Where sports and politics collide.
AT&T Park in San Franscisco. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
Picture AT&T Park, home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Picture about as breathtaking a baseball stadium as exists in the United States with the San Francisco Bay, otherwise known as McCovey Cove, framing the outfield like a Norman Rockwell postcard as conceived by Leroy Neiman. Picture seats packed with people clad in their iconic orange and black reveling in the once hard-luck team that now defines the city and stands atop the game. What we don’t picture when we conjure images of this or any ballpark are the people actually doing the work to keep it all running.
As idyllic as the aesthetics of the park remain, those prepping the food and cleaning the toilets make $11,000 a year in a city where, due to yet another round of tech-bubble gentrification, they cannot afford to live. Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater. Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.
Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles, even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans. I spoke with Billie Feliciano, who has been working at the park for over three decades. She said to me, “This is the first time in thirty-five years we’ve had to go to these extremes. Centerplate says talk to the Giants. The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we are saying is we want a fair share.”
Getting their “fair share” from Giants owner 80-year-old multibillionaire Charles Johnson will not be easy. A child of Wall Street wealth whose fortune has grown exponentially with the expansion of the financial markets, he now heads the mutual fund Franklin Templeton started by his father. As he said to The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting the company’s namesake Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (It would be far more fitting if he quoted the Ben Franklin who said of money, “The more one has, the more one wants.”)
In a startling bit of symmetry, Johnson lives in the city’s Carolands Chateau, a 100 room, 65,000 square foot palace originally built a century ago for the daughter of railroad magnate George Pullman. That would be George Pullman, namesake of the bloody 1894 Pullman Railway Strike where the United States Army intervened to crush the nascent industrial workers organization known as the American Railway Union. Then, destroying the mere idea of an industrial union like the ARU was seen as a high priority. Today we are seeing service industry workers starting to organize, walk out and be heard, and a twenty-first-century Pullman is looking to halt the mere idea that the expansion of service unions will happen on his watch. This is why the struggle at AT&T Park is bigger than 800 concession workers and why everyone has a stake in offering solidarity and support. As legendary Bay Area KPFA Hardknock Radio host Davey D said, “There is a lot of talk about having a citywide fast food union in San Francisco. So if you can topple the union at AT&T Park, then you can topple that idea. And if you can topple [service] unions there, you can topple them anywhere and can stop that tide around the country.”
The workers are ready. Feliciano said to me, “We come there rain or shine. Are we striking? Not yet. But these workers are ready to strike.” The community, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the players on the Giants, from Buster Posey to Tim Lincecum to Sergio Romo, should support them as well.
As for the negotiations, they display all the arrogance of both Centerplate and Charles Johnson. During one session, while management scolded the union for thinking they were worth more than $11,000 a year, hedge fund honcho Mike Wilkins, a partner at $400 million Kingsford Capital Management, was on the field running the bases with 100 of his buddies, at a one-day rental cost of $500,000. This was described to the website Buzzfeed as an exercise in “grown up boys fantasy time.” Will San Francisco ever again be anything but a playground for the overgrown millionaire children of the tech sector? That’s the question. We’ll find out the answer in the weeks to come.
Go to thegiantzero.org for updates on the struggle.
Tim Tebow as a Florida Gator, November 2009. (Reuters/Scott Audette)
Of the legions of unemployed in the United States, the most famous may be a person best described as, “Tim Tebow: Full Time Icon/Part-Time Quarterback.” After being released from the New York Jets last week, the man who was the toast of the NFL just one year ago cannot find a team willing to sign him. Even the Canadian Football League, long the refuge for quarterbacks cast out of Babylon, doesn’t want any part of “Tebowmania.”
We know that Tim Tebow isn’t very good at the whole throwing thing—always a drawback for a quarterback—but he has shown tremendous ability as an athlete and a divine flair for leading dramatic comebacks in the fourth quarter. He also would be an upgrade from several quarterbacks currently littering NFL rosters. There have simply never been so many bad quarterbacks leading NFL teams, yet Tebow’s phone isn’t ringing.
His inability to get signed, as Yahoo! Sports columnist Mike Silver laid out very persuasively, owes less to his abilities under center than all the frenzy that surrounds him. Tim Tebow is a neon distraction in a league that prefers the equivalent of men in gray flannel suits. If Tom Brady is the Don Draper of quarterbacks, then Tim Tebow is Megan Draper, flashing some skin and singing French pop songs, equal parts transfixing and excruciating. In other words, even if many an NFL owner shares Tim Tebow’s politics, they don’t share his need for attention. Our pro football bosses like doing their political business in the shadows, and Tim Tebow has become a living, breathing avatar for those fighting the Gary Bauer/Focus on the Family culture war like it’s still 1992.
