Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Our American Summer: Jackie Robinson, Riley Cooper, and White People Boycotting 'Ebony'

Jackie Robinson. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

Sometimes it’s all just too damn much. First came word this week that the famed Coney Island statue of Jackie Robinson, standing alongside Pee Wee Reese as sporting symbols of racial progress, had been defaced, with “die n***ers,” “f*ck Jackie Robinson and all n***ers,” and “Heil Hitler” scrawled across it. It’s quite the capstone to a summer that started with the sweetly hopeful biopic, 42, about Robinson’s early career and post-racial promise. There is no doubt if Robinson still walked among us, he wouldn’t be shocked at the vandalism of his statue. He’d grit his teeth and set to cleaning it with his bare hands as a vein throbbed dangerously on his temple. This is the world—and the country—Jackie Robinson knew all too well.

The vandalizing of the Jackie Robinson/Pee Wee Reese monument comes days after Riley Cooper, a middling Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, was caught on a cellphone camera angrily yelping that he was going to “fight every n***er” after a (black) security guard wouldn’t let him backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert. Cooper has since gone on a tearful apology tour. Tim Tebow—his former college teammate—has pledged to “pray for him” and the Eagles want him to go through mandated sensitivity training as he strains to keep his job.

There is no connection between Jackie Robinson and Riley Cooper’s scramble to stay employed, except for the ones seen—somehow—by some of the deep thinkers on sports radio. Several sports radio commentators compared Cooper and his post-slur pariah status with Robinson’s lonely isolation when he joined the Majors in 1947. They implored Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to give us a “Pee Wee Reese moment” of reconciliation and put his arm around Riley Cooper’s shoulders in front of the world. “We need to build bridges and stop the divisions,” they said. (I apologize for the lack of links but I was driving at the time. I was just glad to get home without crashing.) This is almost too stupid for words, but I’ll leave it at this: the only way Jackie Robinson and Riley Cooper should ever be in the same sentence is if you say, “If Jackie Robinson was alive, I bet he stares a hole through Riley Cooper.”

Then there is Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade and his commitment to keep talking about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Wade appeared this week on the cover of Ebony with his sons in hoodies and continues to insist upon using his fame to prevent Trayvon from falling down the media memory hole. Wade was someone who tweeted after George Zimmerman was found innocent of Trayvon’s murder in July, “Wow!!! Stunned!!! Saddened as a father!!! Some1 make sense of this verdict for me right now please!!! Don’t worry I’ll wait…”

Now, Wade’s magazine cover with his two sons was a visual reminder of what he said when Trayvon was killed last year: “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons.”

In the aftermath, Tea Party message boards have talked about boycotting the Miami Heat. This is part of their broader plan to boycott Ebony. As the magazine tweeted archly in response, “We have so many Tea Party readers and followers. To lose all zero of them due to our September cover would be devastating.” This led to the twitter hashtag #WhitePeopleBoycottingEbony, which is recommended for anyone who prefers laughing to crying.

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Yes, I know there are those reading this who will see three separate events that tell three separate stories. To me they tell the same story. Sports are no post-racial oasis for the simple reason that it is a central part of the cultural life of this country. It reflects this summer of racial anguish. It’s also become the arena where masses of angry young men on message boards, on Twitter and even on statues choose to puke their barbarism.

They vandalized a statue of the man the Hollywood Dream Factory told us was a pioneer of a post-racist future. I wish Hollywood instead told the story of the Robinson who said, “I cannot stand and sing the [national] anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white man’s world.” That’s not just a bitter truth about how Robinson was seeing this country in the years before his death. It’s a starting point for understanding how far we have to go and the seriousness of the fight ahead.

Dave Zirin writes about the NFL’s worst idea yet.

Alex Rodriguez and the True Pink Elephant (Elefante Rosa) in the Room

Alex Rodriguez. (AP Images)

In all likelihood, you are feeling bloated by all-things A-Rod. Maybe you’re repulsed by the person and what you feel he’s done to baseball. Perhaps you’re just sick of the 24/7 media swarm over what a ballplayer may or not have ingested. Or possibly you’re just amused by the entire spectacle, a particular highlight of which occurred when A-Rod described his pending suspension as “the pink elephant in the room.”

But the A-Rod focus obscures what’s revealed by the bigger Biogenesis scandal. Gander at the names of everyone suspended.

Tops on the anabolic trophy list after A-Rod is Brewers 2011 MVP Ryan Braun. After that we have a group little-known to the casual fan. There is Jordany Valdespin, Antonio Bastardo, Sergio Escalona, Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Jesus Montero, Francisco Cervelli, and minor leaguers Cesar Puello Fautino De Los Santos, Fernando Martinez and Jordan Norberto.

Once we are past Braun, each and every one of these players comes out of baseball’s notorious Latin American pipeline (or notorious for anyone who bothers to investigate).

Almost all the suspended players are from the Dominican Republic. This isn’t coincidence or happenstance. It’s the set-up of our globalized national pastime in the twenty-first century.

