Where sports and politics collide.
Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice at a game against Syracuse, January 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)
The firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice created a media frenzy that extended far beyond the sports page. Those who are now choosing to rush to his defense are unintentionally telling an even more important story. This story is about power and powerlessness. It's about bullies and the bullied. And, if we look hard enough, it's about a cultural battle for the soul of sports.
As we witnessed on videotape, Coach Rice called his players "faggots", "cunts," "fairies" and "pussies." He meted out physical abuse as well: kicking, pushing and throwing balls at the teenagers under his charge. This glimpse behind the curtain of NCAA athletics caused everyone from LeBron James to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to physically recoil. Well, almost everyone.
For Fox News Host Sean Hannity, Mike Rice's firing constituted something of a national tragedy. “I kind of like old-fashioned discipline," he said. "Maybe we need a little more discipline in society and maybe we don’t have to be a bunch of wimps for the rest of our lives... My father hit me with a belt and I turned out okay!” Eric Bolling, the guy on Fox News who dresses like he’s on his way to a nightclub in 1996, was even more horrified. He described the firing as symbolic of "the wussification of America" as well as a symbol of "our culture in freefall."
Their defense of Rice is actually quite helpful. Often we use phrases like "jock culture" or "bullying culture" as if culture is like some kind of mysterious fog obstructing our collective vision. But "culture" is not like the weather (cloudy with a 10 percent chance of misogyny). It is directly tied to politics, organization and powerful people with a vested interest in oppression. For the mouthpieces at Fox News and those pulling their strings, they defend Coach Mike Rice because they’re in a panic that there is a culture war afoot and, at best, they resemble Custer. In this war, they see every cultural sphere—Hollywood, music, politics—as a battleground but perhaps none is either as important or slipping through their grasp quite like sports.
The sports world—particularly men's sports—is the place where homophobia has historically found safe harbor. But in the last several years, there has been a decisive shift. Jocks have been on the front lines building organizations like You Can Play and Athlete Ally aimed at making the locker room a safe space for their LGBT friends and teammates. Individual pros like Kenneth Faried and Eric Winston have lent their names to activist campaigns. Brenden Ayanbadejo, recently of the Baltimore Ravens, announced this week that he was speaking to four NFL players who may come out of the closet simultaneously before the start of this season. Kobe Bryant—someone caught on camera several years ago dropping “the other f bomb” is now admonishing his Twitter followers for anti-gay slurs. The hysteria of Hannity and his ilk in defense of Coach Rice is quite simple: they’re losing and they know it.
Less simple to grasp is the second group of Coach Rice’s defenders: some of his former players. Junior Rutgers forward Wally Judge said during a telephone interview to the AP, "I have grown from the moment I stepped in these doors, not only as a player, but also as a person because of how [Coach Rice] has treated me." Another player, sophomore forward Austin Johnson said, "[Coach Rice] did a lot for us off the court, academically, socially.... I am not saying what he did wasn't wrong, because I do believe it was wrong. But it is also tough because it was a highlight reel of his worst moments."
University of Pittburgh guard Travon Woodall also defended Rice, who worked at Pitt as an assistant, but in the process said he was "not the only coach to put his hands on a player, or talk the way he did." In other words, what Coach Rice said and did wasn’t a big deal because this kind of abusive behavior is a normalized part of high-level youth sports.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of these players at all. I do think their synchronicity with the Hannity and Bolling crowd speaks volumes about how bullies and the bullied can define their lives by the same logic and come to same rationalization: it’s necessary. We recognize this behavior in battered women that defend their husbands. We are loath to recognize it in youth sports although the similarities are glaring. These are young men raised in a highly lucrative prep-to-pros-pipeline where authority is never questioned, abuse is expected and corruption is inevitable. The fact that this relationship of power and powerlessness involves predominantly white coaches and predominantly black players is about as coincidental of race as who sits where in a prison cafeteria. Yes, there are many black coaches and white players as well, but unless you have a coach who consciously goes against the grain, the power dynamics become replicated no matter who is doing the yelling and who is gritting their teeth.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are transformational, teacherly coaches out there who work wonders with young people. Many are loud and tough as hell without being abusive, anti-gay, misogynistic bigots. These transformational coaches who don’t take advantage of structural inequities and are actually in it for the kids are heroes, but they need to do more. They can no longer be silent. They need to betray the so-called “coaching fraternity” and start reclaiming their profession. They should see the dismissal of Mike Rice as a kind of validation. Yes, he doesn’t get fired if that video doesn’t get leaked, but it says something very positive that the vast majority of people were repulsed by the “old school” coaching on display. It’s time for the leaders of the new school to make themselves heard. This is about a battle for the soul of sports and it’s one we cannot afford to lose.
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Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware speaks to the press, April 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
There's been a river of ink already spilled over Louisville guard Kevin Ware's horrific leg injury during the Cardinals' Elite Eight victory over the Duke Blue Devils. Most, with some notable exceptions, have tested the bounds of hokey sentimentality: the classic story of an injured player inspiring his shaken team to victory. Now, however, we’ve reached the point where tragedy becomes farce. On Wednesday we learned that Adidas, in conjunction with the University of Louisville athletic department, will be selling a $24.99 t-shirt with Kevin Ware’s number 5 and the slogan “Rise to the Occasion” emblazoned across the back. His team will also be wearing warm-ups with Ware’s name, number and the slogan “All In." (This tragically is not a tribute to Chris Hayes.)
