Where sports and politics collide.
Recent comments by ESPN commentator Dick Vitale regarding professional football player Arian Foster have garnered a critical reaction. (AP Photo/Nathan K. Martin)
“[College Sports] has just been a big charade for years. It’s about time for it to come to an end.” —Arian Foster
This past weekend, Dick Vitale called Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster, one of the smartest people to ever put on shoulder pads, “a prostitute.” Foster’s great crime, according to Vitale, was telling the world that he received under-the-table payments while a player at the University of Tennessee.
This reveals less about Foster than it does about Vitale’s stunning lack of self-awareness. For thirty years, “Dickie V” has made himself extremely wealthy by being a carnival barker for the unpaid exploits of people like Arian Foster. We can ask the question: “If Foster is a prostitute, what in the world does that make Dick Vitale?” But instead, we should just marvel at how reflexively the people who benefit from the “charade” of amateurism defend their system. We should also ask the question, What would it take to actually end this charade once and for all?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the diseased power relationships in big-time, revenue-producing college sports will never change on their own. I once thought the scandals that take place with the consistency of a metronome would be enough to spur reform. But with comments like Vitale’s, it’s evermore clear that the system will never change on its own, because the weight of the injustice in the NCAA invariably falls on those with the least amount of agency. Those in power—and their media prizefighters—have never been doing better. When you make millions of dollars, you are not searching to change the status quo. You are only looking to calcify it.
The only social force in the sport with both an interest in change and the social power to do it is the athletes themselves. If the stars refused to take the field, then this ossified system would crack like an egg. This is one hell of an ask of a group of disproportionately poor 18–22-year-olds who want nothing more than a good report from their coaching staff to NFL and NBA scouts that they are “coachable” (obedient). As Richard Sherman can tell you, even the most talented prospective pros can be submarined by a head coach with a grudge. They are risking years of hard work, and it is nothing they asked for, but like Malvolio said in Twelfth Night, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This past weekend, we saw players attempt to reach for this greatness, and their efforts demand our support.
A significant group of college football players taking the field on national television this past weekend, including Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee and Northwestern QB Kain Colter, wore the letters APU on their uniforms. No, they are not Simpsons enthusiasts. The letters stand for All Players United, and their coordinated action was put together by the National Collegiate Players Association. The NCPA is an organizing body fighting for very modest reforms, including greater medical coverage for head injuries, compensation for players if their names and faces are used to turn a buck, and scholarship renewals for incapacitated players so they can continue their education even if they cannot take the field.
As NCPA director and former college football player Ramogi Huma told USA Today, this idea to wear the letters APU came from a group of active players on the NCPA board trying to figure out a way to show solidarity with the current athletes who have joined the “O’Bannon Lawsuit” against EA Sports’ use of their likenesses in their video games.
“They came up with a way they felt comfortable to show unity. This is an effort, this is a call for players of all sports, anyone who supports players pursuit of basic protections,” said Huma. “I think the way they see it, guys write things on those areas all the time. Sometimes guys write biblical passages, some put area codes, just different things. It’s not anything different than what they’ve been doing, other than it’s the first time to make a statement to better their futures and their situations.”
As modest as this sounds, actions like this could be the start of something far more significant, because it signifies the overcoming of fear. When Arian Foster decided to go public, he said, “I feel like I shouldn’t have to run from the NCAA anymore. They’re like these big bullies. I’m not scared of them.” Foster and the players donning APU have decided to stop being afraid. In every social justice movement in human history, that’s always the first step.
The mountain is high, but a group of players are attempting to climb it in the face of a hostile bureaucracy, a largely indifferent public and adults-in-charge who use them with callous insistence on the status quo. They shouldn’t have to do it, but they are the only ones who can, and they deserve our unflinching solidarity.
Elizabeth Cline looks at attempts at a fashion model labor union.
Washington Redskins helmets displaying the emblematic colors and team mascot. Recent debate over the racist connotations of the team name have lead to several sports reporters weighing in. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
“Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it” —A Fish Called Wanda
Living in the Washington, D.C., area. I have many friends who defend the name of our local football team, the Redskins. Even though I disagree with them vehemently, I actually feel bad that their chief advocate in the sports world is now ESPN’s Rick Reilly. Once a brilliant boy-wonder columnist for Sports Illustrated, Reilly has, to be kind, not aged well. He has become the sports writing equivalent of the safety information packet on an airplane: the thing you do not read. But alas, after much prompting, I have much to my regret read his latest. Reilly has written a column in defense of the Redskins name that is so myopic, so insulting and, frankly, so stupid, it makes the piece on Fox Sports comparing Johnny Manziel to Rosa Parks look like the work of Frank Deford. By all means check it out and make up your own mind, or take comfort that I read it so you wouldn’t have to. No one would blame you.
