Where sports and politics collide.
When Israeli sports teams travel to Europe, they are often met with protest. Palestinian solidarity and human rights organizations, such as Red Card Israeli Apartheid, have argued that such spectacles “normalize” the military occupation suffered by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They also argue that it is fantasy to pretend that these games do not carry a strong political as well as symbolic weight.
Now the specter of a pro-Palestinian protest at an Israeli sporting event is coming to the United States. This will happen next month when the most celebrated basketball team in Israel’s history, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, will return to the United States and play two NBA preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers. As Euroleague Champions, this will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi has played in the United States. But coming on the heels of the summer bombardment of Gaza, there are many activists in New York City arguing that it can no longer be hoops as usual.
I spoke to Tsvia Thier, an Israeli citizen now living in New York, who plans to be a part of whatever protest assembles outside the Barclays Center on October 7th. She said to me, “Israel dropped thousands of pounds of weapons on Gaza. More than 2,000 people died. More than 500 children were killed. There has been no justice for this. We cannot allow for these games to go forward without bearing witness…as if these criminal acts did not just take place. Our memories cannot be that short.” Thier was on her way to a meeting of the group Jewish Voice for Peace to raise plans to protest when I spoke with her.
It is not just Thier and others who are unable to separate these games from Israel’s summer war on Gaza. It is the NBA. Before the Brooklyn game, the league signed off on a “VIP celebration” at the Barclay’s Center for Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted by an organization called Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). According to the press release, “FIDF has arranged for 12 IDF soldiers wounded during the Operation in Gaza to take part in the event.” (For people who want a full accounting of the death and destruction that the Gaza War wrought, see the United Nations report here. ) The FIDF event in Brooklyn will also honor the only Jewish American player named as one of the NBA’s Top 50 All-Time players Dolph Schayes, and his son, one of my boyhood heroes, eighteen-year NBA veteran Danny Schayes. (Yes, I’m aware that I may be the first person to use “boyhood hero” and “Danny Schayes” in the same sentence.) My love for Schayes aside, this is, without pretense, an NBA/FIDF production.
The ties between people in power at the NBA and Israel are nothing new. (See the family history of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, who comes from one of Israel’s most powerful families. Or look at the Israeli connections being fostered by New York Knick forward Amar’e Stoudamire). Yet the celebrations of these bonds will be particularly boisterous this season, now that the Cleveland Cavaliers will be led by former Maccabi coach David Blatt. The Cavs, with Favorite Son LeBron James and Kevin Love on the roster, are everyone’s choice to make the NBA finals from the Eastern conference and Blatt is held in high regard amongst his fellow coaches. Blatt has dual Israeli and US citizenship and the preseason game on October 9 between Maccabi and Cleveland is already being billed as a feel-good media spectacle. Blatt was also a high-profile supporter for the summer war on Gaza. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Globes, he said, “In my opinion, this war is Israel’s most justified war I can remember in recent years. I’m really sorry about what’s happening in Gaza, but there’s no doubt that we had to act there, so that Israel will have quiet there once and for all, and we can live in peace.” He then chided the people of the United States for not cheerleading Israel’s war to a greater degree, saying, “There’s support, although sometimes it’s not enough.In my opinion, though, there’s more support this time than before.”
Unlike players such as Dwight Howard who were shamed into public apologies for tweeting the hashtag #freepalestine, there was no establishment wagging of the finger at Blatt for failing to mention the civilian and child casualties of Gaza. No one called for him to reconsider his words, given that under the current conditions, there will never be “quiet” in Gaza, let alone “peace.”
As for the NBA, it has made no announcements to signal any effort to bring a Palestinian basketball team to the United States, despite the league’s popularity in both the West Bank and Gaza. The absence of an invitation is somewhat understandable, because, if international soccer is any guide, even if invited the players probably would not be able to attend. Surrounded by armed checkpoints, attempting to journey to the United States would be a frustrating if not fruitless act. Commissioner Adam Silver, who acted with great moral clarity during the Donald Sterling debacle, should make it his mission to invite a Palestine club team to the United States, and apply pressure to make it a reality. It would be a sign that he is willing to do what so many will not: recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people. He should also tell Maccabi that they will be delinking these NBA preseason games from Friends of the IDF. We have a message out to the office of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and this article will be updated if and when we receive comment.
UPDATE NUMBER 1: I have received word since posting this article that there will also be a protest of Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Cleveland on October 5, when they play their ex-coach David Blatt and the Cavaliers.
UPDATE NUMBER 2: Since this article went to press, a Facebook page went up for a Brooklyn protest October 7 at Barclay’s, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace.
