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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Drew Brees, Union Power and the Big Payback

Quarterback/demigod Drew Brees is the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He also, for some curious reason, can’t get a solid contract offer from his team, the New Orleans Saints. The sports radio talking heads are yipping about whether the 33-year-old Brees is asking for too much. But this story is not about the pay. It’s the payback.

In fall 2010, it was Brees who led a procession onto the field in full view of the Sunday Night Football cameras with one finger in the air, a symbol that both teams—the Saints and Vikings—were actually one team united against ownership. The voice of the NFL establishment, Al Michaels, a proud political conservative, condemned it from the NBC booth, saying—with an eye roll, “There’s nothing like a labor statement to start the season.” As for the NFL owners, like the elephant who symbolizes their political affection, they don’t forget. But Brees proceeded without concern for any kind of payback. After all, he brought a Super Bowl victory to New Orleans. He was untouchable. As the team’s union representative and member of the NFLPA executive board, Brees remained outspoken and was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lockout lawsuits against the NFL. His former teammate Scott Fujita said to me, “In recent years Drew has taken some strong positions against league management. He doesn’t have to do this, but he chooses to because he knows it’s the right thing to do, and because he’s a natural leader who all players look to and respect. That’s quite rare for someone of his stature. He has great conviction.”

But conviction comes with a price, even for—as one union official described him to me—“the Captain America of quarterbacks.” The NFLPA has now formally requested the league to investigate whether the Saints are openly trying to punish Brees for his trade unionism. The union is citing CBA provision, Article 49, Section 1 which reads, “ No Discrimination: There shall be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.

Brees’s other apostasy has been to defend current and former teammates Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Fujita on charges that they were part of a pay-to-injure program, otherwise known as “bountygate.” Brees is leveraging his fame to argue that he and his team are being targeted for the crime of being loud and proud union leaders during last year’s NFL lockout.

Last week, Brees tweeted, “If NFL fans were told there were ’weapons of mass destruction‘ enough times, they’d believe it. But what happens when you don’t find any????”

There was a media backlash against Brees for invoking the war in Iraq (or the lies that brought us into the war in Iraq, to be more exact). Brees apologized for this tweet, but this mini-backlash didn’t slow him down and actually seemed to embolden him.

On The Late Show With David Letterman, Brees said, “I mean, just the whole process itself and the investigation I feel like has been extremely unfair. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s been more of a media campaign than it is actually finding the truth to the matter. Put forth the facts, the truth, and if indeed there was a pay-to-injure scheme, then people will get punished, and if there’s not, then let’s exonerate these men because, at this point, it seems like it’s a smear campaign. We’re dragging them through the mud. We’re ruining their reputations and careers with no true evidence.”

There are those who will scoff about Brees, the millionaire quarterback, being any kind of trade union martyr. They are already saying that the NFLPA has no place in this “negotiation.” The scoffers will have television programs, radio shows and nationally read columns. They are the creators of conventional wisdom. They are also wrong.

There is no higher cultural platform in the country than the National Football League. NBC’s Sunday Night Football is the highest-rated program of the fall season. The Super Bowl is the most watched program in the history of this country. Drew Brees has been one of the faces of this league since the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. If he can be spanked like an unruly child for the crime of standing with his union, what does that portend for the public sector worker in Ohio, the Chicago teacher who just voted to go on strike or the Starbucks barista trying to start a union? I’m not saying that Drew Brees is some kind of Joe Hill with a tight spiral, but this is about ensuring that anyone who wants a union or is in a union can speak out in defense of their livelihood.

The AFL-CIO, of which the NFLPA is a member, should put out a statement in support of Brees. They should hold his case up as an example of what NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith means when he says, “The minute that any sports player believes for whatever reason that they are outside the management-labor paradigm, you lose ground.” This country’s trade union movement has been in free fall for decades, from a high of 35 percent in the mid 1950s, to a seventy-year low in 2010 of fewer than 12 percent. If the message from the NFL is that being an active unionist is grounds for intimidation and punishment, then the AFL-CIO needs to make it plain: an injury to one is an injury to all. Even quarterbacks.


Here is a post-script that I received after publishing this article, courtesy of the organization, American Rights at Work. I think it speaks cleary to why it's important to support Brees, as his case is a high profile expression of what is happening in workplaces around the country.

An analysis of the 1999-2003 data on NLRB election campaigns finds that:

    63% of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union;
    54% of employers threaten workers in such meetings;
    57% of employers threaten to close the worksite;
    47% of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits; and
    34% of employers fire workers.

The employer resistance to workers exercising their legal right to form unions does not stop after the union election process:
    One year after a successful election, 52% of newly formed unions had no collective bargaining agreement.
    Two years after an election, 37% of newly formed unions still had no labor agreement.

(Link to summary and full report: http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/publications/general/no-holds-barred-the-intensification-of-employer-opposition-to-organizing-20090520-758-93-93.html)

Sandusky's Crimes and Governor Corbett's Negligence

Now that the verdict is in—now that Jerry Sandusky is no longer an “alleged” child predator and his accusers can’t be labeled as “alleged” victims—the road toward justice truly begins. For anyone who thinks the difficult part is over, think again. It’s easy to shake our heads at the monster Sandusky. It’s easy to respond like the people who gathered at the courthouse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and cheer while clowning around for the cable news cameras. It’s easy to feel satisfied now that the 68-year-old Sandusky was found guilty and will spend the remainder of his miserable life in prison. It’s easy to do what we’ve always done in this country as Sandusky was walked out the courthouse’s back door “just 50 yards downhill from where they used to hang criminals in the courtyard of the old county jail.”