Any serious discussion about performance-enhancing drugs and baseball needs to deal with the fact of who is getting caught. Major League owners choose to invest billions of dollars in Latin America to develop talent on the cheap in the school’s baseball academies. In the Dominican Republic, where 40 percent of the country lives below the poverty line, steroids are actually legal and available over the counter.

As Gregg Sarra reported for Newsday in 2009, “Here’s how easy it is to buy anabolic steroids in the Dominican Republic: Walk into the local pharmacy and ask for them.”

Human growth hormones are also available but you need a prescription.

Children get scouted before their tenth birthday, are signed to contracts for peanuts, and their families see baseball—not without reason—as the best shot to escape poverty. The incentive to use steroids weighs on the tweens charged with dragging their families out of poverty. According to my own interviews with major-leaguers who’ve injected their bodies with banned substances, they’re psychologically—if not physically—profoundly addictive.

Look at one of the most prominent people branded with the scarlet “S”, Sammy Sosa. Before his thirteenth birthday, he stitched soles in a shoe factory for, as he remembered, “pennies, just enough to survive.” His choices, as he said, were the cane fields, the army or baseball.

Baseball’s owners prey on this reality. They want to benefit from steroids in the development of talent, and then excoriate those same players when caught on US shores. It’s a context that speaks to the imperial arrogance at the heart of the game. It’s a context right in front of our faces that we are asked not to see. Put simply, MLB owners want to have their anabolic cake and eat it too.

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It’s also worth noting that many white, college-educated, US-born players have been front and center speaking about why they oppose steroids in the game, leading one of the main media storylines: that “the players are demanding more testing and harsher penalties.” Perhaps. But it would be nice to hear just one US born player say that maybe—just maybe—the context and reality of a lot of the people getting pinched is profoundly different than their own.

Dave Zirin asks why the baseball players union is refusing to go to bat for their own.

On Alex Rodriguez and the 'Best Interests of the Game'

Alex Rodriguez. (AP Images)

I think in labor management relations there is no such thing as standing still. You either move forward or you go back.… The labor movement never stands still. —Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, 1966–1982

The hammer has finally come down. Alex Rodriguez—the latest “poster child” of performance enhancing drug–use in Major League Baseball—will, according to ESPN, be suspended for the entire 2013–14 season. That will end up being a $34 million dollar fine for the highest-paid player in the game.

Let’s forget for a moment that A-Rod will potentially take a bigger hit for “cheating” than Goldman-Sachs, and focus on the baseball issues at play. Rodriguez has said he plans on appealing the suspension. If he does, however, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has given word that he will invoke the rarely used “best interests of the game” clause in the collective bargaining agreement, and not allow the Yankee third baseman to take the field while on appeal. MLB would take this extraordinary step because it believes A-Rod’s transgressions fit the punishment. They are telling reporters they have evidence that not only was A-Rod a customer of Biogenesis, the shady anti-aging/steroid clinic in South Florida at the heart of this investigation, he also recruited players for Biogenesis and attempted to buy evidence from its owner, Anthony Bosch, now a fully cooperating MLB witness.

There are few people who will shed any tears for Alex Rodriguez. Unlike Barry Bonds, the last “poster-child” for PED use flambéed by Major League Baseball and its media minions, A-Rod has no one—other than those on his payroll—standing in his corner. He has no fierce fan base, as Bonds had in San Francisco. He doesn’t have any teammates he considers to be close friends. He lacks any sort of intriguing anti-hero appeal. As his biographer Selena Roberts said, “He’s known as the Hollowman.” From photos like these, to the painting of himself over his bed as a centaur, his public persona is that of the worst kind of narcissist: the insecure “mean girl” so yearning for approval, she ends up cruelly flaunting her narcissism. He’s the male version of Charlize Theron’s character in Young Adult. It’s not an archetype that ages well.

A-Rod’s lack of support however is exactly what makes him such low-hanging fruit for Bud Selig. And that’s precisely why the Major League Baseball Players Association needs to be fighting his suspension tooth and nail. Unions are not supposed to be fan clubs. They are not organizations of the righteous, the pure or the politically pitch-perfect. If they are to be worth a damn, in baseball or anywhere, they need to be the broadest of broad churches: institutions that will defend their most loathsome members because they understand that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is more than a slogan on a T-shirt. If a player can no longer take the field when appealing a suspension, that also disempowers the entire point of an appeal’s process; and if Bud Selig can get away with invoking the “best interests of the game” clause on A-Rod, then a precedent has been set and no one is safe.

