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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

NFL Scab Referees and the Return of TV Bloopers

As a child, my family owned just one lonely Zenith-brand television with no remote and no cable box. My fearsome big sister controlled the set under threat of violence and would subject me to the lowest form of entertainment: bloopers. Shows like TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes or its sad network competition Foul-Ups, Bleeps, and Blunders—which was co-hosted, amazingly, by Don Rickles—blared throughout our house and like a squat, Jewish Scarlett O’Hara, I swore I would never watch such dreck again.

But now the National Football League owners and their Commissioner Roger Goodell, in their infinite greed, have returned the blooper show to the airwaves with the weekly hijinks of their stumbling, bumbling, scab referees. The lockout of union refs has turned the nation’s Sunday NFL ritual into a profane farce. You could look at it as a living argument for the importance of trained union labor, or like a dangerous practical joke: a group of Sacha Baron Cohens in black and white stripes poking at fans and players to see just how much they’ll take before they snap.

Yesterday we were served the spectacle of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh berating some meek scab into giving him both an extra challenge flag and an additional timeout. Then there was the sight of the referee who threw his hat on the field of play, causing receiver Kevin Ogletree to step on it and slip awkwardly in the end zone. Fortunately, his knee ligaments remained attached. But this was all high comedy compared to seeing helmet-to-helmet hits go unregulated, Bill Belichick physically accosting an official and 70,000 fans in Baltimore chanting “bullsh*t” in unison for a solid minute. The owners might want to note that it’s only funny until the peasants grab pitchforks.

Then there are the announcers who with few exceptions talk about these foul-ups, bleeps and blunders like Roger Goodell has electrodes attached to their nether-regions, ready to zap at the slightest critique. In the game I was watching most intently, Washington against the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like I was viewing Soviet state television. Replays weren’t shown to the television audience after missed calls; commercial breaks would cut in rather than dwell on errant whistles; and worst of all, when mentioned, the announcers would speak reverently of the struggles of “replacement referees.” Calling these scabs “replacement referees” is like calling a befouled outhouse a “replacement toilet.” Scour across every minute of every broadcast and the word “scab” is going unuttered. To call them otherwise is like calling a flasher in Central Park a “penile exposure expert.” Their very existence on this elevated cultural plane degrades all labor, organized or not. Their incompetence is an affront to fans and an actual physical danger to players.

The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is that the NFL Players Association is finally being proactive in trying to end this. On September 20 the NFLPA Executive Committee, which includes current players like Drew Brees and Charlie Batch, sent a scathing letter addressed to the owners of NFL teams where they said, in part:

Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.… The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling.… We are all men who love and respect this game and believe that it represents something beyond just money. For our teammates, our coaches and our fans who deserve better, vote to end this lockout now.

This letter represents an escalation in the NFLPA’s rhetoric and direct involvement in the lockout. The next step would be if the players announce that they would not take the field if scabs are also there to officiate. Such a move would end the lockout faster than RG III’s forty-yard sprint-time. Critics will say that a secondary strike might not be legal. Perhaps, but allowing players to put their health in the hands of such incompetents isn’t ethical and the NFLPA has a specific charge to safeguard the safety of the players. They are also the only force in the game capable of ending the madness. We could organize a historic fan boycott 1,000,000 strong and it wouldn’t even make a micro-dent in the NFL’s profit margins. But if only two players on each team, the offensive and defensive captains, held a ten-minute press conference saying that the lockout has to end or no more football, then it would end. They would also be showing the bosses who’s boss. It’s time for a secondary-strike so we can quickly move beyond what is quickly becoming one of the darker chapters in NFL history. Please do it, before someone really gets hurt.

Letters From Rio: Q&A With a Mayoral Candidate Who Makes the IOC Nervous

Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin interviewed Rio de Janeiro mayoral candidate Marcelo Frexio on September 18, 2012.

No matter the host city, no matter the country, the International Olympic Committee depends on compliance from local politicians to achieve its objectives. It needs to displace locals, a massive security apparatus and access to public funds. But there may be a “fly in the ointment” waiting for it in Rio for the 2016 games, and he is mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo.

Currently there are eight people running to be mayor of this city of 6.3 million people. Leading the pack is the longtime incumbent, Eduardo Paes, who has fit very snugly in the back pocket of the IOC, not to mention the real estate and private transportation barons funding his campaign. Second is Marcelo Freixo from PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party. Paes is polling at 54 percent of the vote and Freixo stands at 18 percent in the field of eight, with no one else over 2 percent. But what matters when the polls close on October 7 is whether Paes finishes at under 50 percent. Then he would face Freixo in a one-on-one runoff with equal television time mandated by law. Paes’s financial advantage, which is thirty times Freixo’s, would be blunted. It would become a battle of grassroots enthusiasm and on that score, based on the rallies I’ve attended and posters in the favelas, Freixo could win. This would prompt a massive change in Rio’s Olympic agenda.

The October 7 elections may not attract the eyes of the world, but they have captured the nervous attention of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the IOC. They’re right to be nervous. As Freixo says, “They don’t want [to deal with] a mayor. They want a functionary.”