UPDATE NUMBER 3: Pertinent to all of this seems to be that "Subprime Dan" Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the founder of Quicken Loans, is a massive financial supporter of Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. They even gave him an award.
UPDATE NUMBER 4: We have comment from the NBA Commissioner's office on the question of aiding teams from Palestine. We had a little miscommunication on our end in receiving an answer to the question about whether there are any concerns at the NBA offices about Friends of the IDF having a fundraiser at Barclay's. We will update again when that is cleared up. Here is the answer to question two from the NBA about whether there are plans to bring a team from Gaza to the states on any kind of goodwill tour:
“For more than a decade, the NBA has supported Seeds for Peace and each year our NBA and WNBA players attend the program’s annual summer camp that brings together Palestinian and Israeli kids to foster cultural understanding. As it relates to preseason games against international teams, our NBA teams want to get prepared for the season by playing against elite international competition and traditionally have played preseason games against Euroleague teams, such as CSKA Moscow, FC Barcelona and six-time – and reigning - Euroleague Champion Maccabi Tel Aviv.” - NBA Spokesman, Michael Bass
This has been the most tumultuous month in the history of the National Football League. Below is an eye-opening interview with the National Football Player’s Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who spoke to me about where the league goes from here. My questions have been edited for clarity, but Smith’s answers are as given.
Dave Zirin: I believe that the cover-up allegations that have plagued the National Football League over the last month could have been avoided if sanctions for issues like domestic violence had been collectively bargained instead of being left up to the whims of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Do you agree with that?
DeMaurice Smith: Well, yes and no. Look, the reality of it is… And obviously this is colored a bit by my background as a prosecutor/defense lawyer—whether I was handling crimes in the District of Columbia or handling high-profile issues for Fortune 500 companies where people do things that we didn’t want them to do—where I started is, look, we’re all flawed people. And as a result, there were always going to be times where people end up doing things that we wish they hadn’t. So that’s where it starts. Where you pick up, where I think—insightfully—you’re right, is after something like that happens, when we know that those things are going to happen. What we have always relied on is a transparency of process, a belief in due process, a fundamental vision of fairness for everybody. And, when that process breaks down, it breaks down on top of the issues that we know are going to happen. So, to your point, yes, if things are handled in the right way we tend to get through them… but much like the criminal justice system, where every day is predicated on something bad happening, the reason why it doesn’t all crumble down on itself is that there is a process that people have faith in. And when they lose faith in that process, that’s when you find yourself in sort of intractable situations with imperfect answers.
A lot of folks out there have no faith in the NFL’s process. Can you understand why many people, myself included, think that the NFL needs a new commissioner at this point?
That’s not my job. As you can imagine, I’m able to fill a day with the number of the things that I have to do without making or expressing opinions about other people’s jobs. I never concern myself with it. What I do believe is important is: one, this is a union that prides itself on being a labor union, just like the AFL-CIO, just like the Teamsters, just like the Communication Workers who—by the way—should rightfully congratulate themselves on a new deal in the airline industry. But, that said, our job is to serve our members and to make decisions that are in their best interest. And that’s what we’re going to do. And I don’t think that it is every helpful to overly personalize this process. Nobody hired me to take a position on Roger Goodell. And when I look at my duties as the executive director, there isn’t one of them that says to react personally about anything. So our job is to take a look at why we are here. I understand the outrage of our fans. I certainly understand the dissatisfaction that’s been expressed by our sponsors over how these issues have been handled. And it’s our intention to make sure that things like this are never mishandled again.
Does the union have a position about how the NFL should approach the issue of domestic violence?
You’re not going to like my answer. My answer is “yes.”… Look, I think that any system between management and labor that is collectively bargained is not only good for the workers, and in our case the players, but I also think it’s good for management. And here’s the shocker, I actually think it’s good for everyone who are collateral stakeholders in that business. To me, if I were a major sponsor of the National Football League, I would want to know that there was a collectively bargained process that would instill a sense of due process, fairness, transparency that issues like this have been thought out in advance. And we don’t find ourselves in a world where we are experiencing what I would call reactive addressing of critical issues instead of thinking about these things proactively where vision, inspiration, discipline and deliberate thought are always those things that tend to provide more stability in any process than simply reacting to what happens from day to day. So the union has a position on it, we have made a decision that when it comes to looking at the issue of not only domestic violence but violence in the workplace, violence in the home, that we want and will consult a group of people who we believe that will provide us with the best practices, and we will invite the [management of the] National Football League—and I’m happy to say that they’ve agreed to be a part of that process. And we will come up with the best decisions, the best practices in a collectively bargained way.
