Where sports and politics collide.
The sports headlines of 2012 burst onto the scene the way an alien once burst from the chest of John Hurt, killing its host and repulsing onlookers. To read the Associated Press’s list of “Sports Stories of the Year” is to be assaulted with a degree of crime, corruption and obscene villainy. The sports page has now become an unsettling funhouse mirror reflection of the chaos and heartbreak that now appears regularly on the front page.
The number-one sports story of the year was the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal and subsequent trial. Number two? Lance Armstrong having his titles, his trophies and his tailored reputation methodically stripped away. Long rumored, the details of his own cheating were joined by a wave of testimony that he pressured other, less willing riders to jump on his golden syringe.
Number three was the horror of “learning” that the NFL’s New Orleans Saints put bounties out on opposing players, only to have these charges, to the great embarrassment of Commissioner Roger Goodell, revealed as groundless. Players like Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Scott Fujita were scapegoated for the endemic violence in the game and had their reputations attacked in the absence of evidence. Goodell was humiliated when his predecessor Paul Tagliabue looked at the evidence and struck down all suspensions while also, quizzically, endorsing Goodell’s original findings. It’s an open question whether enough people were still paying attention to know that Bountygate was built on a foundation of lies.
Speaking of “great embarrassment suffered by Roger Goodell,” the number-four story is listed by the Associated Press as “NFL concussions.” That broad umbrella would include the growing class action lawsuit of now 4,000 former players, the suicides of four current and former NFL vets and the possibility of head injuries being an aggravating factor in the murder-suicide case of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. The number-five story may seem cheerier: the London Olympics. But part of what made this iteration of the Olympiad a story wasn’t just Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas. It was the cost overruns and the bloated, malfunctioning security apparatus. It was that gunship in the Thames and the missile launchers on the residential rooftops of the East End. It wasn’t just the party—it was the wicked hangover.
I asked my personal sports writing Yoda, longtime New York Times scribe Robert Lipsyte, about what the prominence in 2012 of such disheartening, depressing and even venal sports stories represents. He said, “If there ever was an escape into the fantasies of SportsWorld, it’s been sealed off by the realization that the top stories are [those] that doctors, officials, and most of the sports media chose to ignore. The most serious stories, Penn State and concussions, are really about child abuse. The culpability of Sandusky, Paterno, et al. is obvious. More pernicious is the way parents and coaches have been letting kids bang helmets for so many years, thousands of little brain insults that I’m sure add up to damages beyond our imagination.”
Of greater concern to Lipsyte than the myriad scandals is the issue of how they are discussed and processed by the public. As he said, “Sports are us, so political and personal that the yammering of most sportswriters and sportscasters may be far more dangerous than the posturing of the news clowns.” He’s right. I was listening to ESPN radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning and the two genial hosts were expressing their disgust with the AP’s list. They didn’t disagree that these were the top stories, but felt the whole thing was just too dark, too sad, too filled with downers and not nearly enough sunshine and lollipops. Mike and Mike decided to come up with a happy list, but their happy list was, at least to me, even more depressing than the selections made by the Associated Press. Their top three choices were Penn State football’s surprisingly successful 8-4 season, in the shadow of the Sandusky verdict and Joe Paterno’s death; the way NFL players Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson have come back from horrific injuries to post MVP-caliber seasons; and just how “inspiring” former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand has become after being paralyzed on the field of play.
The absence of critical thought boggles the mind. To celebrate Penn State’s season, to see them as an inspiring story, is also to revel in the speed with which success on the football field makes people forget the suffering that took place off the field. It revels in the very culture that allowed Sandusky and Paterno to stay shielded from scrutiny for so long. As for Peterson and Manning, they are being celebrated for recovering from major football injuries, even though that’s the exception and not the rule. Their inspiring recoveries obscure a far darker truth than they reveal. Then there is Eric LeGrand. He is a brilliant young man whose refusal to be defeated by paralysis is incredibly inspiring. But for love of God, it shouldn’t inspire people like Mike and Mike to revel in the greatness of football. That’s like saying a high-speed traffic accident really makes you appreciate just how fast your car can go from zero to 65 mph.
Our sports broke this year. They self-destructed under the twin weights of greed and a bloated sports media conditioned to look the other way. There is a real crisis when our entertainments no longer entertain and our sweet distractions turn sour. Even the NFL has seen ratings drop 5 percent over the last two years. The Sports World may have broken in 2012, but that doesn’t mean it will magically heal: not when the same people who snapped its legs, instead of seeing a crisis, can only marvel that they still have 204 bones to go.
Check out Dave Zirin’s previous post on the NFL’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre.
Giants Wide Receiver Victor Cruz paid tribute to Jack Pinto, a fan and victim of the Sandy Hook massacre. (Credit: @teamvic)
After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the NFL and its players made an effort on Sunday to recognize the collective grief shaking the country. There was a moment of silence at all fourteen NFL games in remembrance of the twenty-six people, including twenty children, mercilessly gunned down. Players on the New York Giants wore decals with the school’s initials on their helmets. Their star wide receiver Victor Cruz paid tribute to one of the fallen children, writing “R.I.P. Jack Pinto,” and “Jack Pinto, my hero” on his shoes and “This one is 4 u!” on the backs of his gloves. Cruz was Pinto’s favorite player and 6-year-old Jack will be buried in his Victor Cruz jersey. The New England Patriots also made a statement, wearing a helmet sticker with the Newtown city seal and a black ribbon. They in addition pledged to donate $25,000 to help each family affected by the tragedy. But it’s what the Patriots didn’t do that speaks volumes and perhaps says more than they intended. Normally after the team scores at home, their “end zone militia”, dressed as revolutionary war soldiers, shoots twenty muskets in the air. There were no guns fired, thankfully, on Sunday night.