Freixo is 45 years old but appears ten years younger, topped by a thick head of dark hair without a hint of gray. He’s a state assemblyman, former schoolteacher, human rights activist and prison educator. He achieved renown by challenging Rio’s brutal private militias after they murdered his brother in 2005. Freixo speaks with a scratchy, hoarse voice under hooded eyes, a sign of the 24-7 grassroots campaign that has him speaking constantly across the city.

Here we speak to Marcelo Freixo.

Dave Zirin: Why are you running for mayor and what do you hope to bring to the city?

Marcelo Freixo: This is possibly the most important election in the history of Rio. What’s being contested is the future of the city. Rio is on a schedule of change now that no other city in the world has and this calendar [this pace] is bringing very profound changes to the city. The hegemonic project that is being developed right now will create a more unequal city. In this context, I accepted when I was asked to enter this contest for mayor. It will be a very difficult fight, but it’s very important.

What is your assessment of the preparations for the Olympics and the World Cup here in Rio?

The truth is that the preparations are attending to the interests of big corporations and not of society. We had the experience of the Pan American games in 2007 where no benefits were brought to the city. We have currently a city with enormous investments, but also enormous social aggravators. The federal ministry of health recently released a study showing the Rio has the worst public health system on offer in all of Brazil. Additionally, we have precarious and very expensive public transport. We also have a very low-quality education system—one of the worst. So it’s a city with enormous investments taking place, but one that can’t guarantee a minimum standard of living for its citizens.

If you are elected mayor, what would you be able to do differently with regards to the Olympics and World Cup—which of course are coming to Rio no matter what? What would you be able to do in power to mitigate the worst effects of these mega-events on the poor?

The investments being brought here should be thinking about the city and not just profits. They should be directed towards things that will benefit the poor like transportation and increasing transparency. These are things that can improve with the staging of these events.

The transparency of how these resources are being spent would change [if I’m elected]. Right now there’s absolutely no transparency in the investments or in the construction that’s happening. The construction works are being made to benefit the construction companies and not the population. The Olympics must leave a positive legacy for the population.

If you are elected mayor, would you be able to promise that there would be no involuntary displacements for the Olympics and World Cup?

I’m radically against the politics of evictions. The way they are happening today is illegal and arbitrary. The law determines that the priority should be the upgrading of the resident’s home. And that if it’s necessary that the house is removed, that the residents are relocated nearby. That’s not what is happening today. The evictions today are just attending to the needs of real estate speculation. Take the federal government’s “Minha Casa, Minha Vida”—my house, my life—program. [This is a federally administered public and affordable housing program]. For residents in this program who earn zero to three times the minimum wage, the lowest income-earners, 87 percent of them have been relocated in the extreme west zone which is without basic sanitation, schools or hospitals.

I know people connected to the IOC who say that it’s their worst nightmare, the thought of you being elected mayor. Do you want to say anything to calm their concerns?

The people from the IOC need to know the city a bit better. My only objective is to ensure the interests of society are higher than private interests. But I’m happy to know that they are worried…. The IOC does not want a mayor, they want a functionary who will carry out their plans.

A question about the social movements of which you are part: do you think that whether or not you are elected that the social movements will grow and take a strong stand to make sure that people are put ahead of profit with regard to the Olympic and World Cup planning?

The social movements are growing increasingly strong here. In the 1990s we suffered a decline in the movements, but I think now in this moment they are increasing. And that’s what is giving our campaign increasing dynamism. Our campaign has managed to bring together many of these movements, which is rare because the social movements rarely dialogue with electoral politics. Independently of the outcome of the election, I believe the social movements are gaining strength, and after the elections they will emerge stronger. Today there was a very interesting article in O Globo newspaper that’s worth reading. It talks about “rebellious Rio” and it mentions our campaign. It talks about the rebellious side of Rio that is coming back, and that is reflected in this campaign.

The Olympics are seen as the “crown jewel” of [former Brazilian President] Lula’s tenure as the leader of Brazil. Has the reign of the Workers Party been helpful or destructive to the growth of the left in Brazil today?

The arrival of Lula in power actually weakened social movements initially because it co-opted them. These were people who had historically fought side by side with the PT [Lula’s Worker’s Party] and with Lula. So they naturally wanted to go with Lula, but many of them were co-opted as Lula moved to the right during his time in office.

One of the damaging aspects of this is that for young people, it looks like all parties are the same. That they all form coalitions and come to power and behave in a similarly corrupt way.

Lula is now allied with Fernando Collar who was impeached in the early 1990s, and with Sarne, who was a corrupt politician, Brazil’s first democratically elected president [after the end of the military dictatorship]. They’re all now aligned in the government. This generated amongst the population a sense that “they’re all the same.” That’s very difficult to reverse. We are working on this, trying to reverse this perception: that’s why our campaign has involved social movements as well as many young people.

What do you say to people who say that neoliberalism has been good for Brazil? That there’s more stability, not just for tourists, but for the poor as well, that people have been lifted out of poverty, etc?

We have some social assistance programs that are very strong, that is true. But in terms of distribution of wealth, Brazil is still a country of latifundios: there is still an enormous concentration of land ownership that actually has gotten worse. It’s still one of the most unequal countries in the world. There’s a prevailing idea of growth that is more focused on corporations and agribusiness than on the people who need the land. But of course, if you compare Lula with his predecessor Cardoso, there are advances but fewer than we could have had. And that’s the problem. Because we compare him with Cardoso, and not with what is possible in terms of really eliminating inequality.

