Where sports and politics collide.
This column is supposed to be the place where sports and politics collide. As the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks mind-melds with the opening of the NFL season, there is an embarrassment of bombastic jock culture at my disposal to dissect. Yet I’m distracted, agitated and upset, with ESPN talking-heads sounding like the parents on a Charlie Brown special. It’s because I found out this week that the state of Georgia is going to execute Troy Davis on September 21.
I’ve worked in my spare time on Troy’s case for years and I just can’t believe it’s come to this. People from Jimmy Carter, to Desmond Tutu, to John Lewis have spoken out forcefully against Troy’s execution. Thousands have demonstrated. I even got several dozen athletes to sign a petition under the heading Jocks for Justice, to save Troy. The reality of the injustice before us has been that obvious.
Troy was convicted of murdering off-duty police Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, but there has long been demonstrable evidence that Troy is not guilty. Of the nine people who testified to Troy’s guilt, seven have recanted. Another man, the key witness who claims that Troy killed Officer MacPhail, has been named by several of the ex-witnesses as the actual killer. And yet Georgia Judge William T. Moore Jr. calls this “smoke and mirrors.”
As Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said:
“The case against Troy has fallen apart—nearly all of the witnesses have recanted their original testimony, no DNA connects him to the crime, and another man has admitted to committing the crime, according to several witnesses. At the very least, Troy should have been granted a new trial. But instead, we see the state of Georgia is set to kill him. What is the definition of cold-blooded murder? I would have to say this is it. “
Now Troy’s last shot is the Georgia Clemency Board, where his lawyers are going to try to get Troy’s sentence commuted to life without parole. In one week, on September 19, there is an international day of action to save Troy’s life. Visit nodeathpenalty.org to see if there is an action in your city. Get everyone you can to contact the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and voice their support for Troy. Call (404) 656-5651, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and fax 404-651-8502.
I keep thinking of that crowd at the Republican debate, cheering lustily for Rick Perry’s execution resume. Is that really, at long last who we are as a country? Are we people that would kill a person like Troy Davis and cheer a person like Rick Perry? Or are we two countries: Rick Perry-land and also a place where a sizable group of us would actually rise to action and defend Troy against a legal lynching, courtesy of the state of Georgia? We’ll find out in the weeks ahead.
Ten years ago, on the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NFL did something truly heroic and generous: nothing. The league willingly ate millions of dollars and cancelled the games out of respect for the unfolding tragedy. As 9/11 morphed into a decade-long “Global War on Terror,” the league has, to put it mildly, failed to show similar restraint. From the now ubiquitous presence of military flyovers and honor guards at every game, to the armed forces recruitment stations set up outside preseason contests, to having war-gourmands like General David Petraeus toss the coin before the Super Bowl, to staging Fox’s NFL pregame show from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan (with Terry, Howie and the gang dressed in fatigues), the league has treated our era of endless war as an odious exercise in corporate branding.
This Sunday, the NFL season opens in earnest on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the league, like John Boehner finding an abandoned pack of unfiltered smokes, just can’t control itself. Teams will be going all out to commemorate that horrific day ten years ago when nearly 3,000 people were killed in DC, Pennsylvania and New York City. If you think this anniversary should be remembered with somber soft voices and an air of dignity, you are going to want to keep your distance from NFL Sunday or you will lose your lunch.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, on ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning, said without a hint of humility, that the NFL will aim this Sunday to “help the country heal.” How will this healing take place? As the Associated Press reported, “Pregame tributes will be synchronized on CBS and Fox telecasts and shown on video boards in each stadium hosting games. Coaches, players and local first responders will hold field-length American flags for the playing of the national anthem.” The AP also reported that players, coaches and the sideline rabble will be compelled to wear a specially customized NFL 9/11 ribbon. The official “NFL 9/11 logo” will also be on the field of every game.
Roger Goodell’s office says that this pomp is aimed to “unite fans to recognize those who lost their lives, honor the families who lost loved ones, and salute the American spirit, the early responders on 9/11, and other heroes that contributed to the nation’s recovery.” If you are one of the 25 million Americans looking for work, or related to one of the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas in three theaters of war, you might wonder what recovery Goodell is referencing.
The last decade has more resembled a sweat-soaked fever-dream than anything resembling a “recovery.” The statistics boggle the mind. More than 6,000 US troops have been killed. Over 550,000 soldiers have put in claims for disability. Among those unfortunate enough to have been born in the countries the United States has invaded and occupied, the death toll has been estimated to be as much as one million lives lost. The current number of war refugees and displaced persons reaches almost 8 million people. The economic cost to the United States has been estimated by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to be as high as $5 trillion. Now everyone in Washington, DC, is shocked that a decade of tax cuts and war has led to record deficits, and working people are told to “tighten our belts.” It’s been an awful decade of lies and loss, and its reality will go unacknowledged this Sunday.