Tebow is the only NFL player who can be described as having a base: a group of rabid fans who love him independently of his play and extol his greatness on the basis of his religiosity, his support for Focus on the Family or his wholesome whiteness. His base extends the tentacles of the culture war into any locker room he inhabits, turning any team he’s on into catnip for a media fiending to follow his every move, which only further alienates his teammates. The most compelling critique of Tebow, in my humble view, is that he has resisted any effort to disavow either his base or media attention, seemingly welcoming the distraction and even trying to leverage it to leapfrog toward more playing time. Your typical control-freak NFL head coach would rather have a player with a communicable plague than a player—especially a quarterback—who would relish this kind of constant distraction.
That’s what made Monday’s speech by congressional Neanderthal Representative Steve King all the more tragic for the future career prospects of Mr. Tebow. In the well of the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams risked arrest and assassination by inveighing against slavery, King decided to talk about his favorite subject, “the gays.” (Dan Savage doesn’t dwell on the “LGBT lifestyle” as much as Steve King.) Normally, whenever the Iowa congressman speaks, you roll your eyes, check your phone and, just in case, put the Southern Poverty Law Center on speed dial. But in this case, he invoked the name of Tim Tebow as a contrast to the athlete he sees is “undermining Western Civilization”: Jason Collins. Collins, of course, just became the first active, male, North American athlete to come out of the closet.
As King said, “We’ve got Tim Tebow who will kneel and pray to God on the football field. Meanwhile we have a professional athlete that decides he’s going to announce his sexuality and he gets a personal call from the United States to highlight the sexuality of a professional ballplayer. These are ways that the culture gets undermined, where it gets divided. The people over on this side take their followership from that kind of leadership. One notch at a time, American civilization, American culture, western civilization, western Judeo-Christiandom are eroded.”
First of all, “followership” is not a word. Second, moments like this are precisely why Tim can’t find work, and it’s a shame. As long as he’s not on my team, I actually like Tim Tebow. In the “No Fun League,” the one thing you would never accuse Tim Tebow of being is boring. But while NFL owners might financially support the Steve Kings of this world, people like him are seen as strangely gauche: the relative you keep locked in the attic when company arrives. Tim Tebow, if he so desired, could disavow Representative Steve King, the same way he cancelled a speaking engagement at a new $130 million Dallas megachurch after finding out its pastor, Dr. Robert Jeffress, believed Jews, Muslims and gay people were going to hell (it’s worth noting that Tebow did not condemn these comments and, according to Jeffress, has plans to reschedule). But at this point, the former Heisman trophy winner may have better future prospects as a speaker on the evangelical gravy train than as a quarterback, and if there is one thing we know about Tebow Inc., it knows where its bread is buttered. I fear, however, it will soon learn that the true Sunday megachurch in the USA is an NFL stadium. Without a team, Tim Tebow in time may find himself without a flock.
Meanwhile, two progressive congressmen are calling for a constitutional right to vote. Read John Nichols’s take.
A store below the Palace bar in Mexico City, where Malcolm Shabazz was killed. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Malcolm Shabazz had everything going for him. He was 28 years old, handsome as hell and a remarkably charismatic public speaker. He was an activist, an organizer and a proud father. He also had the blessing of being the grandson of Malcolm X.
Malcolm Shabazz had everything going against him. He was a young black man with a criminal record in the age of the New Jim Crow. He proudly allied himself with countries resisting US occupation and influence. He spoke to audiences across the earth, earning the unwanted attention of the Department of Homeland Security. He was treated with persecution, scorn and incarceration instead of the utmost sympathy for his role in a fire that took his grandmother Dr. Betty Shabazz, when he was only 13. He also had the burden of being the grandson of Malcolm X.
Now Malcolm Shabazz is dead. He was in Mexico City to meet in solidarity with a labor organizer deported from the United States and ended up beaten to death outside of a bar. Details of how and why he was killed are extremely sketchy, and I am not writing this to add to that noise, except to say that I’ll trust a police report about the death of Malcolm X’s grandson around the time I grow a tail.
I’m more writing out of anger: anger that this young man, whom I was able to get to know after meeting at a panel on fatherhood, is having his character assassinated in death. For reasons it should have to answer for, USA Today chose to display a picture of him in handcuffs alongside a brief notice about his killing. The Huffington Post—and no, I won’t link to this garbage—provided no sense of who he was except to write that he “pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in 2002 and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Just months after his release in 2006, he was arrested again, this time for punching a hole in a store window.”
With very few exceptions, not a single piece has what you would expect in a typical obituary: remembrances of loved ones and colleagues to give a three-dimensional portrait of someone’s life. The grandson of Malcolm X can only be seen in one dimension. That dimension, as the Associated Press wrote, was just that he “led a troubled life.”
There is no question Malcolm Shabazz had troubles. As he himself said, “Considering what I’ve been through, it’s a miracle that I’ve been able to hold it together. I’m just trying to find my way… Some of the things I’ve been through, the average person would have cracked.”
