Where sports and politics collide.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paolo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasilia, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracana Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.
Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.… The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30 billion is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.
Dave Zirin urges baseball to rethink its approach to steroids.
Fans of Besiktas (Black-White), Galatasaray (Yellow-Red) and Fenerbahce (Yellow-Blue) wave Turkish flags during an anti-government protest in Istanbul on June 2, 2013. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)
Mark Twain’s maxim that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is echoing in the streets of Istanbul. The echo is heard in everything that makes Turkey resemble a sequel to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled assumed President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak. I’m not only referring to the fact that it marks another internal revolt against an iron-booted US ally. I’m not only referring to the repeat of the social equation that neoliberal shock economics plus police repression will equal upheaval. I’m talking about soccer. More specifically, the role that organized soccer fans are playing by the thousands.
Turkey and Egypt are of course two very different countries with different leaders, different political systems and different histories. But the revolt of the highly intense, usually apolitical “ultra” soccer-fan clubs must be noted. As in Egypt, for years the ultra soccer clubs have been places in Turkey where young, alienated men could express aggression without fear of serious retribution from the state. They were places a young man could release steam, get in a brawl with other fan organizations or the police and receive at worst a beating. In contrast, attending a political demonstration—or writing an article about the political demonstration—could land you in prison. For the state, ultra clubs have been seen as ways to channel anger in a direction that doesn’t threaten their power. After the last two years, they may need to revise their playbook on how to manufacture consent.
There are differences between the ultra revolts in Egypt and Turkey. Unlike in Egypt, the Turkish soccer fan clubs have historically been a magnet for people wanting a more liberalized, secular rule of law. Perhaps because they share this connective tissue, there is another critical difference: unlike in Egypt, the Turkish ultra clubs have all united in very rapid order. This isn’t Tahrir, where for days rival ultra clubs would organize on opposite sides of the square, until their hatred was worn down by the necessity of standing together against the police. In Turkey, from the start, the ultra clubs hailing from the city’s most pugnaciously oppositional clubs—Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce—marched arm-in-arm under the slogan “Istanbul United.”
For the people occupying in Taksim, their entry was not only welcome, it was desperately needed. Bagis Erten, a reporter for Eurosport Turkey, was quoted by Middle Eastern soccer blogger James M. Dorsey as saying, “It was a critical moment. Supporters of all the big teams united for the first time against police violence. They were more experienced than the protesters, they fight them regularly. Their entry raised the protesters’ morale and they played a leading role.”
This development must be giving Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan night sweats. The ultras normally interact only when they’re trading chants, curses or blows. Instead, they arrived looking more like mass-street-combat organizations than anything that could be described antiseptically as “fans.” They set up barricades, threw back tear gas canisters and protected the core of protesters from violence. As one 18-year-old ultra said, “We are normally enemies, but this has really brought us together. It’s never happened before.”
The fan group known as Çarşi has reportedly led this uniting of the ultras. Çarşi is also the ultra group most associated with the political left. Just so there is no doubt about where they stand, the "a" in Çarşi is the anarchism is the anarchism symbol and their slogan is “Çarşi is against everything!” Tensions were already extremely high between Çarşi and the security police when a post-match march, after their team Beşiktaş J.K. was victorious, strayed too close to Erdogan party headquarters, resulting in more gassing and violence than the typical ultra/police skirmish.
To be clear, ultras across the globe reflect at best a very mixed consciousness. Although some are explicitly left-wing, others explicitly fascist and most proudly apolitical, they all carry features of hyper-masculine fight-clubs. That can be heard in Taksim in the chants they raise at the state police, like, “You can use you tear gas bombs, you can use your tear gas bombs/ Have courage if you are a real man/ Take off your helmet and drop your batons/ Then we’ll see who the real man is.”
The difference, of course, is that they are directing their rage at the police in the name of basic democracy. The difference is that instead of representing merely their team, they are “Istanbul United." Like the ultras in Egypt, their very existence should be pushing sports writers, academics and sociologists to rethink the very stale conventional wisdom about sports fandom: that its most prominent feature is that it’s devoid of all politics and actually serves to steer people away from struggle. In the case of the Turkish ultras, they are citizens with the same concerns as anyone else. The difference is they bring mass organization and the art of street combat to this dynamic stage in Turkey’s history.
Sports fans—again—playing a leading role in a mass social uprising? Welcome to the twenty-first century, where the revolution is not only televised: it takes place in between games.
