Where sports and politics collide.
The Washington Nationals, after winning 100 games and having the best record in baseball, have been vanquished by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the opening round of Major League Baseball’s maddening postseason. It’s deeply embittering, not least of all because it didn’t have to happen.
In our local DC newspapers, there’s always ample evidence of the arrogance of power backed by a compliant media. The sports section is hardly immune to this dynamic of the Beltway Bubble. When the Washington Nationals made the unprecedented and now clearly unconscionable decision to sit their ace Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs, there were howls of protest and derision: but almost all of them were from outside the DC, Maryland, Northern Virginia buffer zone. Inside the Beltway, the move was lauded as a master stroke.
Team general manager Mike Rizzo justified the the shutdown by saying that they were “saving” Strasburg because his All-Star arm had reached its inning limit. After all, argued Rizzo, the team would need Strasburg in top form for the playoff games in the future. As Rizzo said, in a quote that enraged opposing general managers and reverberated with anabolic hubris, “We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times.”
Imagine this being done in any other baseball town. In Boston, if the Red Sox had tried to shut down Curt Schilling in 2004, there would have been civil disobedience in front of Fenway Park.
But inside DC, great columnists like The Washington Post’s sage Thomas Boswell had nothing but aggressive contempt for those who objected to the shutdown. As the great baseball poet wrote on September 2, in now very unfortunate prose, “So all of the pundits who say the Nats can’t go to the series or even win it, just because they won’t have Strasburg, can kiss my press pass.”
To be clear, I had no problem with having a strict inning count for Strasburg and safeguarding his health. But why not sit him, as future hall of fame pitcher John Smoltz suggested, in July or August? Why not save him for when the team would need him most? The counter-argument that “you can’t shut down a pitcher and re-start him again” is more “baseball lore” than it is science. (Proof of that was seen in the Cardinals’ own old ace, the 38-year-old Chris Carpenter, shut down for much of the year, who returned to flummox the Nats in game three.)
I have no problem with caring about his health. I do have a problem with the Nats tanking this season out of arrogance and the media whipping a new, unsteady, colt-like baseball fan base into going along with the ride.
The baseball post-season can be an unpredictable, mind-bending experience where, as the Nationals found out, having the opposition down to its last out or even last strike doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a time when leaving a team—especially a veteran, resourceful team like the Cardinals—even a pinhole of oxygen can lead to a cascade of horror. The only truism in post-season baseball is that an ace pitcher, like some kind of Gandalfian wizard, can conquer all the dark magic the postseason can conjure. We saw this in Detroit series where defending Tigers Cy Young winner Justin Verlander shut out the pixie-dusted Oakland Athletics in their decisive Game 5. It happened in New York, where the great C.C. Sabathia broke the will and the bats of the fairy-tale Baltimore Orioles in their Game 5. Stephen Strasburg is DC’s Verlander, DC’s Sabathia. His moment was Game 5. Mike Rizzo took that away from this fan base. He took it away from a city that had poured $1 billion in public money into Nationals Park. He took it away from a team that showed all season that this could have been their year.
Rizzo, Boswell and all those who defended this decision should have the courage and the sense of shame to say that they were dead wrong. The true legacy of the Strasburg shutdown was shutting down an unforgettably beautiful season, leaving a legacy that tastes worse than chewing on dry aspirin. The arrogance of management and an unquestioning local media: it will get you every time.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston went off on his hometown fans after last Sunday’s game in an epic rant. He ripped the Kansas City fans for cheering when Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Winston attacks not only the fans but also the media. He speaks about understanding the fact that he has shortened his own life by playing this game, but that gives fans no right to act like Matt Cassel or any of them are anything less than human beings. As Winston says, “We’re not gladiators. This is not the Roman Coliseum.” This really needs to be seen to be believed: another athlete asserting his own humanity and telling fans, “Game over.”
For another, more concise rant from a football player, read Dave Zirin on “The Smartest—or Dumbest Tweet an Athlete Ever Sent.”
