Where sports and politics collide.
The Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington [redacted]s have all fired their head coaches in the ritual known as Black Monday (although technically the Browns let their coach Rob Chudzinski go Sunday night, the first time Cleveland football has been first at something in a long time.)
Weep not for the tossed out coaches who are being paid millions to leave a twenty-hour a day job that seems like a toboggan ride to an angioplasty. Instead, save your tears for the fans, because this annual NFL colon cleanse should not blind us to a blaring truth. The problem with these franchises runs far deeper than whatever alpha male with pretensions of Patton is roaming the sidelines. There is a reason three of these teams have never won a Super Bowl in the forty-seven-year history of the big game.
The Browns are owned by a man named Jimmy Haslam, who is under a federal investigation for his company’s involvement in “fuel rebate fraud.” He said this week that the criminal probe and looming indictment “has been a distraction.” The Vikings are owned by Zygi Wilf, who was ordered by a judge in September to pay an $84.5 million settlement to someone he defrauded in the 1980s. This did not stop the state of Minnesota from giving him the funds to build a new billion-dollar stadium. Despite civic protest, Wilf received the money this year after threatening to move the team to Los Angeles. (“Moving the team to Los Angeles” has become the NFL version of "It’s not me, it’s you.”) In Washington, a former dynasty turned laughingstock, team owner Dan Snyder has taken what was once the most valuable franchise in sports and created a situation that was described by Steve Coll in The New Yorker in 2009 as “a failed state, an intractable dictator, and an impotent and suffering populace.” He also spent the last year defending his team’s racist “Redskins” nickname in a manner so shrill, he turned Charles Krauthammer against him.
These are not franchises in need of “someone inspiring” or “smarter game schemes” or “Jon Gruden” or whatever threadbare hooey gets expectorated from NFL talking heads. The problem is owners whose duplicity, meddling, graft and parasitical parsimony have turned their teams into joy-sucking failures. Most damning is that in each and every case, with the possible exception of Detroit and Tampa Bay, the team would be better served by just firing the owners and keeping the head coaches who were sent packing. Even in the cases of Detroit and Tampa Bay, where it is a definite positive for all concerned to wave goodbye to Jim Schwartz and Greg “Chet” Schiano, you are still left with owners who once thought it would be a great idea to hire Jim Schwartz and Greg Schiano.
These are teams who are blaring advertisements for the idea that “sports without owners” should be a universal aspiration. If our taxes are now paying for the stadiums anyway, if the NFL’s annual flood of revenues, divided at the top, guarantee profitability and if we can all agree that no one has ever bought a ticket to watch Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer fire a concession worker, then what purpose do any of them serve? I have written often in the past that the Green Bay Packers model of fan ownership should be the goal in every city. It ensures your team won’t continue to bleed municipalities of millions and it also guarantees that football decisions would be made by football people and not billionaires working out their junior high gym class pathologies. Look at what just happened in Green Bay. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone earlier this season. Message boards and the media alternated between shouting for him to get back in the damn game or to just hang it up for the season so the team (really the fans) wouldn’t be in limbo. Instead, football people made football decisions and Rodgers returned for the team’s last game, sneaking a suddenly dangerous Packers team into the playoffs. If Dan Snyder owned the Packers, he would just have had Rodgers stuffed and mounted in his living room wearing a knitted sweater that read, “Friends 4ever.”
So many of these owners upon firing their coaches said some variant of “Our fans deserve better.” We do. It starts with failed owners being compelled by the league, by fans or by their own sclerotic consciences to get out the “for sale” signs and head out of town. It would be honorable. It would be admirable and it would be the best for all concerned. To the owners of these punch-line franchises: It’s not us. It’s not the players. It’s not the coach. It’s you. And we’re just not that into you.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on why Peyton Manning is a terrible choice for SI's Sportsperson of the Year.
Anyone who opposes the draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, and supports the emerging movement of LGBT athletes in the sports world, should take serious note of the latest news out of Washington, DC. President Barack Obama’s White House has chosen their official delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. For the first time since 2000, this group will not include a current or former president or vice president. Instead, the faces representing of the United States will include out-and-proud tennis legend Billie Jean King and out-and-proud two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Both King and Cahow are far more than just people who happen to be “part of the LGBT community.” King has been a fearless activist over the course of decades on a host of issues from labor rights to women’s reproductive freedom. On the issue of making sure Sochi is a platform of LGBT resistance she is as unafraid as one would expect, saying that she is not only “deeply honored” to be part of the delegation but is also “equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi.… I hope these Olympic games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people.”
