Where sports and politics collide.
There are no words for the horror that took place in Port Said, Egypt last week. A soccer match became a killing field, with at least seventy-four spectators dead, and as many as 1,000 injured. The visiting Al-Ahly team lost to Al-Masri, and what followed will stain the sport forever. Al-Masri fans rushed the field, attacking the Al-Ahly cheering section after Al-Masri’s 3-1 upset victory. People were stabbed and beaten, but the majority of deaths took place because of asphyxiation, as Al-Ahly fans were crushed against locked stadium doors. It was so unspeakably traumatic that beloved Al-Ahly star Mohamed Aboutreika, who famously revealed a “Sympathize with Gaza” shirt during the 2008 Israel bombardment, immediately announced his retirement after the match. A distraught Aboutreika said, “This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances. I call for the league to be canceled. This is a horrible situation, and today can never be forgotten.”
This carnage, however, has produced profoundly unexpected results. The shock of Port Said hasn’t produced a political coma but instead acted as a defibrillator, bringing a revolutionary impatience back to life. Instead of starting a wave of concern that “lawlessness” was spreading in post-revolutionary Egypt, the anger and sadness seem to be reviving the revolution. The Western media immediately used the shock of the tragedy to call for a crackdown on the hyper-intense fan clubs, the “ultras”. As the New York Times wrote, “The deadliest soccer riot anywhere in more than 15 years, it also illuminated the potential for savagery among the organized groups of die-hard fans known here as ultras who have added a volatile element to the street protests since Mr. Mubarak’s exit.”
Other Western observers, sympathetic to the revolution, feared with good cause that the riots would strengthen the hand of a military dictatorship slow to transfer power to civilian rule. But on the ground, a new reality quickly took shape. This might be news to the Times, but the reaction in Egypt has been rage at the military, fueled by a widespread belief that, either through benign neglect or malignant intent, the authorities let the killings happen.
The witness reports of the Port Said survivors are scandalous. They describe a situation where exits were blocked by military police. The stadium lights were turned off, adding to the sense of panic. Hundreds of riot police can be clearly seen in amateur videos, standing around and doing nothing, as if ordered to remain passive.
Every political sector has spoken out against the military police in Port Said. Abbas Mekhimar, head of the Parliament’s defense committee, said, “This is a complete crime. This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt.” Diaa Salah of the Egyptian Football Federation was even more pointed, saying, “The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying: ‘You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom.’ ”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has set itself in opposition to the ultra clubs for much of the year, stated that “the lack of security in the Port Said stadium confirms that there is invisible planning that is behind this unjustified massacre. The authorities have been negligent.”
The Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt were more blunt, saying, “The clumsily hatched plot, which could not conceal the shameless complicity of the police, who stood watching the slaughter and killing for hours did not even attempt to protect the victims, carries only one message to the revolutionaries: the revolution must continue…. The ultras groups that joined the ranks of the revolution early on… are still proving every day that they are an integral part of our revolution. “
(See this blog post for video analysis inside the stadium that argues how authorities are to blame for Port Said.)
Chris Toensing, the Editor of The Middle East Report, said to me, “Indeed, many Egyptians consider the ultras uncouth. And some may also say that the real revolutionaries are demonstrating peacefully in Tahrir Square, rather than throwing rocks and Molotov Cocktails. But lots of Egyptian activists argue that in 2011—and maybe today as well—the ultras have been key protectors of the revolution, both physically and structurally, in the sense that they keep intense pressure on the state to listen to popular demands.”
The people also know that the presumed target of the soccer riot—the Al-Ahly ultras—after being a leading street fighting force during the revolution, have become a leading target of the military. The Al-Ahly ultras wear that target proudly, chanting at games, (I’m told this rhymes in Arabic):
Oh you MPs
You turned out to be more rotten than the Police
Raise the prison walls higher and higher
Tomorrow the revolution with lay them to waste
Oh brother, write on the cell wall
Junta rule is shameful and treasonous
Down Down with Junta rule!
Now not only are many Egyptians coming to the defense of the ultras but, remarkably, ultra groups from opposing clubs have pledged to join forces, seeing the attack on Al-Ahly as an attack on all of them. Their unity was sparked when the Al-Ahly ultras themselves released a statement where they didn’t go after Al-Masry but the military, proclaiming, “They want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression.” The ultras then vowed a “new war in defense of the revolution.”
This proved to be more than just words. On Wednesday, February 1, the military leader Tantawi seemed blasé about the anguish, anger and accusations arising from Port Said, saying, “Egypt is going down the path we planned, We will continue down this path and we will get through this transition.”
On Thursday, protests against military inactivity in the Port Said stadium deaths exploded in Cairo, Suez and Port Said itself. The clashes also marked the one year anniversary of the Battle of the Camels, when Mubarak sent armed thugs riding into Tahrir Square on camels and ultras had their most shining moment, credited with incredible bravery standing in their charging path and forcing them out of the square.
This year, in Cairo, at least 10,000 protesters marched to the Interior Ministry building near Tahrir Square. The battle that followed according to Health Ministry official Adel Adawi, resulted in 388 protesters’ injuries. The flags unfurled were the ultra flags of traditional rivals, Al-Ahly and Zamalek.
But most significant were the thousands of Al-Masry fans who gathered in Port Said, demanding answers from police for their passivity during the stadium violence and why the doors of the stadium were closed.