Many allegedly great minds from professors to school presidents have devoted peals of pages to the multibillion-dollar industry otherwise known as NCAA athletics. Yet no one has quite put their finger on the contradictions, frustrations, and tragicomedy of being the labor in this industry—a so-called student-athlete—quite like Ohio State’s third-string freshman quarterback, Cardale Jones. On Friday Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
Jones immediately deleted the tweet—as well as his entire Twitter account—but as many have learned before him, deleting a tweet is like cleaning a grease stain with fruit punch. As soon as the 18-year-old sent his tweet out into the world, Cardale Jones was held up as yet another example of (altogether now) “everything that’s wrong” with today’s athlete. Even worse, Jones, who hasn’t played one snap all season, was benched for Saturday’s game. As the Toledo Blade put it, “Mark it down as DNP (tweet).
But Jones’s crime wasn’t authoring what the Daily News called a “lame-brained tweet.” It was committing, to paraphrase Michael Kinsley, the greatest sin in sports: he was caught telling the truth. “We ain’t come to school to play classes” will most likely be a quote of mockery that rings through the ages. But Cardale Jones has also hit on something factual. Ohio State football, like a select sampling of the sport’s aristocracy, has morphed over the last thirty years into a multibillion-dollar business. Even in the shadow of sanction and scandal, according to Forbes, the Buckeyes program creates $63 million in revenue every year and accounts for 73 percent of all the athletic departments profits.
Columbus is where legendary coach Woody Hayes was pushed out after striking an opposing player in 1978. He was making $40,000 a year when removed. Their coach today, Urban Meyer, draws a base salary of $4 million and is the highest paid public employee in the state. Meyer also gets use of a private plane and a swanky golf club membership, and there’s a fellowship in his name. He can also earn six-figure bonuses as well as raises for staying on the job. The football coach earns three times what Ohio State President Gordon Gee does. As higher education lawyer Sheldon Steinbach said to USA Today, “The hell with gold. I want to buy futures in coaches’ contracts.”
The source of the contradictions and confusion that create this moral cesspool is not the riches earned by the Urban Meyers of this world. It’s that the players are given nothing but the opportunity for an education they often have neither the time nor desire to pursue. These are 18–22 year olds treated like a hybrid of campus gods and campus chattel. I once had a former All-American tell me a story of hitting the books until an assistant coach stopped by his dorm room and said, “You know you don’t have to do that, right?” This particular athlete persevered and graduated, and good for him. I can only say that when I was 19, if an authority figure told me I didn’t have to study, I would have held an impromptu book-burning in my dorm room. We are corrupting these young people by demanding that they become complicit in a sham. We are telling them to be grateful for the opportunity to be party to their own exploitation. We are telling them effectively to do exactly what Cardale Jones said, and “play school.”
This mentality of “play school” and get a shot at the NFL or the NBA is profoundly effective. It acts as a form of discipline that keeps players in line. This discipline doesn’t only come from coaches, academic advisers and family members but other student-athletes as well. A culture is created through “amateur-athletics” that incentivizes keeping your head down. If you’re going to cheat, or take easy classes with compliant professors, you do it quietly and keep the trains running on time. One thing you don’t do is point out that the emperor is buck-naked.
I have a friend who is a professor at Ohio State and he outlined this to me very clearly. He told me that in the wake of Cardale Jones’s tweet that “many student-athletes are enraged. They feel he makes them all look bad when all of them are busting their butts.” Their anger is what allows this system to continue as sure as the NCAA. They are angry because Cardale Jones just pulled back the curtain on an NCAA moral terrain built on a twenty-first-century bedrock of bewildering moral confusion. This only changes if Jones’s fellow football players stand with him and ask the question: “Are we all just ‘playing school’ so Urban Meyer can live like some sort of absurdist sports sultan? Are my blood, sweat and tears first and foremost a means to pay for the fuel for my coach’s private plane?” We don’t know if this will cost Cardale Jones his scholarship in the days to come. But one thing we can be sure about: whether or not he stays will have less to do with his effrontery than whether the freshman can effectively throw a football.
Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon, along with her husband and children, headed World Wrestling Entertainment through the peak of its misogynistic, homophobic heyday in the ’90s. That’s not to mention the multiple deaths and destroyed lives associated with rampant steroid use, a practice supported up by the WWE. Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin spoke with Exploded View’s Bill Dwight to ask why McMahon’s career in destructive entertainment doesn’t disqualify her from the Senate, or any public office.
“His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
You may or may not remember the name Mahmoud Sarsak, subject of the most important and most underreported sports story of 2012. Sarsak is the Palestinian national team soccer player who was jailed for three years without charges by the Israeli government. He was denied contact with his family, a trial and kept largely in solitary confinement for reasons that bewilder his loved ones to this day. Finally Sarsak was freed after refusing food for ninety days, losing a third of his body weight, and through his personal agony, spurring international outrage. (Having 2,000 fellow hunger strikers certainly helped.) Organizations like Amnesty International, the 50,000-strong international union of soccer players, FIFpro and even Sepp Blatter, the morally sclerotic leader of FIFA, called for his release. Israel relented but that is clearly not the end of Sarsak’s story.
Now Mahmoud Sarsak is in the news again after refusing an invitation sent by the legendary team FC Barcelona to attend its October Clasico match next week against Real Madrid. Sarsak will not make the trip because FC Barcelona wants him there to mute planned protests against the presence of another person invited to attend the match, former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Sergeant Major Gilad Shalit. Shalit is an Israeli folk hero after being a prisoner of war for five years, captured by Hamas in Gaza on June 25, 2006, on the cusp of Israel’s brutal 2006 bombing campaign in Lebanon, known as the “July War.” One of the many circulated petitions protesting the Shalit invite was specifically written and signed by Palestinian soccer players and endorsed by entire clubs. Their petition read:
“We, Palestinian footballers, athletes and sporting organizations and officials, are dismayed to learn the great team of Barcelona will host Gilad Shalit to the Clasico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, on October 7th, while more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting, many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released….Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine."
FC Barcelona had to respond to the torrent of criticism on its website, stating that contrary to reports it did not in fact invite Shalit itself but “accepted a request” from Israeli authorities to have Shalit “watch a match during his visit to Barcelona.” In the same press release, Barcelona announced its intent to unite Shalit and Sarsak as a symbol of efforts to bring “peace and harmony to the Middle East.”
But this is one game Sarsak wouldn’t play. As Sarsak said of Sgt. Maj. Shalit, “His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
Sarsak also made clear that understood that the roots of the invite wasn’t a desire for “peace and harmony” but a response to protest. “I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.”
The courage of this decision is very real. Not only was Sarsak rejecting FC Barcelona but also his own Palestinian embassy officials who formally asked him to attend. He was making clear that peace and harmony with Sgt. Maj. Gilad Shalit in the current circumstances would do more harm than good, selling the idea that peace under the current circumstances of quarantine and occupation was a peace worth having. As Sarsak said, “I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona but not [as] an invitation for normalization.”
Sarsak also stated that he didn’t want anyone to interpret his rejection of the invite as a refusal to speak out politically about his time behind bars. “It is a great honor and it is a victory for a Palestinian prisoner and for the Palestinian cause and a victory for our principles and stances that a prisoner who is at the same time an athlete should go out and explain the suffering of his people,” he said. “But in the presence of the soldier Gilad Shalit on the same stands, I will refuse this invitation.”