But “troubled” is not the sum total of who this young man was. Here’s a different take on Malcolm Shabazz by someone who actually knew him. Former NBA player Etan Thomas organized the fatherhood panel I mentioned earlier and worked with Malcolm on numerous events. I asked Etan for his thoughts. He said,
There is a lot of mischaracterization going on from people who know nothing. They never met Malcolm. They stayed far away from him but now they want to inaccurately characterize him. I knew Malcolm. Talked with him, worked with him, he was my friend. Malcolm had a heart of gold. He wanted to help people and change the world. He had been through so much in his young life. He went with me to Riker’s Island to talk to young incarcerated men under 18 and they were focused on his every word. He shared with them the mistakes he made in the past, the absence of a father’s presence, gave them words of encouragement and upliftment. And they were hanging on his every word because they saw the sincerity in him. He genuinely cared. It was an honor to work with him, and to have had him as a friend. He will be missed.
When I met Malcolm Shabazz, I had to ask him the question I’m sure he’d been asked a thousand times. I asked, “Is it more burden or blessing to be Malcolm X’s grandson?” He smiled and said, “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. Yes, being his grandson is a blessing. But you know what? Being a father is a blessing. Being in the struggle is a blessing. And just being alive is a blessing.”
We should mourn for the family of Malcolm Shabazz. We should also mourn for ourselves. In a selfish world where the offspring of the famous are more likely to use their cultural capital to become media parasites, we lost someone truly special. He wanted to wield Malcolm’s memory to fight for a better world. Now we should do the same with the memory of both of these Malcolms. They were both brilliant. They were both maligned. They were both taken far too young with far too much unfinished work in front of them. Malcolm Shabazz: Presente!
In the US, people under the age of eighteen can be held in solidarity confinement. Check out Nation Action for what you can do to stop it.
(Flickr/Public Affairs Office, Fort Wainwright)
Last weekend, I had the great joy of being a judge at the 2013 DC, Maryland and Virginia Louder than a Bomb teen poetry slam competition. For those who don’t know how Louder than a Bomb works, area high schools organize teams who perform in front of an audience of family, friends, fans and, of course, the other competing poets. It’s raucous, intense, and when the emotional weight of a poem connects with a crowd, the adrenaline can suck the air out of a room.
As I was watching these young people unfurl their intense emotional discourses, the sportswriter in me began to ponder what was truly radical about the proceedings. It wasn’t the content of the poems as much as the content of the event itself. Like any great athletic contest, I was seeing the feel of competition push participants to new heights. I saw teams bonding, playing off one another, and working together like one of those Wade-to-LeBron-to-Wade-to-LeBron fast breaks. But I also witnessed an atmosphere that was genuinely supportive, cooperative, and spoke to the best angels of that oft-abused trope known as “sportsmanship.” As I watched this unfold, I asked myself, “Why can’t youth sports be like this?” Yes, it’s true that some teams are fun, some children have terrific experiences and access to youth sports should be universal. But overall, youth sports, to quote my neighbor’s 11-year-old kid, “straight sucks.” Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?
The day I was judging poets, a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after being punched in the face by a 17-year-old player because he didn’t like a call that Portillo made on a corner kick. Ricardo’s daughter Johana Portillo told the Associated Press, “Five years ago, a player upset with a call broke his ribs. A few years before that, a player broke his leg. Other referees have been hurt, too.”
What in the blue hell is going on here? I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive experience for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches are using them to meet the needs of adults at the expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” (My emphasis.)
This idea that youth sports has become something that fulfills the needs of adults as opposed to children was backed up by a statistic sent to me by Mark Hyman, author of the highly recommended book, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports. He wrote me, “Approximately half of all reported youth sports injuries are the result of overuse”—caused by kids starting too young in sports, specializing in one sport too early, and training too intensely. “Before the adult-supervised era of kids’ sports, there were no overuse injuries.” (My emphasis.)
Mark wrote another book, also highly recommended, called The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. This book, for me, is a Rosetta stone for understanding why youth sports have become so unbearable for so many.
Organized sports in this country are now a trillion-dollar business—as one marketer says, “from the womb to the tomb.” This is not an exaggeration. There are companies that make videos with names like Athletic Baby and Baby Goes Pro. There are gymnasiums for newborns with an eye on getting them to the pros. There are personal trainers for babies as young as six months. Poor and working-class families of every ethnicity have long seen sports as a ticket out of poverty. But now the financial crunch is on middle-class families as well. Their goal is less the pros than, in an era of $50,000 tuitions and crushing student loans, a college scholarship. Parents see their children as competing against other boys and girls, from the time their kids are big enough to pick up a ball. But to even get in the scholarship pipeline, unlike in decades past, playing for your school is not enough. You need to be a part of a traveling team. You need to have the right equipment. As the overwhelming majority of families are now headed by two working adults, you need to have parents willing to sacrifice scarce leisure time or work hours to attend games. As Mark Hyman describes, these families are not wealthy. Instead, they’re making an investment that needs to pay off, which creates a powder keg of pressure on very young kids.
I asked John Carlos, the great 1968 Olympian, who has also worked as a guidance counselor in public schools for over two decades, why youth sports are so toxic for so many. He said, “The problem is the system. It’s a system where everyone wants to get over on kids. Yes, the parents make these bad choices, but when you’re in that kind of cesspool, all you can really see is… you know. You know what you see in a cesspool. It’s like a kid can’t just be a kid anymore.”
