Where sports and politics collide.
Michael Sam’s pro day, held at the University of Missouri, was everything his performance at the NFL combine was not: a rousing success. With representatives from almost every NFL team and more than a dozen cameras on the scene, the man attempting to become the first openly gay player in the NFL player put on quite the show. The SEC defensive player of the year ran the forty-yard dash in 4.72 seconds, two-tenths of a second faster than his earlier time. He also improved his jumping and strength measurables, showing the league-ready athleticism and explosive form that NFL teams were looking to see. True to form, Sam went about his business as if it was not a media spectacle, giving the brush-off to the media—including Albert Breer from the NFL network—when they approached him for comments. The Missouri pro day wasn’t just for Sam, but for all former Missouri Tigers looking to make the league. The cameras were there for Michael Sam, but he made clear that he was not there for the cameras.
Sam has said repeatedly that he wants to be seen as “just a football player” who happens to be gay. He also clearly knows that this is what he has to say to move forward as an NFL rookie, and that his mere presence on the football field will speak volumes.
Yet as Sam moves forward, he is taking pains to pay tribute to the collective, the mass and the base of support that created the conditions, which allowed him to take this historic step. Just as he met with the former NFL players who were public about their sexuality after their retirement, he also penned a letter, posted to Facebook, to the University of Missouri. It is worth being read and reread. It is also a heartening reminder to the cynics that the young generation coming up is in so many respects an improvement, with the capacity to make this a more humane place. In late February the state Senate of Missouri introduced one of those “religious freedom bills” that open the door to allow businesses to refuse service to people they perceive to be part of the LGBT community. Hatred, fear and suspicion: that’s life in the Missouri statehouse bubble. It is not life on the campus. Michael Sam’s letter does not openly reference the Missouri students who formed a picket line with buttons that read “Stand with Sam” in confrontation with Westboro Baptist Church, when they showed up to protest Michael Sam. It is nice to think that this display was one memory Fred Phelps got to take to the grave.
The ugly past versus a better future. Read, share and enjoy Michael Sam’s open letter to his school:
To my fellow University of Missouri students, athletes, faculty, alumni and supporters:
From my first recruiting trip to the University of Missouri, I felt something extraordinary and special—something I didn’t feel anyplace else.
I didn’t have a name for it then; I do now. It’s called family. And to me that family is defined by unconditional love. Certainly you cheered my successes, but you also picked me up when I fell. Maybe most importantly, you gave me a chance to live my truth without judgment, without hesitation and with great discretion and respect. When I came out last month, I did it with the confidence that my Mizzou “family” would always be there for me. To put it mildly, the love and acceptance I felt was amazing. The day after the announcement, my name was spelled out in the stadium; fraternities hung #StandWithSam banners; then when I went to the basketball game to honor the football team’s Cotton Bowl victory, I worked hard not to cry because of the amazing reception. I have a long journey ahead of me, a lot of hard work and many dreams I want to fulfill. But I do it with the confidence that my Mizzou family will be there for me every step of the way. I will continue to work my hardest; I will strive to make you all proud.
And I will be a Tiger forever.
Read Next: The NCAA’s house divided will not stand.
It’s March Madness, that time of year when the NCAA’s revenue streams become a biblical flood. It’s the time of year when the nonprofit cartel—yes, the NCAA is a nonprofit—takes in 90 percent of its annual revenue. Than means 90 percent of Mart Emmert’s $2 million-plus salary, 90 percent of the six-figure salaries of his fourteen vice presidents, 90 percent of their new $35 million headquarters in Indianapolis are underwritten over the next month. Yet this revenue gusher is creating an unholy pressure on the foundations of the NCAA, turning cracks into fissures.
Yesterday, timed deliciously with March Madness, a group of former college athletes filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA and the five power conferences. The lawsuit contends that a small group of people—coaches and administrators—has become rich by illegally restraining the earning power of college athletes. (This is kind of like contending that the sun is hot). Their lawsuit reads, “As a result of these illegal restrictions, market forces have been shoved aside and substantial damages have been inflicted upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others. This class action is necessary to end the NCAA’s unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law.”
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to prevent the NCAA from intervening in efforts by schools or conferences to negotiate with their own players. This injunction effort has to be seen as an act of solidarity with the football players at Northwestern who unionized and registered with the National Labor Relations Board, but are not being recognized by the school, certainly in part because of being intimidated by reprisals from the NCAA.
This is only the latest challenge to what was once seen as the untouchable power of the NCAA. The critiques are certainly nothing new. People such as Upton Sinclair and W.E.B. Du Bois were criticizing the corrosive effects of college athletics and fake amateurism since their inception. But the gushing, almighty revenue streams brought by cable television over the last thirty years have created a new set of pressures. The NCAA has somehow created two economic systems, side by side. There is the indentured servitude of college athletics and the free market, freewheeling, anything-goes life of a seven-figured salary college coach. It is a house divided, and these have a tendency to not stand.
One coach who has never hesitated to flee for greener pastures and higher pay days is itinerant 73-year-old coach Larry Brown. As the news of the lawsuit spread on Monday, it was difficult to not think about the Hall of Fame coach. The previous evening, Brown’s SMU Mustangs, despite being ranked twenty-fifth in the country, were shut out of March Madness. The team went 23-9, but at their selection Sunday party, was left in tears.