Alex Rodriguez. (Reuters)
If you want to know what’s wrong with Major League Baseball, look no further than today’s top headlines. In what has been described as “the largest [Performance Enhancing Drug scandal] in American sports history,” at least twenty Major League Baseball players now face significant suspensions for PED use. Included in the guilty-until-proven-innocent public parade are Yankee albatross Alex Rodriguez and the man Buster Olney is calling “the Lance Armstrong of baseball,” Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun. (The latter is in reference to Braun’s Shermanesque denials over the last two years that he ever imbibed in pharmaceutical help, not his ability to master the Pyrenees.)
MLB has leaked the names of the accused because it have confidence in its source. His name is Anthony “Tony” Bosch and he is the former director of Biogenesis, a now shuttered South Florida “anti-aging clinic.” Tony Bosch is not a doctor nor does he play one on TV. He did, however, have a roster of “patients” whom he allegedly supplied with all manner of banned substances. MLB was in the process of suing Biogensis when the near-bankrupt Bosch, unable to afford a proper legal defense, chose to turn over every scrawled receipt, hand-written ledger and appointment book to MLB officials. In return, they have reportedly pledged to stop their civil suit and use their political clout to halt the Justice Department’s forthcoming criminal indictment.
Forget your personal feelings about whether you like or dislike A-Rod or whether you think these players are worse than Pol Pot for “cheating the game.” Forget if you’re convinced there is no greater evil than a pill that helps an adult professional athlete heal from injuries or work out with greater efficiency. Forget it all and consider the disturbing audacity of what Major League Baseball just accomplished: a powerful private corporation has used its political connections with the Justice Department as well as the power of its own purse to squeeze a weaker business to disclose confidential medical records. America!
If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps this will. According to Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union, the league can impose a fifty-game suspension for a first PED offense, 100 games for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third. In this case, according to sources, the league will be pursuing 100 game suspensions for every player deemed guilty on the basis that it’s really two offenses in one. Their mere connection to Bosch is one strike, and any previous denial that they were connected to Bosch—in other words, lying to MLB officials—constitutes a second. Yes, you don’t even have to fail a drug test. You just need to be around drugs and make statements that Commissioner Bud Selig unilaterally determines to be a lie. It’s like a kid’s baseball book co-written by Mike Lupica and George Orwell.
This should be calling the entire system into question, but many baseball writers are instead already writing paeans to Bud Selig’s tough justice. ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote, “If Tony Bosch sings the song that baseball firmly believes he’s about to sing, some of the biggest names in this sport could pay a monstrous price. And the aftershocks will be rattling baseball’s Richter Scale for generations to come.”
This is not an earthquake. Instead it will be death by 10,000 paper cuts. The union will protest the idea that there could ever be two suspensions for one offense and appeals will drag on for years. The only thing “rattling” in future generations will be the skeletons of what once comprised the fan-base of this sport.
I love baseball and it’s tragic to watch it self-devour, so here is my own humble advice about a different way to handle this. Steroids and all PEDs need to be seen as an issue of public health, not crime and punishment. If seen as an issue of public health, the scandal here would not be that a group of players may have used PEDs. The scandal would be that they had to visit a skuzzy, unregulated “clinic” not run by medical professionals to get their drugs. Instead of criminalization, educate all players about the harmful effects of long-term PED use when not under a doctor’s supervision. Have medical officials make the policy and determine what PEDs help a person heal faster—an admirable quality in a medicine, no?—and what shouldn’t be a part of any training regimen. Centralize distribution under the umbrella of MLB so it doesn’t become an arms race of which teams get the best doctors and the best drugs. Then, players could take advantage of the most effective new medicines and MLB would be removing the process out of the shadows where the Tony Bosch types of the world hold sway. They also then have an ethical basis for testing and rehabilitation when use crosses the line into abuse.
This solution won’t please the purists who revere a game that never existed. It won’t please the anti-steroid furies who think that the behavior of children are determined in Pavlovian fashion by the actions of Major League Baseball players. It certainly won’t please baseball’s owners who like a system where fleecing cities out of millions in tax money isn’t cheating but taking a pill to workout longer is. It would, however, finally, at long last, take the game out of the courts, off the front pages, and put it back on the field. Bud Selig isn’t Eliot Ness and Ryan Braun isn’t Al Capone. It’s time to stop the madness and decriminalize the game.
This week, Walmart’s board of corporate tycoons will converge on Bentonville for the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s exposé.
