Where sports and politics collide.
The NFL has a long and shameful history in handling tragedy. The league played as planned on the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were going to play the Sunday after 9/11 until the New York Jets rebelled and Major League Baseball cancelled its own schedule forcing the NFL to follow suit. Now we have another example of a sport absent of perspective.
On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his three-month-old child, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins. Then he drove to the Chiefs facility and took his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and general manager Scott Pioli. By Saturday afternoon, it had been announced that the Chiefs would play Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers as planned. CBS Sports had even, stunningly, factored Belcher’s suicide into whether he was a wise pick-up for fantasy football players. There would be no postponement, no mourning, and no space for his teammates to come to grips with what happened. On the highest possible cultural platform, the NFL told the world that the death of a 22-year-old woman, the suicide of a player and the mental state of his teammates is secondary to the schedule.
The pretense of both the NFL and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for playing as planned was that the team captains and Coach Crennel wanted to take the field. Even if we accept this at face value, and we shouldn’t in a league as tightly controlled as the NFL, it’s difficult to understand why this was their decision and not the decision of the league in conjunction with mental health professionals. The Chiefs and the NFL are also taking pains to say that professional grief counselors would be present at the game. I have not been unable to unearth who these people actually are and what their credentials might be, but how serious can they be about their presumed oath to “do no harm” if they are sending Chiefs players into harm’s way under relative states of shock? I have interviewed a great many NFL players and they always say that the playing field is most dangerous when you are distracted. It’s difficult to not see the NFL’s insistence that this is the decision of the Chiefs organization alone as an exercise in public relations as well as a shield against their own liability.
There is so much we don’t know about why Jovan Belcher did what he did. There are things we do know, however. We know that this is the NFL’s fourth suicide involving current and former players in the last year. We know that violence against women and alienation from loving relationships is a proven product of playing this violent game. We also know that concussions and head injuries have been linked to domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide. This subject is so on the mind of NFL owners that Gary Hunt, unprompted, made a point to say to reporters that Belcher was “a player who had not had a long concussion history.” Despite Hunt’s words, a friend of Belcher e-mailed the website Deadspin to say otherwise.
We will learn more about the aggravating factors in Belcher’s actions in the days and weeks to come. For now, we should remember that there are things more important than football, like a three-month-old child that will now be without parents, a 22-year-old woman whose life is finished and a 25-year-old man with a bright future who in a fit of anger and despair took two lives. That’s the message that the NFL is choosing not to send.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, said something we can only hope the players will hear and take to heart:
It’s hard mostly because I keep thinking about what I could have done to stop this. I think everyone is wondering whether we would have done something to prevent this from happening…. As players and teammates, we need to do a better job of reaching out to people and trying to be more involved and more invested in their lives. You never really know what’s going on in someone life, what they’re struggling with or what they’re battling through.
Players do need to be more “involved and invested” in one another’s lives. It’s hard to see who else in the power structure of the NFL will look out for them if they aren’t looking out for one another.
Read Dave Zirin's previous post on the NFL's cannabis problem.
Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, resembles an outsized caricature of a twenty-first-century pro sports boss. He’s a 75-year-old Republican Party mega-donor, who made his fortune by selling his energy corporation to Enron in 1999 (give him credit for timing.) That’s what’s made Mr. McNair’s comments earlier this week all the more interesting. After saying he would never have a “persistent user of drugs” on his beloved Houston Texans, McNair made a point to add, “I’m not talking about someone who smoked marijuana.”
This might sound about as radical as a Brooklyn Without Limits T-shirt, but for decades the NFL officialdom has discussed marijuana and players who “do pot” like they were bit players from Reefer Madness. In this light, McNair’s statement is more than tacit acceptance of something players have been doing for decades. It’s connected to weed’s recent legal emergence from “the cannabis closet.”
State referenda earlier this month legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use in Colorado and Washington State. These votes threaten to raise a massive legal and public relations headache for the NFL. Two of their teams, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, now play in states where marijuana is legal. This could have implications for where players choose to go in free agency as well as how players desire to treat their injuries. As a top player who asked to remain anonymous said to me, “I’d rather use marijuana edibles or vaporizer to manage pain over prescription pain pills. Much less addictive and less harmful to kidneys and liver.”
The NFL is trying to nip this, please pardon the expression, in the bud. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn’t even let the Election Night confetti fall to the floor before he told USA Today, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program. The Colorado and Washington laws will have no impact on the operation of the policy.” In addition, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal made it even more crystal-clear: “Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have been warned. ‘It’s legal’ won’t be a valid excuse.”
Aiello’s statements sound very iron-clad. The problem is that even by the NFL’s own guidelines, they are not actually true. As Mike Florio on profootballtalk.com pointed out, “The policy prohibits only the ‘illegal use’ of marijuana. While players may not abuse legal substances like alcohol, legal drugs and alcohol may be used.”
Aiello is of course correct that marijuana is on the banned substance list, the content of which is collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association. However, the other legal prescription and non-prescription drugs on that list like ephedrine and adderall have a performance-enhancing as well as a health-endangering component. They can help you train harder, put a brutal strain on your heart and, if taken outside a doctor’s care, be very dangerous. Unless your name is Joey Chestnut and your goal is winning a hot dog eating championship, there is no “performance enhancing” aspect to ingesting weed, and unless your munchies preference involves saturated fats and cholesterol, your heart will be just fine.
