Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

NFL Players Confronted With the Question ‘What Makes a Man’?

What “makes a man”? The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin “bullying” saga is forcing NFL players to ask themselves that very question. The traditional “man code” in the NFL is that your manhood is defined by your ability to inflict violence on others and deny the presence of pain—particularly mental or psychological pain—in yourself. It is also of course loudly, proudly and aggressively heterosexual, with women existing only as extensions of desires for either sex or violence. This “man code” is not only organically tied to the violence of the sport itself but also has a tremendous influence on the broader society.

Yet while the NFL, the most popular entertainment in the United States, shapes our world, it also reflects a society steeped in sexism, violence against women and an ethos that reveres physical domination of others, all while affecting that “stiff upper lip.” We all suffer for this state of affairs: the bullies and the bullied, the abusers and the abused. Men commit suicide in the United States at rates three to four times that of women. Men are far more likely to be alcoholics and abusers. Taking your own life or obliterating your brain is seen as preferable to the simple act of asking for help. There are, of course, myriad reasons for this. One root cause, as basketball player and mental health advocate Royce White put it, is “a subtle war—in America, and in the world—between business and health. It’s no secret that two percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the two percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.”

As true as this undoubtedly is, if young men just felt like it was permissible to be vulnerable, it would save a lot of lives and keep a lot of families’ hearts from being broken. On the many fronts that this fight needs to be fought, one is in challenging the rigid expectations rooted in whether you are born a boy or girl. These ideas of “what makes a real man” and “what makes a real women” serve far more often than not to marginalize, disrespect and even destroy those who don’t meet those expectations. I would make the case that the first step toward reaching that point is redefining what we mean when we talk about “manhood” and femininity and what actually makes a “real man” or “real woman.” If there is anything positive that is arising from this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying/harassment imbroglio is that it is forcing some NFL players to confront this question perhaps for the first time in their lives, on the highest possible platform with the potential to create a much needed national discussion.

What “makes a man”? Is it being a “tough as nails” bar-fighting, woman-groping, n-bomb dropping gem like Richie Incognito and his coterie of defenders, or is it being like Jonathan Martin, who had the guts to break the locker room code of silence and after “endur[ing] a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate,” and having his sister threatened, said he could not take it anymore?

Here are two profoundly different answers to that question. Chris Johnson, the pro bowl running back of the Tennessee Titans, said this week that he would never want Martin as a teammate, saying, “It would be kind of hard to put my trust in a guy to go out there every Sunday and hold his own…. the end of the day you have to step up and be a man and handle your own.”

But for Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the 24-year-old said, “I hope that we see Martin playing again soon—I’ve watched some tape of him, he’s a good player. Hats off to him for standing up and being a man.”

I give a lot of credit to Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall, and others siding with Martin, because the reality is that on far too many franchises, the ability to live up to this “code” can determine whether or not you are still employed. I hope people are listening to the “man code dissenters.” We need to get to a point where this entire vocabulary about what makes a “real man” dies for our collective health. Maybe this begins by our saying loudly and proudly that “real men” stand up to the Richie Incognitos of this world and “real men” have the courage to, heaven forbid, ask for help.

The Chicago Bears: A Ray of Light in the Darkness of the NFL’s Bully-palooza

Every day it gets worse. Every day there is more news emerging from NFL locker rooms about racist, sexist, violent harassment, otherwise known as “bullying,” a term many are saying is far too benign. Every day we also get more sports radio hosts—the football version of the Iraq War chickenhawks—defending this status quo as a necessity in a violent “manly” sport. KNBR sports radio host Damon Bruce, who I suppose we can now call the “William Kristol” of this mess, said, “There is a serious group of you fellas out there that have just been so feminized by the sensitive types out there who continue to now interject their ultra-feminine sensitive opinions into the world of sports…. This is guy’s stuff. This is men’s stuff. And I don’t expect women to understand men’s stuff anymore than they should expect me to be able to relate to labor pains.”

The only “labor pains” worth mentioning—trust me—is the pain in having to listen to this guy’s show. To paraphrase something once said about Homer Simpson, in any other country Damon Bruce would have starved to death years ago.

But if there is one bright spot in this whole thing, it is the fact that– thanks to courage of Dolphins whistleblower Jonathan Martin—the curtain has been officially lifted on this horror-show of deeply destructive, macho horseshit. It has also shed light on NFL players and teams who are not willing to play these kinds of games.

An example worth far more attention than it is receiving is that of the Chicago Bears. The team somewhat surprisingly is at the top of the NFC North division, even with a new coach, Marc Trestman, at the helm. Maybe there is a reason the team has stuck together through injuries and adversity. It turns out that Trestman’s first act upon taking the job was outlawing any and all of this so-called “hazing”. He said to CBS Chicago’s Adam Hoge that this was the way it was going to be from his “first night” as coach.

Trestman spoke at length about how the function of sports should be to serve the opposite impulses of frat/bully culture that dominates so many locker rooms. He said,

“The words you use, the way you act, the things you say, affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We’ve got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions, but that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time, in this building, on the field, when we’re out in the community because we represent the entire city.”

Trestman’s culture-changing influence also adds more evidence to what former players have been saying to me all week: in the top-down, non-guaranteed-contract world of the NFL, none of this brutality happens without the approval of the coach. (The seat of Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland should be feeling mighty toasty right now,)

It perhaps should not be surprising that the most quote-worthy, remarkable, inspiring analysis of this entire Dolphins mess has come out of the Bears locker room. As Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall put it,

A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is “Get up. Shake it off. You will be OK. Don’t cry.” When 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 are teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. It’s that times a hundred with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt. You can’t show any pain. So, for a guy that comes into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, you know, that’s a problem. So that’s what I mean by “The Culture of the NFL,” and that’s what we have to change.”