The NFL referee lockout is over and we now have an answer to the question, “What does it take to pierce the shame-free cocoon of unreality where NFL owners reside?” All you need, it seems, is condemnation across the political spectrum ranging from the president of the United States to small-town mayors, to even anti-union corporate lickspittles like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. All you need is one of your flagship teams, the Green Bay Packers, publicly threatening to strike or “take a knee on every play.” All you need are your star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees blasting your product. All you need are online petitions with miles of signatures and 70,000 fans calling the league offices in the twenty-four hours following the debacle of a Monday night game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. All of this collective scorn finally punctured the owners’ magical mental space, bringing them to the negotiating table to settle.
The deal is damn near a slam dunk for the NFL referees. Remember the root of this lockout was two-fold: the league wanted to end the pension system and ban refs from holding jobs outside of the sport. Now the league will continue—and even increase—the pension payouts for the next five years before a negotiated transfer to a 401(k). Refs will also be given a 25 percent hike in pay starting next year, with more salary increases until the end of the seven-year agreement. The NFL owners wanted to hire twenty-one more officials to phase in as full-time employees. The refs agreed to seven new full-time hires, and no restrictions on their own abilities to take outside work. In other words, Roger Goodell and the owners were shellacked by the same people they locked out, dismissed, and disrespected. The now infamous words of NFL VP Ray Anderson, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game,” is now the league’s version of “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”
But there is a bigger story here as well: the entire country received a high-def, prime-time lesson in the difference between skilled, union labor and a ramshackle operation of unskilled scabs. When Scott Walker is sticking up for the union, you know we’ve arrived at a teachable moment worth shouting from the hills. People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment. We should ask not only the Scott Walkers of the world but politicians of both parties drinking from the same neoliberal fever-swamp, Why do you think we need skilled union labor on the football field but not in our firehouses, our classrooms, or even our uranium facilities? Similarly players need to be asking questions to the owners: how can you actually posture like you care about our health and safety ever again after subjecting us to this hazardous environment the first three weeks of the season—or, as Drew Brees tweeted, “Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?”
Lastly, it’s another embarrassment after a year of embarrassments, for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has through his arrogance placed an asterisk on this season, left an indelible mark on his legacy as commissionerand created a crisis of confidence in his ability to do his job. He learned that people may not pay to watch referees, but they do pay to watch a competently officiated contest. He also hopefully learned that if there’s one thing people don’t pay to watch, it’s him: sweating before the cameras and doing his damnedest to make the NFL a reflection of the worst corporate arrogance. Hear the message, Roger. This $9 billion league? This unprecedented popularity? This immense national audience? You didn’t build that. Your owners didn’t build that. Your sponsors didn’t build that. It was built by the blood, sweat and tears of those on the field of play, including the referees. It was built by fans who invest their passion and the taxpayers who have underwritten your archipelago of mega-domes in cities across the country. I can’t wait for the union refs to be cheered when they take the field this weekend. We may go back to booing them after the first play, but it will be with respect: respect earned because they stood as one and beat the NFL bosses.
For more on the referee lockout, watch Dave Zirin talk about how the dispute highlighted the problem of class in the US on Democracy Now!
In the ongoing lockout of NFL referees, we have officially now made the journey from tragedy to farce. The tragedy is a collection of team owners sacrificing the very integrity of their sport and risking the very health of its players over a pittance. The farce was last night’s game where the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in a game decided by a blown call that, as ESPN commentator Herm Edwards put it, “Four drunk guys in a bar could have gotten right.”
The tragedy is that there is no settlement, fans are outraged and a preventable brutal injury is just lurking around the corner because the league’s “first responders” are rank, scab incompetents.
The farce is that the NFL owners are so isolated that they can’t see that everyone wants the union refs back, even the Governor whose political fortunes are underwritten by right-wing, anti-labor billionaires: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Yes, that Scott Walker. The same governor who waged war on union teachers and firefighters without care for the social costs, wants his union refs back. Late last night, the Green Bay Packers fan tweeted, “After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs.” The gall of Scott Walker possesses the power of a tsunami.
At least we know where the governor’s priorities are. Unskilled, underpaid, poorly performing teachers and firefighters don’t trouble him. Poorly officiated NFL games do. Maybe he’ll call the Wisconsin National Guard on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as that’s his preferred negotiating tactic.
