Where sports and politics collide.
Standing outside the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin described how he, as well as hundreds of protesters and tourists, were tear gassed just blocks away yesterday. He watched with his cameraman as police prepared to take down Brazilians marching against FIFA’s upheaval of their society. Nearby tourists were rooting for the police, but that didn’t last. “A headwind blew the tear gas onto the tourists,” Zirin told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, “sending 200 tourists scattering.” Zirin himself was also hit, and so couldn’t see the police officer who fired a live round into the crowd. In his appearance on Democracy Now!, Zirin also discusses Brazilians who have been uprooted from their favela homes at gunpoint to make room for World Cup development.
—Hannah Harris Green
It was like a scene from some heavy-handed satire, directed by a wannabe Luis Buñuel. Rio’s military police were marching down the Avenida Maracanã pounding their shields with their batons in a perfect, practiced rhythm. They had positioned themselves roughly a block and a half away from a group of about 500 World Cup protesters marching behind a banner that read, “FIFA Go Home.” The protesters were trying to get as close as possible to legendary Maracanã Stadium, which was about to host a World Cup game for the first time in sixty-four years. The protesters were already surrounded by riot police with bat-length batons, so this particular line of armored officers, while very dramatic in appearance—with their all-black regalia and a line of horses wearing gas masks—seemed a bit superfluous initially, their purpose unclear.
As the police beat their shields, a sizable group of World Cup tourists at an outdoor cafe cheered them on. They even produced a warped version of the classic soccer chant, “Olé olé olé polícia!” Then the distantly placed military police established the reason for their presence and fired several large canisters of tear gas toward the protesters. What the military police possessed in presentation, they lacked in geometry, as the trajectory was tragically flawed and the first round landed only about fifty yards in front of them. That plus a strong headwind sent the gas back onto the gas-mask-adorned troops, and back onto the cheering tourists, who quickly went from enjoying the show to wearing nothing but expressions of pain and panic, some stumbling while scooping up their crying, young children. (In full disclosure, I was also gassed which may have created a bias against those firing tear gas. At the risk of stating the obvious, it burns like hell.)
Within seconds, the tourists dispersed in a mad panic and a packed cafe became a chaotic mess of overturned chairs and unpaid checks. Technically, even if gassed, it was against the law for all these tourists to “dine and dash” from their tables, at least it was more of a crime than anything I saw the protesters do. The demonstrators stayed together as a disciplined group until tear gas, concussion grenades and, as I discovered later, live ammunition was fired by police at the scene. Then they scattered, creating a predictably chaotic and dangerous state of affairs. I didn’t see the gunfire—I wasn’t seeing much—but the Associated Press caught it and published photos and video of an undercover officer brandishing his weapon and firing bullets into the air. I also didn’t witness the AP’s claim that the police fired the gas as a response to windows being broken by “black bloc anarchist” protesters. But I had received the first misfired dose by then and cannot say for certain. I also saw nothing to support the government’s claim that “Molotov cocktails” were thrown by protesters.
There is a narrative already emerging from this World Cup—even after just a week—that the protests are effectively nonexistent. Everyone is just in a party mood, and the demos are a shadow compared to last year’s Confederations Cup uprising that saw more than 1 million people in the streets. Yes, it is certainly true that the numbers are smaller in comparison to the ones a year ago—hundreds and low thousands instead of hundreds of thousands—but tonight I had a taste why that was the case. It’s not quiescence. It’s fear. For a nation with a president, Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured in her youth fighting a dictatorship, the police acted in a manner that connects more with the dark past than its future. FIFA has returned to Brazil after sixty-four years carrying an echo of a dictatorship thought to be dead and buried. Yet it at least is comforting to think that the events of last night would have even outraged the Lords of Football. After all, if there is one moral principle that guides FIFA, it’s “don’t gas the tourists.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA’s destruction in Rio.
Favela do Metro was once a community of 700 families living a five-minute walk—just up the Rua São Francisco Xavier—from Rio’s legendary Maracanã Stadium. Now it’s a couple of storefronts and a tonnage of rubble. All of the 700 families are gone, uprooted by a World Cup agenda that looked at their homes and envisioned parking lots for the Maracanã. Even that was too much for city planners, as the parking lot has yet to be built, with the World Cup already underway. Perhaps it will be ready for cars by the start of Rio’s 2016 Olympics. When I asked one of the former favela residents, hanging around a food stand, to explain the delays, he said, “If they can’t finish the World Cup stadiums, do you really think they care about this place?”