Larry Brown may be a basketball genius. He may be the only coach in history to have won championships at the college and professional level. He may be a turnaround artist beyond compare, but two weeks ago, the mad genius of coaching chose the madness of March to say something… mad.
In an interview decrying the idea of the NBA further developing its own minor league, Brown proclaimed that college basketball “is the greatest minor league system in the world.”
I had to listen to the audio of the interview to make sure Brown just wasn’t being extremely sarcastic, because college basketball is “the greatest minor league system in the world” is akin to saying that cigarettes clean out your lungs with every puff.
This “greatest minor league system in the world” sends less than 1 percent of its players to the NBA. A shocking number of those who do make it find themselves bankrupt when their careers are over. While in college, their own development as players is always—always—sublimated to the goals of the team. In other words, if you are a 6' 8" tweener who can rebound but can’t shoot, you will do what the coach wants, and rebound even though it will damage your chances to play at the professional level. In addition, because players have to live under the fiction of being “student-athletes” with massive restrictions over how much they can practice with their teammates or even be coached, their ability to reach their athletic potential becomes artificially stunted. And lastly, unlike the minor league circuits in baseball and soccer, you don’t get paid. So let’s recap: your skill development gets stunted, you have a 99 percent chance at failure, and you don’t get paid. But other than that, it is the greatest minor league system in the world.
Back to Brown. As his team was shut out of the NCAA tournament, tears in their eyes, it is worth asking the question: How does that experience help the young men at SMU? How does it prepare them for life? Does this build some kind of super-secret “pro character” antibodies? An antiviral resistance to gut-wrenching disappointment? The only people the NCAA tournament prepares for advancement are the hot coaches from the small schools who will leave their program in the lurch to sign a big-money contract with a top university before all of the Final Four confetti has hit the ground. March Madness has been very good to Larry Brown and his coaching brethren. It has been very good for the NCAA. For the ones we cheer, however, there are few happy endings. We are watching parallel trajectories with every round: coaches ascending to the heights and players getting pushed closer and closer to that edge where the cheering stops. That is why this is a house divided, and that is why, in the long run, it will not stand.
Read Next: The Sochi Paralympics, Ukraine and the Olympic truce
You would not know it from much of the sports media, but the Sochi Winter Games have been ongoing, amidst the greatest crisis in relations between the United States and Russia since the Cold War. This stage of the games is known as the Paralympics, a series of events for hundreds of world-class athletes who are disabled. Often overshadowed during typical Olympiads, this year attention for the exploits of Paralympic athletic has been buried by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the subsequent inter-imperial diplomatic standoff with the United States. Seeing the Olympics, however, walk comfortably with war raises a question: whatever happened to the “Olympic Truce”? If even the most diehard sports fans have no idea what the Olympic Truce happens to be, it is hardly surprising.
The roots of the Olympic Truce stretch back to Ancient Greece back in ninth-century BC, as a sports-themed treaty to enable the safe passage of athletes, artists and fellow travelers to and from the games of the Olympia. After centuries of dormancy, the United Nations teamed up with the International Olympic Committee to revive the tradition in 1993. The goal was to encourage a truce in the war-torn city of Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Games. Since then, the UN General Assembly has routinely adopted a universally supported resolution to respect the Olympic Truce.
But the Olympic Truce is like a unicorn bought with a bucket of Bitcoin. Just because you believe in it, doesn’t make it real. Numerous countries have steamrolled the truce. The United States, of course, never curtailed the wars and occupations in Afghanistan or Iraq for the benefit of the Olympics. During the 2008 Beijing Games, as well, Russia and Georgia continued their battle over South Ossetia. The Games have been about as effective at stopping the violence of war as a West Bank checkpoint.
After contemplating a Paralympic boycott, Ukrainian Olympic officials opted to allow their athletes to compete. In a symbolic—read: empty—gesture, the United States did not dispatch an official delegation, though it did send its Paralympic athletes. UK ministers as well boycotted the Games, but British athletes did not. Sports ministers from Austria, Canada, Finland and Poland also stayed away in protest. Britain’s Prince Edward and Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria both announced that they would give the Paralympics the royal snub.
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee has succumbed to the formulaic charade that politics and sports shouldn’t mix. IPC President Sir Philip Craven lived up to his unfortunate albeit appropriate surname, repeatedly mouthing the moldy mantra that we should “leave politics to the politicians.” All the while, he has heaped praise on Putin for organizing a “fantastic” Paralympics.
Partway through the Games, Craven even proclaimed that host cities need not be compelled to abide by basic human-rights standards. Human rights, he said, “is not something we get involved with.” They have learned nothing from the blaring lesson of Sochi 2014: Olympic honchos absolutely need to appraise the human-rights record of each potential host.
The great tragedy of it all is that the inter-imperial wrangling in Crimea has overshadowed the Paralympics themselves, an event that speaks to the best angels of sports. Ironically, the Paralympics are once again a vibrant venue for military veterans making miraculous comebacks after the ravages of war. You see people from all over the world who left limbs on battlefields using sports and competition to rebuild their minds and bodies. For the United States, after twelve years of war, eighteen of the eighty athletes we sent are military vets.