America’s always been very good at forming a crowd ready to cheer a good hanging. The national fabric has been woven with witch trials, executions, torture and, now, presidential kill lists—and on it goes. We love to slay those we label as monsters. We are less vigilant about the people who allow the monsters to roam the countryside. They get to write books, give lectures and be guests on the late-night talk-show circuit. (See: Rumsfeld, Donald.)

There are many “Rumsfelds” in the People vs. Jerry Sandusky. During the trial, two facts kept appearing like a recurring malignancy. The first was something we already knew: that Jerry Sandusky’s godlike stature as defensive football guru at Penn State was his tool both for attracting children and winning the unquestioned trust of parents or guardians. The other stubborn fact is that people in positions of power at the university and in state politics smothered accusations as they swirled around Sandusky and his children’s charity, the Second Mile.

Law enforcement was aware of allegations against Sandusky going back to 1995. At Penn State, the awareness that something was “off” about Sandusky’s interaction with children reaches back even further. They chose not to act or, in the case of late coach Joe Paterno, did the bare legal minimum—and as a result, more children were harmed. Brand protection for both the football program and a research university with a $1.8 billion endowment mattered more to those in power than acting aggressively. Graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s infamous actions in the Penn State showers upon catching Sandusky sodomizing a child—slam a locker, tell someone in a position of power, try to forget it—is symbolic of actions up the chain of command. It’s a chain of command that goes all the way to the office of the governor and former state attorney general, Tom Corbett.

Corbett released a statement after the verdict saying, “I…want to commend the multiple victims in this case who had the courage to come forward and testify in court, confronting Sandusky, and proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty of these reprehensible crimes.”

You would never know from the above words that the governor is far from an innocent bystander. As the state’s attorney general in 2009, Corbett headed a state investigation into accusations against the revered former coach. Although his office denies it, there are multiple confirmations that Corbett assigned no one from his office to follow up on the charges: just one state trooper, a state trooper “not authorized to bring charges against Sandusky.”

In addition, when Corbett was sworn in as governor in 2011, he still had not informed the Second Mile Foundation that their founder was under investigation. Instead, as a candidate for governor, he took $650,000 in donations from members of the Second Mile’s unsuspecting board, even allowing the chairman to hold a fundraiser for his campaign.

Upon being elected, Corbett then moved deftly from doing nothing to immediately trying to deflect the entire weight of the scandal onto Joe Paterno and Penn State itself, using his recently appointed position as a member of the school’s Board of Trustees (an automatic appointment for all Pennsylvania governors) to do so.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported,

As Pennsylvania’s attorney general, [Corbett] investigated Sandusky for nearly two years but failed to make an arrest. But then, as governor, he blamed the university’s leaders for not doing more. One was Paterno, who some board members believed wielded too much power. The other was university president Graham B. Spanier, a 16-year veteran and Corbett rival who had become a vocal opponent of the governor’s efforts to slash higher education funding. And when he was on campus the next day, after Spanier’s resignation and Paterno’s firing, he celebrated the leadership changes. “Throughout this whole process, I felt he had some ulterior motive,” a trustee says of Corbett. “Most trustees felt uncomfortable with his role. It was odd for him to be there and participate the way he did. Very odd.”

Governor Corbett has much to answer for in the weeks and months ahead. But unlike the monster Sandusky or Joe Paterno, the hardly blameless but all-too-convenient lightning rod, he can ride this out unless there’s some semblance of public outrage. Corbett has a public relations team, a press office and national ambitions. We just have a snapshot that certainly makes it appear that Corbett personified what’s meant by “the banality of evil.” Sandusky’s conviction will convince many that, now that the monster is behind bars, we should move on. But if we want to make sure that monsters don’t roam the countryside in the future, we had better hold the lord of the manor to account.

Palestinian Soccer Star/Hunger Striker Mahmoud Sarsak to Be Freed by Israel

In news that will provoke tears of joy throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and not a few locker rooms, it was announced today that Mahmoud Sarsak, jailed Palestinian soccer star and hunger striker, would be released on July 10. Sarsak was arrested on his way to a national team match as he tried to cross the Gaza border, with travel approval from Israel in his hand. He has been held for three years without charges, a trial or even contact with his family. Over the last ninety days, Sarsak has refused food, continuing to adhere to an organized hunger strike of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, even after their action was resolved.

Sarsak’s worsening health brought global attention to his case. Amnesty international put out an alert last week that Sarsak was on the brink of death, but it was the sports world that brought his struggle out of the shadows. On June 8, FIFpro, an international union of 50,000 professional soccer players, put out a formal call for his release. It also addressed a larger pattern at work, where members of the Palestinian National Team have been systematically blocked at checkpoints, jailed or even killed.

The organization’s vice president, Philippe Piat, said, “The freedom of movement is a fundamental right of every citizen. It is also written down in the FIFA Regulations that players must be allowed to play for the national team of their country. But actually for some footballers it is impossible to defend the colours of their country. They cannot cross the border. They cannot visit their family. They are locked up. This is an injustice.”

In addition, famed Manchester United player Eric Cantona signed a statement saying that UEFA should cancel its upcoming under-21 championship tournament in Israel if Sarsak weren’t freed. The statement read, “It is time to end the injustice, and insist upon standards of equality, justice and respect of international law—like we demand from any other country.”

More surprising than FIFpro’s stance or any words from Cantona was the news on June 12 that the reptilian FIFA chief, Sepp Blatter, called upon the Israeli Football Association to agitate for Sarsak to get his day in court. Blatter’s office said in a statement, “FIFA urgently calls on IFA to draw the attention of the Israeli competent authorities to the present matter, with the aim of ensuring the physical integrity of the concerned players as well as their right for due process. The matter came to FIFA’s attention following correspondence with the Palestine Football Association, several international media reports concerning the football player Mahmoud Sarsak and a FIFPro media release.”

