Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

What Can We Learn From the Opening Game of the NFL Season? Actually, a Lot

The NFL logo a trailer near the New Meadowlands Stadium. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

The opening Thursday night game of the NFL season is usually heavy on the pomp, light on the circumstance. Teams, especially in an era of high player turnover, are trying to gel on the fly. Miscues abound, and only very rarely is what we see on the field in early September actually a prologue for the season to come. In other words, after last night’s 49-27 thrashing, we can say with near certainty that the Denver Broncos are not nearly as good as they seemed and the Ravens are not nearly as bad. And yet, there were more than a few moments from the game that we can expect to echo throughout the season.

Underlying every echo was the NFL’s highly selective approach to player safety. The league squashed the 4,500-former-player class action concussion lawsuit last week, ensuring that any of their classified neurological research on the ill effects of playing football would stay under lock and key. Then the season started with the first of weekly Thursday-night games, a practice that gives players less than a week to recover from injuries and has been cited repeatedly as an example of the league’s putting profits ahead of players. And to top it off, in a dramatic bit of irony, last night the game was delayed for more than thirty minutes because of fear that lightning storms would put players at risk. This launched a cacophony of observations that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cares more about the effects of lightning on players than traumatic brain injury. I thought about armchair war-monger Max Boot’s Wall Street Journal column about how we are all a bunch of ninnies for caring about player safety and in fact “simply being outside produces more deaths than playing football. In 2012, twenty-eight Americans died in lightning strikes.” (Boot has been accused of plagiarizing someone else’s “in defense of football” article. For what it is worth. I don’t think he plagiarized it. I just think the argument itself is so trite it ensures repetition).

Another aspect of last night we can expect to act as prologue for the season to come were Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s utterly ridiculous numbers. The future Hall of Famer threw for seven touchdowns. Yes, seven. This is the first time a QB has tossed seven since the Minnesota Vikings Joe Kapp did it in 1969. Even more outlandish, Manning threw for 302 yards and five touchdowns in the second half. Here are some quarterbacks who never threw for 300 yards and five touchdowns in an entire game: John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach. It was an unreal performance, but before the season ends, it is going to seem a lot more ordinary. Yes, Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning, but the rules are now stacked in favor of offenses, making the playing of any kind of pass defense next to impossible. Being in an NFL secondary is now like playing goalie in soccer during a penalty shootout. If you guess correctly, you can stop a goal, but if the person with the ball executes, you are basically at their mercy. Roger Goodell will tell you that these rule changes are about player safety. Don’t believe him. As Sean Pamphilon shows in his new film The United States of Football, the kinds of head injuries that damage players are far more prevalent in the kinds of mundane everyday, every-play, sub-concussive hits. The “jacked up” hits can and should make us uncomfortable, but it’s not where the danger actually lies. Players themselves despise the large fines and constant penalties for playing physical defense, not (only) because they want to keep their money but because they feel it is window dressing to make the league look “tough” on player safety. Once again, if the league really cared about safety, it would end Thursday-night games. It would stop agitating for a longer season. The rule changes we have seen are far more about putting points on the board, putting butts in the seats, and public relations. By the end of this season, I would put strong money on a half-dozen quarterbacks’ having games where they throw six or more touchdowns. I hope people have a taste for arena-league football, because that is what is coming.

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The last part of the opening game of the season that we can expect to replicate itself throughout the season are the announcers’ discomfort with what is a cultural sea-change in how we view and understand football injuries. This was seen sharply when Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth spoke about Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe. The second-year player was wheeled off the field during an August pre-season game against the Seattle Seahawks after a “concussion of the spinal chord”, once again after typical, not dramatic, contact. There were questions about whether he might have suffered a paralysis. Instead, he was back on the field last night, ready to play. Michaels and Collinsworth called this “miraculous” but instead of decking Wolfe with garlands of tough-guy machismo, they actually seemed uneasy and spoke instead of the “risks of the game” in more hushed tones. How announcers navigate the fact that we are watching an entertainment that is unsafe at any speed will be something to chart throughout the season. As much as the NFL has tried to keep the dangers in the closet, it is now part of the narrative of a sport that, bells and whistles aside, has probably began a generational downturn. No amount of seven-touchdown games can obscure what is coming: a mass reassessment of how we view this most American of games.

How Roger Goodell Is Breaking Bad

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

This past August, sports blogs were littered with articles drawing parallels between different aspects of the athletic world and the television program Breaking Bad. Most of this was inspired by columnists secretly bored silly with baseball trying to stay awake until the start of football season. Yet when your lens is a show as lustrous as Breaking Bad—in my opinion, the most searing triumph in US popular culture since The Godfather II—such comparisons supply more than mental masturbation but actual illumination.

I felt it myself following a weekend of decoding the NFL’s pitiless settlement of the class action concussion lawsuit of 4,500 former players and then, taking a break from the legalese, hearing a particularly poignant lament on Sunday’s episode from Breaking Bad’s star-crossed Jesse Pinkman. But before we go there, some background for the six non–Breaking Bad viewers who are still reading this column.

Breaking Bad is superficially about Walter White, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, who becomes Heisenberg, crystal-meth kingpin. Show creator Vince Gilligan said famously that the concept of the show was “how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.” But I always saw it as the story of a man—Walter White—coming to grips with the fact that being a good teacher and caring dad is something that while in theory we are supposed to respect, actually gets you nowhere in twenty-first-century America. (Like The Godfather, The Sopranos and the best organized crime fiction, Breaking Bad constantly acts as an allegory of life in the USA.)

