Dave Zirin | The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Big Trouble in Little Havana: The Perilous Politics of Ozzie Guillen

Short of a hurricane or an armed taxpayer revolt, this had to have been Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria’s worst nightmare. Loria was opening a new state-of-the-art, tax-funded stadium in Little Havana that will cost the city $2 billion over the next forty years. He also paid out several hundred million dollars in salary for free agents, making his new ballplayers the nation’s wealthiest public employees. This was the last, best, chance to sell baseball in South Florida. Loria desperately needed a hot start for his team and some sugary-sweet media coverage for his new ballpark. Then his new manager, Ozzie Guillen, decided to share his views about Cuba and Fidel Castro. Guillen tends to talk without a filter, and in an interview with Time magazine, he revealed that he happens to not believe that Castro is Satan incarnate. Saying that he “loved” Castro, Guillen explained, “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a b—— is still here.”

Casual kind words for Castro in Miami is akin to looking at a leaky bottle of kerosene and thinking it could use a match. Now, we haven’t seen outrage like this in South Florida since butterfly ballots and hanging chads.

The Miami Marlins immediately released a condemnation of Guillen, but that couldn’t stop a volcanic political explosion. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called on the organization “to take decisive steps” against Guillen in the name of “freedom-loving people.” Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez demanded Guillen’s resignation. Cuban-American State Senator and Hispanic caucus chair Rene Garcia—in record time!—sent an open letter published in the Miami Herald calling Guillen’s comments “appalling” and said he was “looking forward to further actions taken against him for his deplorable comments.” Garcia also stuck Loria in the ribs by including, “What I also consider disturbing is the fact that the Miami Marlins received tax dollars from this community, including Cuban-American exiles, to fund the construction of the new stadium.” Suffice it to say, many a sports commentator also want Guillen fired or suspended. In their frothy anger, they have a common demand with the Cuban hardline exile group Vigilia Mambisa. An organization that has never shied from street violence and intimidation, Vigilia Mambisa has called for protests in front of the stadium until the Miami Marlins manager is fired.

As for Guillen, he has crumbled under the weight of all this, saying that he is now flying back to Florida to apologize in person to every animal, vegetable and mineral he might have offended. “I want them to know I’m against everything [in Cuba] 100 percent—I repeat it again—the way [Castro has been] treating people for the last 60 years.”

Let’s leave aside the rather glaring irony that the politicians, sports commentators and Cuban exiles want to show their love of freedom by taking Guillen’s job for the crime of exercising free speech. The fact is that when looking for political consistency and clarity, Ozzie Guillen is not the best place to start. The Venezuela-born Guillen’s comments on Castro are not very different from what he has always said about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He has made comments very favorable about Chávez and very negative. He said, “Viva Chávez” after his Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. He has also been one of Chávez’s most high-profile critics.

Trying to make sense of Guillen based on public utterances is a fool’s errand. As someone who knows people that talk to Guillen when the cameras are off, I will try to explain his actual politics on Venezuela and Cuba. Guillen is big on a collective Latin American pride and will not abide anti-immigrant and anti-Latino words or deeds. He has a great deal of respect for the way Castro and Chávez stand up to the United States. He opposes efforts by the United States to impose its will on these countries and wishes the rest of Latin America would show similar mettle. It’s not a question of the relative good or bad of Cuba’s internal politics. It’s a question of independence. He’s also as gung-ho for the United States as any manager in baseball, going as far as to fine players for not showing proper respect for the National Anthem, a practice I criticized in 2005. I know that people love portraying Ozzie Guillen as an out-there, crazy kind of guy, and that’s in part because he is an out-there crazy kind of guy. But what’s crazier? Guillen’s views on Cuba or the fact that an aging coterie of people who mourn for the strong hand of Fulgencio Batista control the political debate in South Florida?

But this issue is bigger than Guillen and it’s bigger than Cuban exiles who dream of returning to a smoldering “free Havana,” with Castro’s head on a pike. It’s bigger than the petty hypocrisies of those who stand for freedom by denying it for others. It’s now about whether the ire produced by Guillen’s words will be directed against Loria, his grab of public funds and the entire Miami baseball operation. If that happens, this issue won’t die, but the Marlins might.

A Question of Human Rights: Keeping the F1 Racing Series Out of Bahrain

On April 22, the royal family of Bahrain is determined to stage its annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This might not sound like scintillating news, but whether the event goes off as planned is a question with major ramifications for the royal Khalifa family, as well as for the democracy movement in the gulf kingdom. It will also be viewed closely by the US State Department and human rights organizations across the globe. From a renowned prisoner on a two-month hunger strike to a British billionaire fascist sympathizer, the sides have been sharply drawn.