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The basketball fan in me is beyond psyched for Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. The sportswriter in me wants every player on these two proud squads adrenalized and at the top of their game this Monday night. The human in me wants the person who’s perhaps been the Pacers’ best player in this series, Roy Hibbert, suspended. In the press conference after the Pacers Game 6 victory, the seven-foot center used an anti-gay slur, saying “no homo.” Here’s the context, which is even worse. Hibbert said, “There was Game 3 here that I felt I let Paul [George] down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting into the paint because they stretched me out so much—no homo [laughs]—but I want to be there for him.” (The Pacers center also called the press “motherfuckers.” Roy was certainly on a roll.)
In every interview I’ve seen, Roy Hibbert seems like a good person. He’s funny, thoughtful and, for what it’s worth, terrific in a cameo on Parks & Rec. But this time no one’s laughing. That “no homo” nonsense is degrading and the league needs to take a stand. The league needs to stand up not only because it degrades the LGBT community. It degrades Hibbert’s colleague, NBA player Jason Collins who came out of the closet last month. It degrades every NBA player who supported Collins and pledged to make the league a more inclusive place. It degrades Golden State Warriors executive—and friend of David Stern—Rick Welts who came out two years ago. Lastly, Roy Hibbert degrades himself. There is no doubt he realizes this. After his press conference, Hibbert reached out on Twitter to Jason Collins, writing, “@jasoncollins34 hey can I get a follow. Would like to discuss something’s with you.”
That’s all good. But the league could send one hell of a message by saying, “We pledged that the NBA would be a safe, nondiscriminatory atmosphere, and even though we recognize how unfair this will seem to Pacers fans and their organization, we are answering to a higher principal. Roy Hibbert therefore will not be playing Game 7.”
If this took place, some would inevitably call it “political correctness run amok.” Nothing energizes some people quite like when their right to dehumanize others is under assault. Then there will be conspiracy theorists who will howl that the NBA took this step because it’s all fixed and the league just wants the ratings boon of LeBron and the Heat in the finals. No doubt that the fan/sportswriter in me will cry out that I’m being denied the game I want to see. But there are kids who kill themselves because of a lifetime of hearing “no homo.” There are others—no doubt Roy Hibbert among them—who think it’s no big deal and say it without realizing their words are weapons. But this is the AJC era (After Jason Collins). It’s time for the league to stop tolerating intolerance. I don’t expect this to happen. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if Jason Collins—a free agent trying to get signed—is asked if Hibbert should be suspended and he says no. But if we are really going to see change, people in the sports world who care about this issue need to stop being silent. I still like Roy Hibbert on and off the court. Everyone makes mistakes. But with mistakes should come consequences. It’s not a game.
* Roy Hibbert has issued an apology for his statements. People can read it here.
After sifting through the responses to this article on Twitter and Facebook, it was stunning how many were homophobic, misogynistic and just stupid as all hell. For some, social media is the white hood of the twenty-first century: a place to be hateful under a mask of anonymity.
The truly thoughtful comments that disagreed with me, some from LGBT athletes, activists and allies, have really made me think. While I still believe it would be a historic statement of principle if the NBA risked its very credibility by suspending Hibbert for a Game 7, there are other steps they could take beyond just punishing Hibbert as an individual. If their response instead was to announce a partnership with the You Can Play group in the manner of the NHL, and set up a formal structure to tackle homophobia in the locker room and set up a support system for closeted athletes, that would be a way to turn this regrettable moment into something positive.
UPDATE: The NBA has announced its fine of Roy Hibbert, and it's $75,000, or roughly what he makes in just under one half of a basketball game. Even worse that the gentleness of the fine is the press release that accompanied it. NBA commissioner David Stern makes no mention of homophobia as a driving reason for the punishment, instead citing "inappropriate and vulgar language," which implies that calling the sports media "motherfuckers" was also a motivation for league action. (Frankly, that statement is far more defensible.) The NBA had an opportunity to say and do something about anti-gay bigotry and draw a line in the sand. They could have announced all kinds of systemic reforms aimed at dealing with this head-on. It would have been a statement not only to the players but also to the ugly minority of so-called "fans" who have been in a homophobic lather over the last twenty-four hours at the mere thought that Roy Hibbert could be punished for dropping a "no homo." They failed the test of this moment and Roy Hibbert has engaged in homophobia in the workplace and in front of a bank of microphones without consequence. Message received. Today, the bold, new world where Jason Collins can be out and proud with full league support is feeling an awful lot like the old world. The fight continues.