Unspoken, amidst the jokes about Denver truly playing in Mile High Stadium, is the fear in the NFL’s front office that a league-wide relaxed marijuana policy in accordance with state laws would be a public relations nightmare. In the bizarre macho ethos of the NFL, alcoholism is ignored, pain killer abuse is encouraged and other violent, off-field behavior is winked at because these are byproducts of the kind of destructive masculinity that the NFL markets every Sunday. Marijuana, in contrast, is for hippies, beatniks and long-hairs.
In reality, weed wouldn’t turn NFL players into extras from Half-Baked. Players will use marijuana either to wind down after a game, as a healthier, less addictive alternative to alcohol, or as a way to manage their pain. This last point is particularly explosive for the NFL. Amidst lawsuits, suicides and documentaries, there is unprecedented attention being paid to the physical toll players have to endure, particularly concussion and brain injury. Medical marijuana is recommended by doctors for headaches, light-sensitivity, sleeplessness and loss of appetite—all of which happen to be symptoms associated with concussions. The idea that the league would deny a player their legal pain relief of choice seems barbaric. It’s their pain and their right to treat it however they see fit.
One active NFL veteran who lives in a state where there is legal medicinal marijuana said to me, “A part of me always wanted to be the first player to test positive, then be able to present [Roger Goodell with] a prescription from my physician and dare him [to do something].”
A player will emerge to challenge the NFL’s policy on grounds that it inhibits their ability to treat their own pain. The NFL will almost certainly go Reefer Madness in response. The NFL thinks they’ll have the public on their side, but they might be in for a rude awakening. Maybe Bob McNair can meet Roger Goodell is Seattle, roll a fat joint and say, “Goodie? You need to chill the hell out.”
The war on drugs plays on many fields. Check out filmmaker Eugene Jarecki on California’s now-amended “three strikes” law.
This July 16, 1981, file photo shows baseball union leader Marvin Miller speaking to reporters after rejecting a proposal to end a baseball strike, in New York. (AP Photo/Howard, File)
Marvin Miller, the legendary leader of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, passed away today at the age of 95. Mr. Miller never played the game, but he may have had more influence on baseball than anyone else in this half of the century. As executive director of the Players Association from 1966–82, he brought a world of experience garnered in the tough steelworkers’ union to bear on baseball labor relations, and his knowledge, organizational ability, and resolve completely overmatched the owners and their representatives. During his tenure the average players salary increased from $19,000 to over $240,000. Today the Baseball Players Union is acknowledged as one of the strongest labor organizations in the United States. Below is my 2004 interview with Mr. Miller, and at 87, you will see that he still had the fire.
Dave Zirin: Who or what shaped your thinking as a young man?
Marvin Miller: Well, I guess a big part of what shaped me was that I entered high school in February of 1929. Several months later, boom, we have the Great Depression. All through the early 1930s my father, who was a retail store salesman, saw the businesses that employed him went downhill and all through the Depression, my father got more and more anxious and concerned and I was old enough to be aware of all of that.
How did the Depression affect where you grew up?
I grew up in New York City and in that period, you couldn’t help but observe the breadlines, the increase of the number of people begging in the streets, the people selling apples. The signs of economic hardship were easy to see. I am reminded of a question I was asked a couple of years ago. I was speaking to a group of young black students in New York talking about the Depression, breadlines and so on and one of the kids asked me if there were white people also on the breadlines and selling apples in the streets. Of course! In fact, most of them! In the New York of the early 1930s there was a black population, but it was largely ghettoized in Harlem and unless you went to Harlem, you didn’t see black people on the breadlines.
How did the Depression move you toward trade union politics?
My father who had never been in a union in his life, became active. He was a member in the wholesale clothing workers’ union in lower Manhattan and I have a very early memory of going to a store where he was working and finding him on a picket line. Also my mother was a teacher in New York City Public Schools and she became one of the early members of the city’s teachers’ union. As the thirties progressed and the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and industrial unions formed, everybody was aware of the ferment of the labor movement. All of these were influences.
When did you personally become involved?
I graduated college in 1938, and in that period, a good part of the country was seemingly coming out of the Depression. But New York City was not. New York just kept dropping until April 1940 after the rest of the country was moving. I can recall wondering if I was ever going to get a job. Unlike some friends and neighbors, my father did not own a business. I was in different straits. I had no affluent uncles. In those days when you looked for a job you would go to employment agencies and the situation was so bad you had to connive just to get an application filled out and handed in. Eventually I got some meaningless jobs here and there—a drugstore, a small wholesale gift outfit, working for shipping broker a customs broker down at the foot of Manhattan.… I had other meaningless jobs, and I kept taking civil service examinations. I finally got appointed, working with relief populations which was an eye-opener, and an economist for the war production board, and eventually I moved to a brand new agency called the War Relations Board, and this was charged with a new function of hearing virtually every labor management pursuit. This is how it formed. The labor movement had been asked to make a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war and the Chamber of Commerce were asked to, in good faith, make a no-lock-out pledge. The labor movement said OK, but we are still organizing and there are conditions all over that haven’t changed since the Depression, and how are we going to solve disputes? And FDR created by executive order the War Labor Board, I was a hearing officer. With the War Labor Board, I dealt with arbitrating steel, auto, women in the workplace, and sometime later I found a job first with the IAM [the International Association of Machinists] and worked with them and I also had a short stint with the UAW [United Auto Workers]an then the steel workers starting in 1950 and I became chief economist and assistant to the president and I was with them until 1966
Were you a baseball fan before your work heading up the Players Union?
