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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

San Jose State Learns a Raised Fist Is Not a Brand

A statue in honor of Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos at San Jose State, CA

A statue in honor of former Olympians Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos at San Jose State (CA). (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

Protests and raised fists have come to life to San Jose State University. For those who have not heard, three white students at San Jose State University have been charged with hate crimes—and a fourth has been suspended—after their African-American roommate was subjected to a series of racist torments that have shocked the entire community. The young man, whose name has not been revealed, had a heavy U-shaped bike lock put around his neck, had racial slurs and swastikas scrawled on dry-erase boards placed around the room and was renamed by the students with whom he was forced to live as “three-fifths” or “fraction”, after the Compromise of 1787, which deemed slaves to be three-fifths of a human being.

At SJSU, there is outrage that a school, which was the incubator of the black athletes’ revolt in the 1960s, could be a place where such a crime could occur. There is also frustration that residential assistants were conscious enough of the situation to ask the alleged tormentors to take a Confederate flag off their door but did not alert anyone in the administration that their black roommate might be in trouble. Then there are doubts that the administration would have even taken it seriously, or whether it all would have been covered up if not for the dogged reporting of the San Jose Mercury News. After the attacks, student leaders asked school president Mo Qayoumi to discuss what could be done. Instead, he chose to keep his commitments at a science and engineering conference in Wisconsin. Students have also gone public with complaints that they cannot get a sit-down with the man about what happened. “This president, unlike the six or seven presidents I’ve seen at SJSU, has the most top-down management style,” Jonathan Karpf, an anthropology lecturer said to the San Jose Mercury News. “He’s not somebody who handles dissent very effectively.”

Now there are students marching with their fists raised like the statue of 1968 Olympic protesters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the center of their campus.

But if people had been listening, then Ron Davis could have told them that was not only possible but even inevitable. Ron Davis was hired to coach the cross-country team in 2012. But he was more than just another coach. In November of 1962, Ron Davis ran cross-country for San Jose State as part of the first integrated team to win the Division I championship. He was also the student assistant for the 1969 team that won the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship. Davis was at the heart of the era that saw people like Dr. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos make history at the school. Over the next four decades, Davis coached around the world from Canada and Ireland to Mozambique and Nigeria, as well as in colleges across the United States. Here is what the interim athletic director Marie Tuite, said upon hiring Mr. Davis. “He’s a great Spartan. He has such an affection for San Jose State. It’s really an honor for him to recruit young men and women to this university.”

This job was supposed to be a great homecoming and the culmination of a remarkable career. Instead, after one season, one last-place finish (in line with the previous year’s performance), and the hiring of a new athletic director, Ron Davis was not reappointed. He is now suing the school for discrimination, saying that the school draped in civil rights history fired him because of the color of his skin. The school was not content to merely dismiss Mr. Davis. They humiliated him out the door, with written evaluations that mocked his intelligence and his communication abilities, and tried to make this man who had been coaching for over forty years sound like an incompetent.

I was able to get in touch with Mr. Davis, and he e-mailed me the following note.

As a San Jose State University graduate, hall of fame member, and member of the first “integrated” team to win the NCAA National Cross Country Championship I am appalled that such a deplorable racist attack occurred. I appreciated your article last week on the racist attack at San Jose State last week. It exposed the truth about what has been happening at San Jose State regarding on going social injustice to students and faculty. What they practice and what they convey to the community is a dishonor to the statue of Dr. John Carlos and Dr. Tommie Smith who were advocates of human rights. Why did it take so long for the terrorism and humiliation experienced by the Black student to be reported and acted on by the San Jose State Administration?

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This question is going to need to be answered. But questions about how administrators handled—or didn’t handle—the racist incident is inextricable from how a school like San Jose State could so casually disrespect its own history by treating Ron Davis so poorly. Using your history only as public relations, and not as a call to arms to build an institution anchored by principles of anti-racism, can no longer cut it. It is no different from Cal Berkeley in 2011 boasting about its history of dissent on its website, while having students tear-gassed in the quad. The 1968 Olympic protests are not a brand. Students are saying that if you are going to be the home for this statue, you need to earn that right every day.

Mychal Denzel Smith talks about how it isn´t about how far we´ve come on racism, but how far we still have to go.

Editors' Note: This post originally stated that unnamed student suffering abuse had a "bike chain" placed around his neck.  We have now corrected this to reflect that it was actually a significantly heavier U-shaped bike lock.

