Red Sox and quickly became the heart of that team. He was also playing on ankles that were being held together with balsa wood and duct tape. All season, Red Sox manager John McNamara brought in young Dave Stapleton as a late-inning defensive replacement for Buckner in tight games. But in game six, with the Red Sox up two runs in the tenth inning and the Mets seemingly without hope, Buckner was in the game. John McNamara got sentimental wanting his favored vet out there for the final out, and it cost the Red Sox the game and perhaps the World Series.
These kinds of decisions happen all the damn time in sports, but we rarely hear about them because it usually doesn’t end in catastrophe. More often, it’s more like Bears Coach Mike Ditka in Super Bowl XX ordering William Perry instead of the great Walter Payton to get a one-yard touchdown because of his personal preference. Examples abound of players on the field or the court when they shouldn’t be because the coach wants them to have their moment. Anybody who has played sports in high school or college—myself included—got playing time their senior year that they otherwise would not have received for the simple reason that, well, that we were seniors. Do we think that Pete Carroll, with the ball on the one-yard line, was immune to conscious or subconscious thoughts about who would get the team’s crowning moment? I don’t know. But I certainly do understand why some players and the Seahawks locker room were feeling that at their lowest moment.
What we do know is that Pete Carroll simply overthought the moment. He put Russell Wilson in a position to throw the first interception from the opposing teams one-yard line in the entire NFL season. It’s inexcusable, and he’ll have to carry that for the rest of his coaching career. But a great measure of credit should also go to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick for making what seemed to be the unpardonable decision not to call a time-out and save time for his star quarterback, Tom Brady, if the Seahawks scored. Belichick instead chose to let the clock run and to turn up the heat on Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson’s mental synapses. Guess what? It worked. It’s a reminder that players and coaches are not computers. There are sweaty palms, shivering minds and sentimental human error involved when the moment gets tight. And frankly, if there wasn’t, we wouldn’t watch. That’s what makes sports awesome, and that’s what can make them also at times so silly and so devastating. Just ask John McNamara and Bill Buckner. In the end, Pete Carroll overthought the moment. What those thoughts actually were will remain in the realm of speculation.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why it’s time for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to resign
Don't you hate it when a self-righteous pundit gets in front of a camera and says to someone in power, "Sir or Madam, if you have any decency, you would resign?"
Well, allow me to join their ranks. The person in power I'm addressing—the person I am asking to break out the want-ads and find new work, is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Dear Mr. Goodell:
It's me .... Dave.
After the scandal-plagued year that the league just suffered through, when everyone from Bob Costas to the folks in Vegas assumed you'd be fired, it would be better for all of us, if you just resign.
No amount of spin, no number of media sycophants rushing to your defense, no series of public service announcements featuring NFL players saying “NO MORE,” can hide a very simple fact: 55 times since you became commissioner in 2006, a player in "your" league was arrested for domestic violence, and 55 times you did next to nothing. If not for a certain leaked videotape, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice would have been number 56.
When you wipe away the lawyer-speak about whether you saw the tape or didn't see the tape or didn't not see the tape—the fact remains that you are now connected to dozens of cases where a woman or child was beaten by one of your employees. Not only have I seen you do next to nothing to curb this problem, you also have chosen to "say" next to nothing about the probable links between head injuries, the violence on the field, and the violence that can visit the families of NFL players.
Yes, the overwhelming number of players do not take part in violence against women and yes domestic violence exists in many families where head injuries are not an issue. But the connection is still real and the league has done nothing—zero—that I can find to educate NFL families on looking for the warning signs.
Yet you continue to praise your league—and really yourself—for making domestic violence "part of the national conversation." This is outrageous. Kind of like praising Goldman Sachs for making corporate greed part of the national conversation.
Maybe that's why Miko Grimes, the wife of Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, basically broke twitter last week with a too profane for tv rant against your league. Well I am going to read some of her tweets anyway.
Ms Grimes said, "The NFL is the BLEEPIEST, SHADIEST, DISRESPECTFUL professional sport in the WORLD and as long as i breathe air, I will talk bleep about em! You have these BULLBLEEP ass NOMORE campaigns going on about domestic violence and sexual assault when we all know u don’t GAF about women! I have friends that were beaten, thrown down stairs WHILE PREGNANT, guys arrested, & the NFL suspended them ONE BLEEPING GAME! Now yall care? Ray Rice clocked his now wife on camera. Then all of a sudden NOMORE? GET THE BLEEP OUTTA HERE NFL!!!! I’m not being quiet about this bullbleep NOMORE!!"
Miko Grimes is right – and clear. No one should be quiet about this.
If nothing else this last year, we have all learned that the continued profitability of the league means that NFL owners will protect and defend you no matter the moral cost. BE better than your employers, Mr. Goodell. Show the country that despite all popular opinion to the contrary, there is such a thing as shame in this world.
SAY that the league needs to get serious in how it discusses domestic violence and head injuries; that the league needs to work in partnership with the Players' Association to figure out a new approach rooted in educating current players and caring for those who have retired … Make clear that your resignation is a precondition for making this new partnership a reality.
And MOST OF ALL be honest in your resignation speech that when it comes to issues of violence against women and head injuries you have been profoundly ignorant. Be honest that your now damning quote when punishing the New Orleans Saints that "ignorance is no excuse," should apply to you as well… and then go out and find a new job. I would recommend seeking work at the Walter Reed hospital ward that deals with traumatic brain injuries. If the tragedy of your tenure as commissioner has been ignorance, I guarantee that will clear it up mighty quick."
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the conspiracy theory surrounding the Seahawks’ last play