The reemergence of the ultra clubs as a united force against the military regime should send shivers from Cairo to Washington, DC. Last year, as one Egyptian activist said to me, “Getting the ultras to work together in Tahrir might have been the toughest part about deposing Mubarak. They really hate each other. They would spit when saying the other club’s name.” He spoke to me about the need at times to physically force the ultras to stop squabbling and focus on the task of challenging Mubarak.
But after Port Said, it took no effort. An injury to one group of ultras was seen as an injury to all. As James Dorsey, who writes the indispensable blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, wrote that the aftermath of Port Said has sparked “a reconciliation among once implacable foes while at the same time solidifying emerging fault lines in Egyptian society.”
Throughout the past year, as Dorsey writes, the ultras have fought together on numerous occasions, mostly at anti-military protests, in opposition to the Egyptian Football Association, or against the presence of the Israeli embassy. They bled and even died together even as they became more politically isolated by the military’s promise of an orderly and peaceful transfer of power to an elected parliament. Now the Port Said carnage has broken the ultras out of their isolation and raised the question openly about what it will really take to see the military finally out of power. The prospect of united ultras, remarkably, challenges the politics of dead-end gradualism and brings to the forefront the prospect of dramatic change.
Zamalek winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek also known as Shikabala, Egypt’s top player, said, “Despite the cruelty of what happened in Port Said, this disaster played a role in uniting the fans of all clubs. It might be a turning point in ending intolerance and hatred in Egyptian football. I will go to the Ahly club along with my teammates to offer our condolences to the families of Port Said martyrs. The fans of Ahly are my brothers. I hope Ahly and Zamalek fans can sit together in the stands without barriers.”
Al-Ahly midfielder Mohamed Barakat, has also spoken out, refusing to play ever again until there is true “retribution for those that were killed.”
There have been continuous efforts to marginalize the ultras. Now they are, unbelievably, on the center stage of history. The ultras have done nothing less than propel the Egyptian Revolution back into the Egyptian streets.
I emerge from the echo-chamber of Super Bowl Sunday energized and armed with a new set of heroes and folk-tales to pass on to others. My hero on our great (near) secular national holiday wasn’t Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who one suspects would be going to Disney World whether he won or lost. It wasn’t the incredible looking Madonna, spotted backstage drinking her daughter's stemcells, or M.I.A. with her middle finger malfunction. It also wasn’t Clint Eastwood who made a commercial where I think he threatened to murder Detroit.
My new heroes are the people in the Occupy and Labor movements who gathered to protest on Super Bowl Sunday. It certainly didn’t make Sportscenter that night, but several hundred people gathered at the Indianapolis state house to stand up against the recent passage of the state's “right to work” legislation and make clear that the fight was far from done.
They included representatives from the Indiana Occupy movement, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, union iron workers, as well as trade unionists from UNITE and the Communication Workers of America. They came from Indianapolis, Bloomington, Anderson and beyond. Their ranks included radical cheerleaders from Indiana University who chanted, "Lies and tricks will not divide. Workers standing side by side….Union town through and through. You for me and me for you.”
My heroes include Randy, a member of the iron worker's union who came with a delegation all the way from Wisconsin to speak at the rally. Following his words, people chanted, "From Tahrir Square to Wisconsin, we shall fight, we shall win."
My heroes include people named Amy, Ben, Mike, Heath, Ed, April, Jacob, Jubin, Bill and the tireless Tithi Bhattacharya who emailed me at day’s end, “Class solidarity does exist!”
All of these proud trade unionists and Occupy activists showed up even though the AFL-CIO explicitly instructed people not to protest on the day of the big game. They accepted the bullying line that the Super Bowl was not a day for politics. They accepted this even though a brutal anti-union ad played during the game for much of the country.
That's why it's so important that the people were a presence at this Woodstock for the 1 percent, leaving energized and excited about further forging connections between the Occupy and the Labor movements. After all, we don't have $3 million for a 30 second ad. We just have the ability to gather and be heard.
As for the game itself, I think I’ll always remember the stirring words of Gisele Bundchen. For those who don’t know (and if you don’t, then more power to you) Bundchen is our world’s first billionaire Super Model. She’s also the spouse of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In the aftermath of the game, she was recorded saying, "You've to catch the ball when you're supposed to catch the ball. My husband cannot fucking throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times." One player said after hearing her words, "It's like knocking someone when they are down."
Gisele comfortably carries the billionaire's impatience with the great unwashed breathing her air, who in her mind, are the fools unable to catch her husband's throws. But with her statement, I think we can see why so many people are overdosing on schadenfreude following the Patriots 21-17 loss to the Giants. For years, the Patriots have played with a sense of entitlement. They won three Super Bowls in Tom Brady's first four seasons as a starter and since then, every year, they've played like it was their trophy that some other team was just borrowing. It's an arrogance that has festered and worsened into a scabby crust that surrounds Brady and his coach Bill Belichick with each year of failure. They have become the Randolph and Mortimer Duke of the NFL, screaming after every season ending loss for the stock exchange to "Turn those machines back on!" Then there is Patriots owner Bob Kraft, and his owner’s suite mate Rush Limbaugh, with Limbaugh caught on camera forlornly picking his nose.
Seeing the arrogant and the entitled get knocked down a peg is always welcome. But in the real world it doesn’t mean a damn just because one arrogant and entitled owner’s box cheers, while another weeps. It happens because people around the country are standing up and saying, "Enough is enough." In Indianapolis, it happened because people heroically dared to be heard on a day when everyone told them to just shut up and watch the game.