That last line is the key. Profiteering and childhood, whether we are talking about youth sports or charter schools, are a toxic mix. It’s creepy enough that the representatives of big business are oozing around the playground and judging youth sports as an underdeveloped “opportunity.” It’s time to get their priorities off the playing field and fight for space so kids can be kids. If we can link this to a movement of fighting for price controls on college tuitions, that will be music to many a parents’ ears.
In America’s schools, resistance is growing to high-stakes testing. Read David Kirp’s take.
John Carlos (right) commemorated on a mural in Brisbane, Australia. (Flickr/Rae Allen)
Yesterday, I spoke with Dr. John Carlos, one of the “fists of freedoms” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (Full disclosure, I had the privilege of co-writing his memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, 2011.) Dr. Carlos is as “old school” as they come: someone who believes strongly that athletes have obligations to give their time, money and physical presence to “impoverished communities, black, brown or white” and work to make the world a better place. He believes in honesty, fairness and the value of courage as a staple of whether or not a person actually has character. He taught me that over the course of your life, it’s far more important “to be a human being than to be a brand.” With that in mind, I was very curious what Dr. Carlos would say about the story scorching the sports world: the “coming out” of Jason Collins.
I simply asked old-school John Carlos what his thoughts were about Collins’s announcement that he would be the first active male athlete in North American sports to come out of the closet. Dr. Carlos’s “old school” answer was beautifully “new school,” with an old-school warning to the National Football League. Here are his words. They made me smile, and I hope they do the same for you.
I have so much respect for Jason Collins because he is telling the world that he is proud of who he is. He’s telling the world, “This is who I am. Deal with it.” That’s real courage. I support him to the upmost! I heard someone on the television say, “The NFL isn’t ready for an openly gay player.” We should answer that with, “Why the hell not? You better get ready!”
I think we all look forward to the day when a player—male or female—coming out isn’t news at all. But now it is. Jason Collins matters. And given that Collins has gone out of his way to say that he owes a debt to those in both the African-American and LGBT movement who “paved the road for me,” the support from the generation of 1960s activist athletes matters as well.
Walmart workers are heading to Bentonville headquarters, Freedom Ride–style, to speak up to shareholders. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
Robert Griffin III. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center.
It should be enough that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the most exciting athlete to enter professional sports since Lionel Messi and has restored the thrill of the possible to our football-obsessed community in Washington, DC. It should be enough at this moment to learn that RGIII is focused solely upon rehabilitating his knee, torn to shreds in last year’s playoffs. But the Heisman Trophy winner, who also found time in college to graduate from Baylor with a degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA, has clearly committed this off-season to exercising his mind as well. According to his running Twitter commentary, RGIII spent Saturday at the museum that in my view is the Mecca of the intersection of sports and politics: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Muhammad Ali Center is a remarkable testament to the courage of an athlete willing to take unpopular stands because of political principle. The fact that Ali took these stands at the height of his athletic powers, when he was between the ages of 22 and 26, clearly had an impact on Mr. Griffin. RGIII’s first tweet said simply that “seeing in depth what Ali did and who he was is so inspiring.” The quarterback then soaked in just how much Ali suffered for his unpopular stands against racism and the war in Vietnam and put himself in the Champ’s shoes. He wrote, “An athlete like Ali would get destroyed in today’s world even more than in his own time.” The social media–savvy RGIII then tweeted, “What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks.” He then retweeted someone who wrote to him, “Ali transcended sports and sacrificed his most productive boxing years to stand for his beliefs. Name a modern athlete that would.”
I must say that it’s thrilling that Muhammad Ali still has such a strong effect on athletes born a decade after he last set foot in a boxing ring. It’s also quite a statement that Robert Griffin III, who comes from a proud military family, would pay tribute to the most famous war resister in human history. Yes, Ali’s radical stance in 1968 has been smoothed out for mass consumption. Yes, in today’s myriad Ali tributes, few quote him saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is here.” But the museum, to its credit, does not engage in a whitewash. RGIII was confronted with the actuality of Ali’s ideas and was deeply in awe of his sacrifice.
Lastly, I would point out that in today’s age of social media, an athlete like Ali would get far more support than in 1964. Back then, a small cabal of hard-bitten sportswriters, who were conservative, calloused and Caucasian, dominated public commentary, and were deeply resentful of the man they called “the Louisville Lip.” Today, in addition to the hate, there would be a public outpouring of support, which would also shape the coverage. The trend-lines of Ali’s resistance would have ample amplification.
There’s another side of this, however, that could not have escaped RGIII’s precise mind as he considered the concepts of sports and sacrifice: There is no way in heaven or hell Muhammad Ali, who is of African, Native American and Irish ancestry, would have ever accepted being called a Redskin. RGIII had to notice that the question of names and what we choose to call ourselves figures strongly at the Ali Center. You learn that Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., named not only after his own father but also a famous nineteenth-century white abolitionist. The political history of that name didn’t stop him from changing it upon joining the Nation of Islam. As he said, “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I don’t use it because I am no longer a slave.” The museum speaks about the boxers, reporters and even members of the draft board who called him “Clay” and how he responded with, at different times, “Say my name,” “What’s my name?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s my name, fool?”