It’s times like this, Michael Weiner, the executive director of the MLBPA, needs to be asking himself, “What would Marvin do?” What actions would the late Marvin Miller, the man who built the MLBPA as a combative fighting union, undertake? Miller’s starting point would be, I believe, to mercilessly call out the hypocrisy of Bud Selig’s case against A-Rod. He would say, as Dan Dickey (@hoopsnerd) pointed out on Twitter, that there is something bizarre about a situation where “MLB paid a drug dealer for his info [and] then considered a lifetime ban for ARod for trying to pay a drug dealer for his info.” He would also remark upon how utterly rich it is for Bud Selig to be lecturing anyone about “the best interests of the game” when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. He would wonder why the commissioner who was in charge as fully loaded syringes were passed around like party favors in locker rooms in the 1990s is now trusted to “clean up the game”. He would ask why there are no team penalties for steroid use. He would acidly question why owners aren’t fined or sanctioned if their clubhouses become PED clinics. He would wonder why the profits from baseball’s steroid era flow to ownership but the penalties fall upon the players.

Miller wasn’t an anti-PED zealot. When asked for his views in 2009, he said that he thought baseball and Congress’s concerns about steroids were really an “anti-union witch hunt.” He said he didn’t believe greatness on the field could come from “a magic pill.” He said he wouldn’t have supported increased drug testing even if it was demanded by players because “a leadership can’t just take a poll on what membership wants. You also have to judge whether this is in the best interests of the people you represent.” As for congressional intervention, he pointed out that a government which gives subsidies to big tobacco but criminalizes steroids was a government whose moral compass was not to be trusted. Maybe he would have changed his views under the weight of the collective pressure from Congress, the media and even a large constituency of players. But he also would have known where to draw the line.

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Marvin Miller—I have no doubt in my mind—would find Alex Rodriguez to be personally loathsome. Miller stood with the underdog. He would see A-Rod’s actions, his business interests and his politics to be the antithesis of the principles to which he devoted his life. But he also believed that the chain always breaks at its weakest link. Alex Rodriguez is—by any measure—the weakest link, and that’s exactly why he’d get Marvin Miller’s most fierce support. The union, in that tradition, should grit its teeth and stand with A-Rod.

Dave Zirin writes about how Ryan Braun made history by confronting MLB. 

Johnny Manziel and Trayvon Martin: (Almost) Nothing in Common

A man holds up a package of “Skittles” candy in front of a photograph of slain 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on the steps of City Hall in New York, March 28, 2012. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

“He ate Skittles, drank beer and won the Heisman.”—Paul Manziel, father of Johnny Manziel

“Johnny Manziel ate Skittles, drank beer, won the Heisman. Trayvon Martin ate Skittles, drank ice tea, got murdered. #Truth”—Charlton Jimerson a k a cjimerson25; former Major League Baseball Player

No two people could conceivably be more different than Johnny Manziel and Trayvon Martin. But despite the chasms that separate them of race, class, fame and, of course, the very gift of life, they’re united in cruel irony. They’re united in the ways this country seems to take a particularly savage joy in eating its young. We don’t treasure our youth. We criminalize them. We exploit them. We deify them. And then we dispose of them. Each young man has a narrative that tells this story.

Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback, became at age 19 the first freshman college football player in history to win the Heisman Trophy. Trayvon Martin at age 17 was stalked and killed by George Zimmerman for being one of those “punks” and having the misfortune of walking in his deadly line of vision. Johnny Manziel has every twenty-first-century privilege to an almost comical degree. He’s a young, white quarterback in Texas who hails from a wealthy oil family. Think about that quintet: fame, money, youth, whiteness and football. In this culture, that amounts to royalty. Tom Wolfe wouldn’t have the stones to create such a satirical archetype. Trayvon Martin had none of these things, other than his youth, and ended up dead as a result.

And yet, while their differences say a great deal about this country, their sole similarity, symbolized by that shared love of Skittles, tells a story all its own. For those who haven’t been following the Johnny Manziel off-season soap opera—recounted brilliantly in Wright Thompson’s detailed piece in ESPN the Magazine—the young man with everything seems to be losing his grip one inebriated tantrum at a time. He’s being torn to bits by the media for basically being an all-too-typical over-privileged 20-year-old. He gets drunk. He gets in bar fights. He has a temper. He gets arrested. Being wealthy and white provides space for Manziel to be all these things without ending up like Oscar Grant. But being a typical over-privileged 20-year-old and a college football cash cow has created an entirely different set of pressures.

Johnny Manziel’s family believes that Texas A&M and the NCAA are exploiting the hell out of their kid, squeezing every last dime out of him while taking no care to make sure that he’s protected and safe. Everyone wants a piece of their son, because they think he’s a walking piggy bank and if they have to break him to get the change out, then so be it. Johnny Manziel, maybe because he never wanted for anything and doesn’t need the NFL to pull his family out of poverty, is in open chaotic rebellion against everyone’s desire to take a piece of his hide. But no one—particularly in the media—likes a star quarterback with an attitude. Now the person who would typically be a campus god has far more enemies than friends. The Texas A&M student paper said he should leave as soon as possible, with the headline “Johnny, Be Gone.” Someone even keyed his car on campus. His father, in particular, doesn’t understand why people can’t just leave his son alone, saying a line which may go down in infamy: “He ate Skittles, drank beer and won the Heisman.”