It does have to change. It may need to start in Miami, an organization that saw Richie Incognito and thought that they had a true leader in their midst, but it sure as hell does not end there. It ends in every community the NFL influences with an ethos that “manhood” is defined by the ability to make others feel less than human. It ends when we stop demanding that people act in certain deeply unhealthy ways because of their biology. It ends when we start seeing people like Jonathan Martin as brave and those who find something ennobling in defending the violent harassment of bullies as the true cowards.

The Miami Dolphins Showcase Bully Solidarity

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right)

With an organized uniformity resembling a flying picket of bully solidarity, members of the Miami Dolphins are loudly and proudly proclaiming their love for suspended teamate and alleged racist bully Richie Incognito as well as their disgust for his accuser, second-year player Jonathan Martin.

Wide receiver Brian Hartline is “outraged” at Martin for coming forward. Tackle Tyson Clabo said that Martin “needs to stand up and be a man,” and added “I don’t know why he’s doing this.” And then there is quarterback and face of the franchise Ryan Tannehill who said that Incognito is “the best teammate I could’ve asked for.”

When players were asked whether Martin, who has two years left on his contract, can return to Miami’s locker room, as ESPN’s James Walker reported, “Several players declined to answer that question on Wednesday—almost out of spite.”

Some African American teammates have also said that Incognito’s use of the phrase “half n——-“, in reference to Martin was fine with them, with one player saying anonymously, “Richie is honorary. I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color.” (No word whether Warren Sapp, who says that Incognito called him a n—-—during a game, sees Incognito as “honorary”.)

As his teammates trash him and applaud his abuser, Martin has checked himself into a mental health facility.

It is more than understandable why someone would look at this carnival of reaction and be sickened. But people should be cautious about directing their outrage solely at only those in the Dolphins organization who wear shoulder pads. I have spoken to several current and retired NFL players this week and they all say variations of the same thing: none of this happens without tacit or explicit approval from those on high. As former New England Patriot Ted Johnson put it to me, “People have to keep in mind that players do not have guaranteed contracts, so nothing happens that does not have the approval of the head coach, general manager or whoever is seen as being in charge.” This backs up reports in the Sun-Sentinel that Incognito was instructed by coaches to “toughen up” Martin after he missed a voluntary off-season workout.

Johnson and many others also said that no, they never heard white people on their teams calling their black teammates n----- in the locker room as some kind of accepted term of endearment. One player said that he never heard the n-word come out of a white person’s mouth unless it was a racist looking for a fight.

In other words, based on everyone with whom I spoke, it is clear that not every locker room is like this train wreck in Miami. If you have a coach who will not put up with bullying, then it won’t happen. It is also true however, that coaches with a zero tolerance for this kind of harassment are few and far between. It may not be on every team, but in far too many locker rooms there is a culture that reveres people like Richie Incognito and despises the “weakness” of Jonathan Martin. This gets reinforced by sports media often dominated by a particular kind of ex-jock who will carry water for the status quo with the doggedness of a mule in the desert. Case in point is Mike Golic. The former NFL lineman and current host of ESPN’s popular Mike and Mike in the Morning radio show was ranting about how he would have just fought anyone who bullied him. He’d punch them in the face because, as he said, “That’s just me.” When sportswriter Dan Le Batard pointed out that sometimes fighting, particularly fighting a violent rageaholic like Incognito, could make a problem worse, Golic asked Le Batard, “Have you ever done anything manly in your life?”

If you believe that being either like Richie Incognito or being the sort of person who would punch out Richie Incognito makes you a ” real man”, then you better have the word “teen” in your age. Otherwise, you are more than part of the problem. You are actually preserving the bullying status quo of violence as a twisted definition of “manhood”. Even worse, you are standing with Mike Golic.

As Byron Hurt, former college football star who became a documentary filmmaker devoted to exploring so many of the issues at play in this story, wrote,

In leaving the Miami Dolphins football team, Jonathan Martin has subverted a long-held belief system and tradition that relies on male silence and compliance. It is a practice that intentionally preys on easy, vulnerable targets. Martin showed strength and courage, not weakness—as it has been suggested—by not allowing the abusive behavior to continue.

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Byron Hurt is right. Just look at the profiles of conformity and cowardice on display. You have the Dolphins hierarchy of coaches and execs who seem to be either lawyering up or practicing the time-honored practice of covering their asses. You have the Dolphins players who cannot stand Incognito choosing to remain silent.* You have certain ex-jocks who from the safety of a plush radio studio talk about how they would “man up and bust some ass.” The only hero in this is Jonathan Martin. He blew the whistle and called out Richie Incognito for racism, for homophobic threats, and for treating what should be a workplace like a frat house. He is defining himself as an adult in a room of children. This is called character. Tragically it is not the kind of character valued in the NFL, and that’s the heart of the damn problem.


* According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, this group is significant but keeping their heads down.

Mychal Denzel Smith talks about how Brown University students spoke out against racism.

The NFL’s Bully Problem

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right)

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (left) and tackle Jonathan Martin (right) (AP Images)

You have to admire the chutzpah of the NFL commentariat. They are falling all over themselves shouting that Dolphins offensive lineman, and outed racist bully, Richie Incognito has “no place in the National Football League.” With an élan that would shame Claude Rains, they are shocked, shocked that there could possibly be bullying in the NFL. How, they ask, can we protect a heroic, All-American institution like pro football from the scourge of bullies? Won’t someone please think about the children? Well, not the children getting bullied by football players, but other children. The ones who love NFL football!