Instead, all around are empty lots—case studies in demolition, with the jagged remnants of what were once people’s homes there for all to see. There are dolls with missing heads and limbs, couches without cushions and razor-sharp exposed springs, and a sink leaning precariously on a mountain of wood shavings. The owners’ memories have become someone else’s garbage. On one wall is spray-painted, “What happened to the families? No one lives here anymore.”
Theresa Williamson of the NGO Catalytic Communities, providing translation, told me the story of what happened to the favela’s former residents. The first 100 families evicted by the city—in November 2010, just after the 2016 Olympics were awarded to Rio—were forced out in a chaotic rush. Without any time to consider their options or organize any kind of collective response, they were shuttled out at gunpoint, and resettled in Rio’s far west zone, two hours away from their former homes. It was a violent eviction, and the first to gain any kind of international media visibility.
The 600 remaining families then started organizing. They sued the city. They protested. They forced the city government to grant them public housing within a few minutes of Favelo do Metro so the disruption to their lives would be as minimal as possible. As Williamson said, “This is an example of what happens when you resist eviction—the more you resist, the better the outcome.”
Still, this was a painful process that took three years to play out, and those three years were ugly as sin. With hundreds of residents still living in Favelo do Metro, the city began to unceremoniously knock down homes and leave behind low hills of trash. Rats infested the area. Drug traffickers found new homes in the empty lots. The city claimed it needed to develop the area for the games—instead, it brought blight.
Two middle-aged men, former residents of Favelo do Metro, sat around a plastic table between the sidewalk and a demolished home. We asked them why the city would hastily evict this community, only to leave wreckage behind: “They didn’t give us a reason why we had to leave. They just came, pushed us out, and knocked the buildings down. Brazil spends and spends on ‘the future.’ Meanwhile, there’s nothing for the people of today.”
I was also able to speak with Eomar Freitas, another former resident of Favela do Metro. His was the last home standing. He still has a storefront where he sells drinks and food. “I’ve lost over 90 percent of my business, but I refuse to leave,” he said. “If I live elsewhere, the mayor wins.” The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, is seen by Freitas to be as much—or more—of a culprit when it comes to the false promises of new homes that accompanied the destruction of Favela do Metro. “The mayor’s mouth is like a baby’s ass. Nothing but shit.” Eomar says the new housing the residents won is serviceable but smaller and of a lower quality than their former homes. For example, hanging photos on the wall is impossible, because the walls are so brittle that they won’t hold a nail.
In the lot right next to Eomar’s storefront are several hundred workers clearing out the rubble for the purpose of paving it with cement asphalt for a parking lot. We speak to the workers there, all of whom live in favelas of their own. They are also in a construction workers’ union. You can only wonder why displacing and destroying the homes of other working-class people is union work. One of the people with me, a favela organizer, is actually recognized by one of the workers from a demonstration at another favela he was destroying. She asked him, as a favelado, how it made him feel to tear down these homes. “It makes me feel strange and disturbed in my heart,” was his answer, using a word in Brazilian-Portuguese that doesn’t have an exact English parallel.
This is the other Rio, a place of real estate speculation and mega events for foreign consumption. It’s a place that loves soccer, but hates how it’s being used and has no patience for treating this moment as World Cup business as usual.
As Eomar said to me, “Look around my store. You’ll see posters of [Argentina’s] Lionel Messi and [Portugal’s] Cristian Ronaldo. No Brazil players. In yesterday’s game of Brazil vs. Croatia? I was rooting for Croatia.”
For background on Brazil and the World Cup, check out Dave Zirin’s new book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.
Read Next: Dave Zirin heads to Rio
Tomorrow I will be on my way to Rio for the first full week of the World Cup. That last sentence should probably be rephrased. I hope I will be on my way to Rio for the World Cup. There will be a partial twenty-four-hour strike at my destination airport in Brazil, and if I do make it to Rio, there may be a transit strike underway as well. I’m bringing my walking shoes.