Walt, liberated by cancer and prodded by both ego and financial stress creates a different life for himself where being feared and getting paid brings greater satisfaction than teaching ever could. This is an American arc so unique to television yet so familiar to the real world, it has the capacity to bring clarity to what we might otherwise not see.

I felt a new clarity about my recent coverage of the NFL during the show’s most recent episode, titled “Rabid Dog.” It was in a line uttered by the most tortured of Walter White’s many victims of emotional abuse, Jesse Pinkman. Despite Walt’s many missteps, comical tomfoolery and inability to get into a physical confrontation without looking like his face was tenderized, Jesse has imbued Walt, his abuser, with near-supernatural powers. He says to the DEA, “Mr. White? He’s the Devil. He is smarter than you. He is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite is going to happen.”

That rang a bell for me from a recent article by the always insightful, often profane, NFL humor writer Drew Magary of deadspin. Magary wrote in a recent column that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will some day “put a team in London and then demand the Brits stop paying national health care.” Yes, Magary is just joshing about Goodell and his abilities to crush all enemies, but you hear less satirical sentiments in many of the profiles of Goodell that, with rare exceptions, grant him a stunning array of powers. When written about by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Goodell comes off as an amalgam of Machiavelli, Churchill and Nelson Mandela.

Under Roger Goodell’s leadership the NFL has become “The Shield” and woe to anyone who stands in between The Shield and its market share. Goodell’s latest act of ruthless utilitarian leadership: seeing the 4,500 player class action concussion lawsuit settled for a pittance with no admission of any wrongdoing and just in time for the start of the 2013 season. Does the NFL have two decades of hidden neurological research showing links between early-onset Alzheimer’s, dementia and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)? Now, barring a shoulder-padded revolution, the vault is sealed and we’ll never know.

The 4,500 plaintiffs, some of whom due to their medical conditions would not have survived the trial, were under immense pressure to settle. Now the cloud has lifted, and for the cost of 40 percent of one year of ESPN broadcast rights alone, the biggest story in sports has been dumped in an oil drum and planted in the desert. When I interviewed several of the leading lights at ESPN last week about their disgust over the NFL’s influence at the network, the phrase used by most when discussing the dangers of crossing Goodell were “career suicide.”

Like Mr. White, it can seem like Roger Goodell always wins. And yet, while the ends can look impressive, the means toward triumph often resemble low farce*: the story of bumblers who couldn’t find their own house with a map. Roger Goodell during his seven-year tenure, has often had to, metaphorically, scurry around in his tighty whities, careening in embarrassing fashion from one crisis to the next. He was humiliated in front of Congress in 2009 for sounding like “a tobacco executive” on the question of head injuries, denying links between football related head trauma and neurological disorders. He was thumped by Reagan-appointed Judge David Doty in 2011, who found the NFL’s deal with NBC to get paid billions in a lockout slush-fund, even if no games were broadcast, to be contemptible. He was utterly embarrassed by his predecessor Paul Tagliabue, who cleared the New Orleans Saints players in the so-called Bountygate scandal. He surrounds himself with lawyers who have at times made Saul Goodman look like Clarence Darrow.

Like Walter White, Roger Goodell and his aura of invincibility owe a profound debt to living in a neoliberal era where we lionize people on the basis of their ability to generate wealth, and refuse to critically examine the means by which they achieve it. Despite all the missteps, Roger Goodell will earn at least $29.5 million this year and reporters dare not cross him on the record. Despite all the missteps, Walter White has a grave full of money and makes people gulp before even uttering his name. Like a nation of Jesse Pinkmans, we are in the thrall of the National Football League no matter how many players end up destitute or damaged. We celebrate the building of taxpayer funded billion-dollar stadiums, even though we know that every study shows that they are bleeding our cities dry. When Roger Goodell knocks, we answer, even though we know that the economic equivalent of a ricin cigarette awaits.

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Of course the greatest difference between Roger Goodell and Walter White is that Mr. White, as Breaking Bad speeds toward its conclusion, is clearly headed toward a great fall. But that just demonstrates the frailty of fiction. In the real world, the one who makes the paper, the one who pulls the strings, the one who is the danger, the one who knocks, always lives to knock another day. Roger Goodell is “breaking bad,” and in the profit-driven logic of the NFL, that is all good.

Take a closer look at the NFL’s crime hysteria.

The NFL Concussion Deal: Rotten From All Sides

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

There is no other way to put it but the NFL is Rollo Tomasi. The NFL always gets away with it. Evidence abounds that the NFL has been running a concussion assembly line for decades. But now that it has settled its high-profile concussion lawsuit with 4,500 ex-player plaintiffs for $765 million, there will be no discovery process. We will never hear what the NFL knew and when it knew it. We will never hear if its top neurologists had information that might actually be worth the public’s knowing as we move forward, so we can make informed decisions about whether we want our own children playing football. We will never hear, because the Teflon dons in the NFL office now have this sealed up tighter than Ft. Knox. And all it cost was $765 million.