Now, being the executive director of a union means you, of course, have to look out for the greater good and not personalize these cases—not unlike a defense attorney. Everybody has the right to a defense. And you can’t get caught up in saying, “That person just offends my morality to such a degree that I’m not going to offer them a defense, so let’s throw them to the wolves.” In the last year, the union was in the position to have to defend Richie Incognito. Now of course Ray Rice is going to appeal. Are there ever discussions inside the NFLPA about the morality of defending players in certain cases?
There’s never a discussion about whether we will defend the rights of our players—ever. And I’m proud of that, because I think that it reflects an understanding by our player leadership. And I’m proud of our senior player leadership when the only question they have is, “What’s our next step?” So, we have the pleasure of working with a group of highly passionate people. But you and I both know, and every first-year law school student hopefully knows, that our criminal justice system and the protections that are instilled in it have all been predicated on some situations where we’re looking at the rights of someone that’s been accused of doing something wrong. If it’s Gideon v. Wainwright about the right to legal representation, that case starts with a multiple arrestee in the criminal justice system. If you look at Brady v. Maryland and the obligations of prosecutors to disclose exculpatory information, those cases began with someone who was accused of wrongdoing and we want that process to ensure that, nonetheless, despite [their] being accused, we’re going to require fairness and due process under the constitution. So, no, we never take a look that there’s a class or a group or an individual who doesn’t deserve due process.
It like you’re also saying you stand with the idea of not having players suspended if they’re accused of a crime like domestic violence, but it should be played out through the courts first.
Well, what I’m saying is that no one should be punished based on a low threshold of something occurring. And look, personally I’ve been in that situation where I’ve been handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car because I happened to be driving a car early in the morning that the police found suspicious. And that is something that I will never forget. And I was a federal prosecutor at the time. So, no, I don’t believe that punishment should be triggered by something that could be as random and as invasive as the situation that I went through. So, to me I think the trigger here is whether it constitutes punishment. If a player makes a decision, or a person in corporate America who finds himself in an unfortunate situation… corporations every day choose to put people on leave with pay while the process plays out. That’s not discipline, that’s providing the person an opportunity with pay to work their situation out without the stigma of being demoted or deactivated or punished in advance.
When things transpire like they have over the last month, is it the sort of thing where it’s exhausting because of the level of scrutiny and pressure, or is it the sort of thing that’s exhilarating because what’s been frankly pointed out are a lot of the holes in the process that you’ve been pointing out for several years. Namely, the Roger Goodell, judge and jury, personal conduct policy. So it’s like, “Ok, I’ve been proven right by the facts. Now we can actually talk about this.” What’s the emotional thrust coming from your office?
Oh, from the office… Look, we’re blessed to have over a hundred professionals. And for me, what makes my job extremely easy are the players that I have the privilege of serving and the staff who works tirelessly to protect their rights. The only thing that’s grueling for me is, this’ll be the fourth team meeting in a week. The fourth night I’ve been in a separate city, and I’m looking forward to getting back to DC at some point. That tends to take a toll on a body. But as far as the issues, it’s not that exhausting. To me, I’m actually happy when we all get to have teaching moments. Because there are times when you can talk about issues in a vacuum or when you can raise very complex ideas in a space and in a time when people are not in a position to hear it or understand it or appreciate it. And issues, for example, of personal conduct, the actions of the commissioner’s office, the way in which they conduct investigations, our concern that they reach an answer first, and begin to build evidence for that answer later… as they did in BountyGate. Those were issues that we’ve been talking about since the Bounty investigation, and if you want to look before that, you remember the StarCaps case where they sought to punish players who relied on their own hotline about what ingredients were in a certain drug. A judge in that case—think about this for a second—in StarCaps, a judge in that case came to a conclusion that the commissioner engaged in a game of “gotcha.” That’s what a judge wrote. The judge wrote that a member of the commissioner’s staff was legally incredible to believe. And that was four years ago. So, this is an issue that has percolated to the surface at times, but has percolated over a number of years. And to me, the only good news is that it has reached a public level of consciousness and a sponsor level of consciousness where it now demands change.
We’re living in a post–Donald Sterling world. Given what has happened in the NFL, do you think we should live in a sports environment where owners can be asked/told to sell their teams if they’re not acting in the best interest of the league?