This all might sound like something short of what would be described as “fun,” but these “potential travel disruptions” and everything they represent are exactly why I am heading to Rio in the first place. These job actions have been called in protest of a tournament that former soccer star turned politician Romario called “the greatest heist in the history of Brazil.”
A political confrontation the likes of which we have never seen is taking place throughout Brazil. In the entire history of the World Cup and the Olympics there have never been these kinds of protests, strikes and land occupations aimed directly at the misery these mega-events have the capacity to cause. In Mexico during the summer and fall of 1968, the powerful student and workers movement incorporated opposition to the coming Olympics into protests against their government, but the hosting of the games was not what spurred the Mexican masses into the streets. (It was however, the primary reason the Mexican government ordered the slaughter of hundreds just days before the opening ceremonies.)
In Mexico City, opposition to the Olympics was at most a slogan, a rhetorical point amidst a much larger struggle. But in the Brazil of 2014, revulsion against what has gone into hosting the World Cup has been a spur toward the country’s largest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship three decades earlier, with every new gleaming stadium a symbol of all the ways that the urgent needs of a country still plagued by poverty and social inequality have been ignored.
In the Brazil of 2014, protesters are going out of their way to name-check the organization holding the reins of international soccer: the often anonymous, always infamous FIFA. While FIFA has insisted upon “FIFA-quality stadiums” throughout the country, the strikes, protests and land occupations have called for “FIFA-quality wages”, schools and hospitals. The protesters are dragging FIFA out of the shadows and performing a vital service for anyone who believes in holding powerful, often-secretive economic institutions accountable for the shock therapy they inflict upon the countries in their crosshairs. Just as the global justice protests of fifteen years ago taught a generation of people that there were these organizations called the WTO, IMF and World Bank—and that they needed to be both understood and challenged—FIFA is finally under the hot lights of public scrutiny. FIFA was described by John Oliver in an epic, instantly classic rant as “cartoonishly evil”. This description is more than apt, and not just because of the Bond-villain lair where they hold their meetings. As Brazil is stressed over the debts the World Cup may incur, FIFA “will generate $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA, or 66% more than the previous tournament in South Africa in 2010.”
Throughout its own ugly history, FIFA has chosen to cozy up to the worst dictators on the planet, bringing the glory and legitimacy of staging the World Cup to locales such as Mussolini’s Italy and, in 1978, Argentina’s newly installed dictators. The military junta of Argentina may have even woven their “dirty war” against dissidents into a plan to fix that year’s tournament, so they could emerge triumphant.
During the last two World Cups, FIFA provided a different kind of service for the powerful, acting as a neoliberal Trojan Horse for South Africa and now Brazil to pursue development projects aimed at building up their tourist infrastructure, elevating the industries of gentrification and displacement over pressing needs in healthcare, housing, schools and fighting poverty.
In the past, FIFA has gotten away with this precisely because its product is irresistible. Now because of the bravery of people in Brazil it is not skating away unscathed. So I’m off to attend some protests, interview some organizers and even watch some games at the big screens that get set up by some of the communities in the favelas I visited. It is a testament to the beauty of the game that not even FIFA can ruin it. It is a testament to the people of Brazil that we are finally even having this discussion.
Read Next:Dave Zirin on what’s really causing protests against the World Cup in Brazil
It is perfectly understandable why Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has come out swinging. Given that strikes, land occupations and protests are ripping out across the country in advance of the World Cup; given that, according to a Pew Research Poll, 67 percent of the country is dissatisfied with her handling of the tournament organizing; and given that Dilma faces an election later this year, she is fed up and ready to play the conspiracy card surrounding the turmoil gripping the country. As Agence France Presse reported in an article about the transportation strikes rocking São Paulo, “Rousseff charged Friday that there was a ‘systematic campaign’ against the World Cup and her government ahead of October 5 elections in which she is seeking re-election. A leftist political prisoner during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, she said that even in the darkest days of regime abuses, ‘we did not confuse the World Cup with politics.’”