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I’ve criticized ESPN’s Bill Simmons 1,000 times in 1,000 columns. That’s what happens when you are perhaps the most read sports columnist in the country. Everything you write becomes a point of reference. When I’m writing or speaking about why I dig the WNBA or abhor the joyless Bill Belichick, Simmons’s disdain for women’s hoops or adoration of Belichick becomes my go-to example of the ways in which those at the heights of sports journalism have opinions that—in my humble view—are dead wrong.
But just as I think the scrutiny Bill Simmons receives is necessary, it’s also important to defend him from criticism that is not only unfair but actually politically backward. Simmons is being lambasted in numerous outlets for comments he made about Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Memphis where the hometown Grizzlies were put out of their misery by the San Antonio Spurs. On his BS Report, Simmons spoke at length with Jalen Rose and Dave Jacoby about visiting Memphis and, while walking with Jalen Rose in search for a barbecue, stumbling upon the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As Jalen Rose said, when they were confronted with the building that saw King’s death, his “heart stopped.” Simmons spoke in detail about being “blown away,” and recounted how it had been restored and kept alive after a fight with many in the city who wanted it bulldozed. Jalen Rose said, “I was impressed with Memphis. When you have a horrific incident take place like King’s assassination, either you embrace it or you run from it.”
Simmons then related the assassination to the feel of the Memphis crowd, writing, “I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
This quote, taken entirely out of context, has been the basis of the flaying of Simmons. People can read examples, if curious, here and here. All the critiques comprise a rather thin gruel. Not only is it a slender thread to grasp, but the criticism is also wrong. Memphis is a small jewel of a city with a population of less than 700,000 people. It’s also in numerous ways defined by the events of 1968, and I’m not even just talking about Dr. King’s assassination. People should read Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey. This was a city in 1968 that ran in a fashion more reminiscent of 1868. As Honey writes, “Since many of the white bosses came from the plantations themselves, they treated black workers much like landlords in the Mississippi Delta treated their sharecroppers and tenants.”
Most city employees were unionized. Most city employees were also white. But the 1,300 African-American sanitation workers were not allowed union recognition. The shocking deaths of two workers in a hydraulic trash compacter broke the camel’s back, sparking a 1,300-person sanitation strike that challenged every last power relationship in Memphis. Their slogan, famously, was “I am a MAN!”
Dr. King came to Memphis because he saw their struggle as something that could launch a new stage in the civil rights movement: one that put the question of multiracial economic justice at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle. As he said to the workers in Memphis days before his death, “With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close, and a new era came into being. Now, our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?”
It was only in the aftermath of King’s assassination, the subsequent urban uprising, and as Honey points out, “the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War” that they finally won their union. Their victory, tragically, did not find purchase across the city. Today, Memphis has one of the highest urban poverty rates in the United States, with 85 percent of its public school students categorized as “economically disadvantaged.” 82 percent of the “economically disadvantaged” are African-American.
What does any of this have to do with Bill Simmons? An arena full of fans is a collective space, and Simmons was linking the shadow of struggle, bloodshed and tragedy with the mentality in this collective space. Some may argue that given the youth or whiteness of the crowd, this is at best a foolish observation. But King’s death—of course—doesn’t just weigh on the psyche of those who remember it. As for the demographics of the crowd, the very greatness of what King and the sanitation workers did was that they made the struggle involve everyone, not merely the poor and people of color. Those in power were afflicted with King’s vision of true equality, a vision that threatened their perch atop the city. The message I received from listening to the podcast in its entirety is that sports doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the past is not always past. Criticize Bill Simmons by all means. I may again by my next column, but not for this. He—and Jalen Rose—should be applauded for reminding everyone that Memphis wears its scars openly for the world to see. After all, they’re our scars as well.
On Wednesday night, Seattle became the seventh city in eight weeks to host a one-day fast food strike. Read Josh Eidelson's report.
Julie Hermann speaks at a news conference introducing her as Rutgers's new athletic director. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
We can all agree that it would have been a very bad idea for Penn State to hire a former child pornographer to coach its football team following the ouster of Joe Paterno amidst the Sandusky juvenile abuse horror show. This is Scandal Management 101, otherwise known as the law of opposites. If your last leader was an amoral cad who resigned in disgrace and also happened to be bald, you hire someone with integrity, ethics and, by all means, hair. The next coach of the New York Jets after Rex Ryan will probably make Tony Dungy look like John Belushi.
