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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

The Christie Implosion: Why Rutgers Is Trapped in Scandal and Crisis

Julie Hermann speaks at a news conference introducing her as Rutgers's new athletic director. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

We can all agree that it would have been a very bad idea for Penn State to hire a former child pornographer to coach its football team following the ouster of Joe Paterno amidst the Sandusky juvenile abuse horror show. This is Scandal Management 101, otherwise known as the law of opposites. If your last leader was an amoral cad who resigned in disgrace and also happened to be bald, you hire someone with integrity, ethics and, by all means, hair. The next coach of the New York Jets after Rex Ryan will probably make Tony Dungy look like John Belushi.

That’s what makes the goings-on at Rutgers University so maddening. In looking to move the school forward following the scandal that cost bullying former basketball coach Mike Rice and athletic director Tim Pernetti their jobs, school president Robert Barchi hired former Louisville assistant athletic director Julie Hermann. After the homophobic, misogynistic invective that will define the Mike Rice era, appointing an extremely competent woman must have seemed savvy. Unfortunately, in aiming to get beyond a bullying scandal, the school hired an athletic director with a history of bullying. In attempting to show that the athletic department is not a haven for misogynists, they hired someone with a history of misogyny. And worst of all, in boasting about the depths of their research into Hermann’s past, they missed a series of incidents that a Google search followed by ten minutes of follow-up phone calls could have revealed.

One doesn’t have to go far into the past to see what makes Hermann so clearly the wrong choice for this job. In 2008, she was at the center of a sex-discrimination lawsuit at Louisville. Five years ago, track and field coach Mary Banker approached Hermann to tell her about the alleged sexist actions and “discriminatory treatment” by head coach Ron Mann. Banker then took her complaints to human resources. According to Banker’s subsequent lawsuit, “Hermann called Banker into her office and flat-out told her, ‘You should not have gone to HR.’” Banker then testified that Hermann said, “I don’t know how you’re going to work downstairs after this.” Banker was fired within three weeks.

The older transgressions involve two incidents from 1994–97 when Hermann was the volleyball coach at Tennessee. It was here that her players accused her of verbal and physical abuse, calling them “alcoholics”, “whores” and “learning disabled” as a form of motivation. It was unbearable enough that it pushed students to do something that hadn’t been seen in the NCAA since the student revolts of the 1970s: student-athletes standing as one against their coach. The entire team signed a letter that read in part, “We feel that to continue this program under the leadership of Julie Hermann is crippling mentally, physically, and most importantly to our success as a division 1 volleyball team. The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable.” They confronted her collectively in the athletic director’s office and, according to numerous witnesses, Hermann saw the letter, looked at her players, would not acknowledge any of their complaints and said simply, “I choose not to coach you guys.”

Then there’s the video. At the 1994 wedding of one of her assistant coaches, Ginger Hineline, Hermann was caught on camera telling the bride that her job would be in jeopardy if she became pregnant too soon after marriage. Sure enough, Hineline did lose her job after becoming pregnant and eventually received a court settlement for $150,000 in 1997.

As with any scandal involving “past indiscretions,” efforts to dissemble, cover-up and lie are often more damaging than the crimes. The school has careened back and forth from saying they had “no idea” about Hermann’s past to saying they knew but it wasn’t an issue because of Hermann’s “entire record of accomplishment.” As for Hermann, she has yet to comment about the sexual discrimination case from 2008 and claimed to not remember the group confrontation with her entire Tennessee volleyball team. As for the wedding video, she said, “There is no wedding video,” followed by the public release of the video.

How could this possibly happen? There is an old expression that “the fish rots from the head.” In Rutgers, the rotting head belongs to Rutgers president Robert Barchi, a man who truly needs to go. After interviewing multiple members of the Rutgers community, a portrait emerges of Barchi as a corporate bureaucrat whose slogan might as well be, “The buck stops anywhere but here.”

Barchi’s roots are as a physician and number cruncher specifically brought in by Governor Chris Christie in September 2012 to oversee the merger of the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry under the Rutgers banner. This merger decision was approved by the state legislature without the funding to see it through. Barchi’s time is spent perpetually trying to “increase revenue streams” at the school to underwrite the merger. This goal, however, is profoundly at odds with the day-to-day mission of a state university that prides itself on diversity and research.

“Many of us have been horrified since he arrived,” said Professor Beryl Satter, who teaches at the school’s Newark campus. “The scandals in the athletic department are the logical outgrowth of his indifference to both students and the community. President Barchi came here with no interest in the student body and no interest in research. What does that leave? Money. He has been profoundly blinded by the corporate process, a fact that’s been obvious to us from the very beginning. Someone indifferent to the welfare of students should have no place running a university.”

This ham-handed indifference has been sharply displayed in how Barchi has starved funds from the school’s diverse Newark campus to subsidize the majority-white New Brunswick campus. The idea is to lure out-of-state students, with their luscious out-of-state tuititions, to New Brunswick and turn Newark into a secondary feeder institution. As Satter and Belinda Edmondson wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Months before the current basketball scandal blew open the lid on Barchi’s scorn for diversity, his administration set out to downgrade the Newark and Camden campuses to second-class status by describing the three campuses as representing separate specializations: ‘research’ (New Brunswick, the wealthiest campus), ‘service’ (Camden, the smallest campus) and ‘diversity’ (Newark, the brownest campus). So. The rational head will be white; the laboring body will be brown. Isn’t this what the caste system is all about?”

