Where sports and politics collide.
Robert Griffin III. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ali Center.
It should be enough that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the most exciting athlete to enter professional sports since Lionel Messi and has restored the thrill of the possible to our football-obsessed community in Washington, DC. It should be enough at this moment to learn that RGIII is focused solely upon rehabilitating his knee, torn to shreds in last year’s playoffs. But the Heisman Trophy winner, who also found time in college to graduate from Baylor with a degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA, has clearly committed this off-season to exercising his mind as well. According to his running Twitter commentary, RGIII spent Saturday at the museum that in my view is the Mecca of the intersection of sports and politics: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Muhammad Ali Center is a remarkable testament to the courage of an athlete willing to take unpopular stands because of political principle. The fact that Ali took these stands at the height of his athletic powers, when he was between the ages of 22 and 26, clearly had an impact on Mr. Griffin. RGIII’s first tweet said simply that “seeing in depth what Ali did and who he was is so inspiring.” The quarterback then soaked in just how much Ali suffered for his unpopular stands against racism and the war in Vietnam and put himself in the Champ’s shoes. He wrote, “An athlete like Ali would get destroyed in today’s world even more than in his own time.” The social media–savvy RGIII then tweeted, “What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks.” He then retweeted someone who wrote to him, “Ali transcended sports and sacrificed his most productive boxing years to stand for his beliefs. Name a modern athlete that would.”
I must say that it’s thrilling that Muhammad Ali still has such a strong effect on athletes born a decade after he last set foot in a boxing ring. It’s also quite a statement that Robert Griffin III, who comes from a proud military family, would pay tribute to the most famous war resister in human history. Yes, Ali’s radical stance in 1968 has been smoothed out for mass consumption. Yes, in today’s myriad Ali tributes, few quote him saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is here.” But the museum, to its credit, does not engage in a whitewash. RGIII was confronted with the actuality of Ali’s ideas and was deeply in awe of his sacrifice.
Lastly, I would point out that in today’s age of social media, an athlete like Ali would get far more support than in 1964. Back then, a small cabal of hard-bitten sportswriters, who were conservative, calloused and Caucasian, dominated public commentary, and were deeply resentful of the man they called “the Louisville Lip.” Today, in addition to the hate, there would be a public outpouring of support, which would also shape the coverage. The trend-lines of Ali’s resistance would have ample amplification.
There’s another side of this, however, that could not have escaped RGIII’s precise mind as he considered the concepts of sports and sacrifice: There is no way in heaven or hell Muhammad Ali, who is of African, Native American and Irish ancestry, would have ever accepted being called a Redskin. RGIII had to notice that the question of names and what we choose to call ourselves figures strongly at the Ali Center. You learn that Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., named not only after his own father but also a famous nineteenth-century white abolitionist. The political history of that name didn’t stop him from changing it upon joining the Nation of Islam. As he said, “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I don’t use it because I am no longer a slave.” The museum speaks about the boxers, reporters and even members of the draft board who called him “Clay” and how he responded with, at different times, “Say my name,” “What’s my name?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s my name, fool?”
Ali’s belief that a name was something far more precious than just a brand has found echoes across the culture in multiple forms, from Destiny’s Child, to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s Super Bowl victory speech to perhaps the most famous scene in the classic television show The Wire. Names matter. What you call yourself and what others choose to call you is a question of respect.
I wonder if RGIII took notice that the Muhammad Ali Center has a proud history of doing traveling exhibits with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, including one called “IndiVisble: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” The 2012 press release for the exhibit reads, “Prejudice, laws and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom. For African-Native Americans, their double heritage is truly indivisible.” I wonder if RGIII would ask himself how that heritage is served by the fans in feather headdresses and war paint, and the stained crimson face on the side of his helmet.
There was much made this week about a poll taken by ESPN, which showed that 79 percent of people in the US find nothing wrong with the Redskins name. RGIII—the athlete, the brand, the corporate pitchman—is someone who could look at that poll and think, “Great. Now I don’t need to say anything.” RGIII, the human being inspired by Muhammad Ali, has to look at those numbers and think, “Whether it’s 79 percent or 97 percent, right is right.” The Redskins name is racist as all hell, the creation of a segregationist owner and only possible because the people being insulted were subject to genocide: thinning their ranks, political power and voice. It’s a name RGIII’s boss Dan Snyder will only defend in the most controlled of public settings. It’s a name that Muhammad Ali would have hated because it’s a damn disgrace.
At the end of his Twitter commentary about The Champ, Robert Griffin III wrote, “The Ali Center confirmed my belief that although we, as people around this world, are different, we can all help & learn from each other.” He’s correct. But a precondition of helping and learning from one another is respect. RGIII is under no obligation to say anything about the Redskins name. But if he learned nothing else from the Muhammad Ali Center, it should be that sometimes you just have to speak out no matter the risk, no matter the trends or trend-lines.
It’s a little known part of The Champ’s history, but In 1978, Muhammad Ali joined Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens (who has just left us) to rally at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in the name of Native American self-determination. That was Muhammad Ali. He was nobody’s Redskin.