Oh yes. I was an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan and I was going to Ebbets field by myself by the time I was 10, when there was a Saturday double header! I was a huge fan from way back.
How were you recruited to head up the Baseball Players Union?
The players had a search committee made up of three or four players including Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning [two pitchers in the Hall of Fame], and Harvey Kuenn. Roberts was really the sparkplug of that committee and what he did was call [former chairman of the War Labor Board] George W. Taylor and he recommended me.
What were the players looking for in you?
They had an organization—a fake union—called the Players Association that had been formed by the owners. This was a company union in every sense of the word, the employers had formed it back in 1947 as basically a response to two things. One, there was a drive to organize players into a union, and two, there had been an attempt by two wealthy Mexican businessmen to start a major league in Mexico and they offered larger salaries. That was also the year of Jackie Robinson coming to the dodgers and the year of a man on his own trying to organize the players. A man named Robert Murphy went from Spring Training site to site—and the owners saw this and said we need to head this off and form a company union.
Why were the conditions so ripe for a strong union?
I don’t know that they wanted a real union [at first]. If I had to make an educated guess, the one thing the players had which they prized was their pension plan. It was called a benefit plan, That had been put into effect also in 1947, once again the owners saying, Let’s do something to prevent the union here. Eighteen years later, two things were concerning the players. One was that the pension had not kept pace over eighteen years of progress, also they picked up strong rumors that the owners were wanting to change it. Television by 1965 had grown tremendously. [LA Dodgers owner] Walter O’Mally saw this and wanted to after the benefit plan. But beyond that I was also learning that it was like pulling teeth learning what else made them unhappy. This was because they were a workforce basically unschooled in working conditions. They had all undergone a bunch of brainwashing that being allowed to play major league baseball was a great favor, that they were the luckiest people in the world. They were accustomed never to think, “This stinks. We need to change this.” You have to remember baseball players are very young and with few exceptions have no experience in these matters.
Did the other movements of the 1960s, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war struggle, had on giving people the confidence to think union?
There is no doubt there was a major connection. You now had a great many black and Latin players. You now had a much more diverse sampling of the American people than in the 1940s. You now had at least some people who were able to think in terms of what was wrong with the society, what was wrong with the conditions, people much more accustomed to think about these things. You have to remember before 1947, the ballplayer came in tremendous proportion from rural areas rather than from cities, from the south and southwest and not from big urban areas. And by and large from anti-union areas.
Why was Curt Flood the player who stepped forward to challenge the reserve clause?
To me Flood epitomized the modern player who began to think in terms of union, to ask questions like “Why is baseball an exception to how labor is treated in other industries? Why should we be treated like property? Why should we agree to have a reserve clause?” Basic questions that had gone unasked.
Was it related that it took a black player to challenge the reserve clause?
It was definitely related. Black and Latin players like Roberto Clemente were at the forefront. This was not just the color of their skin. Flood, for example, did not grow up in the South. He grew up in Oakland, California. He was an outstanding high school athlete, he was drafted to play in the majors and was promptly sent to the South. He wasn’t old, but he wasn’t a child. What I am about to say is not a fact but I have always felt that when a player of his temperament and pride was sent to the South not being able to stay in the same hotels and motels, playing in Georgia and Mississippi, I think it made a very big difference in his outlook on the world
How did Curt Flood come to decide to file this lawsuit?
Curt Flood came to me to discuss the possibility of a lawsuit and I thought that it was a losing case, the chance of winning was terrible. How was he going to finance it? I felt that he would indeed need help, and I was concerned how easy it was to make bad law with a bad case—and I felt the union should back him. And I began to lobby his case with the executive board and since we were going to meet in early December 1969 in San Juan, I arranged with Curt to have him come to the meeting, and have Curt be questioned, and when it came time to bring Curt in, I had already briefed him, and maybe some of them knew Flood but not in this context. I brought him into the board meeting and turned it over. And finally a board member asked Curt, “The motivation here: why are you doing this? Was it—to attack the reserve clause to stop the owners from trading a player where he didn’t want to go? Or was this a sign of ‘black power’?” And Curt looked at him and said, I wish it was, but we are dealing with an issue that affects every player. Color has nothing to do it. We are all pieces of property.
Does Curt Flood belong in the Hall of Fame?
Absolutely. No doubt about it.
Is there still a need for a strong union?
Yes! I have seen good conditions go bad. I think in labor management relations there is no such thing as standing still. You either move foreword or you go back. There is no standing still. Are salaries wonderful? Yeah, but we must remember that it is unity and solidarity and the struggles of the past that made them successful. There is no guarantee that this will continue. And without a union as successful as it has been, I would predict a downward spiral. The labor movement never stands still.
Dave Zirin writes about sports for The Nation. Check out his blog here.
Let’s start with a fact. On November 16, the Israeli Air Force bombed the 10,000-seat Palestine Stadium “into ruins.”* The stadium also headquartered the center for youth sports programs throughout the Gaza Strip. This is the second time Israel has flattened the facility. The first was in 2006 and the people of Gaza have spent the last six years rebuilding the fields, stands and offices to keep the national soccer team as well as club sports alive in the region.
