Where sports and politics collide.
Eduardo Galeano. (Courtesy of Flickr user Mariela De Marchi Moyano)
For decades, Eduardo Galeano has been our deliriously lyrical poet of resistance to empire in Latin America—part Salvador Allende and part Isabel Allende. Galeano’s work and wisdom are indispensable to anyone attempting to understand the diverse culture and even more diverse methods of protest on the continent. Of all his writings, my favorite Galeano book might be Soccer in Sun and Shadow, where he examines the history of Latin America through the lens of its obsession with soccer. His insights are so piercing, his love of the sport so absolute, and his hatred of those who would use the beautiful game as a tool of oppression so intense, it was difficult to not think about the old master as protests have raged in the streets of Brazil. “What would Galeano say?” enters my mind every time I attempt to get my head around the dizzying dynamics of a country engulfed in its largest protests in a generation, with World Cup spending at the center of popular discontent. Well, now we know. As reported on the website of The Nation Institute, Galeano has spoken. Here is what he has to say.
As far as I’m concerned, the explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified. In its thirst for justice, it is similar to other demonstrations that in recent years have shaken many countries in many parts of the world. Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”
That second to last sentence—“The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it”—is one we shouldn’t forget. You see it in the streets, favelas, and beaches of Brazil, where soccer hasn’t stopped just because the season of protests has started. You see it in the great Brazilian players like Neymar and Hulk who have supported the protests. You see it in the calls by demonstrators for “FIFA quality hospitals and schools.
The people in the streets of Brazil are giving the world a lesson in sports sociology by making plain that the target is FIFA, not the beautiful game itself. They are telling us that one needs to be rejected, the other reclaimed. This Sunday, everyone should pay extremely close attention, as we will see massive protests outside of legendary Maracana Stadium in Rio during the Confederations Cup finals. We will also almost certainly see a brutal police response. As Galeano says, “The explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified.” We will see if the explosion is able to catch fire in the months to come, as the World Cup lurks in 2014.
Marina Amaral and Natalia Viana write about why it isn’t just economic justice that is fueling protests in Brazil.
Brazilians hold a demonstration with a banner that reads, “My party is my country,” in Sao Paulo June 22, 2013. (Reuters/Junior Lago)
Sepp Blatter, the all-powerful don of FIFA, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, and Pelé, the legendary soccer star are three extremely different people. But they all share the same perspective about the demonstrations rocking every major city in Brazil: Don’t even think about blaming the World Cup.
As Dilma said in her nationally televised address, “Brazil, the only country to have participated in every World Cup and a five-time world champion, has always been very well received everywhere. We must give our friends the same generous welcome we have received from them—with respect, love and joy. This is how we must treat our guests. Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence among peoples.”
Sepp Blatter, displaying his renowned empathy, was more blunt saying simply, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard…. When the ball starts to roll, people will understand!”
And Pelé had to backtrack dramatically after saying that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.”
They are begging the people of Brazil to not turn the 2014 World Cup into a symbol of what ails the country. What frightens them is that clearly people don’t see the World Cup—not to mention the 2016 Olympics in Rio—as some sort of abstract, postmodern symbol of poor public services and high taxes. They see the World Cup as a literal tool of neoliberal plunder.
Neoliberalism at its core is about the transfer of wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever had to rely on public services—little things like schools or hospitals—would understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular with much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police and simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil and even New York City in the early days of the Occupy movement, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.
The Olympics, World Cup, and other kinds of mega-events have over the last thirty years provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. That’s why these events are best understood as “neoliberal Trojan Horses.” The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan Horse are the games people are initially proud to host, until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh.
The countries change but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and tax haven for both corporate sponsors and private security firms; obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party’s over and the hangover begins. But in Brazil, they’re not waiting for any hangover after the cameras are gone and the confetti has been swept away.
The mass actions of the last two weeks have exposed all the neoliberal theft rooted in the planning and execution of the World Cup. A prominent slogan in the streets is, “We need FIFA-quality hospitals and schools.” This is a direct reference to a line from the World Cup planning committee that repeated ad nauseam, “We need FIFA-quality stadiums.” The people have taken the neoliberal priorities of the international athletic complex and turned them on their head, and their demands are influencing even those in the world of sports.