The problem is that football has become as interwoven with bullying as corruption on Capitol Hill. As much as we may be repulsed by Richie Incognito and the way he treated teammate Jonathan Martin; as much as we all want to cluck our tongues at the news that Incognito threatened Martin with violence, joked (I deeply hope) about wanting to defecate in his mouth and slap his mother, as well as calling him a “half-n****er,” the easiest thing in the world would be to look at this the way the NFL wants us to look at it: as if we are witnessing the story of one player who just took the good, clean fun of rookie hazing too darn far.

This is crap. There is a stench of complicity throughout the Dolphins organization, with teammates as well as anonymous team officials  reflexively defending Incognito at every turn. I spoke with former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, a man who has dedicated his life to using football to teach principles of social justice (yeoman’s work, but Joe makes you believe it’s possible). The first thing Joe said to me was, “What about the ‘bystanders’ who knew, watched, and did nothing? If this was happening, they all knew plus I would guess some of the coaches as well as others. Seems to me that there is a lack of moral courage and moral clarity by many on that team. Hazing like homophobia, gender violence—all common themes in hyper-masculinity worlds—won’t end until we raise up generation of men willing to stand up and speak out.”

Joe, who has mentored NFL players for decades is absolutely correct. The villain in this story is not only Incognito but a culture in football, starting at the top, that behind closed doors extols players like him whose role is to police the “softness” of his younger teammates.

In the NFL, for far too long the ideal man has been a big, nasty bastard who affects an persona of being mean as hell and impervious to pain. Any dent in this armor of projected hyper-masculinist power—like admitting to depression, expressing concern for LGBT or women’s rights, or even sitting out a play—is to be in violation of the code.

This kind of code does not only produce generations of muscled men who don’t know how to relate to women outside of a strip club. It creates a caste of people inside the locker room who charge themselves with policing their teammates. Enter Richie Incognito, locker-room cop. As one personnel man swooned, Richie is “tough as nails. The kind of guy you’d want to be in a bar fight with.”

When the story first broke, and all we knew was that Martin was accusing Incognito of bullying, the NFL powers-that-be were sickened by Martin’s lack of toughness. According to Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, the view off the record of every NFL personnel man he spoke with was, “Instead of being a man and confronting him, Martin acted like a coward and told like a kid.”

However, once the public outrage exploded when the content of the bullying became public, it was time to treat Incognito like an outlier and a loose end, to be held up and then cut off. Very typical of the response was that by “Iron Mike” Ditka, the former Bears coach who has made a lucrative living by being a public face of the kind of idealized machismo Richie Incognito was conditioned to emulate. Ditka said that the way he would have handled Incognito would have been to “take him to fist city.”

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But what if Martin believed that fighting the 300-pound Incognito would end up with him in the hospital? What if he believed that it wouldn’t solve anything but just create more problems? What if he believed that the Miami Dolphins constituted a workplace, not a frat house or schoolyard, and that he did not have to play by Incognito’s rules? What if Mike Ditka and his ilk cannot understand that maybe, just maybe, “manhood” might mean blowing the lid on racist harassment as opposed to getting into a fist fight like a child?

The villains in this story may include more people than just Richie Incognito. But the hero is Jonathan Martin who had the courage to treat this like the workplace issue that it is, break the jock code of silence, and demand that he should not have to deal with this crap. In the process, Jonathan Martin is giving football a crash course in what adulthood, not an adolescent conception of "manhood", actually looks like when practiced by an honest-to-god grown-up.

Dave Zirin's open letter to Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Open Letter to Redskins Owner Dan Snyder: Dear Dan, You Can’t Say You Weren’t Warned

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Dear Dan,

This Thursday you will be greeted in Minnesota with yet another demonstration of Native American activists and allies, protesting your team’s name, the “Redskins. ”Gathering at the American Indian Movement’s national office, this march and rally will include Congresswoman Betty McCollum and be led by perhaps the greatest Native American athlete of the twentieth century not named Jim Thorpe, 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist, and one-time US Marine, Billy Mills.*

You can’t say you were not warned this was coming. If only you had accepted my June invitation, made on Grantland, to come with me to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—where Billy Mills was raised—so you could sing “Hail to the Redskins” and see for yourself whether anyone in “Indian Country” is honored by your team’s nickname. But you chose to put on burgundy-and-gold blinders, and now you are paying the price.

It is truly stunning just how much has changed since you told USA Today earlier this year, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

Multiple Native Americans organization, from AIM, to the Choctaw, to the Oneida Nation, are calling on you to change the name.

Everyone from President Obama to right-wing caricature Charles Krauthammer has jumped on this moving train and said the name should change.

More sportswriters are pledging not to use the word. Bob Costas called it “a slur” and “an insult” at half-time of Football Night in America. The next day, with much less uproar, FNA’s Cris Collinsworth said, “I have to admit, as I was watching the game Sunday night and I was saying the word Redskins, in my brain it was coming out red skin. And there was something about that that just didn’t feel right. I have a feeling if it were the blackskins, the brownskins, the name would have already been changed.”

This past week, the San Francisco Chronicle became the latest publication to state formally that this definition-defined-slur of a team name, would no longer be used in their publication. At your own alma mater (although technically you did not graduate), the University of Maryland, the Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Capital News Service, announced on October 30 that it would no longer be using the word “Redskins.”That had to hurt.