In all the scurrying to make sure “9/11 NFL Sunday” is a day to remember, one name is strikingly absent from the press release trumpeting the day’s events: Pat Tillman. After 9/11, Tillman took the extraordinary step of leaving the NFL to join the Army Rangers. His experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan pushed him to question the official rational for the “Global War on Terror.” He read antiwar authors. He told friends that he felt the war in Iraq was “f—in’ illegal.” Then he died at the hands of his fellow Rangers in an instance of what was deemed “friendly fire.” The Pentagon and the Bush administration hid this reality from Pat Tillman’s family. The NFL, for its part, inaugurated a USO center at Bagram Airfield in Pat Tillman’s name without hinting at the complicated realities of either Tillman’s service or his betrayal at the hands of those he trusted. The NFL’s failure to highlight Tillman in this Sunday’s 9/11 tributes is in some ways a relief, but it also reads like an act of cowardice. His story is a polarizing one that Roger Goodell wants to avoid on this day of “unity.”
But ten years along from 9/11, unity is hardly the watchword of the moment. I spoke with Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger turned antiwar activist, who served with Pat and walked across the country in his memory. I asked Rory what he would like to see the NFL do to commemorate the decade anniversary of that fateful day. He said, “I would ask the NFL for an hour of silence for the hundreds of thousands killed after 9/11 in recognition of the criminally disproportionate response to that day.” If Roger Goodell must do something, that sounds pretty dead-on. It certainly feels more right than the queasy mix of war, sport and choreographed remembrance that Goodell has planned.
“All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people – not by what happens as an individual, so I merely tell these youngsters when I go out: certainly I’ve had opportunities that they haven’t had, but because I’ve had these opportunities doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten.” —Jackie Robinson
When did Michael Vick become a Horatio Alger story? The player who was vilified after spending nearly two years in federal prison for being part of a dog-fighting ring, is now our latest feel-good comeback story: a symbol of this country’s remarkable capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Vick signed a head-spinning six-year, $100 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, and the narrative has centered on the way he’s been embraced by franchise and fans after falling so low. Mentioned often in an offhand manner, is that three years ago Vick was making eleven cents an hour as a janitor in Leavenworth.
No doubt the Vick journey is perhaps unrivaled in the history of sports. But take a moment to consider that eleven-cents-an hour wage along with Jackie Robinson’s warning not to use the athletic achievement of one to blind us from larger realities. Michael Vick’s janitorial job was just a sub atomic particle of a prison labor industrial complex intimately interwoven with the highest levels of corporate America.
The foundation of our bounty of incarcerated labor is the fact that we have more people behind bars than any country on earth. David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prisoner Project, commented, “The United States is the world’s leading prison nation, with 2.3 million prisoners and an incarceration rate six times higher than Canada’s and twelve times higher than Japan’s.… Prisoners can be made to work, they don’t have to be paid, and they lack the protections that free workers have, like workers compensation and the right to join a union. So there’s a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”
Among African-American men, like Vick, the numbers incarcerated stagger the senses. As Michelle Alexander, best selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, said in an August speech, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.” David Fathi also pointed out to me, “Most Americans know that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. What many don’t know is that it contains an exception for prisoners.”
A mind-boggling number of private companies outsource to US prisons. From K-Mart and JC Penny to McDonalds and Wendy’s, you can see the products of jailhouse labor. When you call American Airlines or Avis, the person helping you with your travel might be chained to their desk.
As Liliana Segura, a board member at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and fellow journalist at The Nation, said to me, “Just last year we saw thousands of prisoners go on strike across the state of Georgia, in large part to protest the total lack of compensation for the hours they spend working. In Louisiana, prisoners at Angola harvest crops by hand, earning pennies per hour. There’s a reason people call it modern-day slavery. After the BP oil spill, Louisiana prisoners were used to clean up the beaches, a fact that not only angered local workers whose industries were being devastated, but also those who argued that such labor is not subject to adequate oversight given the risks involved. Prisoners represent nothing less than a massive—and expanding—invisible workforce in this country.”
Yes, Michael Vick has gone from eleven cents an hour to a $100 million man, but for the mass of prisoners who can’t run forty yards in 4.4 seconds or throw a ball sixty yards with a flick of the wrist, the future is bleak. That’s why in times like this, we should remember Jackie Robinson’s words. If we, as Jackie advised, “concern ourselves with the masses of the people,” then we’d properly view Michael Vick’s ascension as cause for reflection, not celebration. He made it out of the prison system intact. His story is exceptional because millions of people won’t be able to say the same. That’s what happens when caught in a system that measures your worth at eleven cents an hour.
Jerry Richardson, as a Google search quickly proves, is invariably described as “old school.” The 75-year-old Carolina Panthers owner played pro football back when tickets cost one dollar, there were no player unions and black quarterbacks didn’t exist. He made his fortune in the food service industry, with a strong emphasis on personal appearance and low wages for all under his employ. During the NFL lockout, he oozed with contempt toward every player, union official and fan. Even the sainted Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning earned an ugly sneer.