These aren’t just words by Barchi. He proposed closing the Graduate School in Newark and transferring all programs to New Brunswick. Called “institutional racism at its most baldest,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Barchi’s mere presence on the Newark campus spurs protest.

The problems on Rutgers campuses could be much worse, but faculty and students have been fighting Barchi every step of the way. The only sphere in the sprawling Rutgers system without a pool of people standing up to his agenda has been the athletic department. As Satter said to me, “It’s so clear. When you have Robert Barchi wthout faculty resistance, you have a national shame.”

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This same athletic department is poised to enter the Big Ten conference, which ideally—if you think schools should hitch their economic viability to unpaid teenage labor—should be a financial boon to aid the medical school merger. Now, however, member schools are grumbling that the invitation should be yanked. As Andy Baggott of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “If the Big Ten Conference is going to continue to stand by its plan to bring Rutgers into the fold next year, then its members must be gluttons for ridicule. In the aftermath of scandals at two of its signature institutions—Penn State and Ohio State—Big Ten administrators, coaches and alums are watching Rutgers answer to another round of forehead-slapping ineptitude.”

Governor Chris Christie has the power to force Barchi’s resignation. We can note the attendant irony that Christie—who delights in being a bully and picking on the weak, the indigent and all those who can’t fight back—would be the one to finally clear the decks at Rutgers. We can note the irony, but it still needs to happen. Christie appointed Barchi because they both are agents of austerity with the charm of a couple of bulls in a china shop that also happen to be passing kidney stones. But Barchi is becoming a liability for Christie and not because he is harming the New Jersey residents trying to get an education. Barchi is a liability because he now carries the stench of incompetence. For the students of Rutgers, this is a protest moment: President Barchi has got to go, and he can take Julie Hermann with him. If Governor Christie won’t act, then it’s time to mobilize to force in hand.

Across the country, students are mobilizing against racial and economic injustice. Read more at StudentNation.

Soccer Star Robbie Rogers: Out, Proud and Now Un-Retired!

Robbie Rogers in a US match against Grenada. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“There’s a lot to be excited about. It’s awesome to be part of a movement that is changing our society.”
      —Robbie Rogers

On Saturday one of the most depressing sports stories of the last year became one of the most inspiring when Robbie Rogers announced that he would be signing with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. In February, the 25-year-old soccer star told the world in the same breath that he was gay and he was retiring. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys—how’s that?… [Expletive] it. I don’t want to mess with that.”

It was an understandable but tragic surrender to the anti-gay bigotry that has historically defined professional sports from the stands, to the locker room, to the front office. Now Robbie Rogers is done surrendering. He’s returning to the sport and doing it with the unbridled joy of George Costanza, saying, “I’m back, baby!”

Yes, Robbie Rogers has officially un-retired and will become the first openly gay male North American athlete to take the field in one of the “big five” sports. Playing alongside superstar and friend Landon Donovan, and coached by former USA men’s national soccer team helmsman Bruce Arena, Rogers’s return is a testament to how much has changed since NBA player Jason Collins came out last month. Rogers saw how much support Collins received and was moved from his previous pessimism that he would never be accepted. His compunction to return was cemented after speaking at an LGBT youth forum to 500 kids.

“I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”

After deciding to come back, Rogers realized that the greatest obstacle was his own trepidation. “I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he reflected. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”

Another sign of the times is that Rogers was raised in a very religious home and still considers himself a devout Catholic. As he said, “Being Catholic—and people may disagree—but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I’ve always lived that way.” That sound you just heard was Rick Santorum’s head exploding.

Now in one day, instead of representing the past—the idea that the only way a male athlete could come out would be if he also retired—Robbie Rogers will represent the future.

When Jason Collins said he was gay in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend who came out in 1981, wrote astutely, “I think—and hope—there will be an avalanche. Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.”

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We haven’t seen an avalanche yet. But just as Collins’s announcement made it easier for Robbie Rogers, this latest news will make it easier for the next person to be honest and public about who they are. It will also make it easier for reluctant teammates to get over themselves and be the kinds of allies every LGBT athlete both needs and deserves. Not an avalanche, but brick-by-brick, we are seeing before our eyes the building of a new paradigm in men’s sports. It will continue to develop until, in a not-to-distant future, the issue of having a gay teammate simply won’t be an issue at all.

As for Rogers, he sounds profoundly happier now than he did when he retired with his head down. “I want to get back to soccer, which is what I love,” Rogers said to the Associated Press. “I get to do something I love, and I get to help people and be a positive role model. I’m really excited to set a great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I went through. It’s a perfect world for me, a perfect world.”

Deadly disasters call for Wolf Blitzer's divine intervention. Read Tom Tomorrow's take.

Rahm Emanuel's Zombie Pigs vs. Chicago's Angry Birds

Rahm Emanuel, left, and Chicago’s police superintendent at a news conference, December 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

My kids are into Angry Birds, a game they love for the same reason I once obsessively played Super Mario Brothers: its appeal is incomprehensible to the adults around them. This inscrutable game, however, has one essential truth: you have some pissed off birds compelled by rage to put down some zombie-looking pigs. After a sad effort to play the game myself, I had my own epiphany: this game is actually a metaphor for the city of Chicago. Please bear with me. Angry Birds is more Chicago than the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field or deep-dish pizza. The lunacy, the violence, the plethora of increasingly crazed pigs and those fierce feathered fowl all represent the political actors in a city that’s gone over the edge.

