Where sports and politics collide.
Broadcast personality Bob Costas looks into the camera while at yesterday’s game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, in Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Judging by the utterly unscientific polling in my twitter feed, Bob Costas’s half-time commentary on the Washington Redskins name managed to displease almost everybody. The sports fans were enraged that Costas said the name could be seen as “a slur” and “an insult”. They were irate that Costas would bring his “politics” into sports, as if having a team representing the nation’s capital called “Redskins” is not in fact political. They also used various forms of the phrase “pussification of America,” which makes me curious why the men in my Twitter feed who love the Redskins name also seem to have such unbridled contempt for women.
On the other side of the issue, there were many tweeting, texting, and e-mailing me that they were angry Costas started his commentary by saying, ”[T]here’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus towards Native Americans, or chooses to disrespect them.” They argued that by telling mistruths about the team’s history, responding with such rancor to those asking about changing the name and refusing to meet with Native Americans who disagree with the name, he is absolutely “disrespecting” Native American history.
They were also upset that Costas stated that names like the Braves—home of the tomahawk chop—and the Kansas City Chiefs—home of this guy– “honor, rather than demean” and “they’re pretty much the same as Vikings, Patriots, or even Cowboys.” People pointed out that there is a reason all “mascoting” of Native Americans has been opposed by the Oneida, the Choctaw and many other Tribal councils. It is because they turn Native American culture into solely a symbol of the savage and the violent. They also, as minstrelsy tends to do, allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to the very real problems of poverty, education and healthcare in the Native American community.
My view, and I cannot say this forcefully enough, is that whatever problems people may have with the content of what Bob Costas said, the veteran broadcaster seized the moment and was a profile in courage. Costas did the unthinkable: he took a stand against racism on national television. He also openly—as he did a year ago by addressing gun culture after the horrific murder suicide perpetrated by Chiefs’ player Jovan Belcher against Kasandra Perkins—willingly courted the ire of disturbingly violent right-wing sports fans and their droogs in the conservative blogosphere. (These right-wingers seem to always ignore that the greatest backer of changing the name in Congress is Oklahoma Republican and Choctaw Nation member Tom Cole.)
Take a step back and look at what Costas did. He faced the camera on the most watched television show in the United States and said the following.
“Think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed towards African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or any other ethnic group. When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
If you had told me even two months ago that Bob Costas would be saying those words, I would have been in a state of shock. The terrain has changed. Credit for this should go to The Oneida Nation, the Choctaw, Suzan Harjo, and—unsung in the media—the longtime work on this in hostile environs by Washington Post columnist Mike Wise. Credit should also go to RG3, the team quarterback whose greatness—on display even in last night’s terrible loss to the Cowboys—has made the team relevant for the first time in fifteen years. Credit should also go to team owner Dan Snyder for being so ineffably obnoxious about the whole issue, it makes anyone who stands alongside him feel like they need to shower with steel wool afterwards. And credit should truly go to Bob Costas for having the guts to take what is still a minority position and put it to the widest possible audience.
I believe that support for the “Redskins” name is 1,000 miles wide and one inch thick. Most people just, in the words of former coach Joe Gibbs, “haven’t really thought about it.” Bob Costas now has people thinking about it, and that is the first step toward a long overdue change.
Dave Zirin looks at how Rick Reilly’s plan to use his in-laws to defend the Redskin name backfired.
Washington Redskins helmets with the iconic red-and-gold colors and logo are displayed on the field during football training camp in 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
“Let me be clear: The racial slur ‘redskins’ is not okay with me. It’s never going to be okay with me. It’s inappropriate, damaging and racist. In the memory of our Blackfeet relatives, it’s time to change the name.“ —Bob Burns
Rick Reilly—the unbuttered wheat toast of sportswriters—is going to have a grim Thanksgiving. Last month, to much media attention, the ESPN columnist wrote about his Native American father-in-law’s support for the Redskins name. This was the foundation for his article’s thesis that the only people who care about whether the team should change a name many see as gobsmackingly racist are white, politically correct ninnies. Actual Native Americans, like his father-in-law, feel honored or don’t give a damn. No one less than Washington’s Hall of Fame former coach Joe Gibbs recommended Reilly’s piece as an answer to anyone who has a problem with the Redskins name.
