Where sports and politics collide.
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.”
I was listening to a nationally syndicated sports radio show this morning about the release of the Ray Rice videotape that shows the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking his then-fiancée Janay unconscious in a casino elevator. We, the public, already knew this had taken place. We, the public, already knew Rice had been suspended for a much-criticized two games. We, the public, had not seen the actual physical blow that removed Janay Rice from her conscious self. Now we had, and the fallout was clearly going to be extreme.
The radio hosts posed question after question: What will the NFL do now that the tape has been released? How will the Ravens organization react to this? (Now we know. The Ravens have released Ray Rice.) How will the Baltimore fans who’ve been cheering Ray Rice respond? How will the media—oh, the poor media!—react to having perhaps been lied to about whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had seen the videotape?
The one question they did not glaringly ask is, How will Janay Rice react to the release of the tape? The absence of concern for Janay Rice—in the press, on social media, among my own colleagues—is the most disheartening part of this entire ordeal.
No one cares that she is now going to have to relive this incident over and over again. No one cares that the world has now become privy to what may be the most humiliating moment of her entire life. No one cares that she’s basically now being used as a soapbox with otherwise apolitical NFL commentators using her prone body to get on their high horse and safely blast the league. There is video, and those who never raised their voice publicly about the axis of domestic violence and the NFL before are now bellowing the loudest.
ESPN “NFL insider” Adam Schefter was enraged and called the entire situation “the biggest black eye in league history.” Unfortunate phrasing aside, even the statement speaks volumes. What about every other act of domestic violence in league history that wasn’t caught on videotape? What about the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher two seasons ago actually killing the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life? Why are these actions seen as less of a black eye? The answer, of course, is that this one was caught on videotape. In other words, it damages the league’s public relations. In other words, this is—again—not about Janay Rice. It is about the well-being of the league.
So if no one is going to talk about the welfare of the person who is actually subjected to the violence on that tape, let’s talk about it here. I spent the morning communicating with people who work on issues involving domestic violence and violence against women nearly every day of their lives. They all said the same thing, without dissent: releasing this tape to the world is incredibly damaging to Janay Rice. Just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly. If Janay Rice wanted to show this tape to the world, in other words if she had offered her consent, that is a different matter. But showing and reshowing it just because we can is an act of harm.
Tragically, it seems—especially judging by my Twitter feed—that very few people agree with this sentiment. Their belief—and to be frank, this is shared by a lot of people whom I respect—is that seeing the video will shock people, advance the conversation and force action. Even some of the same people saying that nude photo hacks shouldn’t be clicked on are saying people have an obligation to bear witness to what Rice did.
I have serious doubts about this. If you were outraged by violence against women before, will seeing this video really change your mind? If you are not outraged by violence against women, does this video actually make a damn bit of difference? My fear, and this happens whenever you have videos that spark outrage until the next new cycle, is that all it will provoke are the kinds of reactions that don’t necessarily help anybody, least of all the victims. I hear influential people like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg asking the question, “Why isn’t Ray Rice in prison?”
There is no thought given to restorative justice. Only how do we further punish, impoverish and crowd our prisons. As for Janay Rice, she has of course been standing with Ray Rice, even marrying him after the incident. I have no doubt that there are issues there, but they become our damn business only if Janay Rice wants them to be our damn business. I will ask again: What does Janay Rice want, and shouldn’t that matter? If it doesn’t matter, all we are doing is re-victimizing this person one click at a time.
Janay Rice has released a statement on her instagram account about the last 24 hours. She comments on both the release of her husband from the Baltimore Ravens as well on seeing her abuse played and replayed on a loop. People will surely pick her statement apart and make all kinds of judgments about her state of mind in making this statement. They shouldn't. I would ask that people just read it, without analyzing it as if we are all now experts on domestic violence as well as having some kind of voyeuristic insight on the lives of two individuals many had not even heard of 24 hours ago.
"I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I'm mourning the death of my closest friend. But you have to accept the fact that reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted [opinions] from the public has cause my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don't you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow and show the world what real love is! Ravens nation we love you!"
There is another post afterwards that simply reads, "Hurt beyond words."
People by now have surely seen the video. Any site that actually cares about violence against women more than page clicks should take the damn thing down.