It all starts with the person who seems committed to win the current spirited competition as the most loathsome person in American political life: Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The same Mayor overseeing the closing of fifty-four schools and six community mental health clinics under the justification of a “budgetary crisis” has announced that the city will be handing over more than $100 million to DePaul University for a new basketball arena. This is part of a mammoth redevelopment project on South Lakeshore Drive consisting of a convention center anchored by an arena for a non-descript basketball team that has gone 47-111 over the last five years. It’s also miles away from DePaul’s campus. These aren’t the actions of a mayor. They’re the actions of a mad king.

If you want to understand why Mayor Rahm has approval ratings to rival Rush Limbaugh in Harlem, you can point to priorities like these. The school closures are taking place entirely in communities of color while the city’s elite feed with crazed abandon at an increasingly sapped trough. As Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union chief who led a victorious strike last September fueled by rage at Mayor Rahm, said, “When the mayor claims he is facing unprecedented budget problems, he has a choice to make. He is choosing between putting our communities first or continuing the practice of handing out millions of public dollars to private operators, even in the toughest of times.”

It’s hardly just the labor-left of Chicago pointing out how breathtakingly heartless these priorities are. Rick Telander, the lead sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, penned a piece subtly titled, “With Rahm’s DePaul plan, we’ve entered a new arena of stupidity.” After making clear that DePaul’s team is hardly a magnet for city hoops fans, Telander wrote, “But forget that. Guess who will have to cough up about $100 million to build the thing for the private Catholic university of 25,000, through bonds and the usual sneak attacks of wallet-siphonage—Yes! Taxpayers! Ta-dah!”

The fact that Rick Telander wrote these words matters. The wine is out of the bottle and the horse is out of the barn. In 2013, it’s no longer a few of us cap-wearing Cassandras shouting that the end is nigh if we keep hollowing city budgets to pay for these monuments to corporate welfare. It’s Rick Telander. It’s the Chicago Sun-Times sports page. It’s all of us.

It must be pointed out that this deal, even by the standards of shady stadium operations, has people scratching their heads. Building an arena for a third-tier college basketball program as the heart of a new convention center? Was his second best idea a new snack called Nuts & Gum? I spoke to Neil DaMause, the co-author of the bible on stadium boondoggles, Field of Schemes, to get his thoughts. He said,

I’ve seen dumber things than a mayor offering to spend $173 million in tax money on a building for a private college that already has its pick of several arenas to play in—but not much dumber…. I can’t for the life of me imagine what Emanuel thinks Chicago is likely to get out of this deal, unless he really thinks that convention planners are just waiting for a 12,000-seat arena to hold their plenary sessions in, at which point they’ll start throwing wadded-up hundred-dollar bills at any Chicagoan they can find.

DeMause is right. The only explanation for this is that Rahm is scratching someone’s back in the DePaul Catholic hierarchy of Chicago. This is power politics the likes of which Chicago has honed into a crude, low art form, with the myriad public officials behind bars to prove it. In this case, the hottest rumor is that approval of legalized gambling is on the horizon and the convention center’s locale will be its epicenter. The arena is, in effect, a Trojan Horse for a casino.

If true, Chicagoans should shudder. Even better, they should take a field trip four hours east to Detroit. The Motor City has gambling, and I’ve been to their casinos. If you ever want to see exhausted families spend their last dollars in hopes to make enough to last the month, go to a Detroit casino. That’s the future Rahm Emanuel dreams about for the working people of Chicago. The difference now is that the pigs aren’t feeding at an overflowing trough. They’re feeding on the last grizzled meat sticking to our bones. There’s simply not enough slop to go around and people are fed up with being fed upon.

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The Chicago Teachers Union strike from last September showed that the priorities of Rahm can be beaten back. The same rage that fueled their struggle animates those following this stadium swindle. I spoke with Alison McKenna, an adjunct professor in social welfare policy at DePaul. She said,

I have nothing against basketball and nothing against DePaul. But Rahm Emanuel and his upside-down priorities disgust me. In a deeply segregated city like Chicago, the gun violence that’s been all over the national news is the result of systematically tearing apart communities. Gentrification is not the answer for this city. The answer is decent jobs, social services, quality affordable housing, access to health care and fully funded schools, not another round of corporate welfare.

Rahm may have an army of zombie pigs who know how to do nothing but feed, but each and every neighborhood facing violence, school closures, clinic closures and public graft has a slew of increasingly angry birds. The people are long done playing Rahm’s game.

Who’s bankrolling the Center for American Progress, and what are they getting in return? Read Ken Silverstein’s report.

Hardball: Giants Concession Workers Fight for the Soul of San Francisco

AT&T Park in San Franscisco. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)

Picture AT&T Park, home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Picture about as breathtaking a baseball stadium as exists in the United States with the San Francisco Bay, otherwise known as McCovey Cove, framing the outfield like a Norman Rockwell postcard as conceived by Leroy Neiman. Picture seats packed with people clad in their iconic orange and black reveling in the once hard-luck team that now defines the city and stands atop the game. What we don’t picture when we conjure images of this or any ballpark are the people actually doing the work to keep it all running.