It’s very common to hear political commentators in the United States say that “socialism” is a word for the twentieth century and not the twenty-first century. But your candidacy has been very successful here as a PSOL candidate. What do you say to people who say that socialism is an ideology of the past and not the future?

Of course, we are not going to create socialism by winning one election in Rio. I’m running for office, and not running a revolution. But there are political principles at stake: the conception of the public servant, what is the role of the state, transparency, the relationship with youth. Why education and healthcare should be priorities. Even well short of a revolution, we can achieve significant changes in all these areas.

I believe you once headed a union of teachers—is that correct?

Yes, many years ago.

The teachers of Chicago just ended their strike of the third-largest teacher’s union in the United States. Do you have any words of solidarity for them?

The ideal is that we never need a strike. That teachers are always seen as important and that they are valued as such, and the importance of public education is recognized. But many governments don’t see it in their interests to have quality public education—they are actually fearful of quality public education, because they fear people being educated and informed. The more the people can think, the more they can act. And in this sense, there is no other path, the teachers have to fight.

For more on the politics of the 2016 Olympics, read Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”

Letters From Rio: Why Carlos Can't Sleep

Carlos Tukano worries that the hundred-year-old Indigenous Cultural Center will be demolished for Maracanã Stadium parking spaces.

Carlos Tukano is around 50, give or take a few years. He’s an indigenous Brazilian born in the state of Amazonas who worked for thirty years to build a collective organization of Brazil’s dozens of indigenous groups. Now he lives in Rio and cannot sleep.

There’s no sleeping when a 1 billion Real ($500 million) fast-track construction project is happening next door, with twenty-four-hours-a-day of deafening noise: of jackhammers, cranes and whistles that mark the shift-changes of blue-overalled construction workers.

It’s the price of living adjacent to perhaps the most famous sports arena on earth, Maracanã Stadium, now undergoing a massive facelift in preparation for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

That’s not the only reason Carlos can’t sleep. He lives with eleven other families in the remains of the city’s abandoned Indigenous Cultural Center, and all the residents fear they will be swept away with the construction’s debris.

The families live in trailers next to the museum in protest of its dilapidation, disrespect and neglect. Founded in 1910, the Indigenous Cultural Center is an achingly beautiful three-story structure with twenty-foot-high ceilings and a world of history. While the formal museum is gone, there are now several makeshift exhibits and cultural displays put in place by the current occupiers, but the interior is in terrible disrepair. The floors are covered in rubble. The wrought-iron stairs still have their skeletal shape, but the handrails and marble stair treads are ripped out. Climbing them is like going up sixty feet on an diagonal ladder, and it’s a long way down.

But the site has a history that reaches back decades. It was one of the first indigenous cultural museum’s in the Western Hemisphere, built just two decades after the country formally abolished indigenous enslavement. “We speak to the government and they just put us off,” says Carlos. “But we will not leave because we want a place to show the power, history and pride of the indigenous people.”

The entire structure could be rebuilt for 20 million real, a pittance compared to the Maracanã rebuild. This is particularly so considering that five years ago, the government spent 400 million reals to refurbish the stadium—changes that are now being completely demolished in the current renovations.

With only a fraction of these funds, the Indigenous Cultural Center could become a symbol of Brazil’s rich and diverse history. It could even be an attraction for those coming to Rio for the World Cup and Olympics, a feel-good advertisement for the beneficence of the Brazilian state. Instead, it’s slated to become parking lots.

This is why one of the occupiers, Arrasari, says, “I am not moving. I will stay until I am not more than a pillar of salt. They think we’ll go because they’ve cut us down like trees. But the root remains.”

The same logic that drives the bulldozing of the Indigenous Cultural Center into parking space mirrors the renovation of the Maracanã itself. The “Circus Maximus” of Brazil’s soccer-loving multitudes, with a capacity that could once stretch to 200,000, is being downsized, sanitized and utterly transformed. The new Maracana will seat only 70,000 people, ringed by luxury boxes, and is intended be sold off to private business interests after the 2016 games.

As Chris Gaffney, a professor of architecture and urbanism in Rio who writes and organizes on the effects of mega-event,s said, “It’s the killing of popular space in order to sell Brazil’s culture to an international audience.”

Rebuilding the Maracana is a twenty-four-hour job: three eight-hour shifts, a constant flow of workers rebuilding their stadium into a structure they won’t be able to afford to enter.

In the meantime, Carlos cannot sleep. Outside his bedroom hangs a billboard displaying for passers-by the new Maracana. It’s topped by a Brazilian flag with the slogan, “Brazil: A country for everyone.” From a distance, we can call this irony. For Carlos, it’s an obscenity.

For more stories of Olympic injustice, see Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”

Letter From Rio: Save Armando's House From the Olympics


Vila Autodromo resident Armando shows us his house, which the city government of Rio de Janeiro wants to demolish for a 2016 Olympic site.

You can’t understand what the 2016 Olympics are going to do to Rio de Janeiro, unless you understand what went into building Armando’s house. Armando is a diesel mechanic who lives in a community known as Vila Autodromo, so named because it sits right outside the city’s famed Formula 1 racetrack. Armando built his home from scratch over the course of fifteen years. Now it’s two stories high with plumbing, electricity, and his own sweat and handiwork in every square inch. The fixtures, the tile, even the wire to a lamp stretched tightly so it hangs behind a framed picture of his son and gorgeous twin grandchildren, bear the marks of toil and love.