I really hope there is an “Edward Snowden” in the office of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. I really hope there is someone with a computer and a conscience who can tell us how the Atlanta Hawks franchise has come to be placed on the auction block. If you have missed the story, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has “self-reported” a 2012 e-mail detailing the tragedy of how there are too many black fans at Atlanta’s home games. He posits that the hip-hop music, the number of black cheerleaders and the “too black” kiss cam is keeping “40 year old white guys” away from the arena. Chastened by his memory of the e-mail, we now hear, Levenson has sent it to the commissioner and agreed to sell the franchise.
If you believe this story, then you might also think that Daniel Snyder just started practicing Native American philanthropy out of the goodness of his heart. There are really only two scenarios that make sense. The first is that, following the expulsion of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racism went audio, owners are vulnerable. This e-mail was going to leak, and rather than deal with the firestorm, Levenson is getting out in the off-season.
The second is just a tad more cynical: the Sterling Family Trust just sold the Clippers for 2.4 billion bucks. Levenson has wanted to unload this team for years, even selling it in 2011, only to have the league void the sale. Now, in the wake of the owner-friendly 2011 collective bargaining agreement, NBA teams have seen their values skyrocket. The sorry Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million earlier this year and Mavs owner Mark Cuban called this “a bargain.” Levenson gets a world of negative publicity, but his e-mail, which includes critiques of Southern whites’ “racist garbage” is ambiguous enough that it’s hardly a Don Sterling or Jimmy the Greek level of nuclear racist invective. In other words, he will still get invited to all the parties. He also probably spurs an NBA sponsored bidding war for his franchise. Maybe some owners think racism can be the new stock speculation, bringing publicity and putting air into the league’s financial bubble.
Either way, the NBA will help him because Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green. (Recommended here: David Leonard’s book After Artest: the NBA and the Assault on Blackness about the sport’s racial agenda in this era).
Levenson expressed those anxieties as clear as day. The most revealing and disturbing part of his e-mail is how many people with whom I have spoken find it to be defensible. This is not only because Levenson also blasts the “racist garbage” of white fans avoiding the team. It is apparently defensible because it is so transparently obvious that this is how the NBA has approached their business for decades. After all, does anyone honestly think that racial calculations were never discussed when Warriors owner Joe Lacob orchestrated his team’s move from Oakland to San Francisco or when the Nets relocated from Jersey to gentrifying Brooklyn? But to defend Levenson on that basis, while accurate, misses the larger point. It is a problem that this has been the NBA’s business plan for thirty-five years. To see it written out is to see in stark terms not just the reality of how owners talk about racial issues related to their business but also to how racism is actually organized in corporate circles.
Please read the entire e-mail. It’s fascinating (spelling errors aside). But here are a couple pertinent passages:
[W]hen digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games.…
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around [the arena] yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleader…, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy… i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”
There is more, but that is the section that demands reading and rereading. This is not just a “random Caucasian” spouting his racial theories, complaining that there is too much hippety hop at the games. This is a powerful CEO with the power to put flesh and bone on those ideas: to give away fewer tickets to poor black kids (something he complains about earlier in the e-mail), to fire cheerleaders who are too black, to make the game prohibitive economically or just unwelcoming to a black audience. Or put another way, to give it “red state appeal.” The fact that the NBA operates this way should not excuse Levenson. Instead, it should shine a spotlight on how widespread this kind of thinking has been in the league’s corporate offices. It should also remind us that racism is often a financial and institutional imperative.
“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”—Arundhati Roy
We don’t normally put “ESPN broadcaster” and “civil resistance” in the same sentence, but that is exactly what is happening at the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports. A group of high-profile broadcasters and reporters are saying that they will heed the requests of Native American tribal councils over the dictates of the National Football League and refuse to say the racial slur that brands the Washington football team.
Now we have ESPN’s Tom Jackson, Lindsay Czarniak, Keith Olbermann, Lisa Salters and even Mike Tirico, the play-by-play voice of its top-rated Monday Night Football, who have said that they either will not use the name or, in Tirico’s case, will use it as little as possible. (Czarniak, who comes from the DMV and was a local sportscaster, is a particularly powerful name on this list. As she said to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitch, “I prefer not to use the name. If it is offensive to someone and if we know that, that’s all we need to know.”) To this I would add what may be the best article I have ever read about the need to change the name by veteran sportswriter Steve Wulf, which just happened to appear on ESPN.com.