In a homage to the Freedom Rides, members of OUR Walmart will converge on Walmart’s upcoming shareholder meeting. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
Roger Bannister, after running the first sub–4:00 mile. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. —Roger Bannister
It was once believed that a human being couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. Physicians wrote academic articles that the human anatomy wouldn’t allow for such exertions. Four minutes, we were told, was the Maginot Line of our physical capacity. Then in 1954, a medical student named Roger Bannister ran the race in 3:59 and it was like the running community awoke from a collective hypnosis. Mass psychology had shifted in decisive fashion. Within a week, Australian runner John Landy ran it in 3:57 and sub-four minute miles became the world-class average instead of the unapproachable standard. People’s minds had to dramatically adjust to a new reality as the inconceivable became the new normal.
There are many calling Jason Collins’s decision to be the first active male athlete to come out of the closet a “Jackie Robinson Moment,” after the man who smashed baseball’s color line in 1947. But I consider this to be more of a Roger Bannister Moment. For years, people have been waiting to see whether an active male athlete would come out of the closet. For years, people of all political stripes said it would be a long time coming. For decades, media and management has policed the sexuality of players to make sure the closet door was welded shut. Even those most supportive, until recently, were pessimistic. Just in 2011, Will Leitch of New York magazine wrote, “You probably don’t know the most likely first openly gay pro athlete, because he’s not a pro yet. He might be 12.” Leitch then quoted Jim Buzinski who co-founded the LGBT-focused website Outsports who said, “It’ll be someone who has identified as gay through high school and just doesn’t think anything about it. They’ll just be so talented that no one would even think to deny them.” But we didn’t have to wait ten years and we didn’t have to wait for that irresistibly talented superstar. Instead we have Jason Collins, 34-year-old journeyman center: right here, right now, in 2013.
As Collins explained why he did it to The New York Times, “There are so many people who have come before me both as a black male and then as a gay male, who have sort of paved the road for me…. Now it’s time for me to pave the road for somebody else, to be a great teammate, society being the team. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge those who came before me, give credit to them, and then there are those who are going to come after me, and it’s my responsibility to lift them up.”
Now that he’s come out, more players will feel liberated and lifted, unburdened by the pressure to be first. More people will explore the parameters of the possible because Jason Collins chose to be a pioneer.
It’s certainly tempting to think of this as a Jackie Robinson Moment as well. In this case there are also very strong, if inexact, parallels. Like Robinson, Collins, through his very existence, forces teammates, fans and the dominant culture to confront their own prejudice. Like Robinson, Collins has to face ignorance cloaked in religion that claims his very existence in the locker room is an abomination. Like Robinson, Collins has sparked discussions among the panicked about how his teammates could possibly shower in peace. The differences between Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins also matter. Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947 eight years before the formal start of the civil rights movement. He was, as Dr. King put it, “A sit-inner before sit-ins.” Jason Collins, as he readily says, felt confidence to come out because of the social movements that have been taking place off the field and because more straight players across the Sports World have started to speak out for LGBT equality. This doesn’t in any way diminish what Collins did. It just should remind us that the dynamic interaction between sports and social movements flows in both directions. It’s also worth noting that Jackie Robinson didn’t have to deal with a twenty-f0ur-hour sports media machine willing to give a platform to people telling him he was going to hell. The two stories lined up side-by-side remind one of Mark Twain’s famous dictum that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
That’s why I see this as more of a Roger Bannister Moment. Thanks to Jason Collins, our parameters of the possible have shifted and now our collective thinking will have to change. That’s the power of just being brave enough to dare see what isn’t there. When Roger Bannister was asked how it was possible he achieved his record-breaking feat, he replied, “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got.” That’s what Jason Collins did as well, and we are all the better for it.
What’s it like to cross the border without papers? Read Aura Bogado’s review of the interactive La Ruta.
Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Credit: SI.com)
Hearing the news made me feel like I’d accidentally walked into a wind tunnel. For as long as I had written about this issue and as many times as I had said in recent years that “this will happen in a matter of months if not weeks,” it still hit me like a triple-shot of espresso cut with a teaspoon of Adderall. Thanks to the courage of 34-year-old NBA veteran Jason Collins, we can no longer repeat endlessly that no active male athlete in North America has ever come out of the closet. Instead we’re now able to say that we were there when our most influential cultural citadel of homophobia—the men’s locker room—was forever breached and finally received a rainbow makeover on its unforgiving grey walls. But we didn’t only get the act of coming out. We also got, courtesy of Mr. Collins and Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz, about as beautiful a coming-out statement as has ever been put to paper.
As Collins wrote, “No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Homophobia becomes eroded when straight people actually have a family member or friend come out of the closet and then have to confront their own prejudice. Now in the NBA we have Jason Collins saying, “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
The piece also demonstrates that Jason Collins gets the impact he could have on the way sports both defines and polices our conceptions of masculinity. The 7-foot, 255-pound bruiser writes wryly, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
Before we sing more hymns to Jason Collins, let’s also be clear about a few facts. First, this did not take place in a vacuum. A rising tide of LGBT advocacy, demonstrations and public demonstrations of power in the face of bigotry laid the groundwork. Collins understands this and writes that he was motivated not only by the movement but by those seeking to perpetuate second-class citizenship for LGBT people. “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” he writes, “Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing.”