But alas! Karma can be cruel. Reilly’s father-in-law a Blackfeet elder named Bob Burns has now issued a statement that not only did Rick utterly misquote him, he also refused to make a correction.
As Burns writes in the Indian Country Today Media Network,
You can imagine my dismay when I saw my name and words used to defend the racist Washington Redskins name. My son-in-law, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, completely misunderstood the conversation we had, quoting me as saying “the whole issue is so silly. The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
But that’s not what I said.
What I actually said is that ”it’s silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle—if the name offends someone, change it.” He failed to include my comments that the term “redskins” demeans Indians, and historically is insulting and offensive, and that I firmly believe the Washington Redskins should change their name.
When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur. I asked him to correct the record. He has not, so I must do it myself.
Reilly responded by writing, “While I stand by the reporting in my Sept. 18 column about the Washington Redskins nickname controversy, and felt I accurately quoted my father-in-law in the piece, clearly he feels differently. This is an incredibly sensitive issue, and Bob felt he had more to say on the subject after that column was posted on ESPN.com. We’ve spoken and cleared this up. I admire Bob and respect his opinions, and he’s welcome to express them. Bob and I are good and I’m looking forward to my next steak with him.”
Damn. While this is all certainly coated in schadenfreude, more interesting than whether Reilly is “good” with Bob Burns is why he chose to hear what he heard and write what he wrote.
Ray Halbritter from the Oneida Nation said to me that he wonders the same. “There has been a concerted effort by those who want to keep using this racial slur to pretend that the targets of the slur support their agenda. They enjoy the privilege of not being denigrated with a word that has been used as a epithet against Native people for decades. The most disturbing question about Rick Reilly and [team owner] Dan Snyder is why are they so devoted to continue slandering Native Americans with this racial slur?”
This personal and professional disaster for Reilly is a microcosm about the harmful effects of mascoting. The argument made for decades by Native Americans is that their ubiquitous presence as sports mascots enables the dominant culture to see them only as stereotypes and not as a living, breathing, visible part of this country. Here is Rick Reilly and he is so focused on defending the right of teams to have the freedom to practice minstrelsy that he is not actually hearing the Native American man under his own roof. When that same man asks for a correction, Reilly still will not hear him, and he has to write his own response.
This country has always been more than comfortable with Native Americans as brands on sports teams and military hardware such as Apache helicopters, and Tomahawk cruise missiles. It is not comfortable with actual, real-life Native Americans like Bob Burns. This is the legacy of conquest: you glory in the fighting prowess of the noble savages you vanquished because it indirectly is a way of praising your own sense of muscular manifest destiny.
I hope Rick Reilly writes a follow up about what this experience has taught him. If not, then ESPN may have to issue their own statement. This colossal embarrassment does show that the old guard defending the Redskins name are feeling the earth shake and are finding themselves able to do little more than grasp at straws.
Dave Zirin looks at how the push to change the Redskins name has managed to involve even President Obama and The Onion.
Washington Redskins helmets with the iconic red and gold colors and logo are displayed on the field during football training camp in 2009. Longstanding criticisms of the team name have recently achieved important momentum and media attention. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
A chorus is growing louder from Native American communities and sports writers saying it is time for the Washington Redskins to change its name. Now President Barack Obama is weighing in. Speaking to the Associated Press amidst the budget horror show, President Obama said, “I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team, even if it had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
It was a stunning statement for this most cautious of politicians, who hordes his political capital like a miser collects scraps of tin foil.
Obama’s statement is merely the latest in a sign that the mainstream is waking up to what Native American activists have been saying for four decades: that there is nothing “honorable” or “respectful” about the name Redskins. There have been some remarkable pieces from unlikely sources from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times to the folks at Funny or Die.
But of everything in the recent barrage of common sense and anti-racist logic, nothing quite nails it like a piece last August in The Onion.
At its best, the satirical newspaper can grab an indefensible political argument that has somehow seeped into respectable public discourse, and de-pants it for the world to see. With glee they shout, “This talking point has no clothes!”