Ali’s belief that a name was something far more precious than just a brand has found echoes across the culture in multiple forms, from Destiny’s Child, to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s Super Bowl victory speech to perhaps the most famous scene in the classic television show The Wire. Names matter. What you call yourself and what others choose to call you is a question of respect.
I wonder if RGIII took notice that the Muhammad Ali Center has a proud history of doing traveling exhibits with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, including one called “IndiVisble: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” The 2012 press release for the exhibit reads, “Prejudice, laws and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom. For African-Native Americans, their double heritage is truly indivisible.” I wonder if RGIII would ask himself how that heritage is served by the fans in feather headdresses and war paint, and the stained crimson face on the side of his helmet.
There was much made this week about a poll taken by ESPN, which showed that 79 percent of people in the US find nothing wrong with the Redskins name. RGIII—the athlete, the brand, the corporate pitchman—is someone who could look at that poll and think, “Great. Now I don’t need to say anything.” RGIII, the human being inspired by Muhammad Ali, has to look at those numbers and think, “Whether it’s 79 percent or 97 percent, right is right.” The Redskins name is racist as all hell, the creation of a segregationist owner and only possible because the people being insulted were subject to genocide: thinning their ranks, political power and voice. It’s a name RGIII’s boss Dan Snyder will only defend in the most controlled of public settings. It’s a name that Muhammad Ali would have hated because it’s a damn disgrace.
At the end of his Twitter commentary about The Champ, Robert Griffin III wrote, “The Ali Center confirmed my belief that although we, as people around this world, are different, we can all help & learn from each other.” He’s correct. But a precondition of helping and learning from one another is respect. RGIII is under no obligation to say anything about the Redskins name. But if he learned nothing else from the Muhammad Ali Center, it should be that sometimes you just have to speak out no matter the risk, no matter the trends or trend-lines.
It’s a little known part of The Champ’s history, but In 1978, Muhammad Ali joined Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens (who has just left us) to rally at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in the name of Native American self-determination. That was Muhammad Ali. He was nobody’s Redskin.
In a homage to the Freedom Rides, members of OUR Walmart will converge on Walmart’s upcoming shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
Roger Bannister, after running the first sub–4:00 mile. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. —Roger Bannister
It was once believed that a human being couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. Physicians wrote academic articles that the human anatomy wouldn’t allow for such exertions. Four minutes, we were told, was the Maginot Line of our physical capacity. Then in 1954, a medical student named Roger Bannister ran the race in 3:59 and it was like the running community awoke from a collective hypnosis. Mass psychology had shifted in decisive fashion. Within a week, Australian runner John Landy ran it in 3:57 and sub-four minute miles became the world-class average instead of the unapproachable standard. People’s minds had to dramatically adjust to a new reality as the inconceivable became the new normal.
There are many calling Jason Collins’s decision to be the first active male athlete to come out of the closet a “Jackie Robinson Moment,” after the man who smashed baseball’s color line in 1947. But I consider this to be more of a Roger Bannister Moment. For years, people have been waiting to see whether an active male athlete would come out of the closet. For years, people of all political stripes said it would be a long time coming. For decades, media and management has policed the sexuality of players to make sure the closet door was welded shut. Even those most supportive, until recently, were pessimistic. Just in 2011, Will Leitch of New York magazine wrote, “You probably don’t know the most likely first openly gay pro athlete, because he’s not a pro yet. He might be 12.” Leitch then quoted Jim Buzinski who co-founded the LGBT-focused website Outsports who said, “It’ll be someone who has identified as gay through high school and just doesn’t think anything about it. They’ll just be so talented that no one would even think to deny them.” But we didn’t have to wait ten years and we didn’t have to wait for that irresistibly talented superstar. Instead we have Jason Collins, 34-year-old journeyman center: right here, right now, in 2013.
As Collins explained why he did it to The New York Times, “There are so many people who have come before me both as a black male and then as a gay male, who have sort of paved the road for me…. Now it’s time for me to pave the road for somebody else, to be a great teammate, society being the team. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge those who came before me, give credit to them, and then there are those who are going to come after me, and it’s my responsibility to lift them up.”
Now that he’s come out, more players will feel liberated and lifted, unburdened by the pressure to be first. More people will explore the parameters of the possible because Jason Collins chose to be a pioneer.