Collins felt compelled to speak out and in the sports world he has considerable company. In the NFL, players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita have become active and public participants in the movement for full marriage equality and equal rights. We’ve also seen former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums become the first trans athlete to be public and proud. In just the last two weeks, the National Hockey League adopted an entire program in conjunction with the You Can Play organization aimed at making the locker room a “safe space” for players thinking about coming out of the closet. Then Brittney Griner, arguably the greatest women’s hoops player to ever put on high tops, came out so casually, and it made us all wonder if she was ever actually in.
Now we have Jason Collins and in our compressed, fevered media environment, we’ve already gotten a crash course in the probable highs and lows for anyone who wants to follow his path. The highs were seen in an outpouring of support from the sports world. It started immediately with former All-Star Baron Davis who tweeted, “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters”. That opened the floodgates, as numerous players from my boyhood hero Bernard King to the great Kobe Bryant pledged their solidarity and support. Even the Boston Red Sox got into it, inviting Collins to throw out the first pitch at a game.
The day also saw that Baron Davis was prescient that “haters” would need to be told to “eff off.” ESPN, perhaps feeling shut out of the biggest story in eons, took the day to give a platform on their crown jewel program Outside the Lines to NBA reporter Chris Broussard so he could opine that Collins was “a sinner” engaged in “an open rebellion to God.” His words were ugly. The fact that he was provided a forum by ESPN to deliver them on this celebratory day was perhaps even worse. But if it was a crude effort by a flatfooted ESPN to make the story about them, then it was a success as social media was then flooded with first anger and then support for Broussard’s “free speech.” Beyond Broussard, fortunately, the backlash was comprised of the typical barrage of twitter trollage.
There was a great deal of hate and an even greater amount of love. But to read Jason Collins’s own words about why he was coming out, you get the feeling that he could not care less what the Chris Broussards of the world may think. As he writes in my favorite passage, “Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know—I baked for 33 years.”
As comprehensive immigration reform saunters forward, advocates across the country are pushing for full LGBT inclusion. Read more at StudentNation.
The Boston Marathon bombers.
“The most difficult part of getting to the top of the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.”
—Arch Ward (1896–1955), Chicago Tribune sports editor and founder of the Golden Gloves of America Tournament of Champions
Alienation, poverty and despair drive people—overwhelmingly young men—to awful acts of violence. That’s as true for the strung-out soldier who commits war crimes in Kandahar as it is for the gang member who kills a child on the South Side of Chicago. It’s also true in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead—and deadly—elder bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The recognition of the roots of his rage rings clearly in a brilliant, harrowing profile that appeared Sunday in The New York Times. It’s less a story than an autopsy that explores what killed Tsarnaev’s hope that he could make a life in the United States. Given the unconscionable arguments by Representative Peter King and countless others that the Tsarnaev’s crimes should be a clarion call for intensified profiling and surveillance of Muslim families in the United States, understanding Tsarnaev’s motivations is critical. Just as we shouldn’t accept the racist argument that “culture” is the root cause of gun deaths in Chicago, we should reject the idea that Islam bears any sort of collective responsibility for Tsarnaev’s crimes.
The Times article, “A Battered Dream for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Then a Violent Path,” is heartbreaking, but also does a tremendous service by explaining—not excusing, but explaining—how he arrived at bombing the Boston Marathon on Patriot’s Day, killing three and injuring more than 200. People should read the article, and I’m not going to rehash it. But I do want to explore its examination of how much immigrant aspiration Tsarnaev put into boxing and how the sports establishment in the post 9/11 era responded by pushing him away.
In most descriptions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he’s described as a “one-time boxer.” That doesn’t quite tell the story. Tsarnaev was a two-time New England Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion. This was a flamboyant showman of a fighter wearing white leather and furs and incorporating “showy gymnastics into his training and fighting, walking on his hands, falling into splits, tumbling into corners.” The religious ascetic would emerge later. At this point Tsarnaev was WWE flair with Donald Trump attitude. He was America as learned through a television screen. But also, like the America of his dreams, his ambitions were as large as his attitude.
A high school classmate in Cambridge, Luis Vasquez, said to the Times, “The view on him was that he was a boxer and you would not want to mess with him. He told me that he wanted to represent the U.S. in boxing. He wanted to do the Olympics and then turn pro.”
The next step was to compete in the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. There was, however, one problem: the esteemed boxing organization had changed their rules for admittance. The Golden Gloves, at the height of Tsarnaev’s powers as a fighter, ceased its long-standing practice of allowing legally documented immigrants to take part in their Tournament of Champions. This broke with the history of a competition that was started in 1923 by sports editor Arch Ward in a hardscrabble town defined by immigration: the “stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders” otherwise known as Chicago. That meant Tsarnaev and three other New England champions—all immigrants—were not allowed to compete. It’s only at this point that he quit the sport. As the Times reported,
Mr. Tsarnaev portrayed his quitting as a reflection of the sport’s incompatibility with his growing devotion to Islam. But as dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives from Cambridge, Mass., to Dagestan showed, that devotion, and the suspected radicalization that accompanied it, was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.
