Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Grambling State University Administration,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grambling State Tigers.

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

Forty-Five Years Later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith Have Never Been More Relevant

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, US athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner after while receiving their respective gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo)

Dave Zirin is the co-author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.

October 16 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the day two young athletes brought protest to that most unlikely of places: the Olympic Games. After the 200-meter dash, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black gloved fists to the heavens, with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman standing in solidarity and creating an image for the ages.

We may know that medal-stand moment. But it was more than a moment. It was a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Carlos, Smith and Norman all wore patches with those five simple words. Today, in 2013, the issues have certainly changed, but the need to revive, rebuild and relaunch an Olympic Project for Human Rights has never been more urgent.

In 1968, the main demands of OPHR centered around the removal of open bigot “Slavery” Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, ceasing participation of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, hiring more African-American coaches and restoring Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, stripped over his resistance to the United States’ war in Vietnam. Today, Avery Brundage, Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa are thankfully in history’s dustbin, African-American coaches are hired without controversy and Muhammad Ali has become a living saint.

Yet the intersection of the Olympics and injustice remains if anything more pungent than in 1968. Today, the Olympics arrive on the shores of a host-nation like a neoliberal virus, displacing the nation’s poorest residents in the name of massive construction projects. Global corporations, with exclusive International Olympic Committee seals of approval, force local businesses to shut down as they brand the festivities like it’s a NASCAR event. The poor of a city are herded off, jailed or even disappeared in the name of making an Olympic city pristine for visiting dignitaries. Today, we are witnessing the mass evictions of thousands Rio de Janeiro’s poorest residents in the name of the 2016 games, and, as in London in 2012, the introduction of surveillance drones to monitor the proceedings. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has outlawed demonstrations for sixty days before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics amidst both a shocking attack on the nation’s LGBT population, as well as an unprecedented carnival of graft.

The idea of a new Olympic Project for Human Rights could have demands that directly address these issues. No involuntary evictions. No pre-emptive arrests of citizens. No awarding the games to countries that violate internationally recognized standards of human rights. No punishing athletes for speaking their minds and using the Olympics to take a stand for something other than McDonald’s and Pepsi.

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Would athletes be taking one hell of a risk by speaking out? Absolutely. Look at what Carlos, Smith and Norman suffered. First, there was the media barrage as the Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute” and the Chicago Tribune called their actions “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” But the most shameful display was by a young reporter for the Chicago American named Brent Musburger who called them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers”, a slur for which he has never apologized.

Then upon returning home, Carlos, Smith and Norman faced the daily struggles of being pariahs and having to scrap just to survive. As Dr. Carlos said to me in 2003, “I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. That’s where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.” This sacrifice of privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause is something they never regretted. The best way to honor their sacrifice is not just to learn their story, praise their courage and pat ourselves on the back that we no longer face the specters of Avery Brundage and Rhodesia. It is to make the history come alive and demand justice from an International Olympic Committee that now has more in common with a criminal cartel than a guardian of what is best about sports.

Dave Zirin looks at Bob Costas’ very public stand in the debate over the name of the Washington Redskins.

Bob Costas Spoke Out Against ‘Redskins,’ and It Was a Big Deal

Broadcast personality Bob Costas looks into the camera while at yesterday’s game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, in Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Judging by the utterly unscientific polling in my twitter feed, Bob Costas’s half-time commentary on the Washington Redskins name managed to displease almost everybody. The sports fans were enraged that Costas said the name could be seen as “a slur” and “an insult”. They were irate that Costas would bring his “politics” into sports, as if having a team representing the nation’s capital called “Redskins” is not in fact political. They also used various forms of the phrase “pussification of America,” which makes me curious why the men in my Twitter feed who love the Redskins name also seem to have such unbridled contempt for women.

On the other side of the issue, there were many tweeting, texting, and e-mailing me that they were angry Costas started his commentary by saying, ”[T]here’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus towards Native Americans, or chooses to disrespect them.” They argued that by telling mistruths about the team’s history, responding with such rancor to those asking about changing the name and refusing to meet with Native Americans who disagree with the name, he is absolutely “disrespecting” Native American history.