Another act of quiet civil resistance is seen in what has happened to the franchise’s merchandise revenue. The months leading up to the NFL season usually mean a spike in sales in their assorted brands. The league as a whole saw a modest 3 percent rise in this revenue during the last financial quarter. Not great, but hardly a crisis. Washington’s sales? They plummeted 35 percent. In an NFL that pools its merchandizing money, this could mean pressure on Dan Snyder to change the name from the one group he’s always had in his corner: other owners.
Not surprisingly the person hired to clean up behind team owner Dan Snyder, team spokesperson Tony Wylee, got out his burgundy-and-gold shovel and said it had nothing to do with people’s not wanting to wear something increasingly identified as “racist.” He said to CNN, “Unfortunately, team performance on the field is a major factor in the apparel business, and a 3-13 season doesn’t do much to help sales. However, we are working hard to improve that record and we look forward to the season opener this weekend.”
There are two rather glaring problems with this argument. First of all, the team has been largely terrible for the last twenty-two years, making the playoffs only four times, without its merchandise sales dropping 35 percent. In fact, the brand was so powerful, it was always one of the top sellers in the NFL despite the mediocre on-field product. Second, if the team does “turn it around” and advance deep into the playoffs, it will only bring more publicity, more protest, more pressure and more opportunities for Dan Snyder to be on camera. The bright lights are simply not his friend. In Washington, DC, a football town if there ever was one, not buying the jersey, refusing to fly the flag from your car and basically not being an unpaid advertiser for this brand constitutes an act of civil resistance.
Like many people in this area, I have cheered for this team. I also once had a gig analyzing games as a fill-in anchor on Comcast Sports Net and never gave a great deal of thought or inquiry into the history of the name or how it affects people in the twenty-first century. I started looking into it more after a young girl of Native American ancestry saw the logo on a media folder in my bag and asked me fearfully why “the man’s head had been chopped off.” To paraphrase Arundhati Roy, once you know the history and hear the voices of those who have to live with the way these images define their lives and their place in this country, it is extremely difficult to pretend you haven’t. Or as Cris Collinsworth, the NBC football analyst, said last October, “I have to admit, as I was watching the game Sunday night and I was saying the word Redskins, in my brain it was coming out red skin. And there was something about that that just didn’t feel right.” Dan Snyder is wrong. The truth, despite what he says, is not on his side. Despite his belligerence, he will lose. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Read Next: Questioning the NFL’s commitment to fight domestic violence
Six hours after I published the below piece on Michael Sam, the Dallas Cowboys announced that they would in fact sign the co-SEC defensive player of the year to their practice squad. This was a relief to everyone who believed that Michael Sam—on merit—had earned a place in the National Football League with his stellar pre-season performance for the St. Louis Rams.
It was also a relief given what I wrote in the below article: that the hobgoblins of homophobia seemed to be preventing Sam from getting an opportunity. Under the code word of “distraction”—the distraction being his sexuality—Sam was being denied a place on an NFL roster. Given the endless actual “distractions” belched into the culture from the pro football—from brain damage to racist mascots to domestic violence—one didn’t know whether the "distraction" fears of general managers was an outrage or a farce.
While it is a relief that Sam will get his chance, it is also a thrill that he is landing with the Dallas Cowboys for a series of reasons. Unlike the St. Louis Rams, the Cowboys are decimated on defense so Sam will actually get something that would have been difficult to find in St. Louis: the opportunity to play. In addition, Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is respected as someone who knows how to get the most out of players with Sam’s ability to get downfield and pressure the quarterback. Then there is the city of Dallas itself. Contrary to stereotypes people may have about Texas, Dallas is home to a significant community of LGBT individuals and allies. The city’s elected Sheriff is a gay Latina, Lupe Valdez. Sam could play anywhere, but it is good to know that his new city would be place where he could find support. That gets to the last reason why Dallas is such a quality landing spot for Sam: he is from Texas. Michael Sam has come home. In a sport practically defined by bad news this offseason, Michael Sam actually gives many people a sense of hope. If the people in Roger Goodell’s office did not realize this before, they certainly do now.
* * *
The tweet sent by one of my favorite football writers, Mike Freeman speaks volumes: “GM tells me: ‘Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.’ To me, that’s cowardice. But that’s just me.” It is not just you, Mike. This is cowardice writ large: risk-averse corporate executives unwilling to improve their team because they fear that the “distraction” of openly gay linebacker Michael Sam is not worth the effort.