Sports Illustrated senior writer and NFL lickspittle Peter King immediately took to Twitter to blast those criticizing the sum, saying, “I love everyone calling $765 million chump change.” The more, however, you look at the figure, the more chumpish it appears. As Sports on Earth’s Patrick Hruby notes in his excellent breakdown of the agreement, this marks less than 10 percent of the NFL’s $9 billion in annual revenue and far below the estimates of $2–10 billion that many were saying it would cost to make the lawsuit go away. In addition, half of the $765 million will be paid in the first three years. The second half of the sum will be paid out over seventeen years. That comes out to just over $700,000 per team, or the annual salary of a decent place kicker. And the coup de grâce, even though some of the money is earmarked for players with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the NFL doesn’t have to admit any liability whatsoever. In other words, the NFL will help players with brain diseases for which it doesn’t need to take any accountability.

As Hruby writes, this is “like Goldman Sachs paying a record $550 million Securities and Exchange Commission fine—a whopping four percent of the firm’s $13.4 billion profit in 2009—to walk away otherwise unscathed from its central role in the subprime mortgage meltdown and subsequent tanking of the world economy.”

In many respects, it is worse than the Goldman Sachs deal. The NFL gets to take care of this just in time before the start of the season, removing the event’s shadow over the first Sunday in September. It is effectively indemnified from further litigation from any of the players in the class action suit, like the families of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson: players who took their own lives with bullets in the heart so their brains could be studied for post-concussion damage. The league is providing a convenient narrative shift for its number-one broadcast partner, ESPN, under fire this week for pulling out of the PBS documentary partnership on “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.”  And most conveniently, it doesn’t have to make an argument in open court—an extremely valid argument —that many of these head injuries may have occurred in Pop Warner, high school and college football, which would freak out parents across the country. The real losers in this case are us: the people. Football is the closest thing to a national pastime that we have. Parents have the right to know—like with lead paint, or asbestos or genetically modified food—just how dangerous this pastime happens to be. They have the right to “informed consent.” We are being denied discovery on the reams of research NFL-hired neurologists have been generating over the last twenty years. We are being denied the facts. The NFL this week bought our ignorance and bought it on the cheap.

Adding insult to injury, now you have the worst sports columnists in the USA carrying water for this rotten deal. Before the ink was even dry on the settlement, CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco mocked the players taking part in the lawsuit—saying they “didn’t deserve it”. No mention that maybe players would have made different decisions with their lives if they had been told that “getting their bell rung” could mean dementia, ALS, or suicide in their future. Prisco then asked us all to get perspective about what really matters. He wrote, “Without the NFL, I wouldn’t have a job. Nor would a lot of people. Without the NFL, what would you do on fall Sundays? Without the NFL, television sports, and the advertising that goes with it, would be in trouble. Without the NFL, fantasy sports would be a wasteland.”

If the argument is that without the NFL, Mr. Prisco wouldn’t have a job, that is one of the more powerful arguments for prohibition a person could possible make.

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But the most important takeaway is that the NFL is going to get away with it. If this was Goldman Sachs, people would be picking up pitchforks and torches right now. If this was Goldman Sachs, Occupy Wall Street would be a pebble in the pond compared to the anger that would erupt. But it’s the National Football League. It is too big to fail not only because it generates so much cash, but because so much psychological baggage about Americana, manhood and civic pride are inextricably tied with it. The NFL will get away with this because the public wants the NFL to get away with it more than they want the truth. The NFL is Rollo Tomasi. But we are its willing accomplices.

Dave Zirin documents the journalists inside the ESPN machine willing to speak out on the concussion documentary.

'I’m Johnny Manziel, and You’re Not': An Imagined Speech

Johnny Manziel. (Reuters/Adam Hunger)

The NCAA mandated that Texas A&M’s Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel had to give a speech detailing all the life lessons he learned during his scandal-plagued summer. Here is a fictional accounting of what he might say.

Hey, fellas. You might have heard that after all the drama about me getting paid all kinds of dollars for my autograph, the hammer came down and the NCAA gave me my punishment. So here’s the deal. I am going to be suspended for one whole half of one game. That’s right. One half. But that’s not all. Part of the punishment is that I am required to explain to you—my team—all the lessons that I have learned this off-season. Yup, the NCAA wants to turn this into a Very Special Episode of Good Luck Charlie or some kind of after-school special. So let’s do it.

I’m happy to finally have the opportunity to tell you everything that I have learned this summer. It comes down to one big ol’ life lesson. I learned, after much reflection, that if you are Johnny F—king Football and you put butts in the seats and your school is ploughing $450 million into decking out your college stadium so it will seat 100,000 people and be a “megaphone to the world” and boosters will pay $20,000 to smell your chair when you get up to go to the bathroom, then you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want. Hell, I could sign my name on [NCAA President] Mark Emmert’s head in a “Free Jerry Sandusky” T-shirt while T. Boone Pickens shoves hundred-dollar bills in my pants, and I still would have gotten only this bullshit half-game suspension. Pays to be rich. Pays to be white. Pays to be QB One. Pays to be me.

I mean, you had sports columnists out there who wanted that Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor—a black dude—tarred and feathered a couple years ago for trading his own jacket for some free tattoos, and those same sports writers are comparing me to Rosa Parks! Me! Johnny Manziel! I’m Rosa Parks, beeyotches! I had to ask my boy Drake who that even was. He didn’t know, but when I looked it up… Damn! Media peoples are crazy! Shit, I guess I’m buttering their bread too.