The NFL’s intervention into this national tragedy as a voice against gun violence comes at an awkward time for the league. Just two weeks ago, Kansas City Chief’s player Jovan Belcher shot and killed the mother of his 2-month-old child, Kasandra Perkins before taking his own life. Belcher had an arsenal of weapons in his house, all of them—like the guns used in Newtown—legally purchased. When NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, the day after the Belcher murder/suicide, said that easy access to military-proficient guns combined with our glorified “gun culture” played a central role in this tragedy, he was derided by the Fox News crowd as a fool. Now he looks horribly prescient.
But, as we try to understand the numbing regularity of these mass shootings, there is also a question that goes beyond just gun control and mental health. Should our culture, and in particular the violence of the sports we consume, shoulder some of the blame? It’s an increasingly recognized fact that our most popular sport, football, is also our most violent. Every new study reveals that on Sundays we are watching people become mentally and physically crippled for our entertainment. In addition to the violence between the lines, this is a league that drapes itself in the trappings of war, from military flyovers before games to the constant slickly produced recruitment ads for the US armed forces.
Given all of this, can the NFL as an institution be a credible voice of peace? The answer is simply “no”: not even when they silence their muskets. The NFL cannot be a force for nonviolence because its popularity is the perfect reflection of what we’ve become as a country. We are a nation that has outsourced war overseas to remote control killer drones we overwhelmingly support, private security forces we don’t control and an armed forces we barely acknowledge. Meanwhile, a host of basic freedoms have been eroded over the last decade except the freedom to arm ourselves to the teeth. We can’t assemble with our neighbors in protest, but we can assemble military-style weapons alone in our apartments.
As we become further atomized and further desensitized to the daily violence that surrounds us, we also further worship a sports league that acts as the perfect metaphor for this state of affairs. We don’t have to see the glassy eyes or faces contorted with pain on the field, as they are safely hidden under helmets for our consumption. We also don’t have to see the broken bodies and lives off the field. We just get three and a half hours of incredibly entertaining, highly commodified violence in a safely consumable package. The true costs are hidden from us until they erupt into view, as in the case of Jovan Belcher or the suicide of the great Junior Seau. Similarly, the true costs of worshiping the way of the gun are only dragged into open view when it comes home to places like Newtown, Connecticut. We don’t have to see the faces or learn the names of the children killed in the drone strikes in Pakistan. We aren’t asked to care about the young black teenagers who die on the corners of Chicago. No NFL player writes their names on their shoes. But now we have to look in the mirror and either reckon with what we see or recoil and turn away.
If we want to follow the example of the NFL, the answer doesn’t lie on the field. Follow the example of the seven NFL players who turned in their guns to team officials the week after the Belcher shootings out of fear of what might happen if they were in the wrong state of mind or if a family member somehow grabbed ahold of their weapons. But even that is not enough. We need to throw ourselves on the machines of violence in Washington, DC, otherwise we are just dooming ourselves to more of the same. And the same is simply intolerable.
Read Sasha Abramsky’s call for sensible gun policy.
Michigan, the cradle of the union movement in the United States, is poised to join the ranks of so-called “right-to-work” states. The Koch Brothers’ meat puppet Governor Rick Snyder says that this attack on the political power of unions would be a victory for “freedom.” Unless he’s talking about the freedom to gut the wages of Michigan’s workers, he’s not telling the truth. The bill Snyder poised to sign this week is about restricting the freedom of working people to organize. It even blocks the “freedom” to challenge the bill in a referendum. This is an outrage and the unions are fighting back. Amongst their ranks are the Major League Baseball Player’s Association and the National Football League Player’s Association. This might shock some people. Sports unions are often criticized, incorrectly, for not caring about issues off the field. It’s a piece of “conventional wisdom” that stretches back to the first chief of the AFL-CIO George Meany who said, “I have no use for ballplayers as union men. You’d never see the day when one of those high-priced bozos would honor a picket line.”
I spoke with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, about his thoughts on the right-to-work issue in January when Indiana became the first Rust Belt state to pass their own version of the bill. He said, “When you look at proposed legislation [called] ‘right-to-work’ let’s just put the hammer on the nail. It’s untrue. If [you want] ‘right-to-work’ have a constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen a job, that’s a ‘right-to-work.’ What this is instead is a right to ensure that ordinary working citizens can’t get together as a team, can’t organize, can’t stand together and can’t fight management on an even playing field. From a sports union, our union, our men and their families understand the power of management and understand how much power management can wield over an individual person. So don’t call it a ‘right to work.’ If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what the bill is, call it what it is. Call it an anti-organizing bill. Fine. If that’s what the people want to do in order to put a bill out there, let’s cast a vote on whether or not ordinary workers can get together and represent themselves, and let’s have a real referendum.”
I also asked, DeMaurice Smith how he responded to people who say that this is just unions standing up for other unions with no care for workers. His answer stands as a terrifically important response to those standing with Snyder and the Koch brothers on this issue.
Smith answered, “I used to say that we have forgotten a lot of the lessons from organized labor over the last 100 years, but I’m now convinced that we never learned them. Whether your talking about fire escapes outside of buildings or sprinkler systems inside of buildings, fair wages for a days work, laws that prevent child labor, things that led to the abolishing of sweatshops in America, let alone management contributing to healthcare plans or a decent pension.… all those things over the last 100 years were not gifts from management. Someone in a corporate suite didn’t decide one day that they would bestow that wonderful right upon a working person. The way those rights were achieved was through the collective will of a group of workers who stood together and said, ‘This is what we believe is fair, and we are all going to stand together and demand that those things be provided to us. We’ll do it as a collective group. You may be able to pick off one of us or two of us or five of us, but you will not be able to pick off all of us.’ When you look at legislation that is designed to tear apart that ability to work as a team…that is not just anti-union. That is anti–working man and woman, and that’s why we weighed in.”