Now he is the owner who told number-one draft pick quarterback Cam Newton that grooming and servility are prerequisites for success. On The Charlie Rose Show, Richardson proudly recounted asking Newton if he had any tattoos or piercings. When Newton replied, “No sir, I don’t have any,” Richardson told Rose he informed his new franchise quarterback: “Good. We want to keep it that way. We want to keep no tattoos, no piercings and I think you’ve got a very nice haircut.” No word if he then checked Newton’s gums.
It is worth noting that Richardson didn’t hesitate signing Jeremy Shockey in the off-season, a tight end with more tattoos than a Hell’s Angel. But there is a difference. Shockey is a white good ol’ boy from Oklahoma. Newton is black and branded by the media as having “character issues.”
Certainly, many were surprised when the “old school” Richardson used the NFL draft’s number-one overall pick on the Auburn University Heisman trophy winner. While Newton’s talent, size and speed are unquestioned, his recent past has been a national soap opera. It includes multiple school transfers, accusations of theft and the finding that his father attempted to sell his services to the highest bidder. It was a unique journey that said less about Newton than the gutter economy of the NCAA, where everyone gets paid but those the people pay to see perform. Now Richardson is telling the world that no one should worry about Newton’s “character issues” because he is under the owner’s care from this point forward. He even told Newton not to worry about the past because Richardson would guide his future.
It is one thing to have the Panthers owner express these feelings to Newton privately. One gets the feeling that a rich variety of racist nonsense is said to players behind closed doors. We can remember last year, before the 2010 NFL draft, when it was leaked that Miami General Manager Jeff Ireland asked star Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. Or recall Anthony Prior, former NFL player, who wrote the book Slave Side of Sunday. Prior said to me, “I’ve heard coaches call players ‘boy,’ ‘porch monkeys,’ ‘sambos.’ I’ve been in film sessions where coaches would try to get a rise out of players by calling them ‘boy’ or ‘Jemima,’ and players are so conditioned to not jeopardize their place, they just take it.”
What differentiates Richardson’s brand of racial paternalism is his public, boastful pride. It’s like when Rick Perry made Jose Cuervo jokes in a speech at a Latino Political event. In other words, it’s a way of proclaiming your power over others because your station, your bank account and your skin color allow you to treat others like they live on their knees.
There are some in the press defending Richardson on the grounds that “the Carolina Panthers are a company, Richardson runs the company and many companies have dress codes and rules concerning personal appearance.” Yet there are two problems with that argument. The first is that the Panthers have no such team rules (see Shockey, Jeremy.). The second is that once you have on your pads and are under the helmet, no one can tell if you have more tattoos and piercings than Lisbeth Salander. This is not about Newton’s personal appearance. It’s about the public effort to exert control over a 22-year-old man by an owner who posesses what can only be called a plantation mentality. If Richardson really wants this kind of absolute power over young, gifted black athletes, he should just sell the Panthers and apply for a job at the NCAA. As for Cam Newton, he might want to read about some Panthers who weren’t under the control of people like Jerry Richardson.
Thursday morning’s cover of USA Today blared the two words on everyone's lips: “the death penalty.” No, this isn’t because Texas Governor Rick Perry—who just loves executin’ innocent and guilty alike—is now running for president. It’s the fate that most people believe awaits the storied football team at the University of Miami. The death penalty means that the NCAA will for an indeterminate time shut down the entire Hurricanes program. It’s a brutal, financially crippling fate that many believe Miami has more than earned, following a Yahoo Sports exposé by Charles Robinson that detailed eight years of amateur violations that would make Dennis Rodman blush. A mini-Madoff financial criminal named Nevin Shapiro, currently serving twenty years behind bars, offered prostitutes, payola, jewelry, yacht parties and every possible South Beach excess for the Hurricane players. While corrupting the athletic program, he was simultaneously being feted by the school's president, former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, and Hurricanes athletic director Paul Dee. They even let him on two occasions lead the team out of the tunnel on game day.
This bombshell has the moral majority of sports journalists in full froth, rushing to the barricades to defend amateur sports. We have people like Sporting News columnist David Whitley, to use merely one example writing,” The only way to make Miami behave is a long timeout. No more football, smoke and parties for a couple of years. Nothing else has a chance of ending the culture of corruption that is The U.” He even calls Miami "the Ben Tre of college football," writing, “American forces wiped out the village to get rid of the Viet Cong, prompting a timeless explanation from the US commander: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’ The only way to save Miami is to destroy it, stripper pole and all.” But like the war in Vietnam, not to mention the actual death penalty, the call for the NCAA to shut down the program is dead wrong. As with capital punishment, eliminating the Hurricanes is an exercise in hypocrisy that does nothing but ensure that these scandals will happen again and again.