As former Brazilian soccer star Romario said last week, “FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state. It’s not going to pay taxes, it’s going to come, install a circus without paying anything and take everything with it. They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public’s money. The money that has been spent on the Mane Garrincha stadium could have been used to build 150,000 housing units.”
The politics amidst the masses are mixed and there are real battles in the streets that will determine where this goes. Brazil’s disorganized right wing certainly sees an opportunity to turn masses of people against a nominally leftist government. But the overwhelming mass of people are actually in the streets because they want basic economic justice in a country where it’s promised but most are left at the mercy of the market. As Theresa Williamson, the director of the Rio-based organization Catalytic Communities said, “It is about individual demands and frustrations that converge into a unified whole. This is a future-oriented movement. If a handful are trying to appropriate it you can bet the movement will get them out. If they don’t, things will digress only to evolve in a few years into something even more substantial.”
Next Sunday a mass demonstration has been called for the finals of the Confederations Cup at the gates of legendary Maracaña Stadium in Rio. On that day we’ll see even more clearly just where this movement is going and who is on the ground fighting for its future. Whatever politics carry the day, it is clear that masses of young people are marching with the basic hope that their dreams for a more just and democratic nation will take concrete form. They’ll be acting to reshape their country with incredible bravery amidst the tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. If people in the stadium feel the itch in their eyes, or hear explosions in the distance, then they will be forcibly conjoined with those in the streets in seeing the reality of international sports in the age of neoliberalism. Sepp Blatter did say, “When the ball starts to roll, people will understand.” They might understand when the ball starts to roll. But as the smoke wafts into Maracaña, they will understand something far different than Blatter, FIFA, and President Rousseff had planned. They will understand that the World Cup in the twenty-first century arrives with a terrible price.
Marina Amaral and Natalia Viana write about why it isn’t just economic justice that is fueling protests in Brazil.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons)
One has to hearken back to 1968 in Mexico City, when thousands of students and workers marched against the Olympics, to find a sports-related demonstration that compares to the size and militancy of the mass anti–World Cup/Olympic uprising taking place in Brazil.
As in Mexico City thousands of people in Brazil are in the streets—and outside stadiums hosting Confederations Cup matches—raising slogans that connect the spending and austerity that surround these mega-events to a much deeper rot in the nation’s democratic institutions. As in Mexico City the central question is one of priorities: spending for sports while other vital needs—health, education, transportation—go unheeded. As in Mexico City, the spine of protesters is disaffected youth, educated beyond their parents’s generation because of expansions in higher education, but without jobs or opportunity when leaving the academy. As in Mexico City, the ruling elites feel a desperate need for the events to go as planned as a way to demonstrate to the world that Mexico is a leading player in the game of nations.
Also as in Mexico City, we hear the ridiculous canard of those in power not to mix sports and politics. Then it was Avery Brundage, the Nazi-sympathizing head of the International Olympic Committee, railing against what he called “the politicization of sport” and saying that “one of the basic principles of the Olympic games [is] that politics play no part whatsoever in them.” Now it’s the reptilian FIFA chief Sepp Blatter saying, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard. Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We did not impose the World Cup on Brazil. They knew that to host a good World Cup they would naturally have to build stadiums.”
And as in Mexico City, the splits in the streets are reflecting themselves in the athletic community as well. Then it was Jesse Owens telling 1968 Olympic protesters John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith—all of whom were influenced by the struggles in Mexico City—to just shut up and play. Now it’s Brazilian legend Pelé saying, “Let’s forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let’s remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.” Another Brazilian soccer hero, Ronaldo, said in response to critiques over stadium spending, “You can’t hold a World Cup with hospitals.”
In contrast, national team star Neymar said in an epic statement,
“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.”
True to his word, Neymar starred in the victory against Mexico.
The differences are also crucial to recognize. In 1968, the student and workers movement in Mexico City was politically organized with many protesters being aligned with the National Strike Council, an organization that had delegates from 240 schools. Their demands were public and organized.