As idyllic as the aesthetics of the park remain, those prepping the food and cleaning the toilets make $11,000 a year in a city where, due to yet another round of tech-bubble gentrification, they cannot afford to live. Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater. Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.

Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles, even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans. I spoke with Billie Feliciano, who has been working at the park for over three decades. She said to me, “This is the first time in thirty-five years we’ve had to go to these extremes. Centerplate says talk to the Giants. The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we are saying is we want a fair share.”

Getting their “fair share” from Giants owner 80-year-old multibillionaire Charles Johnson will not be easy. A child of Wall Street wealth whose fortune has grown exponentially with the expansion of the financial markets, he now heads the mutual fund Franklin Templeton started by his father. As he said to The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting the company’s namesake Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (It would be far more fitting if he quoted the Ben Franklin who said of money, “The more one has, the more one wants.”)

In a startling bit of symmetry, Johnson lives in the city’s Carolands Chateau, a 100 room, 65,000 square foot palace originally built a century ago for the daughter of railroad magnate George Pullman. That would be George Pullman, namesake of the bloody 1894 Pullman Railway Strike where the United States Army intervened to crush the nascent industrial workers organization known as the American Railway Union. Then, destroying the mere idea of an industrial union like the ARU was seen as a high priority. Today we are seeing service industry workers starting to organize, walk out and be heard, and a twenty-first-century Pullman is looking to halt the mere idea that the expansion of service unions will happen on his watch. This is why the struggle at AT&T Park is bigger than 800 concession workers and why everyone has a stake in offering solidarity and support. As legendary Bay Area KPFA Hardknock Radio host Davey D said, “There is a lot of talk about having a citywide fast food union in San Francisco. So if you can topple the union at AT&T Park, then you can topple that idea. And if you can topple [service] unions there, you can topple them anywhere and can stop that tide around the country.”

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The workers are ready. Feliciano said to me, “We come there rain or shine. Are we striking? Not yet. But these workers are ready to strike.” The community, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the players on the Giants, from Buster Posey to Tim Lincecum to Sergio Romo, should support them as well.

As for the negotiations, they display all the arrogance of both Centerplate and Charles Johnson. During one session, while management scolded the union for thinking they were worth more than $11,000 a year, hedge fund honcho Mike Wilkins, a partner at $400 million Kingsford Capital Management, was on the field running the bases with 100 of his buddies, at a one-day rental cost of $500,000. This was described to the website Buzzfeed as an exercise in “grown up boys fantasy time.” Will San Francisco ever again be anything but a playground for the overgrown millionaire children of the tech sector? That’s the question. We’ll find out the answer in the weeks to come.

Go to thegiantzero.org for updates on the struggle.

Rep. Steve King: 'Why Won't Obama Call Tim Tebow?'

Tim Tebow as a Florida Gator, November 2009. (Reuters/Scott Audette)

Of the legions of unemployed in the United States, the most famous may be a person best described as, “Tim Tebow: Full Time Icon/Part-Time Quarterback.” After being released from the New York Jets last week, the man who was the toast of the NFL just one year ago cannot find a team willing to sign him. Even the Canadian Football League, long the refuge for quarterbacks cast out of Babylon, doesn’t want any part of “Tebowmania.”

We know that Tim Tebow isn’t very good at the whole throwing thing—always a drawback for a quarterback—but he has shown tremendous ability as an athlete and a divine flair for leading dramatic comebacks in the fourth quarter. He also would be an upgrade from several quarterbacks currently littering NFL rosters. There have simply never been so many bad quarterbacks leading NFL teams, yet Tebow’s phone isn’t ringing.

His inability to get signed, as Yahoo! Sports columnist Mike Silver laid out very persuasively, owes less to his abilities under center than all the frenzy that surrounds him. Tim Tebow is a neon distraction in a league that prefers the equivalent of men in gray flannel suits. If Tom Brady is the Don Draper of quarterbacks, then Tim Tebow is Megan Draper, flashing some skin and singing French pop songs, equal parts transfixing and excruciating. In other words, even if many an NFL owner shares Tim Tebow’s politics, they don’t share his need for attention. Our pro football bosses like doing their political business in the shadows, and Tim Tebow has become a living, breathing avatar for those fighting the Gary Bauer/Focus on the Family culture war like it’s still 1992.

Tebow is the only NFL player who can be described as having a base: a group of rabid fans who love him independently of his play and extol his greatness on the basis of his religiosity, his support for Focus on the Family or his wholesome whiteness. His base extends the tentacles of the culture war into any locker room he inhabits, turning any team he’s on into catnip for a media fiending to follow his every move, which only further alienates his teammates. The most compelling critique of Tebow, in my humble view, is that he has resisted any effort to disavow either his base or media attention, seemingly welcoming the distraction and even trying to leverage it to leapfrog toward more playing time. Your typical control-freak NFL head coach would rather have a player with a communicable plague than a player—especially a quarterback—who would relish this kind of constant distraction.