For the Bahraini royals, staging the Formula 1 race is a chance to show the people that normalcy has returned following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests. In 2011, the race was cancelled to the rage of the royals. Now, the royal family is hoping that the sixty people slaughtered by Bahraini and Saudi forces, as well as the thousands arrested and tortured, can be forgotten in the roar of the engines.

For those protesting in the name of expanded political and personal freedoms, the return of the F1 racing series as a slap in the face, given all they’ve suffered in the last year and continue to suffer today. Now the protest movement and human rights organizations are calling upon Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula 1 Grand Prix, to cancel the race.

Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said:

The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place. The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year’s martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.

At a mass anti-F1 rally, Ali Mohammed commented to the AP, “We don’t want Formula [1] in our country. They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”

Then there is prominent activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than fifty days. Calls for his immediate release have merged with calls for the F1 cancellation. Protesters are described as holding al-Khawaja’s picture in one hand, and a “no to F1” sign in the other.

1996 F1 champion Damon Hill of the UK, who is now a commentator for Sky News also expressed his concern, saying, “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about. Looking at it today you’d have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”

One might think that all of this would pose a moral and ethical quandary for 81-year-old Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. One would be wrong. The multi-billionaire Ecclestone, the fourth richest man in England, has done little more than roll his eyes. In February, when hundreds were arrested and tortured for protesting on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, he was asked if the F1 race would be pulled. He said, “I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.”

In March, Ecclestone said of the plans for Bahrain, “It’s business as usual. I don’t think the people who are trying to demonstrate a little bit are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did they would be a little bit silly…. The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to.” There is no word as to what color the sky is in Ecclestone’s world or if at the conclusion of this interview, he released the hounds.

Not to shock anyone, but this 81-year-old British billionaire has in the past expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, and by “past” I mean 2009. During an interview in July of that year, Ecclestone said, “Apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done…. If you have a look at a democracy it hasn’t done a lot of good for many countries—including this one.”

This is an ugly twisted old brute, but say this for him: at least he commented when asked about Bahrain. That’s far more that we can say for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote, “President Obama…loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.” This isn’t just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another fifty years. It appears that this favor has bought silence and that’s exactly why we need to be loud. The call has gone out form inside of Bahrain to call upon Formula 1 to cancel this race. We should do our part.

People can e-mail business@formula1.com and tell them their feelings. For more information, visit http://witnessbahrain.org or www.bahrainhrd.org/act_now.

Preserving the Bounty: Gregg Williams, the Saints, and the Audio the NFL Wants You to Hear

First, the facts: Sounding like Garrison Keillor doing an impression of Robert De Niro as Al Capone, we now have audiotape of former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams telling his team to intentionally maim their playoff opponents, the San Francisco 49ers. Recorded without his knowledge, Williams is heard saying, "We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill [49er running back] Frank Gore's head.” Of quarterback Alex Smith, he says, "Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head." Williams was already serving an indefinite suspension issued by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for placing bounties on players from opposing teams.

Documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released the damning audio, recording Williams during the process of following former Saint Steve Gleason who is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Gleason was supposed to have say over what Pamphilon recorded and made public, and said that he was "deflated and disappointed" that Pamphilon released the audio without his approval.

Pamphilon also released the audio the day before Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and Assistant Coach Joe Vitt were to appear before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an effort to get their own Gregg Williams/bounty related suspensions reduced.

In a statement, Pamphilon said,

If this story hadn't broken and been made public, I would not have shared this. I would not have compromised my personal relationships and risked damaging Steve Gleason's relationship with the Saints. I would have crafted these words and sentiments for another forum, perhaps years down the road. ...If it weren't for the fact I feel deeply that parents of children playing football MUST pay attention to the influence of men who will sacrifice their kids for W's, I would not have written this. ...Some will call me releasing this audio for fame or money grab. True haters will call it exploitation. People of character and conscience call it was it is: true.

Those are facts. Now some opinion: color me very skeptical of this entire story. I’m skeptical of the timing of the audio being released the day before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt plead for mercy to try and salvage their 2012 season. I’m skeptical of the media outrage roiling from coast to coast. And most of all, I’m deeply skeptical of Roger Goodell.

Imagine if we had audio of all thirty-two NFL locker rooms. Imagine how our stomachs would turn at the way grown men are riled into fits of violence for our collective entertainment. To think that this kind of language is in New Orleans alone is to live in a demented kind of denial. Over the last month, I’ve spoken with former and current NFL players — on and off the record — who say the same. Many of Williams’s former players swear by him. Many other players shrug their shoulders and say variants of, “This is the life we have chosen.” It’s a violent game where violent words are used to compel violent deeds. To pretend otherwise, is to play the fool.