The protests in Brazil can be better defined as being far more an expression of extreme anger and disaffection. While polls of mass demonstrations should be taken with a grain of salt, one survey of demonstrators shows that 84 percent don’t ally with any political formation. It’s a catch-all for every grievance under the sun, with the World Cup and Olympic spending becoming symbolic of an austerity economy beyond the reach of any semblance of democracy. This character is both a strength and weakness. It’s a strength because the country is learning lessons in real time about democracy in the streets, with city officials already repealing the hated proposed bus fare hike in an effort to quell demonstrators. It also is a weakness as forces from the right wing are entering the fray, hoping to turn demonstrators against the Workers Party government and to make this an issue about “government spending”. It’s a cheap, opportunistic effort to deflect attention from the corporate feeding frenzy in conjunction with Workers Party, which is actually taking place behind the green curtain. It also deflects attention from the fact that the right wing in Brazil has no problem with austerity, just with who is administering it.
The Mexico City protests of 1968 were of course drowned in blood with hundreds of students and workers, with aid from US intelligence sources, executed in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in what’s known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, ten days before the start of the Olympics. In Brazil, it was announced this week that the National Force, Brazil’s feared federal troops, will be deployed outside soccer stadiums for the duration of the Confederations Cup. We need to keep a close eye on Brazil and provide solidarity to what will now be known forever as the “salad revolution.” We need to listen to the ghosts of Tlatelolco Square and say that never again will the world turn a blind eye just because “the games must go on.”
Brazil isn’t the only country coming under criticism for its audacious spending on sports. Dave Zirin writes about the corruption and abuse at the backbone of Russia’s 2014 Winter Games.
LeBron James. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keith Allison. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Game Six. The Miami Heat were done. Trailing by five points to the San Antonio Spurs with twenty seconds to go, the notoriously repellent Miami Heat fans were abandoning their $2,000 seats and heading for the exits. The championship stage had already been pushed courtside. The trophy was out of the case. David Stern, ready for his close-up, was perhaps checking his teeth for spinach. Snarky tweets about Heat MVP LeBron James were in full force. It was over.
“King James,” after a fourth quarter of dragging his team back on offense and guarding the quicksilver Tony Parker on defense, was running on fumes. The game was done, but then the Spurs cracked. They missed free throws, they missed rebounds and the league’s most disciplined defensive team left Heat shooters open. For example, up three points, they didn’t guard the best three-point shooter ever, Ray Allen. Allen hit a three, sending the game into overtime, and the Heat escaped 103-100. This combination of unbelievable self-belief on one side and a haunting collapse on the other has only one historical comparison. It hit me in the throat through my television because I was there.
Game Six. My dad scored tickets for game six of the 1986 World Series in the first row behind the Mets dugout. I still have the ticket stub (list price $40!). The events of that night have been over-discussed to death, so what’s one more time? It was 5-3 in the tenth inning, and the hated Red Sox were on the verge of winning it all. The Series MVP would be Boston pitcher Bruce Hurst. Clubhouse attendants had even hung plastic in the dugout to prevent clothes from getting soaked in the champagne.
I’ll never, ever forget Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez, my boyhood idol, lining to center for out number two. As he walked to the dugout, a guy next me, through choked tears said, “It was a great season, Keith.” Hernandez, who hadn’t made eye contact with us all game, looked up and shot lasers through the guy. Sure enough, the Mets kept getting on base, until a ground ball by Mookie Wilson went through the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner and the team from Queens was alive for game seven.
As people danced on the dugout and sprayed beer all over me, I remember being less thrilled than unnerved. (Granted, that could have been the cop on horseback ten feet away on the field with his nightstick over his shoulder.) My Mets had succeeded, but partially because Bill Buckner had failed. The Spurs, a team incredibly easy to root for, “Bucknered” this game and unless you are a diehard Miami Heat fan (and really, who would admit to such a thing?), this game should leave you feeling thrilled at the competition but a little queasy about just how victory was earned.
There is still a game seven where the Spurs can make every emotion they’re feeling right now go away. It’s also a game seven for LeBron James and the Heat to show yet again that they deserve all the hype. As for Buckner, in game seven of the 1986 World Series, under unimaginable pressure, he had one of the most under-appreciated clutch games in history, going 2-4. He was arguably the only Sox player that day who was big enough for the moment. But his team didn’t win, so game six became his legacy. Winning, in this peculiar universe of sports, eternally cures all blemishes. Whether it’s the the over-hyped Heat or the choking Spurs, someone is getting dipped in Lourdes on Thursday night. And that’s why we’ll watch.
Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell’s obituary here.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paulo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasília, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracaña Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.
Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.… The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30 billion is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.