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Trayvon Martin also ate Skittles but his drink of choice on the night of his death wasn’t beer but Arizona Ice Tea. None of that mattered. The Zimmerman trial became “the Trayvon trial” as his youth was put under the ugliest possible microscope. Think about the strategy of the Zimmerman legal team in defending their client’s right to “stand his ground” and shoot to kill. They put every aspect of a typical teen’s growing pains up for public consumption and scorn. Trayvon’s social media posturing, his shirtless photos, his style of dress were all presented as reasons why he should have been perceived as a threat. They subjected him to a level of scrutiny that frankly few of us would have survived at a similar age. It was an obscenity to see a dead teenager—unable to defend himself—put on trial for the grand purpose of keeping his killer out of prison.

What’s happening to Johnny Manziel is profoundly less serious, but the canyon-sized differences also shouldn’t blind us to that one similarity they share. We live in a culture that reveres, worships and commercializes youth, while simultaneously being a country that eats its young. Johnny Manziel is being eaten figuratively. Trayvon Martin was destroyed literally. How much better the world would be if we could see young people as a resource to build a better world instead of as the projection of our own worst fears and instincts. Then maybe Johnny Manziel just plays football and the media find something more useful to fret over than a 20-year-old’s Instagram account. Then maybe George Zimmerman drives up to Trayvon Martin in the rain, and offers him a ride home.

Bradley Manning was found not-guilty of aiding the enemy, but he still faces up to 136 years in prison.

On Vultures and Red Wings: Billionaire Gets New Sports Arena in Bankrupt Detroit

“Spirit of Detroit” statue in downtown Detroit. (AP Photo)

The headline juxtaposition boggles the mind. You have, on one day, “Detroit Files Largest Municipal Bankruptcy in History.” Then on the next, you have “Detroit Plans to Pay For New Red Wings Hockey Arena Despite Bankruptcy.

Yes, the very week Michigan Governor Rick Snyder granted a state-appointed emergency manager’s request to declare the Motor City bankrupt, the Tea Party governor gave a big thumbs-up to a plan for a new $650 million Detroit Red Wings hockey arena. Almost half of that $650 million will be paid with public funds.

This is actually happening. City services are being cut to the bone. Fighting fires, emergency medical care and trash collection are now precarious operations. Retired municipal workers will have their $19,000 in annual pensions dramatically slashed. Even the artwork in the city art museum will be sold off piece by piece. This will include a mural by the great radical artist Diego Rivera that’s a celebration of what the auto industry would look like in a socialist future. As Stephen Colbert said, the leading bidder will be “the museum of irony.”

They don’t have money to keep the art on the walls. They do have $283 million to subsidize a new arena for Red Wings owner and founder of America’s worst pizza-pizza chain, Little Caesar’s, Mike Ilitch, whose family is worth $2.7 billion dollars. (“Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your pensions!”)

How did Governor Snyder possibly summon the shamelessness to justify this?

Here’s how. He said, “This is part of investing in Detroit’s future, That’s the message we need to get across.… As we stabilize the city government’s finances, as we address those issues and improve services, Detroit moves from a place where people might have had a negative impression…to being a place that will be recognized across the world as a place of great value and a place to invest.”

Where, oh where have we heard this argument before? What city has heard the false promise that stadium construction on the public dime would be a postindustrial life raft? There are actually many, but none have heard it more and paid the cost quite like Detroit. A new Red Wings arena would be the city’s third publicly funded major sports stadium, joining the Tigers’ Comerica Stadium and the Lions’ Ford Field. Each of these was billed as a “remedy” to save the city. Each of these has obviously failed. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Try to fool us three times? Go to hell.

I spoke with Marvin Surkin, co-author of the classic book Detroit I Do Mind Dying. He said, “These are more than just remedies that didn’t work. They are part of the problem because stadiums don’t address the central issues of falling population, falling tax base, declining wages, unemployment and the underfunding of schools.”

Surkin is correct. If anything, this kind of corporate welfare has over the last generation exacerbated Detroit’s existing problems. Why? Because it siphons money out of the city services—things like schools and hospitals—while creating the very kinds of jobs that are the antithesis to those that once built Detroit into the third-largest city in the United States. No living wages. No job security. No tax base. Just spanking new stadiums for suburban sports fans, which Detroit residents will be able to enter only if they’re selling foam novelty fingers.

As Neal DeMause, who runs the indispensable website Field of Schemes, said to me:

“There’s absolutely no reason on earth that the state of Michigan couldn’t say to Mike Ilitch, ‘Sorry, Detroit has more important things to do with its money.’ Instead, though, the governor seems content to let Ilitch cut to the front of the line for public funds, on the grounds that ‘who doesn’t get fired up’ about hockey. Even if you limited it to economic development projects, putting money into fixing city schools or restoring streetlights would do far more for Detroit’s business prospects than a hockey arena. This just goes to show the problem with carving out shares of tax revenue to go to development authorities—they end up basically serving as slush funds for developers, even when the city treasury is otherwise empty.”