Racist Attack at San Jose State, the Holy Ground of the Black Athlete’s Revolt

A statue to former Olympians Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos (right)

There are times when the line between shock, rage and sadness become so blurred it is impossible to know when the flow of emotion ends or begins. The shock and rage come from hearing about an African-American student violently tormented by his three white housemates at San Jose State University. Thrown together randomly as first-year students tend to be, Logan Beaschler, 18, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, and Colin Warren, 18 found common cause in acts of racist sadism against their fourth housemate. They at times forced a bike lock around the neck of this young man. They barricaded him in his room. They nicknamed him “three-fifths” or “fraction” in reference to the three-fifths Compromise of 1787 that decreed slaves to be less than a full person. They hung confederate flags outside their room. They scrawled swastikas on white boards and hung pictures of Adolf Hitler. Let’s say their names again: Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren, three people who made their dorm into a fascist chamber of horrors for their own amusement.

Arrests have been made, the school is holding its own investigation, and students are rallying, and that is all well and good. The shock and rage becomes sadness, however, because this is not just any old university. This is San Jose State, also known as Speed City, also known as the place where John Carlos and Tommie Smith won NCAA national championships, learned the skills to set Olympic sprint records, and learned the politics to compel them to raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics. It was the place where Dr. Harry Edwards combined anti-racist militancy with sociology and sports, to create a synthesis that led to the formation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It is the place where Lee Evans and Ron Davis showed the world that athletic excellence could be used as leverage to fight for dignity and make history. It is the place where that history is commemorated by the remarkable twenty-eight-foot statues of Carlos and Smith that stand in the middle of campus.

I spoke to John Carlos and I cannot do justice to the sadness in his voice.

“This is a heartbreaking situation,” he said. “At San Jose State that monument was established to promote diversity, love, understanding and respect. It is very difficult for me wake up and think that the school would be a place where students feel they can act in such a manner and think they can just abuse a person of color in such a way. Once again we are bitten by the ugly bear of racism. I would hope San Jose State would deal with this in as firm a matter as possible. This cannot stand.”

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Pressure to make sure San Jose State truly confronts what has happened will be necessary. In recent years, San Jose State has made a concerted effort to cut itself off from its history and anti-racist traditions. It is currently being sued by former cross-country coach Ron Davis, the same Ron Davis mentioned above who was a part of those historic teams of the 1960s and a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame. Mr. Davis is claiming racial bias and discrimination led to his firing. He was fired after the school hired Gene Bleymaier, the fired former athletic director of Boise State, who turned that school into a national football powerhouse. Bleymaier is attempting to transform the San Jose State football team into a similar kind of cash cow and a haven for sponsors. Anti-racist history and corporate football don’t mix, and Ron Davis believes that he was a casualty of a new administration with new priorities.

A school that disrespects its own history and its own legacy as an iconic center of African-American liberation reaps what it sows. In this case, several residential assistants apparently knew to some extent what was happening, saw the Confederate flags and did nothing. Yes, Messrs. Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren deserve to be punished to the fullest extent. But this is a school that needs to take a long, hard look at itself. If you are going to be home to “the statue,” you had better be worthy of what it represents.

Dave Zirin looks at the legacy of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

Why We Dislike Alex Rodriguez and His Persecutors

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez at a news conference in August, 2013

Oh, the drama of it all! New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, facing a 211-game suspension and the effective end of his career, chose to display a unique defense strategy at his arbitration hearing. He slammed down his hands and shouted, “This is ridiculous!” Then the three-time MVP leveled what is being described as a “stream of profanities” at Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer, Rob Manfred. After all of this, baseball’s last great diva topped it off by storming the hell out with a promise to never return.

The official word from A-Rod and his small army of lawyers was that he was enraged that league commissioner Bud Selig would be neither present at his hearing nor required to testify. Whether this was in fact a case of spontaneous combustion or ham-handed choreography, it was mere dinner theater compared to what happened next. A-Rod then journeyed to the last locale in New York City where his word is sacred and his character is above reproach: the radio studio of Sports Radio WFAN’s Mike Francesa.

In the forty minutes that followed, we were treated to the spectacle of what it sounds like when someone who has led a remarkably charmed life suddenly perceives himself to be Jean Valjean, the honest man being mercilessly persecuted by powerful people enflamed with vengeance. In A-Rod’s mind, his Javert, the man with a “vendetta” who “hates [his] guts”, is even more frightening than a singing Russell Crowe: 80-year-old Commissioner Bud Selig.

There is the old expression that a liberal is a conservative who has been to jail. A-Rod, who supports Republican political candidates like an honorary Koch brother, was a born-again radical in Mike Francesa’s radio booth, raging against “injustice”, and railing against “the system.” Mike Francesa backed him up, saying, “This is not about a rogue player. It is about a rogue sport.”

What was remarkable about the interview is that it was possible to be disgusted by his self-serving sense of victimization, to remember the lies he told to the face of Katie Couric, to roll your eyes at the tenderly asked questions of Mike Francesa and still agree with the overwhelming thrust of what he was saying. The most honest part of A-Rod’s interview was when he said to Francesa that people on the street stop him and say, “I hate your guts and you’re being railroaded.”