The only way we’re going to break this cycle of tragedy and farce is the self-activity of players themselves.
It’s their health, their safety and the integrity of their game on the line. If fans boycotted, the money toward owners would still flow in the form of television money and luxury boxes. The only thing that dams the mighty $9 billion revenue stream of the National Football League is if the players refuse to play. The current NFL is in a state of crisis because of management. But a solution can be posed by labor.
For more on the NFL referee lockout, read Dave Zirin's previous post.
As a child, my family owned just one lonely Zenith-brand television with no remote and no cable box. My fearsome big sister controlled the set under threat of violence and would subject me to the lowest form of entertainment: bloopers. Shows like TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes or its sad network competition Foul-Ups, Bleeps, and Blunders—which was co-hosted, amazingly, by Don Rickles—blared throughout our house and like a squat, Jewish Scarlett O’Hara, I swore I would never watch such dreck again.
But now the National Football League owners and their Commissioner Roger Goodell, in their infinite greed, have returned the blooper show to the airwaves with the weekly hijinks of their stumbling, bumbling, scab referees. The lockout of union refs has turned the nation’s Sunday NFL ritual into a profane farce. You could look at it as a living argument for the importance of trained union labor, or like a dangerous practical joke: a group of Sacha Baron Cohens in black and white stripes poking at fans and players to see just how much they’ll take before they snap.
Yesterday we were served the spectacle of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh berating some meek scab into giving him both an extra challenge flag and an additional timeout. Then there was the sight of the referee who threw his hat on the field of play, causing receiver Kevin Ogletree to step on it and slip awkwardly in the end zone. Fortunately, his knee ligaments remained attached. But this was all high comedy compared to seeing helmet-to-helmet hits go unregulated, Bill Belichick physically accosting an official and 70,000 fans in Baltimore chanting “bullsh*t” in unison for a solid minute. The owners might want to note that it’s only funny until the peasants grab pitchforks.
Then there are the announcers who with few exceptions talk about these foul-ups, bleeps and blunders like Roger Goodell has electrodes attached to their nether-regions, ready to zap at the slightest critique. In the game I was watching most intently, Washington against the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like I was viewing Soviet state television. Replays weren’t shown to the television audience after missed calls; commercial breaks would cut in rather than dwell on errant whistles; and worst of all, when mentioned, the announcers would speak reverently of the struggles of “replacement referees.” Calling these scabs “replacement referees” is like calling a befouled outhouse a “replacement toilet.” Scour across every minute of every broadcast and the word “scab” is going unuttered. To call them otherwise is like calling a flasher in Central Park a “penile exposure expert.” Their very existence on this elevated cultural plane degrades all labor, organized or not. Their incompetence is an affront to fans and an actual physical danger to players.
The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is that the NFL Players Association is finally being proactive in trying to end this. On September 20 the NFLPA Executive Committee, which includes current players like Drew Brees and Charlie Batch, sent a scathing letter addressed to the owners of NFL teams where they said, in part:
Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.… The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling.… We are all men who love and respect this game and believe that it represents something beyond just money. For our teammates, our coaches and our fans who deserve better, vote to end this lockout now.
This letter represents an escalation in the NFLPA’s rhetoric and direct involvement in the lockout. The next step would be if the players announce that they would not take the field if scabs are also there to officiate. Such a move would end the lockout faster than RG III’s forty-yard sprint-time. Critics will say that a secondary strike might not be legal. Perhaps, but allowing players to put their health in the hands of such incompetents isn’t ethical and the NFLPA has a specific charge to safeguard the safety of the players. They are also the only force in the game capable of ending the madness. We could organize a historic fan boycott 1,000,000 strong and it wouldn’t even make a micro-dent in the NFL’s profit margins. But if only two players on each team, the offensive and defensive captains, held a ten-minute press conference saying that the lockout has to end or no more football, then it would end. They would also be showing the bosses who’s boss. It’s time for a secondary-strike so we can quickly move beyond what is quickly becoming one of the darker chapters in NFL history. Please do it, before someone really gets hurt.
Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin interviewed Rio de Janeiro mayoral candidate Marcelo Frexio on September 18, 2012.
No matter the host city, no matter the country, the International Olympic Committee depends on compliance from local politicians to achieve its objectives. It needs to displace locals, a massive security apparatus and access to public funds. But there may be a “fly in the ointment” waiting for it in Rio for the 2016 games, and he is mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo.
Currently there are eight people running to be mayor of this city of 6.3 million people. Leading the pack is the longtime incumbent, Eduardo Paes, who has fit very snugly in the back pocket of the IOC, not to mention the real estate and private transportation barons funding his campaign. Second is Marcelo Freixo from PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party. Paes is polling at 54 percent of the vote and Freixo stands at 18 percent in the field of eight, with no one else over 2 percent. But what matters when the polls close on October 7 is whether Paes finishes at under 50 percent. Then he would face Freixo in a one-on-one runoff with equal television time mandated by law. Paes’s financial advantage, which is thirty times Freixo’s, would be blunted. It would become a battle of grassroots enthusiasm and on that score, based on the rallies I’ve attended and posters in the favelas, Freixo could win. This would prompt a massive change in Rio’s Olympic agenda.
The October 7 elections may not attract the eyes of the world, but they have captured the nervous attention of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the IOC. They’re right to be nervous. As Freixo says, “They don’t want [to deal with] a mayor. They want a functionary.”
Freixo is 45 years old but appears ten years younger, topped by a thick head of dark hair without a hint of gray. He’s a state assemblyman, former schoolteacher, human rights activist and prison educator. He achieved renown by challenging Rio’s brutal private militias after they murdered his brother in 2005. Freixo speaks with a scratchy, hoarse voice under hooded eyes, a sign of the 24-7 grassroots campaign that has him speaking constantly across the city.
Here we speak to Marcelo Freixo.
Dave Zirin: Why are you running for mayor and what do you hope to bring to the city?
Marcelo Freixo: This is possibly the most important election in the history of Rio. What’s being contested is the future of the city. Rio is on a schedule of change now that no other city in the world has and this calendar [this pace] is bringing very profound changes to the city. The hegemonic project that is being developed right now will create a more unequal city. In this context, I accepted when I was asked to enter this contest for mayor. It will be a very difficult fight, but it’s very important.
What is your assessment of the preparations for the Olympics and the World Cup here in Rio?
The truth is that the preparations are attending to the interests of big corporations and not of society. We had the experience of the Pan American games in 2007 where no benefits were brought to the city. We have currently a city with enormous investments, but also enormous social aggravators. The federal ministry of health recently released a study showing the Rio has the worst public health system on offer in all of Brazil. Additionally, we have precarious and very expensive public transport. We also have a very low-quality education system—one of the worst. So it’s a city with enormous investments taking place, but one that can’t guarantee a minimum standard of living for its citizens.
If you are elected mayor, what would you be able to do differently with regards to the Olympics and World Cup—which of course are coming to Rio no matter what? What would you be able to do in power to mitigate the worst effects of these mega-events on the poor?
The investments being brought here should be thinking about the city and not just profits. They should be directed towards things that will benefit the poor like transportation and increasing transparency. These are things that can improve with the staging of these events.
The transparency of how these resources are being spent would change [if I’m elected]. Right now there’s absolutely no transparency in the investments or in the construction that’s happening. The construction works are being made to benefit the construction companies and not the population. The Olympics must leave a positive legacy for the population.
If you are elected mayor, would you be able to promise that there would be no involuntary displacements for the Olympics and World Cup?