Blatter is nothing if not a survivor, and his move, as James Dorsey, from the indispensible MidEast Soccer Blog, said to me, “Is classic CYA [cover your ass]…. I don’t think Blatter had much choice. Sarsak is putting everyone, including Israel and FIFA, on the spot. His health is reportedly deteriorating rapidly and his death could spark widespread protests in the occupied territories. Blatter does not want to be seen as not having stood up to what clearly is not due process.” He’s right.

It’s safe to say that if Sarsak had died, and Blatter had done nothing, the outrage could have ended his tenure at the top of the sport. It also could have imperiled not only the 2013 UEFA tournament in Israel, already targeted by Europe’s “Red Card Israeli Apartheid” movement, but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. If there was a nuclear war, I’m convinced that only roaches and Blatter would walk away unscathed.

Now that Sarsak’s release has been announced, Israel has said to the press that they believed him to be in the terrorist organization “Islamic Jihad.” These accusations are news to Sarsak’s lawyer, his family and his friends. This is someone whose only crime was attempting to cross a border to play soccer. His arrest is seen much more as part of a broader effort to degrade this “national team without a nation” than anything he may have done off the pitch. Given what we know, it’s remarkable that it took Blatter and friends three years to say something, But it’s equally remarkable to all involved that international solidarity and awareness finally forced Israel’s hand.

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BDS activist Laura Durkay said to me after Blatter’s statement, “The next step should be to move from symbolic statements to actions to boycott and isolate Israel in the sports world, according to the guidelines for cultural boycott set out by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.”

Not only does Sarsak live but the movement lives as well. It's been strengthened by Sarsak’s survival and the revelation for many that the thankless, frustrating and often devastating work of international solidarity with political prisoners can actually work.

Red State Hoops: The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Value of Seattle's Rage

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a stolen franchise, having been torn from Seattle in 2008. A mere four years later, they are in the NBA Finals, three wins away from becoming champions. They are also being relentlessly promoted by the NBA and their network partners as a team to love. We are told to see them as America’s Sweethearts, with their small-town vibe, roaring crowds and exuberant fans in color-coded shirts that all read, ”Team Is Family.” They are the brilliant culmination of a planning meeting NBA Commissioner David Stern had with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd about how to give the league “red state appeal.” This was in conjunction with the NBA’s establishment of a dress code and road behavior guidelines, and a general sense of rather blunt unease from David Stern that a league built on a foundation of black, inner-city talent would repel wealthier white fans.

You don’t get much more “red state” than Oklahoma, where every district voted for John McCain in 2008, the only state that can make that claim. You don’t get more red state than an arena named after minority owner Aubrey McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a company that makes its profits through “fracking,” the practice of splitting open the earth to extract more oil and natural gas. “Fracking” has been linked to earthquakes, toxic contamination of drinking water and global warming. According to studies, it actually causes greater degrees of global warming than coal. Not surprisingly, McClendon is a climate change denier. He’s also, for good measure, a staunch gay rights opponent, and one of the main funders for the 2004 group, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” aimed to smear John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam. And he, like majority owner and major Republican donor Clay Bennett, took hundreds of millions in corporate welfare to move to OKC. It’s all so very “red state appeal.”

It’s not surprising that the NBA is promoting the Thunder like they’re the team from Walnut Grove. It’s also not surprising that every effort is being made to squelch any discussion during broadcasts of their Seattle roots. More surprising by far is how much traction this line of thinking has among those who should know better.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons who once railed against the move to Oklahoma City, promising to only refer to the new team as “The Zombie Sonics,” has learned to stop worrying and embrace the Thunder. In a column titled—I wish I was joking—“Thunder Family Values,” Simmons writes about his newfound love for Oklahoma City, it’s exuberant fans, and the general vibe of the entire region. He ends his piece by writing, “I found myself feeling happy for the Oklahoma City fans after they clinched Game 1…. Is it possible to feel happy for Oklahoma City while continuing to feel absolutely, unequivocally terrible for Seattle? Actually, yes.”

Nowhere in the column can you find the words “Clay Bennett” or “Aubrey McClendon.” It’s as if the Team Fairy or the NBA Stork took the Sonics and delivered them to Oklahoma City.

Simmons’s embrace is probably not too surprising. His job, and he’s very good at it, is romanticizing the sports world and convincing us that shit doesn’t stink. Far more eye-opening is the similar message sent by Seattle Sonics legend Gary Payton. Payton is someone who attended rallies aimed at saving the Sonics and was vocal in his criticism of the move. But the man known as “the Glove” said in a radio interview this week,

“It’s not our team anymore, let’s move on and get our own team, get our own team and then we don’t even have to worry about that team anymore and can go on about our business and make it what it’s supposed to be which is to have our own team.”

With all due respect to “the Glove,” this is wrong and “moving on” is the last thing Seattle should do. To my sisters and brothers in Seattle: don’t get over it. Your anger is just and you should keep those embers of rage alive. I’m not just saying this because I have a whole family of elders from Brooklyn who never forgave Walter O’Malley for taking the Dodgers to Los Angeles. (Family joke: if you have Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley in a room and a gun with just two bullets, what do you do? You shoot O’Malley twice to make sure he’s dead.)

This isn’t about spite or jealousy or anything of the sort. It’s about protecting the future of hoops in the Emerald City. Basketball will return to Seattle. There are too many teams that have lost too much money and Seattle has the income, the passion and the real estate to make it happen. There will be a Sonics again because the NBA needs Seattle even more than Seattle need the NBA.