Adrift meant eking out an existence on food stamps, and his wife’s $1,200-a-month job. Adrift meant unemployment, as he needed to stay home and watch their infant daughter. Adrift meant feeling a new sense of belonging in political and religious doctrine that spoke of war against United States. Adrift meant fury at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but no means to channel that anger in a way that didn’t reflect his despair. The Times article covers all of this in depth. I would add, though, that his feeling of being “adrift” might also have meant he was suffering brain damage as a result of years in the ring. The esteemed neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu has stated that any autopsy of Tsarnaev should include an examination for signs of the life-altering post-concussive syndromes Cantu has seen in numerous former boxers and NFL players.
The Golden Gloves’ rejection of an immigrant with fantasies of acculturation and acceptance through sports is profound for reasons unexplored in the Times, but that demand attention. For over a century, sports has been the entryway for many immigrants and people of color to feel a sense of belonging in the turbulent ethnic stew that is the United States. The first Public School Athletic Leagues and YMCAs in the nineteenth century were underwritten by industrialists as a means of “Americanizing” the masses arriving in record numbers from Eastern Europe. Their explicit hope was that sports would be the first step of children toward leaving behind radical socialist European ideologies and buying in to the idea of the American Dream. As the founding mission statement of the PSAL read, organized athletic competition could “provide opportunities for educating students in physical fitness, character development and socialization skills through an athletic program that fosters teamwork, discipline and sportsmanship.” In other words, it would teach the doctrine that anyone who works hard enough could climb the competitive ladder glorified by sports promoters like Arch Ward.
Similar hopes of finally having a seat at the American table have been projected onto athletes of color such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and, most recently, Jeremy Lin. Their acceptance—or the myth of their acceptance—was treasured by immigrants and people of color as a sign that this country wasn’t just for Caucasians of pure European stock. How horribly ironic that this athletic avenue of acculturation closed in the face of someone who would have been at home in that late nineteenth century wave for whom the PSAL was created: an immigrant from Eastern Europe.
There has been so much idiotic ink spilled about whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers “should be considered Americans.” What is certain is that the means by which people have historically felt a sense of having a stake in this country have been inexorably altered in the post-9/11 world. This is now a nation defined and scarred by the cruel anti-immigrant policies of both Presidents Bush and Obama. It’s now a nation defined and scarred by pushing people away from that historic safe haven for immigrants otherwise known as competitive sports. It’s a nation that spawned the brothers Tsarnaev. It’s a nation that must change if future tragedies of violence are to be avoided. This won’t happen by accident. Movements and meetings against Islamophobia and for the rights of immigrants are great a place to start. Sports may have been bestowed onto immigrants from the top down, but a shift away from fear and toward a more inclusive future will only come from the bottom up.
Across the country, young people are pushing for immigration reform that includes LGBT people and equalizes college access. Read more in StudentNation’s “Dispatches From the US Student Movement.”
Shaquille O’Neal. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Why did Newark’s only movie theater, co-owned by Shaquille O’Neal, just pull a scheduled showing of a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal? No one is talking, but this is a story that stinks worse than the Jersey swamps. For the unfamiliar, Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most famous of the 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States. He has spent the last three decades as not only a prisoner but a political lightning rod, with the Fraternal Order of Police demanding his execution after the killing of Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner. Following thirty years on death row, Mumia’s sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole last year.
Mumia’s supporters, which include Amnesty International, the European Union and Nelson Mandela, have continued to point out both the inconsistencies in the state’s case and the prosecution’s use of political and racially based arguments—leaning on his history as a Black Panther and radical journalist—to assure his conviction. Numerous books and documentaries have made this case. The documentary in question here is something different. Titled MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary, its focus is on his contribution as an author and commentator from behind bars. The film is a trenchant look at the way people can produce politics and art in the most dire of circumstances. (Full disclosure: I am briefly interviewed in the film, discussing my correspondence with Mumia about the intersection of sports and politics.)
The film has, by documentary standards, been a box-office success, with sold out shows in Los Angeles, Oakland and New York City. The director and producer, Stephen Vittoria, was especially excited to bring it to Newark, the city of his birth. As he said to me, “I know what Newark has been through. I know what the people of Newark have been through…. The city and people of Newark deserve economic redevelopment as well as access to culture. It seemed like a perfect locale to show the film. The theater announced it and it was ready to play.”
The theater in question, Cineplex 12, Newark’s only major theater, was more than ready. They had put an extraordinary amount of resources into making the film a splash, setting up an exclusive press screening, pitching stories to all the state’s major newspapers and planning a high-profile opening night featuring Newark’s famed poet Amiri Baraka. It’s remarkable for a movie theater to put this much public relations weight behind any film’s opening, let alone a documentary.
Hours before the tickets were available for sale, something even more remarkable took place. Higher-ups at the theater had the showing cancelled. Was Shaq part of that decision? I can’t say definitively because everyone’s lips are buttoned tighter than a pair of black jeans in Hoboken. Here, however, is what we do know. Shaq, who was raised for a period in Newark and still has family in the city, is the Cineplex’s co-owner. According to very good authority, Shaq, alongside his security chief, former Newark police officer Jerome Crawford, spoke with the co-Cineplex owners of Boraie Development about the film. Repeated efforts to get comment from O’Neal about the content of that discussion as well as the decision to not show the film have gone unanswered, but here are some other things we know for sure.