You almost have to tip your cap: no non-profit does buccaneer profiteering quite like the NCAA. What other institution would see a tibia snap through a 20-year-old's skin on national television and see dollar signs? In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life. "Going forward, we don't know what's going to happen in terms of medical expenses," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group trying to organize NCAA athletes. "If Kevin has lifelong medical bills associated with his injury, he could be squarely responsible for this…These are things that are not guaranteed to players that are injured, and no matter how hard it might be for people to understand, that's the truth. And that should change."
Where will the t-shirt money go? Well, Coach Rick Pitino makes more than $4 million a year and will likely see his current five-year deal torn up and renegotiated following the season. The assistant coaches, trainers and support staff will also surely get a taste.*** The Final Four ratings boost spurred from the buzz surrounding Kevin Ware's story will also translate into quite the windfall for the NCAA. The multi-billion-dollar slop bucket of March Madness money, which makes up 96 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget, will pay organization president Mark Emmert's two million dollar salary as well as the paychecks for their 14 vice presidents, each of whom make at least $400,000 a year. They will also to be able to continue to pay off the mortgage on their new $50 million, 116,000-square-foot headquarters in Indianapolis.
The Kevin Ware story is why any person of conscience should support former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The 1995 Final Four star's legal journey began when he came home from work and saw his likeness being used in EA Sports's college basketball video game. O'Bannon v. NCAA has morphed into a mass class action suit demanding that players be compensated if their name and image are being used in the pursuit of profit without permission. Others have joined O’Bannon including one of the great legends and gentlemen in the history of the sport, Oscar Robertson. He was provoked after he noticed that his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, was producing playing cards with his likeness. As he said to Yahoo! Sports, “The arrogance of the NCAA to say, ‘we have the right to do this’… is what troubles me the most. The University of Cincinnati gets a fee each time my picture is used on a card. I don’t. When I played there, there was nothing like this ever agreed to.”
Athletic directors, like Pat Haden at USC, are already lamenting that if they lose this lawsuit, it could mean no more funding for non-revenue sports. But here’s an idea. Why not just make every coach’s salary no greater than the average wage of a tenured professor? Why not end the practice that has football and basketball coaches stand as the highest paid public employees in their states? That money alone should allow for the funding of non-revenue sports while also allowing players a piece of the four billion dollars in revenue earned off of their images in videogames, commercials and memorabilia.
As for Kevin Ware, he returned to Louisville this week, his coach by his side. Coach Pitino announced that he is healthy enough to be in Atlanta for the Final Four, cheering on his teammates. Ware is now a newly minted media star: a 21st century George Gipp with the benefit of having a story that’s actually true. Unfortunately the school won’t even say publicly, if rehab doesn’t go as planned, whether he’ll still have a scholarship waiting for him when he returns in the fall. The official word from Louisville is that the question is irrelevant because “doctors are expecting a full recovery.” One thing is certain. At least he’ll get a lousy t-shirt.
*** after this article went to print, the Louisville athletic department announced that they would not take any direct funds from these t-shirt sales. Instead profits will go to Adidas as well as Louisville's general scholarship fund. As Brian Frederick of the Sports Fan's Coalition put it, "We can say that shirt money is being laundered."
For the private prison industry—and Gang of Eight leader Chuck Schumer—immigrant-unfriendly legislation means profit. Read Aura Bogado's take.
Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. (en.wikipedia/KnightLago)
In a victory for social justice, human decency and those who stand against the private prison industry and its nihilistic agenda of mass incarceration, GEO Group will no longer hold naming rights of the football stadium at Florida Atlantic University. GEO Group is a multi-billion dollar private prison corporation whose facilities inspired a Mississippi judge to describe them as "an inhuman cesspool." They are currently aiming to expand their Florida operations dramatically when immigration reform passes, and there will be a legal necessity to detain the state's three million undocumented workers. In the private prison industry, immigration reform is being discussed like Christmas, the Fourth or July and the Super Bowl rolled up into one. GEO Group's efforts to spend six million dollars to rename the the home of the FAU Owls was an effort to normalize their name: GEO Group, just another corporation you can trust, the Xerox of private prisons.
The students at FAU weren't having it. They are the heroes of this story. They started a movement called "Stop Owlcatraz" and turned this into a national story. Their statement of purpose was powerful in its moral clarity, saying simply,
FAU is putting the families of their Hispanic students at risk of being detained in facilities that bear the same name as the stadium of their Alma Mater.
All of a sudden, the good PR wasn't so good. In announcing the withdrawal of his six million dollars, GEO Group CEO George Zoley said, "What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO’s goodwill to financially assist the University’s athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations." The irony of this statement should be studied in a lab. By not being "distracted" by GEO Group's filthy lucre and the prospect of some spiffy stadium upgrades, the FAU students of Stop Owlcatraz have done their school proud and all people who organize against the prison pipeline, a tremendous service.
As for these students who petitioned, marched, organized and occupied to make this stand, they put out a statement on Twitter saying simply, "It's over! We stopped Owlcatraz!" They also did more than draw a line in the sand against our cynical and deeply racist system of mass incarceration. Sports should be a way to help young people avoid the pitfalls of the prison pipeline, not an advertisement for its expansion. Thanks to the students at FAU, the penitentiary powers-that-be will think twice before skulking toward our playing fields in the future.
For footage of the students' occupation, and more firsthand accounts of student struggle nationwide, check out TheNation.com's Dispatches From the US Student Movement.