You could not find a more dubious messenger, but the message is not necessarily wrong. Major League Baseball promised mountains of evidence that Alex Rodriguez was not only prescribed performance-enhancing drugs by Anthony Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic but also “obstructed justice” by attempting to buy evidence from Bosch and keep witnesses from testifying. Yet all evidence of this that we have seen thus far is rooted in the testimony of Bosch himself. A-Rod’s team alleges that Anthony Bosch has been paid as much as $150,000 by Major League Baseball for his testimony, along with promises that he would not be prosecuted by the Florida attorney general’s office for distributing contraband pharmaceuticals. There are witnesses who have come forward to say that, yes indeed, Major League Baseball brought out the checkbook to acquire his allegiance.

“Vendetta” is a strong word, but Rodriguez is probably right that Bud Selig looks at him and licks his chops. The 211-game suspension is in flagrant violation of the collective bargaining agreement with the union, but MLB is determined to push this through. This is Selig’s opportunity, one year before his own announced retirement, to look like someone who helped clean up the sport. The same Bud Selig who sat on his hands and looked the other way during the go-go steroid 1990s; the same Bud Selig who along with his fellow owners became unimaginably wealthy as the balls went flying out of the park; the same Bud Selig who has been subject to withering books, news exposés and documentaries about why he chose to do nothing as locker rooms became all-you-can-inject pharmacies, wants A-Rod’s pelt to be part of his legacy. Instead of “Bud Selig, steroid enabler,” he becomes the man who stood up to the union and cleaned up the game.

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Meanwhile, here is Alex Rodriguez, the speed bump on the way to Bud Selig’s retirement, on Mike Francesa’s radio show sounding like Norma Rae, saying that he will fight this to very end. “I have no regrets,” he said. “It’s the system that is wrong.” He may be right, but waging and winning a fight against Major League Baseball would require an outpouring of solidarity from his fellow players and trust that this is not all a self-serving smokescreen. Solidarity and trust: for all his hundreds of millions of dollars, these are two things he has never been able to attain. A-Rod may try to sell himself as baseball’s Jean Valjean, but that may be beyond even his own dramatic powers.

Dave Zirin takes a look at A-Rod’s Maryland slums.

The Death of Len Bias, My Generation’s One-Person Shock Doctrine

James Bias, Jr., (center-right) mourns his brother, basketball star Len Bias

November 19 marks what would have been the fiftieth birthday of Len Bias, the University of Maryland’s galactically talented power forward who died at the age of 22 of a heart arrhythmia related to the ingesting of cocaine. His death came two days after being picked second by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Never in the history of sports has so much potential been extinguished with such swift cruelty.

Athletes and other cultural figures in the prime of life have died before and since. But the memory of Len Bias still has the power to make grown adults feel numb like it’s happening all over again: a moment where the world as we knew it changed and something we did not even identify as innocence died in an instant.

Understanding the impact of Bias’s death starts by understanding Bias on the court. His abilities were magnetic. Bias was the genetic splicing of Doctor J and Charles Oakley: a high flying, muscle bound, talent who made you feel like you were watching a sneak preview into the game’s future. During his time in the ACC, it was common to refer to Bias as the most physically gifted player in the conference: the second, being that kid from North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Take a moment, watch these highlights and just notice where Les Bias’s head resides, relative to the rim. This was simply something we had not yet seen.

For basketball lovers, his death was the asphyxiation of a limitless potential, and to quote Bethlehem Shoals’ words on Lebron James, “an American Dream that most of us are too bashful to even dream of.” Now that I live fifteen minutes from where Len Bias went to college at UMD and ten minutes from his High School, Northwestern, I have also learned that his death crushed the heart of an entire community. Len Bias was the kid from Landover who never left Prince George’s County, one of the most vital majority African-American regions in the country. PG County is the only municipality in the United States that went from majority white to majority black while rising in per capita income and education. Len Bias was not only going to rep that to the world, he told everyone that he would be bringing them along for the ride.

The shock of Len Bias’s death is the only way to understand how, after one tragic night, he became a one person “shock doctrine”, and inexorably changed the conversation of how the United States dealt with illegal drugs. “The shock doctrine” is Naomi Klein’s theory about how “shocks” like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes open the door for radical right-wing reforms that people would reject if they were not in a state of mental disarray over the destruction of their lives. Len Bias’s death had a similar effect.

When Bias died, as longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in 2009, “I never again mocked Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug efforts, not when even a Len Bias could be struck dead.”

Masses of people were inclined to agree. The problem was that Nancy Reagan’s “anti-drug efforts” involved a shift toward criminalizing the poorest sections of our cities. Instead of speaking about drug addiction as a medical issue, it became a criminal justice issue. Instead of selling drugs being seen as an economic survival imperative of communities left behind by the “Reagan Revolution”, it became seen as an act that demanded a military response with those on street corners seen as enemy combatants. And no one wanted to talk about how the drugs came into the communities in the first place.