It’s certainly tempting to think of this as a Jackie Robinson Moment as well. In this case there are also very strong, if inexact, parallels. Like Robinson, Collins, through his very existence, forces teammates, fans and the dominant culture to confront their own prejudice. Like Robinson, Collins has to face ignorance cloaked in religion that claims his very existence in the locker room is an abomination. Like Robinson, Collins has sparked discussions among the panicked about how his teammates could possibly shower in peace. The differences between Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins also matter. Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947 eight years before the formal start of the civil rights movement. He was, as Dr. King put it, “A sit-inner before sit-ins.” Jason Collins, as he readily says, felt confidence to come out because of the social movements that have been taking place off the field and because more straight players across the Sports World have started to speak out for LGBT equality. This doesn’t in any way diminish what Collins did. It just should remind us that the dynamic interaction between sports and social movements flows in both directions. It’s also worth noting that Jackie Robinson didn’t have to deal with a twenty-f0ur-hour sports media machine willing to give a platform to people telling him he was going to hell. The two stories lined up side-by-side remind one of Mark Twain’s famous dictum that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
That’s why I see this as more of a Roger Bannister Moment. Thanks to Jason Collins, our parameters of the possible have shifted and now our collective thinking will have to change. That’s the power of just being brave enough to dare see what isn’t there. When Roger Bannister was asked how it was possible he achieved his record-breaking feat, he replied, “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got.” That’s what Jason Collins did as well, and we are all the better for it.
What’s it like to cross the border without papers? Read Aura Bogado’s review of the interactive La Ruta.
Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Credit: SI.com)
Hearing the news made me feel like I’d accidentally walked into a wind tunnel. For as long as I had written about this issue and as many times as I had said in recent years that “this will happen in a matter of months if not weeks,” it still hit me like a triple-shot of espresso cut with a teaspoon of Adderall. Thanks to the courage of 34-year-old NBA veteran Jason Collins, we can no longer repeat endlessly that no active male athlete in North America has ever come out of the closet. Instead we’re now able to say that we were there when our most influential cultural citadel of homophobia—the men’s locker room—was forever breached and finally received a rainbow makeover on its unforgiving grey walls. But we didn’t only get the act of coming out. We also got, courtesy of Mr. Collins and Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz, about as beautiful a coming-out statement as has ever been put to paper.
As Collins wrote, “No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Homophobia becomes eroded when straight people actually have a family member or friend come out of the closet and then have to confront their own prejudice. Now in the NBA we have Jason Collins saying, “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
The piece also demonstrates that Jason Collins gets the impact he could have on the way sports both defines and polices our conceptions of masculinity. The 7-foot, 255-pound bruiser writes wryly, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
Before we sing more hymns to Jason Collins, let’s also be clear about a few facts. First, this did not take place in a vacuum. A rising tide of LGBT advocacy, demonstrations and public demonstrations of power in the face of bigotry laid the groundwork. Collins understands this and writes that he was motivated not only by the movement but by those seeking to perpetuate second-class citizenship for LGBT people. “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” he writes, “Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing.”
Collins felt compelled to speak out and in the sports world he has considerable company. In the NFL, players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita have become active and public participants in the movement for full marriage equality and equal rights. We’ve also seen former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums become the first trans athlete to be public and proud. In just the last two weeks, the National Hockey League adopted an entire program in conjunction with the You Can Play organization aimed at making the locker room a “safe space” for players thinking about coming out of the closet. Then Brittney Griner, arguably the greatest women’s hoops player to ever put on high tops, came out so casually, and it made us all wonder if she was ever actually in.
Now we have Jason Collins and in our compressed, fevered media environment, we’ve already gotten a crash course in the probable highs and lows for anyone who wants to follow his path. The highs were seen in an outpouring of support from the sports world. It started immediately with former All-Star Baron Davis who tweeted, “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters”. That opened the floodgates, as numerous players from my boyhood hero Bernard King to the great Kobe Bryant pledged their solidarity and support. Even the Boston Red Sox got into it, inviting Collins to throw out the first pitch at a game.
The day also saw that Baron Davis was prescient that “haters” would need to be told to “eff off.” ESPN, perhaps feeling shut out of the biggest story in eons, took the day to give a platform on their crown jewel program Outside the Lines to NBA reporter Chris Broussard so he could opine that Collins was “a sinner” engaged in “an open rebellion to God.” His words were ugly. The fact that he was provided a forum by ESPN to deliver them on this celebratory day was perhaps even worse. But if it was a crude effort by a flatfooted ESPN to make the story about them, then it was a success as social media was then flooded with first anger and then support for Broussard’s “free speech.” Beyond Broussard, fortunately, the backlash was comprised of the typical barrage of twitter trollage.
There was a great deal of hate and an even greater amount of love. But to read Jason Collins’s own words about why he was coming out, you get the feeling that he could not care less what the Chris Broussards of the world may think. As he writes in my favorite passage, “Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know—I baked for 33 years.”
As comprehensive immigration reform saunters forward, advocates across the country are pushing for full LGBT inclusion. Read more at StudentNation.
The Boston Marathon bombers.
“The most difficult part of getting to the top of the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.”