The Paralympics have also reminded us that athletes can be inspiring vessels of political goodwill, as when Ukrainian and Russian biathletes shared the medal podium and the Russian clapped for his Ukrainian competition when he was announced. Ukrainian athletes also showed the Games can be a platform for principled political protest. At the opening ceremonies they sent a single emissary to carry the Ukrainian flag while the rest of the squad skipped the flag-waggling procession, remaining in their stadium-floors seats in dignified solidarity.
In addition, the Ukrainian cross-country skiing relay team covered their silver medals with their hands on Saturday at a ceremony as Russia was bestowed with the gold.
As Ukraine team official Nataliya Harach told the Associated Press, “It is not a political protest, it’s us fighting for peace. It’s a different kind of protest. We put our hands on our medals because you cannot do anything more.… If we demonstrate some way else, if we say something, it will not be in the rules of the International Paralympic Committee. So we try to do a silent protest and because we don’t want any disqualifications.”
The Paralympics highlight the finest people we have in the world of sports. The question is whether we will ever see a true Olympic Movement that will pressure the IOC to make sure that the host countries don’t use the Games to bankrupt their countries, oppress their citizens and rally national feeling as a pretext to war. We saw that in Sochi, and thanks to the unsavory masters of the IOC and IPC, we will surely see it again.
Read Next: the endgame in Crimea
There is a 23-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers rookie of great promise named Erisbel Arruebarrena, walking around spring training wearing number 11, and this bothers the holy hell out of me. There is only one number 11 for the Dodgers, and that is Manny Mota. The 76-year-old Dodger legend, who is not a Dodgers coach for the first time in more than three decades, is also present at spring training still wearing his own number 11. He has responded to Arruebarrena being given his number with nothing but class. Maybe I am just less classy. Maybe I am biased because I had the privilege to meet Mr. Mota and found him to be as principled and proud as I dreamed the Dominican trailblazer to be. Maybe I just do not like the casual disrespect for a man who has given so much to both this organization and the city of Los Angeles. Maybe I should explain.
More than any other sport, by a country mile, numbers in the world of baseball have a near-sacred quality. I am not only talking about statistics, although there is certainly no sport that fetishizes their numerals quite like baseball. Few know or care about the exact number of yards the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmett Smith, ran for in his career, yet books have been written about Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, Henry Aaron’s journey to 755 and then, with appalled overtones, Barry Bonds’s muscled-up quest for 762.
There is certainly a case to be made that the reason why everyone from the sports media to the US Congress is so much more fanatical about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball than any other sport, is the belief that PEDs lead to inflated statistics which harm the integrity of these treasured, talismanic statistics.
The other numbers, which hold a hallowed weight in baseball, is the number on the uniform. The two most famous hoops players of their generation, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, both switched up their uniform numbers in the middle of their careers. In football, players sell their numbers to teammates. Baseball is different. It is why Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is retired in every ballpark. It is why there has been a push to retire the great Roberto Clemente’s number 21 for every team as well. It is why part of the thrill of Derek Jeter’s career has been seeing him grow into his number 2, someday to be retired amongst Yankee immortals number 3 Babe Ruth and number 4 Lou Gehrig.
That is why I find it to be so personally disturbing to see Erisbel Arruebarrena wearing that number 11. Mota, as I mentioned, was a coach for the Dodgers for thirty-four consecutive seasons, the longest in team history and the second longest in the history of the sport. He retired as the all-time leading pinch hitter in the Major Leagues. His pinch-hitting also led him to become a pop-culture legend when, in the movie Airplane, Robert Hays thought the words, “Pinch-hitting for Pedro Borbon… Manny Mota… Mota… Mota.” (Borbon and Mota never actually played together, which kind of makes it even funnier.)
The bigger issue however, is the casual disrespect to what Manny Mota represents. This is not only disrespect to someone who has given his professional life to the Dodgers organization—in a sport that is supposed to revere its history—but also disrespect to one of the first significant players to come to the Major League Baseball from the Dominican Republic. Today, it is difficult to imagine Major League Baseball without the talent infusion from the DR. Every team now has a baseball academy on the island. One-quarter of all minor league players were born there. At the start of the 2013 season, eighty-nine Dominican-born players were on major league rosters, the highest of any country outside the United States. All of this talent comes, remarkably, from a country with a population less than that of New York City.
I have written before, and surely will write again, about the problems that exist in MLB’s exploitative relationship with the young dreamers in the DR, living in poverty and striving for that Major League contract. But Manny Mota is someone who has used his stature to try and combat poverty in the DR, through his organization, the Manny Mota International Foundation. He is more than just an all-time Dodger. He is a humane bridge to a country that Major League Baseball has too often treated with contempt. It is difficult to not see the bestowing of Mota’s number 11 to Arruebarrena as symbolic of the blasé disrespect with which MLB treats the DR as a whole. But once, again, this is just me talking. When Erisbel Arruebarrena was introduced to the media, Mota came by, all class, and said, “You know what? That’s my number. Wear it with pride.” Only one person should wear that number, and he never had to be told to wear it with pride. The pride was always there. Dodgers, do the right thing and make sure that the number 11 lives only with Manny Mota-Mota-Mota.
Read Next: In the NFL, a victory for ending mental health stigmas.