What this scandal should produce, instead of the isolation and destruction of one program, is a serious reflection on the gutter economy that is college athletics. Players cannot be paid openly and legally, so instead we get the amoral wampum of “amateur sports.” Reading the Yahoo Sports story, it’s difficult to not be chilled by the casual misogyny detailed as strippers, “escorts” and hookers were purchased and handed to players like party favors. You wonder why more than 80 percent of NFL players get divorced after retirement. It’s because as teenagers they are mentored by parasites like Nevin Shapiro who show them that women are the exchange value for their lucrative labor. This kind of gutter economy also has an ugly echo in old slave plantations, as the prized sports specimens in the antebellum South were handed women by the masters in return for their athletic prowess. Or as David Steele wrote earlier this week, ”Of course, America’s tender little feelings will be bruised if this is equated to slavery, or a plantation economy, or a plantation mentality. Fine. Maybe it can live with a metaphor like sharecropping. You do all the work, we take all the profits, we compensate you with the bare necessities of life, and tough break if you don’t like it."
The metaphor works because once you wave away the smoke and hot air, this is about jock-sniffing criminals and corrupted college presidents taking advantage of primarily poor African-Americans from the South, who see everyone getting paid but them. One anonymous University of Miami player told Yahoo Sports about University running back Tyrone Moss, who took $1,000 from Shapiro. “The guy had a kid while he was in college, a little Tyrone Jr.,” the player said. “He comes in poor as [expletive] from Pompano and he’s got a little kid to feed. I could barely feed myself. I can’t imagine having to feed a kid, too. Of course he’s going to take it when someone offers him $1,000. Who wouldn’t in that situation?”
The solution lies in paying the players but it also lies in driving a stake through the heart of the NCAA as an instrument of enforcement. Having the NCAA shut down the program only reinforces the illusion that they are the motor of morality, compliance and justice, when in fact they are the corrupters of these concepts. Already, NCAA President Mark Emmert, he of the seven-figure salary, has been across the national media, preaching about protecting, “The integrity of intercollegiate athletics.” Emmert and his fourteen assistants, each who make at least $400,000 a year, will stand on their soapbox and quarantine the bad boys of Miami just in time to save the Golden Goose: the billion-dollar television contracts, and the $135 million from the Bowl Championship Series used to crown a fake national champion.
They defend amateurism as an end unto itself, but this is also complete nonsense. As Patrick Hruby wrote at espn.com last year, “Philosophically speaking, amateurism is malarkey, about as credible as the Tooth Fairy. The Victorian-era English aristocrats who came up with the concept ascribed it to the ancient Greeks, who supposedly competed for nothing more than glory, honor and olive wreaths. The only problem? History and the legend don't match. Modern archeology suggests that the ancient Olympics were rife with spoils. Think prize money, prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments. According to Olympic historian Tony Perottet, one Games winner even parlayed his victory into a senatorial seat in Athens. Indeed, the ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for amateur, and the closest term—idiotes—needs no translation."
Let what has happened at Miami be a wakeup call: the NCAA has about as much moral authority to give “the death penalty” as Rick Perry. If this ends with the NCAA giving Miami the death penalty, then the “gutter economy” survives and we are all the worse for it. If you listen closely, you can hear King Leopold’s chains rattling in the NCAA’s halls, haunting and guiding the daily maneuvers of this “nonprofit” that enriches itself by paying its laborers nothing. Shut it down and end the culture of corruption once and for all.
I know it’s GQ. I know it’s a magazine written for barbershops, cigar bars and massage parlors. I know it assumes that men are men and women are scenery. But the magazine’s list of “The Coolest Athletes of All Time” truly sets a new standard for phallocentric panic. Gentleman’s Quarterly has given us twenty-five athletes they see as the coolest of cool, and not a single woman makes the cut.
This isn’t about feminism, tokenism, or quotas. It is about ignorance and a national magazine not having an even basic knowledge of sports history. “Cool” should mean grace under pressure with a soupçon of style. By that definition, here are the first six women who come to mind when summoning my inner-CM Punk and pondering true transgressive coolness.
How could there be any list without Billie Jean King? In addition to her twelve Grand Slam singles and sixteen doubles titles, Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match in front of a packed house at the Houston Astrodome and one of the largest national television audiences in history. As she said years later, “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” She had the weight of the women’s movement on her shoulders and still dispatched Riggs in three straight sets. Her signature early-’70s mullet and Gloria Steinem glasses were part of the deal.
Or what about Cheryl Miller? Miller dragged women’s basketball into the spotlight by virtue of her own brilliance at USC in the 1980s. She was college player of the year three times and a two-time champion. Miller also did it with a style and attitude that forced people to reconsider their own ideas of what women could do on the court. I remember playing ball in NYC growing up and if a woman shook you on the blacktop, you were “Cheryl Millered.” She made women’s hoops appointment television.