Let’s start with the first sentence. Reilly writes, “I guess this is where I’m supposed to fall in line and do what every other American sports writer is doing. I’m supposed to swear I won’t ever write the words ‘Washington Redskins’ anymore because it’s racist and offensive and a slap in the face to all Native Americans who ever lived.”
“Every other sportswriter”? Try three. Three mainstream media sportswriters have taken this step. They are Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, USA Today’s Christine Brennan and, in a serious but satirical way, ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Later in the column, Reilly will trash King and Brennan by name, but lacks the sand to call out Simmons. If nothing else, he knows where his maize is buttered.
Reilly then talks about his family, writing, “I just don’t quite know how to tell my father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian [that the name is racist]. He owns a steak restaurant on the reservation near Browning, Mont. He has a hard time seeing the slap-in-the-face part.”
Some of his best friends—and family—are Native American. Your father-in-law who owns a steakhouse on the res loves the name? Good for him. The Oneida Nation wants it changed. So we can stand with the Oneida Nation, or Reilly’s father-in-law. That’s a tough one.
Later, in an aside, Reilly quotes his father-in-law voicing strong opposition to the Kansas City Chiefs’ name, but Reilly doesn’t dwell on this because it interrupts his central thesis. And oh my, what a thesis it is.
“White America has spoken,” he pens with what I’m sure he imagines is sardonic relish. “You [Native Americans] aren’t offended, so we’ll be offended for you.”
You read correctly. In Reilly’s world, Redskins is loved—as he underlines repeatedly—by Native Americans and hated by “white America”. Is this true? If “white America has spoken” it’s been loudly and proudly to keep the Redskins name. The mood, judging from my Twitter feed, is probably best described as “You will pry my Redskins foam finger and matching headdress from my cold, dead hands!”
Every poll shows overwhelming support for preserving the name as is. But saying “white America” is imposing this name change on the Native American community is not only ass-backward. It is incredibly insulting to every Native American—people like the original activists of the American Indian Movement, Suzan Harjo and Vern Bellecourt—who have organized to change it in the face of constant abuse by high-profile, invariably white sportswriters like Rick Reilly. By not giving even token mention to the long history of Native American organizing or agency, Reilly makes them invisible or implies that they are just pawns of this PC liberal elite just looking to be offended for the sake of being offended.
But the contention of people like Harjo and the Oneida Nation, unmentioned by Reilly, is not that mascots are “bad” in a vacuum. Their argument is that we have created a connective tissue between mascots and the dehumanization of their culture, which enables us to look the other way as Native Americans consistently have the lowest life expectancy, highest child mortality rate, and lowest standard of living of any ethnicity in the country. We can debate whether this connective tissue truly exists—I believe it does—but for Reilly to not even acknowledge the issue smacks of the worst kind of blinkered white privilege that people like Suzan Harjo have argued “mascoting” creates.
Reilly then goes on to write of all the Native American school districts that “wear the [Redskins] name with honor” (he names three). Reilly ignores, however, the students in Cooperstown, New York, who organized a successful grassroots campaign to throw the name Redskins in the garbage over the summer. He also ignores that the last forty years are actually a constant history of schools and teams disavowing Native American mascots. Did you know that St. Bonaventure, to use just one example, was once known as the Brown Indians and the Brown Squaws until they changed their names in 1992? Reilly doesn’t either.
But Rick Reilly is not done. He points out that Redskins existed for eighty-two years, so why change now? As mentioned, this is ignorant of the forty years Native Americans have agitated to change it. But forget that. Imagine someone saying to Claudette Colvin, “You people have been on the back of this bus for forty years. Why is this now an issue?” Or to the suffragettes, “Sweetie, you couldn’t cast a vote for a century. Now it’s a problem?” Actually we don’t have to imagine it. That’s exactly what people, the Rick Reillys of their day, have always said to oppressed groups to make them sit down and shut up. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an entire book, Why We Can’t Wait, to answer this. I’d suggest Reilly read some King, but I fear he’d say, “Peter King wrote a book?”