When offensive lineman Jonathan Martin did the unthinkable and walked away from the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the 2013 season, some said he would never play in the NFL again. Never mind the fact that he was suffering from severe depression, with ideas of self-harm on his mind. Never mind the revelations that he was dealing with the hazing, bullying and even assault perpetrated by teammates, led by his “friend” Richie Incognito. Never mind that there were coaches complicit in this scenario. His pro football days were done, not only because he left the team, but also because of what his decision to leave supposedly revealed about his character. As Reggie Rivers, a former NFL player, wrote in The Denver Post in a column titled, “Is Jonathan Martin in the Wrong Career?,” “Martin may be too quiet, too unwilling to speak up for himself and too emotionally fragile to handle the vicissitudes of the NFL. It was bad enough when Incognito was bullying him, but now that a national scandal has erupted, the situation is far worse for Martin. He may feel too humiliated to ever play in the NFL again.”
At his sports blog, Jake Elman also wrote last November, “Jonathan Martin, despite seeming to be the victim of bullying, death threats, and racism, will not play again in the National Football League. Martin has entered a list of players who teams won’t want on their rosters simply by leaving the Dolphins, exposing things that are supposed to stay in the locker room, and hiring a lawyer to investigate allegations of workplace abuse…. Martin, has one of the worst qualities you want from a player…. he’s become a distraction.”
Neither of the above pieces was unsympathetic to Martin, and the two writers should not be singled out as outliers. To the contrary, both reflected a common sentiment repeated often on sports radio: Martin was too “soft,” too “vulnerable” and too much of a “distraction” to get another chance in the National Football League. Now we know that Martin’s NFL career is not over, and this is cause for relief. The 24-year-old second-round draft pick and two-time All-American is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, traded by the Dolphins for a song—a seventh-round draft pick that Miami receives only if Martin makes the team. It is difficult to think of a better landing place than the 49ers. They have a strong foundation, veteran leadership, a solid offensive line and most importantly, are coached by Martin’s Stanford University coach Jim Harbaugh.
Martin thrived under Harbaugh’s tutelage at Stanford. His old college coach also gave him a major boost, as Deadspin noted, when NFL investigator Ted Wells was assembling his report on Incognito and the Dolphins locker-room culture. One of the contentions of Incognito and his defenders was that Martin had no business in an NFL locker room and they should not be faulted just because he lacked the mental fortitude to handle the pressure. Ted Wells wrote in his assessment:
Jim Harbaugh, Martin’s former head coach at Stanford and the current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told us that he had never doubted Martin’s tenacity, work ethic and dedication to the game, and that he had never seen Martin exhibit problems with social adjustment. Coach Harbaugh told us he believed that Martin likely could continue to have a successful career in the NFL. It appears that Martin was up to the challenge of dealing with physical or verbal intimidation by opposing players during NFL games, but fell victim, at least in part, to persistent taunting from his own teammates.
It matters that Martin is getting this second chance. The idea that having mental health issues makes a person a “distraction” is not something that should be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders but needs to be challenged. The idea that having the courage to blow the whistle on an abusive situation makes a person “emotionally fragile” is so backward, one does not even know where to begin. The idea that the victim of hardcore bullying could then become further victimized by being denied a future at the age of 24 should be seen as manifestly unacceptable. This has always been about not just the NFL but about the messages the NFL sends. Mental health issues are not impermeable “handicaps” but a part of life, and admitting that you need help should never be, as Mr. Rivers wrote, “humiliating.”
This entire situation has been a stench-producing view into the reality of one NFL locker room. Jonathan Martin getting a second chance is a sign that something productive could emerge from the toxic landfill in Miami. Another positive sign was news that after trashing his own car with a bat, Richie Incognito admitted himself into a mental health facility. There is no shame in needing help. Degradation is only assured if someone pretends all is well, thinking that they are going to “man up,” when in reality they are just biding time to a greater fall. It is hard to find someone who does not hope Jonathan Martin makes it all the way back from whatever depths of depression he found himself in last year. We should hope Richie Incognito makes it back as well, whether or not that means finding a place on an NFL team.
Read Next: After Darren Sharper, the NFL must address violence against women.
Last week, Jen Psaki, the spokesperson for the US State Department, was asked if she had comment on “Israeli soldiers at checkpoints targeting Palestinian soccer players.” She said, “I haven’t seen that. Obviously, we spoke to our concerns [about checkpoint violence] again, in the same Human Rights Report about certain actions and behavior…. I will check that out.”
“Checking out” what is happening to Palestinian soccer players would be well advised, and not only for Ms. Psaki. Last week, I received what could best be described as an overwhelmingly hostile response to my article on a recent shooting by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of two youth soccer players, and how this could affect the extremely perilous position Israel finds itself in the international soccer federation, FIFA. My piece went through the Palestinian Football Association’s very underreported push to get Israel removed from FIFA. Their appeal has been gaining support and will be raised formally at FIFA’s meeting in Brazil. The second part of my article centered around the aforementioned recent shooting of two young soccer players in their feet outside of an IDF checkpoint. The IDF claimed that the two young men had a bomb, something that they deny. My article aimed to show that this incident, alongside the jailing, injuring and killing of prominent members of the Palestinian national soccer team would have the effect of adding fuel to the movement to have Israel removed from FIFA.