For those unaware of the latest news, Michael Sam was among the last cuts of the St. Louis Rams. Despite a stellar preseason where he was among the team leaders in sacks, tackles and snaps. Sam found himself on the outside when the final roster was announced. This in and of itself was not surprising. In a league where pass-rushers are a premium, St. Louis has perhaps the deepest crew of quarterback sackers and run stoppers in the NFL. This made their original drafting of Sam somewhat curious, and it was always unclear how he would in fact make the team. Given Sam’s terrific preseason, though, football scribes took to Twitter and assured the public that Sam would be signed by another team, or at the very least, assigned to the Rams ten-person practice squad. Implicit in these tweets, whether the writers intended this or not, is the NFL’s most treasured public relations point: this is a league that cares about winning above all else, and Michael Sam, who more than proved himself this preseason, would find himself a home.
Now we know that, as of today, Sam was not signed to the Rams practice squad and furthermore has drawn no interest from the dozen or so teams desperate for edge rushers that also run defensive schemes suited to his skills. The 2014 co-SEC defensive player of the year, who just rocked the preseason, is officially on the outside looking in.
Peter King, the senior football writer for Sports Illustrated echoed Mike Freeman’s point about why this was the case, albeit without Freeman’s direct moral judgment. King wrote, “I talked to three [NFL] team architects over the weekend. They’re concerned about the circus coming to town with the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster.”
Just look at the language employed by King, because it’s language that meshes together to form a bucket to carry public relations water for the league. NFL executives, you see, are “architects” conjuring for the mind, as George Costanza could tell you, a respectable individual sitting behind a desk, coolly calculating what is in the best interests of his organization. An architect is solemn, constructing something built to last that is of value to a community. Irrationalities like “prejudice” and “gay panic” never enter the thought process, not when you are building the football equivalent of the new wing at the Guggenheim. Michael Sam, meanwhile, and the media who care about his journey constitute a “circus.” What could possibly be less serious and more frivolous than a circus? For that matter what could possibly be less “manly” than a circus? A drag show, perhaps? (To Peter King’s credit, he did write two lines about why Sam is not the “circus” that GM’s believe him to be, as if that is a rational debate.)
The very language that Michael Sam is a “distraction”—which Freeman is one of the few to have the courage to call out—is a way to project and justify one’s own bigotry. Michael Sam is not a distraction. A “distraction” is when a team invites HBO’s Hard Knocks into its locker room. A “distraction” is when an owner proudly and loudly defends a racial slur on national television. A “distraction” is when a player commits a crime like spousal abuse and is then aggressively defended by his organization like all he did was chew gum in class. To equate being open about one’s sexuality and then just playing football (no Oprah reality shows, no special interviews) with being this kind of “distraction” is to traffic in rank prejudice. Once again, to say otherwise, is to practice public relations.
Some argue that teams are not homophobic but it is the media that is in fact to blame because they have created the “Michael Sam circus.” Yes, it is certainly true that there hasn’t been a late-round draft pick to garner this kind of attention, but the interest in Sam is not a media creation. It’s a popular upsurge. Michael Sam has the sixth top selling jersey of 2014 (and you better believe, the NFL is not returning that money). Among draftees, his jersey sales are second only to the phenom that is Johnny Manziel. For people who recognize the ways in which sports has been used to sanctify homophobia, his emergence was a revelation: the hope that the “last closet” could finally be breached. Maybe all of the old tropes like “gays in the shower”, the bricks and mortar that keeps gay athletes in the closet, could finally become a memory. Perhaps Michael Sam would destroy stereotypes and make some history. The hope is that he still can. Maybe Sam plays in Canada next year. Maybe a team does step up and say that on merit, he deserves a chance. However the Michael Sam saga ends, let us please stop acting like the NFL is a hermetically sealed homophobia-free zone. Selling that lie is, frankly, not just bad journalism. It’s a distraction.
Read Next: Dave Zirin questions the NFL’s “commitment” to being a force against domestic violence.
Before we discuss the content of the NFL’s new guidelines relating to domestic violence, let’s be clear: the NFL has about as much of a commitment to do something about violence against women as British Petroleum—or is it Beyond Petroleum—has to cleaning up the environment.