Amidst this groundswell, a historic meeting took place last week between members of the NFL brain trust—although conspicuously not Roger Goodell—and leaders of the Oneida Nation to discuss the name, and the Oneida’s proposal that you be formally sanctioned by the league. This was the first time in forty years of advocacy that Native Americans have been given a seat with the powers-that-be at the NFL to talk this through. It is a shame you were not there to speak with them as well, especially since 77 percent of the DC MarylandVirginia region thinks that you should meet with the Oneida Nation.**

The tragedy is that your response has been to double-down and re-insist that the name will “never” change. This is unfortunate. George Preston Marshall, the team’s original owner, once pledged that the team would “never” have African-American players. He was so resolute about this that the Redskins were not only, famously, the last NFL franchise to integrate, the NHL integrated before the Washington football team. I mean, sweet Lord. Hockey!

Look, Dan, a lot of people are being extremely kind to you as they try to coax you away from ensconcing yourself as the George Preston Marshall of the twenty-first century. If anything, Collinsworth and Costas let you off easy. Collinsworth said that while you should change the name, the franchise was “trying to honor Native Americans.” Costas said “[T]here’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus towards Native Americans, or chooses to disrespect them.” Given your refusal to meet with tribal leaders, people are going to stop thinking that you are choosing not to disrespect anybody. And if the Internet is our guide, there are already many willing to think the worst about what beats in what team legend John Riggins once described as your “dark” heart. All you did was pose with your new super-cool new sneakers, and the photoshopping was brutal. Is that what you want? To be the “Native American photoshop genocide” guy? Don’t be that guy. Don’t be George Preston Marshall, Dan. Don’t be remembered as the last man standing, telling history to stop.

Get ahead of this, Dan, because change is coming. Since 1946, it has been illegal to trademark racist or offensive speech for the purposes of profit. Ask the enterprising business people who were denied a trademark for “Bubby Trap” a brassiere for the full-figured older women. “Bubby” is, of course, Yiddish for grandma. If “Bubby” was deemed too offensive, what is a twenty-first-century judge going to say about “Redskins” when it comes across their desk in 2014?

In the opinion of Representative Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the congressional delegate from Washington, DC, and a former constitutional lawyer, it will be a “slam dunk” for any judge who has to decide whether to strip the team of trademark protection. Mixed sports metaphors aside, the writing is on the wall. You say the name will never change, but as Mary Phillips of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska, said at a recent panel in DC hosted by The Joe Madison Show, “Because we are fighting back, it already has changed. No one can hear it and pretend anymore that it is anything other than what it is.” Mary Phillips said this after telling harrowing stories of growing up in the DC area, being bullied and called a “redskin.” When she stood up to this, she was told, “You people lost and should get over it.”

It is time to flip this around, Dan. It is you who needs to “get over it”. You need to get over the idea that this name is not racist just because you say it isn’t. That’s not the act of a community leader. It’s the logic of a child. Change the damn name, Dan, and maybe you’ll get to change your rapidly spiraling public image before the cement on that hardens for good. You say that Native Americans should be “honored” by the Redskins name. Billy Mills said, “Our truth is, redskin is tied to the murder of indigenous people.” I’ll take Billy Mills’s truth over your truth any day. I am guessing I’m not alone.

* Played by Robby Benson in Running Brave. Don’t mess with Robby Benson!

** There is now a sea change in opinion and the polling backs this up as 23 percent of DC area residents now say they would be more likely to root for the team if the name in fact changed.

Boston Red Sox Party Like It’s 1918 and My Hate Is on Hold

Fans celebrate as Red Sox win the World Series yesterday against the Cardinals

I grew up loathing any and all teams from Boston, yet, in the interests of honesty, I have to write, as the cheers still rise from Fenway Park, that I cannot stop smiling. The best thing about baseball is that unlike any other sport, or frankly any other product of our amnesiac culture, it connects us directly to the past. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series Wednesday night, their third championship in the previous decade but their first title clinched in Boston since 1918. Think about that. Baseball was already the national pastime by 1918. The players were all lily-white, but the rules, most of the equipment and the contours of the field were the same. The tennis and golf equipment of 1918 belongs in the Smithsonian. The NFL and NBA did not even exist in 1918. The nation was less interested in more sports leagues than getting through an era defined by Woodrow Wilson, the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Flu. Oh, and as for those Red Sox players of 1918, they were led by a young pitcher named Babe Ruth,

Among the confusion and cultural dissonance that defines so much of the study of history, baseball remains the kind of connective bond that somehow at least provides a compass for understanding the social language of the past. We believe that Walter Johnson could step out of an Iowa cornfield and compete in Fenway Park today. And if “Big Train” had a sore arm, we’d ask Satchel Paige to use his “hesitation pitch” and make quick work of these twenty-first-century spawns of sabermetrics.

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Baseball may not be a game that handles change without crisis. But it is a game that makes saps of us all. Proof positive, I am sitting here with a big dopey smile on my face because the Red Sox were able to win in Boston and celebrate at Fenway. The kid in the Mets hat who still lives somewhere in my brain may be passed out in a depressed stupor mumbling about kicking my ass. Yet grown-up me, who stopped wearing a Mets hat when I learned that their owner had allowed Bernie Madoff to loot the franchise, likes seeing this group of scraggly bearded doofuses dancing around in their baseball pajamas and likes seeing people on social media doing something rare and that’s reckon with this ninety-five-year gap and the passage of time. Boston or not, it is all kinds of awesome.