I expected to get the typical barrage of hate mail from the usual suspects: the darkest corners of the Internet that believe on principle that Palestinian life is cheap if not entirely without value. At most, these e-mails are as nettlesome as spam.
The part of the response that was truly jarring however was the numerous private queries I received from prominent members of the media. I am choosing to keep their identities private because their correspondence to me was private and I will respect that. The queries contained no curiosity about Israel’s possible expulsion from FIFA. They all instead openly doubted that the shooting of the two young men had even taken place. Was I sure this really happened? When I pointed to my initial sources, the response by numerous people was, “Do you have any sources that are not Palestinian?” One person, writing for a major sports website, sent me numerous queries that I did not respond to, and then when the facts of the shooting appeared in the Israeli paper Haaretz, said to me, “Forget previous queries. I see news of the shooting on Haaretz. Never mind.” The assumption of mendacity affixed to Palestinian sources spoke volumes.
The other part of my story that people accused of being untrue was my theory that members of the Palestinian soccer community are being targeted for violence by the Israeli state. This was described to me as “laughable,” “ridiculous,” and one even said that they would reach out to The Nation directly to agitate for dismissal.
Yes it is certainly true that I don’t have a document signed by Benjamin Netanyahu calling for a systematic attack on the Palestinian national team. What I do have are names: real people, with real families, whose lives and deaths are testament to a story that needs to be told.
There was Ayman Alkurd. He was a 34-year-old member of the Palestinian national soccer team. Alkurd was killed during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead when a missile was sent into his home in Gaza. There was Wajeh Moshtahe, another national team member. He was killed in his home during Operation Cast Lead as well. He was only 24. There was Shadi Sbakhe, another national team member who suffered the same fate. All three, in fact, died within seventy-two hours of one another. They reminded many, at the time of their deaths, of Tariq Al Quto, described by the BBC as “a talented midfielder,” who was killed by the IDF in 2004.
Then there are the imprisoned. We can start with Omar Abu Rios, the former starting goalkeeper for the national team. He was arrested at age 23 for allegedly being part of an attack on Israeli troops at the Amari Palestinian refugee camp near Ramallah. He was, according to Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril al-Rajoub, “arrested at work and taken to an unknown location.” Rajoub appealed directly to FIFA chief Sepp Blatter on Rios’s behalf, saying that his arrest “was in total disregard of all agreements signed by the Israeli side and in direct violation to the simplest right of our players.”
There was also Muhammad Nimr, a top 23-year-old striker and national team member, who had his house destroyed by the IDF and was then jailed without charges being filed. Nimr’s story echoed that of another striker, Zakaria Issa, who had been jailed for sixteen years before being released in 2013 when he was struck with terminal cancer.
Then there was Mahmoud Sarsak. Sarsak was a defender on the national team who was arrested and jailed without charges while trying to cross a checkpoint in order to join his teammates. His plight became an international cause when the Palestinian national team member went on a three-month hunger strike while being held in an Israeli prison. He was released in July 2012. As he said at a meeting in England upon his release, “Israel actively attempts to stop sportsmen and women competing, and there are a large number of athletes in prison…. Since 2008 we have seen Israel detain a number of sportsmen who were arrested under the administrative detention laws—meaning no charges need be brought. They never have to go to trial.”
This is reality for the Palestinian national team: four dead by Israeli munitions and—at least—three jailed in Israeli prisons without trial over the last decade. I have no idea whether people will see this as constituting a “targeting” of the Palestinian soccer players. I do believe that it is our job as sports journalists to ask the questions. There can be no doubt that we would press for more information if those killed and jailed were members of the Spanish national team, the German national team, the Brazilian national team or, heaven forfend, the US national team. Israel’s future in FIFA should depend on its answering these questions, but they only get answered if they are asked.
Yes, it is understandable why looking to FIFA for any kind of moral guidance is laughable. The locations of the next two World Cups, Russia and Qatar, contain enough human rights violations to keep Amnesty International busy until the next century. But attacks on athletes themselves need to be, pardon the expression, a red line for all international sporting bodies: a red line no country should be allowed to cross.
Read Next: Dave Zirin’s original piece about violence against the Palestinian national soccer team
The role of the referee in professional sports is not just making sure play is monitored, penalties get called and the game has a sense of flow. It is to protect the integrity of the product and the safety of the participants. The NFL demonstrated starkly when it started the first four games of the 2012 season with scab—or in the parlance of our neoliberal times “replacement”—referees, that the game was simply not the game when you had untrained eyes in charge of the action. For reasons that beggar belief, Major League Soccer has decided to follow in the tragic trajectory of the NFL and start the season with scabs on the pitch.
The Professional Soccer Referees Association, otherwise known as the refs union, has been attempting to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement in league history. The amount of money that separated the two parties is not vast, estimated between $440,000 and $1 million for the lifetime of the deal. The main financial issue was that in recent years, MLS mandated far more trainings for referees to improve the quality of officiating. The refs, however, were not compensated for the extra hours.
The greater issue, however, was political. It was the fact that the refs union refused to sign a no-strike pledge. As the MLS league negotiator Peter Walton said, “Since they will not give us a guarantee they will not go on strike immediately prior to our match we are left in a position where we must use replacement officials.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The response to the refs shockingly ungentlemanly refusal to sign a no-strike pledge, has been to lock them out. This contemptible, hypocritical move forced me to ask the question, what the hell is it about labor rights that so repulse people named Walton? No, Peter Walton, a former British referee, is not related to those Waltons but I did truly wonder if some ne’er-do-well billionaire Walmart nephew had taken to breaking unions as a sideline hobby.