In addition, I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motives, but it’s very difficult to not look at Mr. Pamphilon with anything but deep suspicion. It’s not his self-serving statement where he seems to see himself as some cross between Michael Moore and Karen Silkwood. It’s not the Linda Tripp move of releasing the audio of someone who didn’t know he was being recorded. It’s not even the fact that he consciously abused the trust of the ALS suffering Steve Gleason, which just feels scummy. It’s the fact that Mr. Pamphilon, a mainstream documentarian who directed one of the acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30 films, chooses to drop this bomb right before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt's appeal. If he wanted optimum damage aimed at further boosting Goodell’s public image as Wyatt Earp of a lawless Saints franchise, he couldn’t have picked a better moment to develop a conscience.

In the end, it all comes back around to Roger Goodell and his motives. Yes, Gregg Williams’ language and coaching "instructions" are contemptible. Yes, he is now officially radioactive and will probably never work again. Payton might also now be unemployable, at least with the Saints. But if Goodell were serious about stopping bounties and violent directives that precede violent deeds, then every team would be investigated. Dozens of coaches would be suspended. Every week for the next several years would bring more revelations about the violence and rot that exists beneath the three hours of highly commodified violence we enjoy every Sunday. If Goodell were serious about making the league safer, he would finally abandon his fierce efforts for a longer eighteen game season. He’d improve the access to medical care for retired players. He’d settle amicably with the more than 1,000 former NFL players seeking redress for head injuries endured while playing the game. But he doesn't because it’s far easier to have the Saints be exampled and take the weight for the entire league. Goodell isn’t so much Wyatt Earp as he is Game of Thrones' King Joffrey: vicious, callow, and in the most profound sense, a hypocrite. This is not about changing the lucrative status quo. It's about preserving it and having the Saints carry the sins of an entire league.

Players Getting Played: Why a Look at the NCAA’s Past Makes Me Weep for Its Future

A very common narrative, as we approach the men's NCAA basketball finals between Kentucky and Kansas, is that after this year’s round of March Madness, change will truly be on the march. The argument goes that scandal is so widespread, the NCAA will have to enact common sense reforms or risk collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. As the great Charles Pierce wrote for Grantland, “The paradigm is shifting under their feet, and the people running the NCAA know it….It's taken longer than it did for golf and tennis, and even longer than it took for the Olympics, but the amateur burlesque in American college sports is on its way to crashing and the only remaining question is how hard it will fall. The farce is becoming unsupportable.”

As much as I’d like to believe that shame and scandal would cause the NCAA to change in a positive fashion, the past tells us a different story. It’s worth remembering the NCAA's post-war scandals and the change they wrought. This shows in stark terms that when it comes to the NCAA, change doesn’t always mean progress.

The post WW II terrain in college sports was a wild west of gambling, point shaving and pay for play scandals. The mass expansion of higher education and the growth of radio and television technology created new alliances, new audiences and new revenue streams in every corner of the country. Jeff Cravath, the football coach at USC said that the game, "Reduced players to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos. The alumni demand winning football teams. To get winning teams, colleges must violate the rules they themselves have made." Jim Aiken, the head coach at the University of Oregon was more blunt: "If you have to choose between breaking the rules and losing games, wouldn't it be better to break the rules? If you lose your games you're certain to be fired. If you break the rules, you have to get caught to be fired."

No where was the corruption seen more visibly than at the City College of New York. City College was the preeminent basketball power in the country, having won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950. The following season, it all came tumbling down. In February 1951 three players were arrested on bribery charges, and that was just for openers. By the end of March, seventeen New York City college basketball players had been arrested. Eventually, District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested thirt-two players from seven colleges who fixed eighty-six games between 1947 and 1950.

As the great sports writer Maury Allen wrote, "That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism. For these guys to sell out their school and themselves and their careers for eight hundred dollars, for a thousand dollars, for fifteen hundred dollars was just such an emotional blow....You never really recover from something like that. It is a wound in your psyche that lasts all your life."

In Allen's words we see the dominant view of the scandal: the players were sellouts. They had sold out their school and their sport, and they were bought cheaply.

As Stanley Cohen wrote,

They were poor, most of them, they needed the money. But that is a reason, not an explanation. It explains only why they were willing to dump for relatively small sums. None of the players had about him the mood of a criminal. If they had not been college basketball players, it is not likely they would have ended up in the courts. They would not have stolen the money. They would not have robbed banks or knocked over gas stations or rolled drunks in Central Park. The likelihood is that most of them had committed the one crime for profit of which they were capable. They of course, functioned in an environment in which it might have been more difficult to play it straight than it was to accept a bribe. For point-shaving was as much a part of college basketball in the forties and fifties as the two-hand set shot.