Where to begin? First and foremost, it is certainly true that every political force in Brazil is attempting to benefit from the anger that has erupted around the country. For example, the transportation strike in São Paulo is being led by a union allied with a center-right opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. It is also true that all the establishment political parties running against Dilma this October want to steer discontent over disastrous World Cup planning toward an electoral mandate against her Workers Party, with rhetoric about “fighting corruption” in government and the unions. They also want people to ignore the fact that they have the backing of many of the big construction firms benefiting from the World Cup stadium boondoggles, infrastructure money-pits, and displacements. On the left, organizations such as the Central Sindical e Popular (CSP) are taking this moment to call for more strikes and occupations and asking why “huge sums” are spent on the football world cup while there is a “lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport.” They point to a recent poll where “55 percent of the Brazilian population believes that the world cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for the working people.”
Yes, every political organization with a pulse is seizing this moment in Brazil, and frankly they should be sued for political malpractice if they aren’t. But the cold truth is that “systematic political campaigns” are not the cause of dissatisfaction in Brazil. The spending, corruption, displacement and militarization surrounding the World Cup does that just fine without any help from anyone “riling people up.” In other words, “outside agitators” is not a charge that is going to stick, not when malnutrition and inequality plague the country, while stadiums are constructed in the middle of the Amazon.
Yet the part of her statement that crosses the line from shameless to craven is when she asserts that during the days of dictatorship, “we did not confuse the World Cup with politics.” This is simply not true. The examples are legion of Brazil’s dictators clutching onto soccer success like a talisman to ward off revolt from below. As I wrote in my book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil,
After Brazil’s victory in the 1970 World Cup, the military dictatorship pulled out all the stops to use the national team to solve what journalist David Goldblatt calls “the problem of securing popular legitimacy.” Addressing the nation, military dictator of the moment Emílio Garrastazu Médici said: “I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development. I identify the success of our [national team] with … intelligence and bravery, perseverance and our technical ability, in physical preparation and moral being. Above all, our players won because they know how to … play for the collective good.”
Médici was so ham-handed in his efforts to ride the popularity of Brazil’s team that many on Brazil’s left rooted for the country’s opponents. Medici repeatedly attempted to use the team as a way to symbolize Brazil’s economic miracle. Even as his government rounded up political dissidents, it also produced a giant poster of Pelé straining to head the ball through the goal, accompanied by the slogan Ninguém mais segura este país—“nobody can stop this country now.”
During the “darkest days of the dictatorship”, when Dilma herself was subject to torture by the regime, the World Cup was the autocracy’s most effective political tool. Perhaps Dilma and the Workers Party are just angered that the World Cup is still a political tool, but in 2014, it is not their tool alone. It’s being used as an implement against neoliberalism, state power and against the imperatives of the oligarchy. Once again, it is perfectly understandable why Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has come out swinging. Unfortunately, in taking on the masses of Brazil armed with nothing but historical revisionism, she is fighting blind.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on unrest on the eve of the World Cup.
The NFL may say officially that “Redskins” “is not a slur,” but 1968 bronze medalist and medal-stand protester John Carlos, a man who has had more than a few invectives tossed his way over the years, disagrees.
Color me utterly unsurprised that Dr. Carlos called on Dan Snyder to change Washington’s football team name.
Speaking to Mike Wise of The Washington Post, Carlos said:
For tribes or reservations to say they’re uncomfortable with you using that name, and then have players say they are just as uncomfortable, and the owner stands there, saying he’ll never change the name? How do you get away with that?…. To this day, there has been no real negotiation or real listening and understanding that I know of.
I had the privilege of traveling with Dr. John Carlos and speaking alongside the 1968 Olympian after we wrote his memoir together. This was during the height of the Occupy movement. Dr. Carlos insisted on going to every Occupy encampment, bringing books and meeting the young people sleeping in the streets in protest. He said in one talk—and I hear this in my mind like it was yesterday—“When you see your moment to stand up, then you have to stand up. My moment was in 1968 on the medal stand in Mexico City. Your moment is right here, right now. The thing about standing up is that once you’re on your feet, you find you may never want to sit down again.”
In Portland, I remember Dr. Carlos sitting down with a 10-year-old girl of Native American origin and telling her he “had some of that blood” in him as well. He told her to be proud, although we soon saw that we didn’t need to tell her much.
This same girl heard I was from Washington, DC, and immediately turned her attention to me. She asked me about why my city had a football team with that name. Pulling up the team logo on her mom’s laptop she pointed at the iconic profile and asked, “Did someone chop off his head? Who did that?” She didn’t feel the “pride” that team owner Dan Snyder always references. She felt disturbed and then angry.