As for the refs, they have decried the lockout as a “scorched-earth” tactic and vowed to press on. They point out that the lockout comes after the union had already filed unfair labor practice and labor intimidation complains with the National Labor Relations Board.
Meanwhile, however, we have the specter this weekend of games that could be a train-wreck waiting to happen.
I spoke with Kevin McNutt, the cohost on my radio show Edge of Sports and a basketball referee for over thirty years. He said to me, “Scab referees are not adequately trained or qualified to service the product at the professional level. Expect referee calls and interpretations to be inconsistent not only from game to game but half to half. Through this, a state of anarchy may ensue from players and coaches that could lead to the challenging of referee’s authority, increased injury to players and sloppy overall quality of play that will make fans and followers of the sport question the integrity of the games.”
Those two words, integrity and injury, cannot be mentioned enough.
On the question of “integrity,” it must be noted that professional soccer has been engulfed in match fixing scandals at the highest levels of the sport, in the English Premier League, as well as, in recent years, fifteen other nations. So far we have not seen these scandals hit MLS, but for a league with far less of a foothold than its English brethren, integrity is everything. Scab referees, with little invested long term in MLS, will make people roll their eyes with every blown call as people wonder in the stands and on message boards whether it was incompetence or fraud.
Then there is injury. The players union has certainly taken note of the lockout, with their focus firmly on the wellness of the people that fans pay to see. MLS players’ union executive director Bob Foose said that the “decision to lock out the referees and use scab replacements presents a serious health and safety issue for our members. We will continue to monitor this situation closely, as it is our sincere hope that cooler heads will prevail, the parties will reach an agreement and PSRA [union] officials will be back on the field as soon as possible.”
A parallel outrage, however, is that the MLS will become yet another pro sports league that utilizes the lockout in negotiations with refs or players, joining the NFL (twice), the NBA and NHL since 2011. The utilization of this tactic on such a high cultural platform only adds to the societal acceptance of something that was once the third rail of labor-management relations. Lockouts should never be a part of union negotiations, but in sports and beyond, they have become just a part of the process. This has to be stood up to, no matter the industry. The MLS refs lockout is awful for the unionized refs, dangerous for the players, devastating for MLS and terrible for all working people, whether you consider yourself a soccer fan or not.
Read Next: Israel’s future in FIFA is uncertain after this latest incident.
This Friday on my weekly radio show, Edge of Sports, I am going to interview Jeff Pearlman, author of the new book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. I cannot put this book down. Showtime is both like an excavation of a long-lost era, as well as a pulsing, utterly relevant roadmap into our twenty-first-century sports celebrity culture. It is a fascinating window on the last time when fame not only opened doors but also then closed them behind you.
The book is also reminding me just how emotionally connected I was as a kid to these particular Laker teams. Growing up in New York City, it was a rare year when I did not find a way to get what was then a $10 ticket to see the Showtime Lakers on one of their two annual trips to Madison Square Garden. With a perennially middling-to-awful Knicks team to root for, I first shouted myself hoarse for the Lakers because they were the greatest threat to thwart the dreams of the hated Boston Celtics. (The Lakers and Celtics took every championship but one from 1980–88.) Any team that could keep Red Auerbach from lighting that damn cigar deserved all the preteen support I could muster. When Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis or Larry Bird looked like he wanted to fight Kareem, I remember getting off the couch as if I could jump through the TV to enter the scrum. (Yeah, I also probably could have used some more adult supervision).
But I really loved these Lakers to death because of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic was the synthesis of two extremely different styles of playing that, as a short, athletically challenged basketball obsessive, I could at least try, through sheer will, to replicate. He couldn’t really jump, he rarely dribbled in a fancy manner and he had an ugly push shot that looked like it was borrowed from a grainy 1950s video. What he could do, like no one before or since, was combine this olde-timey game with a twenty-first-century brand of flair. He saw angles no one could see and could throw no-look passes that smacked people right in the hands, ready to shoot. I would go to 77th and Amsterdam and chalk a Lakers yellow circle on the wall no bigger than a grapefruit and whip different kinds of no-look passes—chest, baseball, behind the back—and see how many would hit their mark. Sure, I would never be Magic, given that he was six-foot-nine, could rebound like a power forward and dribble the length of the court in seconds, but I could feel like Magic any time one of my no-look passes didn’t break a window and instead found someone for a layup.
I took this approach to the courts with confidence far beyond my game. As a Caucasian playing ball in New York City, a 12-year-old who would loiter on the courts until the big kids would let me play, I was a bit of a curiosity, treated with more affection than I probably deserved. I would hit shots and people would yell “Bird!” I would grit my teeth and say, “Call me Magic!” This was always good, if nothing else, for a laugh.
The Showtime Lakers were a rolling party and to be a fan felt like you were getting a secondhand high off of their vapors of glitter, glamour and glory. They also projected an image of Los Angeles, especially for us cloistered East Coasters, as a place of endless celebrity and sunshine.