But on what terms will the Sonics come back? The people of Seattle took a principled stand against being ripped off by the NBA, and handing billionaires a $300 million bounty of corporate welfare. All of that courage, drama and pain will have been for nothing if they just accept the terms that David Stern will attempt to impose. There is much you can do, especially when the NBA demands a new arena as a precondition for pro ball to return. You can demand private funding for the new facility like they did in Philadelphia. Or you can demand a dollar of public ownership for every tax dollar that goes into the team. You can point to Green Bay and say, “If the Packers have fan ownership, then why can’t we?” It’s not just about having the Sonics return but how they return. Until that day, we should all hope to see the Thunder fall flat. Let every owner itching to move their team to greener pastures see that it’s not all parades and glory. If Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don’t believe in climate change, let them believe in karma.

Why We Should All Root for the Miami Heat

The 2012 NBA finals presents more than a match-up of two young, exciting, athletic teams. They present a rooting litmus test. In one corner, we have the Miami Heat, a team scorned for being built around a hastily assembled group of free-agent all-stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the great LeBron James. No player in NBA history has been scrutinized, picked apart and even despised quite like James. The three-time MVP’s unforgivable crime, now two years old, was neither a felony nor misdemeanor nor even a bad attitude. It was his awkwardly managed departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers and “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” He also earns arrows of anger for his alleged inability to step up his game when the game is on the line. In addition, his patchwork Miami team in the eyes of many is as plastic, superficial and empty as the city they call home.

In the other corner, we have the Oklahoma City Thunder, a small market franchise beloved by the sports media and fans for “doing it the right way.” They drafted beautifully and evolved organically toward greatness. They are also led by Kevin Durant, the NBA’s most endearing superstar. The “Durantula” is only 23 but already has three scoring titles, and he absolutely lusts for the big moment. He also, unlike LeBron, signed a long-term contract to stay in a small market because he wanted to take the team that drafted him to a title.

With such seemingly opposite teams and stars, the media are already writing the 2012 finals script of “good vs. evil.” It’s an easy, by-the-numbers narrative. It’s also bizarro world bullshit. This is one case where good is evil and the evil in question resides in shadows where fans choose not to look

I would argue that how we choose to see the Heat and Thunder is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test that reveals how the sports radio obsession with villainizing twenty-first-century athletes blinds us to the swelling number of villains who inhabit the owner’s box. And in Oklahoma City, we have the kinds of sports owners whose villainy should never be forgotten.

Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers. The Thunder are praised for doing it the “right way,” but no franchise is more caked in original sin than the team from Oklahoma City. Their owners, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, with an assist from NBA Commissioner David Stern, stole their team with the naked audacity of Frank and Jesse James from the people of Seattle.

For non-NBA fans, as recently as 2008 the OKC Thunder were the Seattle Supersonics, a team of great tradition, flare and fan support. They were Slick Watts’s headband, Jack Sikma’s perm and Gary Payton’s scowl. They were a beloved team in a basketball town. Then the people of Seattle committed an unpardonable offense in the eyes of David Stern. They loved their team but refused to pay for a new taxpayer funded $300 million arena. Seattle’s citizens voted down referendums, organized meetings and held rallies with the goal of keeping the team housed in a perfectly good building called the KeyArena. Despite a whirlwind of threats, the people of Seattle wouldn’t budge, so Stern made an example of them. Along with Supersonics team owner and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz—who could have paid for his own new arena with latte profits alone—Stern recruited two Oklahoma City–based billionaires, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, to buy the team and manipulate their forcible extraction from Seattle to OKC.

Stern is a political liberal who has sat on the board of the NAACP. Bennett and McLendon are big Republican moneymen whose hobby is funding anti-gay referendums. Yet these three men are united in their addiction to our tax dollars. In Oklahoma City, where rivers of corporate welfare awaited an NBA franchise, Stern, Bennett and McClendon had found their Shangri-La.

Bennett, Stern and McClendon lied repeatedly that they would make every effort to keep the team in Seattle, McClendon however gave the game away in 2007, when he said to the Oklahoma City Journal Record, “We didn’t buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here…. We started to look around and at that time the Sonics were going through some ownership challenges in Seattle. So Clay, very artfully and skillfully, put himself in the middle of those discussions and to the great amazement and surprise to everyone in Seattle, some rednecks from Oklahoma, which we’ve been called, made off with the team.”

While Bennett said all the right things about keeping the Sonics in Seattle, a team executive dinner on September 9, 2006, tells you all you need to know about the man and his motives. On that fine evening, the Sonics management, all held over from the previous ownership regime, all Pacific Northwesters, gathered in Oklahoma to meet the new boss. Bennett made sure they were sent to a top restaurant, and picked up the bill. As the Seattle execs sat down, four plates of a deep fried appetizer were put on the table. After filling their mouths with the crispy goodness, one asked the waitress what this curious dish with a nutty flavor actually was. It was lamb testicles. Bennett laughed at their discomfort and the message was clear: the Sonics could eat his balls. (See Sonicsgate.com for a full accounting of this theft.)

If the Thunder win the 2012 title, the Clay Bennett/David Stern approach will be lionized throughout pro sports. The theft of the Sonics will be justified and cities involved in stadium negotiations will be threatened with being “the next Seattle” if they don’t acquiesce to the whims of the sporting 1 percent. A championship for the Thunder would be a victory for holding up cities for public money. It would be a victory for ripping out the hearts of loyal sports towns. It would be a victory for greed, collusion and a corporate crime that remains unprosecuted.

Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don’t deserve anyone’s cheers. I don’t just want the Thunder to lose. I want LeBron James to make them wish they’d never left the Emerald City. That is why no matter how much you dislike the ill-fitting “Dream Team” in South Beach, or swoon at the sight of Kevin Durant, anyone who cares about the relationship of teams to their cities and decries the way pro sports is used as an instrument of corporate looting should know who to root for and whom to root against. Without equivocation, all true NBA fans, in the name of Slick Watts, should sound three words this championship season: “Let’s go Heat.”