That’s what makes the goings-on at Rutgers University so maddening. In looking to move the school forward following the scandal that cost bullying former basketball coach Mike Rice and athletic director Tim Pernetti their jobs, school president Robert Barchi hired former Louisville assistant athletic director Julie Hermann. After the homophobic, misogynistic invective that will define the Mike Rice era, appointing an extremely competent woman must have seemed savvy. Unfortunately, in aiming to get beyond a bullying scandal, the school hired an athletic director with a history of bullying. In attempting to show that the athletic department is not a haven for misogynists, they hired someone with a history of misogyny. And worst of all, in boasting about the depths of their research into Hermann’s past, they missed a series of incidents that a Google search followed by ten minutes of follow-up phone calls could have revealed.
One doesn’t have to go far into the past to see what makes Hermann so clearly the wrong choice for this job. In 2008, she was at the center of a sex-discrimination lawsuit at Louisville. Five years ago, track and field coach Mary Banker approached Hermann to tell her about the alleged sexist actions and “discriminatory treatment” by head coach Ron Mann. Banker then took her complaints to human resources. According to Banker’s subsequent lawsuit, “Hermann called Banker into her office and flat-out told her, ‘You should not have gone to HR.’” Banker then testified that Hermann said, “I don’t know how you’re going to work downstairs after this.” Banker was fired within three weeks.
The older transgressions involve two incidents from 1994–97 when Hermann was the volleyball coach at Tennessee. It was here that her players accused her of verbal and physical abuse, calling them “alcoholics”, “whores” and “learning disabled” as a form of motivation. It was unbearable enough that it pushed students to do something that hadn’t been seen in the NCAA since the student revolts of the 1970s: student-athletes standing as one against their coach. The entire team signed a letter that read in part, “We feel that to continue this program under the leadership of Julie Hermann is crippling mentally, physically, and most importantly to our success as a division 1 volleyball team. The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable.” They confronted her collectively in the athletic director’s office and, according to numerous witnesses, Hermann saw the letter, looked at her players, would not acknowledge any of their complaints and said simply, “I choose not to coach you guys.”
Then there’s the video. At the 1994 wedding of one of her assistant coaches, Ginger Hineline, Hermann was caught on camera telling the bride that her job would be in jeopardy if she became pregnant too soon after marriage. Sure enough, Hineline did lose her job after becoming pregnant and eventually received a court settlement for $150,000 in 1997.
As with any scandal involving “past indiscretions,” efforts to dissemble, cover-up and lie are often more damaging than the crimes. The school has careened back and forth from saying they had “no idea” about Hermann’s past to saying they knew but it wasn’t an issue because of Hermann’s “entire record of accomplishment.” As for Hermann, she has yet to comment about the sexual discrimination case from 2008 and claimed to not remember the group confrontation with her entire Tennessee volleyball team. As for the wedding video, she said, “There is no wedding video,” followed by the public release of the video.
How could this possibly happen? There is an old expression that “the fish rots from the head.” In Rutgers, the rotting head belongs to Rutgers president Robert Barchi, a man who truly needs to go. After interviewing multiple members of the Rutgers community, a portrait emerges of Barchi as a corporate bureaucrat whose slogan might as well be, “The buck stops anywhere but here.”
Barchi’s roots are as a physician and number cruncher specifically brought in by Governor Chris Christie in September 2012 to oversee the merger of the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry under the Rutgers banner. This merger decision was approved by the state legislature without the funding to see it through. Barchi’s time is spent perpetually trying to “increase revenue streams” at the school to underwrite the merger. This goal, however, is profoundly at odds with the day-to-day mission of a state university that prides itself on diversity and research.
“Many of us have been horrified since he arrived,” said Professor Beryl Satter, who teaches at the school’s Newark campus. “The scandals in the athletic department are the logical outgrowth of his indifference to both students and the community. President Barchi came here with no interest in the student body and no interest in research. What does that leave? Money. He has been profoundly blinded by the corporate process, a fact that’s been obvious to us from the very beginning. Someone indifferent to the welfare of students should have no place running a university.”