King was chosen even though she made an explicit plea for athletes to defy the International Olympic Committee’s decree against political statements in Sochi, saying in September, “Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment.” This was a reference to the great 1968 Olympian who along with Tommie Smith raised his fist for civil rights on the 200 meter medal stand.
Caitlin Cahow’s story is far less known than “the legend of Billie Jean” but she is also more than an athlete. Cahow is an activist who is part of what is known as the Principle 6 Campaign. This is a movement that aims to pressure the craven International Olympic Committee to actually enforce Principle 6 of its own charter, which states, “Sports does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, politics or otherwise.” Their work has already pushed the IOC to state that “otherwise” includes sexual orientation.
As Cahow has said, “The Olympics is a global celebration that belongs to all of us. Principle 6 is a way for everyone everywhere to celebrate the values that inspire the Olympic Games while showing their support for Russians suffering under Putin’s human rights crackdown.”
The appointing of King and Cahow is in so many respects a tribute to the movement over the past year of LGBT athletes to make sure the locker room no longer continues to be the last closet. It is also, let’s be clear, a diplomatic power play by the Obama administration. The White House just delivered a thumb to the eye of a country that has challenged US hegemony in Syria and East Asia, and provided safe haven to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. There is a strong element here of the administration using LGBT rights like a pawn on a chessboard against a country that is more adversary than ally. It is hard to see it as anything else considering the lack of commentary from the Obama administration on ally India’s recent anti-LGBT legislation. In addition, this White House’s own piss-poor record in pushing The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the attendant fact that it is still legal in twenty-nine US states to fire people on the basis of their sexuality, should be mentioned every time this administration speaks out for LGBT rights internationally.
The most important question however is whether this move by the Obama administration to send the “Billie Jean delegation” will serve to make the situation on the ground better for LGBT people in Russia or will it just serve to open the door for more repression? Will this provide a pretext for Putin to maliciously say that LGBT activists inside Russia are just tools of the United States? Does the intervention in a grass roots movement by the world’s number one superpower create more or less oxygen for the brave people fighting for their freedom inside Russia? After the smoke has cleared and all the delegations have gone home from Sochi, it is the only question that really matters.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel’s thoughts on boycotting the Sochi Olympics
I have received a great deal of thoughtful feedback on my article listing alternatives to Sports Illustrated’s coma-inducing choice of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as their Sportsperson of the Year. I believe that in Sports Illustrated’s best tradition, the Sportsperson of the Year should be someone who personifies the most important, evocative stories of the year. Following some terrific feedback from readers, I now have three more people to add to my list.
1—Neymar. The live-wire Brazilian soccer star spent the past year reviving the “The Beautiful Game,” leading many experts to believe that Brazil could be the home favorite when hosting the World Cup this summer. Yet Neymar in 2013 proved he was more than an athletes. Unlike Brazilian soccer legends Pele and Ronaldo, Neymar backed last summer’s mass protests against the gross waste and negligence connected to the government’s stadium and infrastructure spending for the World Cup. As Neymar wrote, “I’ve always had faith that it wouldn’t be necessary to get to this point, of having to take over the streets, to demand for better transportation, health, education and safety—these are all government’s obligations. My parents worked really hard to offer me and my sister a good quality life. Today, thanks to the success that fans have afforded me, it might seem like a lot of demagogy from me—but it isn’t—raising the flag of the protests that are happening in Brazil. But I am Brazilian and I love my country. I have family and friends who live in Brazil! That’s why I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest! The only way I have to represent Brazil is on the pitch, playing football and, starting today against Mexico, I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilisation.”
Sure enough, he then starred in Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory over Mexico.
2—Brandon Marshall. In 2013, the Pro Bowl Chicago Bears wide receiver pulled off what may be an unprecedented act in sports history: traveling politically from someone who could be understandably seen as part of the problem in sports, to becoming somone who is unquestionably part of the solution. Early in his career, Marshall was arrested on drunk driving and domestic violence charges. Instead of continuing to spiral downward, Marshall sought counseling and has been open and honest about his own mental health problems. Amidst the NFL’s bullying scandal in Miami, Marshall was one of the most cogent and intelligent speakers about the toxicity inherent in the concepts of “manhood” in football.