There is a right-wing narrative about Detroit that the city is in peril because of some combination of the 1967 “race riots” and greedy unions. The reality is that black and brown residents of Detroit made Motown and those “greedy unions” built a stable working class that could realistically dream of a better life for their own children. The breaking of Detroit should be seen, in the words of David Sirota, as an indictment of right wing economic orthodoxy. Instead, the bankruptcy has been used as a warning to other cities that unions, pensions and a culture of resistance are roads to ruin.

With this Red Wings arena, Snyder, Ilitch, and their ilk may have gone too far. The commitment of Detroit’s corporate masters to this stadium project actually acts like an autopsy, revealing who has really destroyed the Motor City. As legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs put it, a conservative agenda has “been strip mining cities by privatizing almost all services, attacking public workers and their unions, while at the same time providing billion-dollar tax cuts for large businesses and cutting revenue sharing to the cities.” In a city that’s 83 percent African-American and built on union labor, it’s a pelt long desired by the Snyders of this world. Neoliberalism has destroyed Detroit. Free trade deals have destroyed Detroit. Corporate welfare has destroyed Detroit. It’s perverse of Snyder and Detroit’s anti-union, pro-stadium mayor—and NBA hall-of-famer—Dave Bing to see stadiums as symbols of Detroit’s revival. They are symbols instead of its decline.

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More and more people across the world are getting wise to these kinds of priorities. Perhaps Detroit should keep its eyes on Brazil, where mass discontent with the quality of schools, hospitals and the government led to marches on stadiums built or refurbished for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. One of the slogans amongst the Brazilian masses was “A giant awakes. Come to the streets.” In Detroit, if no one can afford to go to the game they might have no choice but to come to the streets.

Are Governor Rick Snyder’s actions in Detroit an “affront to democracy” or merely tough but necessary decisions?

Is the NFL Really Stupid Enough to Hire 'Gang Tattoo Experts' to Examine Players?

Tattoos on the arm of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Call it football’s worst idea since helmets without face guards and the ten-dollar beer. In the wake of the murder charges levied against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, there is talk that NFL teams may hire “police tattoo experts” to examine the body ink on NFL players for gang affiliations. CBS Sports columnist Bruce Feldman reported that yes, this is actually being considered. As Feldman tweeted, “Spoke w longtime NFL personnel man who said in wake of Aaron Hernandez teams may use police experts to check prospects tattoos”. (Hernandez, as has been widely reported, had the word “blood” tattooed on his hand, a reference some say to the Bristol Bloods gang, although Hernandez denies any gang involvement. This photograph of a teen-age Hernandez was also unearthed, although he looks more like he’s posing for a Halloween party than a night of gang activity.)

It’s difficult to express just how awful an idea this is on every conceivable level. Other than give confidence to Rush Limbaugh to repeat one of his favorite racist nuggets—“The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and Crips without any weapons”—hiring police to treat players like possible gang members would accomplish nothing.

Let’s leave aside the attendant irony of the NFL with all its concussions, compromised medical professionals and sea of shattered bodies, being concerned about any culture of violence that surrounds their game. Hiring police tattoo “experts” rests on the assumption that NFL locker rooms are riddled with gangs. This assumption, in league that’s 70 percent African-American, is the very definition of racist. Why? Because there is no evidence whatsoever to support this. According to the FBI’s statistics, an NFL player is five times less likely to run afoul of the law than your typical 22- or 34-year-old. Such an inspection process would merely act as the collective criminalization and intimidation of people who are supposed to be your employees, and do—even in America—have rights on the job as workers.

This is not a league of gang members. It is, however, a league that sells a highly commodified three-hour package of violence for a family audience. Yes, sometimes the violence spills off the field. But this has far less to do with the gangs in a player’s past than the weekly violence that defines their present. When there is off-the-field violence, it’s tragically far more likely to find expression in violence against women than in the highly sensationalized world of gangs. If the NFL wants to look at the roots of off-the-field violence and take the issue of violence against women seriously, then we should listen. If it wants to propagate the idea that tattoos signify violence and gangs, then we should reject this as stereotypical trash.

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Should Roger Goodell and friends really want to know why so many players get tats, then they should listen to the words of perhaps the most tattooed player in the NFL, who also happens to have the league’s best-selling jersey: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

As he said to Time magazine:

To me, tattoos are a way of people being able to express themselves and have other people look at them and get a little insight into who they are, without ever even saying a word to them. All my tattoos, they’ve been thought out, thought over, been a work in progress for at least a year before I’ve got them. So I’m not walking into a tattoo shop, picking tattoos off a wall. It’s something that means something to me. It’s something that I believe in.

The NFL is known as the “no-fun league” for a reason. Players get tattoos because in a league where you can get fined for having the wrong color of shoelaces, it’s the one way they can show their individuality and be more than a uniform and a helmet. The NFL doesn’t want us to know who’s under the helmet because you don’t want to market a league around players if your next play could be your last. Maybe if the NFL weren’t so callous about dehumanizing their product, players wouldn’t turn to ink to remind everyone that they are human.