To be clear, I still don’t give a damn about all that New England baseball-poetry-by-George-Will hooey. I do however give a damn about the fact that this was a team once defined aggressively by its whiteness. They held out for twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut, making them the last team in baseball to integrate. Now they are a team whose MVP is a larger-than-life Dominican whom everyone calls Big Papi and their best pitcher, the man who struck out the last batter of the series, is a damn unhittable Japanese dervish named Koji Uehara, with stuff filthier than that facial hair. And as for those beards, which crossed the line into either Hasidic minstrelsy or a public health hazard several weeks ago, as long as I don’t have to smell them, they’re awesome too. This team would have made Tom Yawkey, the team’s old owner during the team’s “whites only” days, faint. His general manager, Joe Cronin, the man who ran a young Willie Mays off of his field, would have become light-headed as well. Thank you, baseball. Thank you for reminding us about what thankfully has changed and what joyously has remained the same. The fact that they did this to rapturous cheers of the city of Boston is just something I’m going to have to live with.

Dave Zirin looks at the continued relevance of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s defiant gesture.

NBA Player Jason Collins Broke Ground by Coming Out—Now He’s Being Dismissed as a Distraction

Basketball player Jason Collins, who came out earlier this year

W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, wrote about the burden of having to live in a country where you were constantly viewed as being a source of stress and a complication for others, for no reason other than the color of your skin. He wrote, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question…. How does it feel to be a problem?”

We can update that question in the case of unemployed NBA center Jason Collins. Here is a man who made history last spring by becoming the first active player to come out of the closet in the “big three” USA sports leagues and told the world that he was gay. He was praised by teammates, league officials, presidents and kings (OK, Bernard King). But now just for being himself, after a career as the epitome of a “team player”, he has been labeled “a distraction” and finds himself on the outside looking in at the start of the NBA season.

I attempted to reach out to Jason Collins and ask him about his status as a man without a team, but, as I heard from several people close to the veteran seven-footer, he is not talking.

Collins is not speaking to the media because he believes that he could still catch on somewhere before the All-Star break. He has concluded that being quiet at this moment in time and not making a big stink over his inability to land a contract is the best course of action. He may be correct, but therein also lies the problem: the demand that silence is the way to get back into the good graces of league executives. I do not believe that most teams are led by secret members of Focus on the Family. I do not believe that when Collins came out, NBA General Managers secretly had this collective reaction. I do believe that they consider Collins’s sexuality to be a “media distraction”, and in the buttoned-up corporate world of twenty-first-century sports, “media distractions” are only slightly less welcome than staph infections. I also believe that by sending the message that being gay is a “distraction”, NBA execs are bottle-feeding the homophobia in US society.

I spoke with John Amaechi, the first former NBA player to come out of the closet after retirement and he amplified this point. While Amaechi did point out that several teams have owners “with fairly public stances against the LGBT community” (see Rich DeVos in Orlando or Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon in Oklahoma City), the issue was more rooted in the risk/reward of signing a bench player who would get an inordinate amount of media attention about issues far from the court. Amaechi said to me, “Although I discount widespread homophobia, people shouldn’t discount the whispering and worried voices of PR executives and team lawyers fearing the risk of adverse publicity and other potential fallout, like the circus of non-stop tabloid coverage of Jason as ‘a gay person’ not as an athlete until someone—stressed teammate, owner, celebrity fan, coach or opponent player—slips and a potentially explosive story appears.”

This fear among NBA suits that “distraction” will derail winning has no basis in historical fact. Do off-court “political” distractions actually hurt a team’s ability to compete for a championship? It is difficult to think of a more political player in NBA history than Bill Russell who won eleven championships in thirteen years and is only getting his own damned statue this weekend. If Russell’s political resume has any historical competition, it would come from Kareem Abdul Jabbar (five rings), Bill Walton (two rings), or Steve Nash (back-to-back MVPs). Being an actual human being, with interests and concerns off the court, is not a “distraction” from wanting to win.

The obvious response to what I just wrote would be that if Collins could play like Russell or Kareem, he would have no problem finding a franchise. John Amaechi also made that plain, saying to me, “The real truth may just be that he’s a journeyman towards the end of his career. However, I still think there is a place for him—I said way back that players who are solid on court and help cohesion with their attitude off it—still aren’t that common so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets to replace a younger role-player a few weeks into the season.”

Yes it is true that Collins is 35 and it has been several years since he played a truly meaningful on-court role. Yes it is true that he is not going to be anything resembling an efficient scorer. But he is also a big seven-foot body, and by all accounts an exceptional locker room presence and mentor. Despite only averaging ten minutes a game last year for the Celtics, Doc Rivers was reportedly bereft to see him go to the Wizards in a late-season trade. After Collins came out of the closet, Rivers said, “I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached.”

And yet here is Doc Rivers now coaching a stocked Clippers team whose greatest obstacle to the NBA Finals is not the Spurs or Thunder but their own two young big men who cannot seem to corral their wild-limbed physical potential, a situation tailor-made for a certain 35-year-old veteran.

But let’s not single out Doc Rivers. Despite Collins age, there are a sizable number of general managers who say that he should still—based on ability alone—be able to find a home in the NBA.

ESPN’s Marc Stein’s informal poll of NBA executives revealed that roughly half of them said that they believed he would find a team. Kevin Arnovitz over at TrueHoop, informally surveying league execs at the Las Vegas Summer League found a similar response, with most saying that he would get signed at the end of training camp. One GM said to Kevin, “He’s a September player. He’s a positive locker-room influence and still plays big. The league likes him.”