Let me answer in this way. In football, we have always said that not only do you have to be, obviously, physically and mentally able to play this game. But based on your conduct or other issues, you are not entitled to be a part of this league. And, since time immemorial, more often than not those decisions have been directed almost exclusively, with some exceptions, towards the player. Now, in the past, has the National Football League made decisions like that with respect to owners? Yes. The DeBartolo situation in the past, is one example where they made decisions based on what had happened in the criminal justice system that an owner had to do X, Y and Z. The only thing that I can say about that now is that it does seem to me that fairness and the equal applicability of those standards is what we should all be aspiring to. And, living in a world where we know that there was an owner who has run afoul of the criminal justice system, and was recently disciplined by the commissioner. You know that that’s an issue we talked a lot about, because we wanted to see if the same standards apply to an owner who was arrested and ultimately convicted for misconduct. We know that judges, for example, have written lengthy opinions about owners who were engaged in long-running fraudulent conduct. Those owners weren’t punished. We know that there have been owners who have been the subject of criminal investigations where virtually all their subordinates were convicted or have pled. That owner has not been punished. We know that there was an instance of an owner that, unfortunately a woman overdosed in a house that he owns. No one has said anything about that. So, to me the most really enlightening or inspiring moments are when facts themselves speak truth to power.
Dave Zirin jumped on the phone with The Dan Patrick Show to discuss Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and the allegations that he pressured NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to give Ray Rice a light punishment. Zirin argues that it almost doesn’t matter whether they tried to cover that up or not: “What’s so crazy is that there are two ways to look at it. I mean, either we look at the ESPN story as fact…. [but] even if we believe everything that Steve Bisciotti says, then basically what he said was, ‘Look, we didn’t cover anything up, we just treated this case like the NFL has always treated domestic violence: we didn’t care.’” Making a connection with the former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Zirin wonders whether Bisciotti is even fit to own the Ravens.
- Jessica McKenzie
There is an unspoken question lurking behind the NFL domestic violence cover-up saga that has emerged over the last month. It is whether the brutality of the game, particularly head injuries, plays a role in the prevalence of players committing acts of violence against women. The NFL has a vested interest in not having this discussion. On head injuries, as the title of the award-winning book said so clearly, it remains “a league of denial.” If, in the name of public relations, the owners won’t have a discussion about the connection between their sport and horrific post-concussive syndromes like ALS and early-onset dementia, are they really going to talk about links between head injuries and domestic violence? The sports media are largely in denial about this topic as well, as there was not one question in Roger Goodell’s instantly infamous Friday press conference about whether the league would investigate whether brain injuries could be the bridge between the violence at work and the violence at home.
Yet many domestic violence advocates are also—understandably—not thrilled with this line of discussion. Partner abuse occurs in all walks of life, all professions and among all income groups, and post-concussive syndromes are almost always not a part of those stories. Additionally, to blame it on concussions seems to be excusing domestic violence and denying the fact that NFL players have agency and choice before becoming abusers. This resistance is very understandable. But attempting to explore and explain the shockingly high rates of domestic violence in the NFL is not the same as excusing it.
So is there a connection? As my friend Ruth, who is a DV counselor, says, “When it comes to domestic violence, it is extremely difficult to generalize across the board, in the NFL or otherwise.” In other words, every case is distinct, reflecting the interpersonal relationships of the parties involved. But there are factors that appear to show themselves in the football cases with alarming regularity. Some of these factors are high rates of stress, a culture of entitlement for sports stars that predates their life in the NFL, and an inability to turn off the violence of the game once the pads are off. This is when we see the most toxic part of the sport’s hyper-masculinist culture poison the relationships between the men who play the game—as well as the men who own teams—and the women in their lives. But among many players, this question of the role of head injuries still lingers in the background.
Dan Diamond over at Forbes is one of the few journalists I have seen explore these links in detail. In one piece, he cites a “disturbing new report” that shows “3 in 10 NFL players suffer from at least moderate brain disease.” Diamond then details many examples of former players who were found in their autopsies to have the repetitive post-concussive syndromes known as CTE, and were also arrested at some point or another for domestic violence. He writes:
The key issue is whether suffering repeated head trauma lowers a person’s self-control. And while many pro football players haven’t been diagnosed with concussions in the NFL, nearly all of them have been playing football since they were young and suffered repetitive, frequent blows that can add up over time. And researchers know that those concussions can change a person. Even a pillar of the community.
This connects anecdotally with much of my own research. Over the last two months, I have spoken with three different women whose husbands are or were NFL players. All three are domestic violence survivors. In one case, the marriage was mended and endures to this day. In one case, it ended in divorce. In one case it ended with the suicide of the player in question. Yet that is where the differences ended. The similarities were stunning. In all three cases, the violence was precipitated either by migraine headaches or self-medicating—drugs or alcohol—to manage migraines. In all three cases, the survivors spoke about their NFL husbands becoming disoriented or light-sensitive, easily frustrated and quick to anger in ways that did not exist earlier in the relationship. In all three cases, they spoke about bizarre looks on their husbands’ faces when they committed the abuse, from a chillingly peaceful calm to quizzical smiles. Whatever the look, they spoke of being in the presence of someone they “did not recognize.”