They were also upset that Costas stated that names like the Braves—home of the tomahawk chop—and the Kansas City Chiefs—home of this guy– “honor, rather than demean” and “they’re pretty much the same as Vikings, Patriots, or even Cowboys.” People pointed out that there is a reason all “mascoting” of Native Americans has been opposed by the Oneida, the Choctaw and many other Tribal councils. It is because they turn Native American culture into solely a symbol of the savage and the violent. They also, as minstrelsy tends to do, allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to the very real problems of poverty, education and healthcare in the Native American community.

My view, and I cannot say this forcefully enough, is that whatever problems people may have with the content of what Bob Costas said, the veteran broadcaster seized the moment and was a profile in courage. Costas did the unthinkable: he took a stand against racism on national television. He also openly—as he did a year ago by addressing gun culture after the horrific murder suicide perpetrated by Chiefs’ player Jovan Belcher against Kasandra Perkins—willingly courted the ire of disturbingly violent right-wing sports fans and their droogs in the conservative blogosphere. (These right-wingers seem to always ignore that the greatest backer of changing the name in Congress is Oklahoma Republican and Choctaw Nation member Tom Cole.)

Take a step back and look at what Costas did. He faced the camera on the most watched television show in the United States and said the following.

“Think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed towards African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or any other ethnic group. When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

If you had told me even two months ago that Bob Costas would be saying those words, I would have been in a state of shock. The terrain has changed. Credit for this should go to The Oneida Nation, the Choctaw, Suzan Harjo, and—unsung in the media—the longtime work on this in hostile environs by Washington Post columnist Mike Wise. Credit should also go to RG3, the team quarterback whose greatness—on display even in last night’s terrible loss to the Cowboys—has made the team relevant for the first time in fifteen years. Credit should also go to team owner Dan Snyder for being so ineffably obnoxious about the whole issue, it makes anyone who stands alongside him feel like they need to shower with steel wool afterwards. And credit should truly go to Bob Costas for having the guts to take what is still a minority position and put it to the widest possible audience.

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I believe that support for the “Redskins” name is 1,000 miles wide and one inch thick. Most people just, in the words of former coach Joe Gibbs, “haven’t really thought about it.” Bob Costas now has people thinking about it, and that is the first step toward a long overdue change.

Dave Zirin looks at how Rick Reilly’s plan to use his in-laws to defend the Redskin name backfired.

Blackfeet Elder Refuses to Be Son-in-Law Rick Reilly’s ‘Uncle Tom’

Washington Redskins helmets with the iconic red-and-gold colors and logo are displayed on the field during football training camp in 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Let me be clear: The racial slur ‘redskins’ is not okay with me. It’s never going to be okay with me. It’s inappropriate, damaging and racist. In the memory of our Blackfeet relatives, it’s time to change the name.“ —Bob Burns

Rick Reilly—the unbuttered wheat toast of sportswriters—is going to have a grim Thanksgiving. Last month, to much media attention, the ESPN columnist wrote about his Native American father-in-law’s support for the Redskins name. This was the foundation for his article’s thesis that the only people who care about whether the team should change a name many see as gobsmackingly racist are white, politically correct ninnies. Actual Native Americans, like his father-in-law, feel honored or don’t give a damn. No one less than Washington’s Hall of Fame former coach Joe Gibbs recommended Reilly’s piece as an answer to anyone who has a problem with the Redskins name.

But alas! Karma can be cruel. Reilly’s father-in-law a Blackfeet elder named Bob Burns has now issued a statement that not only did Rick utterly misquote him, he also refused to make a correction.

As Burns writes in the Indian Country Today Media Network,

You can imagine my dismay when I saw my name and words used to defend the racist Washington Redskins name. My son-in-law, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, completely misunderstood the conversation we had, quoting me as saying “the whole issue is so silly. The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”

But that’s not what I said.