Dave Zirin urges baseball to rethink its approach to steroids.
Fans of Besiktas (Black-White), Galatasaray (Yellow-Red) and Fenerbahce (Yellow-Blue) wave Turkish flags during an anti-government protest in Istanbul on June 2, 2013. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)
Mark Twain’s maxim that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is echoing in the streets of Istanbul. The echo is heard in everything that makes Turkey resemble a sequel to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled assumed President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak. I’m not only referring to the fact that it marks another internal revolt against an iron-booted US ally. I’m not only referring to the repeat of the social equation that neoliberal shock economics plus police repression will equal upheaval. I’m talking about soccer. More specifically, the role that organized soccer fans are playing by the thousands.
Turkey and Egypt are of course two very different countries with different leaders, different political systems and different histories. But the revolt of the highly intense, usually apolitical “ultra” soccer-fan clubs must be noted. As in Egypt, for years the ultra soccer clubs have been places in Turkey where young, alienated men could express aggression without fear of serious retribution from the state. They were places a young man could release steam, get in a brawl with other fan organizations or the police and receive at worst a beating. In contrast, attending a political demonstration—or writing an article about the political demonstration—could land you in prison. For the state, ultra clubs have been seen as ways to channel anger in a direction that doesn’t threaten their power. After the last two years, they may need to revise their playbook on how to manufacture consent.
There are differences between the ultra revolts in Egypt and Turkey. Unlike in Egypt, the Turkish soccer fan clubs have historically been a magnet for people wanting a more liberalized, secular rule of law. Perhaps because they share this connective tissue, there is another critical difference: unlike in Egypt, the Turkish ultra clubs have all united in very rapid order. This isn’t Tahrir, where for days rival ultra clubs would organize on opposite sides of the square, until their hatred was worn down by the necessity of standing together against the police. In Turkey, from the start, the ultra clubs hailing from the city’s most pugnaciously oppositional clubs—Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce—marched arm-in-arm under the slogan “Istanbul United.”
For the people occupying in Taksim, their entry was not only welcome, it was desperately needed. Bagis Erten, a reporter for Eurosport Turkey, was quoted by Middle Eastern soccer blogger James M. Dorsey as saying, “It was a critical moment. Supporters of all the big teams united for the first time against police violence. They were more experienced than the protesters, they fight them regularly. Their entry raised the protesters’ morale and they played a leading role.”
This development must be giving Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan night sweats. The ultras normally interact only when they’re trading chants, curses or blows. Instead, they arrived looking more like mass-street-combat organizations than anything that could be described antiseptically as “fans.” They set up barricades, threw back tear gas canisters and protected the core of protesters from violence. As one 18-year-old ultra said, “We are normally enemies, but this has really brought us together. It’s never happened before.”
The fan group known as Çarşi has reportedly led this uniting of the ultras. Çarşi is also the ultra group most associated with the political left. Just so there is no doubt about where they stand, the "a" in Çarşi is the anarchism is the anarchism symbol and their slogan is “Çarşi is against everything!” Tensions were already extremely high between Çarşi and the security police when a post-match march, after their team Beşiktaş J.K. was victorious, strayed too close to Erdogan party headquarters, resulting in more gassing and violence than the typical ultra/police skirmish.
To be clear, ultras across the globe reflect at best a very mixed consciousness. Although some are explicitly left-wing, others explicitly fascist and most proudly apolitical, they all carry features of hyper-masculine fight-clubs. That can be heard in Taksim in the chants they raise at the state police, like, “You can use you tear gas bombs, you can use your tear gas bombs/ Have courage if you are a real man/ Take off your helmet and drop your batons/ Then we’ll see who the real man is.”
The difference, of course, is that they are directing their rage at the police in the name of basic democracy. The difference is that instead of representing merely their team, they are “Istanbul United." Like the ultras in Egypt, their very existence should be pushing sports writers, academics and sociologists to rethink the very stale conventional wisdom about sports fandom: that its most prominent feature is that it’s devoid of all politics and actually serves to steer people away from struggle. In the case of the Turkish ultras, they are citizens with the same concerns as anyone else. The difference is they bring mass organization and the art of street combat to this dynamic stage in Turkey’s history.
Sports fans—again—playing a leading role in a mass social uprising? Welcome to the twenty-first century, where the revolution is not only televised: it takes place in between games.