If Cheryl Miller brought true swagger to the women’s game, Diana Taurasi took that swagger and used it as a club. The Phoenix Mercury WNBA MVP was a two-time player of the year at UConn but also played with a smack-talking sneer backed by the sweetest jump-shot in the game. Before the 2004 finals, her coach Geno Auriemma predicted victory with a simple theory: “We have Diana, and you don’t.” That’s more than cool. It’s Jordan-esque.
But cool should also mean possessing the power of reinvention, and no one has ever represented that in sport quite like tennis great Martina Navratilova. Martina started her career as a profoundly talented but poorly conditioned and painfully shy Czech teenager. In the span of a decade she defected to the United States, came out of the closet, had her lover Judy Nelson sitting courtside in the family section, dyed her hair blond and transformed her body into a new standard for women athletes: all corded muscle wrapped with pulsing veins. And all with Reagan in the White House.
Martina’s musculature was reflected in her play: a fast, powerful serve-and-volley game that she rode to six straight Grand Slam victories. She also found her political voice in this time, and has been a consistent and public presence against homophobia and intolerance. Martina once said, “The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the US manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”
Connie Chung challenged Martina’s statement on CNN, saying to her, “Go back to Czechoslovakia…if you don’t like it here. This a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want.” Navratilova responded, “And I’m giving it back. This is why I speak out. When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here. And again, I feel there are too many things happening that are taking our rights away.”
Martina is so cool, she is known by just one name. So is the tennis player who plays the most like her: Serena. Serena and her sister Venus Williams have both dominated tennis for the last fifteen years. But only Serena has done it with a style that matches or even exceeds her substance. That’s quite a statement considering that Serena has won more Grand Slam titles than any active player, male or female. But we’re talking about cool, and only Serena has ever warmed up at Wimbledon in a white trench coat. Only Serena showed up to play at the US Open in a denim skirt and knee-high boots. (Officials intervened to prevent playing in the boots.) Only Serena is a certified nail technician. Only Serena wore “the cat suit.”
This is just a taste of some of the cool that GQ left off their list. I could go on about Florence Griffith-Joyner with the speed and the fingernails, or Oksana Baiul, winning the 1994 figure skating gold under the weight of the Kerrigan/Harding drama. But if there is one other name I’d leave you with, it’s Wyomia Tyus. Tyus became the first person to retain the Olympic title in the 100-meter dash, winning in 1964 and 1968. But her cools came in 1968, after winning another gold by running anchor in the 4x100 dash relay. That was the year John Carlos and Tommie Smith electrified the Olympics with their black-gloved salute. Their movement, with its emphasis on “reclaiming manhood”, didn’t involve women athletes. Wyomia Tyus recalled many years later. “It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we’d do whatever we were told.” But Carlos and Smith had been expelled from Olympic Village and were being torn to shreds across the media and Tyus saw that there was a bigger principle at play. In front of the press, and standing with her team, Tyus said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.” That took guts. That took cools. That took the kind of grace under pressure the listmakers at GQ chose to ignore.
I hope people read the GQ piece. But read it as a statement of the kind of narrow, myopic gender segregation best located in a museum. In other words, GQ might be slickly produced. It might have Mark Sanchez on the cover. It might have ads that smell like the latest cologne. But one thing it’s absolutely not, is cool.
And so they played beach volleyball in small bikinis; on imported sand; while the world burned.
It aint exactly Shakespeare, but it is actually what happened earlier this week as the London Olympic Committee staged a beach volleyball exhibition as fires engulfed the city.
Opening Ceremonies for the London Olympics are in less than a year and this week’s explosion of bottled fury has the International Olympic Committee on edge. Even worse for Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, the riots took place as representatives from 200 Olympic Committees across the globe visited the city, just in time for the days of rage. Can you imagine the scene? It would be like Michele Bachmann and her 197 children visiting New York City and walking straight into the Gay Pride Parade.
As Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics said, “There’s no doubt that this is a very bad day, a worrying day…. Olympic organizers in London planned to protect London from conventional terrorism. But of all the things they might have thought might happen, I’d be surprised if civil insurrections was high up on their list of expected risk factors.”
The knotty problem however is that the Olympics—courtesy of Tony Blair’s Labour Party—aren’t a parallel operation to the mass civic unrest but an aggravator. As social services wither, the Olympics will cost upwards of 20 billion pounds and the Olympic torch has acted as an instrument of arson. Ask the residents of Clays Lane Estate, in East London. Clay’s Lane Estate was the largest housing cooperative in the UK, and the second largest in all of Europe. Over protests, Clay’s Lane was demolished to make way for Olympic Facilities. The protests haven’t been heard, and we get riots, or, as Dr. King put it, “the language of the unheard.
But much of the political class choose to hear nothing. London Mayor Boris Johnson rushed back from holiday to say, “In less than 12 months we will welcome the world to a great summer Games in the greatest city on earth—and by then we must all hope that we will look back on these events as a bad dream.”