After Forty-four Years, It's Time Brent Musburger Apologized to John Carlos and Tommie Smith

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they were scorched with scorn across the sports media landscape. One would have searched in vain for sympathy, understanding or even an unbiased recording of their grievances.

No one asked why two young, world-class athletes would risk their livelihoods, their reputations, even the safety of themselves and their families in the name of protest. Few were interested in examining why anyone would feel compelled to challenge an International Olympic Committee that coddled apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, didn’t hire black officials or would be led by an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite, Avery Brundage. It was easier to dismiss Carlos and Smith and misguided souls and be done with them.

In 2012, that frozen, dramatic moment of 1968 resistance is far more likely to be celebrated than criticized. Smith and Carlos are now routinely lauded for their bravery and daring. As ESPN proclaimed bluntly upon giving Smith and Carlos their Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2008, “They were right.”

No one was saying that in 1968. Amidst the angry denunciations, there was one column, published in the Chicago American newspaper, that was particularly ugly. The journalist responsible has never deigned to comment or explain, let alone apologize, for why he decided upon the words he chose. The writer became an iconic broadcaster who now sits comfortably as the elder statesman of the sports world. He appears in family friendly movies like The Waterboy and Cars 2. His name is Brent Musburger.

In 1968 Musburger was a restless, ambitious young sports writer looking to make his name. He found his opportunity when Smith and Carlos made their stand. Musburger didn’t see a demonstration. He saw a target.

“One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” he wrote. Musburger then infamously called Smith and Carlos “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers.”

The above quote has been disseminated in books and articles for years but Musburger’s full column is a difficult find. With an assist from Professor Jules Boykoff and an old-school tool called microfilm, I found it, and if anything, it’s even uglier than the above quotes suggest. The headline is “Bizarre Protest By Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals.” Despite seeing what they did as “bizarre,” Musburger doesn’t once address why Smith and Carlos did what they did or quote them directly. He does however find time to mock them repeatedly. He describes Smith and Carlos as “juvenile”, “ignoble,” and—this actually is bizarre—“unimaginative.” Musburger calls Tommie Smith “the militant black.” In describing a scene of Carlos trying to defend their actions, Musburger writes, “Perhaps it’s time 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.”

And then there are those words that still singe the eyes: “black-skinned stormtroopers.” You almost don’t believe it until you read it.

As for the actual stormtrooper-sympathizer, Musburger refers to Brundage as a kindly old grandfather and with great affection and addresses him as “Avery”. No mention of course that many of the athletes called him “Slavery Avery.”

To this day, mention Musburger’s name to John Carlos and he grits his teeth. This is particularly illustrative because Carlos is fond of saying that he has no hate in his heart toward anyone even after all the isolation and criticism he endured. As he is fond of saying, “Bitterness leads to cancer which leads to death and I have too much work to do to have time for any of that.” Name a nemesis of his from 1968, like Jesse Owens or another member of the media and he responds with a smile and recounts how in private, they buried the hatchet. But not Musburger.

“We are talking about someone who compared us to Nazis. Think about that. Here we are standing up to apartheid and to a man in Avery Brundage who delivered the Olympics to Hitler’s Germany. And here’s Musburger calling us Nazis. That got around. It followed us. It hurt us. It hurt my wife, my kids. I’ve never been able to confront him about why he did this. Every time I’ve been at a function or an event with Brent Musburger and I walk towards him, he heads the other way.”

It’s been forty-four years. It’s time Brent Musburger apologized for slandering these two young men as “black-skinned stormtroopers.” It’s time he apologized for his absence of journalistic ethics in ignoring their message and instead obsessing on the color of their skin. It’s time he apologized for making the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith that much harder. Nearing the end of a distinguished career, he should address this scar on his legacy. Brent Musburger: the ball is in your court.

The full text of Musburger’s column is below. 

Bizarre Protest by Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals
by Brent Musburger

mexico city—Tommie Smith and John Carlos must be labeled unimaginative blokes if they can’t come up with a stronger and more effective protest than the one they staged her last night during the Olympic medal ceremony honoring their accomplishments in the 200-meter run.

Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black-globed hands during the playing of the National Anthem. They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.

But you’ve got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.

Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun and games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better. 

If Smith and Carlos were convinced that the ends justified their black power demonstration during the National Anthem, they should have avoided the award ceremony altogether. If it’s true, as hayes Jones says, that an athlete competes for himself but walks to the stand for his country, then a more courageous protest would have been for Smith and Carlos simply to stay away and not pick up their medals.

An Ignoble Performance

Their ignoble performance on the victory stand completely overshadowed a magnificent performance by two black athletes. It’s a shame. Smith will not now be remembered as that splendid runner who so thoroughly demolished the world’s record that he ran the last 10 yards with both arms held high in triumph over his head as he crashed through the finish line in the fantastic time of 19.8.

He will instead be remembered as the militant black who shook a black glove and black track shoe during the playing of the National Anthem. It hardly seems on the level with his first accomplishment, and it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place.

Another sorry performance developed on the bus ride back to the Olympic village after the ceremony. Smith and Carlos, along with their wives, boarded a bus with a group of tourists who were headed in the same direction.

Upon spotting the two winners, an indignant California tourist declared: "I was ashamed of both of you. That was a disgraceful performance." This ignited a loud public debate between the two Olympic medal winners and the irate tourist, as ears around the world sucked up the ugly words.

A Canadian journalist, Dick Beddoes of Toronto, finally broke up the argument. Then he, too, wound up debating Carlos, who wasted all of the post-race interview time last night lecturing the assembled journalists on what they should think and write. Perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.