They accomplished this feat with the headline, “Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means.” The article quotes “New Mexico University Researcher Lawrence Wagner,” who says that based upon his extensive and rigorous academic study, “When you hear or say ‘Redskins’ in the abstract, it’s completely harmless, but we’ve discovered that if you briefly pause to remember it’s a racial slur for an indigenous group wiped out by genocide over the course of a few centuries, then, yeah, it’s awful…It has the potential to come across as a degrading relic of an ethnocentric mentality responsible for the destruction of an entire people and their culture, but that’s only if you take a couple seconds to recognize it as something beyond a string of letters.”
For team owner Dan Snyder, there’s no escape. Even star quarterback Robert Griffin III had his wedding guest, former boxing impresario Rock Newman, tweeting from the ceremony, “I admire RG3 and am pleased to b attending his wedding to begin momentarily. Let no one get it twisted, as I sit very near Dan Snyder, I despise the RACIST, DISRESPECTFUL name of the team whose jersey he wears.”
Why all the recent attention? As usual, it always helps to follow the money. Dan Snyder dreams of returning the team to DC, with visions of a billion-dollar publicly funded stadium dancing in his head. The city council and Mayor Vincent Gray have made clear that without a name change it’s a non-starter. In addition, RGIII has made the team relevant for the first time in a generation. With relevance comes attention, and with attention comes people actually taking a second to think of “Redskins” as more than just “a string of letters.”
Every time a publication wakes up and says, “We will say ‘burgundy & gold’ or ‘Washington football team’ but not the R word,” it does what the Onion article accomplishes. It shakes the reader and asks, “Please just think if in 2013, this is really, honestly and truly okay.”
Yes, there are “bigger problems in the world”, as name-defenders always fall back upon. In addition, if President Obama is commenting on this, it is worth asking what his agenda for the poverty plagued reservations actually is (the AP reporter didn’t ask). But one of these mammoth “problems of the world” are the way people of color are dehumanized on a global scale. Masses die from war or famine, and we collectively shrug because our media and culture process the victims as an “other.”
Anything that we can do to chip away at this state of affairs matters. The only reason there is a team called the Redskins in DC and not the “Blackskins” is because of violent depopulation. The region is 0.6 percent Native American, and without that stubborn fact, the name would be unthinkable.
Last note: I come from an Ashkenazi family. The shtetls where my people lived for centuries were wiped away by the Holocaust. If Germany or Poland started a club soccer team called “The Jew-Skins,” it would be wrong and acknowledged as such no matter how loudly the club owners said it was a tribute my culture, my religion or the practice of circumcision. Let’s not live a double standard. It’s time to change the name.
Greg Mitchell takes a look at the 1970’s death of black football player Speedy Cannon and asks “Accident or Murder?”
New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez answering questions from the media at a news conference in August, 2013. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
Alex Rodriguez is suing Major League Baseball because he believes it has irreparably defamed his character. As his lawyers wrote, Commissioner Bud Selig has “improperly marshaled evidence that they hope to use to destroy the reputation and career of Alex Rodriguez, one of the most accomplished Major League Baseball players of all time.”
The thirty-three-page legal document’s central argument is the sterling character of the man himself. It catalogues A-Rod’s numerous charitable efforts, including the fact that he funded a new baseball diamond for the University of Miami, is on the University of Miami Board of Trustees and won “The University of Miami’s Edward T. Foote II Alumnus of Distinction Award.” (He never actually went to the school, but details, details.)
Subtle as The Walking Dead, this brief argues that Alex Rodriguez is such a beautifully charitable human being, there is no way he would ever be the sort of amoral cur who would lie, cheat and obstruct justice, as Selig claims.
I frankly have no idea what is true and what is not, although Bud Selig vs. A-Rod is like rewatching the 2000 vice-presidential debates between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman: you just want everyone to lose. I do however think it is telling that when it comes time to defend his character from defamation, A-Rod turns his legal guns on the statements emanating from Major League Baseball and not what people are saying about him ten minutes from my house.