Alex Rodriguez. (Reuters)
If you want to know what’s wrong with Major League Baseball, look no further than today’s top headlines. In what has been described as “the largest [Performance Enhancing Drug scandal] in American sports history,” at least twenty Major League Baseball players now face significant suspensions for PED use. Included in the guilty-until-proven-innocent public parade are Yankee albatross Alex Rodriguez and the man Buster Olney is calling “the Lance Armstrong of baseball,” Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun. (The latter is in reference to Braun’s Shermanesque denials over the last two years that he ever imbibed in pharmaceutical help, not his ability to master the Pyrenees.)
MLB has leaked the names of the accused because it have confidence in its source. His name is Anthony “Tony” Bosch and he is the former director of Biogenesis, a now shuttered South Florida “anti-aging clinic.” Tony Bosch is not a doctor nor does he play one on TV. He did, however, have a roster of “patients” whom he allegedly supplied with all manner of banned substances. MLB was in the process of suing Biogensis when the near-bankrupt Bosch, unable to afford a proper legal defense, chose to turn over every scrawled receipt, hand-written ledger and appointment book to MLB officials. In return, they have reportedly pledged to stop their civil suit and use their political clout to halt the Justice Department’s forthcoming criminal indictment.
Forget your personal feelings about whether you like or dislike A-Rod or whether you think these players are worse than Pol Pot for “cheating the game.” Forget if you’re convinced there is no greater evil than a pill that helps an adult professional athlete heal from injuries or work out with greater efficiency. Forget it all and consider the disturbing audacity of what Major League Baseball just accomplished: a powerful private corporation has used its political connections with the Justice Department as well as the power of its own purse to squeeze a weaker business to disclose confidential medical records. America!
If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps this will. According to Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union, the league can impose a fifty-game suspension for a first PED offense, 100 games for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third. In this case, according to sources, the league will be pursuing 100 game suspensions for every player deemed guilty on the basis that it’s really two offenses in one. Their mere connection to Bosch is one strike, and any previous denial that they were connected to Bosch—in other words, lying to MLB officials—constitutes a second. Yes, you don’t even have to fail a drug test. You just need to be around drugs and make statements that Commissioner Bud Selig unilaterally determines to be a lie. It’s like a kid’s baseball book co-written by Mike Lupica and George Orwell.
This should be calling the entire system into question, but many baseball writers are instead already writing paeans to Bud Selig’s tough justice. ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote, “If Tony Bosch sings the song that baseball firmly believes he’s about to sing, some of the biggest names in this sport could pay a monstrous price. And the aftershocks will be rattling baseball’s Richter Scale for generations to come.”
This is not an earthquake. Instead it will be death by 10,000 paper cuts. The union will protest the idea that there could ever be two suspensions for one offense and appeals will drag on for years. The only thing “rattling” in future generations will be the skeletons of what once comprised the fan-base of this sport.
I love baseball and it’s tragic to watch it self-devour, so here is my own humble advice about a different way to handle this. Steroids and all PEDs need to be seen as an issue of public health, not crime and punishment. If seen as an issue of public health, the scandal here would not be that a group of players may have used PEDs. The scandal would be that they had to visit a skuzzy, unregulated “clinic” not run by medical professionals to get their drugs. Instead of criminalization, educate all players about the harmful effects of long-term PED use when not under a doctor’s supervision. Have medical officials make the policy and determine what PEDs help a person heal faster—an admirable quality in a medicine, no?—and what shouldn’t be a part of any training regimen. Centralize distribution under the umbrella of MLB so it doesn’t become an arms race of which teams get the best doctors and the best drugs. Then, players could take advantage of the most effective new medicines and MLB would be removing the process out of the shadows where the Tony Bosch types of the world hold sway. They also then have an ethical basis for testing and rehabilitation when use crosses the line into abuse.
This solution won’t please the purists who revere a game that never existed. It won’t please the anti-steroid furies who think that the behavior of children are determined in Pavlovian fashion by the actions of Major League Baseball players. It certainly won’t please baseball’s owners who like a system where fleecing cities out of millions in tax money isn’t cheating but taking a pill to workout longer is. It would, however, finally, at long last, take the game out of the courts, off the front pages, and put it back on the field. Bud Selig isn’t Eliot Ness and Ryan Braun isn’t Al Capone. It’s time to stop the madness and decriminalize the game.