When O’Neal purchased the theater, he held a press conference alongside Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and pointedly thanked “the Newark Police Department” which “helped raise” him. The future Hall of Famer has long held court about his dreams of becoming a police officer. He has been sworn in as a “reserve police officer” in both Miami and Los Angeles. When in action, the results have been very unfortunate. On a ride-along, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an internal affairs report was issued after Shaq was accused of shoving the head of a suspect in a toilet and flushing repeatedly. He was cleared of these charges and his connection to the police has gone unbroken, including charity work with the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP, once again, has spent decades agitating for Mumia’s execution.
Shaq and the theater aren’t commenting about the cancellation of the Newark showings, but Mumia is. He said, “Now it seems there are a lot of people in power who don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary. Ask yourself, why? Newark, New Jersey, is more than just a depressed city. It was once the place where famed black leader and controversial figure Paul Robeson lived, studied and became the Paul Robeson who became the center of history. Controversy isn’t a bad thing—it’s a good thing, but it’s always what the controversy is about. A lot of people don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary…. Ask yourself, why? And then make your own decision. I know you’ll make the right one.”
I do hope Shaquille O’Neal and the executives at Boraie Development answer for themselves. They should disavow the mere thought that they would Bigfoot a film just because they find it offensive. What’s particularly sad is that Shaq could use his ample powers of speech and considerable cultural platform to speak out against the film if he’s so inclined. Here’s a scenario for Shaq: show the film. Then go onstage after the debut to explain why he thinks that Mumia should be punished and the film disrespects the police. Let him publish an oped in the Newark Star-Ledger. He should, if inclined, kick the film’s butt like it was Greg Ostertag. But don’t do this. Whether you ordered the film not to run or are just looking the other way, don’t deny the city of Newark, which you claim to love, a film just because you have the power to do so. Those aren’t the actions of The Big Aristotle. They’re the actions of a big bully.
The long aftermath of 9/11 is a tale of torture, disappearance and war crimes. Read David Cole’s take in this week’s issue of The Nation.
Robert Lipsyte has a reputation, largely built from his years at The New York Times, as one of the most fearless sportswriters and columnists of the last century. He has been a critic of jock culture, racism, sexism and homophobia in sports, and the over-corporatizing of our games. In his famous book of the same title, he coined the phrase “SportsWorld” to describe this stew of style with little positive substance. Now that same Robert Lipsyte is going to be the Ombudsman at ESPN: the great magnetic force at the heart of our twenty-first-century SportsWorld. Here, The Nation speaks to Robert Lipsyte about this stunning turn of events.
Dave Zirin: So let’s start with the question many readers might be afraid to ask: What the hell is an ombudsman?
Robert Lipsyte: In this case, the ombudsman, like the New York Times public editor (of whom I am currently an avid fan) is the representative of ESPN’s reading, listening and viewing audience. I will be happily wading through the e-mail bag to find out what that audience is concerned about, complaining about, loving, questioning. Then I will try to explain the background of what happened, demystify the process (through reporting) and offer my take. Transparency. ESPN is the world’s great window on sports. I’m the window washer.
What was your reaction when ESPN asked you to take this role on?
I was thrilled. I started as a copyboy in the Times sports department in 1957, at 19, and have been covering sports, one place or another ever since, always as an outsider. I hadn’t applied for the job (didn’t know it was open) and when the call came I thought it was the perfect last job in my career, a chance to help people understand the impact of sports on our lives through the prism of the world’s most important multi-platform source of sports entertainment and news.
I likened it to Bill McKibben being asked to head up the EPA. It’s an awesome choice, but you wonder, how long it can last? Is it fair or correct to say that you have spent decades as a searing critic of much of what ESPN represents?
I’m flattered to be compared to Bill McKibben, but I’m not sure either ESPN or I can match that comparison. Especially since ESPN reached out to me and the EPA has yet to call McKibben. Can it last the whole eighteen months? We’ll see. Be a hell of a story if it doesn’t. And yes, I’ve criticized not only what ESPN represents, but ESPN itself. That they still hired me (there were other candidates, and strong ones at that) seems to indicate they are up for a clear-eyed look-over.
In your book An Accidental Sportswriter you wrote at great length about the inequities for women in sports. ESPN has certainly been criticized for undercovering women’s sports. Do you see yourself raising this as an issue? What about issues of race and LGBT inclusion? Will your be looking at those issues with a critical eye as well?
I can’t imagine that these issues will not come up. I’m sure the audience will bring them up. Again, I’m not going in as an enterprise investigative reporter—that’s the media’s job, your job, Dave—but as the agent of inquiry for the fans.
I have to ask you the First Take question. What do you think about the show? Many critics see it—the constant yelling, the hyper-focus on Tim Tebow, Skip Bayless’s contempt for athletes—as the nadir of the network. Is part of your role raising criticisms of the form and content of shows like First Take?
I have to admit I love to read and hear about Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin and Lance Armstrong. Can’t get enough. (They are my Kardashians, along with pretzels and peanut butter.) As for First Take—if you hate it, shut it off! I thought Richard Sherman’s trashing of Skip Bayless was fascinating TV, and had that happened during my watch, and if the audience wanted to know how and why it happened, and if there seemed like some window-washing was in order, I would have jumped at the chance to check it out.