This Sunday, the greatest multitude in the history of the United States will be tuning into the same television show at the same time. The 2012 Super Bowl, to be played between two major media markets, the New England Patriots and New York Giants, kicks off at 6:30 pm. This year’s game can also be called, “The East Coast Bias Bowl,” the “ESPN Nocturnal Emission Bowl” or the “Pox on Both Houses Bowl.”
Popularity plus polarization will mean epic ratings. It also means a pox of sponsors branding Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Field within an inch of its life. But while the high rollers will party down and Fortune 500 companies will have an unparalleled audience, the city of Indianapolis will reel under the weight of our national party.
Bloomberg News, which no one will mistake for The Nation, headlined an article, “Super Bowl Lands on Taxpayers’ Backs as Indianapolis Stadium Deal Sours.” Bloomberg describes a state of affairs in Indy where “Super Bowl fans are riding zip lines through downtown” while “taxpayers are digging deeper in their pockets to pay for the stadium where the game will be played.”
They report that local officials have had to hike sales and hospitality taxes to pay off $43 million in “unexpected financing costs.” The Bloomberg article joins a withering piece in the Indianapolis Business Journal about how the local economic impact will be less bonanza than meteor. No amount of extra shifts for waiters and parking lot attendants can match the tax burden they will endure in order to play host. But at least city planners can have that zipline and the “800,000-square-foot exposition” called “The NFL Experience”
This Woodstock for the 1 percent in the state capital has, as we’ve been covering, been coupled with the passage of the anti-union, anti-wage, “right to work” laws by the Republican-dominated Indiana statehouse. It seemed earlier this week that the Occupy movement along with the AFL-CIO and joined by a highly supportive NFL Players Association could translate into a serious show of force right at the gate of the stadium. There have been marches this week through “The NFL Experience” of more than 1,000 people, and today NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith spoke and marched in a 400-person UNITE rally at the city’s main Hyatt Hotel.
This has been welcome, with one person describing it to me as “electrifying,” but the state’s union leaders are also explicitly pulling back from any kind of public showing in front of the stadium or on the Super Bowl grounds this Sunday. Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana AFL-CIO, said today, “The Indiana State AFL-CIO does not plan nor condone any attempts to disrupt the Super Bowl.While we understand the anger and frustration of working Hoosiers’ over the disgraceful passage of the so-called, ‘right to work’ bill, the appropriate outlet will be at the ballot box, not the Super Bowl.” She made clear that no state locals would be participating in any rallies in any kind of official capacity.
De Smith in his Thursday press conference said that the NFLPA was committed to challenging other states where “right to work” laws have been proposed, but did not speak to any action this Sunday. In addition to a sigh of relief from the local media, Laura Crewson blogging for Daily Kos Labor endorsed a plan of action. “With the NFL Players Association having vocally opposed that law, it’s an opportunity to draw attention to labor issues in the state,” she wrote. “At the same time, you don’t want to be the assholes who actually disrupted the Super Bowl, so there’s a line to walk here.”
There are two problems with this approach. The first is this strawman idea that the choices Sunday are either to “be disruptive” or do nothing. A loud and proud picket on the Super Bowl grounds might not win adherents among those who can afford tickets, but it would be a way to raise awareness on a national scale. The same is true if players wore a patch on their shoulder, helmet or even chinstrap. Given the anti-labor and “right to work” initiatives being considered in Minnesota, Arizona and even Michigan, there cannot be enough visibility. Also, given the politics that swamp the Super Bowl, from the corporate branding to the military commercialism to the anti-abortion ads, why should labor be at all sheepish about having a voice on game day?
But no one should assume that the union leadership’s words will be law on Sunday. If the Occupy movement has taught people anything it’s that fortune favors the bold. Already, there is a demonstration called for noon at the Indianapolis state house, but that could be just the appetizer. The Wall Street Journal quoted Tim Janko, a steelworker from northwest Indiana, and Perry Stabler, a retired steelworker, who both said they would be seen and heard on game day. Janko said, “I’m going to picket the Super Bowl because this is wrong,” he said. “I’m going to have a Teamster drive me into town.” Stabler also commented, “Union workers built that stadium, they should have the right to demonstrate in front of it..”
The people of Indiana are angry. I’m not sure telling them that anger has its time and its place is going to do the trick.
I thought I was reading The Onion. Seriously. I was e-mailed an article written by CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel about Occupy activists targeting the Super Bowl because of the state’s imminent “right to work” legislation, and I thought I was reading The Onion. I thought it was a caricature of the uncurious, apolitical, sports jock-columnist who belches, “Politics are for nerds! Durrrrrrr….” My confusion came from reading lines like, “I’m not here to tell you what ‘right to work’ legislation would mean to Indiana for two reasons: One, I don’t know. Two, I don’t care.”
When I realized that this was an actual column, and not pretend, I went back and tried to take the arguments seriously. Doyel is “full of resentment that the Occupy movement would use our passion for the Super Bowl against us, infiltrating something we love so we have to focus on something they hate”—namely the “right to work” legislation Doyel doesn’t bother to understand.
Doyel wrote primly of the protest, “It’s inappropriate.” I have to wonder if it was Doyel’s pay check being threatened, whether he would think it appropriate to resist. But for all he knows, “right to work” is a breakfast cereal, so we’re left to wonder.