Tom Jenkins, the European Tour Operators Association executive director, sniffed, “I don’t think the rioting will impact the Olympics. The Olympics is, overwhelmingly, a domestic event. British people won’t be put off from visiting the Olympics in Stratford because a year earlier shop windows were broken in Hackney.”
Former Olympic great, and current Olympic flack Lord Sebastian Coe even called everything this past week, “Business as usual.”
But the many others are far less confident. Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the marathon said, “In less than one year we welcome the world, and right now they don’t want to come.”
The question now is whether the IOC will demand an even more severe police crackdown to ensure that the games will be run according to plan.
The IOC told us at The Nation that they will keep completely out of any security arrangements. Andrew Mitchell, media relations manager of the IOC emailed, “Security at the Olympic Games is a top priority for the IOC. It is, however, directly handled by the local authorities, as they know best what is appropriate and proportionate. We are confident they will do a good job in this domain.”
This assertion has left many rolling their eyes. Bob Quellos, an organizer for No Games Chicago, which helped keep the Olympics out of the Windy City for 2016, said to me, “Simply, what the IOC wants, it gets. In London next summer, the IOC will be dictating the level of police repression. Billions of dollars have been spent on the security. London’s Olympic Park is already a highly militarized zone protected by barbed wire, dogs, and armed patrols.”
Chris Shaw, the author of the book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, points out, based on his experience in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Games, that the harassment would only get worse. “[As the games approached] the Charter [their Constitution] went out the window for the duration of the games; People were followed and harassed. Reporters were deported and cops were acting like reporters.”
This has certainly been the case for previous Olympic festivals as well. In other words, every historical precedent points to an increased crackdown in the months ahead, which will only further fan tomorrow’s flames. We have a collision coming between the Olympic Monolith and the poor, angry youth of Great Britain. Conflict is ensured if David Cameron’s ultimate response continues to be, “Let them eat beach volleyball.”
In the confederate confines of sports radio, casual bigotry is about as common as traffic updates. Far less common, even unprecedented, is for a manager or coach to look this in the eye and call out a member of the media's comments as “racist.” That’s exactly what San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy did last week to nationally syndicated sports radio talker Tony Bruno, and he should be applauded for it. After Bochy’s pitcher Ramon Ramirez hit Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies last Friday, sparking a bench-clearing brawl, Bruno blew a gasket. He posted, “gutless #!@ percent*# Giants ) Bochy is a coward for having his illegal alien pitcher hit a guy.”
Ramirez of course is not an “illegal” anything. Like every one of the 30 percent of Major League players born outside the United States who aren’t citizens, he lives and works here under a P-1 visa, often referred to as an entertainment visa. But then, no human being is actually “illegal” at all. It’s just an ugly slur that’s been mainstreamed. As Gustavo Andrade the organizing director of leading immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland said to me,
“Mr. Bruno was clearly not making a factual statement about Mr. Ramirez’s immigration status; rather, he was making a derogatory comment about him based on his race. That racist slur has been actively promoted by the most vicious anti-immigrant groups in the country. It is meant to dehumanize an entire ethnic group within the United States and desensitize the public to the difficult struggles immigrants face every day. Five million children face the daily risk of becoming an orphan through the deportation of one—or both—of their parents. Mr. Bruno’s tweet was racist, ignorant and dangerous. It propagates the idea that all Latinos are somehow less than human.”
When Bochy heard about Bruno’s comments, he was incensed, saying, “Forget the remarks about me. That doesn’t bother me. For a guy to make a racist comment like that and have the ear of so many people, that bothers me. I can defend myself as a coward. I don’t know if you can defend yourself making a racist comment.”
After the initial uproar, Bruno set a land-speed record for issuing a classic “non-apology-apology” where he slammed “the sheep on facebook, twitter and blogs.” Later, Bruno wrote, “I did remove my post and apologize for my comments regarding illegal aliens. I was angry and on the air and I stand behind my comments that Bruce Bochy is a coward, as are all managers who order pitchers to throw at guys just because their pitchers can’t get a guy out. All of you people resorting to name calling are more classless and vile.” You could almost weep over the heartfelt remorse.
Assumedly one of those “more classless and vile” people is Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition who said of Bruno, “This guy is a pig. In this day and age, using this kind of language, which encourages intolerance and hate crimes, is inexcusable.”
Honestly, I disagree strongly with Nogales. I disagree because his comments are highly insulting to pigs, who are extremely intelligent animals. I bet Bruno couldn’t find a quality truffle if his life depended on it.
The question that really matters is whether he should be fired. I asked Dr. Carlos Munoz Jr., Ethnic Studies professor at UC Berkeley. Dr. Munoz said, “Tony Bruno was off the wall. Comments like his are harmful because they perpetuate the racist anti-immigrant hysteria that exists throughout the nation. It adds fuel to the fire that started burning in Arizona and that has expanded to Georgia and other states. He deserves to be fired!”
In other words, racism, ignorance and abject stupidity, when you host a national radio show, are, in fact, firing offenses.