It might be hard for people under 25 to even understand our ignorance and fear, but we really thought that there would be graveyards of people, from little kids to star athletes, dying after their first snort of cocaine or their first puff of crack, and there was federally approved school curriculum carrying that very message. In 1988, the US Congress even passed the bi-partisan Anti-Drug Act, known as “The Len Bias Law.” It created more mandatory minimums for drug offenders, expanded police arresting powers, and poured more money into the DARE program at schools. I remember DARE and being told about my duty to turn in my parents if I ever saw them with “illegal drugs.” Fortunately for them, I never caught them because at age 11, with Len Bias’s death on my mind, I think I was ready to do it.

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We seem to be waking up from this nightmare, at least rhetorically, but even with more people recognizing that the expansion of the prison system to swallow non-violent drug offenders has created a “New Jim Crow” and even with more states adopting more sane approaches to marijuana, the war on drugs plods along. Today in the DC area that Len Bias called home, black men are eight times more likely than whites to get stopped and arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. Len Bias’s death was an unspeakable tragedy. What people in power have done with his memory has metastasized that tragedy beyond comprehension.

Liliana Segura asks why non-violent offenders should face life in prison.

Egyptian Athletes Take a Stand and Pay a Price

Egyptian soccer star Ahmed Abdel Zaher was suspended for this gesture

The New York Yankees of Egyptian soccer, Al Ahly, have officially expelled one of its top players, striker Ahmed Abdel Zaher. Did this extraordinary act take place in the aftermath of a heartbreaking loss? No, the team had actually just triumphed 2-0 and Zaher had even scored a goal. Was there an off-field scandal? Did Zaher find himself caught with steroids, or bullying teammates or running a dog-fighting ring? None of that. He was, by all accounts, a model citizen. Zaher’s crime was choosing to remember the massacred victims of Egypt’s dictatorship on the field of play, and in the Egypt of 2013, such an act will not go unpunished.

After Zaher scored in Ahly’s 2-0 win over South Africa’s Orlando Pirates in the African Champions League in Cairo on Sunday, he flashed four fingers while running back down the field. That simple gesture has changed his life, because flashing four fingers in today’s Egypt is a gesture as incendiary as raising a black gloved fist in 1968.

The Arabic word for “fourth” is Rabaa, and uttering the word “Rabaa”—like whispering the word “union” in nineteenth-century coal country—can get you in all kinds of trouble. It was just last August when hundreds of peaceful Egyptian supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi were killed by security forces at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. They were sitting in and demanding some kind of electoral justice after Morsi was deposed by Egyptian General Abdel Al-Sisi. After they had occupied the area for six weeks and with no end in sight, Al-Sisi had them summarily slaughtered. Once the blood had been washed away, the dictatorship has set about the project of erasing any memory that such an atrocity had occurred. Currently situated at the site of the massacre, a statue has been erected. It is not to commemorate the dead, but it’s a monument to the Egyptian military and police. And yet there are those throughout Egypt who choose not to forget. Their symbol is those four raised fingers: “Remember Rabaa.”

Ahmed Abdel Zaher in particular had a dear friend die in Rabaa. He wanted him to be remembered. Al Ahly however, would have none of it. The club already has a very precarious relationship with the current dictatorship. This stems from a match last year against Al Masri in Port Said where Al Ahly saw seventy-two of its fans killed. Most died of asphyxiation, as waves of Al-Masri fans pressed them against locked gates. It is widely believed, with ample supporting video evidence, that security officials did not intervene so as to punish the  hyper-intense Al Ahly ultra fan clubs who played a leading role in the ouster of President-for-life Hosni Mubarak. Since Port Said, the Al Ahly ultras have demonstrated, sat-in and fought in the streets, demanding justice for those killed. But management at Al Ahly seems desperate to not ruffle any more feathers, and Zaher will pay for that with his job, if not worse. He is also due to be “interrogated by the state-run Egyptian Football Association in the coming days.

Al Ahly may be the ones officially putting Zaher “up for sale”, but his release was clearly engineered by the Egyptian state. Only after sports minister Taher Abouzeid said that “dissuasive sanctions await the player by his club and the soccer association,” and that he was confident the team would make “the right decisions, ” did Al Ahly buckle and send him packing. They then released a statement, seemingly out of commitment to turn this tragedy into a farce, saying that “the club’s principles” were rooted in “its firm rejection of mixing politics with sports.”