The fight is certainly not over in Michigan. Those opposing right-to-work legislation however are going to need to expand the planned protests and civil disobedience in the coming week. It’s safe to say that it would make a substantial difference to this struggle if members of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions take a cue from their own union executive boards and make their way down to the capital.
For more on the labor battle in Michigan, read Lee Fang's report on spending on both sides.
When Kansas City Chiefs Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his child Kasandra Perkins and then committed suicide in front of his coach on Saturday, most of Sunday’s NFL coverage avoided direct commentary. Bob Costas did not. The veteran NBC sports broadcaster used ninety seconds at halftime of NBC’s top rated Sunday Night Football program to talk about “perspective” and, quoting a column by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, the problems with the “gun culture” in the United States. This ignited the fury of right-wingers, some of whom have called for his job. Then after appearances on The Dan Patrick Show and The O’Reilly Factor, there are now liberals who believe Costas is backtracking from his earlier remarks. I spoke to Bob Costas this morning to set the record straight.
Dave Zirin: Do you have any regrets about your halftime commentary?
Bob Costas: Only that in this instance I had even less time than I usually do and it’s a complex issue that definitely involves domestic violence, possibly involves the football culture, possibly involves drugs and alcohol, and also obviously involves guns. I’m mystified by those who say that pointing out that the easy access to handguns and the existence of a gun culture makes tragedies like this more likely, somehow means you are shifting the blame from Jovan Belcher to the gun. That’s crazy. Belcher is 100 percent responsible and I have said that I was appalled that in the early stages of coverage of this tragedy many played it as if there were two victims and Belcher was one of them. No. He is the perpetrator and nothing diminishes that. But his having the gun made it more likely that something like this would occur. The fact that I didn’t have enough time to cite all of these factors—from the culture of football to Belcher’s personal responsibility—allows some people to claim that I was saying guns are the only issue. I emphatically do not think that. If I’d had even forty-five seconds to a minute more, I could have dotted more I’s and crossed more Ts.
What many are saying is that it “wasn’t the right forum” for this discussion. Do you feel it was the right forum?
I’d say close to 100 percent of those who feel that way do so simply because they disagree and didn’t want to hear the particular thing I had to say. If I said something they agreed with, then they wouldn’t have any problems. All day, with varying degrees of insight, all four networks that carried football covered this story at some length. The preceding five minutes on our air was on this story and this story only. The only time anyone seems to think that was inappropriate was when I pushed this particular hot button. I would point out the obvious: that it was halftime. Not a single play was missed. Had this murder suicide not involved an NFL player, then it would not have been an appropriate topic for any of us to discuss in a football broadcast. But since it did, it became an appropriate topic. Look at it this way: I felt it was appropriate for me to discuss the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972 during the Olympic opening ceremonies. There was an issue there about the IOC’s refusal to officially recognize the fortieth anniversary. Therefore whether other broadcasters would have done it or not, I felt athat I should. On the other hand, if I had brought it up on the air in a different context, it would have made no sense and would have been inappropriate. If next week out of the blue, I start talking about gays in sports at halftime of the football game, that’s inappropriate even if the comments are insightful. But if and when an NFL player comes out as gay, then there is a story there that provides a jumping-off point. Then it would be entirely appropriate.
Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote that now you are backtracking from your comments. Are you?
No, I am not backtracking at all. I stand by what I said. To expand upon your thoughts when you have more time to do so or to clarify if you feel you have been misunderstood is not the same as backtracking.
Why did you choose to speak about guns and gun culture and not about the NFL itself, perhaps about the wisdom of even playing the Chiefs-Panthers game just twenty-four hours after the murder suicide or to speak about the linkage between concussions and the four suicides among current and former players that have taken place in the last year?
As for the NFL and the Chiefs’ decision to go ahead with the game, I was all right with that because I assumed it was based on the stated preference of the coaches and the majority of their players to go ahead. In this case, I think they would be the best judges. As for other aspects of football that may have played a role here, I have spoken often, including at halftime of Sunday night games, about the violent nature of the NFL, about the concussion issue, and about other problems the NFL faces. I have no reluctance to do that and will do it again when appropriate. In this case, just thirty-six hours after the shootings, not enough was known about Belcher’s background to assume that this could be attributed to head trauma, drug abuse etc., so the best I could do there was to say as I did that in the days ahead, questions will be raised about his actions and their possible connections to football. I felt that I indicated given the brief time I had that as the story developed it was entirely possible that there could be a linkage to football and some aspects of the football culture as we have seen with others but at that point it wasn’t possible to make that leap. What Whitlock wrote about the gun culture, especially among young athletes, seemed credible to me and an issue worth raising. As I said to you earlier, I only wish I hadn’t raised it in isolation. I believe it’s true. I believe it’s important but I do not believe it’s the only important aspect of the story.
You appeared last night on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. There are people on Fox and in that right-wing noise machine who have compared you to Don Imus or Hank Williams Jr. and said you should lose your job. How do you respond to this?
Don Imus called the women on the Rutgers basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”Hank Williams Jr. compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler. I said that there is a gun culture in America that leads to tragedy. Anybody who thinks that the third comment falls in the same category as the first two doesn’t want to have a serious discussion about any of this. Sometimes, the best affirmation of your decisions and beliefs is the quality of thinking of those who oppose you. I’m not dismissing everyone who disagrees with what I have said, and I certainly respect those who have reasoned disagreements. But one question I would pose is this: Even if obtained legally, can’t people see what a volatile mix guns, in some cases medications, in some cases head trauma, and certainly a culture that romanticizes and to some extent legitimizes guns and violence can be when mixed together? These are questions that should be raised. And I plan to continue raising them.