Cohen was correct. This was a far more pervasive issue than just City College or New York City. Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky coach, blamed it on East Coast gamblers, saying, "They couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." He was wrong. Three players from the Wildcats' 1949 championship team were found to be involved and Kentucky had to suspend its basketball program for a year.

As for the City College team, most came from poor working class backgrounds and the NCAA made sure that all the weight of scandal was on their young shoulders.  The NCAA pointed at these 20-year-old bogeymen and promised change and a new system of accountability. And change they did. Power was consolidated in what former NCAA President Walter Byers described as a top down, authoritarian, "plantation system."  Now as a matter of course, when scandal struck players would always take the fall, coaches would be absolved just by going to another program, and the NCAA would have the power to spread the gospel of sham-amateurism from a throne of gold. Never would the NCAA look at the system with the critical eye expressed by Aiken and Cravath. Never would the NCAA taken a step back and acknowledge that the root of the problem might be that they were making billions off of unpaid labor. Their delusions that they are somehow moral agents of amateur sports has only actually strengthened with each scandal. Charles Pierce relayed that after the Final Four, the NCAA press officers repeatedly harangued reporters at the post-game press conference to not refer to the Kentucky and Kansas jocks as “players” but as “student athletes.” But they are players: players who are still getting played.

Did Magic Johnson Really Buy the Dodgers?

The headline was as exciting and engaging as the man himself. “Magic Johnson buys Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion dollars.” Whoa. You don't know which part of that newsflash to start with first. Like one of his signature no look passes, it's a headline that commands attention and sends your eyes in numerous directions.

There's that price tag of $2 billion dollars, the highest amount by far ever paid for a pro sports franchise. There's the fans' relief that the Dodgers, buried under the dubious accounting practices of former owner Frank McCourt, aka “Frank McBankupt,” would finally be on secure financial ground. But most of all, there is Magic himself.

Just as he, along with Larry Bird, is credited with transforming the NBA from something destitute to a feel-good global brand, he would now try to do the same for the Dodgers. Magic would be the King of Los Angeles, rehabilitating a team whose reputation had been shredded in the eyes of the local populace and fell short last year of 3 million in home attendance for the first time in two decades.

This headline also held the promise of history. In buying the team of Jackie Robinson, Magic would be desegregating the ownership suites of Major League Baseball.

But like a Magic pass, this headline also held its share of misdirection. The real players behind the curtain are a financial services firm called Guggenheim Partners. The actual General Managing Partner of the team, the true owner, is Guggenheim CEO Mark Walter. “Mark Walter buys Dodgers” is a decidedly less flashy headline.

We don't actually know how much of his own money Magic paid. This is because Major League Baseball and the Dodgers are classified as private companies and are under no obligation to disclose the details. This is in itself criminal given the billions of public dollars larded into MLB coffers for the construction of new ballparks. The books should be wide open for all to see. The Dodgers have also received a flood of public funds in the refurbishing of their own stadium and the fact that last year, the LAPD on the city's dime took over stadium security a San Francisco Giants fan was almost beaten to death in an unlit and unsupervised parking lot.

Most likely, Magic is a figurehead on a buy that looks worse the further you look beyond that billion dollar smile.

Based on early reports, this is a highly leveraged deal and Guggenheim Partners are counting on securing a massive new cable television contract to pay back their costs. According to the LA Times, this will mean higher cable bills for all Angelenos whether you are a baseball fan or not. In other words, the cost of buying of the Dodgers will passed on to the already strapped city of Los Angeles. The real buyers, therefore, are not Magic and the Guggenheims but the people of Los Angeles, most of whom will never set foot inside the stadium.

It didn't have to be this way. Over the last two years, there was a movement of fans trying to buy the team, making it publicly owned in the model of the NFL's Green Bay Packers. Representative Janice Hahn was even elected to Congress on the promise that she would challenge the Byzantine anti-trust laws that prevent such a purchase. But instead of a situation where fans buy the Dodgers and profits are funneled back into the community—like Green Bay—we get Guggenheim Partners, a leveraged buy, and the public shouldering the cost. No matter how good Magic Johnson makes us feel, remember that his great talent was for misdirection. What we are witnessing in Los Angeles is not magic. It's a grift.

Trayvon Martin’s Death, LeBron James and the Miami Heat

“The thing is that, when you are a popular athlete, and you accept the money and the fame, and you become a front person for those who have the power, and they say be like this guy and kids that are coming up say, well, be like him, I won’t protest against anything, I’ll accept everything, I’ll just try to be a great athlete and make a lot of money. So a culture dies when you do that. You’re doing a great injustice to young kids that are coming up, and I never wanted to be a representation of less than a man and have young kids coming up emulating me.”  — Jim Brown 

The senseless killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed “neighborhood watch captain” has provoked anguish, rage and now, at long last, resistance. We’ve seen rallies, demonstrations and walkouts at dozens upon dozens of high schools in Florida alone. Even more remarkably, this resistance has found expression in the world of sports. An impressive group of NBA players from Carmelo Anthony to Steve Nash to the leaders of the NBA Players Association have spoken out and called for justice. 