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But now Jason Collins does not appear to be a September or October player and is just hoping that he could possibly be a “January ten-day-contract player”, while also trying to prove in the meantime that he has no desire to be a distraction. The inability of any team throughout the NBA—in David Stern’s final season—to find him a roster spot, however, could prove to be more distracting than Jason Collins ever could be.

When Collins came out, Martina Navratilova called it a “game changer”, saying, “Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedom—because that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It’s only when you come out that you can breathe properly. … Millions of kids will see that it is OK to be gay. No need for shame, no need for embarrassment, no need for hiding.” If teams choose to send the message that “being gay is a distraction”, then people can rightly wonder just how much has actually changed.

The latest Student Nation looks at student mobilizations, including the effort to change the culture of violence and discrimination at UConn.

How Jock Culture Supports Rape Culture, From Maryville to Steubenville

Outside Maryville’s Nodaway County Court House before a 'Justice For Daisy' rall

Your 14-year-old daughter is dumped on your freezing front lawn in a state of chemically induced incoherence with her shoes off and frost stuck in her hair. She tells you she was raped. You hear her 13-year-old best friend was also raped that same night. Your daughter is then bullied as a tape of the incident passes around her high school. You wait for the indictments and some semblance of justice, but they dissipate, as one of the accused is a football star from one of the area’s most prominent and politically connected families. The county prosecutor drops the charges, stating that your family is refusing to cooperate even though you are begging to be heard. Then it gets worse.

You are fired from your job without warning and the violent threats against your family through social media increase. You have to pick up your family and leave town. After your departure, your house is burned to the ground. But you refuse to be intimidated.

A public outcry develops, spurred by the decision of your family to come forward and speak out. Now, eighteen months after the incident, a special prosecutor is looking into the case.

This is the story of Melinda Coleman, her daughter, Daisy, her friend Paige, and Daisy Coleman's alleged rapist, Matthew Barnett, the grandson of a longtime member of Missouri’s House of Representatives.

There are other young men as well who are under scrutiny: athlete Jordan Zech, who allegedly filmed the assaults, and a 15-year-old whose name we do not know—who admitted to police that 13-year-old Paige “said no” several times, yet he refused to stop.

I do not know how Melinda Coleman has had the wherewithal to go public, be strong, and even have to serenity to say, in advance of a demonstration called for her family, “I do not condone violence in our defense I don’t want others terrorized as we have been.”

I am amazed by the composure of the now 16-year-old Daisy Coleman, choosing to go public, standing up for herself and writing essays online where she shares:

I sat alone in my room, most days, pondering the worth of my life.{… I burned and carved the ugly I saw into my arms, wrists, legs and anywhere I could find room. On Twitter and Facebook, I was called a skank and a liar and people encouraged me to kill myself. Twice, I did try to take my own life.

Yet I am the most stunned that here we are, six months after a similar case in Steubenville, Ohio, and still not talking openly about the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture.

According to the Campus Safety Magazine website, in their statistical analysis:

College men who participated in aggressive sports (including football, basketball, wrestling and soccer) in high school used more sexual coercion (along with physical and psychological aggression) in their college dating relationships than men who had not. This group also scored higher on attitudinal measures thought to be associated with sexual coercion, such as sexism, acceptance of violence, hostility toward women and rape myth acceptance.

But forget the studies. The jock culture/rape culture dynamic should be obvious to anyone with any connection to organized sports. I saw it on the teams on which I played and I saw it on the team’s I’ve covered. I’ve heard the stories from athletes I’ve interviewed and from women with detailed descriptions of rape that go unpunished if someone with sports-related status is accused. I have seen it in the story of Lizzie Seeberg and the ways people still pretend that Notre Dame football is a bastion of morality.

The fact is that too many young male athletes are taught to see women as the spoils of being a jock. These young men are treated like gods by the adults who are supposed to be mentoring them—like cash cows by administrators who use their on-field exploits to extract money from politicians and alums.

No, I am not arguing that a majority of young men who play sports become people who engage in sexual assault. But hell, yes, I am arguing that in most male team sports, athletes are conditioned to look the other way if they see an assault about to take place. It is the exception when a teammate stands up at a party and says, “This cannot happen.” To take it even further, it the exception, for anyone, male or female, at a jock party to do the same.

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The most distressing detail in the many articles I have read about Maryville was the story of a young girl at the high school who wore a homemade shirt when charges were not filed against Mr. Barnett. It read “Matt—1, Daisy—0”. To her, it was a sports score, a pep rally and just a big game. It’s time to change the game. Jock culture left to its own devices is rape culture. If you are a coach or parent not trying to intervene in this culture to teach young men to not rape, then you are doing everyone a grave disservice. Talk to other coaches. Bring in speakers. Seek out curriculum. Be someone who uses sports to actively build a movement against rape culture. To do nothing is to just ensure more Steubenvilles, more Torringtons and more Maryvilles to come. Not everywhere will have survivors willing to be as public as Daisy Coleman. But you can be a hero now by walking into your locker room and standing up to this shit today.

Jessica Valenti looks at how journalists should write about rape.

ESPN Is Wrong: Grambling State Isn’t the First College Team to Fight Back

The football stadium of Grambling State Univeristy, Louisiana, in May, 2010. (CC/Billy Hathorn)

Even in football, a sport whose DNA is constructed to produce obedience and deference to authority, people can be pushed only so far before they push back. At Grambling State, the players engaged in a players’ strike, what all media outlets are calling “a mutiny”, and refused to take the field on Saturday against Jackson State. It just lasted one game, but only because the administration and powers that be made a series of promises to get them back on the field.