What I actually said is that ”it’s silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle—if the name offends someone, change it.” He failed to include my comments that the term “redskins” demeans Indians, and historically is insulting and offensive, and that I firmly believe the Washington Redskins should change their name.

When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur. I asked him to correct the record. He has not, so I must do it myself.

Reilly responded by writing, “While I stand by the reporting in my Sept. 18 column about the Washington Redskins nickname controversy, and felt I accurately quoted my father-in-law in the piece, clearly he feels differently. This is an incredibly sensitive issue, and Bob felt he had more to say on the subject after that column was posted on ESPN.com. We’ve spoken and cleared this up. I admire Bob and respect his opinions, and he’s welcome to express them. Bob and I are good and I’m looking forward to my next steak with him.”

Damn. While this is all certainly coated in schadenfreude, more interesting than whether Reilly is “good” with Bob Burns is why he chose to hear what he heard and write what he wrote.

Ray Halbritter from the Oneida Nation said to me that he wonders the same. “There has been a concerted effort by those who want to keep using this racial slur to pretend that the targets of the slur support their agenda. They enjoy the privilege of not being denigrated with a word that has been used as a epithet against Native people for decades. The most disturbing question about Rick Reilly and [team owner] Dan Snyder is why are they so devoted to continue slandering Native Americans with this racial slur?”

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This personal and professional disaster for Reilly is a microcosm about the harmful effects of mascoting. The argument made for decades by Native Americans is that their ubiquitous presence as sports mascots enables the dominant culture to see them only as stereotypes and not as a living, breathing, visible part of this country. Here is Rick Reilly and he is so focused on defending the right of teams to have the freedom to practice minstrelsy that he is not actually hearing the Native American man under his own roof. When that same man asks for a correction, Reilly still will not hear him, and he has to write his own response.

This country has always been more than comfortable with Native Americans as brands on sports teams and military hardware such as Apache helicopters, and Tomahawk cruise missiles. It is not comfortable with actual, real-life Native Americans like Bob Burns. This is the legacy of conquest: you glory in the fighting prowess of the noble savages you vanquished because it indirectly is a way of praising your own sense of muscular manifest destiny.

I hope Rick Reilly writes a follow up about what this experience has taught him. If not, then ESPN may have to issue their own statement. This colossal embarrassment does show that the old guard defending the Redskins name are feeling the earth shake and are finding themselves able to do little more than grasp at straws.

Dave Zirin looks at how the push to change the Redskins name has managed to involve even President Obama and The Onion.

President Obama and ‘The Onion’ Unite on Changing the Redskins’ Name

Washington Redskins helmets with the iconic red and gold colors and logo are displayed on the field during football training camp in 2009. Longstanding criticisms of the team name have recently achieved important momentum and media attention. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A chorus is growing louder from Native American communities and sports writers saying it is time for the Washington Redskins to change its name. Now President Barack Obama is weighing in. Speaking to the Associated Press amidst the budget horror show, President Obama said, “I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team, even if it had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”

It was a stunning statement for this most cautious of politicians, who hordes his political capital like a miser collects scraps of tin foil.

Obama’s statement is merely the latest in a sign that the mainstream is waking up to what Native American activists have been saying for four decades: that there is nothing “honorable” or “respectful” about the name Redskins. There have been some remarkable pieces from unlikely sources from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times to the folks at Funny or Die.

But of everything in the recent barrage of common sense and anti-racist logic, nothing quite nails it like a piece last August in The Onion.

At its best, the satirical newspaper can grab an indefensible political argument that has somehow seeped into respectable public discourse, and de-pants it for the world to see. With glee they shout, “This talking point has no clothes!”

They accomplished this feat with the headline, “Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means.” The article quotes “New Mexico University Researcher Lawrence Wagner,” who says that based upon his extensive and rigorous academic study, “When you hear or say ‘Redskins’ in the abstract, it’s completely harmless, but we’ve discovered that if you briefly pause to remember it’s a racial slur for an indigenous group wiped out by genocide over the course of a few centuries, then, yeah, it’s awful…It has the potential to come across as a degrading relic of an ethnocentric mentality responsible for the destruction of an entire people and their culture, but that’s only if you take a couple seconds to recognize it as something beyond a string of letters.”