Even Bill Simmons—a star at ESPN, not one for public criticisms of those in Bristol—criticized First Take and was briefly suspended from Twitter for speaking out. Do you have any concerns that if you are too harsh they’ll cut you off at the knees?
I can’t even allow myself to think about that. Be like a wide receiver hearing footsteps instead of concentrating on catching the ball.
Last question. If in 1968, someone had told you that you’d be the ombudsman for the most powerful sports media entity on the planet, what would you have said?
I was a lot more certain and arrogant in 1968, and I would have answered the question by saying, “Why should I have to wait forty-five years?”
A sheriff's vehicle patrols the area around Steubenville High School. (Reuters/Jason Cohn)
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the Steubenville High School rape trial involving several members of the school’s storied football team wasn't the crime itself as much as everything that surrounded it. It was the fifty people who stood around and did nothing while an unconsious young woman was being carried around like a slab of beef. It was the adults in authority who seemed all too eager to push this under the rug until photos were displayed for the world to see and the justice system was shamed to act. It was those who threatened the life of the young woman for daring to press charges, requiring armed guards outside her family’s home.
Symbolic of this unholy marriage of jock culture and rape culture was the revered Big Red football coach Reno Saccoccia who didn’t seem to give a damn that his players could have treated a woman this way. Given Coach Saccoccia’s controversial behavior before and during the trial, which drew national scrutiny, many of us thought he at the very least would be shown the door after three decades of service. We all thought wrong. Today we learned that “Coach Sac,” as he is known, has been granted a two-year contract extension by the Steubenville school board. They made this decision despite the fact that a grand jury is meeting next week to assess whether he and others obstructed justice in the case. Saccoccia was legally required to report the sexual assault as soon as he was aware it took place. The grand jury will determine whether or not he in fact knew and tried to sweep it under the turf.
Whatever the conclusions of the grand jury, the question of whether Saccoccia should remain in a position to mold the minds of young men should not have been difficult to answer. Not when there are text messages sent by now-convicted team quarterback Trent Mays that read, "I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried." Not when Saccoccia went nose-to-nose with a woman reporter looking into the rape case and said, "You're gonna get yours. And if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will." Not when Coach Sac oversaw a locker room where the jock culture become inextricably connected to a rape culture.
When Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond were convicted as juveniles of rape, I was glad because the message that would have been sent by their acquittal—being passed out equals consent—would have been deeply harmful. The message to extend Coach Sac‘s employment with grand jury deliberations hanging over his head is perhaps equally harmful. I spoke to a friend who is a rape counselor in DC and asked her what she thought of the decision. First she erupted with a “What the hell!” Then after a deep breath she said, "The school board chose to send a message. That message was that the health and continuity of the football team is more important than the health and safety of young women in that community. It’s a regrettable message and I truly hope they come to their senses. We’re all watching.”
One can almost pity the Steubenville school board because they still don't get it. The demand for accountability and justice in Steubenville will not begin and end inside their school district. This is now a high school in the national spotlight because it’s become symbolic of too many communities broken by the act of sexual violence and the bystanders who have looked the other way. Over 134,000 people have signed a petition at change.org demanding that Saccocia be fired. Until Coach Sac is sacked, the spotlight will only get hotter.
In rape tragedies, Jessica Valenti writes, the shame is ours.
A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings on Boylston Street in Boston, April 18, 2013. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
If emerging victorious after being down 3-0 to the Yankees in the 2004 playoffs should have taught us anything, it’s that the people of Boston are tough as hell and never lose faith. After Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon and the following days under lockdown, we are already seeing that resilience emerge. Already, people in the city are talking about how the Marathon next year is going to be bigger and better than ever. Already runners are signing up in droves. Already according to one website, the race in 2014 could have “15 to 20 times” the number of people attempting to qualify. As Raymond Britt, a Marathon analyst who ran the 26.2 mile course for thirteen consecutive years said, “We believe it’s an extraordinary sign of the running community’s desire to support Boston. They want to come to Boston in 2014 to defend her honor, take our race back from evil, to prove the spirit of freedom will prevail over all.” Bloomberg News also ran a story about the commitment of runners to retake Heartbreak Hill in 2014.
I in no way doubt that next year will be a celebration of the city’s stouthearted fortitude. I have no doubt that people will arrive in droves to witness “the spirit of freedom prevail.” But I do think we need to separate the bravery of those who will gather in 2014, and what the security imperatives will undoubtedly be. We need to critically examine what’s proposed and, if necessary, raise our voices in protest.