Jackie Robinson speaks before the House Un-American Activities Committee, July 18, 1949. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)
I'm both excited and apprehensive about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. I'm excited because any high-profile film and attendant discussion about the man Martin Luther King, Jr., called "a freedom rider before freedom rides" should be a positive. I'm excited because the film might stir people to read brilliant books like Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment, Chris Lamb's Blackout and Arnold Rampersand's Jackie Robinson: A Biography. I'm apprehensive because we know what Hollywood does to history. It's not unlike what a monster truck does to a ferret: leaving it flattened and unrecognizable with all its sharp teeth knocked out. Historical movies about sports and the triumph over racism are often even worse. Films like Glory Road or Remember the Titans follow the s-i-c formula: segregation, integration, celebration. In a biopic of the man who broke baseball's color barrier, that formula would be particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson was doubting his own integrationist belief in the better angels of this country at the end of his life.
I will watch 42 with an open mind. However, here in advance are five aspects of Jackie Robinson's tumultuous, politically complicated life story I fear won't make the film's final cut.
1. Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call "an imperfect ally." Rickey was responsible for Robinson's entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.
The Negro Leagues weren't just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country's best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey's pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.
Rickey was also, as he said proudly, "no bleeding heart." He saw the economic advantage of showcasing, as Jackie Robinson said himself, "a patient black freak" for mass consumption. In fact, Rickey had far more public concern and condemnation for how black Americans would respond to Robinson than the reaction of white Americans. As he said at a mass meeting of New York's "respectable" black community, "The one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson's] success are the Negro people themselves. You'll hold Jackie Robinson days, and Jackie Robinson nights. You'll get drunk. You'll fight. You'll be arrested. You'll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You'll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy." The audience applauded. I'd love to see the film dramatize this scene and educate people about pre-civil rights class tensions within the black community. I'm not hopeful.
2. Testifying against Paul Robeson. The most high profile political event in Jackie Robinson's life is almost certainly not going to be in this movie. It was 1949, and Robinson took part in what he called "the greatest regret of my life," testifying against perhaps the most famous African-American in the country, the singer, actor and communist-aligned activist Paul Robeson, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Paul Robeson said, “Blacks would never pick up arms against the Soviet Union,” HUAC wanted to bury him. To legitimize their attack, they called on Robinson to testify. This made perfect sense as Rickey and the media had presented Robinson, a proud veteran and patriot, as a symbol of racial progress.
Robinson, in a prepared statement to HUAC, said, “Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do.... Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.” Such a statement, both in the absence of a civil rights movement and directly in the face of a HUAC committee dominated by Dixiecrat segregationists, was incredibly brave.
However, it was Robinson’s next remark regarding Robeson that has stood the test of time. “I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me… Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.” With those words he had done the bidding of HUAC—giving them license and cover to attack and persecute Robeson. Robeson was asked to condemn Jackie Robinson but he wouldn't do it. Jackie's "greatest regret" should be a part of a film about his life.
3. The role of Lester "Red" Rodney and the Daily Worker newspaper. Speaking of Communists, without the radical Reds, it's highly likely that Jackie Robinson never gets the chance to break the color line. Lester Rodney, the sports editor for the US Communist Party’s Daily Worker paper from 1936 to 1958, launched a high profile labor-based campaign to integrate baseball in the 1930s. (Like thousands of others, Rodney left the party in 1958 when the extent of the crimes of Joseph Stalin were revealed.)
As he said, "[The campaign] just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, 'Why don’t we go to the ballparks—to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds—with petitions?'"
This was history-making work. That petition campaign evolved into the issue becoming part of May Day and Labor Day mass union demonstrations where the slogan "End Jim Crow in Baseball" was displayed with proud prominence. In the late 1990s, Rodney's role was finally recognized and embraced. He was interviewed on ESPN and PBS and also spoke on panels in 1997, sitting next to Jackie's widow Rachel Robinson. I saw in the credits of 42 that an actor plays Wendell Smith, the legendary sports columnist and editor for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Smith worked alongside and exchanged articles for publication with Lester Rodney. I didn't see anyone playing Rodney. It's a greasy move if the filmmakers, after 15 years of appreciation and three years after his death, shove Lester Rodney back in the closet.
4. Jackie Robinson: Republican? Whether the powers behind 42 are Republican or Democrat, tackling Jackie's own politics are both an education as well as somewhat embarrassing for both parties. Robinson was a Republican for most of his life and people like former RNC chair Michael Steele have raised this in speeches as a way to highlight the party's historical roots in the black community—as well as a way to deny the present evidence of racism. But Robinson was a Republican because, from his Georgia birth, he had a hardened, and quite justifiable, view that the Democrats were Dixiecrats—the party of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. When John Kennedy gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Robinson saw sitting by JFK’s side none other than Democratic Governor of Arkansas and notorious segregationist Orval Faubus, and this confirmed his worst fears that little had changed. But Robinson would be devastated as the Republicans became the new home of the Dixiecrats after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. When he was a guest at the 1964 Republican convention and heard Barry Goldwater speak, he said that as a black man, he finally understood "how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany." By 1968, he had endorsed Hubert Humphrey for President over old friend Richard Nixon. He's a Republican like Frederick Douglass was a Republican: a member of a party that no longer exists.
5. Political transformation. Robinson’s ideas further changed over the last five years of his life. He disagreed with his friend Dr. King for opposing the war in Vietnam. But then the realities of the war came crashing into his own life. His son, Jackie, Jr., saw combat in Southeast Asia and returned deeply scarred—carrying a gun, jumping at shadows and addicted to drugs.