Look: most of you grew up poor as shit and after four years as a Texas A&M Aggie, you won’t graduate and you will still be poor as shit. That is, assuming if you make it four years. You get injured on that next play, they’ll have campus security to keep you from even going to class. Also, a whole bunch of you are black. And that’s cool. My boy Drake is black. And I’m Rosa Parks, so we cool. But straight up, if you did what I did, your ass would be on the next bus back to whatever ghetto or shit town you were born in. Dang the NCAA is more gangster than my boy Drake and my girl Miley combined. I know DRAKE, yo!

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Look: the NCAA has a $6 billion college football deal with ESPN. They’re not messing with that by not having me on that field. Ya’ll are replaceable. Ya’ll are meat to them. I’m meat too. But at least I know I’m prime rib. You are hamburger. I guess we all end up in the same place, but in the meantime, I’d rather be prime rib. That’s for damn sure.

In conclusion, here’s what I learned: sucks to be you, great to be me. I’m Johnny Manziel, and you’re not. Oh, and the NCAA can eat me. Now let’s go play some football.

No, Johnny Manziel is not Rosa Parks.

ESPN Journalists Speak Out on Concussion Documentary

NFL Hall-of-Famer Harry Carson speaks during the session on PBS’s upcoming Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles. ESPN says it’s ending its collaboration with public TV in an investigation of the NFL and players’ head injuries. (AP Photo/PBS, Courtesy Rahoul Ghose)

ESPN is the New York Yankees of sports journalism and, as with the Yankees, whether you love them or hate them, they have become a central axis upon which much of the sports world spins. That’s why an industry-wide earthquake was felt last week when The New York Times reported that the World Wide Leader in Sports had abruptly pulled out of a fifteen-month partnership with PBS’s Frontline to produce a documentary about head injuries in the National Football League.

According to Times writers James Andrew Miller and Ken Belson, ESPN withdrew from this unique investigative project, titled League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, because of pressure from their most profitable broadcast partner, the almighty NFL. As Miller and Belson reported, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat down for lunch with John Skipper, ESPN’s president; John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production; and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network, and cracked the whip. After their luncheon it was quickly announced that there would be no ESPN logos, branding, or promotion for “League of Denial.” This move comes despite the fact that two of their most high-profile journalists, brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, did the lion’s share of work on the project and will even have a book with the same title released in conjunction with the film.

Both the NFL and ESPN have subsequently denied that anyone was strong-armed. ESPN’s official comment was initially, “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting.” They have since further explained that the reason for pulling out was because they were taken off guard by their lack of editorial control over the final product.

I spoke to several of the biggest names in journalism at ESPN this weekend and their thoughts on ESPN’s official comments and reasoning for dropping out of the project ranged from “mystifying” to “deeply depressing” to “palpable bullshit.” No one I spoke to believes that ESPN looked up after fifteen months and discovered to their collective shock that they didn’t have final editorial control of the “League of Denial.”

None of the ESPN journalists with whom I spoke wanted to go on the record, with several describing such an action with the same phrase, “career suicide” but the fact that they wanted to talk at all tells a story of its own,. The collective picture they paint is one of a disheartened newsroom that feels disrespected, dismissed and demoralized

One leading columnist and television personality at the network said to me, “Generally, ESPN’s business interests will always be at odds with its journalism. It is not a journalism company. It’s an entertainment company. This is the age of journalism we live in, not just at ESPN but everywhere. Journalism is increasingly more corporate. When you get in bed with the devil, sooner or later you start growing your own horns.”

In theory, there is supposed to be a wall at ESPN between the business side and the journalism side. But, like many walls across the earth, it tends to exist to separate the powerful from the powerless. One former employee said to me, “The ESPN wall is about as effective as the Great Wall of China. It can look impressive but there are plenty of ways around it and lots of holes. It’s an idea but like many ideas it doesn’t work in practice.”

A current ESPN journalist said to me, “I don’t think those on the business side are bad people. But what you have are people with utterly opposed jobs. Their job is to keep the broadcast partners happy. Our job is to investigate them. That theoretically could produce a creative tension but the power imbalance is ridiculous. It’s like they’re Mike Tyson and we’re Evander’s ear.”

This latest event however, according to one veteran at the network, has exposed a more disturbing division than the acknowledged one between the journalists and the numbers crunchers.

“People talk about the divide between the journalism side and the business side, but this has revealed just how bifurcated even the journalism side has become,” said one journalist at the network. “Many here who are supposed to be on that side don’t care because they’re not really journalists. It’s not their fault. They’re producers. They’re television personalities. They’re entertainers. In a month they’ll stop caring [about the decision to pull out of “League of Denial”] if they even care now.”

The news of ESPN’s withdrawal from the Frontline project also comes after the announcement of something that will undoubtedly do far more long-term harm to the cause of sports journalism: the move to time-slot purgatory of the indispensable news program Outside the Lines, with Bob Ley. Outside the Lines, which is the platinum standard of televised sports journalism, had done numerous reports about the NFL and concussions. Now it has been moved on the schedule to make way for even more NFL-related programming.

One top journalist described it to me as follows. “Our corporate strategy right now is to go all-in on football no matter the cost [to journalistic integrity]. We are going all-in on football at a time when you have damn near 5,000 people suing the sports that made them famous [for head trauma]. You have empirical evidence that something is going on with this game that is really dangerous. We are now carrying water for a game that is on a deeply problematic trajectory. We are going all in on this sport and this sport is in peril.”