I also spoke with Matt Chaney, a former college football player and author of the book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, about whether he believed there was a causal link between concussions and domestic violencw. He e-mailed me back the following. “I can’t speak as medical authority on any link but as a journalist and academic who’s read and filed tens of thousand documents on football hazards from violence to drugs, and one who’s interviewed a thousand people, along with being a former college player who has knowledge of countless athletes and their relationships, I believe football brain injuries lead many players to violence they wouldn’t otherwise have committed, ranging from domestic cases to random acts.… I think brain injuries, after studying the topic as we all have in recent years, now explains much about the perplexing cases of violence and other irrational behavior among football players I’ve known. And while I thought I abhorred street fighting, before college football, I found myself nearly involved with or nearly instigating such trouble on more than one occasion while I was in full-contact activity, fall and spring practices, banging my head. If I didn’t have headache after a college contact session, I didn’t think I’d done anything.”
This question, of course, has profound implications well beyond the sport. It is about the choice families make whether to let their children play tackle football. It is about the health and safety of women in relationships with NFL players, and whether recognizing warning signs of CTE can create opportunities for intervention before abuse takes place. It is about the degree to which the league’s very violence bears some complicity in their abuse. This is a difficult question, one Roger Goodell is loathe to discuss. That is exactly why we need to keep asking it.
There has been no peace in Ferguson, Missouri, since the shooting death of the unarmed Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Now community members are saying that as long as the justice is both delayed and denied, it is obscene for the games to go on in St. Louis as usual. A call has gone out by Ferguson community organizers to protest outside this Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys at the Edward Jones Dome. They are also trying to get tickets donated to them so they can make their way inside the stadium to let their voices be heard.
One protestor, Umar Lee, taped the call to action on YouTube, where he says, “This is about a message. There is no business as usual. There is no drinking and being merry while there is no justice for Mike Brown…. All of those St. Louis Rams fans who love justice, who are with the people, I ask you to contact me and to donate your St. Louis Rams tickets so protestors can get in the dome.”
Using the hashtag #nojusticenofootball, Mr. Lee is also directly contacting Dallas Cowboys players directly, referencing the league’s recent scandals and asking them to join the protest. For example: to Cowboys running back to DeMarco Murray, Lee wrote, “NFL players in the news for bad things. Do something good. Join the #MikeBrown protests in #stl Sunday.”
I spoke to Charles Modiano, who spent weeks demonstrating in Ferguson and is also a freelance sportswriter. He said to me, “I love this idea. We have to keep the protests alive. Darren Wilson has not been arrested. The police chief has not resigned. The militarization continues. As long as there is no justice, there’s no time for games.”
Umar Lee also sent out a tweet thanking the St. Louis Rams fans who have already donated tickets to the protest. The Rams have been atrocious this season, and the Cowboys haven’t been much better. Given the poor quality of play as well as the widely publicized revelations that the NFL is an empty moral chasm of coverup and abuse, the specter of in-stadium demonstrators might actually be the only thing that makes this Sunday’s game worth watching. The chief of St. Louis’s police says that they are aware of these efforts and will be prepared to defend NFL Sunday against the threat of rightful assembly. Let the games begin.
The latest iteration of America’s favorite reality show, The NFL Has No Clothes, is taking place in Minnesota, where the Vikings have flipped and flopped and now flipped again on whether to suspend star running back Adrian Peterson, who has been indicted on child-abuse charges. Given the dynamics of this story, it seemed to make sense for me to talk to former NFL player Walter Beach. Walter is more than just the former starting defensive back for the 1964 Cleveland Browns. He also worked as a child welfare case worker in New York City after the end of his playing days.
Walter said to me, “This is not about child abuse. This is not about child endangerment. This is not about whether what Adrian Peterson did rises to the level of what we would call ‘imminent danger,’ which is the standard we would use when assessing whether or not to take the child out of the home. That is an issue for the courts. For the NFL, this is about public relations. They aren’t going to stop child abuse. They don’t care about anything but the money. It’s hollow…. What the Vikings did won’t save one child, but they think it’ll keep their angry sponsors from leaving.”
How could anyone disagree with Walter Beach, given the ways in which the Vikings have twisted and turned on Peterson’s case. The Radisson Hotel and Nike furrowed their brows and the Vikings leadership fell to their knees. The most egregious statement in this entire ordeal was by team owner Zygi Wilf.