His home has also been targeted for demolition by the city government of Rio for the good of the next Summer Olympic games.

As his six toddler grandchildren played underfoot, Armando expressed his frustration:

“We are fighting for our right to survive here. Our right to live. Do you know how many years I’ve worked my butt off to build this house? I did it for my kids and for my grand kids so we would have a place to live and be a family, so days like today we could all have space to be together.”

Armando’s situation isn’t unique. The 3,000 people of Vila Autodromo are all facing forced eviction.

Vila Autodromo is a target for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s a favela. “Favela” is commonly translated as “slum”, although that really doesn’t do places like Vila Autodromo justice.

All favelas share a common history as squatter settlements that were developed autonomously by Brazil’s working poor and unemployed—with minimal government support. Today, many of them are quite large—sometimes 100,000 people or more—and contain within them a wide range of income levels and employment statuses, as well as churches, schools and small businesses. Many, if not most, favela houses are solidly built with materials not commonly associated with slums, and usually have electricity, running water, as well as Internet access.

The Olympic preparations have put these “slums” in the cross hairs of city officials, President Dilma Rouseff and the International Olympic Committee. But to enter a favela like Vila Autodromo is to see a place that could teach the powers that be something about civilization. I don’t want to romanticize the poverty and very real day-to-day struggles to survive many in Vila Autodromo face. But I saw a community where people keep their doors open and children play joyously with each other in the streets. It’s a place where people like Armando’s build and develop their homes over decades to fit their changing families.

It’s a peaceful, beautiful community, and herein lies another obstacle to Armando’s keeping his house. It’s too beautiful. The land on one side of Vila Autodromo faces the F1 track, but the other side rests right on a large picturesque lagoon—Lagoa de Jacarepaguá—that looks like it was plucked from a postcard. That means the developers and real estate speculators, according to many residents, drive through salivating at the thought of taking it over. The Olympics provide the pretext. Across the lagoon stand luxury condominiums.

The neighborhood ringing the lagoon as well as Vila Autodromo is Barra da Tijuca, one of the fastest-growing middle- and upper-income parts of the city. Think parts of Northern Virginia: strip malls and a car culture so intense you need to drive to get from one side of the street to the other. Theresa Williamson, founder of the nonprofit Catalytic Communities that aims to raise the visibility of the favelas, said to me, “People on the other side of the lagoon see Vila Autodromo and they see an eyesore. But people here as well as sympathizers look at the pollution, development, the high rises, and see the same.”

The plans for Vila Autodromo are always shifting. On one master plan, it will become a parking lot. On another, a bizarrely serpentine superhighway. The shape-shifting goals obscure the real objective: take over Vila Autodromo.

Jane Nascimiento, who is a director of the neighborhood’s association, said to me:

“You can’t have an Olympic legacy that hurts the very people who built the city. To them this is like covering trash with a red carpet. They want to walk all over the carpet and not look at what is underneath.”

If they look underneath, they’ll see something worth preserving. It’s not too late. We’re going to save Armando’s home. I asked him if there was anything anyone could do to help and he said, “Just let people know that we’re here…and we don’t want to leave.”

For more on the impact of Olympic construction in Rio, see Zirin's report on the hundred-year-old Indigenous Cultural Center that will be demolished for Maracanã Stadium parking.


Two Lockouts, a Strike and a Pizza

This is a column about rules. It’s about rules we are expected to follow and rules that the rulers—call them the new aristocracy, the 1 percent, the Masters of the Universe—don’t deign to notice. It’s about hypocrisy, double standards and twisted logic. But it’s really about a strike and two lockouts that on basic principle demand our support.

The Chicago teacher’s strike has more angles than Cecil Cooper’s swing. But there is one criminally under-discussed aspect of it. It would be so helpful if just one of the many politicians and newspaper editorial boards lining up to lambast the teacher’s union could explain why Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision for a model Chicago public school is so at odds with the education he is providing for his own children. Mayor Rahm is fighting to create a school system dominated by high-pressured standardized testing. Everyone and everything must bow to the test. Cut art, cut music, cut physical education, extend the school day and create an educational environment that revolves around filling in a bubble.

Yet Rahm sends his own children to the University of Chicago Lab School. As labor journalist Mike Elk reported, “The Lab School has seven full-time art teachers to serve a student population of 1,700. By contrast, only 25 percent of Chicago’s ‘neighborhood elementary schools’ have both a full-time art and music instructor. The Lab School has three different libraries, while 160 Chicago public elementary schools do not have a library.”

Rahm wants less art and more standardized testing for Chicago’s children, while he wants more art and less high-stakes testing for his own children. One set of rules for him and one for the rest of us.

Then there is the ongoing lockout of 119 National Football League referees. NFL owners, led by their flak-catching Commissioner Roger Goodell, don’t care that for the cost of several dozen Peyton Manning autographed footballs, they could rehire their highly trained officials. This is a league that secretes money, but the billionaires in the owner’s box can’t stand the thought of paying for competent officiating when there are replacements willing to work for less pounding at the doors.