At least Zaher is not being singled out. Last month, Egypt’s Kung Fu Association banned international star Mohamed Youssef from participating in international championships for two years after he wore a T-shirt bearing the four-finger sign at a tournament in Russia. Youssef was not wearing it while competing but during the medal ceremony where he was awarded the gold. Last week there was another kung fu tournament in Malaysia where Youssef’s replacement, Hesham Abdel Hamid, won the silver. He also flashed four fingers to both remember Rabaa and support his teammate. Abdel Hamid was also punished and stripped of both his medal and prize winnings. As one fan of the sport said to me, “Egypt has not won any medals for years. Yet they punish their champions.”

What is so informative about this crackdown is that Egypt’s dictatorship has committed not only to punishing athletes but punishing their best athletes. They are not only going after demonstrations of remembrance of Rabaa but doing so on the highest possible cultural platforms where they are fully aware it will engender the widest possible coverage. The message is clear: no one is safe, and you will remember Rabaa at your own risk and your own peril.

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And yet despite the crackdown, the resistance continues. I spoke with Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of the forthcoming Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. He said, “Since the tragic events at Rabaa, the wave of protests has only grown across the country. The attempts to censure the actions of conscientious Egyptian athletes and artists who oppose the return to authoritarianism reflects a desperation on the part of the current regime due its failure to establish its legitimacy. Zaher’s demonstration in solidarity with the victims of the military is a clear sign that the leaders of the coup have not yet succeeded in their mission.”

This “mission” to establish legitimacy can take place only if people allow the dictatorship to control the memory of what was done to achieve power. That’s what makes the actions of Zaher, Youssef and Hamid so brave and so important in the quest to achieve democracy in the region. Their message is simply to never forget.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous talks about a new draconian anti-protest law in Egypt.

Stop Blaming Black Men for the Dolphins Locker-Room Racism

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right)

In a classic episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David ties himself into a knot of racism and white guilt over whether he should fire an African-American handyman who did what he felt was a lousy job installing his television.

Larry never realized that the problem was in fact his own inability to switch on the satellite. His friend Wanda Sykes figured it out in three seconds and said, “You gotta turn the damn satellite on for the TV to work! See the little green light? Just gotta turn it on! Or you can fire the black man. Whatever works for you.”

It boggles the mind that this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying saga, a story about an n-bomb dropping abuser, a complicit coaching staff and the ways “sausages are made” in the National Football League, has for many commentators come back to “blaming the black man.”

The fault, in this narrative, is not with the toxic nature of the Dolphins locker room or a coaching staff abiding a racist culture in order to “toughen up” players, but with an apolitical generation of young black men who have no problem with white people dropping n-bombs like Vanilla Sherbet in Fear of a Black Hat.

So many commentators have taken these comments and gone on the generalization express train, which always seems to stop at the “blame young black men station.” In this line of commentary, young black men don’t know about civil rights and have no conception of what their elders went through. If only they weren’t so ignorant, this Richie Incognito situation would never have happened.

Jason Whitlock, in a column that actually has a great deal to offer, writes that their acceptance of Richie Incognito as “honorary” is the fruits of our “incarceration nation” and a “prison yard” locker room that valorizes a certain kind of black masculinity—more represented by Incognito than the Stanford grad Martin—and has turned every young black man into wanting to be Adebisi from Oz, or risk being a “punk”.

This all sounds convincing, but only if you are predisposed to see NFL players already as a collection of thugs. Does the violence of the NFL or the violence of the neighborhoods of their youth spill over into player’s lives? Absolutely. But the idea that the NFL locker room is a “prison yard” where players are “predators” and white players drop n-bombs while black players laugh it up is not supported by facts. (This stereotype also slanders many of the more than 2 million people who live behind bars and are trying to hold onto their humanity in a deeply dehumanizing environment.)

The most important thing that anyone in the media can do with this story is to try and untangle what is part of “NFL locker room culture” and what is unique to the Miami Dolphins locker room.

Based on my reporting and all the reporting I’ve read from others it is clear that, yes, this type of bullying is far too common in the NFL. Yes, the kinds of so-called jokes about sexual assault and homophobia are also very common, although the homophobia, reflecting our culture, is getting better. But also every person I’ve talked to have said that “no way no how” do white players walk around the locker room dropping n-bombs in a friendly way as if they are just one of “the boyz.” As Ted Johnson former New England Patriots said to me, “The only time I ever heard white people saying it was if they were being racist and were actually looking for a fight.”

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As much as I respect actor and former NFL player Terry Crews and his comments about the NFL—they called him Tyrone!—the league is not, as he said, “jail with money.” It takes an insane amount of focus, dedication and hard work to make it to the National Football League. Talking about players like they are thugs only reinforces both racial profiling and racism. It also valorizes is the very qualities that Richie Incognito seemed proud to represent: the bullying violence and disregard for others.

And as for this specific Miami Dolphins locker room, it sounds both like many other locker rooms but also unique in its toxicity. But as in every single locker room, it is a place like in every NFL locker room where the life of a player is incredibly precarious. There is no way that Richie incognito gets away with dropping n-bombs without approval from the coaching staff. Many are saying that they wish more players had been more confident to stand up to the 320-pound Richie Incognito. But those saying that should also take a step back and realize that is exactly what Jonathan Martin just did.