Jackie, the fervent anti-communist, began to change his own views: “As I look around today and observe how lost and frustrated and bitter our young people are, I find myself wishing that there was some way to reach out to them and let them know that we want to help. I confess I don’t know the way.”
By the end of 1968, he supported the much-criticized movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics, writing, “I do support the individuals who decided to make the sacrifice by giving up the chance to win an Olympic medal. I respect their courage. We need to understand the reason and frustration behind these protests… it was different in my day, perhaps we lacked courage.”
In 1969, this “veteran,” “Republican” and “anti-communist” wrote, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”
I could very well be wrong. Maybe the film will be a politically sophisticated magnum opus. Maybe it will cover some of the above with nuance and flair. Or maybe we will be treated to yet another race and sports fable of segregation, integration and celebration. I hope not. History is often contradictory and complicated, and the best movies share these traits. Let's hope 42 embraces—and doesn't ignore—Jackie's contradictions, because it's within them that we learn the most pungent lessons for today. It's also within them that his bravery and sacrifice can best be appreciated in full.
The costs of American imperialism are shooting into the high thirteen figures. Read Robert Dreyfuss's analysis.
Students at Tulane march against rape, sexual assault and gender violence, April 26, 2012. (Flickr/Tulane Public Relations)
Let’s start with a goal: professional sports leagues should devote major financial resources toward educating young men about the need to stand up to rape and all manifestations of violence against women. The NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball—for starters—should see part of their mission as using the influence and power of sports to reshape a jock culture that treats women like they are the spoils of athletic supremacy. They should be appalled by the glaring connective tissue between sports and rape culture in Steubenville, Ohio, South Bend, Indiana, and now Torrington, Connecticut. They should be especially devastated that the hero worship of athletes meant that the alleged and convicted perpetrators of sexual violence are defended by many of their coaches and peers. They should recoil that survivors who accuse athletes of sexual violence are blamed and then become threatened with more violence for daring to step forward.
They should do it because for years, sports leagues haven’t addressed violence against women among their own players. They should do it for Kasandra Perkins, gunned down by Kansas City Chiefs Jovan Belcher, the father of her newborn child. They should do it for Lizzy Seeberg, the St. Mary’s student who took her own life after being threatened by members of the Notre Dame football team because she reported a sexual assault. They should do it for the young women assaulted by the Boston University hockey team. They should do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Yes, rape culture and violence against women exists in every cultural sphere: the armed forces, music, advertising and a political world where people actually debate the differences between “rape” and “legitimate rape,” But sports bears a very specific responsibility to take this struggle on. No other institution reaches more men and no other institution plays a greater role in teaching boys how to define their own manhood and masculinity. Often this definition involves equating weakness with femininity, femininity with softness and softness with not being a “real man.” There’s no crying in baseball. Instead, there’s stress, ulcers, divorce, heart disease and death. (Homophobia is inextricably tied to this as well, which makes the growing movement of athletes for LGBT marriage equality so welcome.) I have been to rookie seminars where young pro athletes—I won’t name the league to respect the confidentiality agreement I signed—are told to view women (called “road beef”) as potential predators and threats. The embedded fear that women exist only to use, trap and destroy the young athlete becomes a corollary to alienation from their partners—divorce rates among athletes are massive—and at its most extreme, violence.
This week I had the privilege to speak on a panel organized by Eve Ensler called “Breaking the Male Code: After Steubenville, a Call to Action.” I left this meeting convinced that this is a fight we can win but not unless men themselves stand up and say “no more.” No more to the degradation of women, no more to the normalizing of violence against women and no more being a bystander when potential rape situations unfold in our presence. This doesn’t happen by accident. It takes funding curriculum, hiring more teachers and training more coaches. In other words, it takes the devotion of resources. I also left convinced that there is no neutrality in this fight. To do nothing and just say, “Well, I don’t rape. I’m not violent. Therefore I don’t have to do anything,” is to live with your head in the sand. Men have to be heard and our institutions of socialization have to be heard as well. As Scott Fujita of the Kansas City Chiefs said to me, “There are a lot of impressionable eyes on professional athletes and their respective leagues. With that comes some responsibility, as far as I’m concerned, to show what’s acceptable and what isn’t. So if there’s anything we can do to help address a sort of ‘unspoken’ sports culture that has in some respects not taken the violence against and denigration of women seriously enough, that should be explored.”
Every year, the NFL trusses up players in pink for a month to showcase their commitment to combat breast cancer. It’s a ham-handed marketing ploy that allows them to sell pink merchandise online, appeal to female fans and support a worthy cause. They erred terribly in not doing more after Kasandra Perkins was murdered. It’s time for them to do right—confronting openly that there is a problem in this country, and enlisting themselves in the struggle to change how men view women. Violence against women is endemic in our society. What’s not endemic is people looking the other way when this violence occurs around us. It’s time for sports to pick a side and take their share of accountability for the toxicity in our culture that normalizes rape.
This week, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments against the homophobia built into the country’s legal system. Read Nan Hunter’s update.