Wilf said, “We made a mistake and we needed to get this right. It is important to always listen to our fans, the community and our sponsors.”
First of all, Mr. Wilf has been officially convicted on civil racketeering charges in the state of New Jersey. He is currently appealing a ruling where he and two family members have to pay $100 million to the people they wronged.
One wonders where he gets the chutzpah to be on any kind of a moral high horse, and one wonders why he is not currently suspended for violating the league’s “personal conduct policy.”
One also wonders where Mr. Wilf was in caring about the will of “the community” when he was threatening to move the team to Los Angeles, San Diego or some other parts unknown unless the cash-strapped state gave him $1 billion in public funds to build a new stadium.
Once all of the construction dust and piety has cleared, this is where the NFL is left. If you want to understand why the Vikings have flip-flopped so dramatically on whether or not Peterson is on the team, you can start with the $1 billion eyesore currently being developed in the middle of the great city of Minneapolis. First, the Vikings felt a tremendous pressure to suspend Peterson following the outcry over the way Ray Rice’s suspension was handled. Then, after their terrible Sunday defeat to the New England Patriots and fears about another lost season in Minnesota, they reactivated Peterson. And then the sponsors started to itch, and the next thing you know, Peterson once again is on the outside looking in. This is not a personal conduct policy. It is an amateurish, pandering and altogether odious exercise in public relations.
The real issue is not whether the NFL should have a policy where players are suspended at the mere allegation of impropriety or whether the call should be for the criminal and family courts to do their jobs and for the NFL to mind its own damn business. The problem is that there is no rhyme or reason for anything that Roger Goodell and the National Football League ownership cabal does. They always talk about protecting the shield. But all they really do is hide behind the shield, careening from one public relations disaster to the next. Roger Goodell and the National Football League need to jettison this personal-conduct-policy nonsense and sit down with the union to collectively bargain some system of dealing with off-field issues. No one should have any confidence that this is a job Roger Goodell and the owners can handle. They have no credibility with players, little credibility with fans and diminishing credibility with sponsors. It’s the restlessness of that last group which really makes those in the owners box sweat blood.
Roger Goodell has no place as commissioner of the National Football League. He is an amoral cover-up artist whose concerns—in the wake of the Ray Rice/Janay Rice video scandal—have been revealed as limited to profits and public relations. He is like the collective test-tube baby of the league’s ownership, a man who started working for the NFL over thirty years ago and has grown into adulthood as a crystallized reflection of their priorities.
For too long, and with much media burnishing, Goodell has played the role of “the Hammer,” the tough guy who will suspend and discipline players, all in the name of policing their “personal conduct.” His aphorisms, once the stuff of legend, are now the shovels being used to rightly bury his tenure in office. Oft-repeated phrases such as “Ignorance is never an excuse” and “My only responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Shield” are now apt justifications for him to leave. This tough demeanor now stands exposed as just another act of public relations, assuaging the public that, in a league 70 percent African-American, to have no fear because Commissioner Kipling is in control, civilizing his charges. He has played the “Mr. Drummond role” to the understandable chagrin of the players, and their public glee at his recent squirming is reason enough to show him the door.
Domestic violence has always been the exception to Goodell’s law-and-order reign. Public relations, along with a hyper-toxic masculinist culture, has made this the NFL way for decades, and Goodell has dutifully carried that tradition forward. During his tenure, fifty-six players were arrested on domestic violence charges, and have been suspended for a combined thirteen games. In the first fifty-five cases not caught on videotape, few noticed that this was happening, and Roger Goodell was only too happy to look the other way.
There is a certain justice to the fact that it was people actually witnessing a shocking video of domestic violence with their own eyes that could lead to his downfall. So much of Goodell’s job description involves keeping people from thinking about how the NFL sausages are made. Whether the issue was head injuries or pain killer addiction, his job has been to either cover it up or make people believe that the league is “dealing with the problem.” Now the public has had two sobering weeks to taste the nitrates and hog anuses that comprise how NFL business is handled, and it is appalled. It’s been an up-close and personal view at how Commissioner Accountability pushes domestic violence under the carpet. Goodell, that master of public relations, has become a PR liability and has got to go. (His loudest supporter in the ranks of ownership is the reptilian boss in Washington, Dan Snyder. This is because Goodell backs Snyder’s use of a slur as a team name. The commissioner does this while enacting penalties for players who use slurs on the field. That’s so Roger!) But chanting “Goodell Must Go” is the easy part. A tougher task would involve exerting public pressure to get an anti-Goodell as the next commissioner.