But the unfortunate words of one doesn’t change the fact that this whole sorry story comes back to the political climate around the game. Responsibility for that falls at the feet of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Under Selig’s watch, teams have invested billions in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to develop talent on the cheap. Yet he does nothing to actually recognize the humanity of the players who are the game’s brightest stars. Selig has had several opportunities to show that he recognizes that Latino players are more than a talent pool. But he rejected the movement to retire Roberto Clemente’s number 21 in every park. He refused to remain in the stadium and talk to reporters when Carlos Santana spoke out against anti-Latino bigotry at this year’s civil rights game. Most egregiously, and unforgivably, he wouldn’t move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona despite the state’s evolution to becoming a place where Latino players and fans are simply unsafe.
In Bud Selig’s baseball universe, Roberto Clemente goes unrecognized and people like Tony Bruno get national platforms to slander “illegal aliens”. In other words, we can get Tony Bruno off the air, but there is a bigger fight brewing for the very soul of the National Pastime. Will baseball be a force for inclusion or exclusion? Throughout its checkered history, this game has certainly been both. Bud right now stands with Tony Bruno on the wrong side of that history.
NBA Commissioner David Stern emits an aura that inspires an energy-sapping, dull fear in those around him. Players, media and even the owners that pay his rumored eight-figure salary all acquiesce meekly in his presence. The brave get gelatinous. The brown nosers polish their kneepads. The toadies ribbit.
It’s certainly understandable why. Players fear that their employment opportunities will wither upon retirement. Media members fear that their access to the league will simply end. Fans fear that Stern could pull a Seattle Sonics and simply jack their team. Even owners don’t speak out against him. After thirty years, he’s become more like a tinpot dictator or a small-town Southern sheriff than a commissioner. Stern has become the emperor no one dares say is buck naked and now the basketball world is paying the price. We are going to lose much or all of the 2010–11 season due to a David Stern engineered owner’s lockout. The NBA right now has more storylines than General Hospital. Could this be the year Lebron and the Miami Heat figure it out? Will Kobe tie Jordan with six rings? Can the Miracle Mavs repeat? What could Derrick Rose do for an MVP encore? But these questions won’t be answered. We don’t get answers to these questions because too many teams are losing money, and Stern has determined that only a lockout and taking it out of the union’s hide is a path to solvency.
There are of course exceptions to this conspiracy of silence. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks once made a sport of tweaking Stern, but after several million dollars in fines, he got the hint. Last year, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said that there is no free speech in the NBA and Stern responded, “We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season.” He then said of Van Gundy, “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing…who seems to be fraying.” Rasheed Wallace was an exception, saying, “I ain’t no dumb-ass n— out here. I’m not like a whole bunch of these young boys out here who get caught up and captivated into the league…. I know what this business is all about…. I know the commissioner of this league makes more than three-quarters of the players in this league.”
Stern responded publicly, “Mr. Wallace’s hateful diatribe was ignorant and offensive to all NBA players. I refuse to enhance his heightened sense of deprivation by publicly debating with him.” You might notice that Rasheed Wallace isn’t providing commentary on NBA TV.
Mess with Stern, and become an object lesson. As Stern said to a group of NBA All-Stars, “I know where the bodies are buried because I’ve buried some of them myself.” Stern has built an atmosphere of fear and intimidation over three decades with the subtlety of Rupert Murdoch. Even the owners, the ones who pay his salary, don’t dare ask how much Stern, ostensibly their employee, gets paid.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports quotes a source who says that “two maybe three” owners even know the answer to this question. As Wojnarowski writes, “Mostly, it speaks to the authoritarian culture created within the league office, and how Stern carries it out through the NBA. Some younger owners have been warned to never push the issue with him, never ask, because it’s simply unadvisable to get on the wrong side of the commissioner.”
Meanwhile the solution to the NBA’s financial crisis is obvious. It’s doesn’t lie in dramatic slashing of salaries, or more public subsidies. It’s revenue sharing. The NBA shares less revenue than any other major league. In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers make the same television money as the New York Giants. In the NBA, it takes the Portland Trail Blazers more than ten years to make the same broadcast revenue that the Lakers make in one year. Forbes magazine determined that the league as a whole made money and if revenue was shared, the league would be fine. Stern’s response to Forbes’s findings was a sneer and a growl.
It’s obvious to me that what stands in the way of a logical financial agreement is Stern himself. His intransigence is the logical extension of a decade of dress-code dictates, bullying officials and even changing the material on the basketball despite the fact that the new balls cut the hands of players. He has created a logic that no one dares stand up and say, “This guy has to go.” He has become like Gabriel García Márquez’s dictator in the novel Autumn of the Patriarch. As Márquez wrote, “The regime wasn’t being sustained by hope or conformity or even by terror, but by the pure inertia of an ancient and irreparable disillusion, go out into the street and look truth in the face, your Excellency, we’re on the final curve.” We are on the “final curve” of a Commissioner’s reign that saw the league go global, win millions of new fans, and create a remarkable constellation of superstars. But it’s a reign that now ends with us, the fans, being robbed of the game we love. Yet this “inertia of disillusion” has fans, players, media members and owners on the sideline, too cowed to speak truth as obvious as it is unspoken: we don’t need David Stern to have the NBA. His removal as commissioner would provide a path to labor peace and get the league back in business. But if no one stands up, Stern gets to fulfill every dictator’s wish: to destroy the very world of his own creation.