Cleveland Cavaliers fans cheer as then-Cav LeBron James takes the floor in the 2007 NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
I believe that in 2014, NBA megastar LeBron James will create the feel-good sports story of the millennium by becoming a free agent and rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers. This seems like an impossible scenario: the team that LeBron spurned to “take [his] talents to South Beach”; the fan base that burned his jersey when he made “the Decision”; the owner who sent unhinged messages to the press in both the font and tone of an over-stimulated 11-year-old. It sounds impossible, yet LeBron hasn’t denied the possibility, and it makes sense in a way that transcends dollars, cents and championships.
If Ohio’s prodigal son makes this most unlikely of returns, the effect would be the kind of social phenomenon felt far beyond the sports world. I love Ohio, but it has become a state that people feel compelled to leave. As deindustrialization took its toll, the state saw its population decline drastically over the last decade. According to the 2011 census, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and LeBron’s hometown of Akron all have suffered mass exodus since 2000. Leading the way was Cleveland, which hemorrhaged 17 percent of its population. LeBron, so hated for leaving, was just one in a wave, another young person in Cleveland who grew up and left. His return, however, would inspire more than just thoughts of symbolic resurrection. It also would mean literally hundreds of millions to the state. The Heat, according to Forbes, have risen in value by $250 million since LeBron arrived. And now, at 28 years old, the three-time MVP is at the apex of his basketball and cultural powers.
LeBron James is in the process of doing nothing less than mastering the game of basketball. He plays the way that Bruce Lee threw a punch: an economy of motion coupled with devastating effect. As the Miami Heat continue their twenty-six-game winning streak, LeBron has taken his all-around game to a level that only Michael Jordan has inhabited. Like MJ, he’s in that rare zone where galactic athleticism crosses on a graph with mental acuity. James is now not only fastest and strongest person on the court; he’s also perhaps the smartest. Watch him in the post as he decides whether to whip a pass to a three-point shooter, hit a cutting teammate or just overpower whoever has to defend him. The choices are deadly in their efficiency. He holds the ball, assessing angles like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, but then has the ability to jump over or through you like the genetically spliced spawn of Jordan and Bo Jackson. The numbers don’t lie: He’s averaging 26.9 points while shooting 56 percent from the field, unheard of statistics for someone under seven feet tall. During one stretch of their winning streak, he scored 102 points on forty-seven shots. That’s efficiency to shame a cyborg. As his teammate Dwyane Wade said, “It’s kind of like, where is the bar for this guy? Does he have a bar?”
It’s this ability to inspire with his play that, fairly or unfairly, goads us to want him to be more than an athlete; to see if he cares about the lives of those who follow his every step. LeBron would fulfill that desire if he chose to marry the prime of his career to Cleveland, Ohio, and become a state-wide avatar of regeneration amidst the vulture capitalism plaguing the Rust Belt. All great athletes inspire these illogical desires. No matter how many times we’re burned by confusing sterling play with sterling character, we return to the flame. We thought Michael Jordan’s ability to astound would also make him care about Nike’s sweatshops in Southeast Asia. We thought Earl Woods’s very public dream that his son Tiger would use his fame to do “more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity” might make him desire a goal greater that Jack Nicklaus’s eighteen grand-slam golf titles. Many believed Joe Paterno was a saint and Lance Armstrong, whatever his faults, was doing it all for a greater good. We demanded a third dimension among these icons, and upon finding it, recoiled at the sight. We keep relearning the lesson that the qualities needed to become a top athlete or coach don’t always translate into qualities worthy of a decent human being.
And yet, LeBron James holds out the tantalizing possibility of being something more than a brand. There is something that made him say that his dream was to be “a global icon like Muhammad Ali.” There is something that made him dip a toe into waters African-American athletes rarely tread and say that he believed racism played a role in the ferocity of the reaction when he left Cleveland. There is something that compelled him to organize his team to stand up for Trayvon Martin, the entire team posing in hoodies, after the 17-year-old was killed by George Zimmerman. There is something—after all the bad blood, hurt feelings and still-sensitive scar tissue—that compels him to say he might leave Miami and return to Ohio. He’s our superstar in the age of declinism, but one who inspires belief that there are better days ahead. I believe that LeBron James will leave Miami next season and return to Cleveland to become something not even Michael Jordan ever achieved: a folk hero. But I also believe that, even if he doesn’t find his way back to Ohio, LeBron James will continue to dazzle, and unlike so many others, never make us feel cheap for trusting him with our respect.
Ohio sports could use some role modeling. Read Jessica Valenti’s take on the Steubenville trial.
A sheriff’s vehicle at Steubenville High School. (Reuters/Jason Cohn)
”I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” —Bob Knight, Hall of Fame basketball coach, 1988
As a sportswriter, there is one part of the Steubenville High School rape trial that has kept rattling in my brain long after the defendants were found guilty. It was a text message sent by one of the now-convicted rapists, team quarterback Trent Mays. Mays had texted a friend that he wasn’t worried about the possibility of rape charges because his football coach, local legend Reno Saccoccia, “took care of it.” In another text, Mays said of Coach Reno, “Like, he was joking about it so I’m not worried.”
In this exchange we see an aspect of the Steubenville case that should resonate in locker rooms and athletic departments across the country: the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. Rape culture is not just about rape. It’s about the acceptance of women as “things” to be used and disposed, which then creates a culture where sexual assault—particularly at social settings—is normalized. We learned at the Steubenville trial that not only did a small group of football players commit a crime, but fifty of their peers, men and women, saw what was happening and chose to do nothing, effectively not seeing a crime at all.