Safety is, of course, paramount, but there is a difference between safety and submitting without dissent to being under a kind of martial law. I want to describe the possible dystopic scenario that next year’s marathon could bring, and I’m not pulling this out of a pamphlet written by Glenn Beck. I’m speaking from the experience of having been in Vancouver right before the 2010 Winter Olympics, South Africa right before the 2010 World Cup and London right before the 2012 Summer Olympics. In each of these cities, “security” meant raiding the homes and offices of “people of interest.” It meant spying on activist groups planning legal protests. It meant a particular level of surveillance and harassment of black and brown communities, especially—but certainly not exclusively—the Arab and Muslim communities. It meant displacement of many of the homeless and those in nearby low-income housing to create a security perimeter. It meant, in the case of London, surveillance drones flying overhead. In all these cities, there were so many video cameras that you couldn’t so much as scratch your behind without fearing that someone was making a note. In all these cities I felt safe, but safe in the way you feel in a quiet, empty campground. It’s eerie, even if you aren’t thinking about the collateral damage needed to feel so “safe.” In all of these cities, after the games, much of this top-notch surveillance equipment becomes a “normalized” part of law enforcement. As one police chief said when I was in London, “It’s not like we can just put them back in the box.”
There are undoubtedly many people that will accept this trade-off. The Boston Marathon must be run, and if it needs to happen under military watch, then so be it. This argument is easy, but it’s a grave mistake, and it’s why we need to protect the 2014 race from ourselves. Instead of blank-faced compliance, we should take immediate steps. This means building movements now for citizen oversight on the security operations for 2014. This means building movements now against the militarization of the police force. This means building movements now against Islamophobia and the harassment of black and brown youth (and yes, we should appreciate the awful irony that criminal actions of two white guys will spur state harassment of people of color).
By taking this approach we can do more that preserve our civil liberties. We can also preserve as much as possible of what is so communitarian and precious about the race itself. The Boston Marathon is the most open mass-sporting event on earth with 500,000 people gathering in eight different cities. Maybe it will never be the wide-open, innocent party of years past again. But in honor of those determined to gather, run and not live in fear, we shouldn’t easily surrender what made the Boston Marathon—not to mention our civil rights—so mighty in the first place.
Read Aura Bogado’s interview with author Sohail Daulatzai on communities of color and the response to Boston.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
This week in Major League Baseball was Jackie Robinson Day. This is when Commissioner Bud Selig honors the man who broke the color line in 1947 and pats MLB on the back for being “a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s possible to appreciate that Selig honors one of the 20th Century’s great anti-racist heroes. It’s also possible, out of respect for Jackie Robinson, to resent the hell out of it.
Ignored on Jackie Robinson Day are baseball’s decades of racism before Jackie broke the color line. Ignored are Robinson’s own critiques of baseball’s bigoted front office hiring policies. Ignored is the continuance of the racism that surrounds the game in 2013. Ignored is the fact that today in Arizona, Latino players live in fear of being stopped by police for not having their papers in order.
The recent film 42 about Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues shares this contradiction. I can certainly understand why many people I respect love this film. I can understand why a teacher I know thinks it’s a great primer for young people who don’t know Jackie’s story. I understand why, given the high production values and loving depictions, Jackie Robinson’s family has been outspoken in their appreciation. But I didn’t like it, and with all respect, I want to make the case that I don’t believe Jackie Robinson would have liked it either.
Early in the film, Jackie Robinson, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, says, "I don't think it matters what I believe. Only what I do." Unfortunately that quote is like a guiding compass for all that follows. The filmmakers don't seem to care what Robinson—a deeply political human being—believed either. Instead 42 rests on the classical Hollywood formula of “Heroic individual sees obstacle. Obstacle is overcome. The End.” That works for Die Hard or American Pie. It doesn’t work for a story about an individual deeply immersed and affected by the grand social movements and events of his time. Jackie Robinson's experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all.
This is particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson spent the last years of his life in a grueling fight against his own mythos. He hated that his tribulations from the 1940s were used to sell a story about an individualistic, Booker T. Washington approach to fighting racism.
As he said in a speech, “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.”
This was a man tortured by the fact that his own experience was used as a cudgel against building a public, fighting movement against racial injustice. He wanted to shift the discussion of his own narrative from one of individual achievement to the stubborn continuance of institutionalized racism in the United States. The film, however, is a celebration of the individual and if you know how that pained Mr. Robinson, that is indeed a bitter pill.
The film's original sin was to set the action entirely in 1946 and 1947. Imagine if Spike Lee had chosen to tell the story of Malcolm X by only focusing on 1959-1960 when he was a leader in the Nation of Islam, with no mention of his troubled past or the way his own politics changed later in life. Malcolm X without an “arc” isn’t Malcolm X. Jackie Robinson without an “arc” is just Frodo Baggins in a baseball uniform. The absence of an arc means we don’t get the labor marches in the 1930s to integrate baseball. We don’t get his court martial while in the army (alluded to in the film without detail). We don’t get Jackie Robinson’s testimony in 1949 at the House of Un-American Activities Committee against Paul Robeson. We don’t get his later anguish over what he did to Robeson. We don’t get his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement when he was a barnstorming speaker across the south. We don’t get his public feud with Malcolm X, where Malcolm derided him as a “White man’s hero” and he gave it right back saying, "Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not that dangerous. I don't see him in Birmingham.” We don’t get his daring, loving obituary to Malcolm after his 1965 assassination at a time when the press—black and white—was throwing dirt on his grave. We don’t get his support of the 1968 Olympic boycotters. We don’t get the way his wife Rachel became an educated political figure who cared deeply about Africa, as well as racial and gender justice in America. We don’t get the Jackie Robinson who died at 52, looking 20 years older, broken by the weight of his own myth. We don’t get Raging Bull. We get Rocky III.