For team owner Dan Snyder, there’s no escape. Even star quarterback Robert Griffin III had his wedding guest, former boxing impresario Rock Newman, tweeting from the ceremony, “I admire RG3 and am pleased to b attending his wedding to begin momentarily. Let no one get it twisted, as I sit very near Dan Snyder, I despise the RACIST, DISRESPECTFUL name of the team whose jersey he wears.”

Why all the recent attention? As usual, it always helps to follow the money. Dan Snyder dreams of returning the team to DC, with visions of a billion-dollar publicly funded stadium dancing in his head. The city council and Mayor Vincent Gray have made clear that without a name change it’s a non-starter. In addition, RGIII has made the team relevant for the first time in a generation. With relevance comes attention, and with attention comes people actually taking a second to think of “Redskins” as more than just “a string of letters.”

Every time a publication wakes up and says, “We will say ‘burgundy & gold’ or ‘Washington football team’ but not the R word,” it does what the Onion article accomplishes. It shakes the reader and asks, “Please just think if in 2013, this is really, honestly and truly okay.”

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Yes, there are “bigger problems in the world”, as name-defenders always fall back upon. In addition, if President Obama is commenting on this, it is worth asking what his agenda for the poverty plagued reservations actually is (the AP reporter didn’t ask). But one of these mammoth “problems of the world” are the way people of color are dehumanized on a global scale. Masses die from war or famine, and we collectively shrug because our media and culture process the victims as an “other.”

Anything that we can do to chip away at this state of affairs matters. The only reason there is a team called the Redskins in DC and not the “Blackskins” is because of violent depopulation. The region is 0.6 percent Native American, and without that stubborn fact, the name would be unthinkable.

Last note: I come from an Ashkenazi family. The shtetls where my people lived for centuries were wiped away by the Holocaust. If Germany or Poland started a club soccer team called “The Jew-Skins,” it would be wrong and acknowledged as such no matter how loudly the club owners said it was a tribute my culture, my religion or the practice of circumcision. Let’s not live a double standard. It’s time to change the name.

Greg Mitchell takes a look at the 1970’s death of black football player Speedy Cannon and asks “Accident or Murder?

A Visit to the Slums of Alex Rodriguez

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez answering questions from the media at a news conference in August, 2013. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)

Alex Rodriguez is suing Major League Baseball because he believes it has irreparably defamed his character. As his lawyers wrote, Commissioner Bud Selig has “improperly marshaled evidence that they hope to use to destroy the reputation and career of Alex Rodriguez, one of the most accomplished Major League Baseball players of all time.”

The thirty-three-page legal document’s central argument is the sterling character of the man himself. It catalogues A-Rod’s numerous charitable efforts, including the fact that he funded a new baseball diamond for the University of Miami, is on the University of Miami Board of Trustees and won “The University of Miami’s Edward T. Foote II Alumnus of Distinction Award.” (He never actually went to the school, but details, details.)

Subtle as The Walking Dead, this brief argues that Alex Rodriguez is such a beautifully charitable human being, there is no way he would ever be the sort of amoral cur who would lie, cheat and obstruct justice, as Selig claims.

I frankly have no idea what is true and what is not, although Bud Selig vs. A-Rod is like rewatching the 2000 vice-presidential debates between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman: you just want everyone to lose. I do however think it is telling that when it comes time to defend his character from defamation, A-Rod turns his legal guns on the statements emanating from Major League Baseball and not what people are saying about him ten minutes from my house.

I live just around the way from Langley Park, Maryland, part of Prince George’s County and site of one of the highest concentrations of Latino day laborers in the United States. In Langley Park sit 1,000 units of the Bedford Station, Victoria Station and Newbury Square housing complexes where many of these workers and their families live. The apartments are managed by a Coral Gables, Florida, company called Newport Property Ventures, which is owned by, you guessed it, Alex Rodriguez. According to A-Rod’s tenants, he is a “slumlord”, a “scumbag” and several phrases in Spanish that don’t have easy translations but involve using your own head to have a certain kind of sex with yourself.