This week, Walmart’s board of corporate tycoons will converge on Bentonville for the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s exposé.
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The basketball fan in me is beyond psyched for Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. The sportswriter in me wants every player on these two proud squads adrenalized and at the top of their game this Monday night. The human in me wants the person who’s perhaps been the Pacers’ best player in this series, Roy Hibbert, suspended. In the press conference after the Pacers Game 6 victory, the seven-foot center used an anti-gay slur, saying “no homo.” Here’s the context, which is even worse. Hibbert said, “There was Game 3 here that I felt I let Paul [George] down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting into the paint because they stretched me out so much—no homo [laughs]—but I want to be there for him.” (The Pacers center also called the press “motherfuckers.” Roy was certainly on a roll.)
In every interview I’ve seen, Roy Hibbert seems like a good person. He’s funny, thoughtful and, for what it’s worth, terrific in a cameo on Parks & Rec. But this time no one’s laughing. That “no homo” nonsense is degrading and the league needs to take a stand. The league needs to stand up not only because it degrades the LGBT community. It degrades Hibbert’s colleague, NBA player Jason Collins who came out of the closet last month. It degrades every NBA player who supported Collins and pledged to make the league a more inclusive place. It degrades Golden State Warriors executive—and friend of David Stern—Rick Welts who came out two years ago. Lastly, Roy Hibbert degrades himself. There is no doubt he realizes this. After his press conference, Hibbert reached out on Twitter to Jason Collins, writing, “@jasoncollins34 hey can I get a follow. Would like to discuss something’s with you.”
That’s all good. But the league could send one hell of a message by saying, “We pledged that the NBA would be a safe, nondiscriminatory atmosphere, and even though we recognize how unfair this will seem to Pacers fans and their organization, we are answering to a higher principal. Roy Hibbert therefore will not be playing Game 7.”
If this took place, some would inevitably call it “political correctness run amok.” Nothing energizes some people quite like when their right to dehumanize others is under assault. Then there will be conspiracy theorists who will howl that the NBA took this step because it’s all fixed and the league just wants the ratings boon of LeBron and the Heat in the finals. No doubt that the fan/sportswriter in me will cry out that I’m being denied the game I want to see. But there are kids who kill themselves because of a lifetime of hearing “no homo.” There are others—no doubt Roy Hibbert among them—who think it’s no big deal and say it without realizing their words are weapons. But this is the AJC era (After Jason Collins). It’s time for the league to stop tolerating intolerance. I don’t expect this to happen. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if Jason Collins—a free agent trying to get signed—is asked if Hibbert should be suspended and he says no. But if we are really going to see change, people in the sports world who care about this issue need to stop being silent. I still like Roy Hibbert on and off the court. Everyone makes mistakes. But with mistakes should come consequences. It’s not a game.
* Roy Hibbert has issued an apology for his statements. People can read it here.
After sifting through the responses to this article on Twitter and Facebook, it was stunning how many were homophobic, misogynistic and just stupid as all hell. For some, social media is the white hood of the twenty-first century: a place to be hateful under a mask of anonymity.
The truly thoughtful comments that disagreed with me, some from LGBT athletes, activists and allies, have really made me think. While I still believe it would be a historic statement of principle if the NBA risked its very credibility by suspending Hibbert for a Game 7, there are other steps they could take beyond just punishing Hibbert as an individual. If their response instead was to announce a partnership with the You Can Play group in the manner of the NHL, and set up a formal structure to tackle homophobia in the locker room and set up a support system for closeted athletes, that would be a way to turn this regrettable moment into something positive.
UPDATE: The NBA has announced its fine of Roy Hibbert, and it's $75,000, or roughly what he makes in just under one half of a basketball game. Even worse that the gentleness of the fine is the press release that accompanied it. NBA commissioner David Stern makes no mention of homophobia as a driving reason for the punishment, instead citing "inappropriate and vulgar language," which implies that calling the sports media "motherfuckers" was also a motivation for league action. (Frankly, that statement is far more defensible.) The NBA had an opportunity to say and do something about anti-gay bigotry and draw a line in the sand. They could have announced all kinds of systemic reforms aimed at dealing with this head-on. It would have been a statement not only to the players but also to the ugly minority of so-called "fans" who have been in a homophobic lather over the last twenty-four hours at the mere thought that Roy Hibbert could be punished for dropping a "no homo." They failed the test of this moment and Roy Hibbert has engaged in homophobia in the workplace and in front of a bank of microphones without consequence. Message received. Today, the bold, new world where Jason Collins can be out and proud with full league support is feeling an awful lot like the old world. The fight continues.