He said, “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that your hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”
3—Katie Hnida. One of the most important and disturbing sports stories of 2013 was the ways in which jock culture and rape culture seemed to be inextricably bound. From Steubenville, to Torrington, to Maryville, to Vanderbilt University, to the treatment of Jameis Winston’s accuser in Tallahassee, there were a shocking number of stories in the sports pages about rape and the ways in which the reverence for young athletes created a culture of cover-ups. Katie Hnida was uniquely situated to discuss this and did not shirk from the task. Hnida was first woman to play professional arena football with the Ft. Wayne Firehawks in 2010 and also became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A game, with New Mexico. In 2004, Hnida also told Sports Illustrated that as a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, she was raped by members of the football team. She was condemned for coming forward and no charges for filed. One would more than understand if Katie Hnida never wanted to discuss the ways in which jock culture and rape culture intersected. Instead, she was a nuanced and important voice throughout the year. In my own interview with Hnida, she said, “I know that jock culture does not have to produce sexual assault because at New Mexico we were a family so I have seen how sports can be a force for good.” She has also said with razor-sharp clarity, “We all have the right to autonomy over our own bodies…I’m happy to be able to say I survived sexual violence.”
Thank you, Neymar. Thank you, Brandon Marshall. Thank you, Katie Hnida. You were all a part of turning a very somber 2013 sports year into one with highlights of hope and inspiration
Read next: Dave Zirin’s thoughts on Peyton Manning as Sports Illustrated person of the year for 2013.
There is a running concern about the recent selections for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. Over the last decade, it has become an honor more often than not reserved for “dreamiest NFL quarterback.” An award that used to be for trailblazers, social justice avatars and people whose sense of fair play brought out the best angels in sports, had become the magazine- cover equivalent of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue: all image and no substance. You could easily envision SI’s editors slamming their desks shouting, “Find me a quarterback, dammit! And he better have blue eyes and dimples!”
Since 2004, the magazine has had Tom Brady, Bret Favre and Drew Brees as their Sportsperson of the Year. So what do they do to break the trend in 2013? They give it to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning: the same Peyton Manning who in 2013 hasn’t done more than throw a bunch of touchdowns, make a ton of commercials and choke in the playoffs. In other words, a typical Peyton Manning season.
The choice of Manning is a resoundingly establishment choice that serves to obscure the rumbling resistance to the status quo throughout the sports world. This has been a profoundly atypical year, with storylines that will reverberate for years to come.
I believe that the Sportsperson of the Year, in the best tradition of Sports Illustrated, should be the person who represents what the editors believe to be the most important narrative of 2013. I already made my choice: out-and-proud soccer player Robbie Rogers. I chose Rogers because I believe that he personifies the sports story of our time: the growing confidence of LGBT athletes and their allies. Two other pros that came out of the closet, Jason Collins and Britney Griner, also would have been spot-on choices.
Another electric story from this year has been the push by college athletes to stop being treated like indentured servants while coaches and administrators make millions off of their backs. Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball great who has doggedly pursued his lawsuit against the NCAA for using his image without permission; Ramogi Huma the former college football player who founded the National College Players Association; or the Grambling State football team who stood up as one in protest of unacceptable playing conditions would have been terrific selections.
Yet another story that has defined 2013 was the growing awareness of head injuries in the National Football League. What about choosing Dr. Robert Cantu, the NFL’s concussion expert who said that he did not believe children under 14 should be allowed to play the sport? It is comments like that that turn Roger Goodell’s face a shade to match his hair. That would have been a bold choice.
Then there is tennis. There was once a time when it was not unusual to see a tennis player, particular a woman tennis player, named Sportsperson of the Year. This past year we had Serena Williams make her case as perhaps the greatest to ever take the court. If she had been chosen, Serena would have been the first solo woman to take the honor since Mary Decker in 1983. Seriously.
Lastly, there is Boston. As a born and bred New Yorker, my dislike for the Boston sports scene sometimes feels like it goes into the marrow of my bones, removable only at the cost of life itself. That said, there is no denying the international majesty of the Boston Marathon. There is also no denying the unfathomable bravery of the first responders when the bombs went off, running toward what could have been their own deaths to minimize the loss of human life. And there is no denying the fact that their courage also minimized the size of the scar that will always now adorn one of the last truly great unifying sporting events on the planet. Give it to them and tell their stories. They cannot be told enough.