Both are multibillion-dollar corporations with one job and one job only, and that is to maximize their bottom line. Sometimes that project demands acknowledging public relations nightmares, especially when consumers recoil in horror.
Just as British Petroleum invested millions in green technologies and environmental cleanups after the seething outrage that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the NFL found itself embroiled in a public relations disaster after suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games following release of a video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer by her hair out of a hotel elevator.
This week, there was a near-universal outcry that the NFL’s moral compass was disturbingly out of whack and the organization was behaving like a proudly belligerent totem of misogyny, as Brandon Meriweather was suspended for two games for an on-field hit, and Josh Gordon received a year’s suspension for allegedly smoking weed.
The din coupled with the PR hit was too much for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to stomach, and he admitted as much in his statement outlining the league’s new policies, saying, “My disciplinary decision [regarding Ray Rice] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”
There was no such statement after Kasandra Perkins was killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who then took his life in front of his coach. Instead, the game went on as planned. The outcry from the media after that in-season tragedy was mild. The only person among the NFL’s sports media partners to even speak about it politically was Bob Costas, who turned the focus to gun access and not violence against women. That was brave, as the backlash against him demonstrated. It was also a wasted opportunity.
Now, because there is an uproar about Ray Rice in the dog days of summer, without the distraction of actual games, the league realized it was paying a price, and Goodell is attempting to use his unparalleled public relations machine to reclaim something the Ray Rice decision cost him: a moral high ground as the Great White Father committed to disciplining his unruly charges and armed with ownership over every aspect of their personal lives.
Under the leadership of Goodell, as Aaron Gordon has written brilliantly, the NFL has attempted to market itself not only as a corporation, not only as a sport, but as a moral force: an institution to provide ethical guidance for us all. But taking moral guidance from the NFL is like being lectured about diplomacy by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a commissioner who talks on and on about his concern for the health and safety of players, while trying to extend the season to eighteen games. This is a commissioner who has pledged to penalize players for using on-field slurs, yet defends the name of one of his billion-dollar brands, a dictionary-defined slur. This is a commissioner who talks about how much the NFL cares about communities, while demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for billionaires, as meanwhile our schools and hospitals remain in disrepair. This is a commissioner desperate to increase his market share among women football fans and who believes that coming down hard on domestic violence is the way to do it.
As for the plan itself, the best part, as Jessica Luther expressed, is that the NFL has pledged to spend much more time and energy at rookie and player orientations to actually discuss domestic violence. This is important. I’ve been to rookie orientation sessions, and when women are discussed, if discussed at all, they are talked about as people whom players should look at as predators trying to get pregnant or always ready to falsely accuse players of sexual assault. The discussions are how to avoid such situations. Any efforts to discuss women with young players as actual human beings should be welcomed. Luther talks about other initiatives aimed at education and awareness, which hopefully will actually be implemented.
But the section of the new conduct policy that is far more problematic is what we could call the carceral part. Roger Goodell has decided to place the passing of judgment of domestic violence completely under his own power as commissioner without any input from the NFL Players Association. It now resides beneath the umbrella of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That means Goodell has total control as judge, jury and executioner over punishment on the basis of his assessment of what happened in a family’s personal life.
He has pledged to suspend players on a first offense for six games and then give them as much as a lifetime ban for a second infraction. Under the personal conduct policy, he can do this in advance of any trial or any sort of anything in a court of law.
These kinds of punishments could very well serve to discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward, because of the price that could potentially be paid by having their partner lose their career. Anything that discourages a process where women can turn to the league in confidentiality for legal help or guidance is simply wrong.
In other words, it is missing any concept of “restorative justice”: the idea that solutions to domestic violence may require approaches that don’t reside in the punitive, or in harming the economic lives of the women and children in danger.
There is also nothing in the plan that addresses one of the uglier parts of the Ray Rice fiasco: the ways the Baltimore Ravens media machine defended and protected Rice with a big “no big deal” as the team response. This is classic Goodell: go after the players, protect the teams.
But perhaps most glaringly, the plan is missing any conversation about what role the combat of the game itself and the ill effects of head injuries may play in bringing the violence home. Why is it missing this? Because, once again, that might make people actually stop watching the sport, and that’s not the purpose this plan is supposed to serve. This is about reaching women and securing their connection to the league as potential consumers for NFL products and merchandise. Goodell’s slogan might as well be “Hate the player, don’t hate the game.”