That’s what made Monday’s speech by congressional Neanderthal Representative Steve King all the more tragic for the future career prospects of Mr. Tebow. In the well of the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams risked arrest and assassination by inveighing against slavery, King decided to talk about his favorite subject, “the gays.” (Dan Savage doesn’t dwell on the “LGBT lifestyle” as much as Steve King.) Normally, whenever the Iowa congressman speaks, you roll your eyes, check your phone and, just in case, put the Southern Poverty Law Center on speed dial. But in this case, he invoked the name of Tim Tebow as a contrast to the athlete he sees is “undermining Western Civilization”: Jason Collins. Collins, of course, just became the first active, male, North American athlete to come out of the closet.

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As King said, “We’ve got Tim Tebow who will kneel and pray to God on the football field. Meanwhile we have a professional athlete that decides he’s going to announce his sexuality and he gets a personal call from the United States to highlight the sexuality of a professional ballplayer. These are ways that the culture gets undermined, where it gets divided. The people over on this side take their followership from that kind of leadership. One notch at a time, American civilization, American culture, western civilization, western Judeo-Christiandom are eroded.”

First of all, “followership” is not a word. Second, moments like this are precisely why Tim can’t find work, and it’s a shame. As long as he’s not on my team, I actually like Tim Tebow. In the “No Fun League,” the one thing you would never accuse Tim Tebow of being is boring. But while NFL owners might financially support the Steve Kings of this world, people like him are seen as strangely gauche: the relative you keep locked in the attic when company arrives. Tim Tebow, if he so desired, could disavow Representative Steve King, the same way he cancelled a speaking engagement at a new $130 million Dallas megachurch after finding out its pastor, Dr. Robert Jeffress, believed Jews, Muslims and gay people were going to hell (it’s worth noting that Tebow did not condemn these comments and, according to Jeffress, has plans to reschedule). But at this point, the former Heisman trophy winner may have better future prospects as a speaker on the evangelical gravy train than as a quarterback, and if there is one thing we know about Tebow Inc., it knows where its bread is buttered. I fear, however, it will soon learn that the true Sunday megachurch in the USA is an NFL stadium. Without a team, Tim Tebow in time may find himself without a flock.

Meanwhile, two progressive congressmen are calling for a constitutional right to vote. Read John Nichols’s take.

The Tragically Brief Life and Cruel Death of Malcolm Shabazz

A store below the Palace bar in Mexico City, where Malcolm Shabazz was killed. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Malcolm Shabazz had everything going for him. He was 28 years old, handsome as hell and a remarkably charismatic public speaker. He was an activist, an organizer and a proud father. He also had the blessing of being the grandson of Malcolm X.

Malcolm Shabazz had everything going against him. He was a young black man with a criminal record in the age of the New Jim Crow. He proudly allied himself with countries resisting US occupation and influence. He spoke to audiences across the earth, earning the unwanted attention of the Department of Homeland Security. He was treated with persecution, scorn and incarceration instead of the utmost sympathy for his role in a fire that took his grandmother Dr. Betty Shabazz, when he was only 13. He also had the burden of being the grandson of Malcolm X.

Now Malcolm Shabazz is dead. He was in Mexico City to meet in solidarity with a labor organizer deported from the United States and ended up beaten to death outside of a bar. Details of how and why he was killed are extremely sketchy, and I am not writing this to add to that noise, except to say that I’ll trust a police report about the death of Malcolm X’s grandson around the time I grow a tail.

I’m more writing out of anger: anger that this young man, whom I was able to get to know after meeting at a panel on fatherhood, is having his character assassinated in death. For reasons it should have to answer for, USA Today chose to display a picture of him in handcuffs alongside a brief notice about his killing. The Huffington Post—and no, I won’t link to this garbage—provided no sense of who he was except to write that he “pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in 2002 and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Just months after his release in 2006, he was arrested again, this time for punching a hole in a store window.”

With very few exceptions, not a single piece has what you would expect in a typical obituary: remembrances of loved ones and colleagues to give a three-dimensional portrait of someone’s life. The grandson of Malcolm X can only be seen in one dimension. That dimension, as the Associated Press wrote, was just that he “led a troubled life.”

There is no question Malcolm Shabazz had troubles. As he himself said, “Considering what I’ve been through, it’s a miracle that I’ve been able to hold it together. I’m just trying to find my way… Some of the things I’ve been through, the average person would have cracked.”

But “troubled” is not the sum total of who this young man was. Here’s a different take on Malcolm Shabazz by someone who actually knew him. Former NBA player Etan Thomas organized the fatherhood panel I mentioned earlier and worked with Malcolm on numerous events. I asked Etan for his thoughts. He said,

There is a lot of mischaracterization going on from people who know nothing. They never met Malcolm. They stayed far away from him but now they want to inaccurately characterize him. I knew Malcolm. Talked with him, worked with him, he was my friend. Malcolm had a heart of gold. He wanted to help people and change the world. He had been through so much in his young life. He went with me to Riker’s Island to talk to young incarcerated men under 18 and they were focused on his every word. He shared with them the mistakes he made in the past, the absence of a father’s presence, gave them words of encouragement and upliftment. And they were hanging on his every word because they saw the sincerity in him. He genuinely cared. It was an honor to work with him, and to have had him as a friend. He will be missed.