What are remarkable sports year this has been. What an utterly uninspiring choice Peyton Manning was for Sports Illustrated to make: as dry and flavorless a selection as one of those damn Papa John’s pizzas he never stops shilling. If anything, his selection represents the gap that exists between the mainstream sports journalism and the narratives bubbling beneath their noses. Especially in advance of Brazil’s World Cup in 2014, Sports Illustrated needs to step down from the press box and smell what is really going on. Either the magazine needs to reevaluate its mission, or we can just dispense with the drama and give next years prize to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. By their metric, he seems to be due.
Read next: Dave Zirin on the Washington Redskins and the “C” word.
Let’s start with the facts.
The Washington Redskins are stomping toward another “flaming bag filled with dog crap” of a season. One year removed from winning the NFC East, they are 3-10. Star quarterback Robert Griffin III has been benched with three games left in the season, demoted to third-string status. Coach Mike Shanahan seems to be simultaneously feuding with owner Daniel Snyder, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (his son) and anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.
This is what us sports insiders/advanced stat mavens call “a clusterfuck.”
Let’s talk about another fact: in the past year, numerous Native American and civil rights organizations have in unprecedented fashion asked the team to change its name. They have argued that “redskins” is an ugly racist slur that speaks to the darkest chapters of US history. They have pointed out that the team was named by an owner, George Preston Marshall, who was an open racist and that it is past time for the team to join the twenty-first century and change the damn name. Snyder has been belligerent in response, calling the name “a badge of honor” and refusing to meet with Native American leaders to even discuss it.
Given how terrible the team has been not just this year but over the last two decades, the question has been raised in The Washington Post about whether the team is in fact cursed. Yes, cursed. Mike Wise of the Post wrote an entire column devoted to the question. He gave a platform to Jay Winter Nightwolf, who called Wise to tell him about the curse he placed on the franchise. In 2000, Nightwolf was hosting his talk radio show on DC's Pacifica station, WPFW, speaking about the racist history of the name. A “fan”, called Nightwolf’s radio show and sang, “Hail to the Redskins” to rub it in Nightwolf’s face. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee told Wise that in response he said on the air, “Great Spirit, you have always been the beginning of Creation and you will be the Father at the end of Creation. Your children ask that you remove the racism that plagues all of mankind. And, in particular, would you please do something for this team not to win anything of real merit until they change their name, including an NFC championship and a Super Bowl?”
How credible is this? I will not speak to curses, but in sports I do believe in karma, in vibes, in small distractions metastasizing into crippling weight on a team’s expectations. What is the weight on a team in 2013 of having a racist name? Of being asked constantly about the controversy? Of having sportswriters refuse to say it? Of it being fodder for discussion on Sunday Night Football and Meet the Press? With apologies to Langston Hughes, does it stink like rotten meat? Does it fester like a sore? Does it hang like a heavy load? Is this 3-10 season, and Mike Shanahan’s unchained id of a press conference a sign that it did in fact explode?
I do know that a turning point in the season was when the team was 3-5 and playing a poor Minnesota Vikings team. Before the game, 1,000 people protested outside the stadium chanting for the team to change the name and saying, “The ‘R’ word is no different than the ‘N’ word” and “Hey Hey Ho Ho! Little red Sambo has got to go!” Did the team know? Did it even in an infinitesimal way affect their play?
I also know that there could be no bigger curse on this team than the man who insists that that the name will never change, team owner Dan Snyder.
Dan Snyder wants to be loved by the Washington football fans. He yearns for it like a canine wanting his belly rubbed. It leads him to do things that are incredibly stupid. Overpay for future Hall of Famers past their prime-time play? You do it. Sign prize free agent and noted head case Albert Haynesworth for $100 million? You do it. Cuddle up in embarrassing fashion to whoever you think the “coolest” of your players happens to be? You do it. Threaten to sue columnists and radio broadcasters who mock you? You do it. Insist that the team name will never change no matter how many Native Americans, religious leaders, civil rights organizations, sportswriters and presidents ask? You do it.
This is not leadership. It is cowardice. It has also led to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise that has more in common with a nighttime ’80s soap opera—perhaps called Ex-Dynasty—than anything resembling an NFL team. The name is toxic. The owner is toxic. And the fish rots from the head. Has someone truly put a curse on this team? It seems hardly worth the effort.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Peyton Manning.