Greg Mitchell on Richard Cohen’s controversial gaffe about multi-racial marriage and de Blasio’s family.

On Reflection: Jay Glazer's Interview with Richie Incognito

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right)

Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer landed the interview everyone wanted when he sat down with Richie Incognito on Fox Sports Sunday. Upon seeing the interview I was angered and disgusted. But I also now realize I did not in fact see the whole interview, which aired Monday in its entirety. Having now spoken with Jay Glazer and others involved in this story, I want to be honest and straight up about both.

First and most obviously, I was wrong in thinking that what was shown on Fox Sports NFL Sunday pregame show was the entire interview. The heart of my critique involved all the questions that I believed went unasked, as well as the choppy editing and quick cuts that made it appear as if the interview was sculpted to put Incognito in the best possible light. In fact many of the questions I took Jay Glazer to task for not asking, he did in fact ask. Glazer, when you see the full interview, asked in a tougher tone about Incognito's racism, asked more about the bullying and how far it extended, and asked whether the coaches "ordered the code red". These questions are important. They also ended up on the initial cutting room floor, as I saw last night on Fox Sports. I maintain, given the importance of this story, that Fox did us all a disservice by not being brave and just saying “heck with the pre-game show. Let’s show this interview to the widest possible audience.” But they didn’t and that is not on Jay Glazer. (Glazer it is worth noting, disagrees with me about this, saying that they have "a responsibility to all the NFL fans who don't care about this story." I think the story is big enough that they should have just gone for it.)

Second, I wrote in my piece that Jay Glazer was wrong to do this interview because he had, as reported elsewhere, an “existing personal and financial relationship” with Incognito. This is not in fact the case. I spoke to Jay Glazer, did my own research and determined that while Incognito did at one time train in the Mixed Martial Arts Studio, co-run by Glazer, he never, ever paid Glazer to train there. There is a strong case to be made that by allowing big time NFL athletes to train there for free, it improves the brand of the facility and inspires more people to sign up for its $5,000 per month training progream. Glazer says that whatever money goes in, it goes to the trainers and he "doesn't make a dime." However it operates, people should stop saying that Incognito and Glazer were “business partners” because it is just not true. (I did make an effort to confirm or deny all of this before my piece went to print but did not hear back.)

Now for the critiques I maintain. In any interview, especially on very complicated topics, you never get every question you want asked but I thought Jay Glazer himself set a very high bar when he tweeted, “I held nothing back, asked him everything.”

But Jay Glazer did not ask Richie Incognito about accusations of sexual assault made against him last summer. Speaking to Glazer he said he believed that to be “a separate story.” I disagree because it speaks not only to Incognito’s character but also how the team could see someone accused of any act of sexual violence as an elected “leader” in that locker room.

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Glazer also gave  Richie Incognito a platform to say that Jonathan Martin sent him a text that said, “I am going to kill your whole family.” Neither Glazer nor Incognito told the audience that this was actually a forwarded piece of kitschy digital art complete with cute pet and smiling person. This was important because without that, it came off as a very one-sided attack on Martin’s character, an attack that looked even worse when Martin’s lawyer released the actual text.

These are my criticisms and I stand by them. We need to hold those covering this story to the highest possible standard – myself included – because I truly believe that the issues raised by this story have provoked the most important discussion on sports, race, and manhood we have seen in years. But my harsh judgment of Jay Glazer’s journalistic chops in terms of the questions asked and his personal relationship with Incognito were both over the top.

 

NFL Players Confronted With the Question ‘What Makes a Man’?

What “makes a man”? The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin “bullying” saga is forcing NFL players to ask themselves that very question. The traditional “man code” in the NFL is that your manhood is defined by your ability to inflict violence on others and deny the presence of pain—particularly mental or psychological pain—in yourself. It is also of course loudly, proudly and aggressively heterosexual, with women existing only as extensions of desires for either sex or violence. This “man code” is not only organically tied to the violence of the sport itself but also has a tremendous influence on the broader society.

Yet while the NFL, the most popular entertainment in the United States, shapes our world, it also reflects a society steeped in sexism, violence against women and an ethos that reveres physical domination of others, all while affecting that “stiff upper lip.” We all suffer for this state of affairs: the bullies and the bullied, the abusers and the abused. Men commit suicide in the United States at rates three to four times that of women. Men are far more likely to be alcoholics and abusers. Taking your own life or obliterating your brain is seen as preferable to the simple act of asking for help. There are, of course, myriad reasons for this. One root cause, as basketball player and mental health advocate Royce White put it, is “a subtle war—in America, and in the world—between business and health. It’s no secret that two percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the two percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.”