The connective tissue with the teachers of Chicago isn’t the greed. It’s the gap. It’s the gap between the rules Commissioner Goodell and the owners expect others to follow and their own moral code. Goodell has decided to make the “health and safety” of players golden buzzwords that justify all decisions. “Health and safety” are why players should be fined $50,000 for “helmet to helmet contact." “Health and safety” are why the league leveled reckless “bounty” allegations against four members of the New Orleans Saints, despite what’s now been deemed an absence of evidence. And Roger Goodell’s care for the “health and safety” of players is why the league just donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health to study brain disease.

Yet here are the NFL referees, uniquely charged and trained to protect the health and safety of players, and they can’t get on the field. The very people called “the first responders” by the league, comparing them to emergency medical technicians, have been locked out. I don’t want to argue just how embarrassing their scab lingerie-football-league replacements have been. The point is that Roger Goodell has one set of standards of safeguarding “health and safety” for players and another for himself, just as Rahm Emanuel feels that there is a kind of school good enough for his children, but not anyone else’s.

Lastly, the owners of the National Hockey League are going to lock out their players this weekend. This will be the league’s fourth work stoppage since 1992. Rather than negotiate, commissioner Gary Bettman has left the players with a “take-it-or-leave it” proposal. Since the league canceled their 2004 season in the last lockout, revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. Despite this growth, or perhaps because of this growth, owners wanted players to cut their piece of the pie from 57 to 43 percent. But the issue isn’t the revenue. It’s the existing contracts. As one official said to me, “This isn’t about revenue as much as it is that they don’t want to have to pay the contracts offered over the last year. They want to be able to rip up and renegotiate all existing contracts. They want us to save them from themselves.”

And here once again we encounter the problem of rules. A contract is supposed to be an inviolate, legally binding agreement. That’s what working families were told when they signed onto the predatory loans that eventually claimed their homes. That’s what we are told when our cars are repossessed. That’s what the union autoworkers in the United States were told only to see their wages slashed in half in the much-ballyhooed auto-industry bailout. Instead not only NHL players but also all of us get sent a message that a contract is only worth a damn if those in power choose to honor it.

There is no winning a game when the rules have been rigged, but there is power in numbers. There is power in struggle. And there is power in pizza. The easiest way to support Chicago teachers is to order them a piping hot pizza pie. You can get food to the picket lines by calling Gus or Daisy at Primo’s Pizza at (312) 243-1052. When pizza shows up to the tired picketers, everyone’s spirits are lifted. It’s read to them from which part of the country a pie was ordered and it makes them feel that much less alone. We don’t have the power of a Rahm Emanuel or Roger Goodell. But we do have numbers and perhaps we can even the score one pizza at a time.

Chris Kluwe and the Greatest Political Statement by Any Athlete Ever

Speaking out always holds the risk of a backlash: especially for pro athletes and especially when standing up for LGBT equality. The Baltimore Ravens’ Brendan Ayanbadejo experienced that reality this week. For years, the 36-year-old Ayanbadejo has been outspoken in support of Marriage Equality and LGBT rights. Now, Ayanbadejo is publicly supporting a November ballot initiative for Maryland to join the states that recognize same-sex marriage. This was too much for Baltimore County state delegate Emmett Burns. Burns, a Democrat, sent a formal letter to Ravens team owner Steve Biscotti writing, among other things, “I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse same-sex marriage, specifically as a Raven Football player…. I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.” Then Burns went even farther and requested that Biscotti, “take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.” Yes, you read that correctly. Burns is calling on Ayanbadejo’s boss to coerce him to shut up.

It’s worth noting that this last statement just isn’t true. Players such as Scott Fujita, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, the San Francisco 49ers team and even Sports Illustrated NFL preview coverboy Rob Gronkowski have all spoken out for LGBT rights. Ayanbadejo responded to Burns forcefully, defending his own freedom of expression and then saying to USA Today, “It’s an equality issue. I see the big picture. There was a time when women didn’t have rights. Black people didn’t have rights. Right now, gay rights is a big issue and it’s been for a long time. We’re slowly chopping down the barriers to equality.”

But the greatest response to Burns and perhaps to anything in the history of everything was made by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe also happens to believe in LGBT rights as well as the rights of athletes to be able to speak their minds. The punter sat down at his computer and produced the greatest political statement by any athlete ever… or at least since Muhammad Ali told the US government that “the real enemy of my people is here.” Perhaps that’s hyperbole. Certainly it’s arguable. But what’s undeniable is the greatness of Kluwe’s rant. I quote my favorite parts below, but I strongly encourage people to read it in its entirety here at deadspin. Warning that it’s brilliantly profane, or profanely brilliant, so you might not want to print it out at work and leave it lying around. Then again, if you work in a place with NFL fans prone to homophobic slurs, you might want to leave it everywhere.

Kluwe begins by calling out Burns for his “vitriolic hatred and bigotry.” He then schools Burns on the constitution, the First Amendment and the history of racism and segregation in the NFL, But the coup de grâce was his defense of LGBT equality.

Kluwe writes,

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c—kmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you? In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterf-ck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I’m fairly certain you might need it.

Chris Kluwe

Kluwe then ends by writing, “P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your ‘I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing’ and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. A—hole.”

For the first time in football history, a punter is truly leading the way. Thank you Chis Kluwe, for the greatest political statement made by any athlete in decades. The fact that it happens to be about LGBT rights only shows how far we’ve traveled, in the streets and in the locker rooms.