As if being a teenager isn’t dramatic enough, this love became gothic tragedy, as both Showtime and my dreams of Los Angeles skidded to a stunning end. Magic Johnson, after years of abundant unprotected sex, became HIV-positive and quit the game he loved in 1991. The Los Angeles Times described the public reaction to the news like “an icon had been shot down in mid-stride…. The news was treated like the death of a head of state or the outbreak of war.” It was assumed, in our collective ignorance, both that he had to quit and that he would slowly die over the course of the next several years. In life, he was already being mourned.
But then, in a manner that was both upsetting and confusing for a kid who went to school in the East Village and whose mom had worked in an AIDS clinic, Johnson also felt the need to emphasize repeatedly that he had contracted the virus only by having a lot of random, condom-free, heterosexual sex. I remember watching The Arsenio Hall Show, more puzzled than angry, as the crowd cheered when Magic said, “I’m far from being a homosexual, you already know that.” This made him acceptable. President George Bush even gave him a position as head of AIDS Awareness. Thank God for Martina Navratilova. I remembered that she did not go along with this narrative and, for this article, I looked up what she said exactly, and it is even more bracing than I remember. The tennis legend said, “There have been other athletes who died from AIDS and they were pushed aside because they either got it from drugs or they were gay…. If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men, they’d call her a whore and a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon. And she’d never get another job in her life.”
Her reaction prompted outrage from the mainstream press and demands for an apology. But in her follow-up comments, she said, “I certainly don’t want him to take it personally because it is not meant as an offensive thing to him. But the double standard is there, and it makes me mad as hell…. This Magic thing is another example of women losing power, and we are taking steps backwards.” Holy crap. If an athlete of her stature said that today, Twitter would implode.
As if Magic’s retirement wasn’t enough for those of us seeing the fall of Showtime’s seductive imagery, that very spring, during the same season when Magic retired, the so-called “LA Riots” took place after the Simi Valley verdict was handed down, clearing the LAPD officers who were captured on videotape beating Rodney King. For the young and ignorant, myself surely in those ranks, Los Angeles was revealed, beneath the dazzle, to be a cesspool of police brutality and institutionalized racism.
The aftermath of the “LA Riots” brought a level of hysteria that cannot be put into words. At my high school in New York City, administrators shut the school down at noon and I was assigned, as an upperclassman, to walk younger children home, presumably out of fear that they would be attacked by looting black teenagers. (These marauding teens were, alas, a figment of the NYPD’s imagination.) As an administrator openly wept and children cried at the thought of never seeing their parents again, a friend on the basketball team turned to me, like he was Marlin Perkins surveying a scene on Wild Kingdom, and said, “Damn. White people are crazy.” That was prophetic. After the LA Rebellion, we saw the ramping up of the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1980s that brought us to a point where our prison system now represents a “New Jim Crow,” packed with young black men serving mandatory sentences.
If I am fascinated by Jeff Pearlman’s book, it is because it has brought me back to a time before I felt like the world was too often just floating unconsciously from one set of injustices to the next. Obviously, there was evil aplenty in the 1980s, and I was just too young and too sheltered to see it. But it definitely took the fall of Los Angeles, both the team and the city, for me to be shaken out of a youthful slumber where a bad day could be remedied with a successful no-look pass. If I still cannot get enough of the Showtime Lakers—as profoundly hackneyed as this sounds—it’s because it reminds me of what it once felt like to feel the presence of magic.
Read Next: The NFL must address violence against women.
Their names are Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17. They were once soccer players in the West Bank. Now they are never going to play sports again. Jawhar and Adam were on their way home from a training session in the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium on January 31 when Israeli forces fired upon them as they approached a checkpoint. After being shot repeatedly, they were mauled by checkpoint dogs and then beaten. Ten bullets were put into Jawhar’s feet. Adam took one bullet in each foot. After being transferred from a hospital in Ramallah to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman, they received the news that soccer would no longer be a part of their futures. (Israel’s border patrol maintains that the two young men were about to throw a bomb.)
This is only the latest instance of the targeting of Palestinian soccer players by the Israeli army and security forces. Death, injury or imprisonment has been a reality for several members of the Palestinian national team over the last five years. Just imagine if members of Spain’s top-flight World Cup team had been jailed, shot or killed by another country and imagine the international media outrage that would ensue. Imagine if prospective youth players for Brazil were shot in the feet by the military of another nation. But, tragically, these events along the checkpoints have received little attention on the sports page or beyond.
Much has been written about the psychological effect this kind of targeting has on the occupied territories. Sports represent escape, joy and community, and the Palestinian national soccer team, for a people without a recognized nation, is a source of tremendous pride. To attack the players is to attack the hope that the national team will ever truly have a home.
The Palestinian national football team, which formed in 1998, is currently ranked 144th in the world by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). They have never been higher than 115th. As Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril al-Rajoub commented bluntly, the problems are rooted in “the occupation’s insistence on destroying Palestinian sport.”
Over the last year, in response to this systematic targeting of Palestinian soccer, al-Rajoub has attempted to assemble forces to give Israel the ultimate sanction and, as he said, “demand the expulsion of Israel from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.” Al-Rajoub claims the support of Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Algiers and Tunisia in favor of this move, and promises more countries, with an opportunity at a regional March 14 meeting of Arab states, to organize more support. He has also pledged to make the resolution formal when all the member nations of FIFA meet in Brazil.