I wonder if Dr. Carlos was remembering that girl when he spoke about why he thinks the team should change the name. Possibly yes, probably not. But his actions as a tribune of her feelings should be noted. They should truly shame Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen. I would dare them to call this girl a Redskin to her face, but I know that they don’t have the guts.
Read Next: Palestinian soccer stands tall.
When we speak of the great “droughts” in sports, our minds drift toward baseball’s Chicago Cubs, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and hockey’s star-crossed Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet there has never been a more harrowing athletic drought—rife with pain, pathos and perseverance—quite like that of the Palestinian national soccer team. This is a national team without a recognized nation to call home; a national team that has never qualified for a major international tournament; a national team that, like its people, struggles to be seen. That drought, eighty-six years in the making, is now over.
Founded in 1928, the Palestinian national soccer team has for the first time won the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup. Following its 1-0 victory over the Philippines, the Palestinian team will now play in the Asian Cup 2015, qualifying for a major international tournament for the first time in its history.
The Palestinian footballers have accomplished this despite unfathomable roadblocks the likes of which tower over anything faced by the Cubs, Browns or even the Sacramento Kings. The Palestinian team has had to confront a lack of resources, poverty, isolation, but above all else, obstacle after obstacle imposed upon their development by the state of Israel. The national team has been crippled for decades by the violent targeting of soccer players on both the Olympic and national teams by the Israeli Defense Forces. In addition, the restriction of movement, the checkpoints, the inability to practice because players are detained, have made being a part of the Palestinian national team, as one player said to me, “a risk, a burden and a blessing.”
In the face of all of these restrictions, any success achieved by the national team is more than just an inspiration for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is sustenance.
When the Philippines fell to Palestine, it was watched by thousands of people in Gaza City, who gathered together to watch the match. Movie screens were erected on the beach and drums were beaten in rhythm with the contest. When Palestinian striker Ashraf Al Fawaghra scored the winning goal on a free kick, it was fireworks, not bombs, that lit the night sky. The Reuters news service, as published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoted Adel Waleed, a 45-year-old teacher who watched the game with his children. Waleed said, “It is not the World Cup, but our happiness feels like we won the World Cup.”
Coach Jamal Mahmoud, who by all counts was masterful throughout the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup, understood that this was more than a milestone sports victory: it was an advance in the project to make the Palestinian people visible to the world.
Mahmoud described the ascension to the Asian Cup as “a platform for the country.“ He also said, “This is very important to all Palestine. We want to send a message to the world that we want sports and peace in Palestine. We can do more things if we have peace in Palestine. It is very important for us to go to the Asian Cup.” The New York Times, in a stirring article by James Montague, quoted Mahmoud saying, “All the people in Palestine will watch and will be happy if we win…. the world will see the Palestinian people. This is very important.”
We are seeing right now in Brazil the ways in which the glories of soccer are being used as a cover to displace people from their homes and crush popular resistance. In Gaza and the West Bank, we are seeing the opposite: the ways in which the hypnotic flair of the beautiful game can make an oppressed people ready to face another day.
But let the last word go to my friend Sami, who lives in Gaza. He said to me “It’s like those words of your poet who just died, Maya Angelou, her words that we see written on the walls that surround us: ‘And still we rise.’”
Read Next: The UCSB shooting, Ray Rice and a culture of violence against women
In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano writes about how the “beautiful game” he loves has made a journey from “daring to fear.” The great prose artist is mourning a trend where all of the risk, improvisation and individuality had been beaten out of the sport by a strict uniformity and fealty to efficiency. Perhaps this increases the opportunities for victory, but it also turns what should be art into a paint-by-the-numbers process. It turns the hit-or-miss burger on the grill into what you can get at any Five Guys or Shake Shack. Delicious, no doubt, but always the same, and eventually what was wonderful creeps toward boredom.
There are times watching the NBA when I relate to Galeano’s lament. Most of players now all come through the same youth-to-pros pipeline, whether through the AAU in this country or the international system that targets players before they can lace their own high tops. In 2014, we have never seen better athletes or greater efficiency in the NBA. A typical offensive set reminds me of the embroidered saying on a throw pillow at my mother-in-law’s house: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
This is why I’ve made my own journey from hate to love regarding Indiana Pacers performance artist/shooting guard Lance Stephenson. I have many a predilection to dislike Mr. Stephenson. He plays exactly like the kind of person who, when they come to play ball, makes everyone groan. He over-dribbles, he overshoots, he over-isolates, and he’s annoying as all hell. He also plays for a team—the Indiana Pacers—that has made me grind my teeth for more than two decades.