I live just around the way from Langley Park, Maryland, part of Prince George’s County and site of one of the highest concentrations of Latino day laborers in the United States. In Langley Park sit 1,000 units of the Bedford Station, Victoria Station and Newbury Square housing complexes where many of these workers and their families live. The apartments are managed by a Coral Gables, Florida, company called Newport Property Ventures, which is owned by, you guessed it, Alex Rodriguez. According to A-Rod’s tenants, he is a “slumlord”, a “scumbag” and several phrases in Spanish that don’t have easy translations but involve using your own head to have a certain kind of sex with yourself.
The Washington Post did its own in-depth exposé of the three housing projects, describing the “hundreds” of complaints from residents ranging from massive rat infestation to layers of mold to a lack of ventilation that produces heat so overbearing residents sleep outside in the summer months.
My own initial observation upon visiting and speaking to tenants was that the article in the Post didn’t do justice to just how crumbling and dilapidated the surroundings are. They did not write about, as I learned, the bed bugs, gas leaks, and “two [gas] explosions in the last three years.” I witnessed a group of children returning home, running and laughing, as several rats scurried away (although a couple of particularly well-fed ones waddled off, looking more inconvenienced than frightened). I saw wires sticking out at odd angles from the sides of buildings. Even though it has been hot and dry in the DC area, the patches of grass had a softness to them and an odor that suggested there were problems with the sewage.
Many of the residents there were more than happy to talk about their situation. “It’s disgusting, ” a man named Diego said to me. “We sent in our complaints. We tried going through channels. But it hits Florida and it is a dead end. They tell us if we complain, we are gone.” A woman named Ana said to me that people were fed up. “I worry about my kids,” she said. “If I am not watching them every second, I feel like there is something that could hurt them.” Her son was wearing a Washington Nationals shirt, so I asked her if she and others knew about A-Rod’s ownership of Newport Ventures. “We know about Alex Rodriguez. We know who he is. I don’t care if he ever plays again or returns to baseball. I just want him to say, ‘I am not a slumlord. I care about other Latinos’ and make these buildings safe and not be a rich guy who doesn’t care.”
I spoke with Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of Casa de Maryland, a leading community organization that has been trying to fight to bring Rodriguez’s slums up to some kind of livable code. He said to me,
“Tenants living in A-Rod-managed properties in Maryland, largely working-class immigrants from Latin America, have had to deal with the most horrific living conditions. To add insult to injury, local managers blame the tenants themselves for the situation, hire goonish private security officers to intimidate them, and threaten folks who organize their neighbors with eviction.”
Given what Diego, Ana, Gustavo and others said about Alex Rodriguez, I have a question: Why isn’t he suing them? They are certainly saying far worse things about him than Bud Selig ever did. They are calling him a repellent, soulless slumlord who doesn’t care if little kids sleep among rats, roaches and rubble. He should be bringing a whole van of Florida lawyers up to Langley Park to attack all those who are defaming his character. But he won’t. He won’t, because people are telling the glaring, visible truth. He won’t, because—as we are seeing on Capitol Hill—the voices of poor and working people just don’t rank on the concerns of people in A-Rod’s income bracket. And lastly, he won’t because if you have no character, it becomes something pretty damn difficult to defame.
Dave Zirin talks on Martin Bashir about Alex Rodriguez and the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball's crackdown on steroid users.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano talking to quarterback Josh Freeman at a recent game against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their head coach Greg Schiano leak confidential information that implied one of their own players was on drugs as a way to deflect attention from another wretched season? Schiano says “absolutely not.” But the facts point in the direction of him or his staff, and the facts are ugly as hell.
Quarterback Josh Freeman is officially in “stage one” of the NFL’s drug testing program. That means he voluntarily entered. He did so as a way to show league officials that the one time he tested positive for a banned substance, a prescription medication for ADHD, it was a one-time mistake. By electing for stage one, Freeman’s involvement is supposed to be confidential. So confidential in fact that even his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not supposed to know that he had entered the program. It means he had been tested forty-six times over the last eighteen months for every possible substance and passed every time.