The most notable and widely publicized example of athletic solidarity was seen on the NBA’s marquee team, the Miami Heat. The entire Heat squad posed for a photo, all wearing the now iconic hooded sweatshirts. Trayvon was wearing a “hoodie” when he was killed, and this fact has, maddeningly, been a central rationale given by his killer’s defenders for why he was perceived as a threat.

Of all teams in the league, the Heat had the greatest responsibility to step up and be heard. They were Trayvon’s favorite and he was killed that late afternoon after leaving his house for a snack during half-time of the NBA All-Star game, which featured the Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Given the depth of this movement, particularly in southern Florida, it’s not too surprising that the Heat made this powerful gesture. But maybe it is surprising for many fans to learn that the effort was driven by “The King” himself, LeBron James. The photo was reportedly James’s idea and it was first posted to his personal Twitter account with the hashtag #WeWantJustice.

James later said, “It was very emotional, an emotional day for all of us. Taking that picture, we’re happy that we’re able to shed light on the situation that we feel is unjust.”

His teammate Wade commented to the Associated Press, “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I’m speaking up because I feel it’s necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.”

Later, at their game on Friday night, James and several of his teammates, took the floor with messages such as “RIP Trayvon Martin” and “We want justice” scrawled on their sneakers.

LeBron’s actions might surprise fans given that he’s never publicly displayed a social conscience, but perhaps they shouldn’t. Years ago, before “The Decision,” before he “took his talents to South Beach,” before anyone burned his jersey, and before he became the sports world’s favorite villain, a young LeBron James—pegged already the most physically gifted basketball player to ever walk the earth—said he had two goals in life. One was to be the richest athlete in history and the other was to be “a global icon like Muhammad Ali.”

These might be two great goals, but they don’t exactly go great together. The contradiction is rooted in the fact that Ali remains a global icon because of the fame and fortune he sacrificed for what he believed to be the greater good. “The Greatest” took deeply unpopular stands against war, racism and even the mainstream civil rights movement. He was sentenced to five years in Leavenworth for opposing the draft, and said, “If I have to go to jail, I’ll go to jail happy.” He also shouted three words pro athletes are hardwired to never say: “Damn the money.” Lebron James would have miles to travel, millions of dollars to forsake and dozens of Confederate talk radio hosts to offend to ever be mentioned in the same breath as Ali. But this is a start.

The fact that LeBron James has used his exalted platform to speakout for Trayvon and his family even at the risk of his own bottom line, should be in these dark days, a great source of hope. Trayvon’s killing has motivated millions to wake up and give a damn about what rots beneath the mini-malls, gated communities and “security culture” that shades great swaths of our country. We all have a role to play in not only making sure there is justice for Trayvon but also in ensuring no other family or community has to suffer such a loss. If and when there is another killing rooted in fear and ignorance, we now have every right to ask LeBron, “What are you going to say now?” That’s the scary thing about choosing to give a damn. People will expect you to mean it.

Jackie Robinson, Trayvon Martin and the Sad History of Sanford, Florida

Sanford, Florida is a city that will now be known for all times as the place where Trayvon Martin was killed for the crime of Living While Black. It's in addition the place whose institutions—the police department, the local press, and even the city morgue—treated Trayvon and his body in ways that should disturb anyone with a shred of conscience.

The city of Sanford also has a past that speaks to the racism many believe to be at the heart of why Trayvon was killed and why the man who pulled the trigger was not arrested. I'm not arguing that Sanford, Florida, is somehow more or less twisted than anywhere else. Last month, unarmed, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was killed in his bathroom by police in New York City. Last week Dane Scott Jr. in Del City, Oklahoma, was killed by police after a “scuffle.” The state medical examiner's office, however, declared Scott's death a homicide. The murder of Trayvon Martin is a “local issue” only if we understand “local” to mean local communities across the country.

But Sanford, Florida, does have its own history and it includes a collective moment of intolerance and bigotry that almost derailed the man Martin Luther King Jr. called “a freedom rider before freedom rides,” Jackie Robinson.

Before Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he spent a season desegregating the minor leagues, playing for the Dodgers AAA team, the Montreal Royals. The Royals held Spring Training in Sanford.

Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, after so many years, thought he knew Florida. He believed that Robinson’s presence could go over if efforts were taken to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Robinson, on Rickey’s instructions, didn't try to stay at any Sanford hotels. He and his wife didn’t eat out at any restaurants not deemed “Negro restaurants." He didn't even dress in the same locker room as his teammates.