As true as this undoubtedly is, if young men just felt like it was permissible to be vulnerable, it would save a lot of lives and keep a lot of families’ hearts from being broken. On the many fronts that this fight needs to be fought, one is in challenging the rigid expectations rooted in whether you are born a boy or girl. These ideas of “what makes a real man” and “what makes a real women” serve far more often than not to marginalize, disrespect and even destroy those who don’t meet those expectations. I would make the case that the first step toward reaching that point is redefining what we mean when we talk about “manhood” and femininity and what actually makes a “real man” or “real woman.” If there is anything positive that is arising from this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying/harassment imbroglio is that it is forcing some NFL players to confront this question perhaps for the first time in their lives, on the highest possible platform with the potential to create a much needed national discussion.

What “makes a man”? Is it being a “tough as nails” bar-fighting, woman-groping, n-bomb dropping gem like Richie Incognito and his coterie of defenders, or is it being like Jonathan Martin, who had the guts to break the locker room code of silence and after “endur[ing] a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate,” and having his sister threatened, said he could not take it anymore?

Here are two profoundly different answers to that question. Chris Johnson, the pro bowl running back of the Tennessee Titans, said this week that he would never want Martin as a teammate, saying, “It would be kind of hard to put my trust in a guy to go out there every Sunday and hold his own…. the end of the day you have to step up and be a man and handle your own.”

But for Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the 24-year-old said, “I hope that we see Martin playing again soon—I’ve watched some tape of him, he’s a good player. Hats off to him for standing up and being a man.”

I give a lot of credit to Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall, and others siding with Martin, because the reality is that on far too many franchises, the ability to live up to this “code” can determine whether or not you are still employed. I hope people are listening to the “man code dissenters.” We need to get to a point where this entire vocabulary about what makes a “real man” dies for our collective health. Maybe this begins by our saying loudly and proudly that “real men” stand up to the Richie Incognitos of this world and “real men” have the courage to, heaven forbid, ask for help.

The Chicago Bears: A Ray of Light in the Darkness of the NFL’s Bully-palooza

Every day it gets worse. Every day there is more news emerging from NFL locker rooms about racist, sexist, violent harassment, otherwise known as “bullying,” a term many are saying is far too benign. Every day we also get more sports radio hosts—the football version of the Iraq War chickenhawks—defending this status quo as a necessity in a violent “manly” sport. KNBR sports radio host Damon Bruce, who I suppose we can now call the “William Kristol” of this mess, said, “There is a serious group of you fellas out there that have just been so feminized by the sensitive types out there who continue to now interject their ultra-feminine sensitive opinions into the world of sports…. This is guy’s stuff. This is men’s stuff. And I don’t expect women to understand men’s stuff anymore than they should expect me to be able to relate to labor pains.”

The only “labor pains” worth mentioning—trust me—is the pain in having to listen to this guy’s show. To paraphrase something once said about Homer Simpson, in any other country Damon Bruce would have starved to death years ago.

But if there is one bright spot in this whole thing, it is the fact that– thanks to courage of Dolphins whistleblower Jonathan Martin—the curtain has been officially lifted on this horror-show of deeply destructive, macho horseshit. It has also shed light on NFL players and teams who are not willing to play these kinds of games.

An example worth far more attention than it is receiving is that of the Chicago Bears. The team somewhat surprisingly is at the top of the NFC North division, even with a new coach, Marc Trestman, at the helm. Maybe there is a reason the team has stuck together through injuries and adversity. It turns out that Trestman’s first act upon taking the job was outlawing any and all of this so-called “hazing”. He said to CBS Chicago’s Adam Hoge that this was the way it was going to be from his “first night” as coach.

Trestman spoke at length about how the function of sports should be to serve the opposite impulses of frat/bully culture that dominates so many locker rooms. He said,

“The words you use, the way you act, the things you say, affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We’ve got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions, but that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time, in this building, on the field, when we’re out in the community because we represent the entire city.”

Trestman’s culture-changing influence also adds more evidence to what former players have been saying to me all week: in the top-down, non-guaranteed-contract world of the NFL, none of this brutality happens without the approval of the coach. (The seat of Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland should be feeling mighty toasty right now,)

It perhaps should not be surprising that the most quote-worthy, remarkable, inspiring analysis of this entire Dolphins mess has come out of the Bears locker room. As Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall put it,

A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is “Get up. Shake it off. You will be OK. Don’t cry.” When a little girl falls down, what do we say? “It’s going to be OK.” We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we are teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. It’s that times a hundred with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt. You can’t show any pain. So, for a guy that comes into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, you know, that’s a problem. So that’s what I mean by “The Culture of the NFL,” and that’s what we have to change.”