But Josh Freeman, in high-profile fashion, is on the outs in Tampa Bay. After a dazzling beginning to his career, Freeman has withered in recent years. Following a 0-3 start in which he didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes, Freeman’s relationship with head coach Schiano would be best described as “cyanogenic.” But it is hard to think of any quarterback, or any human who could mesh with the tyrannical, browbeating former Rutgers coach.
Schiano is the sort of person who thinks heading up a football team means you need to act like an amalgam of General Patton and Chet from Weird Science. He is not only barely holding onto his job. He is barely holding onto a team that has had multiple meetings about how much they hate his style, his play-calling and pretty much everything short of his haircut. Benching Freeman is a way to deflect attention from his own epic failure as coach and be given time to break in Freeman’s backup, a raw rookie third-round draft pick named Mike Glennon.
After his benching, Freeman demanded a trade, and the team clearly wants to oblige and get as much as they can in return. But alas, there is a tension. While upper management wants to maximize Freeman’s value, those in tenuous positions of power on the Bucs—like the gobsmacking twenty-six assistant coaches on staff—have an incentive to make Josh Freeman to look as cancerous as possible. Someone connected to the team released information to ESPN’s “NFL insider” Chris Mortensen, who, in a manner far closer to Judith Miller than Glenn Greenwald, dutifully reported the leak that Freeman was in “stage one” of the drug program, while leaving out that he was reporting confidential information or the nature of the drugs involved. Immediately the rumors started to swirl and the sliming was underway.
This is exactly why sports unions take such pains—despite all the slings and arrows from the media, politicians and owners that they are “soft” on drugs—to protect players from abuses in how drug testing is administered. It is why they fight for ironclad confidentiality clauses for first offenders and an independent appeals process. They do it to protect players from having their reputations tarred from false positives. But even more significantly, they simply do not trust those in management to not use drug testing as a form of leverage against players. In other words, they believe that, left to their own devices, owners and coaches will treat players the way the Bucs are treating Josh Freeman.
I was able to get through to NFL Player’s Association executive director DeMaurice Smith after he visited Tampa Bay in an already scheduled visit as part of the routine rounds of the union. He said, “We always protect player rights with vigilance. A breach of confidentiality is one of those instances where the league should agree with us on a zero tolerance policy.” Smith is clearly challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to treat this as a serious league violation. Goodell, who has liked to present himself as a Eastwood-esque sheriff when dealing with player misconduct, should treat this with the same seriousness. The smart money says he will not. When it comes to players, Goodell is Eastwood. When it comes to disciplining management, he is more like the empty chair.
As for Josh Freeman, he had to issue a hastily composed comment last night addressing the rumors that he was in some sort of rehab. He describes the vague leaking of confidential information as a case of being “publicly violated.” People should read his full statement. This is someone who has been grievously wronged.
Whether or not you are a fan of Tampa Bay, the Bucs or even football, you should care about this issue. Drug testing and a complete absence of what can now quaintly be called “privacy” has become normalized in the American workplace. The idea that someone with a union contract that guarantees some basic protections can have his confidentiality treated like toilet paper is alarming. The idea that the Bucs could get away with this on the largest possible media platform is enraging. The idea that Greg Schiano can plead ignorance and only say, “I know what I’ve done, and I’m 100% comfortable with my behavior” and when pressed, “I’m not at liberty to comment on that,” is a joke. He should be saying that he will find out who violated his player’s privacy and discipline them. Anything short of that are grounds for dismissal. If the Bucs owners won’t do it, the league should step in. If the league won’t step in, an already angry Bucs team should just walk out. The Tampa Bay organization under Schiano has become the worst kind of laughingstock: the kind that isn’t funny.
Dave Zirin looks at how some ill chosen words from Dick Vitale have snowballed into NCAA players taking a stand for change.
World famous Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, now infamous for prolonged steroid use, during a December 2007 USO tour in Iraq. (Wikimedia Commons)
I have spent the last several days in a Breaking Bad fever dream, asking myself, “Who is the Walter White/Heisenberg of the sports world?” I am very aware that I couldn’t come up with a hackier First Take–style question unless I was asking what sports commissioner is most like Miley Cyrus. Yet when a piece of popular art speaks to our age of collective dread as perceptively as Breaking Bad, it is worth maxing out its usage as a lens before the next shiny pop culture bauble draws our attention.