The Washington Post did its own in-depth exposé of the three housing projects, describing the “hundreds” of complaints from residents ranging from massive rat infestation to layers of mold to a lack of ventilation that produces heat so overbearing residents sleep outside in the summer months.

My own initial observation upon visiting and speaking to tenants was that the article in the Post didn’t do justice to just how crumbling and dilapidated the surroundings are. They did not write about, as I learned, the bed bugs, gas leaks, and “two [gas] explosions in the last three years.” I witnessed a group of children returning home, running and laughing, as several rats scurried away (although a couple of particularly well-fed ones waddled off, looking more inconvenienced than frightened). I saw wires sticking out at odd angles from the sides of buildings. Even though it has been hot and dry in the DC area, the patches of grass had a softness to them and an odor that suggested there were problems with the sewage.

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Many of the residents there were more than happy to talk about their situation. “It’s disgusting, ” a man named Diego said to me. “We sent in our complaints. We tried going through channels. But it hits Florida and it is a dead end. They tell us if we complain, we are gone.” A woman named Ana said to me that people were fed up. “I worry about my kids,” she said. “If I am not watching them every second, I feel like there is something that could hurt them.” Her son was wearing a Washington Nationals shirt, so I asked her if she and others knew about A-Rod’s ownership of Newport Ventures. “We know about Alex Rodriguez. We know who he is. I don’t care if he ever plays again or returns to baseball. I just want him to say, ‘I am not a slumlord. I care about other Latinos’ and make these buildings safe and not be a rich guy who doesn’t care.”

I spoke with Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of Casa de Maryland, a leading community organization that has been trying to fight to bring Rodriguez’s slums up to some kind of livable code. He said to me,

“Tenants living in A-Rod-managed properties in Maryland, largely working-class immigrants from Latin America, have had to deal with the most horrific living conditions. To add insult to injury, local managers blame the tenants themselves for the situation, hire goonish private security officers to intimidate them, and threaten folks who organize their neighbors with eviction.”

Given what Diego, Ana, Gustavo and others said about Alex Rodriguez, I have a question: Why isn’t he suing them? They are certainly saying far worse things about him than Bud Selig ever did. They are calling him a repellent, soulless slumlord who doesn’t care if little kids sleep among rats, roaches and rubble. He should be bringing a whole van of Florida lawyers up to Langley Park to attack all those who are defaming his character. But he won’t. He won’t, because people are telling the glaring, visible truth. He won’t, because—as we are seeing on Capitol Hill—the voices of poor and working people just don’t rank on the concerns of people in A-Rod’s income bracket. And lastly, he won’t because if you have no character, it becomes something pretty damn difficult to defame.

Dave Zirin talks on Martin Bashir about Alex Rodriguez and the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball's crackdown on steroid users.

The Sliming of Josh Freeman

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano talking to quarterback Josh Freeman at a recent game against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their head coach Greg Schiano leak confidential information that implied one of their own players was on drugs as a way to deflect attention from another wretched season? Schiano says “absolutely not.” But the facts point in the direction of him or his staff, and the facts are ugly as hell.

Quarterback Josh Freeman is officially in “stage one” of the NFL’s drug testing program. That means he voluntarily entered. He did so as a way to show league officials that the one time he tested positive for a banned substance, a prescription medication for ADHD, it was a one-time mistake. By electing for stage one, Freeman’s involvement is supposed to be confidential. So confidential in fact that even his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not supposed to know that he had entered the program. It means he had been tested forty-six times over the last eighteen months for every possible substance and passed every time.

But Josh Freeman, in high-profile fashion, is on the outs in Tampa Bay. After a dazzling beginning to his career, Freeman has withered in recent years. Following a 0-3 start in which he didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes, Freeman’s relationship with head coach Schiano would be best described as “cyanogenic.” But it is hard to think of any quarterback, or any human who could mesh with the tyrannical, browbeating former Rutgers coach.