Yet Lance Stephenson is also a throwback: someone you can actually imagine showing up at your local court looking to hone his game or just get some run. He’s one of the few players today you can imagine as a character in Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground, the person who picked up every possible positive and negative habit that once made hoops the electric art known as the “city game” before it was gentrified and branded within an inch of its dress-coded life. He is a kind of basketball currently being hunted to extinction. (The fact that Stephenson retained this while also playing in the AAU makes it even better).
It also speaks volumes that Lance Stephenson is an actual product of the New York City public school system, a graduate of Lincoln High School. NYC stars in the NBA used to be as common as short shorts, but now are rarer than a five-dollar ticket. Symbolic of this is Joakim Noah, who in 2014 became the first player from a New York City high school to make an All-Star team in over a decade. Of course, Noah, the son of an international tennis and music star and a fashion model, went to Poly Prep, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn. High schools allowed for players to get in where they fit in. The prep-to-pros pipeline is about smashing square pegs into round holes. Lance still has all his edges.
So while his teammates square up for jumpers and his opponents spot up for corner threes, there is Lance high stepping with that dribble and blowing his sweet breath into the face of LeBron James—and you know he probably chewed on some garlic before game time. I have little doubt LeBron will make Lance Stephenson pay for his every affront this evening. Getting under the skin of the most physically dominant basketball player on the planet tends to have diminishing returns. But I’m beyond grateful that in an era of carbon copies and Park Slope co-ops, Lance Stephenson can still exist and remind us of what once was. After all, no one is ever going to write a book called Heaven is an AAU Tournament.
Read Next: The UCSB shooting, Ray Rice and a culture of violence against women.
If a mass killing perpetrated by a deeply disturbed misogynist does not make us look at how our society promotes and perpetuates violence against women, I am not sure what will. Our culture has always looked the other way or even validated gendered violence, particularly against African-American women. Yet in an era of lightning-fast cultural transmission, this historic violence seems to be both mutating and becoming more perniciously commodified before our eyes. It’s a violence that seems to exist in its own cultural category, where it is not only excused but also treated as deeply humorous—and woe to anyone who says otherwise. It’s a violence that has become so normalized, so all encompassing, that it often feels that saying or doing nothing becomes an act of complicity.
It does not take any sort of genius to draw a line in between the weekend’s shooting, the torments faced by Marissa Alexander or other women who defend themselves, and the fact that the quickest way to invite a barrage of social media hate is to say something as simple as, “I don’t think rape jokes are funny.” These dots connect to create a gun pointed at the ability of women to possess the most elemental human right in what is supposed to be a free society: the right to be left alone.
As a sportswriter, I try to look at the ways in which violence against women is excused and glossed over in professional sports, sending messages to their young, male audiences that this is somehow just part of being like their game-time heroes. This weekend, the day before the shooting, saw yet another one of those moments that should make the National Football League burn with shame, and take account for the role they play in creating this culture.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his wife Janay Rice held a press conference to apologize and explain why Rice was caught on camera dragging his wife by the hair from a casino elevator after punching her into unconsciousness. The Rices were basically throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion. That is nothing new, and we have seen male athletes and their wives do this in the past. What was different, at first bizarre and then obscene, was when it became clear that whoever controlling the Ravens official twitter account was live-tweeting the press conference. What they chose to tweet speaks volumes. After sending out a series of 140-character banalities to their half-million followers about how sorry Ray Rice was that he let down the organization and how he was going to come back better than ever, the Ravens official twitter account sent out the following: “@Ravens Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
Yes, she really did communicate this and, yes, it is tragic that a woman knocked unconscious and dragged by her hair by a heavily muscled pro athlete felt compelled to effectively say that she was in any way at fault. It is even worse that the team live-tweeted such a comment, attempting to do its part to shape public opinion and encourage “Ravens Nation” to welcome Ray Rice back into the fold. This is the Ravens not seeing that maybe there are things more important than defending their product. This is also of course, as I’ve written, far more than a Ravens issue but symptomatic of a league-wide problem in the way the NFL disregards violence against women. Or, as Tomas Rios wrote for Sports on Earth, “A woman has publicly sided with her abuser before, but the collusion between athlete and team to impose a feel-good narrative of personal redemption on the public sends a horrifying message. “
That tweet, and the NFL's entire approach to this question, demonstrates the difference between violence against women and what it means to have a culture of violence against women. The violence is what Ray Rice did to Janay Rice. The culture is a team—and a league—that thinks rehabbing the images of players who project the violence of their game onto women is no more than a public relations problem. This is no different than the connective tissue between the act of rape and rape culture. Just as "rape" is a crime and "rape culture" is when the crime is disregarded and mocked, violence against women excused is ensuring that violence will occur again. This is also why people who say “not all men” commit rape or violence against women don’t understand what it will actually take to resign these pathologies to the dustbin of history. It is a collective responsibility that men either take seriously, or risk becoming part of the problem.