Before I posit who I believe the Walter White of the sports world to be, I should be upfront about what I think to be his defining characteristics.
Walter White is someone:
1) Who has undeniable, outlier-level abilities.
2) Whose skills are exceeded only by his self-regard.
3) Who falls and falls down hard, in a manner best described as “squalid.”
4) Who justifies his actions under a cloak of nauseating self-righteousness.
5) Who has a legitimate beef with the twenty-first-century America that has shaped his range of choices.
Using these criteria, the mind immediately floats toward athletes the public loves to hate: the sorts of iconic figures who could credibly re-enact this scene from Scarface.
First, the obvious anabolic antiheroes spring to mind: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez: people who hit the heights and then had a great fall. But how far did they really fall? Walter White’s story is ending as badly as anyone not named Prometheus. Bonds and Clemens have boundless fortunes and even in some circles, their reputations. Barry Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco and recognized, even by the most militant anti-steroid furies, as one of the best all-round players in history. Roger Clemens beat prison and was even an honored guest in Houston this past weekend for Andy Pettitte’s last game.
A-Rod, despite his wealth, does not look like he will emerge with any kind of fan base. But Walter White could be incredibly cunning. A-Rod has shown none of the cleverness, self-righteousness, or defiance of Breaking Bad’s protagonist, his face an expressionless mask. As a pulsing, malevolent presence, A-Rod has been more Hannah Montana than Tony Montana.
Lastly, PEDs and PEDs alone are in my humble view not enough to make you a Walter White. To take them is a decision athletes make with themselves, not something they are pushing upon others. The individual steroid user, in my mind, just doesn’t cut it.
What about a real criminal, someone like O.J. Simpson? OJ is closer to our Heisenberg: two people undone by ego, with Walter White’s “accidental” display of Leaves of Grass the equivalent of O.J.’s If I Did It book. The difference, of course, is that OJ was not trying to reach some kind of distorted American Dream that night in Brentwood. There was no pot of gold, no justifications that he was doing it for family. O.J. has been left with only his infamy and claims of innocence. Say what you will about Walter White’s aria of self-delusion, he never said to Hank, “But if I was going to cook up blue-meth, here is how I’d do it.”
There can be only one Walter White of the sports world, and it has to be Lance Armstrong. Most obviously, you have “the big C” cancer, as a handy narrative starting point and fail-safe justification for the slew of poor decisions that followed. Armstrong was no run-of-the-mill steroid user either. There is considerable evidence that Armstrong was not just someone who used PEDs in a sport swimming in them. He managed a team of cyclists and, according to testimony taken under oath, he insisted they partake, bullying, manipulating or just threatening anyone who didn’t. This is pure Walter White, corrupting those closest to him whether willingly (Skylar) or unwillingly (paying for Hank’s rehab with meth money). In those good times, before the ship was sinking, both also had comical mouthpieces, with ESPN’s Rick Reilly in the role of Saul Goodman.
There is a more heartbreaking parallel as well. Both were idolized by people with physical challenges who were devastated by the truth. Even in our cynical times, Lance Armstrong truly hurt the cancer survivors who believed his years of denials, including those in my family who have worn the yellow bracelet. That is personified in Walter’s son Flynn, born with cerebral palsy, who went from revering to hating this father in the time it took to slash a knife through the air.
But the most critical parallel is that Lance Armstrong like Walter White had every reason to look at this country and find justifications for getting his piece of the American Dream by any means necessary. The hardscrabble Texas son of a single mom who worked as a cashier at Kroger’s was going to fight his way out, Old West-style, in the face of impossible odds. The chemistry teacher with a baby on the way, cancer in his body and no means to leave his family anything but hospital bills looked out at his own pitiless Western landscape and grabbed the only bootstrap available.