Time magazine has named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. It is hard to quarrel with their choice of a pope who attacks the “idolatry of money,” not to mention a pope who when asked about gay members of the clergy said, “Who am I to judge?” Oh, and the fact that he makes Rush Limbaugh burst a vein is just a bonus.
That said, Pope Francis would not have been my choice. For me, a “Person of the Year” is someone who is the personification of the issue that has shaped society most decisively in the previous calendar year. My choice would have been either the late Trayvon Martin, murdered in 2012 yet immortalized in 2013, or national security state whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. These are three people whose legacy will extend far beyond 2013.
In considering my Sportsperson of the Year, I apply the same lens: who best represents what I believe to be the most important narrative in the sports world from 2013? The story of the year in sports is, for me, a no-brainer. This has been the year when the “last closet” has been breeched with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes, as well as their allies, finally being heard. To see athletes like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner come out of the closet; to see LGBT athletes and allies from around the globe pledge to use the platform of the 2014 Sochi Olympics to stand up to Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws; to see organizations like the You Can Play project and Athlete Ally take center state; to see NFL players like Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo helping to lead victorious fights for marriage equality; to see the NFL Players Association sell t-shirts of NFL player/allies, is to indeed see the walls of the “last closet” begin to start tumbling down.
My Sportsperson of the Year, however, is none of these people. I was tempted to choose Jason Collins, but the inability of even one NBA general manager to sign Collins to a contract makes his narrative incomplete, not reflecting the hope and possibility that this past year represents.
The story that best demonstrates the distance traveled in 2013 is the story of Robbie Rogers, and he is my Sportsperson of the Year. Robbie Rogers is a professional soccer player who in incredibly dispiriting fashion both came out of the closet and retired in February at age 25. Rogers told the world that he could not imagine being both a pro athlete and openly gay. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys—how’s that?… Fuck it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
It was tragic. Yet then two events took place that changed Rogers’s life. One was seeing Collins come out and get a powerfully positive response from the sports world. The other was speaking to 500 LGBT teenagers and not being able to explain to them why he had retired. “I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
Rogers then the day after Collins came out, signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy. On May 26, Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to take the field in North America.
Afterward, Rogers had a remarkable life lesson to share. ”I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he said. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”
Oh, one last note: Robbie Rogers considers himself a devout Catholic and said, “Being Catholic—and people may disagree—but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I’ve always lived that way.”
With that line comes clarity about the people who have truly shaped our world in 2013. Pope Francis is the reflection of changes taking place in our society. Robbie Rogers is that change personified. Rogers said, “It is awesome to be part of a movement that his changing society.” He needed that movement to step forward, but because he was brave enough to not only come out but come back, he is also expanding that movement to empower countless others. He is my Sportsperson of the Year.
There has never been a political leader who understood the power of sports quite like Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s relationship to the sports world defies easy characterizations, although the sports media have certainly tried their darnedest. Sports Illustrated has a twenty-four-frame slideshow that attempts to highlight his connection to sports, where Mandela looks so angelic, you wonder why they didn’t just photoshop a halo and some wings.
The slideshow highlights events such as Mandela’s embrace of Francois Pienaar after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, immortalized in the film Invictus. They show him raising the FIFA World Cup Trophy after learning that South Africa would host the 2010 games. They display this political giant posing happily with political and moral Lilliputians like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods and Don King.
The photo shoot ends with Mandela’s last public appearance, smiling and waving, being driven out onto the field during the 2010 World Cup. Mandela truly lived and believed his own words: “Sport has the power to change the world it has the power to inspire It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Yet the Sports Illustrated slideshow, as well as that quote, articulates only a part of the story. Like so many of the Mandela tributes, they just tell the tale of the great conciliator, the man with the beatific smile who went to prison for twenty-seven years and emerged believing that “people learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
There was another Mandela whose political relationship to the sports world was far more controversial and confrontational. From behind those unforgiving bars on Robben Island prison, Mandela supported the exclusion of South Africa’s whites-only teams from international competition. He rejoiced when South Africa’s vaunted national rugby union squad Springbok took the field in New Zealand, only to be protested at every turn. This included at one match seeing 350 protesters pull down a section of stadium fence and occupying the pitch.