The high rates of violence against the wives and girlfriends of pro athletes have a multiplicity of causes, but when the league institutionally either ignores it or provides set pieces to somehow justify it, this ceases to be an individual or athletic problem and becomes one that seeps into our pores and poisons every part of our culture. We saw what happened over the weekend, when that poison is weaponized.
Read Next: NBA prayers for Sterling to leave quietly may be answered.
Rumors that have been swirling over the last several hours from ESPN to TMZ have been confirmed: Los Angeles Clippers deposed owner Donald Sterling will be signing over control of the team to his “estranged wife” Rochelle. Ms. Sterling will be, according to reports from Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, attempting to sell the team as soon as possible. For the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was due to start hearings on the forced sale of the Clippers two days before the start of the NBA Finals, this has to be seen as some combination of Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl of good news… perhaps.
The only way this ends quietly will be if Rochelle Sterling agrees to sell the team in its entirety. Even though the pretext of Donald Sterling’s expulsion from the league was his taped racist comments about Magic Johnson, Silver spoke of Sterling’s “pattern of behavior.” This could only be read as a reference to his years of demonstrably racist practices as one of the most successful—and sued—slumlords in Los Angeles County. Not only did Rochelle Sterling benefit from these practices, she was an active participant. Ms. Sterling is named in many of the lawsuits as well as having been caught on tape impersonating a health inspector in order to enter people’s apartments to classify their ethnicity. (Say this for the Sterlings: they never hesitated to be “hands on” racists.)
As for the Sterlings, the value of NBA franchises has been skyrocketing in recent years due to a very favorable collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 with the players and the prospect of a gusher of international revenue over the next decade. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, sold this year for more than $200 million more than the bigger-market Philadelphia 76ers just three years ago. Any franchise on the market would see a conga line of hedge-fund suitors. The Sterlings would love a piece of this future revenue, but they probably won’t get it. If the NBA does, however, concede to have Shelly Sterling assume full ownership and make the sale, then at least she gets to choose who will take over the franchise. That means the Sterlings won’t have to suffer the indignity of seeing Donald’s bête noire Magic Johnson in their owner’s box. As for the NBA, if the Sterlings make the sale, it would indemnify them against anti-trust lawsuits that could have stated that if the Sterlings had made the sale, then they would have landed a better deal. Yet the number-one benefit for the NBA would be having this ugly ordeal end with a quiet whimper instead of a litigious bang. Sterling’s attorneys made a great deal of noise last week about taking this to court and going scorched earth on the entire league.
Now the NBA will never have to answer the question about why the Sterlings have been coddled for so long. Now the NBA won’t have to defend why racist housing practices, demonstrable misogyny and the verbal abuse of players was ignored for so long. The circus will end, an outcome for Adam Silver that would be better than a LeBron-Durant showdown in the finals. It would mean Donald Sterling gets to be publicly scorned one last time by the finger-wagging pundits. It would mean no more of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, putting his feet up on the table and telling us his deep thoughts about racism—and perhaps how he invented the terlet. It would mean Silver gets to be deified even more. And it would mean former commissioner David Stern can play the role of Rolo Tomassi: the guy who gets away with it. Meanwhile, everyone gets rich, no one has to answer for anything and the finals exist without any kind of shadow. For Adam Silver, you’d have to say this was a good day.