We need to ask the question whether the jock culture at Steubenville was a catalyst for this crime. We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement. I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated. There are many germs in the Petri dish of sports. Growing up I had the great fortune of having big-hearted, politically conscious coaches, some of whom patrolled sexism in the locker room with a particular vigilance. As the great Joe Ehrmann has written so brilliantly, a “transformational coach” can work wonders. But different germs also exist. Ken Dryden, Hall of Fame NHL goalie, once said, ”It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness…. anyone who finds himself at the center of the world they’re in has a sense of impunity.”
On colleges, there is reason to believe that the same teamwork, camaraderie and “specialness” produced by sports can be violently perverted to create a pack mentality that either spurs sexual violence or makes players fear turning in their teammates. A groundbreaking 1994 study showed that college athletes make up 3.3 percent of male students but 19 percent of those accused of sexual assault. One of the studies authors, Jeff Benedict, said, “Does this study say participation in college sports causes this? Clearly, no. We’re not saying that. We just think that at some point there is an association between sports and sexual assault…. the farther you go up, the more entitlements there are. And one of those entitlements is women.”
That was two decades ago but there is no indication that anything has changed. In a February 2012 Boston Globe article about sexual assault charges levied against members of the Boston University hockey team, reporter Mary Carmichael wrote about the findings of Sarah McMahon, “a Rutgers University researcher who studies violence against women.” McMahon “said it is unclear whether college athletes are more likely to commit sexual crimes than other students. But she said her work had found a unique sense of entitlement, sexual and otherwise, among some male college athletes, especially those in high-profile or revenue-producing sports like BU hockey.”
You can’t extricate the entitlement at the heart of jock culture from McMahon’s comments about its particular prevalence in revenue-producing sports. The insane amounts of money in so-called amateur athletics and the greasy desire of adults in charge of cash-strapped universities to get their share also must bear responsibility for rape culture in the locker room. They have created a system where teenage NCAA athletes can’t be paid for what they produce, so they receive a different kind of wage: worship. Adults treat them like heroes, students treat them like rock stars, and amidst classes, club meetings and exams, there exists a gutter economy where women become a form of currency. You’re a teenager being told that you are responsible for the economic viability of your university and everything is yours for the taking. This very set-up is a Steubenville waiting to happen.
If people think that this doesn’t translate to high school, they’re wrong. I spoke with Jon Greenberg, an ESPN journalist and also a graduate of Steubenville High. He describes a school “with a pretty high poverty rate” that was still able to get state funds to build “a swimming pool, a new on-campus gym, cafeteria and more.” The dynastic “Big Red” football program drove those changes. As Greenberg says, “The football players themselves, at least in my experience, weren’t treated as heroes or above the law, but the team itself was put on a pedestal, especially when they were good…. There are some very good people who played Big Red football and coached football. But there needs to be some changes, most importantly a very serious seminar, for all male students, on the definition of rape and similar curriculum.”
In thinking about Steubenville, thinking about my own experiences playing sports, thinking about athletes I’ve interviewed and know, I believe that a locker room left to its own devices will drift toward becoming a breeding ground for rape culture. You don’t need a Coach Reno or a Bob Knight to make that happen. You just need good people to say or do nothing. As such, a coach or a player willing to stand up, risk ridicule and actually teach young men not to rape, can make all the difference in the world. We need interventionist, transformative coaches in men’s sports that talk openly about these issues. We need an economic setup in amateur sports that does away with their gutter economy. But most of all, we need people who recognize the existence of rape culture, both on and off teams, to no longer be silent.
As for Steubenville, Coach Reno needs to be shown the door, never to be allowed to mold young minds again. Football revenue should go toward creating a district-wide curriculum about rape and stopping violence against women. And “Jane Doe,” the young woman at the heart of this case, should be given whatever resources she and her family needs to move if they choose, pay for college or just have access to whatever mental health services she and her family require. After the trial, testimony and verdict, they deserve nothing less.
College students across the country are pushing their administrations to protect students from sexual assault. For more, check out this week’s “Dispatches from the US Student Movement.”
A protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, January 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain)
When I was a 14-year-old with healthy knees and an obtuse overestimation of my own athleticism, I played for a basketball club team in New York City. One moment from that season looms above all others. We were in the locker room after practice, joking around and half-naked, when Coach Dan came in through the door. Coach Dan wasn’t much of a coach but he made up for it with relentless, flower-power positively. He was a hippie living in the wrong era, with a ponytail that went down his back, and a pocket of trail mix that would dribble out of his mouth like chewing tobacco. Dan never allowed any roughhousing, did “vibe checks” and spoke to us about pacifism while we stifled smirks. He knew we were laughing at him but didn’t really care.
On this day, Dan told us with his typical camp counselor enthusiasm to get our clothes on because one of the girl’s coaches, a woman I just remember as Coach Deb, was about to come in and speak with us. We groaned but still reached for our pants. Everyone, that is, but Tim. All I remember about Tim was that he was string-bean tall, painfully awkward and masked some deep insecurities by cracking jokes at Rodney Dangerfield speed. Tim saw this as a moment for humor and said, “Let’s keep our pants off because then we can rape her!”
I wish I could tell you whether laughter followed, but we didn’t even get the chance to react. In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season.
This seared itself into my memory because my brain seems to regurgitate it every time men’s sports lurks in the background of a sexual assault. Earlier this year, it was seeing Notre Dame players who had been implicated in two sexual assaults, take the field without uproar in their national championship game, led by a coach who thought the accusations were cause for humor. This week the trial opens in Steubenville, Ohio, where two members of the storied high school football team are facing youth prison until the age of 21 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. The defense has described the young woman as “a drunk out-of-town football groupie.”