For more on the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, read Dave Zirin’s last post on the NFL’s senseless decision to continue play the next day.
The NFL has a long and shameful history in handling tragedy. The league played as planned on the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were going to play the Sunday after 9/11 until the New York Jets rebelled and Major League Baseball cancelled its own schedule forcing the NFL to follow suit. Now we have another example of a sport absent of perspective.
On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his three-month-old child, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins. Then he drove to the Chiefs facility and took his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and general manager Scott Pioli. By Saturday afternoon, it had been announced that the Chiefs would play Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers as planned. CBS Sports had even, stunningly, factored Belcher’s suicide into whether he was a wise pick-up for fantasy football players. There would be no postponement, no mourning, and no space for his teammates to come to grips with what happened. On the highest possible cultural platform, the NFL told the world that the death of a 22-year-old woman, the suicide of a player and the mental state of his teammates is secondary to the schedule.
The pretense of both the NFL and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for playing as planned was that the team captains and Coach Crennel wanted to take the field. Even if we accept this at face value, and we shouldn’t in a league as tightly controlled as the NFL, it’s difficult to understand why this was their decision and not the decision of the league in conjunction with mental health professionals. The Chiefs and the NFL are also taking pains to say that professional grief counselors would be present at the game. I have not been unable to unearth who these people actually are and what their credentials might be, but how serious can they be about their presumed oath to “do no harm” if they are sending Chiefs players into harm’s way under relative states of shock? I have interviewed a great many NFL players and they always say that the playing field is most dangerous when you are distracted. It’s difficult to not see the NFL’s insistence that this is the decision of the Chiefs organization alone as an exercise in public relations as well as a shield against their own liability.
There is so much we don’t know about why Jovan Belcher did what he did. There are things we do know, however. We know that this is the NFL’s fourth suicide involving current and former players in the last year. We know that violence against women and alienation from loving relationships is a proven product of playing this violent game. We also know that concussions and head injuries have been linked to domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide. This subject is so on the mind of NFL owners that Gary Hunt, unprompted, made a point to say to reporters that Belcher was “a player who had not had a long concussion history.” Despite Hunt’s words, a friend of Belcher e-mailed the website Deadspin to say otherwise.
We will learn more about the aggravating factors in Belcher’s actions in the days and weeks to come. For now, we should remember that there are things more important than football, like a three-month-old child that will now be without parents, a 22-year-old woman whose life is finished and a 25-year-old man with a bright future who in a fit of anger and despair took two lives. That’s the message that the NFL is choosing not to send.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, said something we can only hope the players will hear and take to heart:
It’s hard mostly because I keep thinking about what I could have done to stop this. I think everyone is wondering whether we would have done something to prevent this from happening…. As players and teammates, we need to do a better job of reaching out to people and trying to be more involved and more invested in their lives. You never really know what’s going on in someone life, what they’re struggling with or what they’re battling through.
Players do need to be more “involved and invested” in one another’s lives. It’s hard to see who else in the power structure of the NFL will look out for them if they aren’t looking out for one another.
Read Dave Zirin's previous post on the NFL's cannabis problem.
Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, resembles an outsized caricature of a twenty-first-century pro sports boss. He’s a 75-year-old Republican Party mega-donor, who made his fortune by selling his energy corporation to Enron in 1999 (give him credit for timing.) That’s what’s made Mr. McNair’s comments earlier this week all the more interesting. After saying he would never have a “persistent user of drugs” on his beloved Houston Texans, McNair made a point to add, “I’m not talking about someone who smoked marijuana.”
This might sound about as radical as a Brooklyn Without Limits T-shirt, but for decades the NFL officialdom has discussed marijuana and players who “do pot” like they were bit players from Reefer Madness. In this light, McNair’s statement is more than tacit acceptance of something players have been doing for decades. It’s connected to weed’s recent legal emergence from “the cannabis closet.”
State referenda earlier this month legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use in Colorado and Washington State. These votes threaten to raise a massive legal and public relations headache for the NFL. Two of their teams, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, now play in states where marijuana is legal. This could have implications for where players choose to go in free agency as well as how players desire to treat their injuries. As a top player who asked to remain anonymous said to me, “I’d rather use marijuana edibles or vaporizer to manage pain over prescription pain pills. Much less addictive and less harmful to kidneys and liver.”
The NFL is trying to nip this, please pardon the expression, in the bud. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn’t even let the Election Night confetti fall to the floor before he told USA Today, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program. The Colorado and Washington laws will have no impact on the operation of the policy.” In addition, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal made it even more crystal-clear: “Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have been warned. ‘It’s legal’ won’t be a valid excuse.”
Aiello’s statements sound very iron-clad. The problem is that even by the NFL’s own guidelines, they are not actually true. As Mike Florio on profootballtalk.com pointed out, “The policy prohibits only the ‘illegal use’ of marijuana. While players may not abuse legal substances like alcohol, legal drugs and alcohol may be used.”
Aiello is of course correct that marijuana is on the banned substance list, the content of which is collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association. However, the other legal prescription and non-prescription drugs on that list like ephedrine and adderall have a performance-enhancing as well as a health-endangering component. They can help you train harder, put a brutal strain on your heart and, if taken outside a doctor’s care, be very dangerous. Unless your name is Joey Chestnut and your goal is winning a hot dog eating championship, there is no “performance enhancing” aspect to ingesting weed, and unless your munchies preference involves saturated fats and cholesterol, your heart will be just fine.