Brundage Skips the Show

One could feel the tension building here all day yesterday. It was a foregone conclusion that Smith and Carlos would win medals in the 200 meters. A bigger question was what action the two militants would take to dramatize their protest against white America.

The front of the United States dormitory resembeld [sic] a United Nations debate. Jesse Owens lectured several newspaper men, insisting there were better stories to write than those about the black athletes and their dislike of Avery Brundage. The blacks on the United States team have said they will not accept medals from Brundage.

Yesterday Brundage was conveniently away in Acapulco, reportedly checking up on Olympic yachting. It’s somewhat ironic that Brundage wound up boycotting Smith and Carlos, two who advocated the Harry Edwards movement a long time ago. 

This, too, appeared to be a big mistake on Brundage’s part. He should have stayed in Mexico City, marched to the stand with the medals, and demonstrated that he was not afraid of any threat. If Smith and Carlos had refused the medals from Brundage, Avery always could have stuck them in his pocket and taken them home to the grandchildren.

When Smith and Carlos ran, both were wearing long black sox. Carlos ran looking like a trinket shop, beads and badges and the medallions bouncing as he dashed toward the finish line.

Peter Norman, the talented Australian who nipped Carlos for second place, admitted afterward that he’s a protestor of sorts himself. He practices on week-ends in Australia, wearing a sweatshirt that proclaims: "Jesus Saves."

The way things are going, someone better save all of us before it’s too late.

Mind the Gap: London's Olympic Games Are Falling Down

Upon returning to the United States after two weeks amidst London’s pre-Olympic terrain, I have some final thoughts that I hope the International Olympic Committee and the UK’s Tory Prime Minister David Cameron take to heart. I also hope that the Olympics’ lead corporate sponsors—British Petroleum, Dow Chemical and McDonald’s—take a time-out from devising the latest cutting edge trends in evil and listen as well. Your games are in trouble. Your games are in trouble because the people who actually have to live in London alongside the Olympiad are mad as hell. And it’s only May.

After two weeks of listening to everyone with an opinion about the Olympics—in other words, “everyone”—it’s clear the entire affair suffers from Annie Hall syndrome. At the start of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic, Woody talks about the two elderly women at the Catskill resort who complain that the food is terrible while also adding, “And such small portions!” Londoners are annoyed at the inconvenience brought by the Olympics, incensed by the security crackdown… and outraged that there are no tickets available. This is hardly a petty complaint. Corporate partners have gobbled up the seats, leaving the overwhelming majority of the city with their nose pressed up against the glass. In London, where the pubs dot every block and open onto the streets after work in a daily party open to all comers, this comprises a cardinal sin. As Neill, one of many bartenders I encountered, said to me, “It’s like a big to-do that no one invited us to attend!”

The security crackdown and constant paranoia are discomfiting enough. (Fears are being disseminated about the Irish. Seriously.) But what singes the locals is the idea that the Olympics are a party that will stick them with the bill: a hangover from hell without the drunken rapture that by all rights should precede it.

All Olympics produce debt like a cow produces methane. But this one happens in the context of a double-dip recession. It happens with round-the-clock UK media coverage of the “Euro-panic,” as voters in Greece are threatening to tell Angela Merkel, David Cameron and the European Union to take their austerity agenda and cram it sideways. The fears of crisis and debt surround even the cheeriest propaganda about the looming games. The BBC led every broadcast while I was there with these two separate stories. First, “Crisis in Greece” and then with a different anchor, reporters and even music, “Getting Ready for the Olympics.” Nowhere was any discussion about the fact that the 2004 Athens Olympics, came in at over ten times the proposed budget. Those games aggravated the crisis Greece is currently slogging through, with the country’s homeless now even squatting in dilapidated, unused Olympic structures. There is scant discussion that these London games could come in at ten times their proposed 2005 budget as well, causing another “debt crisis” that will be taken from the hides—not to mention the pensions—of the UK’s workers. At several events involving trade union workers and bureaucrats, the message was repeated to me over and over: when the Olympics are over, the gloves will come off.

In other words, faced with the pressures of austerity and recession, Cameron and company are cooling their jets until the Olympics are over and then they will try to do their level best to disembowel the unions and further cut taxes for the wealthy. Why wait until after the Olympics? Because Cameron needs the unions’ cooperation to make sure that the games come off on time and on schedule. They need to make sure the unions don’t take strike action or join the demonstrations planned for July 28, the first Saturday of the games. This is why they agreed to sizable bonuses for London’s subway workers. Anything to make sure that the Olympics show London, and more critically David Cameron, in the best possible light.

I have no doubt that all the top sports reporters will write fawningly about London and all its quaint customs, and the cameras will point at only those cheering the events on, waving the Union Jack. But make no mistake: the Olympic Torch is not the most noteworthy thing passed from Greece to London. It’s the looming struggle against austerity. David Cameron might want to wait until after the Olympics to “take the gloves off,” but he’s not the only one willing to go bare knuckles over the future of the United Kingdom.

Alexander Wolff, the great journalist from Sports Illustrated, is stationed in London and wrote this week, “Every time I come to England I’m struck by how the lowbrow mingles with the high.” But in London the “lowbrow” are angry and the “highbrow” are scared. They mingle only in the shared sense that a storm is coming to the British Isles. The summer will be filled with games. But an epic fall awaits.

Protest Is Coming to the London Olympics

Crowds line the streets as a locally organized torch relay race is run ahead of the Olympic Torch Relay in Hatherleigh in south west England May 21, 2012. Some 8000 runners are participating in the Olympic Torch Relay which will cover over 8000 miles throughout Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland over the next ten weeks before the London 2012 Olympics. Reuters/Toby Melville

To be in London, two months before the 2012 Summer Olympics, is to feel a bit like a fish in an aquarium, with people constantly poking at the glass. Cameras adorn nearly every street corner and police vehicles are more prevalent than double-decker buses. It’s easy to understand why many are saying enough is enough.