NFL Season Opens Under the Darkest of Shadows

Beneath the fireworks, concerts and breathless hype that will mark the start of the 2012 NFL season, is a league that’s haunted. It’s haunted by future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau who killed himself in May at the age of 43. It’s haunted by the recent suicides of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and OJ Murdock. It’s haunted by the now widespread knowledge that the country’s most popular sport can leave you damaged in ways never before suspected. What a sign of the times that the start of the season wasn’t punctuated today with chest-thumping and military flyovers but with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement that the league’s owners would be donating $30 million to the National Institute of Health to further study the affects of brain injuries.This recognition of the danger inherent in the sport has sparked a high profile debate across the political spectrum. The terms of the debate are simple: Given all we are learning about head injuries, should football be banned? Should it be the focus of a new prohibition movement? Both sides of this debate, I would argue, leave much to be desired.

On the right, you have people like Rush Limbaugh saying that any discussion about prohibition, or even mild reforms like rule changes or limiting full-contact drills, isn’t about science or the welfare of players but really about a nefarious plot to end freedom. As he said, “It’s not going to be long before the wusses, the New Castrati in our society are going to suggest that tackle football be banned.”

Perhaps the best response to this “wuss” argument was Junior Seau himself who said to his friend, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, “Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don’t have a father who can’t remember his name because of the game, I’m pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids’ name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn’t there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren’t changing. That’s not right.”

But there is one thing Limbaugh is poking at that’s actually true. A lot of the people who are making the prohibition argument are reasoning that players somehow need to be saved from themselves as well as saved from us, the bloodthirsty mob. The most prominent prohibitionist is probably celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s argument is that football is like dog fighting, another “barbaric” sport that was once legal but which, as he argues, we now look down upon and criminalize. He implies that players are like the dogs: good people, bred to be violent, who need to be saved. As he wrote in The New Yorker, “In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain….A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess ‘gameness,’ and game dogs are revered. Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness.”

It’s an argument drenched in condescension as well as a kind of neo-missionary racism. This is one of those moments when having some perspective is very important. If people like Gladwell want to raise awareness against unsafe working conditions, there are much more productive places to turn to than the NFL. The United States has the most unsafe workplaces in the industrialized world and more US workers died on the job in 2011 than US soldiers have died in Iraq since 9/11. If you want to see US workers treated like “dogs,” visit a non-union auto-plant.

To really get at the fundamental error here, we can go back to another prohibition movement, the movement a century ago to ban alcohol. Prohibition found sympathy among a diverse set of characters, including the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. But Debs never went all in on prohibition.

In one letter to a prohibition leader, he said, “I admit all you say about the liquor evil, and we differ only in the way this evil will be destroyed. Prohibition will never do it…. Theft and murder are prohibited but it is to be doubted if these crimes are lessened to any appreciable extent on that account. The world pays too much attention to the effects while it ignores causes and this is as true of the liquor evil as it is of any of the evils that afflict society.”

Apply this reasoning to football. It’s a violent sport that reflects our violent world. If we want to change the culture of the sport, we’d be far better off rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on changing the world.

The best way to understand the NFL is to see it as another of this country’s profoundly unsafe workplace. Efforts by the NFLPA to make it as humane as possible should be supported. The insistence of NFL owners to use untrained replacement “scab” referees should be seen as a direct attack on the health and safety of players. As fans we should also never forget that the people on the field are actual human beings taking a tremendous beating for our entertainment. And here we get to a kind of knowledge that’s very difficult to shake. As Arundhati Roy said in a rather dramatically different context, “The trouble is, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” For the first time in my life, I could imagine myself drifting away from a game that’s brought me such joy over the years. I can’t unsee Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. None of us should. And if that affects the bottom line of NFL owners, it serves them right for caring so little for so many years about the people we’ve tuned in to watch.

The Last Wish of Brian Anders

We are all taught from birth that the world is shaped exclusively by the wealthy and powerful. The brave souls, who put their bodies on the line and organize people to pressure the powerful, are erased from the historical record. Last week, we lost one of those brave souls, and he deserves to be remembered. A man died in Washington, DC, who did more to affect change than any of the empty suits that scurry about on Capitol Hill. His name was Brian Anders, and although he’d reject this description, he was very special.

Dynamic, charismatic and razor sharp, Brian could have done anything with his life but was compelled to be a fighter for social justice on the streets of DC for nearly thirty years. The bulk of his work was focused on fighting for the rights of the homeless and affordable housing by any means necessary. If there was a protest, a speakout, or an occupation, Brian Anders was there. Brian was also an African-American Vietnam War veteran who wrestled with his own PTSD for decades and always, particularly since 9/11, made every effort to connect imperial wars abroad with the war on the poor at home. He saw the connections and put his passion, his pain and his personal history at the service of getting others to see that connective tissue as well.

Brian always reminded me of Julian Bond’s line about Muhammad Ali: “He made dissent visible, audible, attractive and fearless.”

Brian Anders worked with everyone but was associated most closely with two remarkable institutions. In the 1980s, he was at the heart of organizing at the homeless shelter CCNV (the Center for Creative Non-Violence) and over the last decade sat on the board of the social justice organization Empower DC. Both entities, due in no small part to Brian, have distinguished themselves by the fact that they don’t fight on behalf of people but organize affected communities to fight for themselves.