Mandela strongly believed in the movement of black Americans such as John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in protest of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to readmit apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia to the games. While behind bars, the former amateur boxer also avidly followed the battles inside and outside the ring of Muhammad Ali, even making sure his pipeline to the outside included news about the boxer’s exploits. As he said, “Ali’s struggle made him an international hero. His stand against racism and war could not be kept outside the prison walls.”
The move by Mandela from resistance to reconciliation in politics following his release from prison can also be seen in the sports world tributes after his death. The most telling testimonial was from FIFA leader Sepp Blatter. Blatter said he and Mandela ”shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship.” He called Mandela a “dear friend” and ”probably one of the greatest humanists of our time” and ordered the flags at FIFA’s headquarters to be flown at half mast as well as calling for a minute’s silence before the next round of international matches.
Sepp Blatter has a horrible record on every conceivable issue of human rights and social justice, not the least of which is confronting the growing racism in international soccer. Despite the presence of racist fan clubs, fascist-saluting players and athletes of color who walk off the field in protest, Blatter has for years maintained a studied silence. When he finally did start to speak out, he said bigotry could be cured with a handshake, saying, “There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that. He should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen.” Blatter also has maintained silence about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian national soccer team, though the Palestinian cause was something that Mandela believed in deeply throughout his life.
We need to ask how a man like Mandela could actually be friends with a reptile like Blatter. The answer lies once again in Mandela’s uses of sports. Just as he saw it as a tool of resistance and a tool of reconciliation, he saw winning the 2010 World Cup as a way to rebrand his country as a regional power and further open it up for neoliberal investment. I visited South Africa before the 2010 World Cup and with my own eyes saw massive “zones” around the stadiums where the poor—invariably black—could not venture. I met street vendors who had their stalls taken down because they were not branded by FIFA as “official.” I met public workers who would be among the 1.3 million who would be going on strike when the Olympics ended. I met human rights activists fearful about the expansion of police powers, with officers patrolling poor neighborhoods and harassing the social movements to ensure their docility during the Cup. I spoke to so many who said variations of, “We have moved form racial apartheid to a system of economic apartheid.” Opening the country to foreign investment is a goal of every government, but as Mandela knew all too well, multnationals would not come to Jo-burg without wanting a pound of flesh in return.
There are two traditions in sports, one is the tradition of Muhammad Ali and the other is the tradition of Sepp Blatter. One is the tradition of joy and personal liberation. The other is the tradition of neoliberal plunder. Nelson Mandela was comfortable traversing on both sides of this tradition. He believed, we should have no doubt, that he had no choice but to play both sides for the greater good. Whether this approach achieved a “greater good” demands serious discussion, not just so we can understand the past but so we can strategize for a more just future.
Ilyse Hogue looks at Mandela’s support of feminism.
“Five shirtless dudes are running through downtown Tallahassee in front of courthouse spelling JAMEIS on their chests.”—Tweet from USA Today Sports Reporter Dan Wolken
Ten takeaways from news that Florida State’s star quarterback, and shoe-in Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston will not be charged with rape after a year-long investigation:
1) This country has a long and ugly history of accusing African-American men of rapes that did not occur. From the lynch mobs of the Old South, to the legal lynchings of the Scottsboro Boys and the defendants in the Central Park Jogger case, to countless stories we will never know, this has been a scar on the history of the United States. Black men have been repeatedly targeted and seen their lives destroyed by accusations that splice the horror of sexual violence and the stereotype of the ravenous predator.
2) This country also has a more recent history of allowing athletes, particularly star athletes, particularly amateur athletes compensated with status, hero worship and entitlement, to get away with rape.
3) This country has an even more recent history in the Internet age of destroying women on social media and threatening their families, if they dare bring forward any accusations of rape against athletes.
4) College football culture will place a black man on a pedestal as long as he can deliver bragging rights, championships and millions of dollars in revenue to small-town colleges and universities. Off the football field, or after your playing career ends, good luck. If Florida’s system of criminal justice has sent any discernable message this past year, it is this: if you are an African-American teenager, you want to be Jameis Winston, not Trayvon Martin.
5) I do not have the slightest idea what happened between Jameis Winston and his accuser. I do know that the statement from this woman’s family could not be more correct: “The victim has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting.”
6) If it is proven true that a local police detective said to the accuser’s lawyer that Tallahassee is “a big football town, and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable,” then we can only hope that the family will pursue charges against the Tallahassee police department and sue them back to the Stone Age.