On Saturday, July 28, protesters will be gathering in London to just say no to the priorities imposed by these most corporate of Olympic Games, and it’s hardly difficult to understand why.

Security forces are busily militarizing the urban terrain. Olympics security officials recently unboxed the military-grade Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), an eardrum-shattering weapon that has been war-zone tested in Iraq. There are plans to station surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of London apartment buildings. The Royal Navy’s biggest warship will sit along the Thames. Typhoon jets and Lynx helicopters will be ready for action. Scotland Yard has stockpiled more than 10,000 plastic bullets. Police are constructing mobile stations to facilitate swift bookings. And “dispersal zones” have been set up where police can freely ban anyone they deem to be engaging in antisocial behavior.  

None of this comes cheap. Londoners were told that the Olympics would cost £2.4 billion. Projections that include ballooning infrastructure costs are now looking at £24 billion, ten times the original bid’s estimate. They were told that the games would be funded with a “public-private partnership,” but the “private” end is now picking up less than 2 percent of the tab. In such an atmosphere, protest is inevitable, but the people coming out on July 28 are angry about more than militarization and debt. There are other issues drawing people into London’s privatized public square.

Olympics sponsorship has become a full-throttle, corporate cornucopia. London Games sponsors include icons of health and fair play like McDonald’s, British Petroleum and Dow Chemical. In the name of good health, McDonald’s is handing out “activity toys” for kids to play with after munching down their Happy Meals. BP is—no joke—an official “sustainability partner.” Dow Chemical’s prominent presence is a slap in the face to London’s large South Asian population, given the notorious gas disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 20,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more suffering in its wake. In 1999, Dow Chemical merged with Union Carbide, the US firm responsible for the Bhopal nightmare.

The UK Tar Sands Network has been active, helping carry out a gutsy intervention at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where, dressed in Shakespearean garb, activists stormed the stage and delivered a brilliant monologue—“To BP or Not to BP?”—and urged patrons to tear out BP’s sponsorship symbol from their program.

Behind this Bizzarro World where McDonald’s means health and BP stands for sustainability are the plutocrats and moral midgets of the International Olympic Committee.

More than a year after the Arab Spring, this is one dictatorial operation still chugging along. Originally a decaying assemblage of barons, dukes and counts, the IOC has now broadened its membership to include our modern royalty, the mega-wealthy. Having only allowed women as members in 1981, the IOC is the 1 percent of the 1 percent, a global cosmopolitan elite that drips with privilege.

To stage the games, host cities must submit to a laundry list of IOC demands, and London is no exception. It has set aside 250 miles of VIP lanes for exclusive use by members of the “Olympic Family,” including athletes, medics and corporate sponsors. London organizers are required to secure nearly 2,000 rooms for IOC bigwigs in the finest five-star hotels. To control commercial space in favor of the Olympics’ corporate donors, the “Technical Manual on Brand Protection” dictates, “candidate cities are required to obtain control of all billboard advertising, city transport advertising, airport advertising, etc., for the duration of the games and the month preceding the games to support the marketing program.”

As the games approach, and you begin to mark your favorite athletic contests on your calendar, remember that at noon on July 28 there will a different kind of event: when campaigners come together not to celebrate the breathtaking athleticism of the Olympics but to challenge the breathtaking audacity of Olympic elites.

'Drones, Missiles and Gunships, Oh My!' Welcome to the 2012 London Olympics

As many as 48,000 security forces. Thirteen thousand five hundred troops. Surface-to-air missiles stationed on top of residential apartment buildings. A sonic weapon that disperses crowds by creating “head splitting pain.” Unmanned drones peering down from the skies. A safe zone, cordoned off by an eleven-mile electrified fence, ringed with trained agents and fifty-five teams of attack dogs.

One would be forgiven for thinking that these were the counterinsurgency tactics used by US army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan or perhaps the military methods taught to third-world despots at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. But instead of being used in a war zone or the theater of occupation, they in fact make up the very visible security apparatus in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

London, which has the most street cameras per capita of any city on earth, has, for the seven years since the terror attacks of July 7, 2005, been a city whose political leaders would spare no expense to monitor its own citizens. But the Olympic operation goes above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen when a Western democracy hosts the games. Not even China in 2008 used drone planes or ringed the proceedings with a massive, high-voltage fence. But here is London, preparing a counterinsurgency, and parking an aircraft carrier right in the Thames. Here is London adding “scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints.”

Stephen Graham at the Guardian refers to the entire state of affairs as “Lockdown London” as well as “the UK’s biggest mobilisation of military and security forces since the second world war.” He is not exaggerating in the slightest. The number of troops will exceed the forces the UK has had in Afghanistan.

It’s not just the costs or the incredible invasion into people’s privacy. It’s the powers being given to police under the 2006 “London Olympic Games Act,” which empowers not only the army and police but also private security forces to deal with “security issues” using physical force. These “security issues” have been broadly defined to include everything from “terrorism” to peaceful protesters, to labor unions, to people selling bootleg Olympic products on the streets, to taking down any corporate presence that doesn’t have the Olympic seal of approval. To help them with the last part, there will be “brand protection teams” set loose around the city. These “teams” will also operate inside Olympic venues to make sure no one “wears clothes or accessories with commercial messages other than the manufacturers” who are official sponsors.