I’m radically against the politics of evictions. The way they are happening today is illegal and arbitrary. The law determines that the priority should be the upgrading of the resident’s home. And that if it’s necessary that the house is removed, that the residents are relocated nearby. That’s not what is happening today. The evictions today are just attending to the needs of real estate speculation. Take the federal government’s “Minha Casa, Minha Vida”—my house, my life—program. [This is a federally administered public and affordable housing program]. For residents in this program who earn zero to three times the minimum wage, the lowest income-earners, 87 percent of them have been relocated in the extreme west zone which is without basic sanitation, schools or hospitals.
I know people connected to the IOC who say that it’s their worst nightmare, the thought of you being elected mayor. Do you want to say anything to calm their concerns?
The people from the IOC need to know the city a bit better. My only objective is to ensure the interests of society are higher than private interests. But I’m happy to know that they are worried…. The IOC does not want a mayor, they want a functionary who will carry out their plans.
A question about the social movements of which you are part: do you think that whether or not you are elected that the social movements will grow and take a strong stand to make sure that people are put ahead of profit with regard to the Olympic and World Cup planning?
The social movements are growing increasingly strong here. In the 1990s we suffered a decline in the movements, but I think now in this moment they are increasing. And that’s what is giving our campaign increasing dynamism. Our campaign has managed to bring together many of these movements, which is rare because the social movements rarely dialogue with electoral politics. Independently of the outcome of the election, I believe the social movements are gaining strength, and after the elections they will emerge stronger. Today there was a very interesting article in O Globo newspaper that’s worth reading. It talks about “rebellious Rio” and it mentions our campaign. It talks about the rebellious side of Rio that is coming back, and that is reflected in this campaign.
The Olympics are seen as the “crown jewel” of [former Brazilian President] Lula’s tenure as the leader of Brazil. Has the reign of the Workers Party been helpful or destructive to the growth of the left in Brazil today?
The arrival of Lula in power actually weakened social movements initially because it co-opted them. These were people who had historically fought side by side with the PT [Lula’s Worker’s Party] and with Lula. So they naturally wanted to go with Lula, but many of them were co-opted as Lula moved to the right during his time in office.
One of the damaging aspects of this is that for young people, it looks like all parties are the same. That they all form coalitions and come to power and behave in a similarly corrupt way.
Lula is now allied with Fernando Collar who was impeached in the early 1990s, and with Sarne, who was a corrupt politician, Brazil’s first democratically elected president [after the end of the military dictatorship]. They’re all now aligned in the government. This generated amongst the population a sense that “they’re all the same.” That’s very difficult to reverse. We are working on this, trying to reverse this perception: that’s why our campaign has involved social movements as well as many young people.
What do you say to people who say that neoliberalism has been good for Brazil? That there’s more stability, not just for tourists, but for the poor as well, that people have been lifted out of poverty, etc?
We have some social assistance programs that are very strong, that is true. But in terms of distribution of wealth, Brazil is still a country of latifundios: there is still an enormous concentration of land ownership that actually has gotten worse. It’s still one of the most unequal countries in the world. There’s a prevailing idea of growth that is more focused on corporations and agribusiness than on the people who need the land. But of course, if you compare Lula with his predecessor Cardoso, there are advances but fewer than we could have had. And that’s the problem. Because we compare him with Cardoso, and not with what is possible in terms of really eliminating inequality.
It’s very common to hear political commentators in the United States say that “socialism” is a word for the twentieth century and not the twenty-first century. But your candidacy has been very successful here as a PSOL candidate. What do you say to people who say that socialism is an ideology of the past and not the future?
Of course, we are not going to create socialism by winning one election in Rio. I’m running for office, and not running a revolution. But there are political principles at stake: the conception of the public servant, what is the role of the state, transparency, the relationship with youth. Why education and healthcare should be priorities. Even well short of a revolution, we can achieve significant changes in all these areas.
I believe you once headed a union of teachers—is that correct?
Yes, many years ago.
The teachers of Chicago just ended their strike of the third-largest teacher’s union in the United States. Do you have any words of solidarity for them?