I’m sure the reaction to this fact will depend on what side people take in the current conflict. For the Israeli government and their supporters, they promised “collective punishment” following the Hamas rockets fired over the border and they are delivering “collective punishment.” Matan Vilnai, deputy defense minister of Israel has in the past threatened a “holocaust” and Gilad Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called for Gaza to be the new “Hiroshima.” In this context, a sports facility must seem like little more than target practice.
For those attending daily demonstrations against the carnage, this news of a stadium’s destruction must also be seen as an irrelevancy. After all according to The Wall Street Journal, ninety Palestinians, including fifty civilians, have been killed in Gaza. Two hundred and twenty-five children are among the more than 700 injured, and these numbers are climbing. Israeli ground troops are massing at the border and President Obama can only bring himself to defend Israel without criticism. There is only so much concern for a stadium people can be expected to muster.
I think however that we should all take a moment to ask the question, “Why?” Why has the Palestinian sports infrastructure, not to mention Palestinian athletes, always been a target of the Israeli military? Why has the Palestinian domestic soccer league completed only seven seasons since its founding in 1977? Why are players commonly subjected to harassment and violence, not to mention curfews, checkpoints and all sorts of legal restrictions on their movement? Why were national team players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate killed by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2009 military campaign? Why did imprisoned national team player Mahmoud Sarsak require a hunger strike, the international solidarity campaign of Amnesty International, and a formal protest from both FIFA and the 50,000-player soccer union FIFpro to just to win his freedom after three years behind bars?
The answer is simple. Sports is more than loved in Gaza (and it is loved.) It’s an expression of humanity for those living under occupation. It’s not just soccer and it’s not just the boys. Everyone plays, with handball, volleyball and basketball joining soccer as the most popular choices. To have several thousand people gather to watch a girls sporting event is a way of life. It’s a community event designed not only to cheer those on the field, but cheer those in the stands. As one Palestinian man from Gaza said to me, “[Sports] is our time to forget where we are and remember who we are.”
Attacking the athletic infrastructure is about attacking the idea that joy, normalcy or a universally recognizable humanity could ever be a part of life for a Palestinian child. This is a critical for Israel both internationally and at home. The only way the Israeli government and its allies can continue to act with such brazen disregard for civilian life is if they convince the world that their adversaries collectively are less than human. The subway ads calling Muslims “savages”, the Islamophobic cartoons and videos that are held up as examples of free speech, are all part of a quilt that says some deaths are not to be mourned.
At home, attacking sports is about nothing less than killing hope. Israel’s total war, underwritten by the United States, is a war not only on Hamas or military installations but on the idea that life can ever be so carefree in Gaza as to involve play. The objective instead is to hear these words of a young girl outside Al Shifa Hospital on November 18 who said, “To the world and people: Why should we be killed and why shouldn’t we have a normal childhood? What did we do to face all this?”
If you play, you can dream. If you dream, you are imagining a better world. As the great Olympian Wilma Rudolph said, “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Nothing marks the nihilism of Israel’s project quite like this fact: they don’t want the people of Gaza to dream. In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu, they are only worthy of nightmares.
* The Israeli Defense Forces have since claimed that rockets were being fired from the soccer field. This is unverified and they remain the only source making this claim.
Read Mohammed Omer's reports from Gaza for The Nation.
Jeffrey Loria should consider himself put on notice. The Miami Marlins owner needs to be arrested, prosecuted and placed behind bars so he can no longer feed upon the good will, tax dollars and public infrastructure of South Florida. Loria is the Ebola virus of sports owners, settling in different locations and leaving nothing behind except legions of cynical former fans. His latest sin, described as a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment” by the most mainstream of baseball writers, was yesterday’s shocking trade of star shortstop Jose Reyes, all-star pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, and others to the Toronto Blue Jays for basically a Lloyd Moseby rookie card and Dave Steib’s mustache trimmer. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Marlins payroll in one off-season could drop by over 80 percent.
Bad trades happen of course, and salary dumps have become as much a part of baseball as tobacco stains on the dugout steps. But there is a much more nefarious machination at work. Reyes and Buehrle were brought in during the 2011 off-season as a way to sell tickets for the Marlins brand-new $600 million eyesore of a stadium, described by the Miami New Times as “a festering, silver-plated pustule, a grotesquely huge can opener, or just an obscene ode to wasted cash.”
If this were Loria’s own ugly baby of a stadium, that would be between him and his architect. The problem is that it was built with taxpayer money: $2.4 billion over the next forty years to be exact. The elected officials of cash-strapped Miami-Dade County took Loria’s word the team was going bankrupt and would cease to exist without a new ballpark. These claims of bankruptcy we now know were lies after the website Deadspin posted leaked financial documents that told a very different story. The deal was so shady, the lack of oversight so egregious that the Security and Exchange Commission has an ongoing investigation into how taxpayer money could be so blithely squandered. Last December, Neil DeMause quoted a Yahoo! Sports story that said, “While the subpoenas issued by the SEC do not explicitly detail the purpose of the investigation, the feds’ motives are evident: They want to understand how, exactly, a group of county commissioners agreed to fund 80 percent of the Marlins new stadium, which cost more than $600 million, without ever seeing the team’s financial records—and whether bribes had anything to do with it.”