The fact is that rape culture—conversation, jokes and actions that normalize rape—are a part of sports. Far too many athletes feel far too empowered to see women as the spoils of jock culture. The young woman in Steubenville was carried like a piece of meat, with the brutality documented like it was spring break in Daytona Beach. It was so normalized that dozens of people saw what was happening and did nothing.
Why would the players feel so entitled to not only act this way but also document their own behavior? Why would their peers watch and do nothing? It starts with understanding Steubenville, a small city not so different from many others in the former Rust Belt. This is a damaged postindustrial town where there is little hope and excitement beyond the dynastic “Big Red” high school football program. As one local resident said to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, “We have 16,000 people in Steubenville and a 10,000-seat stadium. That says it all.” The team’s website even says that Big Red football is “keeping Steubenville on the map.”
Because high school football is at the center of the social, psychological and even economic life of Steubenville, youth are treated like demigods, with the adults acting like sentries guarding the sacred program. Whatever the results of the trial, it speaks volumes that the young woman is in lockdown in her own home under armed guards because of death threats.
A tone for this attitude toward the accuser was set by the team’s legendary football coach of thirty years, Reno Saccoccia, whose first response upon hearing the charges was to take no action against either the accused players or those on the team who were present and did nothing. When a female reporter asked him why, Coach Reno went “nose to nose” with her and said, “You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
I don’t believe that rape culture is an endemic part of men’s sports. I do believe that rape culture is an endemic part of teenage boys being treated like gods by adults for their ability to play games. I also believe that rape culture in locker rooms can be destroyed with the active intervention of coaches who take violence against women seriously. We shouldn’t have to ask them to hit their players to get this message across. As Zerlina Maxwell might say, these young men can be taught not to rape.
Reno Saccoccia is an icon. I have no idea what happened to my own Coach Dan, but I know who I’d rather have coaching my kids. Rape culture is a part of Coach Reno’s locker room, but it sure as hell wasn’t a part of mine, for which I’m forever grateful. Hopefully Tim is out there, finally grown into his six-foot-five frame, and a part of him is grateful too.
Rape is not inevitable. Jessica Valenti explains why.
Supporters of Beitar Jerusalem hold a banner reading “Beitar will always remain pure.” (Reuters/Stringer)
“It’s not racism. They just shouldn’t be here.”
Not even in the earliest days of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers did Brooklyn’s white fans walk out after number 42 stole a base or hit a home run. The Brooklyn faithful’s love of “Dem Bums” trumped any racism that simmered in the stands. What does it say that sixty-six years later, Israeli fans of the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem have not evolved to postwar-Brooklyn standards of human decency?
Earlier this season, Beitar Jersulam broke their own version of the “color line” by signing the first two Muslim players in team history: Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Predictably, Beitar’s supporters were madder than the NRA in a school zone. Boos have rained down on Sadayev and Kadiyev every time they’ve taken the field or touched the ball. Several members of a team fan club flew a banner that read, “Beitar is pure forever.” Two others attempted to burn down the team offices. This pales, however, next to what happened when Sadayev scored his first goal for the team last week. After the striker found glory, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans simply stood up and walked out. Even by soccer standards, where racism on the pitch is a continual plague, this organized nature of the action was shocking.
As one 19-year-old fan told The Independent, “The reaction to the Muslim players being here is not racist. But the club’s existence is under threat. Beitar is a symbol for the whole country.” Another said, “It’s not racism, they just shouldn’t be here…. Beitar Jerusalem has always been a clean club, but now it’s being destroyed—many of the other players are thinking of leaving because of the Muslim players being here,”
Moshe Zimmermann, a sports historian at Hebrew University, told The New York Times that he sees something darker at work in the soccer stands than just hooligans taking fandom too far: “People in Israel usually try to locate Beitar Jerusalem as some kind of the more extreme fringe; this is a way to overcome the embarrassment. The fact is that the Israeli society on the whole is getting more racist, or at least more ethnocentric, and this is an expression.”
If we accept Zimmerman’s statement as true, that Beitar holds a mirror up to the entire country, then its actions in recent years become all the more frightening. Last March after a game, hundreds of Beitar supporters flooded a shopping mall in West Jerusalem, brutally assaulting a group of Palestinian custodians while chanting “Death to the Arabs.” Mohammed Yusef, one of the cleaners who was part of cleaning service, described it as “a mass lynching attempt.” The next day’s headline in Haaretz says as much: “Hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans beat up Arab workers in mall; no arrests.”
While Beitar has been given a great deal of leeway by authorities when carrying out acts of intimidation, it has also become somewhat of an international embarrassment. Last year, Dan Ephron of Newsweek wrote about the team with the sub-headline, “Jerusalem’s favorite football team has hiring policies reminiscent of Apartheid and Jim Crow.” The article, which has nary a quote from any Palestinians, does cite an Israeli soccer writer named Yoav Borowitz. Ephron writes:
Borowitz likens Beitar to the white-only rugby teams of South Africa during the apartheid era, a comparison most Israelis would find repugnant. In a recent blog post, Borowitz vowed to no longer cover Beitar and called on other journalists to do the same. “A soccer club that’s unwilling to sign Arabs belongs in the trash bin of history,” he wrote. “I myself have written more than a few articles about Beitar.… I won’t do it anymore.”