A long-time critic of ESPN, Deadspin founder and New York magazine contributing editor Will Leitch, believes that this is exposing a reality at ESPN that most assume exists but has rarely broken out in such public fashion. “It must be an incredibly painful reminder to the best journalists that do work there that they could be sold out any second,” he said to me. “It must feel like all of their worst fears coming true…. I think most viewers who love the best writing and the best journalism that comes out of ESPN understand that if we are going to have Grantland, Don Van Natta, and Bob Ley, they are going to be subsidized by Skip Bayless, First Take and the other idiocy they broadcast. But this situation makes it look so much worse than that for all to see. It makes it look to the public like the journalism just acts as a front for the business.”

Many also expressed confusion. “The biggest question I have is: If the reason ESPN terminated the relationship was to placate the NFL, why even agree to collaborate with PBS at all? I guess I just wonder if it’s more to it than what is known. The NFL has been aware of ESPN’s pursuit of the concussion issue for months. Why would they raise a stink now?”

Another person theorized that everyone, including the Miller, Belson and The New York Times are reading the entire story backward. “The only thing that makes sense is that this was The Mouse. This was Disney [parent company of ESPN]. ESPN is the heart of Disney’s profitability and the NFL is the heart of that. I think Disney told the NFL to tell [ESPN president John] Skipper to cut it out. Then their paws are clean… But that could be wrong. I don’t know. I need a drink. And yes, you can include that.”

It’s worth noting that after I heard this, Robert Lipsyte, the esteemed ombudsman at ESPN, wrote that his “sources indicated [Skipper] had discussed [ending] the ‘Frontline’ partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as well as lawyers at both Disney and ESPN.” Lipsyte then reported that Skipper “confirmed that was true.” Skipper then said to Lipsyte, “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.” It’s difficult to see, in this situation where the “balance” part comes into play.

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One very well-known television figure at the network with whom I spoke sees the brand as battered but not destroyed. “This company understands that the scrutiny of our journalism is now going to be more intense than ever. The vaunted wall that divides the journalism from the moneymakers has been badly damaged. Soon I’m sure you’ll see some trumpeted high profile journalism [from us] or some splashy new hires and that will be us buying some mortar and bricks to publicly repair ‘the wall’. But we all understand our credibility has been damaged.”

Not everyone is so hopeful. One ESPN journalist, who has a sterling reporter’s pedigree said to me, “The only way journalism works is to be on time all the time. Otherwise people will think you have an agenda and won’t trust you. You do this shit…and people don’t trust you. And do you know what? People don’t trust us in the first place…. They always fall back on saying that they never spike stories. And that’s true. For me, they’ve never spiked one of my stories. But do you know what? You live here long enough, you self-censor. You self-spike a story. You don’t even have to go through the trauma of getting it vetoed because you know what will pass and what will not.”

A former ESPN reporter who has been doing work on concussions for years said to me, “On the bright side, ‘It brings more attention to the documentary and now it has the gloss of ‘This is the documentary that the NFL and ESPN don’t want you to see.’ So that’s something.”

But efforts to look at the bright side cannot hide a mood that only varied modestly from stunned to morose. As Lipsyte wrote, “At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn’t very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.”

Will Leitch put it far more simply. “On the one hand I feel bad for those guys. On the other hand… Hey, you work for ESPN.”

Seeing 'New Jim Crow' Placards Seized by Police & More From the March on Washington

Marchers carry signs in remembrance of Trayvon Martin during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington August 24, 2013. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

I spent eight hours today amongst thousands at the March on Washington, and the people present were some of the most remarkable, resilient people I have ever had the privilege to be around. The number-one face on T-shirts, placards, and even homemade drawings was not President Obama or even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was Trayvon Martin. I also witnessed homemade signs calling for jobs programs, speaking out against the school closures and in solidarity with those overseas victimized by US militarism. The people at this march are the face of resistance to what Dr. King called the “evil triplets of militarism, materialism and racism.”

The main speakers at the march, however, did not match the politics and urgency of those who gathered in the Saturday heat. Even more frustrating is that few tried. I expect to get all kinds of hate mail for what I’m about to write, but not to write it would be an act of duplicity based on what I saw and what I heard. I saw the great Julian Bond get only two minutes to say his piece before being shuttled from the stage. I saw Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has done remarkable work in recent years against the banks and Chicago school closures, also get less time than a pop song. I saw Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who is doing some of the most important work in the country connecting climate change to racism, get ninety seconds before being cut off. There was one speaker at the 8 am pre-rally who said the word “drones,” and that was it for any discussion of US foreign policy.

Based upon the speeches during the main portion of today’s events there can be little doubt that the Dr. King who was murdered in Memphis in 1968 would not have been allowed to speak at this fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of his life. There was no discussion of the “evil triplets.” Instead, we had far too many speakers pay homage to the narrowest possible liberal agenda in broad abstractions with none of the searing material truths that make Dr. King’s speeches so bracing even today.

As Representative Nancy Pelosi spoke, it was difficult to not think of her defense of the NSA spying program or her vote against cutting funding to stop the mass monitoring of phone calls.

As future New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Wall Street’s best friend, spoke at the front of this March, it was difficult to not think of the Dr. King who said, “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”

As Attorney General Eric Holder, the person who is not bringing federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, was allotted 30 minutes—fifteen times that of Julian Bond—to speak from the front stage, it was difficult to not think about the fact that it has taken five years for him to say anything about mass incarceration in this country. The late Bayard Rustin insisted, as the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, that no politicians or political appointees be allowed to speak. Clearly, there were different principles at work today.