The security operation also means the kind of street harassment of working class youth that will sound familiar here in the United States. As the Guardian reported, “Officers have powers to move on anyone considered to be engaged in antisocial behaviour, whether they are hanging around the train station, begging, soliciting, loitering in hoodies or deemed in any way to be causing a nuisance.”

Not to shock anyone, but there are no signs that any of the security apparatus will be dismantled once the Olympics are over. Local police forces have just been given an inordinate number of new toys and the boxes have been opened, the receipts tossed away.

London will be left with a high-tech police force, terrible debt, higher taxes, with a camera around every corner. The only people who will leave this party enriched will be the private security industry, who will tout “the peace” as their personal accomplishment, encouraging more of the global 1 percent to get more guards, more walls and more separation from the great unwashed.

There is no reason that the Olympics have to be this way. There is no reason that an international celebration of sports—particularly sports more diverse than our typical high-carb diet of football, baseball, basketball and more football—can’t take place without drones and aircraft carriers. There is no reason athletes from across the globe can’t join together and showcase their physical potential.

But the Olympics aren’t about sport any more than the Iraq War was about democracy. The Olympics are not about athletes. And they’re definitely not about bringing together “the community of Nations.” They are a neoliberal Trojan Horse aimed at bringing in business and rolling back the most basic civil liberties.

In many ways, this is what the games have always been. From Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936, to the slaughter of students in 1968 in Mexico City, to the Gang Sweeps in Los Angeles in 1984, to Beijing’s mass displacement of citizens in 2008, the “crackdown” has always been a part of the Olympic games. But in the post 9/11 world, the stakes are even higher to expose this for what it is. The Olympics have become the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, and the medicine is that our elected leaders have seen the enemy, and it is all of us.

What If Kobe Bryant Were an Imprisoned Palestinian Soccer Player?

Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball—let’s say Kobe Bryant—had been traveling to an international tournament only to be seized by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without trial or even hearing the charges for which he was imprisoned. Imagine if Kobe was allowed no visitation from family or friends. Imagine if he was left no recourse but to effectively end any future prospects as a player by terminating his own physical health by going on a hunger strike. Chances are we’d notice, yes? Chances are the story would lead SportsCenter and make newspaper covers across the world. Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations—the IOC, FIFA—would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons that read, “Free Kobe.”

This is what has happened to Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud Sarsak. Sarsak, who hails from Rafah in the Gaza Strip, was seized at a checkpoint on his way to a national team contest in the West Bank. This was July 2009. Since that date, the 25-year-old has been held without trial and without charges. His family and friends haven’t been permitted to see him. In the eyes of the Israeli government, Sarsak can be imprisoned indefinitely because they deem him to be an “illegal combatant” although no one—neither family, nor friends, nor coaches—has the foggiest idea why. Now Sarsak is one of more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike to protest their conditions and lack of civil liberties. As the New York Times wrote last week, “The newest heroes of the Palestinian cause are not burly young men hurling stones or wielding automatic weapons. They are gaunt adults, wrists in chains, starving themselves inside Israeli prisons.”

But no organization has claimed Sarsak as a member or issued fiery calls for his freedom. All we have is a family and a team that are both bewildered and devastated by his indefinite detention. His brother Iman said, “My family never imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel. Why, really why?”

His family doesn’t understand how someone, whose obsession was soccer, not politics, could be targeted and held in such a manner. But in today’s Israel/Palestine, soccer is politics. Sarsak is only the latest Palestinian player to be singled out for harassment or even death by the Israeli government. In 2009, three national team players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe, were killed during the bombing of Gaza. The National Stadium as well as the offices of the Palestinian Football Association were also targeted and destroyed in the Gaza bombing. In addition, their goalie, Omar Abu Rwayyis, was arrested by Israeli police in 2012 on “terrorism charges.” If you degrade the national team, you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.

More than police violence is a part of this process of athletic degradation. Currently the Palestinian soccer team is ranked 164th in the world and they’ve have never been higher than 115th. As one sports writer put it delicately, “Given the passion for football that burns among Palestinians, such lowly status hints at problems on the ground.”

These problems on the ground include curfews and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza that often mean the forfeiting of matches. If Palestinians living in Israel’s borders want to play for the team, they have to give up any benefits of Israeli citizenship. The end result is that the Palestinian national team becomes dependent on the Diaspora, relying heavily on Palestinians who have lived for two and three generations in South America and Europe. This is why many of the key players on Palestine’s national team are named Roberto or Pablo.

In 2010, Michel Platini, president of European football’s ruling body—Israel plays in the European qualifiers—threatened Israel with expulsion from FIFA if it continues to undermine football in Palestine. Platini said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour.” Yet Platini never followed through on threats and quite the opposite, awarded Israel the 2013 Under-21 European Championships.

On Wednesday, the British organization Soccer Without Borders, said that they would be calling for a boycott of the tournament, writing:

Football Beyond Borders, a student-led organisation which uses the universal power of football to tackle political, social and cultural issues, stands in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak and all of the Palestinian political prisoners currently being detained by Israel on hunger strike, as together we protest the injustices being inflicted upon Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and draw attention to their plight. [We] take this opportunity to announce our official boycott of the UEFA 2013 Under-21 European Championships, which Israel has been awarded the honour of hosting.

Soccer Without Borders joined forty-two football clubs and dozens of team captains, managers and sports commentators in Gaza who submitted a letter to Platini in 2011 demanding that European football’s governing body reverse its decision to allow Israel to host the under-21 tournament.

Amidst all this tumult is Mahmoud Sarsak, a threat for reasons no one can comprehend and Israel will not reveal. As long as Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even being a part of the community of international sports. If Sarsak is to see the inside of a courtroom and if Israel is to, as Platini said, “face the consequences for their behaviour,” silence is not an option. After all, even a Celtic fan would surely agree, we’d do it for Kobe.

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