He then writes, “Protesting the Super Bowl is unfair to the teams involved and the fans of the game.” This ignores two things. The first is that the players, as represented by the NFLPA, have come out loudly and proudly against “right to work.” Nowhere does Doyel mention this crucial fact. Its absence is negligent.
Doyel also claims that the spectre of politics will repulse fans “liberal and conservative alike.” Has Doyel ever watched the Super Bowl? Politics swamp the game, whether it’s General David Petraeus flipping the coin, sexist commercials, military flyovers, another nationally televised anti-choice ad or interviews with whomever is in the White House. Still, people somehow have the ability to separate this from the game itself. I watched the game last year with a group of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and if they could separate the politics from the fun of the game, then I think others could do it as well. Also, given the way working people have seen their wages and benefits gutted, who’s to say they wouldn’t be thrilled to know that the game is being used as a platform for something other than godaddy.com?
Then Doyel references my column in The Nation, where I describe the big day as “Woodstock for the 1 percent.” He agrees that the game is unaffordable but says that fact is also “shortsighted nonsense. The Super Bowl generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the host city and surrounding areas, an economic boost that cannot be ignored simply because you can’t go.” But in fact, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the Super Bowl will be an overall money-loser.
Doyel doesn’t cite anything in regard to this economic impact he describes. He doesn’t cite anything because the numbers don’t exist. Doyel also doesn’t account for the $650 million of public money that went into building Lucas Oil Stadium (having a new or refurbished megadome is now a prerequisite for hosting the game). He doesn’t account for extra money spent on the kind of post-9/11 security the game demands. He just says it and we’re supposed to accept it.
Doyel ends with a blunt threat, writing, “I’m irritated too. Irritated at the self-centered protesters who would take their unhappiness with the government and aim it at the Super Bowl. Be careful where you aim that thing, protesters. You’ll alienate people who otherwise might be inclined to think you’re right. Lots of people—lots of us—are on the fence on the Occupy movement. Don’t push us too hard. We might hop off in a direction you won’t like.”
There were sports columnists in the 1960s who said people like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos should just shut up and play, They said sports and politics should never mix. History has not been kind to these sportswriters. I would encourage Gregg Doyel not to join them. I’d advise him to get in touch with the NFLPA, get in touch with the AFL-CIO, and, yes, get in touch with the Occupy protesters of Indiana to actually learn why they feel the way they feel. I’d encourage him to learn the facts and decide for himself. I’d also ask him to not be so proud to know nothing.
“Upsetting the Super Bowl—I couldn’t care less. This is about my life and my family.” —Lou Feldman, IBEW local 668
The sheer volume of the Super Bowl is overpowering: the corporate branding, the sexist beer ads, the miasma of Madison Avenue–produced militarism, the two-hour pre-game show. But people in the labor and Occupy movements in Indiana are attempting to drown out the din with the help of a human microphone right at the front gates of Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Republican-led state legislature aims to pass a law this week that would make Indiana a “right to work” state. For those uninitiated in Orwellian doublespeak, the term “right to work” ranks with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Fair & Balanced” as a phrase of grotesque sophistry. In the reality-based community, “right to work” means smashing the state’s unions and making it harder for nonunion workplaces to get basic job protections. This has drawn peals of protest throughout the state, with the Occupy and labor movement front and center from small towns to Governor Mitch Daniels’s door at the State House. Daniels and friends timed this legislation with the Super Bowl. Whether that was simple arrogance or ill-timed idiocy, they made a reckless move. Now protests will be a part of the Super Bowl scenery in Indy.
The Super Bowl is perennially the Woodstock for the 1 percent: a Romneyesque cavalcade of private planes, private parties and private security. Combine that with this proposed legislation, and the people of Indiana will not let this orgy of excess go unoccupied. Just as the parties start a week in advance, so have the protests. More than 150 people—listed as seventy-five in USA Today, but I’ll go with eyewitness accounts—marched through last Saturday’s Super Bowl street fair in downtown Indianapolis with signs that read, “Occupy the Super Bowl,” “Fight the Lie” and “Workers United Will Prevail.” Occupy the Super Bowl has also become a T-shirt, posted for the world to see on the NBC Sports Blog.
The protests also promise to shed light on the reality of life for working families in the city of Indianapolis. Unemployment is at 13.3 percent, with unemployment for African-American families at 21 percent. Two of every five African-American families with a child under 5 live below the anemic poverty line. Such pain amidst the gloss of the Super Bowl and the prospect of right-to-work legislation is, for many, a catalyst to just do something.
April Burke, a former school teacher and member of a local Occupy chapter, said to me, “I see right-to-work for what it is: an attack on not only organized labor but on all working-class people.… Because strong unions set the bar for wages, RTW laws will effectively lower wages for all. Rushing the passage of RTW in the State of Indiana on the eve of the Super Bowl is an insult to the thousand of union members who built Lucas Stadium as well as the members of the National Football League Players Association who issued a statement condemning the RTW bill.”
As April mentioned, the NFLPA has spoken out strongly against the bill. When I interviewed Player Association president DeMaurice Smith last week, he said:
When you look at proposed legislation in a place like Indiana that wants to call it something like “right to work,” I mean, let’s just put the hammer on the nail. It’s untrue. This bill has nothing to do with a right to work. If folks in Indiana and that great legislature want to pass a bill that really is something called “right to work” have a constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen a job. That’s a right to work. What this is instead is a right to ensure that ordinary working citizens can’t get together as a team, can’t organize and can’t fight management on an even playing field. So don’t call it “right to work.” If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what the bill is, call it what it is. Call it an anti-organizing bill. Fine… let’s cast a vote on whether or not ordinary workers can get together and represent themselves, and let’s have a real referendum.