Rickey thought that would be enough. He thought he knew Florida. But he didn't know Sanford.

As Jean West, a school teacher in Florida, wrote, "Branch Rickey had miscalculated the degree to which Jim Crow was entrenched in Sanford. As an example, an inanimate object, a second-hand piano, purchased in 1924 from the courthouse for use in a segregated school in nearby Oviedo, was filed as a 'Negro Piano' in the school board's record; living human beings challenging segregation certainly would not be tolerated."

It wasn't. The mayor of Sanford was confronted by what the author describes as a "large group of white residents" who  "demanded that Robinson...be run out of town."

The Mayor caved. On March 5th, the Royals were informed that they would not be permitted to take the field as an integrated group. Rickey was concerned for Robinson’s life and sent him to stay in Daytona Beach.  His daughter, Sharon Robinson, remembered, "The Robinsons were run out of Sanford, Florida, with threats of violence."

This was a low moment for Jackie. The man whose number, 42, is retired throughout Major League Baseball almost quit and rejoined the Negro Leagues.

The team then took an extraordinary step. As the late tennis star Arthur Ashe wrote in A Hard Road to Glory, Rickey, ''moved the entire Dodger pre-season camp from Sanford, Florida, to Daytona Beach due to the oppressive conditions of Sanford.'' That sounds heroic and it speaks well for Rickey's fierce desire to forge ahead with “the Great Experiment,” racists be damned. But the mob in Sanford had made, at least for the moment, a successful stand. In cites and small towns across the South, Jackie Robinson’s mere presence provoked challenges to power and provoked real, meaningful change. In Sanford, change did not come that easily.

What does this tell us? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. If nothing else, the line between Jackie Robinson and Trayvon Martin points to how institutional and systemic racism actually is. We might have short memories, but institutions change only when they are confronted and challenged. In Sanford, racist institutions took root.  Now we bear the horrifying fruit.

Why I’m Shock-Raged by the New Orleans Saints Suspensions

I am so angered by the insane, over-the-top suspensions of Saints football coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, and pretty much everyone in New Orleans except for the cast of Treme, that I had to create a new word. I’m shock-raged. The entire 2012 season for a team that could rightly be called a Super Bowl favorite has been sliced to ribbons by the SportsWorld’s favorite judge, jury and executioner, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. By taking out the entire Saints brain trust, like he’s Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is sending one hell of a loud message. But cacophony is not the same as clarity. Most agree the Saints should have met with some punishment for having a “bounty system” against opposing players, but suspending the head coach for an entire season? Suspending the General Manager for eight games? Suspending former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely? Why?

Ask Roger Goodell, and he will say that the suspensions were so harsh because the league needed to protect players and take a stand against the culture of violence that bounties imply. But this fails the most basic of smell tests. If Goodell cared about player safety, he wouldn’t be pushing for an eighteen-game season. He wouldn’t have spent last off-season fighting the NFL Players Association on expanding health benefits or limiting “voluntary” off-season workouts. He wouldn’t be promoting Thursday-night games, which will accelerate injuries by giving players a shorter week to heal.

Goodell also said that the suspensions were so harsh because the Saints executives and coaches “misled” and “misrepresented” what was going on when called to his carpet. First of all, my own sources said that Payton and company arrived in Goodell’s lair with their hats in hand ready to name names like Elia Kazan on sodium pentothal. But even if they did “mislead” and “misrepresent” on bounties, think about the ways that Goodell has “misled” and misrepresented” the public about the true effects of violence in his sport. This is a league with a 100 percent injury rate, a concussion epidemic and a history of sending concussed players into games. It’s why they’re being sued by a large collection of former star players, including Jim McMahon, Mark Duper and Hall of Famers Carl Eller, John Hannah and Chuck Bednarik.

I am not saying that the Saints shouldn’t have been punished. There should be zero tolerance for any kind of a locker-room culture that abides a bounty system, but every NFL defense aims to “take out” the opposing team’s star player. They’ll say, and the Saints players have said, that the goal is always to do it “within the rules of the game.” I don’t doubt this. The problem is that the overwhelming number of crippling injuries all take place within the “rules of the game.” Violence is football and football is violence. That’s not a critique or value judgment. Just a fact.