Now, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, this $80 million salary dump is being seen as prelude to “baseball’s worst nightmare”: the immediate selling of the team along with its expensive new stadium, and all the public money magically morphing into Jeffrey Loria’s private profit. The fight for the new stadium, the promises of urban renewal, the shiny free agent contracts given out during the last off-season, now look like little more than a classic long con, with Loria the master grifter in the owner’s box. This is only a baseball story insofar as setting. The particulars have far more in common with the work of David Mamet than Peter Gammons.
This story of con artistry and corporate crime is evil enough. The problem with Loria is that he’s a repeat offender. Before South Florida knew his name, Loria bought and then destroyed the Montreal Expos. People forget today that Montreal was once a jewel of a baseball town, where Jackie Robinson first broke the color line as a minor leaguer. It was also the team of Hall of Fame–caliber players like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Gary Carter. Loria bought the team in 1999 and his first act was to say that he would rebuild the franchise and bring a championship to Montreal. His second act was to say that the city needed to build a new stadium or “we cannot stay here.” After enraging the locals, Loria proceeded to gut the team of talent until fans bitterly turned away from the dispirited, cellar-dwelling franchise. Then in one of the most bizarre ownership shell games in history, Loria sold the Expos to Major League Baseball (a trust of the other twenty-nine owners); he was also given a $38.5 million interest-free loan by the league, and in return bought the Florida Marlins. This cleared a path for Marlins owner John Henry to then purchase the Boston Red Sox.
There was one problem with this delightfully incestuous ownership romp: the Expos had other owners who were left out in the cold. They proceeded to sue Loria on RICO Act charges. They lost their case, the Expos of course became the Washington Nationals, and now Montreal is a baseball ghost town where framed photos of Ellis Valentine, Tim Wallach and Warren Cromartie hang in dusty corners of the neighborhood sports bar.
As for the Marlins, Loria was owner in 2003 when they won the World Series; he then proceeded to sell off the team piece by piece. He’s already destroyed the baseball love in this town once. Now he’s like a sadist going back for seconds. The SEC couldn’t bring down Loria. The RICO Act couldn’t bring down Loria. Now, like the man selling the Monorail in Springfield, he’s going to destroy another baseball town, take the money and run. He’s Rollo Tomassi, the guy who’s going to get away with it. Bud Selig isn’t going to do a thing about it. The compromised and possibly criminally negligent city officials of Miami aren’t going to do anything about it. All that’s left is us. It’s citizen’s arrest time. Jeffrey Loria: for the crime of destroying Montreal as a baseball town, for destroying Miami as a baseball town, for stealing money from taxpayers to build a monument to your own excess, you are hereby notified of your impending arrest. Please report to the nearest federal prison. You will be granted visitation rights and ample time in the yard but no conjugal visits. You’ve screwed over enough people for one lifetime.
Check out Dave Zirin’s blog from more on injustice in the world of sports.
Few 9-year-old girls are described as a “young—very young—Walter Payton.” But that’s what people are calling Sam Gordon of South Jordan, Utah. Gordon has become an Internet sensation after the spread of viral videos showing her shredding Pee Wee football defenses with a series of dynamic touchdown runs.
Her rather overwhelming awesomeness, however, raises far more interesting questions: Why do we still segregate so much of youth sports based on gender? Does the practice of doing so actually stunt female athletic potential? Would ending gender segregation foster a higher level of athletic excellence? The early women’s rights activists certainly thought so. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a women’s issues magazine, The Lily, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, playing ball.”
This is not to argue that there aren’t basic physical differences between men and women. But those differences are often overstated in the name of protecting the “common sense” of gender segregation. Journalist Sherry Wolf wrote, “Let’s cut to the chase. Men tend to weigh more and have greater muscle mass than women: men have 40–60 percent greater upper-body strength and 25–30 percent more lower-body strength. However, with training and nutritional guidance on par with men, female power lifters, for example, have narrowed the gap in actual strength to between 0 and 8 percent.… While there is a connection between muscle size and strength, there is not a direct correlation, as other factors can influence an athlete’s strength such as age, limb and muscle length, and genetics.”
In addition, while the typical male may have greater natural muscle mass, women’s biology makes them provably better at sports that require endurance like ultra-marathons, Alaska’s Iditarod race and long-distance swimming. The book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, goes through this in painstaking detail. McDonagh and Pappano argue that “coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.”
This premise of “inferiority” is rooted at the founding of organized, professional sports at the end of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the enforcement of gender segregation as the new normal. A very useful view into this is Jennifer Ring’s book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. As Ring describes, baseball started as the British game Rounders, played by boys and girls together. Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond. Leaders of the sport like Albert Spalding worked to establish a culture that “would mythologize baseball as a manly American game.” But as Ring writes, this wasn’t just a reflection of the sexism of the age. Spalding, like President Theodore Roosevelt and other leading thinkers of the time, saw sports and masculinity as very tied with the dominant political ideas of the time such as Manifest Destiny and US imperialism. They gave us a primordial ooze where sexism, homophobia, militarism and sports all simmered in the same stew. Straining out what’s healthy in this stew has been a slow, arduous, century-long task.
Today gender segregation in sports is rightly celebrated as a proven arena of female empowerment. Since Title IX legislation was fought for and passed in 1972, there has been an explosion of athletic participation by women. Before Title IX, one in thirty-four girls played sports; now it’s one in three. Every study shows that along with participation comes an increase in confidence, a lessening likelihood of eating disorders and abusive relationships, and greater defenses against the relentless shrapnel of sexism aimed at young teenage women. Challenging gender segregation is not contrary to the mission of Title IX but essential to it. It’s about the same thing, challenging one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.