Schiano is the sort of person who thinks heading up a football team means you need to act like an amalgam of General Patton and Chet from Weird Science. He is not only barely holding onto his job. He is barely holding onto a team that has had multiple meetings about how much they hate his style, his play-calling and pretty much everything short of his haircut. Benching Freeman is a way to deflect attention from his own epic failure as coach and be given time to break in Freeman’s backup, a raw rookie third-round draft pick named Mike Glennon.

After his benching, Freeman demanded a trade, and the team clearly wants to oblige and get as much as they can in return. But alas, there is a tension. While upper management wants to maximize Freeman’s value, those in tenuous positions of power on the Bucs—like the gobsmacking twenty-six assistant coaches on staff—have an incentive to make Josh Freeman to look as cancerous as possible. Someone connected to the team released information to ESPN’s “NFL insider” Chris Mortensen, who, in a manner far closer to Judith Miller than Glenn Greenwald, dutifully reported the leak that Freeman was in “stage one” of the drug program, while leaving out that he was reporting confidential information or the nature of the drugs involved. Immediately the rumors started to swirl and the sliming was underway.

This is exactly why sports unions take such pains—despite all the slings and arrows from the media, politicians and owners that they are “soft” on drugs—to protect players from abuses in how drug testing is administered. It is why they fight for ironclad confidentiality clauses for first offenders and an independent appeals process. They do it to protect players from having their reputations tarred from false positives. But even more significantly, they simply do not trust those in management to not use drug testing as a form of leverage against players. In other words, they believe that, left to their own devices, owners and coaches will treat players the way the Bucs are treating Josh Freeman.

I was able to get through to NFL Player’s Association executive director DeMaurice Smith after he visited Tampa Bay in an already scheduled visit as part of the routine rounds of the union. He said, “We always protect player rights with vigilance. A breach of confidentiality is one of those instances where the league should agree with us on a zero tolerance policy.” Smith is clearly challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to treat this as a serious league violation. Goodell, who has liked to present himself as a Eastwood-esque sheriff when dealing with player misconduct, should treat this with the same seriousness. The smart money says he will not. When it comes to players, Goodell is Eastwood. When it comes to disciplining management, he is more like the empty chair.

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As for Josh Freeman, he had to issue a hastily composed comment last night addressing the rumors that he was in some sort of rehab. He describes the vague leaking of confidential information as a case of being “publicly violated.” People should read his full statement. This is someone who has been grievously wronged.

Whether or not you are a fan of Tampa Bay, the Bucs or even football, you should care about this issue. Drug testing and a complete absence of what can now quaintly be called “privacy” has become normalized in the American workplace. The idea that someone with a union contract that guarantees some basic protections can have his confidentiality treated like toilet paper is alarming. The idea that the Bucs could get away with this on the largest possible media platform is enraging. The idea that Greg Schiano can plead ignorance and only say, “I know what I’ve done, and I’m 100% comfortable with my behavior” and when pressed, “I’m not at liberty to comment on that,” is a joke. He should be saying that he will find out who violated his player’s privacy and discipline them. Anything short of that are grounds for dismissal. If the Bucs owners won’t do it, the league should step in. If the league won’t step in, an already angry Bucs team should just walk out. The Tampa Bay organization under Schiano has become the worst kind of laughingstock: the kind that isn’t funny.

Dave Zirin looks at how some ill chosen words from Dick Vitale have snowballed into NCAA players taking a stand for change.

Who Is the Walter White of the Sports World? The Answer Is Obvious

World famous Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, now infamous for prolonged steroid use, during a December 2007 USO tour in Iraq. (Wikimedia Commons)

I have spent the last several days in a Breaking Bad fever dream, asking myself, “Who is the Walter White/Heisenberg of the sports world?” I am very aware that I couldn’t come up with a hackier First Take–style question unless I was asking what sports commissioner is most like Miley Cyrus. Yet when a piece of popular art speaks to our age of collective dread as perceptively as Breaking Bad, it is worth maxing out its usage as a lens before the next shiny pop culture bauble draws our attention.