Why are Dartmouth students being disciplined for protesting rape? Read Jon Wiener's take.
I’ve criticized ESPN’s Bill Simmons 1,000 times in 1,000 columns. That’s what happens when you are perhaps the most read sports columnist in the country. Everything you write becomes a point of reference. When I’m writing or speaking about why I dig the WNBA or abhor the joyless Bill Belichick, Simmons’s disdain for women’s hoops or adoration of Belichick becomes my go-to example of the ways in which those at the heights of sports journalism have opinions that—in my humble view—are dead wrong.
But just as I think the scrutiny Bill Simmons receives is necessary, it’s also important to defend him from criticism that is not only unfair but actually politically backward. Simmons is being lambasted in numerous outlets for comments he made about Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Memphis where the hometown Grizzlies were put out of their misery by the San Antonio Spurs. On his BS Report, Simmons spoke at length with Jalen Rose and Dave Jacoby about visiting Memphis and, while walking with Jalen Rose in search for a barbecue, stumbling upon the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As Jalen Rose said, when they were confronted with the building that saw King’s death, his “heart stopped.” Simmons spoke in detail about being “blown away,” and recounted how it had been restored and kept alive after a fight with many in the city who wanted it bulldozed. Jalen Rose said, “I was impressed with Memphis. When you have a horrific incident take place like King’s assassination, either you embrace it or you run from it.”
Simmons then related the assassination to the feel of the Memphis crowd, writing, “I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
This quote, taken entirely out of context, has been the basis of the flaying of Simmons. People can read examples, if curious, here and here. All the critiques comprise a rather thin gruel. Not only is it a slender thread to grasp, but the criticism is also wrong. Memphis is a small jewel of a city with a population of less than 700,000 people. It’s also in numerous ways defined by the events of 1968, and I’m not even just talking about Dr. King’s assassination. People should read Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey. This was a city in 1968 that ran in a fashion more reminiscent of 1868. As Honey writes, “Since many of the white bosses came from the plantations themselves, they treated black workers much like landlords in the Mississippi Delta treated their sharecroppers and tenants.”
Most city employees were unionized. Most city employees were also white. But the 1,300 African-American sanitation workers were not allowed union recognition. The shocking deaths of two workers in a hydraulic trash compacter broke the camel’s back, sparking a 1,300-person sanitation strike that challenged every last power relationship in Memphis. Their slogan, famously, was “I am a MAN!”
Dr. King came to Memphis because he saw their struggle as something that could launch a new stage in the civil rights movement: one that put the question of multiracial economic justice at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle. As he said to the workers in Memphis days before his death, “With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close, and a new era came into being. Now, our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?”
It was only in the aftermath of King’s assassination, the subsequent urban uprising, and as Honey points out, “the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War” that they finally won their union. Their victory, tragically, did not find purchase across the city. Today, Memphis has one of the highest urban poverty rates in the United States, with 85 percent of its public school students categorized as “economically disadvantaged.” 82 percent of the “economically disadvantaged” are African-American.
What does any of this have to do with Bill Simmons? An arena full of fans is a collective space, and Simmons was linking the shadow of struggle, bloodshed and tragedy with the mentality in this collective space. Some may argue that given the youth or whiteness of the crowd, this is at best a foolish observation. But King’s death—of course—doesn’t just weigh on the psyche of those who remember it. As for the demographics of the crowd, the very greatness of what King and the sanitation workers did was that they made the struggle involve everyone, not merely the poor and people of color. Those in power were afflicted with King’s vision of true equality, a vision that threatened their perch atop the city. The message I received from listening to the podcast in its entirety is that sports doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the past is not always past. Criticize Bill Simmons by all means. I may again by my next column, but not for this. He—and Jalen Rose—should be applauded for reminding everyone that Memphis wears its scars openly for the world to see. After all, they’re our scars as well.
On Wednesday night, Seattle became the seventh city in eight weeks to host a one-day fast food strike. Read Josh Eidelson's report.