When I met Malcolm Shabazz, I had to ask him the question I’m sure he’d been asked a thousand times. I asked, “Is it more burden or blessing to be Malcolm X’s grandson?” He smiled and said, “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. Yes, being his grandson is a blessing. But you know what? Being a father is a blessing. Being in the struggle is a blessing. And just being alive is a blessing.”

We should mourn for the family of Malcolm Shabazz. We should also mourn for ourselves. In a selfish world where the offspring of the famous are more likely to use their cultural capital to become media parasites, we lost someone truly special. He wanted to wield Malcolm’s memory to fight for a better world. Now we should do the same with the memory of both of these Malcolms. They were both brilliant. They were both maligned. They were both taken far too young with far too much unfinished work in front of them. Malcolm Shabazz: Presente!

In the US, people under the age of eighteen can be held in solidarity confinement. Check out Nation Action for what you can do to stop it.

The Cesspool: Why Youth Sports Stink

(Flickr/Public Affairs Office, Fort Wainwright)

Last weekend, I had the great joy of being a judge at the 2013 DC, Maryland and Virginia Louder than a Bomb teen poetry slam competition. For those who don’t know how Louder than a Bomb works, area high schools organize teams who perform in front of an audience of family, friends, fans and, of course, the other competing poets. It’s raucous, intense, and when the emotional weight of a poem connects with a crowd, the adrenaline can suck the air out of a room.

As I was watching these young people unfurl their intense emotional discourses, the sportswriter in me began to ponder what was truly radical about the proceedings. It wasn’t the content of the poems as much as the content of the event itself. Like any great athletic contest, I was seeing the feel of competition push participants to new heights. I saw teams bonding, playing off one another, and working together like one of those Wade-to-LeBron-to-Wade-to-LeBron fast breaks. But I also witnessed an atmosphere that was genuinely supportive, cooperative, and spoke to the best angels of that oft-abused trope known as “sportsmanship.” As I watched this unfold, I asked myself, “Why can’t youth sports be like this?” Yes, it’s true that some teams are fun, some children have terrific experiences and access to youth sports should be universal. But overall, youth sports, to quote my neighbor’s 11-year-old kid, “straight sucks.” Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?

The day I was judging poets, a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after being punched in the face by a 17-year-old player because he didn’t like a call that Portillo made on a corner kick. Ricardo’s daughter Johana Portillo told the Associated Press, “Five years ago, a player upset with a call broke his ribs. A few years before that, a player broke his leg. Other referees have been hurt, too.”

What in the blue hell is going on here? I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive experience for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches are using them to meet the needs of adults at the expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” (My emphasis.)

This idea that youth sports has become something that fulfills the needs of adults as opposed to children was backed up by a statistic sent to me by Mark Hyman, author of the highly recommended book, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports. He wrote me, “Approximately half of all reported youth sports injuries are the result of overuse”—caused by kids starting too young in sports, specializing in one sport too early, and training too intensely. “Before the adult-supervised era of kids’ sports, there were no overuse injuries.” (My emphasis.)

Mark wrote another book, also highly recommended, called The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. This book, for me, is a Rosetta stone for understanding why youth sports have become so unbearable for so many.

Organized sports in this country are now a trillion-dollar business—as one marketer says, “from the womb to the tomb.” This is not an exaggeration. There are companies that make videos with names like Athletic Baby and Baby Goes Pro. There are gymnasiums for newborns with an eye on getting them to the pros. There are personal trainers for babies as young as six months. Poor and working-class families of every ethnicity have long seen sports as a ticket out of poverty. But now the financial crunch is on middle-class families as well. Their goal is less the pros than, in an era of $50,000 tuitions and crushing student loans, a college scholarship. Parents see their children as competing against other boys and girls, from the time their kids are big enough to pick up a ball. But to even get in the scholarship pipeline, unlike in decades past, playing for your school is not enough. You need to be a part of a traveling team. You need to have the right equipment. As the overwhelming majority of families are now headed by two working adults, you need to have parents willing to sacrifice scarce leisure time or work hours to attend games. As Mark Hyman describes, these families are not wealthy. Instead, they’re making an investment that needs to pay off, which creates a powder keg of pressure on very young kids.

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I asked John Carlos, the great 1968 Olympian, who has also worked as a guidance counselor in public schools for over two decades, why youth sports are so toxic for so many. He said, “The problem is the system. It’s a system where everyone wants to get over on kids. Yes, the parents make these bad choices, but when you’re in that kind of cesspool, all you can really see is… you know. You know what you see in a cesspool. It’s like a kid can’t just be a kid anymore.”

That last line is the key. Profiteering and childhood, whether we are talking about youth sports or charter schools, are a toxic mix. It’s creepy enough that the representatives of big business are oozing around the playground and judging youth sports as an underdeveloped “opportunity.” It’s time to get their priorities off the playing field and fight for space so kids can be kids. If we can link this to a movement of fighting for price controls on college tuitions, that will be music to many a parents’ ears.

In America’s schools, resistance is growing to high-stakes testing. Read David Kirp’s take.