Before I posit who I believe the Walter White of the sports world to be, I should be upfront about what I think to be his defining characteristics.

Walter White is someone:

1) Who has undeniable, outlier-level abilities.

2) Whose skills are exceeded only by his self-regard.

3) Who falls and falls down hard, in a manner best described as “squalid.”

4) Who justifies his actions under a cloak of nauseating self-righteousness.

5) Who has a legitimate beef with the twenty-first-century America that has shaped his range of choices.

Using these criteria, the mind immediately floats toward athletes the public loves to hate: the sorts of iconic figures who could credibly re-enact this scene from Scarface.

First, the obvious anabolic antiheroes spring to mind: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez: people who hit the heights and then had a great fall. But how far did they really fall? Walter White’s story is ending as badly as anyone not named Prometheus. Bonds and Clemens have boundless fortunes and even in some circles, their reputations. Barry Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco and recognized, even by the most militant anti-steroid furies, as one of the best all-round players in history. Roger Clemens beat prison and was even an honored guest in Houston this past weekend for Andy Pettitte’s last game.

A-Rod, despite his wealth, does not look like he will emerge with any kind of fan base. But Walter White could be incredibly cunning. A-Rod has shown none of the cleverness, self-righteousness, or defiance of Breaking Bad’s protagonist, his face an expressionless mask. As a pulsing, malevolent presence, A-Rod has been more Hannah Montana than Tony Montana.

Lastly, PEDs and PEDs alone are in my humble view not enough to make you a Walter White. To take them is a decision athletes make with themselves, not something they are pushing upon others. The individual steroid user, in my mind, just doesn’t cut it.

What about a real criminal, someone like O.J. Simpson? OJ is closer to our Heisenberg: two people undone by ego, with Walter White’s “accidental” display of Leaves of Grass the equivalent of O.J.’s If I Did It book. The difference, of course, is that OJ was not trying to reach some kind of distorted American Dream that night in Brentwood. There was no pot of gold, no justifications that he was doing it for family. O.J. has been left with only his infamy and claims of innocence. Say what you will about Walter White’s aria of self-delusion, he never said to Hank, “But if I was going to cook up blue-meth, here is how I’d do it.”

There can be only one Walter White of the sports world, and it has to be Lance Armstrong. Most obviously, you have “the big C” cancer, as a handy narrative starting point and fail-safe justification for the slew of poor decisions that followed. Armstrong was no run-of-the-mill steroid user either. There is considerable evidence that Armstrong was not just someone who used PEDs in a sport swimming in them. He managed a team of cyclists and, according to testimony taken under oath, he insisted they partake, bullying, manipulating or just threatening anyone who didn’t. This is pure Walter White, corrupting those closest to him whether willingly (Skylar) or unwillingly (paying for Hank’s rehab with meth money). In those good times, before the ship was sinking, both also had comical mouthpieces, with ESPN’s Rick Reilly in the role of Saul Goodman.

There is a more heartbreaking parallel as well. Both were idolized by people with physical challenges who were devastated by the truth. Even in our cynical times, Lance Armstrong truly hurt the cancer survivors who believed his years of denials, including those in my family who have worn the yellow bracelet. That is personified in Walter’s son Flynn, born with cerebral palsy, who went from revering to hating this father in the time it took to slash a knife through the air.

But the most critical parallel is that Lance Armstrong like Walter White had every reason to look at this country and find justifications for getting his piece of the American Dream by any means necessary. The hardscrabble Texas son of a single mom who worked as a cashier at Kroger’s was going to fight his way out, Old West-style, in the face of impossible odds. The chemistry teacher with a baby on the way, cancer in his body and no means to leave his family anything but hospital bills looked out at his own pitiless Western landscape and grabbed the only bootstrap available.

As much as we demonize Walter White or Lance Armstrong, their crimes are both at end a function of the far more destructive, lethal and lucrative war on drugs. From the private prison profiteers, to the firearms manufacturers, to the pharmaceutical lobbyists and USADA government agents spending millions in tax dollars investigating retired athletes, there are far more important people to focus upon than the Walter Whites and Lance Armstrongs of the world. In a sane universe, their own moral failings would matter far less than he structures that produce them. We find them compelling precisely because it is so much easier to focus on the man who knocks than on why the door itself can feel so very paper-thin.