Yes it was profoundly moving to see Representative John Lewis, the only living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. Yes, it was right on time for the march organizers to give the incredible Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, time to speak - albeit far too briefly. But the closest thing to an administration critic was 9-year-old Asean Johnson, who has been on the front lines fighting school closures in Chicago, bringing the fire to both President Obama’s confidante Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the education agenda of Arne Duncan. I love Asean Johnson, but given the problems we face, far more was needed.

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The day was symbolized for me on multiple levels by seeing DC Park police seize 200 professionally printed placards from activists that were distributing them for free. The placards read, “Stop Mass Incarceration. Stop the new Jim Crow.” Police said that it was "unlawful solicitation", even though organizers were clearly giving them away. When those having their signs seized complained, they were threatened with fines or arrest. I heard one DC police officer say, “Hey, you can get them back at the end of the day. On second thought, given your attitude you cannot. “

I have never seen free placards confiscated at a national gathering by DC police. Then again, I’ve also never seen a demonstration so thickly monitored, with park police, the Department of Homeland Security and the military on every corner.

Today, those “triplets of evil” King warned us about 1967 still strangle this country. If we are not talking about the New Jim Crow, Wall Street and militarism, then what are we doing? King said, “If an American is concerned only about his nation, he will not be concerned about the peoples of Asia, Africa, or South America. Is this not why nations engage in the madness of war without the slightest sense of penitence? Is this not why the murder of a citizen of your own nation is a crime, but the murder of citizens of another nation in war is an act of heroic virtue?” Given US foreign policy, how can one say that they stand in King’s legacy and not raise these issues?

I would ask those who find this objectionable to ask themselves, “What would Dr. King/Ella Baker/Fannie Lou Hamer/Malcolm X think about today’s march?” I don’t presume to know the answer to that question, but I know that we only honor their memory by asking it.

For more from the March on Washington, Ari Berman reports on the new civil rights movement and the most important speakers at the march.

Chris Paul: A Union Chief They Can't Knock Off

Chris Paul. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In an inspired choice, the players of the National Basketball Association have elected Chris Paul as their new union president. Known as CP3, Paul is a great choice for a union coming out of a period of turmoil. This is not only because of his smarts, commitment to community outreach, and proven ability to lead. He is a great choice for the simple reason that his on-court ability insulates him from being banished by league executives and team owners who like unions about as much as David Stern likes baggy jeans.

Paul is a 28-year-old star at the height of his powers. The first-team All-NBA point guard just signed a guaranteed five-year contract extension with the Los Angeles Clippers. That immediately puts him on firmer ground than union leader/players in the other major sports who found themselves ostracized, blackballed and almost certainly colluded against after challenging ownership in the negotiating room.

The facts speak for themselves. In the NFL, eight-time All-Pro center Kevin Mawae was left unsigned after leading the NFL Players Association into the 2011 lockout.

“It’s kind of befuddling to me that I just came off my eighth Pro Bowl and a sixteen-game season and I can’t get one phone call,” he said in 2010. “Part of me wants to say, yeah, I think my position with the union is a problem for a lot of management people. But at the end of the day I would hope they’d be able to overlook that for making the team better …”

They didn’t. I spoke to Kevin Mawae over Twitter yesterday who said, that sports union leaders “need to be respected proven vet players with time left on [their] contract [to give] owners no excuse.”

Then there is the NHL, which almost lost the entire 2012–13 season after a prolonged owner’s lockout. Veteran defenseman, Ron Hainsey, one of the lead player-negotiators for the Players Association, nicknamed “bad cop” for his pugnacious style with league commissioner Gary Bettman, is still without a job. As Elliotte Friedman of the Canadian Broadcasting Company said, in his reporting he heard “a rumbling going around that Hainsey will never again get an NHL contract.”

Another NHL player who was a lead negotiator, Chris Campoli, has never come back into the league since the lockout, playing in Switzerland. He said during negotiations, “If it affects me in a negative way I can look in the mirror and know that I did the right thing. Some people may say I’m crazy, but at the end of the day I spent numerous hours with some amazing people and have relationships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

If linking these stories sounds like a conspiracy theory, that’s because it is. But the root on this conspiracy is not the fevered imagination of someone in their basement with a wall-sized spreadsheet detailing all the players who became high-profile collateral damage for daring to stand up to the sports bosses. The conspiracy rests in the fact that the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and the NFL referees were all locked out over the last two years in efforts to weaken their unions, and as I wrote at the time, all the owners in all the leagues are represented by the same bare-knuckled law firm, Proskauer Rose.

A uniform strategy to lock out athlete/workers is something we’ve seen with our own eyes. The fact that this has been followed by the blackballing of player leaders shouldn’t surprise but it should be acknowledged. It should also be seen as a high-profile affront to the most basic and fundamental rights to organize.

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Chris Paul, upon accepting the position of new NBPA president said, “One of my top priorities is to get as much involvement as possible from our players. That’s what it’s about going forward.”

I hope by “our players,” Paul means the players not only in the NBA but in every major US sport. The owners and commissioners have shown they are pursuing an industry-wide strategy. Players need to start thinking along similar lines. Maybe Chris Paul will be the person to make this happen. If CP3 has shown nothing else, we know he understands how to lead a team.

What does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have in common with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker?