The real reason Roger Goodell has smashed the Saints season is, as Jason Reid of the Washington Post put it, “brand protection at the highest level.” Goodell doesn’t work for the players. He works for the owners. No player on earth should believe he has their interests at heart. It’s just not his job. His job is selling the idea that the NFL, because of the padding, because of his wise rule changes, because of his system of deterrence, is violence without consequence. It’s just not true. He wants to send a message to all the skittish parents reading about concussions, to all the people complaining about a possible eighteen-game season and to the dozens of former players suing the league that the league’s violence can be controlled and regulated under his watchful eye. What an absolute sham. The sport is built on violence. If that’s too much for people to handle, then they can take their money elsewhere. If that makes a promising young player quit for other pursuits, so be it. But at least they’d be making an informed decision and not judging the game on fraudulent grounds.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, hopefully we can finally dispense with the fiction that the NFL has a special place in its heart for the city of New Orleans. We can stop saying that after Katrina, the NFL is the best friend the city has. Instead, expect an ailing Saints team to cost the still rebuilding city millions. This league is not your friend, Saints fans. I hope the season-ticket holders organize themselves like the former players and take the NFL to court. Roger Goodell thinks he lives above the law. But he shouldn’t be allowed to do this to the Saints, their fans, and the city of New Orleans, without legal consequence. Maybe Goodell will then be shock-raged for a change.

'Dear G-d': My Fervent Prayer That Tim Tebow Becomes a Miami Dolphin

Dear G-d,

Please, oh please: may the soon-to-be ex-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow sign with the Miami Dolphins. I know (at least I hope) you’re busy with issues other than the state of professional football here in the United States, but please hear me out. The Denver Broncos announced today that they would be signing four-time Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning to be their starting quarterback. They also made clear that their incumbent QB Tim Tebow, would be vanquished in short order.

I’m going to assume, although his fans think otherwise, that you have no idea who this Tim Tebow happens to be. He’s a star; a sports sensation; an idol to millions. He’s also, statistically, the twenty-eighth best quarterback in the National Football League. His completion percentage was 46 percent, dead last in the sport. To put it in terms you’ll understand, if David threw a slingshot like Mr. Tebow throws a football, Goliath would have been flossing his teeth with the future King.

But Mr. Tebow did lead the Broncos to their first playoff victory in six years and as awfully as he performed in the first three quarters of games, Mr. Tebow was terrific when it mattered the most. He played with the guts of a linebacker and he inspired his teammates with his joy in playing the sport. To put it in the most gentle terms, one could say he kept both teams in every single contest.

By now you’re probably asking, “What in My Name does this have to do with me?” Please don’t get too wrathful at Mr. Tebow, but you should know that he seems to believe that he speaks for you. He has a fan base of fervent followers who believe the same. They love him not just because he’s a loud and proud Christian, but more for his particular brand of Christianity.

Mr. Tebow believes that the path to your grace lies in supporting organizations that believe gay people need to be “cured” and women should “submit” to men as well as relinquish control over their own bodies. He constantly fundraises for his father’s expanding Mission in the Philippines, a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic. To be Catholic, in the eyes of this family, is to not be in God’s grace. As Bob Tebow writes about Filipinos, “It is estimated that over 64% of them do not have a single evangelical church. In a country of over 92 million, the number of people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ is staggering.” Tim Tebow also believes that to not be circumcised is a road toward Hell. Without medical training, the young man does his own snipping when amongst the heathen Filipinos. We all hope, in this endeavor, he’s more than 46 percent accurate.

I know it’s remarkable that someone who claims the same faith as Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and Sister Helen Prejean could act in such a manner but it’s less about faith than using faith to serve a political agenda. In fact, Mr. Tebow has already made clear that he has an interest in a future amongst that true den of thieves and moneychangers: the United States Congress.

Getting unceremoniously dumped by the Broncos takes some of the shine off of Tim Tebow’s evangelical glow, but his holy brand is lucrative and he will most certainly find a new home. The smart money is on that most unholy of states, Florida. This is the boyhood home of Tim Tebow and his return would make quite the splash, restoring his status as false idol. He could go to the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Miami Dolphins. Please, send him to Miami.

During his time in Denver, Tim Tebow had local media that asked him questions with the tenderness of a foot massage. Nearby Colorado Springs, the home of organizations like Focus on the Family, the New Life Church and a host of other entities that aim to harm others in your name provided Mr. Tebow with a ready base of power and public pressure. Tonight, they surely mourn.

In Jacksonville, Tebow’s hometown, we could expect more of the same. In Miami, he would have to face questions that reflect the city’s demographic reality. Your LGBT children gather often in Miami. Mr. Tebow would be asked if he believed they needed to be “cured.” The large Catholic population might want to know why his family ministry targets their religion for conversion and believes they haven’t heard the gospel. The young women of Miami would be curious why the new quarterback believes in banishing their birth control.

My hope is that by having to answer these questions, Mr. Tebow might, for the first time in his sheltered life, have to confront why he so desperately wants to change others. My hope is that this will lead him down to Miami neighborhoods like Liberty City, the boardwalks of South Beach and Overtown (formerly called “Colored Town” during Jim Crow). My hope is that he would go not to preach but to listen, and maybe he would then use his fame and fortune to empower others, instead of his own agenda.