There is another issue as well that speaks to the urgency of challenging gender segregation in sports. The very concept of gender is something that at long last is under the microscope. There are trans athletes as well as entire trans teams whose members choose not to identify as male or female. Then are the millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men, often referred to as “intersex.” Doctors estimate that “intersex” children comprise one in 1,666 births. The NCAA to its credit has even provided new rules and guidelines to make sure trans athletes have a place to play. The guidelines openly discuss at what point someone plays for the women’s team and when, whether through hormones or surgery, they need to try out for the men’s. This is a very positive step in acknowledging the existence of trans student-athletes, but it still rests on the idea that boys are on one side and girls on the other.
Resistance to a “gender binary” will grow in the future. All of sports should be ahead of the curve on this in providing inclusive space so everyone can play without fear of being pushed aside. The future of sports could be a beautiful, life-affirming safe-space or it could be an anchor on human progress, expending effort on policing gender and making sure everyone stays on their side of the gym.
For now we’ll have to make due with the glimpse into the future that is Sam Gordon. At 9 years old, she has her own reason for playing football. “Most of the times it’s just really fun to be the one scoring the touchdowns,” she said on Good Morning America. “Rather than the boys.”
San Francisco Giants pitcher Sergio Romo rides in a car during the baseball team’s World Series victory parade, Wednesday, October 31, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Last night’s election results revealed to masses of people that this is a fundamentally different country than they perceive from the alternative reality constructed by Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. It’s defined less by the narrow hatreds of the powerful than by a younger generation that’s more diverse, more open, more courageous and, frankly, more interesting than those at the levers of power. The sports world reflected this real-world reality in full force last week in the person of Sergio Romo.
When the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series, we all knew that the Bay would hold a terrific parade, and by all accounts they did not disappoint. Less predictable was the move by ace relief pitcher Sergio Romo amidst the festivities. The World Series hero, with a smile that could shame James Franco, parted his jacket, to reveal a T-shirt that read, “I just look illegal.” The crowd erupted with joy. Just like in the ninth inning of the final game against the Detroit Tigers, Romo delivered the goods. This wasn’t Romo’s first political T-shirt. Born in the hardscrabble agricultural community of Brawley, California, Romo, whose grandparents were Mexican migrant workers, also favors a shirt that reads, “Made in America, with Mexican parts.”
Sergio Romo’s shirt is more than a cheeky rebuke to nativist bigotry. In today’s California. It’s also brave. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill two years in the making, known as the Trust Act. This bill was aimed at turning California into the “anti-Arizona” on the question of immigration enforcement. It would have severely limited the powers of local police to collude with ICE officials and detain people suspected of being undocumented. In other words, it could have been a powerful rebuke to racial profiling. Instead, it fell to Brown’s veto and punched a hole in the stomach of those working on the issue who thought they had “a friend” in the statehouse. It might sound small, but as one activist wrote me, “Seeing Romo in that shirt was a lift we sorely needed. I don’t care if he knew about our struggle or not. Call it wishful thinking but I’m going to bet he did.”
Then there is Romo’s use of the word “illegal”. Monica Novoa from the “Drop-the-I-Word” campaign, which challenges the use of the word “illegal” in describing the undocumented, said to me, “Sergio Romo made clear how the i-word is racially charged and used to profile brown-skinned people. It’s one of the primary reasons we’re asking journalists to drop the i-word, so we are glad he called attention to that point. Just a reminder to everyone, who is not Sergio Romo at the parade: Sarcasm walks a fine line. His family’s migrant background, the sense of humor he’s known for and the hateful anti-Latino, anti-immigrant climate made that singular moment work. The bigger takeaway is still that no human being is illegal.”
Others in immigrant rights circles were deeply disturbed by Romo’s shirt. Any use of the word “illegal,” they argued, should be condemned. But using humor to puncture racism is as old as racism itself. Romo’s incorporation of “the i-word” isn’t about legitimizing the word but mocking it. Romo’s shirt seems to have inspired the people fighting to make such a shirt a relic of history. The civil rights group Alto Arizona has even set up a website aimed at sending Romo a thank-you.
Then there is the context of a Major League Baseball player wearing such a shirt. Baseball is now built upon a foundation of Latin American talent. This has led to real tensions between states that have adopted deeply punitive immigration policies aimed at making life unbearable for Latino residents and the players on their home teams.
This reached its apex when the home of the infamous anti-immigrant law SB 1070, Arizona, hosted the 2011 All-Star Game. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wouldn’t stand up for his players or the civil rights traditions of his sport, in letting the state Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio host the game. Players and fans protested, but Selig chose not to listen. Sergio Romo reminds us that the people beneath the uniform are human beings, just like the people politicians and nativists scapegoat and target for narrow political gain.
For that, I agree with Alto Arizona. Sign me up to say thank you to Sergio Romo. Sergio Romo was brave enough to spark a conversation that needs to be had. This is different country than even ten years ago. It’s becoming more open, more tolerant and more impatient with anyone who would dare call another human being “illegal”.