It does have to change. It may need to start in Miami, an organization that saw Richie Incognito and thought that they had a true leader in their midst, but it sure as hell does not end there. It ends in every community the NFL influences with an ethos that “manhood” is defined by the ability to make others feel less than human. It ends when we stop demanding that people act in certain deeply unhealthy ways because of their biology. It ends when we start seeing people like Jonathan Martin as brave and those who find something ennobling in defending the violent harassment of bullies as the true cowards.

The Miami Dolphins Showcase Bully Solidarity

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right)

With an organized uniformity resembling a flying picket of bully solidarity, members of the Miami Dolphins are loudly and proudly proclaiming their love for suspended teamate and alleged racist bully Richie Incognito as well as their disgust for his accuser, second-year player Jonathan Martin.

Wide receiver Brian Hartline is “outraged” at Martin for coming forward. Tackle Tyson Clabo said that Martin “needs to stand up and be a man,” and added “I don’t know why he’s doing this.” And then there is quarterback and face of the franchise Ryan Tannehill who said that Incognito is “the best teammate I could’ve asked for.”

When players were asked whether Martin, who has two years left on his contract, can return to Miami’s locker room, as ESPN’s James Walker reported, “Several players declined to answer that question on Wednesday—almost out of spite.”

Some African American teammates have also said that Incognito’s use of the phrase “half n——-“, in reference to Martin was fine with them, with one player saying anonymously, “Richie is honorary. I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color.” (No word whether Warren Sapp, who says that Incognito called him a n—-—during a game, sees Incognito as “honorary”.)

As his teammates trash him and applaud his abuser, Martin has checked himself into a mental health facility.

It is more than understandable why someone would look at this carnival of reaction and be sickened. But people should be cautious about directing their outrage solely at only those in the Dolphins organization who wear shoulder pads. I have spoken to several current and retired NFL players this week and they all say variations of the same thing: none of this happens without tacit or explicit approval from those on high. As former New England Patriot Ted Johnson put it to me, “People have to keep in mind that players do not have guaranteed contracts, so nothing happens that does not have the approval of the head coach, general manager or whoever is seen as being in charge.” This backs up reports in the Sun-Sentinel that Incognito was instructed by coaches to “toughen up” Martin after he missed a voluntary off-season workout.

Johnson and many others also said that no, they never heard white people on their teams calling their black teammates n----- in the locker room as some kind of accepted term of endearment. One player said that he never heard the n-word come out of a white person’s mouth unless it was a racist looking for a fight.

In other words, based on everyone with whom I spoke, it is clear that not every locker room is like this train wreck in Miami. If you have a coach who will not put up with bullying, then it won’t happen. It is also true however, that coaches with a zero tolerance for this kind of harassment are few and far between. It may not be on every team, but in far too many locker rooms there is a culture that reveres people like Richie Incognito and despises the “weakness” of Jonathan Martin. This gets reinforced by sports media often dominated by a particular kind of ex-jock who will carry water for the status quo with the doggedness of a mule in the desert. Case in point is Mike Golic. The former NFL lineman and current host of ESPN’s popular Mike and Mike in the Morning radio show was ranting about how he would have just fought anyone who bullied him. He’d punch them in the face because, as he said, “That’s just me.” When sportswriter Dan Le Batard pointed out that sometimes fighting, particularly fighting a violent rageaholic like Incognito, could make a problem worse, Golic asked Le Batard, “Have you ever done anything manly in your life?”

If you believe that being either like Richie Incognito or being the sort of person who would punch out Richie Incognito makes you a ” real man”, then you better have the word “teen” in your age. Otherwise, you are more than part of the problem. You are actually preserving the bullying status quo of violence as a twisted definition of “manhood”. Even worse, you are standing with Mike Golic.

As Byron Hurt, former college football star who became a documentary filmmaker devoted to exploring so many of the issues at play in this story, wrote,

In leaving the Miami Dolphins football team, Jonathan Martin has subverted a long-held belief system and tradition that relies on male silence and compliance. It is a practice that intentionally preys on easy, vulnerable targets. Martin showed strength and courage, not weakness—as it has been suggested—by not allowing the abusive behavior to continue.

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Byron Hurt is right. Just look at the profiles of conformity and cowardice on display. You have the Dolphins hierarchy of coaches and execs who seem to be either lawyering up or practicing the time-honored practice of covering their asses. You have the Dolphins players who cannot stand Incognito choosing to remain silent.* You have certain ex-jocks who from the safety of a plush radio studio talk about how they would “man up and bust some ass.” The only hero in this is Jonathan Martin. He blew the whistle and called out Richie Incognito for racism, for homophobic threats, and for treating what should be a workplace like a frat house. He is defining himself as an adult in a room of children. This is called character. Tragically it is not the kind of character valued in the NFL, and that’s the heart of the damn problem.

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* According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, this group is significant but keeping their heads down.

Mychal Denzel Smith talks about how Brown University students spoke out against racism.

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