But oh, there’s more. So much more. Every tired argument —“PC!” “New Orleans Saints offends atheists!” “There are people who think Wizards promotes paganism!” “Forty-niners offends crusty old prospectors searchin’ for gold!” (sorry, that one was mine)—is exhumed. The problem with these arguments—hell, with this whole column—is that it ignores this pesky thing that happened called history. Reilly likes numbers so here are some more. The percentage of Native Americans in the United States is roughly 0.8 percent of the population. Before Europeans landed on these shores, it was—shocker—100 percent. Without massacres, displacement and depopulation, there would be no way a team could think of getting away with the name “Redskins.” And here’s a handy rule of thumb: if your team name exists only because there was a genocide, then you might need a new team name.
Reilly then ends his column with something so disgusting, so absent of any historical perspective, it renders everything before it a mere aperitif. Writing as if a member of this white PC media horde trying to change the name, he exclaims, “Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again. Kind of like a reservation.”
Like a poop in the pool, I think I’m just going to let that sit there and speak for itself.
I almost feel sorry for team owner Dan Snyder that Rick Reilly is now his loudest media advocate. Almost. When you defend the indefensible, you get the bedfellows you deserve, and more often than not, you hate yourself in the morning. A simple test for Rick Reilly: answer the challenge of Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation. Go to his house, look at his grandchildren and say, “My goodness these are some cute little Redskins.” If it is really a name of honor, you will make the trip and say it to the Halbritters. If you won’t, then you are completely full of it. News flash: he won’t.
Dave Zirin talks about indigenous voices in the Redskins name change debate.
Jonathan Ferrell is seen in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell, 24, was shot and killed Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick after a wreck in Charlotte, N.C. Ferrell was unarmed. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University)
If after Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Darius Simmons, you thought that you could be sickened by racist violence but no longer shocked, you need to know the story of Jonathan Ferrell. This past weekend, as the country remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that took the lives of four little girls, another murder draped in racism took place, and the details, even in these jaded times, are shocking.
Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old former football player at Florida A&M University crashed his car in Charlotte, North Carolina. The wreck was so awful that Ferrell, according to police reports, had to climb out of his back window. He somehow stumbled in the middle of the night to the closest home and pounded on the door—“banging on the door viciously,” in the bizarre phrasing of Charlotte police chief Rodney Monroe—and begged for help. According to police reports, the person inside didn’t call an ambulance but hit her alarm panic button, indicating to police that a home invasion was in progress. As the Charlotte PD approached, Ferrell continued to “attempt to gain the attention of the homeowner.” When they arrived, Ferrell “charged” toward them. One of the three officers tasered Ferrell. When that did not stop his “advance”, 27-year-old Officer Randall Kerrick opened fire, hitting Jonathan Ferrell ten times - initial media reports said three times - killing him at the scene.
Officer Kerrick was the only policeman to take out his gun and fire, which raises questions about their description of Ferrell as “charging” towards them after being tasered. According to The Charlotte Observer, police actually said initially that Kerrick’s actions were “appropriate and lawful.” Yet the brazenness of the shooting, the absence of any evidence Ferrell was under the influence of anything other than a possible concussion, and the fact that there was really no way to spin this, meant that Kerrick was quickly arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter. According to North Carolina law, “voluntary manslaughter” means that Kerrick acted with “imperfect self-defense.” The police statement said that “the evidence revealed that Mr. Ferrell did advance on Officer Kerrick and the investigation showed that the subsequent shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive. Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”
Jonathan Ferrell was a member of Florida A&M’s 2010 championship team. He was going to turn 25 in October and was engaged to be married. He was called “the shepherd” for the way he looked after those around him. His mother Georgia and twin brother Willie Ferrell, who also played on Florida A&M team, spoke to CNN this morning, their shocked sadness on full display. His college coach, Earl Holmes, was “stunned”, saying, “I was saddened when they told me. They told me he was murdered. I said, ‘What? Murder? That doesn’t sound like him. Not the Jonathan I remembered.’ The Jonathan I remembered was a soft-spoken kid, quiet and to himself…. A lot of times bad things happen to good people.”
But they don’t just “happen.” One of the reasons there was so much media and mainstream outrage around the murder of Trayvon Martin was because he wasn’t killed at the hands of police. When the police kill an unarmed black or brown male, the media, the political establishment, and even many mainstream civil rights organizations are inclined to give them a major benefit of the doubt. One can ask the families of Ramarley Graham or Sean Bell if that sounds about right. Being stopped by police for DWB (Driving While Black) is outrage enough. Being killed by police for SHWB (Seeking Help While Black) demands a response.