This ham-handed indifference has been sharply displayed in how Barchi has starved funds from the school’s diverse Newark campus to subsidize the majority-white New Brunswick campus. The idea is to lure out-of-state students, with their luscious out-of-state tuititions, to New Brunswick and turn Newark into a secondary feeder institution. As Satter and Belinda Edmondson wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Months before the current basketball scandal blew open the lid on Barchi’s scorn for diversity, his administration set out to downgrade the Newark and Camden campuses to second-class status by describing the three campuses as representing separate specializations: ‘research’ (New Brunswick, the wealthiest campus), ‘service’ (Camden, the smallest campus) and ‘diversity’ (Newark, the brownest campus). So. The rational head will be white; the laboring body will be brown. Isn’t this what the caste system is all about?”
These aren’t just words by Barchi. He proposed closing the Graduate School in Newark and transferring all programs to New Brunswick. Called “institutional racism at its most baldest,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Barchi’s mere presence on the Newark campus spurs protest.
The problems on Rutgers campuses could be much worse, but faculty and students have been fighting Barchi every step of the way. The only sphere in the sprawling Rutgers system without a pool of people standing up to his agenda has been the athletic department. As Satter said to me, “It’s so clear. When you have Robert Barchi wthout faculty resistance, you have a national shame.”
This same athletic department is poised to enter the Big Ten conference, which ideally—if you think schools should hitch their economic viability to unpaid teenage labor—should be a financial boon to aid the medical school merger. Now, however, member schools are grumbling that the invitation should be yanked. As Andy Baggott of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “If the Big Ten Conference is going to continue to stand by its plan to bring Rutgers into the fold next year, then its members must be gluttons for ridicule. In the aftermath of scandals at two of its signature institutions—Penn State and Ohio State—Big Ten administrators, coaches and alums are watching Rutgers answer to another round of forehead-slapping ineptitude.”
Governor Chris Christie has the power to force Barchi’s resignation. We can note the attendant irony that Christie—who delights in being a bully and picking on the weak, the indigent and all those who can’t fight back—would be the one to finally clear the decks at Rutgers. We can note the irony, but it still needs to happen. Christie appointed Barchi because they both are agents of austerity with the charm of a couple of bulls in a china shop that also happen to be passing kidney stones. But Barchi is becoming a liability for Christie and not because he is harming the New Jersey residents trying to get an education. Barchi is a liability because he now carries the stench of incompetence. For the students of Rutgers, this is a protest moment: President Barchi has got to go, and he can take Julie Hermann with him. If Governor Christie won’t act, then it’s time to mobilize to force in hand.
Across the country, students are mobilizing against racial and economic injustice. Read more at StudentNation.
Robbie Rogers in a US match against Grenada. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
“There’s a lot to be excited about. It’s awesome to be part of a movement that is changing our society.”
On Saturday one of the most depressing sports stories of the last year became one of the most inspiring when Robbie Rogers announced that he would be signing with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. In February, the 25-year-old soccer star told the world in the same breath that he was gay and he was retiring. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys—how’s that?… [Expletive] it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
It was an understandable but tragic surrender to the anti-gay bigotry that has historically defined professional sports from the stands, to the locker room, to the front office. Now Robbie Rogers is done surrendering. He’s returning to the sport and doing it with the unbridled joy of George Costanza, saying, “I’m back, baby!”
Yes, Robbie Rogers has officially un-retired and will become the first openly gay male North American athlete to take the field in one of the “big five” sports. Playing alongside superstar and friend Landon Donovan, and coached by former USA men’s national soccer team helmsman Bruce Arena, Rogers’s return is a testament to how much has changed since NBA player Jason Collins came out last month. Rogers saw how much support Collins received and was moved from his previous pessimism that he would never be accepted. His compunction to return was cemented after speaking at an LGBT youth forum to 500 kids.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
After deciding to come back, Rogers realized that the greatest obstacle was his own trepidation. “I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he reflected. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”
Another sign of the times is that Rogers was raised in a very religious home and still considers himself a devout Catholic. As he said, “Being Catholic—and people may disagree—but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I’ve always lived that way.” That sound you just heard was Rick Santorum’s head exploding.
Now in one day, instead of representing the past—the idea that the only way a male athlete could come out would be if he also retired—Robbie Rogers will represent the future.
When Jason Collins said he was gay in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend who came out in 1981, wrote astutely, “I think—and hope—there will be an avalanche. Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.”
We haven’t seen an avalanche yet. But just as Collins’s announcement made it easier for Robbie Rogers, this latest news will make it easier for the next person to be honest and public about who they are. It will also make it easier for reluctant teammates to get over themselves and be the kinds of allies every LGBT athlete both needs and deserves. Not an avalanche, but brick-by-brick, we are seeing before our eyes the building of a new paradigm in men’s sports. It will continue to develop until, in a not-to-distant future, the issue of having a gay teammate simply won’t be an issue at all.