7) There are too many cases of too many women who are intimidated to come forward and pursue charges of sexual assault. There are too many cases where jock culture and rape culture are so intertwined you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
8) There are too many cases where sports fans believe defending your team means destroying any young woman who dares stand up and try to speak about what happened. Seriously, if you are one of these people, get a life.
9) There are too many sports reporters, overwhelmingly men, that believe the myth that there are just lines of women trying to bring false rape charges against star athletes.
10) No matter the result, the Jameis Winston case has become yet another instance where the sports environment sends a message to women that if you are sexually assaulted, your best course of action is silence. That, above all else, must change.
Dave Zirin looks at how jock culture can support rape culture.
The main difference between a big-time Division I college football game and an NFL contest—other than the unpaid labor on the field—is the crowds. Aesthetically, side-by-side, they are like one of those before-and-after pictures. The crowd at the college games tends to be young and fresh-faced: the people who show up early to the club ready to rage. People at NFL games look like those same people at the party, except it’s 4 am and in those last six hours they’ve been living hard.
I get why the young people at the college games look as caffeinated as they do. The adrenaline, the excitement, the lunacy and the wide-open nature of it all produces a narcotic that few sporting events can match. This is not an activity that promotes introspection. But lasts weekend’s Iron Bowl demands it. For the uninitiated, the Iron Bowl is the annual game between two of college football’s most intense interstate rivals, Auburn and Alabama. This past year’s game was like nothing we have ever seen, arguably the most exciting college football game ever played, as Auburn withstood a ninety-nine-yard touchdown pass and came away with a 34-28 victory. Auburn beat the number-one team in the country and did so on a 108-yard missed field-goal return for a touchdown with no time left.
But this was more than just a football game. The broadcast registered an 82 share in Birmingham, Alabama. That means 82 percent of all of Birmingham’s televisions that were in use were watching this game. That is bonkers. This is not 1960. We have more than two channels now. In our divided entertainment culture with 500 options, video games that are realer than real life, and all kinds of diversions on social media, the idea that 82 percent of any city was doing anything is, frankly, mind-boggling. Introspection is necessary because this national gravitational pull toward football in Alabama took place fifty-eight years to the day (give or take a day) that Rosa Parks entered history and would not be moved from her bus seat in nearby Montgomery. Fifty-eight years ago in the storied Southeastern Conference, the only way an African-American player could get on the field would be to tend to the grounds. Yet on Saturday millions of Alabama viewers and an overwhelmingly white crowd of damn near 100,000 people crowded the stands shouting themselves hoarse for two teams that are overwhelmingly African-American.
The other titanic story in college football is also taking place in the Southeastern United States, albeit not the Southeastern Conference. African-American football star, quarterback Jameis Winston at Florida State, could lose both the Heisman Trophy and a shot at leading his team to a national championship because of rape allegations that could turn into formal charges any day. I am not commenting on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Winston, but I am going to comment on what we do know: he is being vociferously, even violently defended by the Florida State faithful. His accuser has been pilloried over social media by Winston’s fans in Tallahassee, with ESPN’s Jemele Hill reporting that she had already “been sent several photos that are reportedly of the accuser, in addition to screen grabs of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. All this information is being circulated rapidly and thus becoming the Internet version of flogging someone in the town square.”
The young woman was also allegedly warned off of pressing charges by a Tallahassee police detective who was also a Florida State booster. This is sick and if found to be true, this detective should be run out of town on a rail. Once again I have to take a step back and ask, What would Rosa Parks say? This is a woman who started her activist career and first traveled to Montgomery as an organizer against rape and sexual violence visited upon African-American women by white men. (Read the book At the Dark End of the Street to hear this story in full.) In Rosa Parks’s day it was not uncommon for African-American men to be lynched on accusations of sexual violence if they were found in any sort of relationship with a white woman. I do not know the race of the Jameis Winston’s accuser, but to see the police and a college town in Tallahassee rally to protect their African-American quarterback from rape charges to save their championship season is like entering Dixie through the looking glass. What would Ms. Parks say? What would she say about a world where just the act of playing football has turned so many of these historical racial tropes upside down?