As his friend Kirby ably described in her remembrance of Brian, CCNV became in the 1980s “a vibrant community of anti-war and social justice activists, who succeeded, through direct action, in forcing the federal government to hand over the massive building at 2nd and D St. NW, so that CCNV could turn it into a shelter and community center for people without housing.”

CCNV’s activism was at the heart of the passage of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, one of the precious few federal actions that has actually aided the homeless. He showed all the professional politicians what real politics could look like when removed from the lobbyists and big-money donors, and reclaimed by the people.

But Brian’s most lasting contribution was how he affected those closest to him.

Fellow Empower DC board member Farah Fosse said at a service/rally for Brian after his death, “He spoke truth to power, motivated people, worked tirelessly for justice, provided direct services and trained new activists.”

Marcella McGuire, director for Behavioral Health Homeless Services for the city of Philadelphia and an old friend of Brian, said to me, “Without Brian’s support and guidance at a key time in my life, I might not have stayed on this path. We have some incredible models and stories. And I have to honestly say that anyone I and our staff and programs have assisted owe a debt to Brian, because I would not have stayed on this path without his guidance. He gave me the strength and wisdom to stay on this path and have the meaningful life I have today.”

As Brian’s body was attacked by cancer in the last year, it didn’t stop him from being a regular organizer and presence at Occupy DC. He was the sort of person that when you saw him, you just knew that you were on the right side of the fight. But cancer, especially without platinum-plated health insurance, is a remorseless opponent. It didn’t stop him from organizing and it didn’t rob him of his charisma, but he was in pain.

Brian passed away at Joseph’s House, the only free hospice for the homeless in DC, surrounded by the people he affected so deeply and loved him for his generosity. Howard Zinn, the great chronicler of how US history has been shaped by struggle from below, would have had nothing but blank pages before him if not for people like Brian Anders.

The best tribute to Brian would be to make a donation to Empower DC or Joseph House. Even better would be to follow Brian’s last wish and agitate for a winter shelter and high-quality healthcare facility for the homeless of Washington DC. As Ms. Fosse said, “He told me that he wanted not just his life but also his death to raise some hell.”

Goodbye my friend. If there’s a heaven, I know you’re there raising hell.

(Photo credit: Vasudha Desikan)

Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Speaks Out, Is Smacked Down

After US gymnast Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas made history after becoming the first person of African descent to win individual Olympic gold, I wrote that whether willingly or not she had joined the pantheon of political athletes. When it comes to “jocks for justice” there are two broad categories: “the explicit” and “the representative.” “The explicit” are people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Steve Nash: athletes who explicitly used their cultural capital to make political stands. The “representative” are those who become political symbols because they were trailblazers in their respective sports. Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Greg Louganis don’t necessarily have a record of political stands, but by virtue of their talent and ability to break through barriers, they carry the aspirations of countless others. Well, Gabrielle Douglas, is, at age 16, making a transition to being more explicit. She’s also learning that this comes with a price.

In the blush of Olympic Gold, the Washington Post wrote the following: “Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought.”

Now in the Olympics aftermath, she has come forward to say that others have chosen to see it for her.

Ms. Douglas recounted her experiences with bullying and racism at the Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Oprah Winfrey. She said, “One of my teammates was like, ‘Can you scrape the bar?’ And they were like, ‘Why doesn’t Gabby do it, she’s our slave?’ I definitely felt isolated, I felt ‘Why am I deserving this? Is it because I’m black?’ I was scared at my old gym to show my potential.… I was just holding back.” She also shared that it was an atmosphere where, “I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out.”

Douglas should be praised for speaking out about what she faced. But instead it’s earning an outrageous response.

Randy Stageburg, a world-class gymnast who trained at Excalibur, said, “The accusations that are being made against the gymnasts and coaches are just sickening…. Gabby was never a victim. In fact, many would say she was one of the favorites…. funny how it is just now coming up.”

What gives Stageburg the paranormal ability to account for discussions he didn’t witness, he does not disclose.

Excalibur Gymnastics CEO Gustavo Maure also accused Douglas of being “a liar.” “Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake.”

Another gymnast, Kristina Coccia, defended Excalibur by saying there was no racism at the gym and then followed up with this whammy: “What Gabby is saying makes me sick. She should stop playing the victim and pay back the money she owes.” (There is no mention of what money Ms. Coccia is referring to or why that would be any of her concern.)

The response by Excalibur Gyms frankly speaks for itself. It also doesn’t pass any kind of a smell test. Generations of black athletes have learned that speaking out about racism is the fastest route to commercial obsolescence. You don’t see Curt Flood on the Wheaties Box.

As Gabrielle Douglas aims to become a massive crossover commercial star, there is no compelling reason for her to speak about these experiences unless they’re true and she hopes to make it easier for the next “outsider” who comes to the gym. As for Excalibur Gym, the I would just say that based on experience of living in the area, the possibility that there could be people with racist ideas in Virginia Beach is like saying Seattle has the possibility of rain.

The people at Excalibur could have and should have said, “We’re aware that racism is a problem in our world and in our state. We aim to provide as nurturing an environment as possible and will continue to work to be better.” Instead, Gabrielle Douglas is “a liar” “playing the victim” and makes people “sick.” To put it mildly, the people defending Excalibur aren’t doing themselves any favors. In fact, they seem intent on proving Ms. Douglas’s point: that Excalibur Gymnasium has more than its share of bullies.