As for Rogers, he sounds profoundly happier now than he did when he retired with his head down. “I want to get back to soccer, which is what I love,” Rogers said to the Associated Press. “I get to do something I love, and I get to help people and be a positive role model. I’m really excited to set a great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I went through. It’s a perfect world for me, a perfect world.”
Deadly disasters call for Wolf Blitzer's divine intervention. Read Tom Tomorrow's take.
Rahm Emanuel, left, and Chicago’s police superintendent at a news conference, December 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
My kids are into Angry Birds, a game they love for the same reason I once obsessively played Super Mario Brothers: its appeal is incomprehensible to the adults around them. This inscrutable game, however, has one essential truth: you have some pissed off birds compelled by rage to put down some zombie-looking pigs. After a sad effort to play the game myself, I had my own epiphany: this game is actually a metaphor for the city of Chicago. Please bear with me. Angry Birds is more Chicago than the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field or deep-dish pizza. The lunacy, the violence, the plethora of increasingly crazed pigs and those fierce feathered fowl all represent the political actors in a city that’s gone over the edge.
It all starts with the person who seems committed to win the current spirited competition as the most loathsome person in American political life: Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The same Mayor overseeing the closing of fifty-four schools and six community mental health clinics under the justification of a “budgetary crisis” has announced that the city will be handing over more than $100 million to DePaul University for a new basketball arena. This is part of a mammoth redevelopment project on South Lakeshore Drive consisting of a convention center anchored by an arena for a non-descript basketball team that has gone 47-111 over the last five years. It’s also miles away from DePaul’s campus. These aren’t the actions of a mayor. They’re the actions of a mad king.
If you want to understand why Mayor Rahm has approval ratings to rival Rush Limbaugh in Harlem, you can point to priorities like these. The school closures are taking place entirely in communities of color while the city’s elite feed with crazed abandon at an increasingly sapped trough. As Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union chief who led a victorious strike last September fueled by rage at Mayor Rahm, said, “When the mayor claims he is facing unprecedented budget problems, he has a choice to make. He is choosing between putting our communities first or continuing the practice of handing out millions of public dollars to private operators, even in the toughest of times.”
It’s hardly just the labor-left of Chicago pointing out how breathtakingly heartless these priorities are. Rick Telander, the lead sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, penned a piece subtly titled, “With Rahm’s DePaul plan, we’ve entered a new arena of stupidity.” After making clear that DePaul’s team is hardly a magnet for city hoops fans, Telander wrote, “But forget that. Guess who will have to cough up about $100 million to build the thing for the private Catholic university of 25,000, through bonds and the usual sneak attacks of wallet-siphonage—Yes! Taxpayers! Ta-dah!”
The fact that Rick Telander wrote these words matters. The wine is out of the bottle and the horse is out of the barn. In 2013, it’s no longer a few of us cap-wearing Cassandras shouting that the end is nigh if we keep hollowing city budgets to pay for these monuments to corporate welfare. It’s Rick Telander. It’s the Chicago Sun-Times sports page. It’s all of us.
It must be pointed out that this deal, even by the standards of shady stadium operations, has people scratching their heads. Building an arena for a third-tier college basketball program as the heart of a new convention center? Was his second best idea a new snack called Nuts & Gum? I spoke to Neil DaMause, the co-author of the bible on stadium boondoggles, Field of Schemes, to get his thoughts. He said,
I’ve seen dumber things than a mayor offering to spend $173 million in tax money on a building for a private college that already has its pick of several arenas to play in—but not much dumber…. I can’t for the life of me imagine what Emanuel thinks Chicago is likely to get out of this deal, unless he really thinks that convention planners are just waiting for a 12,000-seat arena to hold their plenary sessions in, at which point they’ll start throwing wadded-up hundred-dollar bills at any Chicagoan they can find.
DeMause is right. The only explanation for this is that Rahm is scratching someone’s back in the DePaul Catholic hierarchy of Chicago. This is power politics the likes of which Chicago has honed into a crude, low art form, with the myriad public officials behind bars to prove it. In this case, the hottest rumor is that approval of legalized gambling is on the horizon and the convention center’s locale will be its epicenter. The arena is, in effect, a Trojan Horse for a casino.