1968 Olympian John Carlos on the 'Coming Out' of Jason Collins

John Carlos (right) commemorated on a mural in Brisbane, Australia. (Flickr/Rae Allen)

Yesterday, I spoke with Dr. John Carlos, one of the “fists of freedoms” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (Full disclosure, I had the privilege of co-writing his memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, 2011.) Dr. Carlos is as “old school” as they come: someone who believes strongly that athletes have obligations to give their time, money and physical presence to “impoverished communities, black, brown or white” and work to make the world a better place. He believes in honesty, fairness and the value of courage as a staple of whether or not a person actually has character. He taught me that over the course of your life, it’s far more important “to be a human being than to be a brand.” With that in mind, I was very curious what Dr. Carlos would say about the story scorching the sports world: the “coming out” of Jason Collins.

I simply asked old-school John Carlos what his thoughts were about Collins’s announcement that he would be the first active male athlete in North American sports to come out of the closet. Dr. Carlos’s “old school” answer was beautifully “new school,” with an old-school warning to the National Football League. Here are his words. They made me smile, and I hope they do the same for you.

I have so much respect for Jason Collins because he is telling the world that he is proud of who he is. He’s telling the world, “This is who I am. Deal with it.” That’s real courage. I support him to the upmost! I heard someone on the television say, “The NFL isn’t ready for an openly gay player.” We should answer that with, “Why the hell not? You better get ready!”

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I think we all look forward to the day when a player—male or female—coming out isn’t news at all. But now it is. Jason Collins matters. And given that Collins has gone out of his way to say that he owes a debt to those in both the African-American and LGBT movement who “paved the road for me,” the support from the generation of 1960s activist athletes matters as well.

Walmart workers are heading to Bentonville headquarters, Freedom Ride–style, to speak up to shareholders. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.

What Did RGIII Learn at the Muhammad Ali Center?

Robert Griffin III. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center.

It should be enough that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the most exciting athlete to enter professional sports since Lionel Messi and has restored the thrill of the possible to our football-obsessed community in Washington, DC. It should be enough at this moment to learn that RGIII is focused solely upon rehabilitating his knee, torn to shreds in last year’s playoffs. But the Heisman Trophy winner, who also found time in college to graduate from Baylor with a degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA, has clearly committed this off-season to exercising his mind as well. According to his running Twitter commentary, RGIII spent Saturday at the museum that in my view is the Mecca of the intersection of sports and politics: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Muhammad Ali Center is a remarkable testament to the courage of an athlete willing to take unpopular stands because of political principle. The fact that Ali took these stands at the height of his athletic powers, when he was between the ages of 22 and 26, clearly had an impact on Mr. Griffin. RGIII’s first tweet said simply that “seeing in depth what Ali did and who he was is so inspiring.” The quarterback then soaked in just how much Ali suffered for his unpopular stands against racism and the war in Vietnam and put himself in the Champ’s shoes. He wrote, “An athlete like Ali would get destroyed in today’s world even more than in his own time.” The social media–savvy RGIII then tweeted, “What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks.” He then retweeted someone who wrote to him, “Ali transcended sports and sacrificed his most productive boxing years to stand for his beliefs. Name a modern athlete that would.”

I must say that it’s thrilling that Muhammad Ali still has such a strong effect on athletes born a decade after he last set foot in a boxing ring. It’s also quite a statement that Robert Griffin III, who comes from a proud military family, would pay tribute to the most famous war resister in human history. Yes, Ali’s radical stance in 1968 has been smoothed out for mass consumption. Yes, in today’s myriad Ali tributes, few quote him saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is here.” But the museum, to its credit, does not engage in a whitewash. RGIII was confronted with the actuality of Ali’s ideas and was deeply in awe of his sacrifice.

Lastly, I would point out that in today’s age of social media, an athlete like Ali would get far more support than in 1964. Back then, a small cabal of hard-bitten sportswriters, who were conservative, calloused and Caucasian, dominated public commentary, and were deeply resentful of the man they called “the Louisville Lip.” Today, in addition to the hate, there would be a public outpouring of support, which would also shape the coverage. The trend-lines of Ali’s resistance would have ample amplification.

There’s another side of this, however, that could not have escaped RGIII’s precise mind as he considered the concepts of sports and sacrifice: There is no way in heaven or hell Muhammad Ali, who is of African, Native American and Irish ancestry, would have ever accepted being called a Redskin. RGIII had to notice that the question of names and what we choose to call ourselves figures strongly at the Ali Center. You learn that Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., named not only after his own father but also a famous nineteenth-century white abolitionist. The political history of that name didn’t stop him from changing it upon joining the Nation of Islam. As he said, “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I don’t use it because I am no longer a slave.” The museum speaks about the boxers, reporters and even members of the draft board who called him “Clay” and how he responded with, at different times, “Say my name,” “What’s my name?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s my name, fool?”

Ali’s belief that a name was something far more precious than just a brand has found echoes across the culture in multiple forms, from Destiny’s Child, to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s Super Bowl victory speech to perhaps the most famous scene in the classic television show The Wire. Names matter. What you call yourself and what others choose to call you is a question of respect.

I wonder if RGIII took notice that the Muhammad Ali Center has a proud history of doing traveling exhibits with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, including one called “IndiVisble: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” The 2012 press release for the exhibit reads, “Prejudice, laws and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom. For African-Native Americans, their double heritage is truly indivisible.” I wonder if RGIII would ask himself how that heritage is served by the fans in feather headdresses and war paint, and the stained crimson face on the side of his helmet.