Unspoken, amidst the jokes about Denver truly playing in Mile High Stadium, is the fear in the NFL’s front office that a league-wide relaxed marijuana policy in accordance with state laws would be a public relations nightmare. In the bizarre macho ethos of the NFL, alcoholism is ignored, pain killer abuse is encouraged and other violent, off-field behavior is winked at because these are byproducts of the kind of destructive masculinity that the NFL markets every Sunday. Marijuana, in contrast, is for hippies, beatniks and long-hairs.
In reality, weed wouldn’t turn NFL players into extras from Half-Baked. Players will use marijuana either to wind down after a game, as a healthier, less addictive alternative to alcohol, or as a way to manage their pain. This last point is particularly explosive for the NFL. Amidst lawsuits, suicides and documentaries, there is unprecedented attention being paid to the physical toll players have to endure, particularly concussion and brain injury. Medical marijuana is recommended by doctors for headaches, light-sensitivity, sleeplessness and loss of appetite—all of which happen to be symptoms associated with concussions. The idea that the league would deny a player their legal pain relief of choice seems barbaric. It’s their pain and their right to treat it however they see fit.
One active NFL veteran who lives in a state where there is legal medicinal marijuana said to me, “A part of me always wanted to be the first player to test positive, then be able to present [Roger Goodell with] a prescription from my physician and dare him [to do something].”
A player will emerge to challenge the NFL’s policy on grounds that it inhibits their ability to treat their own pain. The NFL will almost certainly go Reefer Madness in response. The NFL thinks they’ll have the public on their side, but they might be in for a rude awakening. Maybe Bob McNair can meet Roger Goodell is Seattle, roll a fat joint and say, “Goodie? You need to chill the hell out.”
The war on drugs plays on many fields. Check out filmmaker Eugene Jarecki on California’s now-amended “three strikes” law.
This July 16, 1981, file photo shows baseball union leader Marvin Miller speaking to reporters after rejecting a proposal to end a baseball strike, in New York. (AP Photo/Howard, File)
Marvin Miller, the legendary leader of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, passed away today at the age of 95. Mr. Miller never played the game, but he may have had more influence on baseball than anyone else in this half of the century. As executive director of the Players Association from 1966–82, he brought a world of experience garnered in the tough steelworkers’ union to bear on baseball labor relations, and his knowledge, organizational ability, and resolve completely overmatched the owners and their representatives. During his tenure the average players salary increased from $19,000 to over $240,000. Today the Baseball Players Union is acknowledged as one of the strongest labor organizations in the United States. Below is my 2004 interview with Mr. Miller, and at 87, you will see that he still had the fire.
Dave Zirin: Who or what shaped your thinking as a young man?
Marvin Miller: Well, I guess a big part of what shaped me was that I entered high school in February of 1929. Several months later, boom, we have the Great Depression. All through the early 1930s my father, who was a retail store salesman, saw the businesses that employed him went downhill and all through the Depression, my father got more and more anxious and concerned and I was old enough to be aware of all of that.
How did the Depression affect where you grew up?
I grew up in New York City and in that period, you couldn’t help but observe the breadlines, the increase of the number of people begging in the streets, the people selling apples. The signs of economic hardship were easy to see. I am reminded of a question I was asked a couple of years ago. I was speaking to a group of young black students in New York talking about the Depression, breadlines and so on and one of the kids asked me if there were white people also on the breadlines and selling apples in the streets. Of course! In fact, most of them! In the New York of the early 1930s there was a black population, but it was largely ghettoized in Harlem and unless you went to Harlem, you didn’t see black people on the breadlines.
How did the Depression move you toward trade union politics?
My father who had never been in a union in his life, became active. He was a member in the wholesale clothing workers’ union in lower Manhattan and I have a very early memory of going to a store where he was working and finding him on a picket line. Also my mother was a teacher in New York City Public Schools and she became one of the early members of the city’s teachers’ union. As the thirties progressed and the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and industrial unions formed, everybody was aware of the ferment of the labor movement. All of these were influences.
When did you personally become involved?
I graduated college in 1938, and in that period, a good part of the country was seemingly coming out of the Depression. But New York City was not. New York just kept dropping until April 1940 after the rest of the country was moving. I can recall wondering if I was ever going to get a job. Unlike some friends and neighbors, my father did not own a business. I was in different straits. I had no affluent uncles. In those days when you looked for a job you would go to employment agencies and the situation was so bad you had to connive just to get an application filled out and handed in. Eventually I got some meaningless jobs here and there—a drugstore, a small wholesale gift outfit, working for shipping broker a customs broker down at the foot of Manhattan.… I had other meaningless jobs, and I kept taking civil service examinations. I finally got appointed, working with relief populations which was an eye-opener, and an economist for the war production board, and eventually I moved to a brand new agency called the War Relations Board, and this was charged with a new function of hearing virtually every labor management pursuit. This is how it formed. The labor movement had been asked to make a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war and the Chamber of Commerce were asked to, in good faith, make a no-lock-out pledge. The labor movement said OK, but we are still organizing and there are conditions all over that haven’t changed since the Depression, and how are we going to solve disputes? And FDR created by executive order the War Labor Board, I was a hearing officer. With the War Labor Board, I dealt with arbitrating steel, auto, women in the workplace, and sometime later I found a job first with the IAM [the International Association of Machinists] and worked with them and I also had a short stint with the UAW [United Auto Workers]an then the steel workers starting in 1950 and I became chief economist and assistant to the president and I was with them until 1966
Were you a baseball fan before your work heading up the Players Union?
Oh yes. I was an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan and I was going to Ebbets field by myself by the time I was 10, when there was a Saturday double header! I was a huge fan from way back.