—Arch Ward (1896–1955), Chicago Tribune sports editor and founder of the Golden Gloves of America Tournament of Champions
Alienation, poverty and despair drive people—overwhelmingly young men—to awful acts of violence. That’s as true for the strung-out soldier who commits war crimes in Kandahar as it is for the gang member who kills a child on the South Side of Chicago. It’s also true in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead—and deadly—elder bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The recognition of the roots of his rage rings clearly in a brilliant, harrowing profile that appeared Sunday in The New York Times. It’s less a story than an autopsy that explores what killed Tsarnaev’s hope that he could make a life in the United States. Given the unconscionable arguments by Representative Peter King and countless others that the Tsarnaev’s crimes should be a clarion call for intensified profiling and surveillance of Muslim families in the United States, understanding Tsarnaev’s motivations is critical. Just as we shouldn’t accept the racist argument that “culture” is the root cause of gun deaths in Chicago, we should reject the idea that Islam bears any sort of collective responsibility for Tsarnaev’s crimes.
The Times article, “A Battered Dream for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Then a Violent Path,” is heartbreaking, but also does a tremendous service by explaining—not excusing, but explaining—how he arrived at bombing the Boston Marathon on Patriot’s Day, killing three and injuring more than 200. People should read the article, and I’m not going to rehash it. But I do want to explore its examination of how much immigrant aspiration Tsarnaev put into boxing and how the sports establishment in the post 9/11 era responded by pushing him away.
In most descriptions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he’s described as a “one-time boxer.” That doesn’t quite tell the story. Tsarnaev was a two-time New England Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion. This was a flamboyant showman of a fighter wearing white leather and furs and incorporating “showy gymnastics into his training and fighting, walking on his hands, falling into splits, tumbling into corners.” The religious ascetic would emerge later. At this point Tsarnaev was WWE flair with Donald Trump attitude. He was America as learned through a television screen. But also, like the America of his dreams, his ambitions were as large as his attitude.
A high school classmate in Cambridge, Luis Vasquez, said to the Times, “The view on him was that he was a boxer and you would not want to mess with him. He told me that he wanted to represent the U.S. in boxing. He wanted to do the Olympics and then turn pro.”
The next step was to compete in the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. There was, however, one problem: the esteemed boxing organization had changed their rules for admittance. The Golden Gloves, at the height of Tsarnaev’s powers as a fighter, ceased its long-standing practice of allowing legally documented immigrants to take part in their Tournament of Champions. This broke with the history of a competition that was started in 1923 by sports editor Arch Ward in a hardscrabble town defined by immigration: the “stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders” otherwise known as Chicago. That meant Tsarnaev and three other New England champions—all immigrants—were not allowed to compete. It’s only at this point that he quit the sport. As the Times reported,
Mr. Tsarnaev portrayed his quitting as a reflection of the sport’s incompatibility with his growing devotion to Islam. But as dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives from Cambridge, Mass., to Dagestan showed, that devotion, and the suspected radicalization that accompanied it, was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.
Adrift meant eking out an existence on food stamps, and his wife’s $1,200-a-month job. Adrift meant unemployment, as he needed to stay home and watch their infant daughter. Adrift meant feeling a new sense of belonging in political and religious doctrine that spoke of war against United States. Adrift meant fury at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but no means to channel that anger in a way that didn’t reflect his despair. The Times article covers all of this in depth. I would add, though, that his feeling of being “adrift” might also have meant he was suffering brain damage as a result of years in the ring. The esteemed neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu has stated that any autopsy of Tsarnaev should include an examination for signs of the life-altering post-concussive syndromes Cantu has seen in numerous former boxers and NFL players.
The Golden Gloves’ rejection of an immigrant with fantasies of acculturation and acceptance through sports is profound for reasons unexplored in the Times, but that demand attention. For over a century, sports has been the entryway for many immigrants and people of color to feel a sense of belonging in the turbulent ethnic stew that is the United States. The first Public School Athletic Leagues and YMCAs in the nineteenth century were underwritten by industrialists as a means of “Americanizing” the masses arriving in record numbers from Eastern Europe. Their explicit hope was that sports would be the first step of children toward leaving behind radical socialist European ideologies and buying in to the idea of the American Dream. As the founding mission statement of the PSAL read, organized athletic competition could “provide opportunities for educating students in physical fitness, character development and socialization skills through an athletic program that fosters teamwork, discipline and sportsmanship.” In other words, it would teach the doctrine that anyone who works hard enough could climb the competitive ladder glorified by sports promoters like Arch Ward.
Similar hopes of finally having a seat at the American table have been projected onto athletes of color such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and, most recently, Jeremy Lin. Their acceptance—or the myth of their acceptance—was treasured by immigrants and people of color as a sign that this country wasn’t just for Caucasians of pure European stock. How horribly ironic that this athletic avenue of acculturation closed in the face of someone who would have been at home in that late nineteenth century wave for whom the PSAL was created: an immigrant from Eastern Europe.
There has been so much idiotic ink spilled about whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers “should be considered Americans.” What is certain is that the means by which people have historically felt a sense of having a stake in this country have been inexorably altered in the post-9/11 world. This is now a nation defined and scarred by the cruel anti-immigrant policies of both Presidents Bush and Obama. It’s now a nation defined and scarred by pushing people away from that historic safe haven for immigrants otherwise known as competitive sports. It’s a nation that spawned the brothers Tsarnaev. It’s a nation that must change if future tragedies of violence are to be avoided. This won’t happen by accident. Movements and meetings against Islamophobia and for the rights of immigrants are great a place to start. Sports may have been bestowed onto immigrants from the top down, but a shift away from fear and toward a more inclusive future will only come from the bottom up.