Dave Zirin explains why the NFL is a terrible place to work.

Down Goes Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, after more than a year of vociferous denials, 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun has basically admitted to performance-enhancing drug use and been suspended for the remainder of the 2013 season.* For those unfamiliar with the story, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had yearned to suspend Ryan Braun for over a year ever since he beat a league suspension after an independent arbitrator deemed that his “sample,” which tested for highly elevated testosterone, was mishandled in transit. (I only wish Grantland Rice was alive so he could wax poetic about the odyssey of Bud Selig’s epic triumph over Ryan Braun and his magical urine.)

Braun finally decided to cut a deal after he was listed as one of more than two dozen players who received “treatments” at the Biogenesis “anti-aging” clinic, run by non-doctor Anthony Bosch. Rather than wait for a suspension, amidst a disappointing injury-plagued season, Braun said no mas. He also didn’t put up a fight because perhaps the best fighting union in the country wouldn’t put up their gloves.

There is a new reality that pits the MLBPA and the owners against those on the field who are tainted by accusations of PED use. Players can now be suspended even if they don’t fail a drug test, and carrying the mere appearance of impropriety now carries the Orwellian stigma of being guilty of a “non-analytical positive.” The MLBPA signaled last week that it wouldn’t be defending players who face evidence of associations with steroid clinics, even if the evidence wouldn’t last in an actual court of law. As MLBPA President Michael Weiner said when Braun announced he would accept the suspension, “I am deeply gratified to see Ryan taking this bold step. It vindicates the rights of all players under the Joint Drug Program. It is good for the game that Ryan will return soon to continue his great work both on and off the field.” In other words, this is the new normal. The burden of proof is now on players to prove they’re innocent and no longer would the union invest political and public relations capital in defending those branded cheaters at the expense of players living “clean.”

There are certainly many who will cheer this development. Just don’t count me among them. My problem with the Braun case is that far too many people are applauding the union by setting up a false dichotomy: either the MLBPA will defend the small percentage of players who are found to be using PEDs, or it will disavow those found to be using and say that the role of the union is to help “clean up the game.” This is, frankly, twisted.

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The role of the baseball union, as forged by the late, great Marvin Miller, should be to safeguard the health of its players and entitle them to due process. Let Major League Baseball worry about public relations and kissing Congress’s behind so they can keep their anti-trust exemptions. That’s not a union’s job. When it comes to health, they should be fighting for expanded knowledge and education about what players put into their bodies. They should agitate for players to be able to use safe medical technology and incorporate it, as it develops, into a training regimen that makes player’s lives less perilous. They should also be fighting for accountability by ownership in baseball’s drug culture: constantly raising the question, “What do owners know about PED use on their teams?” They won’t win these battles, but that should be what’s raised from their bully pulpit. The current system only empowers shady—and medically dangerous—facilities like Biogenesis and individuals like Anthony Bosch. The union should also be fighting for due process and a system where the burden of proof is on the accuser and not the accused. Once again, it might not win these fights, but they get to the heart of what a union should actually be doing. As for Ryan Braun, he will go down as the first person sucked into the whirlpool of baseball’s sea change. If the union can’t throw a life preserver, it seems they could have done better than help throw him overboard.

* No, Ryan Braun is not Major League Baseball’s version of Lance Armstrong. ESPN’s Buster Olney —and legions of others online—are comparing the Brewers slugger with the disgraced cyclist since, like Armstrong, Ryan Braun preceded his admittance of guilt with profoundly passionate statements of innocence. But Ryan Braun never tried to financially ruin any of the people who accused him. Ryan Braun never brought frivolous lawsuits or bullied fellow teammates into using in order to make them complicit. To use a labor parallel, Lance Armstrong was thuggish management and Ryan Braun is yet another worker caught up in the web of baseball’s steroid agonistes.

Dave Zirin on the idiocy of the steroid hearings.

'Martin to Martin': Hundreds Gather in the DC Heat to Stand With Trayvon

Justice For Trayvon Martin Rally in front of US District Court, Washington DC on Saturday afternoon, 20 July 2013. (Courtesy of FLickr user Elvert Barnes)

There’s “hot”. There’s “summer in DC hot”. And then there’s “summer in downtown DC hot”. For the uninitiated, our humid nation’s capital, built appropriately on a swamp, is particularly sweltering amidst the federal buildings where concrete is king and trees are in scarce supply. This was the setting for Saturday’s vigil for Trayvon Martin, called by the National Action Network and held at the DC Federal Courthouse.

There must have been 1,000 people out on the scorching sidewalk, the overwhelming majority African-American families. [Given the widely publicized nature of the event, it was deeply disappointing that more white members of the DC left—people who organized around Occupy DC or march without fail around other issues—did not attend.]