Please deliver him to Miami. I know you have more pressing pursuits, but if it’s easy and quick, I’d be grateful. Also, if the Knicks could maybe win a championship in my lifetime, that would rock.

In struggle and sports,

Dave Z

More March Madness: The Persecution of Jamar Samuels

This past weekend saw the sharpest possible demonstration of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, so thrilling as a sports spectacle and so repellent as a business. We witnessed two number-fifteen seeds win in the opening round, the first time that’s happened in tournament history. Lehigh vanquished the much-loathed Duke Blue Devils and an unknown Norfolk State squad beat a team with Final Four expectations, the Missouri Tigers. That was awesome. Then came ugly, otherwise known as the case of Kansas State center Jamar Samuels. Samuels, the team’s second leading scorer and a senior, was declared ineligible and summarily humiliated by the NCAA just twenty minutes before the Wildcats’ second-round game against Syracuse. What was Samuels’s crime? He’s accused of taking $200 from his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Curtis Malone. Samuels had to miss his last game as a collegian and watch his dispirited team lose to the top ranked Orange, 75-59. After the game, just being asked about Samuels, caused his coach Frank Martin, to grit his teeth with anger and grief.

I’m not sure which part of this to be enraged by first. Let us count the ways.

1. How do NCAA players, old enough to vote and fight in wars, not even have the benefit of due process? Samuels was accused, no more no less. He had no rights to appeal or defend his name. His team had to figure out a new game plan with twenty minutes to spare, while administrators furiously tried to lobby officials to change their mind. The NCAA’s absolute authority as judge, jury and executioner, is a recipe for abuse.

2. Jamar Samuels’s suspension led to the following headline that simply says it all: “Jamar Samuels Ruled Ineligible For Trying To Feed His Family.” His former coach, Curtis Malone, admitted after the suspension that he had given him $200 so Samuels could buy groceries for his mother. “Yeah, I did,” he said. “It’s the same way when he played [for me] on road trips. When he didn’t have money to eat, he ate.” He later told CBSSports.com, that he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong. “If I knew it and wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently. The kid’s family doesn’t have anything and he called me for money to eat.” Neither Malone nor Samuels thought they were doing anything wrong. Malone had known Samuels’s mother for years and they live in a situation where poverty literally means not knowing how you will find food for the week.

3. Let’s say Samuels did take the $200. Let’s say he walked on the court with two Ben Franklin’s pinned to his shirt. My only problem with that would be that it wasn’t more money and didn’t come from the NCAA instead of Curtis Malone. This March Madness tournament brings in $10.8 billion in television funds alone, comprising 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget and underwriting the lavish salaries of everyone we don’t pay to watch. NCAA President Mark Emmert won’t disclose his salary as leader of his “nonprofit” but it’s thought to be in excess of $2 million a year. He has fourteen vice presidents, each of whom make at least $400,000 annually. They are paid to make sure Jamar Samuels and friends don’t get a dime. What proud work.

4. Jamar wears Nikes and the swoosh adorns his shoes and uniform. This is not personal brand preference. Nike is in the last year of a six-year, $12.3 million contract with Kansas State. Jamar has spent the last four years as a running, jumping human billboard for the global sporting apparel giant, with not a dime for his troubles. His coach, Frank Martin, with nary a swoosh on his body that we can see (I can’t speak for hidden tattoos or brands) makes $1.5 million a year.

5. It’s striking that Emmert didn’t issue any kind of a statement last week when Samuels’s teammate Angel Rodriguez endured the racist invective of the Southern Mississippi band, who chanted “Where’s your green card?” at the freshman guard. Why is that? My working theory is that there is no financial incentive for sticking up for Mr. Rodriguez, just a moral one. In contrast, regulating the financial life of their players, particularly whether or not their pockets possess more than lint, is the NCAA’s reason for being.

All players don’t suffer this level of scrutiny, however. Credit to DC sports host Ivan Carter for pointing out on Twitter that football and hoops are the only sports where you can’t go pro right out of high school. Play college hockey, you can have an agent and even be called up to the pros. Play college golf or tennis, and you can be a part of the most lucrative grand slam events on earth. There is no equal protection under NCAA law. It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to explain why. Basketball and football is about poor kids who generate billions, divided by coaches, colleges and the NCAA. It’s their orgy and players are expected to act the role of eunuchs, seen, not heard and definitely not paid. The NCAA’s arrogance is stunning. They are banking on us being oblivious to the fact that they destroyed a team as well as possibly the prospects of Jamar Samuels just to flex their “moral authority” over an utterly amoral system. Former LSU coach, Dale Brown, was absolutely correct when he said that the NCAA does little more in the end, than "legislate against human dignity." This is why it has to go.

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