When the four girls of the 16th St. Baptist Church were killed, many asked how the United States could lecture the world about democracy and human rights when it couldn’t guarantee the safety of children in a house of worship. Let’s update this. How can President Obama lecture the world about the “American values” the United States wants to project in the Middle East when an unarmed young man can’t ask for help after a car wreck without being seen as a lethal target? Forget “post-racial” America. We can only hope that, after Trayvon Martin, we aren’t “post-outrage.” The Ferrells deserve if nothing else our collective insistence that there be justice for Jonathan Ferrell and that such a senseless death never happen again.
Krystie Yandoli looks at the rise of racism in higher education.
Washington Redskins helmets displaying the emblematic colors and team mascot. The Oneida Indian Nation tribe in upstate New York said Thursday, September 5, 2013, it will launch a radio ad campaign pressing for the Washington Redskins to get rid of a nickname that is often criticized as offensive. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
This has been a difficult week for Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s argument that their beloved Redskins* nickname is actually “highly respectful.” It has been a difficult week for their public relations case that Native Americans are either honored by it or don’t care and the only people who want it changed are effete, left-wing, politically correct thugs who hate Mom, apple pie, and, of course, the NFL.
The team moniker that Keith Olbermann calls “the last racist word you can say at the office and not get fired” is being challenged forcefully by the very people Snyder and Goodell are claiming to honor.
First came the news that the Oneida Nation of upstate New York will launch a series of radio ads in the DC market calling on Goodell to “stand up to bigotry” and change the name. The Oneida Nation also launched the website changethemascot.org. “We do not deserve to be called redskins,” Oneida leader Ray Halbritter says in the ad. “We deserve to be treated as what we are—Americans.”
Then, as the Redskins prepare to travel away from the DC area, where the Native American population is a whopping 0.6 percent, to Green Bay, a place near actual indigenous communities, a protest has been called for outside of Lambeau Field by the Oneida Tribe Indians of Wisconsin. The Oneidas have announced will be bringing signs and banners inside of the stadium as well. As tribe member Brandon Stevens said, “We’re actively and proactively creating an avenue of education and seeking out remedies to see how we can come to an understanding where the offender isn’t the one dictating what the intent of the mascot is.”
This last point is critical because so much of this argument on the sports page is about how Washington football fans, Snyder, or even Goodell feel about the prospect of a name change. The recognition of Native American voices in this discussion is long overdue.
The Washington Post is doing just that, calling or the name to change on Thursday, referencing the Oneida protests and then writing that Snyder needs to “listen more carefully to those who love the team and hate the ethnic slur.”
Even that bastion of politically correct leftism, Forbes magazine, published a column titled Dan Snyder Should Change The Name Of His Football Team Now by Monte Burke. Granted the column, true to Forbes, reads more like an inter-office marketing memo to Snyder, but Burke does write, “Snyder and Goodell would clearly like for this issue to just disappear. It won’t until the name is changed. Their best bet now is to get ahead of the game and get control of the issue. It never pays to wait.”
According to Forbes, Snyder shouldn’t wait. For Oneida leader Ray Halbritter, waiting isn’t even an option.
“We have highest rates of infant mortality and suicide in the United States,” he said to me. “Seven of the ten poorest counties in the country are Native American. They say having a team named after a slur is not harmful. Well, it is harmful. Language and symbolism are very important. People who are not on the receiving end of this, I can understand why they don’t see it. They don’t feel a connection because they are not the ones being harmed. That’s why we’re standing up. This is not just about having a politically correct way of speaking. We have children and we are saying enough is enough.”
For Halbritter this question is really about his children and whether the next generations of Native Americans in an increasingly multicultural America are going to be represented on the highest possible cultural platform by “a slur.”
“It’s about the self-esteem and self-perception of our kids. Our children are growing up with a NFL team saying this is what we are. It reminds me of Letter from a Birmingham Jail when Dr. Martin Luther King talks about what it does the first time a young black man hears ‘the n-word’ or is denied entry into restaurant. It’s about how our children will see themselves.”
Halbritter then laid down a very stark challenge for the NFL Commissioner. His said, “If Roger Goodell were in a room full of Native Americans, he would not say: ‘Hello Redskins, nice to see you.’ If Roger Goodell met my children he would not say, ‘Nice to meet you little redskins.’ So it stands to reason that if a term is not acceptable for casual conversation, it should not be marketed to America through a sports team.”