If true, Chicagoans should shudder. Even better, they should take a field trip four hours east to Detroit. The Motor City has gambling, and I’ve been to their casinos. If you ever want to see exhausted families spend their last dollars in hopes to make enough to last the month, go to a Detroit casino. That’s the future Rahm Emanuel dreams about for the working people of Chicago. The difference now is that the pigs aren’t feeding at an overflowing trough. They’re feeding on the last grizzled meat sticking to our bones. There’s simply not enough slop to go around and people are fed up with being fed upon.
The Chicago Teachers Union strike from last September showed that the priorities of Rahm can be beaten back. The same rage that fueled their struggle animates those following this stadium swindle. I spoke with Alison McKenna, an adjunct professor in social welfare policy at DePaul. She said,
I have nothing against basketball and nothing against DePaul. But Rahm Emanuel and his upside-down priorities disgust me. In a deeply segregated city like Chicago, the gun violence that’s been all over the national news is the result of systematically tearing apart communities. Gentrification is not the answer for this city. The answer is decent jobs, social services, quality affordable housing, access to health care and fully funded schools, not another round of corporate welfare.
Rahm may have an army of zombie pigs who know how to do nothing but feed, but each and every neighborhood facing violence, school closures, clinic closures and public graft has a slew of increasingly angry birds. The people are long done playing Rahm’s game.
Who’s bankrolling the Center for American Progress, and what are they getting in return? Read Ken Silverstein’s report.
AT&T Park in San Franscisco. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
Picture AT&T Park, home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Picture about as breathtaking a baseball stadium as exists in the United States with the San Francisco Bay, otherwise known as McCovey Cove, framing the outfield like a Norman Rockwell postcard as conceived by Leroy Neiman. Picture seats packed with people clad in their iconic orange and black reveling in the once hard-luck team that now defines the city and stands atop the game. What we don’t picture when we conjure images of this or any ballpark are the people actually doing the work to keep it all running.
As idyllic as the aesthetics of the park remain, those prepping the food and cleaning the toilets make $11,000 a year in a city where, due to yet another round of tech-bubble gentrification, they cannot afford to live. Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater. Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.
Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles, even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans. I spoke with Billie Feliciano, who has been working at the park for over three decades. She said to me, “This is the first time in thirty-five years we’ve had to go to these extremes. Centerplate says talk to the Giants. The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we are saying is we want a fair share.”
Getting their “fair share” from Giants owner 80-year-old multibillionaire Charles Johnson will not be easy. A child of Wall Street wealth whose fortune has grown exponentially with the expansion of the financial markets, he now heads the mutual fund Franklin Templeton started by his father. As he said to The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting the company’s namesake Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (It would be far more fitting if he quoted the Ben Franklin who said of money, “The more one has, the more one wants.”)
In a startling bit of symmetry, Johnson lives in the city’s Carolands Chateau, a 100 room, 65,000 square foot palace originally built a century ago for the daughter of railroad magnate George Pullman. That would be George Pullman, namesake of the bloody 1894 Pullman Railway Strike where the United States Army intervened to crush the nascent industrial workers organization known as the American Railway Union. Then, destroying the mere idea of an industrial union like the ARU was seen as a high priority. Today we are seeing service industry workers starting to organize, walk out and be heard, and a twenty-first-century Pullman is looking to halt the mere idea that the expansion of service unions will happen on his watch. This is why the struggle at AT&T Park is bigger than 800 concession workers and why everyone has a stake in offering solidarity and support. As legendary Bay Area KPFA Hardknock Radio host Davey D said, “There is a lot of talk about having a citywide fast food union in San Francisco. So if you can topple the union at AT&T Park, then you can topple that idea. And if you can topple [service] unions there, you can topple them anywhere and can stop that tide around the country.”
The workers are ready. Feliciano said to me, “We come there rain or shine. Are we striking? Not yet. But these workers are ready to strike.” The community, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the players on the Giants, from Buster Posey to Tim Lincecum to Sergio Romo, should support them as well.
As for the negotiations, they display all the arrogance of both Centerplate and Charles Johnson. During one session, while management scolded the union for thinking they were worth more than $11,000 a year, hedge fund honcho Mike Wilkins, a partner at $400 million Kingsford Capital Management, was on the field running the bases with 100 of his buddies, at a one-day rental cost of $500,000. This was described to the website Buzzfeed as an exercise in “grown up boys fantasy time.” Will San Francisco ever again be anything but a playground for the overgrown millionaire children of the tech sector? That’s the question. We’ll find out the answer in the weeks to come.
Go to thegiantzero.org for updates on the struggle.