Across the country, young people are pushing for immigration reform that includes LGBT people and equalizes college access. Read more in StudentNation’s “Dispatches From the US Student Movement.”
Shaquille O’Neal. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Why did Newark’s only movie theater, co-owned by Shaquille O’Neal, just pull a scheduled showing of a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal? No one is talking, but this is a story that stinks worse than the Jersey swamps. For the unfamiliar, Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most famous of the 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States. He has spent the last three decades as not only a prisoner but a political lightning rod, with the Fraternal Order of Police demanding his execution after the killing of Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner. Following thirty years on death row, Mumia’s sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole last year.
Mumia’s supporters, which include Amnesty International, the European Union and Nelson Mandela, have continued to point out both the inconsistencies in the state’s case and the prosecution’s use of political and racially based arguments—leaning on his history as a Black Panther and radical journalist—to assure his conviction. Numerous books and documentaries have made this case. The documentary in question here is something different. Titled MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary, its focus is on his contribution as an author and commentator from behind bars. The film is a trenchant look at the way people can produce politics and art in the most dire of circumstances. (Full disclosure: I am briefly interviewed in the film, discussing my correspondence with Mumia about the intersection of sports and politics.)
The film has, by documentary standards, been a box-office success, with sold out shows in Los Angeles, Oakland and New York City. The director and producer, Stephen Vittoria, was especially excited to bring it to Newark, the city of his birth. As he said to me, “I know what Newark has been through. I know what the people of Newark have been through…. The city and people of Newark deserve economic redevelopment as well as access to culture. It seemed like a perfect locale to show the film. The theater announced it and it was ready to play.”
The theater in question, Cineplex 12, Newark’s only major theater, was more than ready. They had put an extraordinary amount of resources into making the film a splash, setting up an exclusive press screening, pitching stories to all the state’s major newspapers and planning a high-profile opening night featuring Newark’s famed poet Amiri Baraka. It’s remarkable for a movie theater to put this much public relations weight behind any film’s opening, let alone a documentary.
Hours before the tickets were available for sale, something even more remarkable took place. Higher-ups at the theater had the showing cancelled. Was Shaq part of that decision? I can’t say definitively because everyone’s lips are buttoned tighter than a pair of black jeans in Hoboken. Here, however, is what we do know. Shaq, who was raised for a period in Newark and still has family in the city, is the Cineplex’s co-owner. According to very good authority, Shaq, alongside his security chief, former Newark police officer Jerome Crawford, spoke with the co-Cineplex owners of Boraie Development about the film. Repeated efforts to get comment from O’Neal about the content of that discussion as well as the decision to not show the film have gone unanswered, but here are some other things we know for sure.
When O’Neal purchased the theater, he held a press conference alongside Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and pointedly thanked “the Newark Police Department” which “helped raise” him. The future Hall of Famer has long held court about his dreams of becoming a police officer. He has been sworn in as a “reserve police officer” in both Miami and Los Angeles. When in action, the results have been very unfortunate. On a ride-along, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an internal affairs report was issued after Shaq was accused of shoving the head of a suspect in a toilet and flushing repeatedly. He was cleared of these charges and his connection to the police has gone unbroken, including charity work with the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP, once again, has spent decades agitating for Mumia’s execution.
Shaq and the theater aren’t commenting about the cancellation of the Newark showings, but Mumia is. He said, “Now it seems there are a lot of people in power who don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary. Ask yourself, why? Newark, New Jersey, is more than just a depressed city. It was once the place where famed black leader and controversial figure Paul Robeson lived, studied and became the Paul Robeson who became the center of history. Controversy isn’t a bad thing—it’s a good thing, but it’s always what the controversy is about. A lot of people don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary…. Ask yourself, why? And then make your own decision. I know you’ll make the right one.”
I do hope Shaquille O’Neal and the executives at Boraie Development answer for themselves. They should disavow the mere thought that they would Bigfoot a film just because they find it offensive. What’s particularly sad is that Shaq could use his ample powers of speech and considerable cultural platform to speak out against the film if he’s so inclined. Here’s a scenario for Shaq: show the film. Then go onstage after the debut to explain why he thinks that Mumia should be punished and the film disrespects the police. Let him publish an oped in the Newark Star-Ledger. He should, if inclined, kick the film’s butt like it was Greg Ostertag. But don’t do this. Whether you ordered the film not to run or are just looking the other way, don’t deny the city of Newark, which you claim to love, a film just because you have the power to do so. Those aren’t the actions of The Big Aristotle. They’re the actions of a big bully.
The long aftermath of 9/11 is a tale of torture, disappearance and war crimes. Read David Cole’s take in this week’s issue of The Nation.