But Governor Mitch Daniels, who was George W. Bush’s budget director, didn’t get this far by feeling shame or holding referendums. This is the same Mitch Daniels who said in 2006, “I’m not interested in changing any of it. Not the prevailing wage laws, and certainly not the right-to-work law. We can succeed in Indiana with the laws we have, respecting the rights of labor, and fair and free competition for everybody.” In other words, he’s that most original of creatures: a politician who lies.
If Daniels signs the bill before the big game, demonstrations sponsored by the AFL-CIO in partnership with the Occupy Movement will greet the 100,000 people who can afford the pilgrimage to Lucas Oil Field. The NFLPA, I’ve been told by sources, will also not be silent in the days to come. As Occupy protester Tithi Bhattacharya said to me, “If the bill becomes law this week then it is very important for all of us to protest this Sunday. We should show the 1 percent that the fate of Indiana cannot be decided with the swish of a pen by corporate politicians—the Super Bowl should be turned into a campaign for justice and jobs.”
Phil Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, has emerged following the death of Joe Paterno as the late Penn State coach’s great defender. At a packed, televised memorial service, Knight eulogized Paterno and went on the attack against the media and Board of Trustees, firmly defending Joe Paterno’s actions, or inactions, after learning that his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky may have been a child rapist.
In the year in question he gave full disclosure to his superiors up the chain to head of campus police and president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me. There was a villain in this tragedy it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it. [ applause ] and yet, for his actions, he was excoriated by the media and fired over the telephone by his university. Yet in all his subsequent appearances in the press, on TV, interacting with students, conversing with hospital personnel, giving interviews, he never complained, he never lashed out. Every word, every bit of body language conveyed a single message. ‘We are Penn State.
The crowd went wild. Knight has also received praise in the evil media for his strong words. Jena McGregor, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece titled, “At Joe Paterno memorial service, Phil Knight shows true leadership.” This is true, But it’s leadership right off a cliff and into the kind of moral abyss Coach Paterno rejected with his last public interview.
By Paterno’s own tragic words, he “didn’t know which way to go” and said that he wished he’d done more upon hearing the allegations against Sandusky. We can, I believe, understand that. We can understand how hearing that your dear friend of decades was some kind of monster could produce confusion. We can understand why Paterno would only tell the campus authorities whom he believed had “more expertise” in handling these matters. We can understand his saying nothing over the years, perhaps assuming the matter was taken care of, as he sees the accused rapist walk into his office, or arrive on his sidelines holding a small child by the hand, or using the very showers where someone witnessed the rape of a 10-year-old boy. We can understand how a person could think, “I told the campus police. I did what I legally had to do. And now I don’t want to think about this ever again.” We can understand it, but that doesn’t mean we have to excuse it.
The celebration of Knight’s message by Jena MacGregor and the attendees is another example why so much of the country looks at Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, like some kind of moral Bizarro World. It also drowns out the thousands of Penn State students who held vigils on campus against child abuse or the Penn State alums “sickened” by both the allegations against Sandusky as well as the response by those alumni and students who see Paterno, and by extension themselves, as the real victims in this saga.
What Phil Knight and those attracted to his brand of rhetoric don’t understand is that it’s not “the media” that enraged people against Joe Paterno and Penn State. It’s the fact that we’re human beings and the thought of a respected member of the community raping children makes all of us feel vulnerable in a very primal way. Maybe we were abused. Or maybe we know someone who was abused. Or maybe we have children and drop them off everyday with seemingly caring adults with whom we trust with their care. The unspoken thought, that there is a Sandusky in every town collecting damaged childhoods like Hummel figurines, is terrifying. The idea that someone—anyone—could have stopped Sandusky and didn’t because they wanted to protect a university brand, is infuriating. The belief that Joe Paterno, an avatar of moral righteousness, did the “bare minimum” in the face of this, is for many a mark on his character so dark, it shades decades of good works. I am personally far more sympathetic than that. But that sympathy starts by understanding that Joe Paterno was a football coach and a tenured professor, not a saint. He was fallible. He was right that he “should have done more.” He also sure as hell isn’t the only person who should say that.
The presence of Phil Knight, in particular, as a defender does Paterno an awful disservice. In Knight, we have someone whose company, despite efforts at reform, is still being flagged for using child labor under abusive sweatshop conditions. Much of this is subcontracted so Knight can feign ignorance, but that’s a legal loophole, not a moral one. Think about children as young as 4 or 5 in Pakistan on the assembly line. Think about a company that builds factories in authoritarian regimes so anyone who talks worker’s rights, let alone union, would face harrowing consequences. Or just Google “Nike, and Child Labor” and prepare to be assaulted with information of industrialized abuse. Given the gravity of these conditions, I have no problem writing that Jerry Sandusky, if guilty of every charge, would have to live 100 lives to ruin the number of childhoods emblemized by the Nike swoosh.