Why Are the NFL Refs Locked Out? It's All in the Game

Although anathema to NFL fans across the country, we should recognize that sometimes a punter shall lead us. It was Minnesota Viking’s punter Chris Kluwe who took to Twitter and said what has been so painfully obvious through three weeks of the National Football League’s pre-season: “The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacements are horrible. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.”

Kluwe is correct. It is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that replacement referees with highlights on their resumes like working for the Lingerie Football League have been bungling calls throughout the pre-season. This has included screwing up the small detail of which teams were actually on the field. It’s embarrassing that in a league where any play could be the last time someone walks without a limp or concussion, these incompetents are in charge of monitoring the health and safety of players. It’s embarrassing that members of the NFL Players Association, who are part of the AFL-CIO, will, once on the field, be under the authority of scabs.

It’s also bewildering. Consider the multibillion-dollar entity that is the National Football League. Then consider that NFL referees are 119 part-time employees who make $8,000 a week. As Jeff MacGregorcalculated at espn.com, at a cost of $50 million a year—less than one percent of total revenue—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could hire 200 full-time officials at $250,000 a year. Conversely, if Goodell gets everything he wants from the referees union and he doesn’t have to spend too much in legal fees, it works out to league-wide savings of just $62,000 per team.

Locking them out is like using an Uzi on a field mouse. The question once again is why? Why has NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, taken such a hard line? After a year defined by the tragic suicides of former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome and a looming lawsuit brought by 2000 former players contending that the NFL didn’t take their safety seriously, why would they engage in such naked contempt for the well-being of players and the integrity of their game? Simply put, because they can.

The NFL clearly believes with no small amount of justification that they can do this because no one will care. As NFL VP Ray Anderson said, perhaps while twirling his mustache, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game.”

The only way to understand why there is a lockout of NFL Referees is to understand who is doing the locking out. It’s not Roger Goodell, who for all the fawning media profiles, is little more than an exceptionally well-paid executive “flak-catcher.” It’s the people he represents. NFL teams are no longer family businesses and owners are no longer kindly patriarchs. They comprise the right-wing edge of America’s super-rich. NFL owners don’t travel in the same circles as Mitt Romney. They travel in the circles of those who underwrite Mitt Romney’s campaign.

For these twenty-first-century Masters of the Universe, the lockout, once a near-unthinkable labor-management tactic, has become the weapon of choice when dealing with what’s left of the trade union movement. Since 2010, the number of lockouts annually in the US has doubled. A lockout gives employers the power to strip workers of their salaries, bring in temporary replacements and then simply wait until the day locked out workers eat through their meager savings and then force them back on the conditions of outlandish demands. It’s a management tactic that has hammered thousands of families from middle class security to destitution.

The owners have decided NFL referees need to be locked out because like the scorpion who stings, that’s simply what they do. Look at the demands being made of the referees: NFL owners want them to stop being part-time labor and instead work full-time for the league. Sounds great, except they want the refs to eliminate their other sources of income while taking a 16 percent cut in salary. They also want to eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401k plans tied to the stock market. Put simply, the owners line is less pay, less benefits, and if you don’t like it we’re locking the doors.

“They told us if we didn’t take what was on the table, they would cut it more and they have. They have disguised regressive bargaining as trying to improve officiating overall and to give people more time off,” said NFL Referee’s Association lead negotiator Mike Arnold. “They keep saying in the media that they were willing, able, and ready to negotiate, but they kept telling us they weren’t interested in discussing our proposal and if the deal was going to settle it was going to settle on their terms.”

The referees and the NFL Players Association both seem to be keeping any joint strategy under wraps. “We’ll see what the decision is as we get closer to [opening] day. Hopefully, they can figure this out in an amicable way as soon as possible. I’m not sure what the decision is going to be from the Players Association when that day comes,” NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth told PFT Live.

But both seem to be coordinating arguments about player’s safety as the most compelling reason to end the lockout. As NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said, “The officials are being asked to be first responders on the field for player safety as well as to officiate the games. How do you expect officials not used to doing games at that level to be able to step in and handle the job? To use a [lockout] as a motivational tactic in negotiations…we find repulsive.”

However, like the high-skilled workers at a Honeywell uranium plant in Metropolis, Illinois, learned after a fourteen-month lockout, today’s bosses rarely listen to appeals about safety. Furthermore, as they learned, the longer the lockout drags on, the more time employers have to increase the quality of their replacement workers. The quality of the godawful refereeing on display will, with time, improve as well.

John Paul Smith, who was one of those Honeywell workers that suffered through the lockout, which ended in August of 2011, says now that having been through the pain of a lockout himself, there is no way he could watch the NFL this year. John Paul Smith is now calling on other fans to boycott watching as well, knowing that the only way to make the owners back off is if they feel it in their wallets.

“I have been a Dolphins fan since I was in the fifth grade and I can’t watch shit. It’s killing me,” said Smith. If Goodell and friends don’t care about the refs, the health of their players, or the quality of the games, then maybe they’ll care about that: people like John Paul Smith turning away from the game until NFL owners remember that owning the game doesn’t mean owning the people who officiate it.

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