But if the focus of 42 is only going to be on 1946 and 1947, then there is still a lot to cover: namely Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and their relationship to the Negro Leagues. Rickey—with Robinson’s support—established a pattern followed by other owners (with the notable exception of Bill Veeck), of refusing to compensate them for their players. On the day Robinson signed with the Dodgers, Rickey said, "There is no Negro League as such as far as I'm concerned. [They] are not leagues and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them." This led to the destruction of the largest national black owned business in the United States.
You would never know this from 42. Instead, the film chooses to affix a halo to Branch Rickey’s head. Instead, under a prosthetic mask, Harrison Ford plays Rickey as a great white savior, and not even Han Solo can make that go down smoothly. Fairing better than Ford is the terrific performance of Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. Jackie Robinson could be sensitive about his voice, which was clipped and somewhat high-pitched. Boseman’s voice is so smoky it could cure a ham, and his eyes and manner give hints of an internal life the film otherwise ignores.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jackie Robinson, if alive, would call on Bud Selig and Major League Baseball to stop using his history as an excuse to do nothing about the racial issues that currently plague the game. But there is also no doubt in my mind that Jackie Robinson, ever the pragmatist, also would support this film publicly. He was an honorable person who would have been humbled by the effort made to make him look like a hero. He would have seen the value in being a role model of pride and perseverance for the young. But at home, alone, he would have thought about it. And he would have seethed.
What does "school reform" really mean? Read Rick Perlstein's dispatch from Chicago.
Kathrine Switzer found herself about to be thrown out of the normally all-male Boston Marathon when a companion threw a block that tossed a race official out of the running instead, April 19, 1967. (AP Photo)
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” – Kathrine Switzer
The dead. The injured. The anguish. All the result of bombs that were set to explode at the finish line just over four hours after the start of the Boston Marathon. Right now the sane among us will suggest caution. We’ll suggest restraint. We’ll suggest the giving of blood. There will be time to mourn. We will mourn the dead and injured. I also mourn the Boston Marathon and how it’s now been brutally disfigured.
The Boston Marathon matters in a way other sporting events simply do not. It started in 1897, inspired by the first modern marathon, which took place at the inaugural 1896 Olympics. It attracts 500,000 spectators and over 20,000 participants from ninety-six countries. Every year, on the big day, the Red Sox play a game that starts at the wacky hour of 11:05am so people leaving the game can empty onto Kenmore Square and cheer on the finishers. It’s not about celebrating stars but the ability to test your body against the 26.2 mile course, which covers eight separate Massachusetts towns and the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” in Newton. It’s as much New England in spring as the changing of the leaves in fall. It’s open and communitarian and utterly unique. And today it was altered forever. I spoke to my friend Jim Bullington who has ran in four Boston Marathons. He said,
For me and to any serious marathoner the Boston Marathon will always be the runner’s Holy Grail. Runners train and train and train for this race. If you qualify for the marathon you get the honor of running through all the beautiful outlying towns, you get to temporarily lose your hearing as you run by what seems to be thousands of deafening screaming women at Wellesley, you climb Heartbreak Hill, you run by all the college parties, you pass the CITGO sign and know you have one mile left, and finally when you make the final turn, you sprint by thousands of cheering people towards the finish line. Nothing is like it. Nothing. I just can’t imagine this. What is the most joyous occasion has turned into a tragedy of epic proportions.
Like a scar across someone’s face, the bombing will now be a part of the Boston Marathon, but also like a scar, we have to remember it’s only a part. If this bombing will always be a part of the Boston Marathon, then so is Kathrine Switzer. I want to tell the story of Kathrine Switzer because it’s about remembering the Boston Marathon as something more than the scene of a national tragedy.
Through 1966, women weren’t allowed to run the grueling 26-mile race. But in 1967, a woman by the name of Kathrine Switzer registered as K.V. Switzer and, dressed in loose fitting sweats, took to the course. Five miles into the race, one of the marathon directors actually jumped off a truck to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, yelling: “Get the hell out of my race!” But the men running with her fought him off. For them, Kathrine Switzer had every right to be there. For them, the Boston Marathon wasnʼt about exclusion or proving male supremacy—pitting boys against girls. It was about people running a race. Somehow Kathrine Switzer kept her pace as this mayhem occurred all around her. As she said, “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by—you can't run and stay mad!”
When the pictures from the marathon were transmitted across the globe, the world saw two opposing models of masculinity: the violence and paranoia of the marathon director vs. the strength and solidarity of the other male runners. And at the center of it all, the resolute focus of Kathrine Switzer. In that moment, sports bridged the gender divide and gave the world a glimpse into what was possible. Today, Kathrine Switzer says, “When I go to the Boston Marathon now, I have wet shoulders—women fall into my arms crying. They're weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything.”
In 1967, the Boston Marathon gave us all a glimpse of the possible. Today we saw not of the world we’d aspire to live in, but the one we actually inhabit. Instead of the triumph of the individual amidst the powerful throngs and inspiration of the collective, we have tragedy, disarray, panic, and fear. Like a scar, it now marks us: the loss of security among the mass. But like a scar, we may need to wear it proudly. We will run next year because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.