The ideal is that we never need a strike. That teachers are always seen as important and that they are valued as such, and the importance of public education is recognized. But many governments don’t see it in their interests to have quality public education—they are actually fearful of quality public education, because they fear people being educated and informed. The more the people can think, the more they can act. And in this sense, there is no other path, the teachers have to fight.
For more on the politics of the 2016 Olympics, read Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”
Carlos Tukano worries that the hundred-year-old Indigenous Cultural Center will be demolished for Maracanã Stadium parking spaces.
Carlos Tukano is around 50, give or take a few years. He’s an indigenous Brazilian born in the state of Amazonas who worked for thirty years to build a collective organization of Brazil’s dozens of indigenous groups. Now he lives in Rio and cannot sleep.
There’s no sleeping when a 1 billion Real ($500 million) fast-track construction project is happening next door, with twenty-four-hours-a-day of deafening noise: of jackhammers, cranes and whistles that mark the shift-changes of blue-overalled construction workers.
It’s the price of living adjacent to perhaps the most famous sports arena on earth, Maracanã Stadium, now undergoing a massive facelift in preparation for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
That’s not the only reason Carlos can’t sleep. He lives with eleven other families in the remains of the city’s abandoned Indigenous Cultural Center, and all the residents fear they will be swept away with the construction’s debris.
The families live in trailers next to the museum in protest of its dilapidation, disrespect and neglect. Founded in 1910, the Indigenous Cultural Center is an achingly beautiful three-story structure with twenty-foot-high ceilings and a world of history. While the formal museum is gone, there are now several makeshift exhibits and cultural displays put in place by the current occupiers, but the interior is in terrible disrepair. The floors are covered in rubble. The wrought-iron stairs still have their skeletal shape, but the handrails and marble stair treads are ripped out. Climbing them is like going up sixty feet on an diagonal ladder, and it’s a long way down.
But the site has a history that reaches back decades. It was one of the first indigenous cultural museum’s in the Western Hemisphere, built just two decades after the country formally abolished indigenous enslavement. “We speak to the government and they just put us off,” says Carlos. “But we will not leave because we want a place to show the power, history and pride of the indigenous people.”
The entire structure could be rebuilt for 20 million real, a pittance compared to the Maracanã rebuild. This is particularly so considering that five years ago, the government spent 400 million reals to refurbish the stadium—changes that are now being completely demolished in the current renovations.
With only a fraction of these funds, the Indigenous Cultural Center could become a symbol of Brazil’s rich and diverse history. It could even be an attraction for those coming to Rio for the World Cup and Olympics, a feel-good advertisement for the beneficence of the Brazilian state. Instead, it’s slated to become parking lots.
This is why one of the occupiers, Arrasari, says, “I am not moving. I will stay until I am not more than a pillar of salt. They think we’ll go because they’ve cut us down like trees. But the root remains.”
The same logic that drives the bulldozing of the Indigenous Cultural Center into parking space mirrors the renovation of the Maracanã itself. The “Circus Maximus” of Brazil’s soccer-loving multitudes, with a capacity that could once stretch to 200,000, is being downsized, sanitized and utterly transformed. The new Maracana will seat only 70,000 people, ringed by luxury boxes, and is intended be sold off to private business interests after the 2016 games.
As Chris Gaffney, a professor of architecture and urbanism in Rio who writes and organizes on the effects of mega-event,s said, “It’s the killing of popular space in order to sell Brazil’s culture to an international audience.”
Rebuilding the Maracana is a twenty-four-hour job: three eight-hour shifts, a constant flow of workers rebuilding their stadium into a structure they won’t be able to afford to enter.
In the meantime, Carlos cannot sleep. Outside his bedroom hangs a billboard displaying for passers-by the new Maracana. It’s topped by a Brazilian flag with the slogan, “Brazil: A country for everyone.” From a distance, we can call this irony. For Carlos, it’s an obscenity.
For more stories of Olympic injustice, see Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”