Yes, so many of the game’s moral failings—the assembly-line creation of head injuries, for one —will endure no matter who runs the show. This sport is a dangerous, violent occupation, and any effort to pretend that it isn’t just brings us back into Goodell’s relativist, PR-driven hell. But there is also so much that the league can do. They can set up institutions and avenues so survivors of domestic violence can come forward in confidentiality. They can offer health care for life so players aren’t bankrupted as they hit middle age. It can cease being a sponge of corporate welfare and pay for its own damn stadiums. It can stop offering corporate cover for Dan Snyder’s monetized racism. Few, if any, NFL owners want any of the above, of course. That will require a bionic form of public pressure. It will also require an attention span that sports fans, not to mention the sports media, often lack. Almost certainly, if Goodell goes, Condoleezza Rice will probably be begged to take the gig. That would be a cynical end to the ugly chapter Goodell has written. Any hope for actual substantive change would smolder in ruins, in a mushroom cloud, if you will.
Here is a different ending: hire co-commissioners. Hire former NFL player Don McPherson and the first woman to score a point in an NCAA Division I football game, Katie Hnida. They should be hired not because of their football résumés but because Hnida and McPherson are two forward-thinking, whip-smart critics whose perspective on the sport starts from inside the locker room. Both are veterans of the football world who have devoted their public lives to raising consciousness on gender equity and violence against women in and out of the athletic industrial complex. Both would start their first day in office thinking about how the sport can use its massive cultural platform to do the most good and the least amount of harm. For what it’s worth, I have heard from both Ms. Hnida and Mr. McPherson over Twitter, and both, if asked, would serve.
Tragically, I don’t think this will ever happen. But if these two remarkable people were tapped to lead, it would be the first NFL move in a long time that wouldn’t make us feel like we need to shower with steel wool as penance for the blissful escapism that the league supplies. The sport has more money than it could ever spend. It is, as one TV executive said to me, “the tent pole holding up broadcast television in 2014.” Let Commissioners Hnida and McPherson lead the NFL to a new day, where domestic violence is confronted, not covered up, and wearing a hometown jersey is a source of pride, not shame. We can try and fight for this. But step one is that Goodell must go.
The pregame program of the profoundly awkward Thursday night CBS game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens was on a toboggan ride toward collective mortification. An NFL reeling from the revealed reality that it cares nothing about domestic violence—or women at all beyond their capacity to buy its crap—was in a drowning death grip with a CBS network that had spent billions on its new Thursday night NFL package. On the day of the broadcast, CBS realized that having a pregame video of Rihanna, who before this week could safely be called the most well-known domestic violence survivor on the planet, did not seem like the best of ideas. The network also belatedly came to understand that it could not just light some fireworks and pretend this was business as usual, not when Jon Stewart, gesturing for so many of us, took time Wednesday night to give the league a one-finger salute. Not when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was continuing in real time to drown in lies about what he knew and when he knew it.
So CBS responded to the mushrooming scandal by putting on its “Bizarro Olivia Pope” hat and revamped the entire operation. Struck from the set was the Rihanna opener. Smashed to smithereens was the pomp and fireworks. Instead, CBS presented an awkward, hybrid news/sports/entertainment set featuring respected members of its news division alongside the CBS and NFL Network jockocracy. “Norah O’Donnell and Deion Sanders break down domestic violence, only on CBS!” Clearly the golden goose had to be saved. All hands were on deck, and any pretense of a separation between CBS’ news and entertainment wings, or between CBS and the NFL, were out the window.
Instead, we had Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti speaking about this being “a seminal moment for domestic violence” and a series of pregame news reports about the “sobriety” of this moment. The method was obvious: if CBS and the NFL—together!—could show that they take domestic violence seriously, then fans could exhale and, having its guilt at watching Goodell’s league expiated, sit back to enjoy the commodified violence on the field of play. It was just “Are you ready for some football?” except instead of Hank Williams Jr., Scott Pelley was on hand to get us in the mood. The entire operation felt about as sincere as Roger Goodell’s “independent” investigation into whether the NFL had seen the tape of Ray Rice removing his then-fiancée Janay from consciousness.
Then James Brown, the longtime anchor of CBS NFL coverage, actually brought something of profound value to the proceedings. Speaking directly to the camera, Brown said the following. (You are going to want to reread this and share it as widely as possible.)
Two years ago I challenged the NFL community and all men to seriously confront the problem of domestic violence, especially coming on the heels of the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins. Yet, here we are again dealing with the same issue of violence against women.
Now let’s be clear, this problem is bigger than football. There has been, appropriately so, intense and widespread outrage following the release of the video showing what happened inside the elevator at the casino. But wouldn’t it be productive if this collective outrage, as my colleagues have said, could be channeled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women? And as they said, do something about it? Like an ongoing education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.