In Knight, we also have someone who pays college coaches a fortune so “student-athletes” can wear and by extension advertise their products. We have someone who ploughs millions to the University of Oregon football program funding state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, while the school endures terrible cuts. We have someone who I would argue represents the corrupting of amateur sports and by extension the corrupting of Joe Paterno and Penn State. By defending Paterno, Knight is doing little more than defending himself and the kind of moral relativism he’s brought to campuses around the country.
I’m in no kind of position to pass judgment on what Joe Paterno and his memory “deserves” for his actions or inactions. But I know he deserves far better than to be defended by Phil Knight. It will stand for me as the final insult to Coach Paterno’s good name.
As reported by Michael O’Keeffe in yesterday’s New York Daily News, I have issued a formal request to Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights to co-host a film screening of the documentary Battle for Brooklyn. The documentary describes the efforts in Brooklyn to resist the Atlantic Yards basketball arena/housing development project, which will upturn twenty-two acres in the heart of the borough. That has meant protesting eminent domain evictions, sweetheart backroom deals, the prospect of acerlated gentrification, the tearing down of historic buildings and the use of taxpayer subsidies. Mr. Ratner is an investor in this project, spearheaded by his brother, Bruce Ratner, a high powered real estate magnate. Michael Ratner is also a hero of mine. His work opposing the Patriot Act, torture as policy, and the War Powers Act is an inspiration to anyone who cares about civil liberties and real freedom. In other words, not freedom the way Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul talk about freedom—the freedom to destroy the environment, smash unions, or build a pipeline through your backyard—but the freedom to actually assemble, debate, discuss and live in an open society.
But Michael Ratner is also an investor in this incredibly controversial project. He has never commented publicly about the constitutionality of how eminent domain was used to remove people from their Brooklyn homes and businesses. He has never explained why someone of his sterling reputation would involve himself in a project that symbolizes for so many residents the profits of the few over the needs of the many. Maybe he believes that this kind of massive development project is completely constitutional. Maybe he thinks that it’s in the best interests of Brooklyn. Maybe he believes that the Ratner family will profit mightily from the project, which will in turn support the good works of the CCR. I have no idea. As a boy with Brooklyn roots, I’m certainly open to his arguments, but it would be good to actually hear them. Given Michael Ratner’s profile as a civil libertarian, I honestly believe he has an obligation to be public and transparent about his involvement
That is why I am issuing the following offer to Mr. Ratner: let us co-host a showing of the documentary Battle for Brooklyn. The film, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award, is remarkably gripping and would provide a terrific basis for a townhall conversation about the merits of Atlantic Yards, the constitutionality of eminent domain for private benefit and whether sports arenas are answers to the vexing problems of urban development and job creation. I already have agreements secured from several movie theaters willing to host such an event as well as a commitment from Daniel Goldstein, the protagonist of Battle for Brooklyn, to attend. You and I can both make brief statements and then open it up to the crowd. To Mr. Ratner: I can be reached at email@example.com. Let’s hold this event soon, in a comradely amicable setting, that allows us all to clear the air and educate the public about whether Atlantic Yards is in the best interests of Brooklyn not to mention in accordance with the kind of free, open and just society you have spent a lifetime championing.
Joe Paterno’s most fervent supporters always described “JoePa” as more of an educator than a football coach. The Brown University graduate with the English literature major, it was said, always wanted to make people around him think and learn. Now, following his passing at the age of 85, the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 college football history has given us another puzzle to ponder: When assessing a legacy, how much should one scandal be weighed alongside decades of service? Should a single moral failure, no matter how vast, be enough to actually undo the decades of good works that preceded it? The lives touched? The scholarships funded? The community constructed?
In Paterno’s case, he became victim of his own nurtured legend. He was felled by our perception of who he was, which we all believed would be a predictor of his actions when faced with difficult choices. This was more than a coach. This was a campus Sun King who never complained about the feel of the crown. The statues of Paterno on the Happy Valley campus, the academic courses that bear his name, even the Peachy Paterno ice cream for sale at the campus creamery, elevated Paterno beyond comprehension.
Yet the legend wasn’t built just around wins or championships. The reverence many Penn State alums hold for the man was less about unbeaten seasons, the record thirty-six bowl appearances, or showers of confetti. It was about a standard of morality and ethics that became inseparable from the Nittany Lion brand. As Aurin Squire wrote, “When Penn State won the NCAA championship in 1987, it was seen as a victory for the Constitution, flag pins, and whole milk.”
This is what made last fall’s grand jury report accusing revered longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of being a serial child rapist so devastating to Paterno’s entire legacy. JoePa, upon hearing from grad assistant Mike McQueary that he witnessed Sandusky committing statutory rape in the showers, did everything required of him by law. He informed those above him, telling the head of campus police and the athetic director, both of whom are now out of work and under indictment. That was the minimum he had to do and the minimum is what he did. But according to our conception of who this man was supposed to be, there was no authority above Joe Paterno. There was instead an expectation that this man of integrity would without hesitation do far more than just fulfill his minimum legal requirements. Is that fair? When it’s your statue on campus and when the buildings bear your name, most would say hell yes.
When it was further demonstrated that Sandusky continued to be a presence on campus, in the locker room and even on Joe Paterno’s sideline with young children by his side, damning questions rose to a din: how could JoePa have been content with silence, given the possibility that children continued to be at risk? Did Joe Paterno, and the campus leadership, care more about their brand than anything that resembled human morality? Was a football program that had become the economic, social, and cultural center of an entire region, more important than all other concerns? Had abused children become, in the view of Penn State’s leadership, an unfortunate collateral damage necessary to keeping the cash registers ringing? The conclusions most people drew were not kind.