A sports media consensus on the end of the NFL lockout has already emerged. Like 6-year-old kids getting trophies after soccer practice, everyone’s a winner. As Don Banks at Sports Illustrated, assessed, thrilled that the golden goose will lay eggs another day, “Neither side got everything they wanted, but good negotiations are like that. Now that this CBA fight is almost over, and labor peace seems finally at hand, both the players and the owners have the right to claim success.”
These parroted assessments by focusing on the final score, miss the true, overarching story of the longest work stoppage in NFL history: at the opening kickoff, the sides weren’t close to evenly matched. I think that what the NFLPA has done is the equivalent of the Bad News Bears squeaking out a victory against the 1927 New York Yankees. It’s The Haiti Kid taking down King Kong Bundy. It’s workers, in an age of austerity, beating back the bosses and showing that solidarity is the only way to win.
When the lockout began, NFL’s owners had, in their judgment and, frankly, mine as well, every possible advantage. They had a promise from their television partners of $4 billion in “lockout insurance” even if the games didn’t air. They had a workforce with a career shelf-life of three to four years, understandably skittish about missing a single paycheck. And most critically, they had what they thought was overwhelming public opinion. After all, in past labor disputes, fans sided against those who “get paid to play a game.” Owners wanted more money and longer seasons and approached negotiations with an arrogance that would shame a Murdoch spawn.
I remember talking to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith at the start of this process, and hearing his optimism in the face of these odds, as he spoke of the bravery of workers in Wisconsin and the people of Egypt who he said were inspiring him to fight the good fight. He mentioned the books he was reading like the classic civil rights history Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch. I remember smiling politely at De Smith and thinking, “This guy is going to get creamed.”
I was very wrong. I didn’t count on Judge David Doty, a Reagan appointee, putting an injunction on that $4 billion lockout slush fund, taking away the owner’s financial upper hand. I didn’t count on the way that health and safety issues would bond the players together, making defections among the 1,900 players nonexistent. I didn’t count on the way many fans, upset at the lockout and well-educated on the after-effects of the brutality of the sport, would side with the players. I lastly didn’t count on the way that reservoirs of bitterness felt by NFL players and the union would bind them together against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and an ownership group that had just lied to them once too often.
They stuck it out, and now the end results of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, look quite good for players. We are looking at a ten-year CBA in which minimum salaries will go up 10 percent a year for the life of the agreement. Players get a slightly lower percent of revenues (about 46 percent down from 50 percent), but they will receive 55 percent of future national media revenue, which, will mushroom in the years ahead. Teams also will now have to spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap on actual salaries. In other words, there won’t just be a salary cap, there will be a salary floor. In return, rookies will need to sign four-year contracts that are scaled at a lower rate. The net affect of all of this is that veteran salaries will go up perhaps quite dramatically, and if players can stay healthy beyond that fourth year, they will be very well compensated.
But there’s the rub. If the average career is only 3.4 years, how can players be ensured to stay healthy enough to get the big payday? Here is where I think the NFLPA made the most headway. Not only did they beat back the owner’s dream of an eighteen-game season, they also negotiated a much less arduous off-season regimen. The off-season program will now be five weeks shorter. There will be more days off. Full-contact practices are going to be greatly curtailed. This matters because it will limit not just the wear and tear on players’ bodies, but also concussions and other brain injuries, which are far more likely to happen in repetitive drills than in games.
Also when careers finally do end, players can now be a part of the NFL’s health plan for life. This is a mammoth deal for players who previously were kicked off of all plans five years after retirement. Getting private insurance after playing in the NFL is a nightmare, as your body is a spiderweb of pre-existing conditions. Retirees also will now receive up to a $1 billion increase in benefits, with $620 million going to increasing pensions for those who retired before 1993.
Yes, owners received a bigger piece of the pie, and yes they received their rookie pay scale. Yes, I agree with Brian Frederick, director of the Sports Fans Coalition, who commented today that it’s a problem that “fans were forced to sit on the sidelines during these negotiations, despite the massive public subsidies and antitrust exemptions we grant the league.” This is especially true given the fact that, as SFC reported, “Thirty-one of the 32 NFL stadiums have received direct public subsidies. Ten of those have been publicly financed and at least 19 are 75 percent publicly financed.”
But in the end, this deal—against all odds—is a victory for players, their families, their health and their long-term financial solvency. It’s also an example for workers across the country. There is power in labor and there is power in solidarity.