How were you recruited to head up the Baseball Players Union?
The players had a search committee made up of three or four players including Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning [two pitchers in the Hall of Fame], and Harvey Kuenn. Roberts was really the sparkplug of that committee and what he did was call [former chairman of the War Labor Board] George W. Taylor and he recommended me.
What were the players looking for in you?
They had an organization—a fake union—called the Players Association that had been formed by the owners. This was a company union in every sense of the word, the employers had formed it back in 1947 as basically a response to two things. One, there was a drive to organize players into a union, and two, there had been an attempt by two wealthy Mexican businessmen to start a major league in Mexico and they offered larger salaries. That was also the year of Jackie Robinson coming to the dodgers and the year of a man on his own trying to organize the players. A man named Robert Murphy went from Spring Training site to site—and the owners saw this and said we need to head this off and form a company union.
Why were the conditions so ripe for a strong union?
I don’t know that they wanted a real union [at first]. If I had to make an educated guess, the one thing the players had which they prized was their pension plan. It was called a benefit plan, That had been put into effect also in 1947, once again the owners saying, Let’s do something to prevent the union here. Eighteen years later, two things were concerning the players. One was that the pension had not kept pace over eighteen years of progress, also they picked up strong rumors that the owners were wanting to change it. Television by 1965 had grown tremendously. [LA Dodgers owner] Walter O’Mally saw this and wanted to after the benefit plan. But beyond that I was also learning that it was like pulling teeth learning what else made them unhappy. This was because they were a workforce basically unschooled in working conditions. They had all undergone a bunch of brainwashing that being allowed to play major league baseball was a great favor, that they were the luckiest people in the world. They were accustomed never to think, “This stinks. We need to change this.” You have to remember baseball players are very young and with few exceptions have no experience in these matters.
Did the other movements of the 1960s, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war struggle, had on giving people the confidence to think union?
There is no doubt there was a major connection. You now had a great many black and Latin players. You now had a much more diverse sampling of the American people than in the 1940s. You now had at least some people who were able to think in terms of what was wrong with the society, what was wrong with the conditions, people much more accustomed to think about these things. You have to remember before 1947, the ballplayer came in tremendous proportion from rural areas rather than from cities, from the south and southwest and not from big urban areas. And by and large from anti-union areas.
Why was Curt Flood the player who stepped forward to challenge the reserve clause?
To me Flood epitomized the modern player who began to think in terms of union, to ask questions like “Why is baseball an exception to how labor is treated in other industries? Why should we be treated like property? Why should we agree to have a reserve clause?” Basic questions that had gone unasked.
Was it related that it took a black player to challenge the reserve clause?
It was definitely related. Black and Latin players like Roberto Clemente were at the forefront. This was not just the color of their skin. Flood, for example, did not grow up in the South. He grew up in Oakland, California. He was an outstanding high school athlete, he was drafted to play in the majors and was promptly sent to the South. He wasn’t old, but he wasn’t a child. What I am about to say is not a fact but I have always felt that when a player of his temperament and pride was sent to the South not being able to stay in the same hotels and motels, playing in Georgia and Mississippi, I think it made a very big difference in his outlook on the world
How did Curt Flood come to decide to file this lawsuit?
Curt Flood came to me to discuss the possibility of a lawsuit and I thought that it was a losing case, the chance of winning was terrible. How was he going to finance it? I felt that he would indeed need help, and I was concerned how easy it was to make bad law with a bad case—and I felt the union should back him. And I began to lobby his case with the executive board and since we were going to meet in early December 1969 in San Juan, I arranged with Curt to have him come to the meeting, and have Curt be questioned, and when it came time to bring Curt in, I had already briefed him, and maybe some of them knew Flood but not in this context. I brought him into the board meeting and turned it over. And finally a board member asked Curt, “The motivation here: why are you doing this? Was it—to attack the reserve clause to stop the owners from trading a player where he didn’t want to go? Or was this a sign of ‘black power’?” And Curt looked at him and said, I wish it was, but we are dealing with an issue that affects every player. Color has nothing to do it. We are all pieces of property.
Does Curt Flood belong in the Hall of Fame?
Absolutely. No doubt about it.
Is there still a need for a strong union?
Yes! I have seen good conditions go bad. I think in labor management relations there is no such thing as standing still. You either move foreword or you go back. There is no standing still. Are salaries wonderful? Yeah, but we must remember that it is unity and solidarity and the struggles of the past that made them successful. There is no guarantee that this will continue. And without a union as successful as it has been, I would predict a downward spiral. The labor movement never stands still.
Dave Zirin writes about sports for The Nation. Check out his blog here.
Let’s start with a fact. On November 16, the Israeli Air Force bombed the 10,000-seat Palestine Stadium “into ruins.”* The stadium also headquartered the center for youth sports programs throughout the Gaza Strip. This is the second time Israel has flattened the facility. The first was in 2006 and the people of Gaza have spent the last six years rebuilding the fields, stands and offices to keep the national soccer team as well as club sports alive in the region.
I’m sure the reaction to this fact will depend on what side people take in the current conflict. For the Israeli government and their supporters, they promised “collective punishment” following the Hamas rockets fired over the border and they are delivering “collective punishment.” Matan Vilnai, deputy defense minister of Israel has in the past threatened a “holocaust” and Gilad Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called for Gaza to be the new “Hiroshima.” In this context, a sports facility must seem like little more than target practice.
For those attending daily demonstrations against the carnage, this news of a stadium’s destruction must also be seen as an irrelevancy. After all according to The Wall Street Journal, ninety Palestinians, including fifty civilians, have been killed in Gaza. Two hundred and twenty-five children are among the more than 700 injured, and these numbers are climbing. Israeli ground troops are massing at the border and President Obama can only bring himself to defend Israel without criticism. There is only so much concern for a stadium people can be expected to muster.