In the end, after decades of service, Penn State fired Paterno with a cold 10 pm phone call, causing a low-frequency campus riot. Since then, Penn State’s leadership has gone out of their way to protect “the Nittany Lion brand” (their words.) Joe Paterno was in the end far less important than what Joe Paterno had built. In the end, it was just business.
Paterno was able to give one last interview to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins last month. He defended himself by claiming confusion because he’d “never heard of rape and a man.” For a football coach who always took pride in his own academic worldiness and erudition apart from football, this, to be kind, strained credulity. Paterno in his last days was sounding like yet another fallible person in power, corrupted by their deification. We’ve seen this character throughout American history. It was thought that Paterno had more character than to be just another character.
Let Paterno’s last teachable moment be this: if your football coach is the highest paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships, and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.
Given the grey, budgetary realities that surround a typical state university, these numbers will boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. The average pay has now ballooned to $1.5 million annually. That’s an increase from $1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. Think about that. In an era of stagnating and falling wages nationally, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. It doesn’t matter how bad the tuition hikes, the furloughs or the layoffs might be: the dynamic of paying football coaches more continues unabated. The question is, "How?" Not just, “How is this possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions?” But how are schools this shameless, given the horrific season of scandal the NCAA football world just endured?
A constant refrain by the yipping heads of the SportsWorld is that the NCAA is on a toboggan ride toward change. Scandals at the most high-profile institutions in the land—Ohio State, Miami and Penn State—have shown, supposedly, that the time has come for reform. Change, they say to us, in on the march. Revenue producing sports, we are told, can no longer function in their current form. An NCAA report showed that just fourteen of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools made money from campus athletics in the 2009 fiscal year, down from just twenty-five the year before. Public universities, particularly in an era of austerity, preach, with a catch in their throat, that the revenue just isn’t there.
The rise in coaching salaries reveal all this soul-searching to be a fraud. College presidents still treat football like a prize pig to be protected at all costs despite the fact that more than three-fourths of them don’t “believe that big-time intercollegiate athletics are sustainable in their current form.”
The proof, however, is in their actions. Ohio State University, one of the schools so touched by scandal, landed the biggest free-agent fish, hiring former Florida head coach Urban Meyer for $24 million over six years. At Penn State, after the hiring of New England Patriots assistant Bill O’Brien to replace Joe Paterno, O’Brien fired more than a half-dozen assistants and now the public state college will be paying $4.4 million in severance. This number doesn’t include what will be paid to Paterno or to quarterbacks coach Mike McQueary, who is currently on “administrative leave” as a prosecutorial witness against former assistant/accused child predator Jerry Sandusky. But Ohio State and Penn State, for all the slathered scandal across their campuses, have football programs that propel athletic departments toward positive total revenue. For most schools, this isn’t close to the case. Instead, you get the University of Maryland paying former Coach Ralph Friedgen $2 million to go home and not coach, while cutting numerous teams from the athletic department. But whether a school is generating revenue or taking an awful bath, the coaching arms race continues. Penn State emeritus professor John Nichols, chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group advocating for athletics reform, said of the head coaching wage hikes, “This just shows…the difficulty of bringing (football) into the right proportion, the right balance with the academic mission.”
For the college presidents crying poor while continuing to pay these salaries, the complaints are pathetic. The comparisons to Wall Street are also obvious and unflattering. After numerous bubbles burst, we were told that the Financial Titans were “re-examining priorities.” Politicians fulminated against executive pay while raking in contributions from these same investment-casinos. When the entire economy almost imploded in 2008, and, as comedian Patton Oswalt said, “your money was on fire,” we were promised reform at the legislative level. Instead, Wall Street was bailed out, and their debt shifted onto our shoulders. But a discussion about Wall Street excess and corruption only became real when several hundred brave souls went to Zuccotti Park and proclaimed it Liberty Plaza. Change to the NCAA—whether it’s paying players, reigning in coaches salaries, or “bringing football into the right proportion” - will only happen if students, professors and players take this decision out of the hands of their school presidents and bring it into the campus square: a campus square they have chosen to occupy until the priorities of the university cease to revolve around being, first and foremost, a minor league for the NFL.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]
The Super Bowl is supposed to bring attention and even glory to its host city. But thanks to an anti-worker, anti-union assault by Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels and the Republican-controlled legislature, the big game, to be held this year in Indianapolis, is bringing a different kind of attention altogether. The NFL Players Association joined the ranks of unions across the state last week in opposing efforts to make Indiana join the ranks of so-called “Right to Work” states. “Right to Work” laws have also been called “Right to Beg” or “Right to Starve” since they undercut wages, benefits and the most basic workplace protections. Coming off their own labor battle, the NFLPA released a statement where they promised that they would not be silent on these laws during the buildup to the Super Bowl. I interviewed NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith about why they felt it was important to take a stand against this legislation.
Dave Zirin: Why did the NFLPA feel compelled to release that statement against Indiana’s proposed Right to Work laws?
DeMaurice Smith: First and foremost, it’s important that our young men understand that they are just like every man and woman in America who works for a living. The minute that any sports player believes for whatever reason that they are outside the management-labor paradigm, I guarantee you that the minute you start thinking that way is the day you will start to lose ground. Our guys get their fingers broken, their backs broken, their heads concussed and their knees torn up because they actually put their hands into the ground and work for a living, and I would much rather have them understand and appreciate and frankly embrace the beauty of what it is to work and provide for their family.