They had little choice. The list of grievances at the school that the late Hall of Fame Coach Eddie Robinson called home is both long and startling. From unsanitary locker room conditions that have led to multiple cases of staph infection” as well as “mildew and mold on the ceiling, walls and floor,” to 750-mile overnight bus rides before games, to a weight room that appears to be an ugly accident waiting to happen, to having their popular coach, former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams summarily fired, this is a team of young people that has simply had enough. (Read their grievance letter in its entirety here.)

Some of the players’ frustration stems from the numerous cases of infighting by the adults in charge, but the root cause of the chaos can be found in the Louisiana Governor’s office of Bobby Jindal. Governor Jindal rejected federal stimulus funds in 2009, while also cutting 219 million dollars in state funds for higher education, $5 million of which would have gone to Grambling State. In 2012, Jindal cut another million that was due to go to Grambling State’s operating costs.

This has hammered the entire school, and the athletic department is no exception. At a school where players are self-rationing weight-lifting supplements to make sure everyone gets a fair share, every dollar matters. But as necessarily as it is to call out Governor Jindal, the Obama administration’s record on supporting historically black colleges and universities has also been, to be kind, brutal, with decreases in federal grant funding and changes in loan programs that have estimated to have cleaved $300 million from HBCU’s nationally.

Now a football school that as recently as 2011 won their conference title has not come within ten points of an opponent all season and the players are saying enough is enough.

The Grambling player’s strike has been covered very well, in my view, by all corners of the sports media, airing the grievances of the players and turning this into a national story. There is one aspect however that has fallen short. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, like many commentators, has described the players’ strike as “unprecedented,” as if young athletes have never—outside, perhaps of the film Varsity Blues—banded together and refused to take the field. This is not actually true. It is worth knowing the history of rebel teams because it makes the actions of Grambling State’s players less of an outlier, less of a freak occurrence and more a part of a continuum, however sparse, of players saying that there are more important things in life than obeying authority and agreeing that the gob of spit in your face is indeed rain.

The first time you see players coming together in a way that garnered national attention, was in 1936. Another historically black college, Howard University in DC, saw players walk off their “job.” The team went on strike before a home game against Virginia Union because their school refused to provide them with food. When it came to any kind of pre- or post-game nutrition, the “student-athletes” were on their own. As one player said to Time magazine, “We were too hungry to get in there and battle those big country boys full of ham and kale.” That week, Howard students boycotted classes in solidarity with the players and marched down DC’s famous Georgia Avenue chanting, “Food! Food! Food! We want food!” with placards that read, “We Want Ham and Cabbage for the Team!”

The 1960s and 1970s also saw players repeatedly demand that they have a voice independent of their head coach. At the University of Washington, athletes won a study of racism in the athletic department after accusing a football trainer of making racial slurs and providing inadequate treatment for injuries.

That May of 1968, Howard University again saw their athletes speak out. They threatened to quit teams en masse, unless Athletic Director Samuel Barnes was removed. They also wanted “better food, more medical attention, streamlined means of transportation, more equipment, better living conditions and a full-time sports information director.” Student assembly president Ewart Brown Jr., a member of the track team publicly burned his Howard varsity sweatshirt. As it went up in ashes, football player Harold Orr said, “This is what we think of the athletic program. [We need a] cremation of the old system.”

The cascade of protest continued. In February, African-American basketball players at Notre Dame’s basketball team threatened to quit unless they receive a public apology from students for booing when they were all in the Michigan State game at the same time, creating what at the time was the rare sight in South Bend of five African-American players at the same time.

But nowhere and at no time did athletes come together in anger and against the wishes of coaches and athletic directors than when it came to playing Brigham Young University. BYU was affiliated with the Mormon Church, which denied leadership positions to African-Americans, claiming that their dark skin was “the mark of the curse of Ham.” This would remain church policy until 1978. In October of 1968, the Wyoming football program dismissed fourteen players for wearing black armbands the evening before the team was scheduled to play BYU. They called themselves the Black 14 and unsuccessfully sued for $1.1 million in damages with the support of the NAACP. On October 25, in a game with San Jose State, the entire San Jose team wore black armbands to support the Black 14. (San Jose State was also the home of these guys, making it a place where protest and sports hit together like fist in glove.)

In November 1969, primarily because of controversy surrounding Brigham Young, Stanford University President Kenneth Pitzer announced that Stanford would honor what he called an athlete’s “right of conscience.” This “right” would allow the athlete to boycott a school or event that he or she deemed “personally repugnant.”

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One of the great forgotten stories however, took place in Seattle in 1972. That year at the University of Washington, the team refused to come out after half-time unless their opposition to the war in Vietnam was read over the public address system. According to journalist Dean Paton, who worked for the Huskies Sports Information Office and was charged with delivering the team’s message to the public address announcer, the following words were heard throughout the stadium:

Ladies and gentlemen, may we have your attention for a very important announcement: The football team at the University of Washington wishes to take this moment to express its concern over the present situation in Vietnam. Toward this end, the team will now delay the game for a couple of minutes.

Dean Paton recalled to me, “As Wendell’s words echoed throughout the stadium, a loud symphony of boos arose from the seats on the stadium’s south side, where the alumni donors and wealthy season ticket holders sit. The boos were unremitting, and they grew as Wendell continued: ‘The players basically have one thing to say: they feel the war and the killing should be ended immediately. The team wishes you would take these few minutes to think about what has happened in the world this week and what consequences they may have. Thank you…. The game will now resume; the team thanks you for your patience.’”