I think however that we should all take a moment to ask the question, “Why?” Why has the Palestinian sports infrastructure, not to mention Palestinian athletes, always been a target of the Israeli military? Why has the Palestinian domestic soccer league completed only seven seasons since its founding in 1977? Why are players commonly subjected to harassment and violence, not to mention curfews, checkpoints and all sorts of legal restrictions on their movement? Why were national team players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate killed by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2009 military campaign? Why did imprisoned national team player Mahmoud Sarsak require a hunger strike, the international solidarity campaign of Amnesty International, and a formal protest from both FIFA and the 50,000-player soccer union FIFpro to just to win his freedom after three years behind bars?
The answer is simple. Sports is more than loved in Gaza (and it is loved.) It’s an expression of humanity for those living under occupation. It’s not just soccer and it’s not just the boys. Everyone plays, with handball, volleyball and basketball joining soccer as the most popular choices. To have several thousand people gather to watch a girls sporting event is a way of life. It’s a community event designed not only to cheer those on the field, but cheer those in the stands. As one Palestinian man from Gaza said to me, “[Sports] is our time to forget where we are and remember who we are.”
Attacking the athletic infrastructure is about attacking the idea that joy, normalcy or a universally recognizable humanity could ever be a part of life for a Palestinian child. This is a critical for Israel both internationally and at home. The only way the Israeli government and its allies can continue to act with such brazen disregard for civilian life is if they convince the world that their adversaries collectively are less than human. The subway ads calling Muslims “savages”, the Islamophobic cartoons and videos that are held up as examples of free speech, are all part of a quilt that says some deaths are not to be mourned.
At home, attacking sports is about nothing less than killing hope. Israel’s total war, underwritten by the United States, is a war not only on Hamas or military installations but on the idea that life can ever be so carefree in Gaza as to involve play. The objective instead is to hear these words of a young girl outside Al Shifa Hospital on November 18 who said, “To the world and people: Why should we be killed and why shouldn’t we have a normal childhood? What did we do to face all this?”
If you play, you can dream. If you dream, you are imagining a better world. As the great Olympian Wilma Rudolph said, “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Nothing marks the nihilism of Israel’s project quite like this fact: they don’t want the people of Gaza to dream. In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu, they are only worthy of nightmares.
* The Israeli Defense Forces have since claimed that rockets were being fired from the soccer field. This is unverified and they remain the only source making this claim.
Read Mohammed Omer's reports from Gaza for The Nation.
Jeffrey Loria should consider himself put on notice. The Miami Marlins owner needs to be arrested, prosecuted and placed behind bars so he can no longer feed upon the good will, tax dollars and public infrastructure of South Florida. Loria is the Ebola virus of sports owners, settling in different locations and leaving nothing behind except legions of cynical former fans. His latest sin, described as a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment” by the most mainstream of baseball writers, was yesterday’s shocking trade of star shortstop Jose Reyes, all-star pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, and others to the Toronto Blue Jays for basically a Lloyd Moseby rookie card and Dave Steib’s mustache trimmer. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Marlins payroll in one off-season could drop by over 80 percent.
Bad trades happen of course, and salary dumps have become as much a part of baseball as tobacco stains on the dugout steps. But there is a much more nefarious machination at work. Reyes and Buehrle were brought in during the 2011 off-season as a way to sell tickets for the Marlins brand-new $600 million eyesore of a stadium, described by the Miami New Times as “a festering, silver-plated pustule, a grotesquely huge can opener, or just an obscene ode to wasted cash.”
If this were Loria’s own ugly baby of a stadium, that would be between him and his architect. The problem is that it was built with taxpayer money: $2.4 billion over the next forty years to be exact. The elected officials of cash-strapped Miami-Dade County took Loria’s word the team was going bankrupt and would cease to exist without a new ballpark. These claims of bankruptcy we now know were lies after the website Deadspin posted leaked financial documents that told a very different story. The deal was so shady, the lack of oversight so egregious that the Security and Exchange Commission has an ongoing investigation into how taxpayer money could be so blithely squandered. Last December, Neil DeMause quoted a Yahoo! Sports story that said, “While the subpoenas issued by the SEC do not explicitly detail the purpose of the investigation, the feds’ motives are evident: They want to understand how, exactly, a group of county commissioners agreed to fund 80 percent of the Marlins new stadium, which cost more than $600 million, without ever seeing the team’s financial records—and whether bribes had anything to do with it.”
Now, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, this $80 million salary dump is being seen as prelude to “baseball’s worst nightmare”: the immediate selling of the team along with its expensive new stadium, and all the public money magically morphing into Jeffrey Loria’s private profit. The fight for the new stadium, the promises of urban renewal, the shiny free agent contracts given out during the last off-season, now look like little more than a classic long con, with Loria the master grifter in the owner’s box. This is only a baseball story insofar as setting. The particulars have far more in common with the work of David Mamet than Peter Gammons.
This story of con artistry and corporate crime is evil enough. The problem with Loria is that he’s a repeat offender. Before South Florida knew his name, Loria bought and then destroyed the Montreal Expos. People forget today that Montreal was once a jewel of a baseball town, where Jackie Robinson first broke the color line as a minor leaguer. It was also the team of Hall of Fame–caliber players like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Gary Carter. Loria bought the team in 1999 and his first act was to say that he would rebuild the franchise and bring a championship to Montreal. His second act was to say that the city needed to build a new stadium or “we cannot stay here.” After enraging the locals, Loria proceeded to gut the team of talent until fans bitterly turned away from the dispirited, cellar-dwelling franchise. Then in one of the most bizarre ownership shell games in history, Loria sold the Expos to Major League Baseball (a trust of the other twenty-nine owners); he was also given a $38.5 million interest-free loan by the league, and in return bought the Florida Marlins. This cleared a path for Marlins owner John Henry to then purchase the Boston Red Sox.