[On this issue] we are in lock-step with organized labor. I’m proud to sit on the executive council of the AFL-CIO. Why? Because we share all the same issues that the American people share. We want decent wages. We want a fair pension. We want to be taken care of when we get hurt. We want a decent and safe working environment. So when you look at proposed legislation in a place like Indiana that wants to call it something like “Right to Work,” I mean, let’s just put the hammer on the nail. It’s untrue. This bill has nothing to do with a “right to work.” If folks in Indiana and that great legislature want to pass a bill that really is something called “Right to Work,” have a constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen a job, that’s a “right to work.” What this is instead is a right to ensure that ordinary working citizens can’t get together as a team, can’t organize, can’t stand together and can’t fight management on an even playing field. From a sports union, our union, our men and their families understand the power of management and understand how much power management can wield over an individual person. So don’t call it a “right to work.” If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what the bill is, call it what it is. Call it an anti-organizing bill. Fine. If that’s what the people want to do in order to put a bill out there, let’s cast a vote on whether or not ordinary workers can get together and represent themselves, and let’s have a real referendum.
DZ: What would you say to someone who says, ‘Well, people who support this type of right to work legislation, they are just doing it to protect unions. They don’t care about the majority of workers who aren’t in unions”?
DS: Well take a look over the last 100 years. I used to say that we have forgotten a lot of the lessons from organized labor over the last 100 years, but I’m now convinced that we never learned them. Whether your talking about fire escapes outside of buildings or sprinkler systems inside of buildings, fair wages for a days work, laws that prevent child labor, things that led to the abolishing of sweatshops in America, let alone management contributing to healthcare plans or a decent pension… all those things over the last 100 years were not gifts from management. Someone in a corporate suite didn’t decide one day that they would bestow that wonderful right upon a working person. The way those rights were achieved was through the collective will of a group of workers who stood together and said, ‘This is what we believe is fair, and we are all going to stand together and demand that those things be provided to us. We’ll do it as a collective group. You may be able to pick off one of us or two of us or five of us, but you will not be able to pick off all of us.’ When you look at legislation that is designed to tear apart that ability to work as a team… that is not just anti-union. That is anti–working man and woman, and that’s why we weighed in on this one.
DZ: When you put out a statement like this, does it also goes out to every player so they’re aware of this campaign?
DS: It goes out to the players, the board, and the executive committee, and here in this case, we actually reached out to former Indianapolis Colts, former players who went to college in Indiana, and those players who live in Indiana, and asked them if they’d want to sign on. So we have a very impressive list of players. Rex Grossman is a local player who signed on. Jeff George, former quarterback for [among other teams] the Indianapolis Colts, also signed on. I’m proud of our guys who signed off on this because I do think that they appreciate and understand that in the same way that those things that we were talking about things that have been changes for good for ordinary workers in America, there isn’t a player in the National Football League who shouldn’t understand that every benefit that we have in the collective bargaining agreement is one that was negotiated by a collective of players standing together. Coming out of this lockout, perhaps it was the first time some of our young men understood what the collective bargaining agreement is all about. [Author’s note: De Smith said after the interview that Tim Tebow was behind the NFLPA 100 percent during the lockout. Given some of my own critiques of Tebow’s politics, I felt obliged to include that nugget.]
DZ: The news this week was that this bill was rammed through committee, so it is advancing through the Indiana State House. Has there been any talk about what else the NFLPA might do? Any follow up to the statement that you put out?
DS: I wrote an op-ed that has been placed in the main Indianapolis newspaper. If the issue is still percolating by the time of Super Bowl, I can promise you that the players of the National Football League and their union will be up front about what we think about this and why. Look, we have players who played in Indianapolis obviously, but I made no secret coming into this fight that the lockout, organized and implemented by a group of owners, was not only designed to hurt players but all of the people who work in and around our stadium: the hospitality network, the network of restaurants, bars, all of those things that are connected and touch our business were affected by the lockout that we frankly did not want to happen. So there is never going to be a day where players are going to divorce themselves from the ordinary people who work around their sports, and we’re sure as heck not going to divorce ourselves from the fans who dig our game.
DZ: If the legislation is still percolating, there will be people who will be doing legal, nonviolent protests around the Super Bowl game to try to leverage the spotlight of the Super Bowl to raise the issue for a national audience, and I know that they’re getting various union endorsements to do so. Is that something the NFLPA would support, the idea of a demonstration, a legal, nonviolent demonstration outside the Super Bowl?
DS: Yeah, possibly. We’ve been on picket lines in Indianapolis already with hotel workers who were basically pushed to the point of breaking on the hotel rooms that they had to clean because they were not union workers. We’ve been on picket lines in Boston and San Antonio. So, the idea of participating in a legal protest is something that we’ve done before.
We’ll have to see what is going to go on when we’re there, but issues like this are incredibly important to us. If we can be in a position just to make sure that we raise the level of the debate to the point where it is a fair and balanced discussion about the issues, I think that is something that our players can help do. Obviously, players have a very high profile, and I think its important for them to take on issues which are important to them and be in a position to talk about them, raise the level of consciousness about them.
If we do one thing by making this statement, and it is raising the level of the debate, and to have real people ask real questions about it, we’ve served our purpose.