The international news of Beitar fans now shunning their own goal-scoring players also comes at a very unwelcome time for Israeli soccer. Israel is the host of the 2013 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Under-21 Championship this June. The decision, however, has already been subject to constant protest including the occupation of UEFA’s offices, Palestinian-rights protesters storming the pitch during games and the formation of an organization called “Red Card Israeli Racism.”
Israel’s repression of the Palestinian national soccer team, including the imprisonment and assassination of players and the shelling of the team’s office in last fall’s bombing of Gaza, has also stirred not only activists but players and even FIFA to action. In 2010, even UEFA President Michel Platini threatened Israel with expulsion from FIFA if it continued to undermine soccer in Palestine. Platini said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour.” What maddens people is that by holding the Under-21s in Israel, it actually seems like the country is being rewarded.
The great power of sport historically is that it has provided space for marginalized people to find a voice, as well as a setting for all of us to discover our common humanity through play. What does it say about Israel in the twenty-first century that a team like Beitar Jerusalem can not only survive but thrive? What does it say that Israel still gets to host the UEFA Under-21 championships despite interfering with Palestinian efforts to field a team? What does it say that sports are now enmeshed in the political conflicts in the region? If nothing else, it tells us that not even sports can provide escape, respite or a safe haven from the pressures of occupation. It also tells us that seeking justice on the playing field and in the soccer stands in Israel is also about seeking justice for the Palestinian people and no cultural arena can be exempt from this process. I know what side Jackie Robinson would be on, and it wouldn’t be with the so-called fans who hate the ethnicity of a player more than they love a goal for their team.
What does a Cornell science development have to do with the Israeli occupation? Read Adam Hudson’s take.
Kids playing baseball in Caracas, Venezuela. (Flickr/Fora do Eixo)
The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will mean unseemly celebration on the right and unending debate on the left. Both reflect the towering legacy of Chavismo and how it challenged the global free market orthodoxy of the Washington consensus.
Less discussed will be that the passing of Hugo Chávez will also provoke unbridled joy in the corridors of power of Major League Baseball.
Historically, Venezuela has trailed only the Domincan Republic in the global race to provide a cheap source of Major League Baseball talent. In 2012, fifty-eight players on MLB rosters were born in Venezuela, second only to the DR’s sixty-four.
For decades, teams had set up unregulated “baseball academies” in both countries where children as young as 15 could be signed for a pittance, and then, for 97 percent of major league hopefuls, casually disposed without any future prospects. A Mother Jones article published this week exposed in excruciating detail the DR baseball “sweatshops” and the preventable death of young Washington Nationals teenage prospect Yewri Guillen. They describe the academies as a deadly breeding ground for tragedy defined by “corruption and youth exploitation.”
This is exactly what Chávez, a baseball fanatic himself, was aiming to challenge. Venezuela is the birthplace of towering talents such as the 2012 Triple Crown Winner Miguel Cabrera, “King” Félix Hernández and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. In the last twenty years, 200 Venezuelans have played in the Major Leagues, with more than 1,000 in the minors.
But the academies also left a wreckage of young lives behind, a status quo Chávez sought to challenge. He told MLB that they would have to institute employee and player benefits and job protections. He wanted education and job training, subsidized by MLB, to be a part of the academies. He also insisted that teams pay out 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Chávez effectively wanted to tax MLB for the human capital they blithely take from the country.
As the CS Monitor put it, “The threat of expropriations and onerous foreign exchange controls make teams wary of doing business in Venezuela.”
Sure enough over the last decade, the number of teams with “academies” in Venezuela has dwindled from twenty-one to five. The threats of kidnapping and violence are often cited by teams as the primary reason for this move, but the facts say otherwise. As one major league executive said anonymously to the LA Times, “Teams have left Venezuela because of issues with the government and security that have made it more difficult to do business there. Absent those problems, there would be a lot more teams here using academies.”
Major League Baseball has never been shy in their rage that Chávez wasn’t “rolling out the red carpet” for them “like they do in the Dominican Republic.” Lou Meléndez, senior adviser to the MLB’s international relations department, said in 2007, “We don’t pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don’t expect to do so. It’s certainly not a way to conduct business…. When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela.”
But despite the academy closures, baseball never stopped strip-mining Venezuela’s baseball hopefuls. Instead, they now sign Venezuelan children and whisk them off to the Dominican Republic to be trained, miles and an ocean apart from their families. Rather than be more humane in response to Chávez, MLB was just more brutal.
I spoke with Illinois history professor and author of Playing America’s Game, Adrian Burgos Jr. He said it in perfect, albeit wrenching, fashion:
The irony is palpable. On the same day Mother Jones publishes an article on Yewri Guillen’s death and the Washington Nationals’ lack of having a certified medical official on staff at its Dominican academy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez dies. Certainly, Chávez’s demise makes MLB officials excited at the prospect of re-establishing their own blueprint for a baseball academy system being put into place in Venezuela, an effort that Chávez had forestalled. I still wonder who is/are the Latino representative(s) within the Commissioner’s Office speaking for Latinos. Do we need any more teenagers [like] Yewri Guillen, MLB prospect, dying for a lack of access to proper medical care due to a lack of health insurance and funds in the DR or Venezuela—health care that ought to have been, would have been, provided for such a signed prospect in the US? Dead prospects and dead president—I am weary of the road ahead in Venezuela and on its baseball diamonds.
Another class of immigrants—fast food workers with guest visas—went on strike today at McDonald’s. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.