Qatar’s place in this, as host of the 2022 World Cup, deserves particular scrutiny. As the first Arab state to host the tournament, they are under fire for the hundreds of construction deaths of Nepalese workers occurring on their watch. As the volume on these concerns rises, Qatar needs all the support in FIFA that they can assemble. Whether they eventually see the path to that support as one that involves confronting or accommodating Israel, will be fascinating to see.
As for Sepp Blatter, he clearly recognizes that there is a problem in the treatment of Palestinian athletes by the Israeli state. Over the last year, he has sought to mediate this issue by convening a committee of Israeli and Palestinian authorities to see if they can come to some kind of agreement about easing the checkpoints and restrictions that keep Palestinian athletes from leaving (and trainers, consultants and coaches from entering) the West Bank and Gaza. Yet al-Rajoub sees no progress. As he said, “This is the way the Israelis are behaving and I see no sign that they have recharged their mental batteries. There is no change on the ground. We are a full FIFA member and have the same rights as all other members.”
The shooting into the feet of Jawhar and Adam has taken a delicate situation and made it an impossible one. Sporting institutions like FIFA and the IOC are always wary about drawing lines in the sand when it comes to the conduct of member nations. But the deliberate targeting of players is seen, even in the corridors of power, as impossible to ignore. As long as Israel subjects Palestinian athletes to detention and violence, their seat at the table of international sports will be never be short of precarious.
Read Next: The NFL must address violence against women.
This article contains a trigger warning due to its frank discussion of rape and sexual assault.
In 2010, Darren Sharper was the hero of New Orleans: an All-Pro safety who led the Saints to Super Bowl glory. Now retired and working for the NFL Network, Darren Sharper has been formally charged with multiple sexual assaults and is suspected to have raped at least nine women across five states. In California, he has been arrested and charged with drugging the drinks of two women before raping them. His bail was not only set at $1 million but Judge Renee Korn ordered that a condition of his release would be a legal agreement to not be alone with women he didn’t know before October 30. Korn said, “The court considers these crimes quite serious and has to evaluate the protection of the public.”
This news comes on the heels of the online release of video that shows Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée Janay Palmer out of a casino elevator. Police have said that they have footage of Rice physically assaulting Ms. Parker as well.
Sharper’s story has been, according to my own surveying of the top-rated national programs, almost entirely absent from sports radio and Rice’s story has received far greater coverage only insofar as his “legal troubles” affect his future playing prospects. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh has said, “I haven’t seen anything that would remotely make me think” that Rice would not be on the team this fall. This kind of response is all too typical. The news would have been if Harbaugh had said otherwise.
Both the Sharper and Rice stories raise a blaring question: At what point do the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell confront the constant, haunting league-wide presence of violence against women? In 2012, after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child, before taking his own life, Justin Peters at Slate determined, in the aftermath, that twenty-one of thirty-two NFL teams had employed a player that year “with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record.” There is an argument that the actual rate of players accused of violence against women is lower than the national average, and therefore should not be considered a problem. This is hogwash. When one considers the underreporting of these instances, the ways in which our society blames victims and the resources NFL players and teams have at their disposal to make “problems” go away, statistics don’t really get us anywhere. I would also add that the NFL rightly saw the bullying culture in the Miami Dolphins locker room, even if it was atypical, as utterly unacceptable. Even one incident was one incident too many. In other words, even one instance of violence against women should be compelling the NFL to act. But instead, we get silence.
It is stunning that an NFL, which wants to police how players talk to each other on the field and has announced plans to institute an entire new set of guidelines around “locker room conduct,” does not address this publicly. It is stunning that an NFL, which tries to cultivate and grow its female fan base by trussing players in pink for a full month out of the season to display their seriousness in the fight against breast cancer, is silent on the question of violence against women. It is stunning that Roger Goodell, who believes that players should be “role models,” does not address the kind of behavior that is being modeled.
This is about more than violence. It is about a locker-room environment that sees women as little more than “road beef.” Amidst the infamous text messages between Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, lost among the racial taunts and homophobic jibes, were the discussions of “bitches,” “hooker parties,” “strippers who go the extra mile,” and Incognito’s boast that “I was doing work last night. I got those girls hammered.” This is the same Richie Incognito who received second chance after second chance, no matter how many accusations of sexual assault were levied against him throughout his career in college and the pros. The entire Incognito saga could have been avoided if the league had a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women. They don’t, so it wasn’t.
No, the connective tissue between football and rape culture is not created in the NFL, as Incognito’s own history demonstrates. We know too much from stories that span from high schools in Steubenville and Maryville to colleges like Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Missouri to think that it possibly starts in the pros. But shouldn’t the NFL be where it ends? I have no idea why an NFL and a commissioner that is so acutely image conscious does not see how badly this looks. It looks like the league turns a blind eye and shrugs its shoulders, as if violence against women is little more than “boys will be boys.” It looks like they believe that the stink of stories like Darren Sharper’s will not waft into their boardrooms. It looks like they do not care. Roger Goodell needs to read the arrest report for Darren Sharper and admit that this league has fostered, and not fought, a football culture that sees women as collateral damage. He needs to admit they have a problem and he needs to act. He needs to think not only about “how it looks” but also the young people who are doing the looking.
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