Workers assemble the finish line for the New York City Marathon in New York's Central Park, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. The New York City Marathon is on Sunday, with many logistical questions to be answered. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Being born and raised in New York City, I deeply understand the local importance of the NY Marathon. Growing up, we used to watch the “biggest race on earth” from the street, handing out drinks to the brave souls on the twenty-six-mile trek. The night before, my mother’s friends would have parties where shaggy-haired joggers would drink gallons of water and eat plates of plain pasta in preparation. In hushed tones, these glowing adults would tell us kids about Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers and Grete Waitz, and their near-mythic ability to master the marathon. It’s an event dear to the hearts of New Yorkers, a tender tradition in a city defined by constant change. It also, without question or delay, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, should be postponed.
Most of my family and friends in this world still live within the city borders. All are safe and unharmed, but that doesn’t mean Sandy left them undamaged. My mom is sofa-surfing because her building is without power. My buddy Alex may have lost his job because it’s taking four hours to get through the Lincoln Tunnel. My friends from Staten Island feel like they “want to die” after hearing about the two toddlers pulled from their mother and into the flood. This is no time for a race.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg justifed a “business as usual” approach to the marathon by saying simply, “The city is a city where we have to go on.” But this isn’t a psychological issue of people needing to “move on” from the week’s tragedy. Hundreds of thousands, like my mother, have no power. Public transportation is a nightmare and the death toll is still climbing. My friend Anthony from Brooklyn called me up this morning just to vent, saying, “They are still pulling bodies out of people’s homes. How can you divert even one emergency personnel worker for the sake of the marathon? It’s beyond wrong.”
George Hirsch, the chairman of the board of the New York Road Runners, which puts on the NY Marathon, said, “I understand the controversy completely and respect all the views on this, but any decision that was made by the mayor would have been controversial and to call off the race would have been equally as controversial. By Sunday afternoon, there won’t be any controversy. People will view it as an early step in the city’s recovery.”
It’s difficult to imagine how this can be “a step in the city’s recovery” if the act of putting on the race drains any resources from efforts to make sure residents are safe. Simon Ressner is a lieutenant at the New York Fire Department and a marathon runner. I’ll give his perspective a lot more weight than that of Mike Bloomberg and George Hirsch. Ressner told The New York Times, that emergency personnel are deeply stressed, covering everything from their typical duties to making sure stray fires aren’t sparked as hundreds line up at gas stations to fill cans and containers. “I’ve written two e-mails to the Road Runners saying, ‘Just postpone it’”, he said. “That way, you’ll still get the money, you’ll still have a high-profile event, but it would show that you’re being sensitive. But now, we’re not going to show the world we’re resilient, we’re going to show them we’re selfish.”
The marathon, per tradition, launches from Staten Island, where devastation may be the most acute. Thousands have lost power, entire streets are closed off, and nineteen deaths have already been reported. This is made worse by the sense among residents that they are the “forgotten borough,” left to die while Manhattan’s Uptown was left with barely a scratch. Resident Nicole Malliotakis said to CBS news, “We are far from fine and the fact that the mayor wants to have a marathon this weekend when we have people who lost either their lives or lost their entire house. I mean, it’s unbelievable to me.”
It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that the NY Marathon, instead of unifying the city, is now just another example of how savage New York’s inequalities have become. Public housing projects are at constant risk of flooding. The risk of disease being spread through open sewage lines is rampant. But emergency officials, in short supply, will be pulled away to make sure that runners who cramp up around Pulaski Bridge have sufficient fluids. I still remember fondly the shaggy hippies getting ready to run the Marathon back in the early 1980s. I remember them fondly not because they could run twenty-six miles but the values of community and fair play they believed that the marathon exemplified. There is no question in my mind that they would stand with a basic notion of humanity before they would stand with this race. It’s a humanity that Michael Bloomberg seems to sorely lack.
There is an online petition to postpone the marathon. Sign it here.
In a trade that shocked the most snark-encrusted NBA observers, the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped its hellaciously talented, hirsute guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assemblage of spare parts. Harden, the reigning sixth-man of the year, made up along with teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the core of the defending Western conference champions. The Oklahoma City Thunder was the only legitimate team standing between the restocked Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Perhaps age and chemistry will knock the Lakers aside, but absent that, their greatest threat just waved the white flag before opening day. This electric young team with title hopes just unilaterally disarmed because it claimed to be a poor small-market club unable to meet the contract demands of the 23-year-old star.
Immediately the cry went out across all media, old and new: small-market teams like Oklahoma City just can’t compete. As USA Today wrote, “The deal cuts to the heart of the plight of small- and mid-market teams such as the Thunder. Can they return all of their top players? Are they willing to have a payroll that surpasses the luxury tax and are they willing to pay the tax when they go over?”
Thunder management played the part of damaged small market suitor, with General Manager Sam Presti saying, “We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.” He also spoke mournfully of their need to have a “sustainable” model for developing the team. As Howard Beck wrote in the New York Times, “A system that forces a small-market wonder to give up a star player—to a team in a much larger market, no less—seems cruel and counterproductive.”
This is all nonsense. If we want to understand why the hideous Harden trade took place, we need to understand the politics and priorities of today’s NBA. We need to understand that the Thunder are small-market by choice because small-markets can mean big profits. It’s a business model, not a tragic geographical handicap.