Today, as players wear All Players United on their clothes to say they are sick and tired of the status quo in college sports, Grambling State reminds us that as bad as the status quo is at mega-schools in the power conferences, it can also be far worse. It is awful for the haves. It is even worse for the have-nots, and that is why change is coming to college football. Fired coach Doug Williams, who had been staying out of the current conflict because his son D.J. Williams is the team’s starting quarterback, texted, “I’m proud of them boys. They took a stance.” The question is whether the NCAA, Bobby Jindal, the Obama administration and others will listen and stop treating HBCU’s like separate and unequal institutions. At all schools, the NCAA will also have to to stop using so called student-athletes like expendable pieces of equipment, people with arms and legs but without minds of their own. Whether they do or not, you can count on there being more stances to come.

Dave Zirin looks at the sliming of professional NFL quarterback Josh Freeman.

Why They Refused to Play: Read the Grievance Letter of the Grambling State Tigers Football Team

From left to right: Grambling State Tigers linebacker Jacarde Carter (54), TCU wide receiver Brandon Carter (3) and Tigers defensive back Naquan Smith (26). (AP Photo/LM Otero)

In a move that has sent shockwaves through sports world, the players on the Grambling State Tigers football team have gone on strike. The budget cuts that have ravaged the school over the last five years have found reflection in the athletic department and the team decided that they cannot take it anymore because, simply, it is just not safe.

There have been reams of articles analyzing the problems at Grambling State and whether the players, by refusing to take the field, have gone too far in expressing their discontent. These are not the voices we should be privileging right now. The best possible starting point for people new to this story and trying to understand what is happening would be to read the actual letter issued by the team explaining why they had to take these measures. Below I reprint the letter in its entirety with the hope that their demands and their voice claim center stage in the struggle to come. Take the time to read what they have had to endure as a team and why they are saying that enough is enough.   —Dave Zirin

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Dear Grambling State University Administration,

We, the Grambling State University Football team, come to you with the intent to make a complaint against Grambling State University Administration, and to reach some type of solution. We would like support and assistance while reaching this solution. As a team our goal is to build a solid foundation through team work, and to make progress during our time here at Grambling State University. Unfortunately, there are certain factors that are hindering us from reaching our goals. We have concerns with facilities, equipment, travel arraignments, summer camp arraignments, alumni association and friends of football funding, and our head coach.

The athletic complex is a place where we as a team prepare for competition. In our opinion, the complex is in horrible condition, and has manyhazards that may contribute to our overall health. First, the complex is filled with mildew and mold. Mildew and mold can be seen on the ceiling, walls and floor, and are contributing to water leaks because of faltering walls and ceilings. Grambling student-athletes are not the only ones complaining about this particular hazard. When Lamar University came to play our team they refused to go in the locker room for half time due to mold and mildew.

Second, the weight room and care of game and practice gear are in bad condition, in areas where the floor is coming up, it causes players to trip while lifting large amounts of weight. Equipment in the weight room is falling apart, as well as workout benches are tearing and ripping apart. We as student-athletes would also like better detergent for our uniforms and practice uniforms. The uniforms are poorly cleaned and contribute to the multiple cases of staph infection. Several players have been infected with staph multiple times.

Student-athletes have been complaining since summer 2013 about the way summer camp and work outs were set up. We did not receive Gatorade or Muscle Milk. We had to pay for those expensive items ourselves. We were also forced to get water from hoses underneath the stadium in 90 degree plus weather. Student-athletes often complained of the high grass we had to practice in. The grass was up to our knees and was rarely cut. This was a huge inconvenience to the team. Shortly after that we found out that we would not be housed for camp. Players that live off campus were responsible for commuting back and forth to campus three times a day, not to mention, we were already paying for summer school out of pocket.

During summer 2013 we were told we would be taking two major trips this season, Kansas City, Missouri and the other to Indianapolis, Indiana. We were pretty excited but found out later we would be taking a bus. Both trips, we traveled excessive hours. One trip was 14 hours while the other was 17. Players were drained and exhausted after those long rides. Long rides take a toll on athlete’s bodies both mentally and physically. However both the president and athletic director traveled by plane. In our opinion, any trip over 8 hours should be taken by plane. We also found out that we would not travel to a hotel and stay overnight for home games. It is tradition for us to travel for home games but that tradition was broken also.

The next complaint is about money donated from friends of football and the alumni association. Money from both organizations is being rejected. The funds donated can help take care of some of our expenses. The funding can supply Muscle Milk, Gatorade, help house us or even get the complex cleaned and updated. All things that are much needed. The funds are rejected by the university, because the organizations that donate the money want to put their money toward a specific cause, not the university or athletics as a whole.

The last issue we would like to address is the firing of our head coach, Doug Williams. Doug Williams was fired September 9, 2013; the football team was not addressed and received no sign of compassion from administration until over a month later, on October 15, 2013 which was the first meeting with our President and Athletic Director. The administration fired the head coach without plans of placing a competent coach in as interim. Coach George Ragsdale has contributed to five of the seven loses of the season. We are not in favor of him as interim and would much rather coach Dirt Winston, Vyron Brown, or C.C Culpepper for the remainder of the season.

As a team, support from the administration has not been observed. It is our effort as a whole to receive more visible support and solid leadership from the administration by addressing the above mentioned complaints. We as a team have been criticize enough by outsiders. We need our university’s support. As the voice of the student body we need the SGA to intercede on our behalf. The support and assistance of the association would be greatly appreciated. We can be reached by our spokesperson Naquan Smith.


Grambling State Tigers.

Dave Zirin on how NCAA players are standing up for a change.

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