And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘You throw the ball like a girl’ or ‘You’re a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion. Women have been at the forefront in the domestic violence awareness and prevention arena. And whether Janay Rice considers herself a victim or not, millions of women in this country are.
Consider this: according to domestic violence experts, more than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners. That means that since the night February 15th in Atlantic City [when the elevator incident occurred], more than 600 women have died.
So this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds and as Deion [Sanders] says to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.
Damn. Thank you, James Brown. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for using your platform for some good. The historian Howard Zinn famously once said, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” There is also no “internal investigation” deep enough, no pregame show somber enough, no press conference emotional enough, to cover the shame of how the the culture of the NFL has enabled violence against women both inside and outside the league. There are many roads that lead toward ending domestic violence: fighting poverty, creating more resources for survivors and building a less degrading society are all imperatives. But in addition to that, domestic violence will never end until men see it as both a political principle and a moral imperative to stand up and say, “No more.” In front of an audience of millions, James Brown has officially launched that conversation.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the beginning of the end for Roger Goodell
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s father was a senator from the great state of New York. A liberal Republican (those existed then) he spoke out against the Vietnam War, sponsoring the first bill to defund the carnage in 1970, earning “the wrath of Richard Nixon.” The response to Senator Goodell by Nixon was so unhinged that looking back it was a sign of the paranoia, the enemies lists, and the secret recordings that eventually did Nixon in. Now the younger Goodell, like his father’s nemesis, can see all of his power and privilege crashing down over a tape.
Roger Goodell, the most powerful man in the Sports World, is now officially fighting for his professional life following a report from the Associated Press that the league did in fact have a copy of the videotape, now public to the world, of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, into unconsciousness. The $40 million-a-year man has spent the last several days answering questions about whether or not he or anyone in the NFL executive suites actually saw the footage before issuing the now infamous two-game suspension to Rice. His answer has consistently been that no one saw the tape. The official statement from the NFL as reported by MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes was as follows: “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident including the video from inside the elevator. That video is not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.” There is no wiggle room, no equivocation, with this statement. But only media members who seem to live to feel the warmth of Roger Goodell’s glow have been buying this steaming pile of sanctimonious tripe.
The reasons for widespread skepticism were abundant. Given that the NFL security staff includes former members of the FBI and Secret Service amongst their ranks, given that the NFL was in regular contact with law enforcement officials in New Jersey after the assault, and given that the NFL is profoundly image-conscious and routinely does the most invasive possible deep dives into the personal lives of their employees, it strained credulity that they never had seen the tape before it was released. Now the strained credulity has officially snapped. A law enforcement official has gone to the AP to say that he sent an NFL executive this video five months ago. This official played the AP a voicemail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming that the video had made it to their offices. As the AP reported, “A female voice expressed her thanks and says ‘you’re right it’s terrible ‘”
Within minutes of the AP report, the NFL chose to double down. They released the following statement in response. “We have no knowledge of this. We are not aware of anyone in our office who possessed or saw the video before it was made public on Monday. We will look into it.”
My belief from the beginning of this ordeal has been that the only way Goodell is forced out of office is if the owners decide he has become bad for business. His tenure has been rife with scandal and incompetence, yet he has grown in stature because the profit margins of the league are unmatched. He has benefited from the simple fact that when the glorious game starts, a narcotic perfume drowns the stench. But there is no covering up this particular odor. Week one of the NFL season just ended and all everyone is talking about, other than at the NFL’s own house network, is domestic violence and what Roger Goodell knew and when he knew it. The question is not “Who can challenge the Seattle Seahawks for NFL supremacy?” The question is, “Did Goodell see the tape?” Goodell loves talking about “responsibility” and “accountability.” He will be held to account. If there is tangible evidence he is hurting the owners” bottom line, they will coldly dispatch him like he was a seventh-round draft pick getting cut from training camp. They might anyway. If the NFL really wants to send a message that violence against women will not be tolerated, then they can at long last fire someone who either was so incompetent he did not seek out footage of Ray Rice’s violence against Janay Rice, or so venal, he saw it and did not care. Either way, one thing is without a doubt: we have a commissioner who did not think the substance of what took place in that elevator mattered until it became a crisis of public relations.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the revictimizing of Janay Rice
The video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice brutally striking and dragging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator raises the question: Does professional sports have a domestic violence problem? Appearing on Democracy Now! this morning, Dave Zirin explained that the NFL has a history of condoning domestic violence, and that Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension was treated as “a public relations crisis, not as a crisis about the ways in which the violence of the game spills over into people’s families.”