It seems that Roger Goodell is listening. On Wednesday, he began to distance himself from his previous defense of the name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” Speaking on local DC sports radio, Goodell said, “If one person’s offended, we have to listen, And ultimately, it is Dan [Snyder]’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right…”
That sound you hear is Dan Snyder being gently placed under the bus. Or it might just be the tick-tick-tick of the clock counting down to the day when the name enters the dustbin of history. It’s past time.
* Many journalists, including Sports Illustrated’s senior NFL writer Peter King and USA Today’s Christine Brennan, have recently announced that they will no longer use the Redskins name. This is very welcome but I want to explain why I am. If I was writing a story about their star quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, I would call them “The Washington Football Team” or “The Burgundy and Gold.” But if I am writing specifically about why the name should change, I’m going to use it again and again because it is a badge of shame and in articles about protest, it’s existence, in my view should be blared loudly and placed on Dan Snyder’s shoulders until it changes.
Rick Perlstein on NCAA College Football policies and their effects on players.
The soccer team Brooklyn United, posing with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, wins the NYPD Commissioner’s League Cup. Courtesy: Picasa user Arab AmericanNY. © All rights reserved
In 2009, the Arab American Association of New York sponsored the Brooklyn United, a team in the New York Police Department’s youth soccer league. “We were trying to engage with law enforcement, get kids off the street and it was kind of putting out our hand to the NYPD,” said the organization’s executive director, Linda Sarsour. That first year, the Brooklyn United won the tournament trophy and even posed for the above photo with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. But by 2011, the AAANY withdrew its sponsorship after learning that the league was also being used as a way to monitor the Arab, Muslim and South Asian players and their families.
The question now hangs in the air: Were the NYPD youth soccer leagues as well as the teams that compete for the “NYPD Cricket Cup”—yes, there is such a thing—set up explicitly for the purposes of surveillance? Was the trust of hundreds of families who signed up their children for these leagues violated in the name of intelligence gathering? Were these leagues just a way to practice a more effective form of racial and ethnic profiling? Sarsour certainly thinks so. “The NYPD created these spaces,” she said. “When I think about it I get goosebumps. It is so outrageous. What parent would think if you were part of a Little League or Police Athletic League that the police would be tracking your kids on the basis of their ethnicity? When the leagues started we thought they were trying to engage our community through sports. We were wrong.”
These families have the right to know whether the NYPD specifically set up these leagues for the purposes of keeping tabs on a sports-loving community or if it just found a rich opportunity for surveillance once everyone was organized to play. Its community outreach and media divisions have still not returned my requests for comment. If and when they do, we will share their response.
I was able to speak with Matt Apuzzo, co-author of the new book Enemies Within, which has blown the lid off of the full extent of NYPD’s surveillance of Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities.
“What we know is that they did set up soccer and cricket leagues from youth to adults,” said Apuzzo. “We also know that they encouraged their detectives to join the adult cricket and soccer leagues. I don’t know if we can say they created the leagues for the express purpose of surveillance as opposed to outreach. But we do know from their own documents that they do see these sports leagues as an opportunity to keep tabs on conversations. Either way, we certainly can say that any effort at actual legitimate community outreach can be undermined by the surveillance aspect because it makes people suspicious of motives.”
Whether the leagues themselves were part of a master plan or clumsy happenstance doesn’t really matter, of course, to the communities that feel their trust was betrayed. Rinku Sen, President of the Applied Research Center, described the using of sports leagues to spy on kids as “abusive.” She also made the point to me that the NYPD’s unwelcomed entry into this space exacts a particularly serious price. “Coming out of a regional history fraught with religious and national conflict, sports are one arena in which Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and others have been able to come together, especially in the diaspora. The NYPD spying brings a layer of suspicion into this world that has otherwise been an important place to build trust and camaraderie.”
This “trust and camaraderie” doesn’t develop, as so many of us know, just from playing sports but also sitting around and watching sports. This space has also, we can say with certainty, been violated by police infiltration and surveillance. Apuzzo’s Enemies Within reveals what the NYPD calls its “Sports Venue Report.” This thirty-eight-page memo, compiled by the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” lays out the sports playing and viewing locales frequented by “29 ancestries of interest.” It shows that the NYPD has ventured deeply into the community spaces where people of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent gather to hang out and watch a game. As its own report reads, “The Unit has identified the sports of cricket, soccer and billiards as the primary sports within the communities. After the initial research was concluded, members of the unit identified locations were the sports are played locally and locations where fans gather to view the sporting events. The result was that fifty-five (55) locations were identified. Upon the identification of the locations, members of the Demographics Unit conducted field work, in the form of visits, to these locations to ascertain the required information.”