Roger Goodell and the NFL—like many corporations before and since—were pressured and embarrassed into doing something. Tragically, in the hands of a league that journalist Steve Almond calls “a nihilistic engine of greed,” every move must be put under this kind of scrutiny and subject on principle to skepticism. That is something they have well earned.
Read Next: Silencing Native Americans who speak out against slurs
Every person who wants the Washington football team to change its name got an unexpected gift earlier this week in the form of a Sarah Palin word salad. Palin decided for reasons that are best left unexplored, that her wisdom was required on this issue. Not to surprise anyone, but the former half-term governor stands resolutely with team owner Dan Snyder and vociferous Redskin defender ESPN commentator Mike Ditka, and against anyone who does not think a racial slur should be an NFL brand.
She said, among other things, “Nothing should surprise us lately; but when the Politically Correct Police bust Ditka, they hope the silent majority will cower under leftist control. My goodness, Ditka merely spoke his mind. This accomplished and esteemed coach knows there are big issues to be addressed in America today; there’s no intent to offend by referring to a team by the name they’ve proudly worn since day one and chose with pride in our native ancestry and obviously had absolutely no intent to insult; and the liberal media’s made-up controversies divide our country.”
Then, as part of her effort to not “divide our country” she made a joke that while “Redskins” is a term of honor, “Washington” is the real name that should be changed. (That painfully stale riposte has more dust on it than Ms. Palin’s career in electoral politics.)
The “esteemed” Mike Ditka, another figure who would never dream of trying to “divide” this country, said in his typically healing fashion that the controversy is the result of “politically correct idiots”, “liberals who complain about everything” and the entire debate is “silly” and “asinine.” He then said, “I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history and they should never be anything but the Washington Redskins.”
All of this is code, of course, for the line coming from team owner Dan Snyder and the public relations headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia. The name represents “honor” and “respect”, (let’s forget that they were named by an avowed white supremacist whose own granddaughter thinks the name should change) and the entire issue is the creation of white, politically correct sportswriters. It mirrors the words of sports radio host Steve Czaban whose show airs on the Dan Snyder–owned ESPN 980 in DC. Czaban earned his check earlier this summer when he said that this is all about “guilt-ridden white liberal sportswriters.”
What Snyder, Palin and Ditka don’t realize is that they are creating even more motivation amongst a new generation of Native American activists who are sick and tired of being treated as invisible actors. Here is the list of the tribal councils and Native American organizations that have come out against the team name: they represent real people who have said it is a slur that harms their community. But Dan Snyder and his apparatchiks refuse in cowardly fashion to sit down across a table with any of them. For people like Snyder, Palin and Ditka, these are people who simply do not exist.
I spoke to Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux organizer Jackie Keeler who is one of the founders the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry about the Snyder forces’ obsession with imposing whiteness on their opponents and invisibility on Native American activists. I am posting the entirety of her comments in the hopes that people who support the name reckon with her words and think carefully about whether the Palins, Ditkas and Snyders of the world are the ones with whom you actually want to stand.
“I always find it amazing considering the fight against Native mascotry is something I’ve been aware of my entire life,” she said. “My parents protested against it in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When I was a student at Dartmouth College in the 1990s we Native students were forced to confront this issue. It was at Dartmouth that I first met Suzan Harjo, long-time Native activist who has led the fight against Native people being used as mascots. And of course, National Congress of American Indians, the largest representative body of tribes (two of my dad’s family members were former executive directors) first began an initiative to get rid of Native mascots in 1968.
“This idea that the fight against the mascotting of Native people is something new and led by white folks is an oddly insular and navel-gazing way to understand the issue—and yet another way of cutting Native people out of the American discourse about things that matter to us. By reframing the issue this way, the Washington NFL team continues to make real, modern Native people to disappear, much as their mascot does. It’s a continuation of the extinguishment of the Native voice and the appropriation of our identity and lands. This constant denial of our existence that leads Native youth to feel disconnected from American society and exacerbates the burdens of poverty; Native youth have three times the suicide rate of their American peers of any ethnicity. It also leads to bad policy decisions by non-Native politicians and poor funding for the very real needs of our communities.”