First, we need to remember how the Thunder came into existence in 2008 because in this case, past has certainly proven to be prologue. In full collusion with David Stern, Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and moved them to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Stern recruited Bennett, a former member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, to make this move. Why would David Stern, the man they call “Money.” choose to move a team from the fourteenth-largest television market to the forty-fifth? Why would he move a team to a place with one-twelfth the per capita income? Simply, put, it’s because Oklahoma City offered hundreds of millions in corporate welfare and public revenue while Seattle did not. Using Seattle as an object lesson for any other fan base that would dare tell Stern not to feed at the public trough, was a bonus. As Bennett gushed to Stern in a private e-mail, “You are just one of my favorite people on earth.” It’s a love built on a passion for corporate welfare, a love so great that the NBA chose to think small.
The move to a “small market” has meant the best of both worlds for the swelling pockets of Clay Bennett. It has provided him with a publicly subsidized money-making machine—$35 million in profits last year according to ESPN—while also creating the illusion of scarcity. Pressure to spend can be deflected, as Presti did, onto the need for “sustainability” while prying eyes are dissuaded by anti-trust protections: protections that outrageously exist even with the infusion of public money. The blame then gets deflected onto Harden for not taking less money to stay in Oklahoma City. I have never understood how sportswriters can turn so much bile on players for trying to maximize their incredibly narrow earning windows while owners, who have inherited—or in Bennett’s case, married—generational wealth, are exempt from the same criticisms. Last year’s Stern engineered lockout, it should now be clear, wasn’t about small-market competitive balance but extracting wealth from the players and redistibuting it into the bank accounts of ownership.
While Harden is slammed and Presti cries the tears of the crocodile, Bennett gets to be the Bain Capital of owners: harvesting teams for profits and then throwing away their dried husks when profit margins are under any kind of threat. David Stern will retire in February 2014, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come, and it’s a legacy that has cultivated a coterie of owners that put fans and communities last. The Harden trade is just a symptom of the disease.
“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” —Ralph Ellison
In game one of the 2012 World Series, over 40,000 fans in San Francisco chanted the name “Barry” with punch-drunk abandon. It was unbridled joy cut with a catharsis operating on more levels than three-dimensional chess. There was of course the explicit cry of relief at finally being able to cheer for their pitcher, reincarnated ace Barry Zito. Zito had been a historic disappointment since 2006, when he signed the largest free-agent pitching contract in history. The former Cy Young winner had been so middling he was left off the post-season roster when the Giants made their improbable run to the World Series back in 2010. He was an untradable piece of expensive dead capital: the $1,200 Betamax sitting in your basement. Then in 2012, Zito, pitching almost ten miles per hour slower than in those distant glory days, accepted his physical limitations, and reinvented his game going 15-8. And there he was: over-the-hill-at-34 Barry Zito out-dueling Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Finally the fans could chant his name.
But chanting “Barry” in San Francisco is not an act independent of deeper meaning. To hear “Barry” ring across the Bay is also to recall another former Giant who was in attendance last night: Barry Bonds.
When the seven-time most valuable player finished out his contract with the team in 2007 after leading the league in on-base percentage and home runs per at-bat, he wasn’t re-signed by the Giants or any other major league club. Bonds was treated like he had plague by baseball management because of the swirling charges that he was a steroid user. In a league trying to move past an era where every locker room contained bouquets of syringes, the weight of the “steroid era” was put on Bonds’s shoulders. This resulted in the complete removal of any mention of Bonds in the Giants organization. All the plaques, posters and stadium landmarks bearing his name disappeared faster than you could say “whitewash.” There was more evidence of George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention than there is of Bonds at Giants headquarters.
But the fans in San Francisco never forgot. They stood with him during his last tortured years as a player, and they stand with him now. Last night, they did even more.
By chanting “Barry,” the fans actually forced the radio and television announcers to acknowledge “the last time a different Barry” heard his name echoed through the park. On the radio broadcast, they acknowledged that this “different Barry” once existed without saying his last name. There was an awkward silence after their observation as if they had spoken out of turn and were about to be chided by a spectral disciplinarian in their midst.
On television, they handled “Barry” a touch differently. Lead Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck commented that fans used to chant “Barry” “for someone else around here.” Tim McCarver responded, “When Barry Manilow was here at concerts.” People assumed afterward that McCarver had experienced a senior moment of some kind or was just a bit out to lunch.
I don’t buy it. I believe McCarver’s chuckle, which you can hear immediately after his Manilow line, tells a different story. He was actually making a poorly executed joke about the invisibility of Barry Bonds and at the expense of Barry Bonds. There is a delight that the baseball cognoscenti takes in making Barry Bonds their “invisible man.” It’s a way to marginalize him without confronting what he represents. He’s a home-run king in exile. He’s the end product of an era where owners made billions selling a steroid-enhanced product. He’s the person who can no longer tell the press to go to hell, because they won’t acknowledge his voice. The press corps once asked Bonds if he thought steroids was cheating. Bonds responded, “Is steroids cheating? You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” Now they don’t have to care what he thinks. Now they can humiliate him forever by denying his existence.
It’s so fitting that it was the fans of San Francisco who forced his name onto the airwaves. It’s the city where generations of people traveled to escape the sting of invisibility. It’s the city where shame is treated as the greatest sin of all. It’s the city where Barry Bonds can thumb his nose at the exile of Major League Baseball, and truly be home.
For more on shame in sports, watch Dave Zirin talk Lance Armstrong on Current TV.