There was one problem with this delightfully incestuous ownership romp: the Expos had other owners who were left out in the cold. They proceeded to sue Loria on RICO Act charges. They lost their case, the Expos of course became the Washington Nationals, and now Montreal is a baseball ghost town where framed photos of Ellis Valentine, Tim Wallach and Warren Cromartie hang in dusty corners of the neighborhood sports bar.
As for the Marlins, Loria was owner in 2003 when they won the World Series; he then proceeded to sell off the team piece by piece. He’s already destroyed the baseball love in this town once. Now he’s like a sadist going back for seconds. The SEC couldn’t bring down Loria. The RICO Act couldn’t bring down Loria. Now, like the man selling the Monorail in Springfield, he’s going to destroy another baseball town, take the money and run. He’s Rollo Tomassi, the guy who’s going to get away with it. Bud Selig isn’t going to do a thing about it. The compromised and possibly criminally negligent city officials of Miami aren’t going to do anything about it. All that’s left is us. It’s citizen’s arrest time. Jeffrey Loria: for the crime of destroying Montreal as a baseball town, for destroying Miami as a baseball town, for stealing money from taxpayers to build a monument to your own excess, you are hereby notified of your impending arrest. Please report to the nearest federal prison. You will be granted visitation rights and ample time in the yard but no conjugal visits. You’ve screwed over enough people for one lifetime.
Check out Dave Zirin’s blog from more on injustice in the world of sports.
Few 9-year-old girls are described as a “young—very young—Walter Payton.” But that’s what people are calling Sam Gordon of South Jordan, Utah. Gordon has become an Internet sensation after the spread of viral videos showing her shredding Pee Wee football defenses with a series of dynamic touchdown runs.
Her rather overwhelming awesomeness, however, raises far more interesting questions: Why do we still segregate so much of youth sports based on gender? Does the practice of doing so actually stunt female athletic potential? Would ending gender segregation foster a higher level of athletic excellence? The early women’s rights activists certainly thought so. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a women’s issues magazine, The Lily, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, playing ball.”
This is not to argue that there aren’t basic physical differences between men and women. But those differences are often overstated in the name of protecting the “common sense” of gender segregation. Journalist Sherry Wolf wrote, “Let’s cut to the chase. Men tend to weigh more and have greater muscle mass than women: men have 40–60 percent greater upper-body strength and 25–30 percent more lower-body strength. However, with training and nutritional guidance on par with men, female power lifters, for example, have narrowed the gap in actual strength to between 0 and 8 percent.… While there is a connection between muscle size and strength, there is not a direct correlation, as other factors can influence an athlete’s strength such as age, limb and muscle length, and genetics.”
In addition, while the typical male may have greater natural muscle mass, women’s biology makes them provably better at sports that require endurance like ultra-marathons, Alaska’s Iditarod race and long-distance swimming. The book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, goes through this in painstaking detail. McDonagh and Pappano argue that “coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.”
This premise of “inferiority” is rooted at the founding of organized, professional sports at the end of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the enforcement of gender segregation as the new normal. A very useful view into this is Jennifer Ring’s book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. As Ring describes, baseball started as the British game Rounders, played by boys and girls together. Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond. Leaders of the sport like Albert Spalding worked to establish a culture that “would mythologize baseball as a manly American game.” But as Ring writes, this wasn’t just a reflection of the sexism of the age. Spalding, like President Theodore Roosevelt and other leading thinkers of the time, saw sports and masculinity as very tied with the dominant political ideas of the time such as Manifest Destiny and US imperialism. They gave us a primordial ooze where sexism, homophobia, militarism and sports all simmered in the same stew. Straining out what’s healthy in this stew has been a slow, arduous, century-long task.
Today gender segregation in sports is rightly celebrated as a proven arena of female empowerment. Since Title IX legislation was fought for and passed in 1972, there has been an explosion of athletic participation by women. Before Title IX, one in thirty-four girls played sports; now it’s one in three. Every study shows that along with participation comes an increase in confidence, a lessening likelihood of eating disorders and abusive relationships, and greater defenses against the relentless shrapnel of sexism aimed at young teenage women. Challenging gender segregation is not contrary to the mission of Title IX but essential to it. It’s about the same thing, challenging one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.
There is another issue as well that speaks to the urgency of challenging gender segregation in sports. The very concept of gender is something that at long last is under the microscope. There are trans athletes as well as entire trans teams whose members choose not to identify as male or female. Then are the millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men, often referred to as “intersex.” Doctors estimate that “intersex” children comprise one in 1,666 births. The NCAA to its credit has even provided new rules and guidelines to make sure trans athletes have a place to play. The guidelines openly discuss at what point someone plays for the women’s team and when, whether through hormones or surgery, they need to try out for the men’s. This is a very positive step in acknowledging the existence of trans student-athletes, but it still rests on the idea that boys are on one side and girls on the other.
Resistance to a “gender binary” will grow in the future. All of sports should be ahead of the curve on this in providing inclusive space so everyone can play without fear of being pushed aside. The future of sports could be a beautiful, life-affirming safe-space or it could be an anchor on human progress, expending effort on policing gender and making sure everyone stays on their side of the gym.
For now we’ll have to make due with the glimpse into the future that is Sam Gordon. At 9 years old, she has her own reason for playing football. “Most of the times it’s just really fun to be the one scoring the touchdowns,” she said on Good Morning America. “Rather than the boys.”