Slave Labor? Mass Prisons? FIFA Mangles the World Cup and the Beautiful Game

Demonstrators carry a banner made of Brazilian national flags during a protest against the Confederations Cup and President Dilma Rousseff's government, in Recife City, Brazil, June 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Is it possible to be sickened by everything that goes into staging the World Cup while also loving the tournament itself? For eighty-three years the answer to that has been a resounding yes. The thinking, from FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, down to fans, has been that if a few eggs must be broken, then that’s the price we must pay for a brilliant global frittata. But, with two stories that broke this week, FIFA is truly testing the limits of what people will swallow.

The first exposé was by Sam Borden in The New York Times about the efforts to build the first-ever “World Cup quality stadium” in the middle of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest for next year’s tournament. The Amazon is often described as the “lungs of the world,” producing 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen, so people who are pro-breathing might be angered over what is being done in the name of just four World Cup matches. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. Romário, a former Brazilian national team star who is now a member of the Brazilian Congress, called the project “absurd”, saying, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.”

One option being discussed—and only barely mentioned by the Times—is turning the entire stadium into a prison. Sabino Marques, president of the Amazonas custodial system’s monitoring and control group, endorsed this idea, saying, “After the World Cup, I believe there will be entirely idle spaces. Every day we have arrests in Amazonas and where are we going to put them?” Using soccer stadiums as prisons has a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those throughout the country protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.

As horrific as this scenario seems, FIFA and Qatar, site of the 2022 World Cup, has a construction operation that makes Brazil’s look positively benign. Guardian reporter Pete Pattison, doing the kind of journalism that sometimes feels extinct, has written a series about Qatar’s stadium-building policies that have already resulted in the deaths of dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers. Unlike other Olympic-sized projects with a body count—see Greece in 2004—the deaths are not primarily a result of workplace accidents, but heart failure: young healthy men having heart attacks.

As Pattinson writes, “This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.”

The charge of “slavery” that many Nepalese workers are bringing forth results from the fact that their pay is being withheld to keep them from fleeing the labor camps in the night. Food and water have also been rationed as a way to compel the Nepalese to work for free. After a day in the scorching sun, they sleep in filth, twelve to a room.

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Pattinson quotes one Nepalese migrant employed at the Lusail City development, a $45 billion city constructed from the ground up, which will include the 90,000-seat stadium for the World Cup final. “We’d like to leave, but the company won’t let us,” he says. “I’m angry about how this company is treating us, but we’re helpless. I regret coming here, but what to do? We were compelled to come just to make a living, but we’ve had no luck.”

In normal times, over 90 percent of workers in Qatar are immigrants, with 40 percent coming from Nepal. But these are not normal times. There has been a massive push for migrant workers, as Qatar aims to spend over $100 billion on stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, part of a broader effort to remake and “modernize” the emirate. A hundred thousand workers have already come from Nepal, one of the poorest nations on earth, and as many as 1.5 million will need to be recruited to get the job done. Thousands more will die if action is not taken.

I spoke with Jules Boykoff, author of Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games and a former professional soccer player. He said, “Sports mega-events like the World Cup are upbeat shakedowns with appalling human costs. This is trickle-up economics that magnifies the widening chasm between the happy-faced promises of mega-event boosters and on-the-ground reality for the rest of us.”

The issue is clearly not soccer. It is clearly not even having a global tournament like The World Cup. It is the way these mega-events are linked to massive development projects used as neoliberal Trojan Horses to push through policies that would stun the most hardened of cynics. The people of Brazil, demanding “FIFA quality hospitals and schools,” have shown a way to envision how we can emerge from this brutal cycle. The Nepalese migrant workers, just by having the courage to come forward, are doing the same.

Dave Zirin looks at author Eduardo Galeano's comments on Brazilian soccer protests.

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