Was a Kiss Just a Kiss? The Medal-Stand Smooch Heard Round the World

Gold medallists team Russia kiss and celebrate at the women’s 4x400 metres relay victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Championships. (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

“A Tommie Smith/John Carlos moment.” My inbox became flooded yesterday with variations of that phrase after two Russian 4X400 Gold medalists, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kissed on the medal stand at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. This led to widespread pronouncements—not speculation but pronouncements—that their kiss was in fact a protest against Russia’s recent brual wave of anti-LGBT legislation. People across the world, alarmed at the repression and violence in Russia, were comparing the kiss with ecstatic joy to that moment in Mexico City in 1968, when Carlos and Smith raised their black gloves to the heavens in the name of anti-racism and universal human rights.

This enthusiasm was understandable. The still photos of Ryzhova and Firova appeared like a dramatic rebuke of Vladamir Putin’s criminalization of LGBT life. The kiss also came on the heels of protest efforts at the Championships by Swedish athletes Emma Green-Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer—who painted their fingernails in rainbow hues—as well as public statements of solidarity from US 800 meter runner Nick Symmonds. Symmonds dedicated his silver medal to his LGBT friends back home saying, “Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it I will, shy of getting arrested.”

With the coming Sochi Olympics and calls to boycott Russia, ban Russia from competition, or use the Olympics as a protest staging ground for Pride Marches and athletic activism, there is simply no arena more alive with resistance to Russia’s draconian legislation than sports. This can be best understood as the culmination of a historically unprecedented level of confidence amongst LGBT athletes and allies. As Robbie Rogers, out and proud professional soccer player proclaimed, “It’s awesome to be part of a movement that’s changing the world.”

All that said, the question of whether the kiss between Ryzhova and Firova was a conscious act of political rebellion, is just that: a question. The Metro newspaper in the UK quoted an unnamed source in their camp who described it as “just kissing, not protesting against anti-gay laws.” They could be saying this to protect them and keep the track stars out of Russian interrogation or prison, but perhaps not. The video of the “kiss” tells a different story than the dramatic still images. These are quick pecks, in line with Russian custom. All four runners in fact, give each other kisses. Even more importantly, the crowd, cheering on the gold medalists, doesn’t respond to their actions as if anything unusual actually happened. There is just a continual wave of cheers. Compare that to the reaction to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists: the crowd goes completely silent, followed by heckles and jeers.

It certainly matters whether the act was a conscious moment of protest, particularly because, as Smith and Carlos learned, it’s far more dangerous to protest your own country than traveling abroad as a non-citizen to express dissent, even in Russia where tourists can be detained for promoting “gay propaganda.” But conscious or not, the international outpouring of support and affection for Ryzhova and Firova, and the excitement at the thought of an athletic “kiss-in”, demonstrates that the LGBT athletic community is spoiling for a fight next year in Sochi.

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The true drama at next year’s Olympics may very well be on the medal stand. If we hear more from Ryzhova and Firova, I will update this post. But we can say that much of the press on this has assumed a great deal yet to be confirmed. We can also say that, whether their act was politically conscious or not, as long as repression festers, a kiss tragically, can never be just a kiss.

Why banning Russia from the Olympics is a terrible idea.

Knocked the Hell Out by 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'

Muhammad Ali carries his son on his shoulders, Aug. 24, 1974. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

I couldn’t stand the Michael Mann film Ali starring Will Smith. The problem was not the script, the cinematography or the pacing. The problem was Will Smith. This is no knock against Mr. Smith. The film’s great flaw is the fact that no one can really play Muhammad Ali except for Muhammad Ali. It feels self-evident to write, but Hollywood, even with all its magic, is incapable of recreating the charisma, physical grace, or tragic glory of the Champ.

That is why Muhammad Ali has always been served better by documentaries than dramatic films. Even when Ali played himself in the 1977 film The Greatest, it was a disaster precisely because the wicked improvisation that marked both his style of speech and boxing were thuddingly absent.

That is also why for my money some of the best sports documentaries have Ali as their central focus. When We Were Kings or Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World are classics and belong on the shortlist of the best sports docs ever made.

I write all this so it’s understood that when I say that The Trials of Muhammad Ali is the best documentary ever made about the most famous draft-resister in human history, you know that I choose those words with extreme care. What makes The Trials of Muhammad Ali, by Academy Award–nominated director Bill (The Weather Underground) Siegel so special, is that it succeeds where so many have failed. Finally we have a film that presents an honest, thorough excavation of Ali’s politics in the 1960s. Siegel, perhaps because he has experience chronicling the often messy movements of that era, is able to communicate Ali’s journey of rebellion against racism and war with nuance and without a hint of condescension.

Other films have discussed Ali’s allegiance to the Nation of Islam, but I can’t think of another film that delves as deeply into why a separatist group like the NOI would be attractive to Ali. Siegel, always off camera, interviews actual members of the NOI who were active in the 1960s to discuss what Ali’s presence meant to their organization. Other films have shown how Ali was a target of derision in the mainstream press for joining the NOI and refusing to serve in Vietnam. But I’ve never seen so much footage of people across the political spectrum—from William Buckley to David Susskind—excoriating Ali in televised settings with the Champ having to sit in a suit and seethe. Other films have discussed how Ali was sentenced to five years for evading the draft, a sentence that was eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court, but I’ve never seen it examined to such a precise degree. This is the heart of Siegel’s film, and it’s explained in great detail why the Supreme Court—that supposedly apolitical body—desperately searched for a reason, no matter how paper thin, to overturn his sentence.