What the right-wing commentators either don’t understand—or understand too well—is that opposition to this team name is not just about a name and does not exist in a vacuum. There is an upsurge of Native American youth activism the likes of which we have not seen in years. Whether we are talking about the Idle No More movement, the push for climate justice or their vocal opposition to police brutality on reservations and pueblos in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, there is a demand that their humanity be recognized. Not even Mike Ditka will be able to bully them into silence.
As for Dan Snyder, he is going to lose this debate for the simple reason that he is not having this debate. He keeps arguing with ghosts: these imaginary white liberal politically correct sportswriting phantasms who in his mind are out to get him and his beloved brand. Meanwhile, he refuses to sit down across the table from the very Native Americans who are objecting to this name. In the toughest of sports, Dan Snyder is running scared.
Read Next: What the Little Leagure World Series and Michael Brown show about America’s attitude toward African-Americans
To paraphrase bell hooks, the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people. It is difficult to not see this reality in the events of the last week: events that counterpose something as American as apple pie, the Little League World Series, and something else that is frankly also as American as apple pie: the killing of unarmed black men and women by police.
On the Little League side, Hollywood could not have painted a more soul-stirring tableau. We have the charming, charismatic champions of the United States, called Jackie Robinson West, hailing from the great metropolis of Chicago. JRW is a team consisting entirely of African-American kids. The fact that such a team has ascended to the finals of the Little League World Series is an astounding accomplishment both athletically as well as demographically. JRW is the first all African-American team to become US champions in over thirty years. During that same thirty-year stretch the number of African-Americans who play baseball has plummeted dramatically, their roster spots in Major League Baseball falling from 19 percent to 8 percent of all players. In college baseball, less than 6 percent of rosters have African-American players.
What else has happened over the last three decades in this country? We have seen the rise of neoliberal economics, the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities. One casualty of the new urban-normal has been Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands. This period of decimation has been followed more recently by an era of gentrification, as the wealthy have moved back into the cities, exploding property values, pushing poor disproportionately black residents to the margins and creating a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the suburbanization of poverty and dislocated ghetto sprawl. With these developments, baseball in urban communities has withered, likened by sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards to a corpse on life support.
Yet here is Jackie Robinson West. It beats the odds, and America is cheering on this fact without examining what made those odds so daunting in the first place. Instead, people are choosing to enjoy this dynamic, magnetic team named after the most universally praised of sports trailblazers, a man who has become a collective symbol of racial reconciliation.
Meanwhile thet same dislocation and suburbanization of poverty that has gutted urban baseball has also produced and created areas like Ferguson, Missouri, a place that has gone from majority white to majority black over the last generation, with the police seamlessly shifting its approach from Officer Friendly to occupying army. To judge by recent polls, white America doesn’t see poverty, police brutality and institutionalized racism in Ferguson or anywhere else. That era is considered long done, defeated by the individual heroism of people like Jackie Robinson. The logic goes, if racism was still throbbing in this country, then the kids from Jackie Robinson West, not to mention Mo’ne Davis, would never have stolen our hearts.
If we choose to see racism as an awful memory, like smallpox, instead of as a living virus, then the killing of Michael Brown is the fault of Michael Brown. Officer Darren Wilson must be being railroaded by a “lynch mob” and the leaving of Michael Brown’s unarmed corpse on the streets of Ferguson for hours was just an unfortunate clerical error. By that logic, all the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police is the deracialized expression of the system working as it should.
If the white majority can go to sleep at night content with the idea that Michael Brown is dead because of the individual choices of Michael Brown, then they don’t have to confront racism as a living, breathing virus, needing to be confronted, quarantined and destroyed. They can cheer for Jackie Robinson West, put on a copy of the movie 42 afterward for the whole family, and marvel at how far the American experiment has allowed us to travel from those dark days before people like Robinson and, of course, Dr. King emancipated us from our past. Anyone who says otherwise surely must be one of those “race hustlers,” otherwise known as—all together now—“the real racists.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were still with us to speak for himself. If only the real Jackie Robinson could pop up as a public service announcement before Jackie Robinson West plays in the Little League World Series to repeat the words he said about police brutality fifty years ago: “One cannot expect [black] leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were alive today, he would undoubtedly say that there is nothing post-racial about a world where two black people are killed on average by police every week. He would say, as he said in the 1960s, “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens as an individual.”