Most of the signs were home-made; some so touching you’d feel a tear mix with the sweat on your cheeks. The one that grabbed me was a woman who wrote down the entirety of her version of “the talk” she was going to have with her 6-year-old son, who was holding her hand. For those who don’t know, “the talk” is what African-American families tell their sons to avoid racial violence. Normally, it centers on speaking softly and not making sudden movements. But as she said to me, “This is a different kind of ‘talk’ ”. It read:

I will teach my son strength. I will teach my son to question authority. I will teach my son to fight injustice. I will not teach my son to fear. I will not emasculate my son because of uncivilized animals pretending to be human. You teach your son to let my son be, to not hate him because of his skin color because I am teaching my son to die fighting.

The speakers ranged from the National Action Network and the NAACP to local icons like Joe Madison and Dick Gregory. Joe Madison provided a high point when he said, “We still have a Jim Crow legal system. But now it’s a legal system that’s decided the George Zimmermans of the world can be judge, jury and executioner. He then is backed not by Jim Crow. But by James Crow, Esquire.” Dick Gregory provided a low point by starting his speech with a homophobic “joke,” saying it was easy to get gay marriage because of who founded the country. “Just look at George Washington in those tight pants, boots and powdered wig,” he said, waiting for a laugh. The crowd, however, which was energized and clapping at every line from every speaker, was tepid* in response. Homophobia did not sell.

It’s also worth noting that President Obama’s unscheduled, impromptu words yesterday about the Zimmerman verdict were roundly celebrated. Everyone I talked to on the ground seemed to gain confidence and joy from the fact that the president spoke out, and particularly from the part where he said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” and when he asked the question, “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”

But there was also a different negative kind impact that President Obama’s words had upon the proceedings. The president signaled Friday that there probably would not be civil rights charges forthcoming from the Department of Justice saying, “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government…. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”

This reflected itself in the speeches where no one—to my ears—made direct demands of Eric Holder and the DOJ. Additionally, we were only less than half a mile from the DOJ and there was no consideration of marching over. Would there have been had President Obama not spoken on Friday? No one knows, but I’m inclined to think so.

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The most positive part of the gathering however was that there was tremendous energy around the August 24th DC demonstration to commemorate the fifieth anniversary of the March on Washington. The uproar around Trayvon’s case has, I believe, transformed that from a low-key gathering of remembrance into a vital call for a new civil rights movement. People were eager to come back out in August, many even volunteering on the spot to hand out flyers or take home handbills about the coming march.

In the last 15 minutes before it ended, my own 5-year-old son played at the margins of the gathering with a little boy named Martin. As people started to stream away, his mother came over and when my son said, “Goodbye Martin,” his mother said, “I’m so sorry. His name is Kimonte. He’s been telling everyone his name is Martin because of all the people saying, ‘I am Trayvon Martin.’” I said I thought maybe he was named after Martin Luther King. She said, “Well, we need both their spirits arm-in-arm.” Their memories will come together on August 24. I hope to see you there.

* In my original draft, I described the reaction to Gregory as "silent", which it was in my section. After watching the video, sent courtesy of someone on twitter, "tepid" is a better word choice.

Mychal Denzel Smith on why ending Stand Your Ground isn't enough to prevent another Trayvon Martin.

Standing With Trayvon, Waiting for LeBron…

(AP Photo/LeBron James via Twitter)

“I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not supposed to be here.… I AIN’T GOT NO WORRIES!”

I want to know what LeBron James thinks about the not-guilty verdict that freed Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Is that fair? Is it fair to yearn for a political response on a polarizing and painful issue from someone who puts a ball through a hoop for a living? My friend Mike Freeman over at CBS Sports said to me, “I’d rather hear more from President Obama about this than LeBron.” That’s a very good point. But I’ll also maintain that we have every right to expect a comment on this Florida travesty from Florida’s most famous resident. This isn’t like waiting for Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning or Mariano Rivera to enlighten us with their thoughts about the fact that George Zimmerman somehow walked. LeBron James is different because he made himself different.

In 2012, LeBron James famously organized the entire Heat squad across all geographical and demographic lines to wear hoodies for Trayvon, their heads bowed in protest. LeBron himself wrote “Trayvon RIP” on his sneakers, and his teammate Dwyane Wade did the same with the message We Want Justice. Given that James was a man with legions of haters, without a ring and still smarting from the Heat’s loss in the 2011 championship against the Dallas Mavericks, taking time out for a highly charged political stance held more than a little risk. But LeBron didn’t care and his sense that Trayvon mattered more than his “brand” truly meant something. After the photo was taken, Trayvon’s father Tracy said, “These athletes are saying, ‘It’s not about who I am. It’s about right and wrong…. The Miami Heat came out in their hoodies, and that’s just saying, ‘We are people, we have hearts, we have feelings, we have emotions.’ That’s a warm feeling.”

Now, just seventeen months later, James is athletically and culturally in a different stratosphere. The Heat have won two titles. He has hit every shot, answered every question and silenced every hater. He has 9.1 million Twitter followers and is perhaps the world’s most important athlete. He was even feeling secure enough in Game Six of the 2013 finals to toss off his headband and show the world his hairline. Then after their Game Seven triumph, he loosened up on the trophy stand and said the words that that made my friend Kevin (his words) “burst with a black working man’s pride,” saying, “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not supposed to be here.… I AIN’T GOT NO WORRIES!”