Other films have discussed Ali’s antiwar activism, but I’ve never seen such a bounty of new footage of Ali expressing his antiwar feelings in his own words. That’s truly what made The Trials of Muhammad Ali impress itself upon me like a stiff left jab. I like to consider myself someone who has studied Ali’s life. But I’d never laid eyes on most of what Siegel has unearthed. For example Ali-o-philes know that when he was banned from boxing in 1968, he starred in an extremely short-lived Broadway musical called Buck White. Actually seeing footage of his performance is alone worth the price of admission.

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I do have criticisms of the film. Given the amount of time Siegel devotes to the Nation of Islam, I wish he had discussed in greater detail Ali’s separation from Malcolm X when Malcolm left the NOI, as well as the period in Ali’s life in 1969 when the NOI suspended him from membership, writing, “Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.” Their reasons for such action are confusing to this day, and I would have loved to see the implications of this in both the NOI and the broader movement explored.*

But that nitpick is like complaining about the picture frame on a genius work of art. This is a special film. It should be treasured by anyone who cares about sports, politics, the 1960s or the vivacious, loquacious, bodacious, Muhammad Ali. There are those I’m sure who will always believe that no film could possibly do Ali and his era justice. They should on principle see The Trials of Muhammad Ali, and then, humbled, find Bill Siegel and say his name.

* I was able to ask Mr. Siegel at a screening in New York why he didn’t unpack this part of Ali’s life and he answered that it was addressed but ended up, with a great deal else, on the cutting-room floor. Now I’m giddily counting the days to the DVD release so I can see all the extras.

David Remnick on the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

No, for the Love of God, Johnny Manziel Isn't Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Is it possible to lower the bar for the entire sportswriting profession? Jen Floyd Engel of Fox Sports certainly gave it the old college try with her much-remarked-upon column where she compared Texas A&M quarterback—the Jäger-bombing, jet-setting, Heisman-winning, scandal-plagued, Broseph-in-Chief—Johnny Manziel with Rosa Parks.

The argument is that Rosa Parks, by refusing to leave her seat on that fateful Montgomery, Alabama, bus, brought about something Engel describes as “the tipping point for many Americans long since tired of these immoral laws.” Similarly, Manziel, by raging against an NCAA that profits off his name while he doesn’t get a dime, could be the spark that leads us to “recognize the immorality and absurdity of a system where everybody can make money off these kids except these kids.”

Others have mashed Engel’s column to a fine paste, but I don’t want to go there. Frankly, I didn’t want to write about this at all. But I’m compelled to do so not to take even more potshots at Engel. I wanted to write about this because of Rosa Parks. By comparing the two, Engel does more than trivialize the bravery of Parks. She traffics in a myth about who Parks was and why she chose to fight the indignities of the Jim Crow South. In Engel’s telling—and this is the kindest possible interpretation—Manziel, like Parks, is the unconscious activist thrust by circumstance into firing the first shots at an unjust system.

That’s just not who Rosa Parks was. The image of Rosa Parks we are taught in school and that Engel is propagating is of a woman, usually elderly, who was tired and wouldn’t leave her seat, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. In reality, she was only 42 years old on December 1, 1955, and as she often said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

In fact Rosa Parks had spent over half her life at this point as an advocate for social justice. After graduating high school and registering to vote in the Deep South of the 1930s, rare enough for a working class African-American woman, she first became active with the NAACP in its national campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African-American men wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

Out of this work, Parks thought deeply about the politics of sexual violence and the irony that nine black boys were on trial for their lives when black women were subject to the terror of rape by gangs of white men without a murmur from the authorities. In 1944, 23-year-old mother and sharecropper Recy Taylor was gang raped by seven men and left for dead. The NAACP sent Parks to investigate. Rosa Parks’s investigation and activism against rape, recounted in Danielle L. McGuire’s brilliant book At the Dark End of the Street, presents an alternative history of the civil rights movement as something that had roots in resistance to the sexual violence perpetrated on African-American women.

Parks settled in Alabama and became secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP while working as a seamstress. In the summer of 1955, she attended the legendary Highlander Folk School, an education center to train activists to organize for both racial and economic justice. That August saw the lynch-mob murder of 15-year-old Emmett Till. Parks spoke out at meetings about his death, once again at great risk to her personal safety. As she said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

On December 1, Rosa Parks made the fateful move of telling bus driver James Blake that she would not be moved, and she morphed from grassroots fighter to historic icon. Her arrest that day was a conscious act of civil disobedience, the most known part of a lifetime of courageous works.

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It should go without saying that comparing an African-American woman who at age 31 was willing to investigate a gang raping mob in rural Alabama with little regard for her own life to a wealthy, Caucasian Heisman Trophy–winning college football player just shouldn’t be done. Johnny Manziel may turn out to be the accidental activist of Engel’s dreams: the tipping point against the NCAA’s unjust system of indentured servitude. But Rosa Parks was no accidental activist. Maybe the one positive thing that could come out of Engel’s commentary would be if more people learn the hidden history of Rosa Parks’ life and feel a flicker of inspiration to become conscious fighters for a better world. Johnny Manziel is no Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is Rosa Parks. The rest of us are still just taking lessons.

Honoring Parks' radical brand of activism requires more than a stupid statue.

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