As much as we demonize Walter White or Lance Armstrong, their crimes are both at end a function of the far more destructive, lethal and lucrative war on drugs. From the private prison profiteers, to the firearms manufacturers, to the pharmaceutical lobbyists and USADA government agents spending millions in tax dollars investigating retired athletes, there are far more important people to focus upon than the Walter Whites and Lance Armstrongs of the world. In a sane universe, their own moral failings would matter far less than he structures that produce them. We find them compelling precisely because it is so much easier to focus on the man who knocks than on why the door itself can feel so very paper-thin.
Demonstrators carry a banner made of Brazilian national flags during a protest against the Confederations Cup and President Dilma Rousseff's government, in Recife City, Brazil, June 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)
Is it possible to be sickened by everything that goes into staging the World Cup while also loving the tournament itself? For eighty-three years the answer to that has been a resounding yes. The thinking, from FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, down to fans, has been that if a few eggs must be broken, then that’s the price we must pay for a brilliant global frittata. But, with two stories that broke this week, FIFA is truly testing the limits of what people will swallow.
The first exposé was by Sam Borden in The New York Times about the efforts to build the first-ever “World Cup quality stadium” in the middle of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest for next year’s tournament. The Amazon is often described as the “lungs of the world,” producing 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen, so people who are pro-breathing might be angered over what is being done in the name of just four World Cup matches. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. Romário, a former Brazilian national team star who is now a member of the Brazilian Congress, called the project “absurd”, saying, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.”
One option being discussed—and only barely mentioned by the Times—is turning the entire stadium into a prison. Sabino Marques, president of the Amazonas custodial system’s monitoring and control group, endorsed this idea, saying, “After the World Cup, I believe there will be entirely idle spaces. Every day we have arrests in Amazonas and where are we going to put them?” Using soccer stadiums as prisons has a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those throughout the country protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.
As horrific as this scenario seems, FIFA and Qatar, site of the 2022 World Cup, has a construction operation that makes Brazil’s look positively benign. Guardian reporter Pete Pattison, doing the kind of journalism that sometimes feels extinct, has written a series about Qatar’s stadium-building policies that have already resulted in the deaths of dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers. Unlike other Olympic-sized projects with a body count—see Greece in 2004—the deaths are not primarily a result of workplace accidents, but heart failure: young healthy men having heart attacks.
As Pattinson writes, “This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.”
The charge of “slavery” that many Nepalese workers are bringing forth results from the fact that their pay is being withheld to keep them from fleeing the labor camps in the night. Food and water have also been rationed as a way to compel the Nepalese to work for free. After a day in the scorching sun, they sleep in filth, twelve to a room.
Pattinson quotes one Nepalese migrant employed at the Lusail City development, a $45 billion city constructed from the ground up, which will include the 90,000-seat stadium for the World Cup final. “We’d like to leave, but the company won’t let us,” he says. “I’m angry about how this company is treating us, but we’re helpless. I regret coming here, but what to do? We were compelled to come just to make a living, but we’ve had no luck.”
In normal times, over 90 percent of workers in Qatar are immigrants, with 40 percent coming from Nepal. But these are not normal times. There has been a massive push for migrant workers, as Qatar aims to spend over $100 billion on stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, part of a broader effort to remake and “modernize” the emirate. A hundred thousand workers have already come from Nepal, one of the poorest nations on earth, and as many as 1.5 million will need to be recruited to get the job done. Thousands more will die if action is not taken.
I spoke with Jules Boykoff, author of Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games and a former professional soccer player. He said, “Sports mega-events like the World Cup are upbeat shakedowns with appalling human costs. This is trickle-up economics that magnifies the widening chasm between the happy-faced promises of mega-event boosters and on-the-ground reality for the rest of us.”
The issue is clearly not soccer. It is clearly not even having a global tournament like The World Cup. It is the way these mega-events are linked to massive development projects used as neoliberal Trojan Horses to push through policies that would stun the most hardened of cynics. The people of Brazil, demanding “FIFA quality hospitals and schools,” have shown a way to envision how we can emerge from this brutal cycle. The Nepalese migrant workers, just by having the courage to come forward, are doing the same.
Dave Zirin looks at author Eduardo Galeano's comments on Brazilian soccer protests.
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.