No matter what the Republican National Committee tweets, racism is not over, nor did Ms. Parks end it. (Their tweet led to the #RacismEndedWhen hashtag on Twitter.) On every conceivable level, from life expectancy, to prison sentencing, to hiring practices, racism still plagues this country. Yet does the iconography of black college athletes actually make racism less pernicious? It would be easy to understand why people would mark the spectacles in football in the Southeast as some kind of progress. I think they would be wrong. In fact, it is far more likely that seeing African-American athletes on the field allows people to turn a blind eye toward the very real effects of racism in society. This is not in any way exlusive to the South, and it is not unlike the argument against using Native American icons as mascots. Celebrating teams like the Redskins allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to very real conditions on Native American communities. It doesn’t push for engagement and actually creates disassociation. Look at the 1980s when a national embrace of Michael Jordan, The Cosby Show and Oprah calmed white America into thinking we had reached some sort of civil rights finish line. The 2008 election of Barack Obama created a similar dynamic. I will never forget hearing comedian turned right-wing-pundit Dennis Miller say after the 2008 election, “If nothing else, we don’t have to talk about [racism] anymore.” The RNC tweet about Rosa Parks ending racism was not a slip of the computer keys but a slip of the mask. As for the rest of us, confusing iconography for progress will just leave us confused.
Patricia J. Williams gives a new perspective on the NFL racist bullying scandal.
There is an argument that a reason to oppose Native American mascots is not only because they are racist. It is not only because they are an act of minstrelsy opposed by Native American groups for decades. It is not only because they celebrate the savage, warlike nature of the Native American people, which for decades has been done—in books, theater, movies, and sports,— as a way to justify the bravery and necessity of European conquest. There’s an argument that it collectively just makes us all stupider.
This was on display last night when Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins and under fire for profiting off a dictionary-defined racist name, used the national television cameras of ESPN to honor the Navajo Code Talkers. These were Navajo soldiers during World War II who used their language to create coded messages to be used over radio that could not be cracked by the Axis Powers. Their presence last night allowed Mike Tirico to bring up the entire “name controversy” on a terrain that made Dan Snyder look like he was honoring their heritage. Tirico also said that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had met with Native American leaders, which was not true. There was a meeting between the NFL and Native American leaders but Goodell did not show. Tirico also made no mention of Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo woman who is currently leading a legal trademark challenge to get the name changed. Tirico also made no mention of the fact that the original “code talkers” were the Choctaw Nation in World War I, which for a decade has had a formal position voted upon by the tribal council to get the name changed. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle, three days before Thanksgiving, of Dan Snyder saying to America, “some of my best friends are Navajo Code Talkers!”
Make no mistake about it: wrapping yourself in World War II veterans is the last refuge of scoundrels. Just as the Republican Party during the government shutdown chose to make the World War II Memorial the great symbol of Barack Obama’s lack of patriotism and the true horrors of the government shutdown (forget about those kids not getting the cancer treatments at NIH), Dan Snyder was rushing for cover behind “the greatest generation.”
This was Dan Snyder trolling and lifting a big middle finger to the Oneida Nation, the American Indian Movement, the Choctaw Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, USA Today’s Christine Brennan, The Washington Post’s Mike Wise, the Capital News Service located at the University of Maryland, his alma mater, Charles Krauthammer, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma Tom Cole (one of two Native Americans in Congress), the DC City Council, the thousand people who marched outside the Redskins last nationally televised game against Minnesota chanting “Little Red Sambo Has Got to Go” and everyone who is said the name is racist and belongs nowhere but the dust bin of history.
Don’t say that Dan Snyder reveres Native Americans and his honoring of the Navajo Code Talkers was a show of that respect. Seventy-eight percent of Washington football fans, according to a Survey USA poll, believe that Dan Snyder should actually sit down with the Oneida Nation and others who are protesting the name. He refuses to do so. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has asked him or someone from his organization to speak about the issue on numerous occasions. He refuses to return their calls. His unmistakable disrespect for Native Americans and their feelings about this issue emanate from his mouth every time he opens it.
Last night was Dan Snyder’s Thanksgiving gift to America. He told ESPN’s Adam Schefter before the game the name would never change and then hid behind World War II veterans, a profile in cowardice. It does not take a code talker to crack this particular code. Dan Snyder is on the wrong side of history, and his legacy will be more than just year after year of the lousy-to-mediocre football his stewardship has brought. His legacy will be to stand with George Preston Marshall, Tom Yawkey and Kenesaw Mountain Landis on the Mount Rushmore on sports leaders who looked at the idea of racial progress and just said no.
Dave Zirin looks at how San Jose State is resting on its laurels while racism stalks campus.