The concentration on cricket, and even the creation of an NYPD cricket tournament, seems like something out of a satirical Hollywood film that would end with the NYPD cricketers recognizing the humanity of those they have been ordered to spy upon. In the real world, however, these revelations just leave those surveilled feeling violated.
I spoke with activist and sportswriter Harjt Singh Gill, whose parents were born in Punjab. He said to me, “For the unfamiliar, cricket is the most popular sport in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably is for other South Asian countries as well. Cricket is a connection to ‘home’ for many, and brings people together in the diaspora as sports are often to do (and, interestingly, between nationalities, despite what the rhetoric may be). Apparently the NYPD thinks people of South Asian descent getting together and enjoying cricket is a dangerous activity that needs monitoring. The NYPD actually compiled a helpful list for those of us who don’t know where to go to watch the matches while in New York in this vast profiling effort.”
Gill’s gallows humor is disturbingly apt. The Sports Venue Report reads almost like a tourist guide sectioned into two parts: the “South Asian Sports Locations” and “Arab Sports Locations.” It even includes actual maps for people looking to find a locale in the city to catch a cricket or soccer match.
The irony of cricket’s being so targeted has not been lost on observers of the sport. Mike Marqusee, author of the brilliant book Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket, said to me, “It’s a myth that cricket is or ever was a ‘gentlemen’s game’ (it’s better than that), but this must be the first time it’s been designated as a ‘terrorists’ game.’ In USA, cricket has long been viewed as alien—but this NYPD document shows how that ‘alien’ status has been re-identified, shifted from ‘English’ to South Asian. In the panoptic eyes of the national security state, a wonderfully innocent activity—watching cricket—is now suspect.”
It must be noted that even fears of this kind of surveillance has a profound effect on the health and well-being of the targeted. I spoke with Deepa Kumar, a professor at Rutgers and author of the book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. She said, “When you think you may have agents visiting what you think are safe spaces, people understandably are hesitant to say what they really think, particularly if they are Arab or South Asian. One student told me that she had developed a sleep disorder because of the stress of continuing to stand up and speak out, knowing that what she says is being recorded and could be used against her. Others have told me that they have had to grow up quickly and learn how to spot informants in their groups. This is not what young people should have to worry about.”
It also hurts grassroots activists and resistance movements. Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said to me, “The NYPD’s domestic spying operations illegally collected information about law-abiding Muslim New Yorkers who frequent mosques, or schools or sports bars. But they’re not the only ones impacted: their neighbors, customers, classmates and friends from other communities—such as their drinking buddies, or Occupy Wall Street participants—were also unconstitutionally monitored, even well beyond New York…. The FBI and NYPD have used the Stasi’s tactics to recruit informants across the northeast to entrap, intimidate and sow distrust among innocent Americans from all walks of life.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote over a century ago about what he believed to be the most fundamental of rights, “the right to be left alone.” The NYPD’s surveillance program should make us question whether this right is no longer on the books. If you are taking your child to play soccer, if you are trying to feel less homesick by playing cricket, if you are watching a game at the local bar, you may have unwanted company. For the affected communities, it is a burden that speaks to the worst traditions of racism and collective punishment. If sports can’t be a place to actually exhale and relax, if our children become suspects just for signing up to play, then something is very wrong.
The NYPD has done a generation’s worth of damage in its efforts to build bridges into these communities. But if the NYPD has violated the “trust and camaraderie” that comes through sanctioned sports, it is also sparking a different kind of trust and camaraderie. Fahd Ahmed, Legal and Policy Director for DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving), a grassroots organization of low-income South Asians organizing for justice said, “We have had a few youth join our organization that were participating in the cricket leagues. But as they met with other DRUM members and families that had been targeted by the NYPD spying programs, heard their stories, got involved in organizing for justice alongside them and withdrew from the NYPD-run programs.” The NYPD has burned a bridge, but at least we can now see more clearly on which side of the bridge it stands.
Jonathan Schell on America's new anti-espionage dissidents.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”