Well, now we have worries. LeBron: You have more cultural capital that anyone in the state of Florida. You have already made clear that you care deeply about what happened that rainy night when a teenager went out for Skittles and ended up dead. You identified with the anger people feel toward a criminal justice system that saw Trayvon Martin as disposable perhaps precisely because you were someone who wasn’t “even supposed to be here.”

You once said that your dream was to be “a global icon like Muhammad Ali.” That takes a hell of a lot more than just titles. It takes a certain dogged persistence on questions many simply don’t want asked. As Ali once said, “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.” Freedom still eludes far too many. When the verdict came down, your teammate Dwyane Wade said, ““Wow!!! Stunned!!! Saddened as a father!!! Some1 make sense of this verdict for me right now please!!! Don’t worry I’ll wait…” You’ve still said nothing. Anything would mean something. Even simple words of support and prayer for the Martin family would matter. I’m glad you have no worries. But the worries are knocking at your door.

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Let’s be honest: no one is waiting for what Michael Jordan has to say about this case. But you showed last year that you’re not him. You showed, as Tracy Martin said, that you “have a heart.” I can’t help think about those three simple words D-Wade wrote on his sneakers: We Want Justice. We’re still waiting for justice. We’re also waiting for you. Thousands of us will be in front of the Justice Department this Saturday whether you say something or not. The train is leaving the station. It’s a train upon which you’ve already traveled. All we want is for you to get back on board.

John Nichols reports on the burgeoning movement in Florida to repeal the Stand Your Ground law.

'America's Justice System Is a Joke': Athletes Respond to Trayvon Martin Verdict

(AP Photo/LeBron James via Twitter)

In February 2012, the stalking and murder of Trayvon Martin affected pro athletes—particularly African-American athletes—in a way that perhaps can be best described as intimate. Players like Carmelo Anthony saw the case far more clearly than George Zimmerman’s prosecutor: it was a racist murder and Trayvon, condemned to death for Living While Black, could have been them or their children. As Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade said at the time, “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I’m speaking up because I feel it’s necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.” The entire Heat franchise, led by LeBron James, then famously posed with their hoodies up, in a photo that deserves to stand the test of time.

Now, in the aftermath of the shock/gutpunch/depressingly expected verdict that set Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, free and reunited with his gun, athletes are again speaking out. Before I report on what they have been saying, a quick word on why this matters. Millions of people—in particular, millions of young white men—follow these guys on Twitter. Many exist in their own bubble where either Trayvon Martin doesn’t register at all, or if he does, it's as someone who deserved to die. Maybe just maybe some of these comments by the people they cheer but rarely hear punctured their bubble.

First, there was Dwyane Wade, in the immediate aftermath writing, “Wow!!! Stunned!!! Saddened as a father!!! Some1 make sense of this verdict for me right now please!!! Don’t worry I’ll wait…”

Others, in a similar vein, took to Twitter to post their shock. This includes those such as NBA stars Chris Paul and Stephen Curry who said, “Watched a lot of the case…though[t] manslaughter was a definite! Thinking about everyone involved especially the Martin family”

Some reacted with a rage many of us also feel in our hearts today. Their words will undoubtedly earn them calls from team management. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White wrote, “All them jurors should go home tonight and kill themselves for letting a grown man get away with killing a kid.”

Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz tweeted and quickly deleted, “Zimmerman doesn’t last a year til the hood catches up to him.”

And James Harrison, longtime fearsome defensive end of the Pittsburgh Steelers and now a Cincinnati Bengal wrote, “Think I’ll go pick a fight and get my ass kicked then pull my gun and kill somebody and see if I can get away.”

Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and the two-year sentence in Leavenworth he received for animal abuse was on a lot of minds as well. Stevie Johnson of the Bills tweeted, “Living in a world where you fight dogs; you could lose everything (Mike Vick).. If you kill a black man you’re not guilty! #INjusticeSystem.”

There were many others: some preaching calm, others disgust, others fury. But interestingly, even though there are a lot of right-wing athletes, I couldn’t find evidence of the horrific gloating seen in the darkest recesses of social media, not to mention Zimmerman’s defense attorney following the verdict. That speaks, in my mind, to the fact that even the most right-wing, white-survivalist, gun-loving player shares a more integrated existence in the locker room than many do in their daily lives. Once you see someone as a human being and not as an avatar of a predator, it’s damn hard to accept the word of this jury that they are disposable.

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Perhaps the final word should go to what has been the most tweeted athlete comment, at least in my circles. It was Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins who tweeted simply, “America justice system is a joke.” It is a joke. And if you know Kendrick Perkins, you know he’s not smiling. It’s marching time, people. No justice, no peace.

Read Aura Bogado’s post on why George Zimmerman was acquitted.

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