If only the largely white Little League crowds cheering this electric team from Chicago could know as stone-cold fact that if Jackie Robinson were alive, there is no question he would be brimming with pride during the day at the play of the team that bears his name, but at night he’d be in Ferguson committed to the struggle for civil rights. He would also be challenging his white fans to care: to not isolate themselves from what Ferguson has exposed but to help confront it. He would repeat the same words he uttered fifty years ago: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”
Read Next: Ferguson and Parallel Universes.
In my sports/politics circles, the question has come in fast and furious: Where are the athletes—always code for “black male athletes”—speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson? It’s a very understandable question. It’s also the wrong question. It’s understandable, of course, because there is a history of black athletes being the faces and symbols of the struggle in the United States against racism. It is impossible to imagine early resistance to white supremacy and lynching without recalling the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. You cannot tell the story of the civil rights movement without creating space for the story of Jackie Robinson. The black power movement of the 1960s could not be told without Muhammad Ali and two brave souls, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.
People are also asking the question because the sight of black athletes making this kind of stand is hardly ancient history. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat led by LeBron James, and many other athletes posed with hoodies for Trayvon Martin, when it looked like George Zimmerman would not even be arrested for stalking Martin and taking his life. Kobe Bryant even felt a rather thunderous backlash when he was dismissive of these kinds of actions. Hell, there were NBA players threatening to wildcat strike over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants just a few months ago. People desperate to be inspired in very difficult times want to see more of this.
As Justice B. Hill wrote in a commentary on BET’s website,
[Black athletes] were quick to jump on Donald Sterling for his racism; they’ve been slow or silent altogether in standing up and speaking out about a killing that should never have happened… At some point—and this is that point—Black athletes like Doc Rivers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Torii Hunter must stand as a Black president did. They must insist that no more cop killings of unarmed Black men will be tolerated.
Given especially the twenty-first-century narcotics of fame, iconography and killer visuals, imagine what would happen to Twitter and assorted social media if we had a 2014 version of this press conference. Maybe Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, LeBron James, and Carmelo gathered together to say that the killing of two black men a week by police for the last six years has to stop.*
It is also understandable why many yearn for an athletic speakout on this, given the racial divide in the United States, with more white Americans believing in ghosts than in the realities of institutional racism. The thought is that black athletes with their white fan bases have an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to reach white America in a way that is unparalleled in the culture.
Yet this is also—to put it bluntly—the wrong question for those who want to see racial justice. Unlike the case of George Zimmerman, which involved an extremely repellent individual vigilante who hunted down Trayvon Martin and was not going to be arrested, this is a case of a police officer doing the killing. This is the case of challenging a very entrenched set of racist law enforcement practices both in the St. Louis metro area and throughout the country. These practices have become militarized in recent years, creating a reality where many communities feel less like neighborhoods and more like occupied territory. (The fact that as many have pointed out, the same company supplied the tear-gas canisters used in Ferguson and in Gaza speaks volumes.) This is not going to be challenged by players posing on Instagram with their hands up. This isn’t the damn “ice bucket challenge.” To uproot these police practices will take the kinds of mobilizations we have yet to see from organizations with the funds, members and capacity to take on the ways in which black neighborhoods are policed.
Instead of asking, “Where are the athletes?” We should ask. “Where is the AFL-CIO?” “Where is the climate justice movement?” “Where is Amnesty international and the ACLU?” “Where is the reproductive justice movement?” I know that some of these organizations are starting to move in pieces—some unions, some climate justice activists, some people in the repro justice movement—but we need the full weight of these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined. If an athlete is inspired by this level of activism and is willing to take on the pressure from the media, ownership and their own inner circle, and speak out, then that’s great. It also would be a true echo of the past. All of sports history shows that athletes tend to speak out in response to mass movements. They don’t start them. They amplify them. Let’s stop demanding athletes take actions that we don’t demand of ourselves or the organizations around us. There is real work to be done, and it doesn’t involve waiting for LeBron to save us.
* Yes, there have been moments, such as when the Washington football team ran out onto the field with their hands up. Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon also posed for an Instagram picture along with several teammates with his hands raised. Given the owner of the Washington football franchise, the racist brand that they represent and the pressure they are under to change their name—not to mention Garcon’s own vociferous defense of this brand—these actions can provoke as much cynicism as inspiration.
Read Next: For many politicians, Ferguson isn’t happening.