There was much made this week about a poll taken by ESPN, which showed that 79 percent of people in the US find nothing wrong with the Redskins name. RGIII—the athlete, the brand, the corporate pitchman—is someone who could look at that poll and think, “Great. Now I don’t need to say anything.” RGIII, the human being inspired by Muhammad Ali, has to look at those numbers and think, “Whether it’s 79 percent or 97 percent, right is right.” The Redskins name is racist as all hell, the creation of a segregationist owner and only possible because the people being insulted were subject to genocide: thinning their ranks, political power and voice. It’s a name RGIII’s boss Dan Snyder will only defend in the most controlled of public settings. It’s a name that Muhammad Ali would have hated because it’s a damn disgrace.

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At the end of his Twitter commentary about The Champ, Robert Griffin III wrote, “The Ali Center confirmed my belief that although we, as people around this world, are different, we can all help & learn from each other.” He’s correct. But a precondition of helping and learning from one another is respect. RGIII is under no obligation to say anything about the Redskins name. But if he learned nothing else from the Muhammad Ali Center, it should be that sometimes you just have to speak out no matter the risk, no matter the trends or trend-lines.

It’s a little known part of The Champ’s history, but In 1978, Muhammad Ali joined Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens (who has just left us) to rally at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in the name of Native American self-determination. That was Muhammad Ali. He was nobody’s Redskin.

In a homage to the Freedom Rides, members of OUR Walmart will converge on Walmart’s upcoming shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.

Why Jason Collins Is More Roger Bannister Than Jackie Robinson

Roger Bannister, after running the first sub–4:00 mile. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)

I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. —Roger Bannister

It was once believed that a human being couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. Physicians wrote academic articles that the human anatomy wouldn’t allow for such exertions. Four minutes, we were told, was the Maginot Line of our physical capacity. Then in 1954, a medical student named Roger Bannister ran the race in 3:59 and it was like the running community awoke from a collective hypnosis. Mass psychology had shifted in decisive fashion. Within a week, Australian runner John Landy ran it in 3:57 and sub-four minute miles became the world-class average instead of the unapproachable standard. People’s minds had to dramatically adjust to a new reality as the inconceivable became the new normal.

There are many calling Jason Collins’s decision to be the first active male athlete to come out of the closet a “Jackie Robinson Moment,” after the man who smashed baseball’s color line in 1947. But I consider this to be more of a Roger Bannister Moment. For years, people have been waiting to see whether an active male athlete would come out of the closet. For years, people of all political stripes said it would be a long time coming. For decades, media and management has policed the sexuality of players to make sure the closet door was welded shut. Even those most supportive, until recently, were pessimistic. Just in 2011, Will Leitch of New York magazine wrote, “You probably don’t know the most likely first openly gay pro athlete, because he’s not a pro yet. He might be 12.” Leitch then quoted Jim Buzinski who co-founded the LGBT-focused website Outsports who said, “It’ll be someone who has identified as gay through high school and just doesn’t think anything about it. They’ll just be so talented that no one would even think to deny them.” But we didn’t have to wait ten years and we didn’t have to wait for that irresistibly talented superstar. Instead we have Jason Collins, 34-year-old journeyman center: right here, right now, in 2013.

As Collins explained why he did it to The New York Times, “There are so many people who have come before me both as a black male and then as a gay male, who have sort of paved the road for me…. Now it’s time for me to pave the road for somebody else, to be a great teammate, society being the team. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge those who came before me, give credit to them, and then there are those who are going to come after me, and it’s my responsibility to lift them up.”

Now that he’s come out, more players will feel liberated and lifted, unburdened by the pressure to be first. More people will explore the parameters of the possible because Jason Collins chose to be a pioneer.

It’s certainly tempting to think of this as a Jackie Robinson Moment as well. In this case there are also very strong, if inexact, parallels. Like Robinson, Collins, through his very existence, forces teammates, fans and the dominant culture to confront their own prejudice. Like Robinson, Collins has to face ignorance cloaked in religion that claims his very existence in the locker room is an abomination. Like Robinson, Collins has sparked discussions among the panicked about how his teammates could possibly shower in peace. The differences between Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins also matter. Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947 eight years before the formal start of the civil rights movement. He was, as Dr. King put it, “A sit-inner before sit-ins.” Jason Collins, as he readily says, felt confidence to come out because of the social movements that have been taking place off the field and because more straight players across the Sports World have started to speak out for LGBT equality. This doesn’t in any way diminish what Collins did. It just should remind us that the dynamic interaction between sports and social movements flows in both directions. It’s also worth noting that Jackie Robinson didn’t have to deal with a twenty-f0ur-hour sports media machine willing to give a platform to people telling him he was going to hell. The two stories lined up side-by-side remind one of Mark Twain’s famous dictum that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

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That’s why I see this as more of a Roger Bannister Moment. Thanks to Jason Collins, our parameters of the possible have shifted and now our collective thinking will have to change. That’s the power of just being brave enough to dare see what isn’t there. When Roger Bannister was asked how it was possible he achieved his record-breaking feat, he replied, “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got.” That’s what Jason Collins did as well, and we are all the better for it.

What’s it like to cross the border without papers? Read Aura Bogado’s review of the interactive La Ruta.

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