Where sports and politics collide.
“You are what your record says your are.” It’s a classic lunchpail NFL phrase, courtesy of retired coach Bill Parcells. It means forget how good you or your team think you are. Forget your stats. Forget all the ways you came up just short. The end results define the entire journey. It’s the amoral slogan of the sports world’s soul. It allows us to cheer for unsavory individuals and root for teams that vacuum our wallets clean. You are what your record says you are, and winning excuses all.
But this consecrated commandment of sports is being challenged like never before. If you are what your record says you are, what does that possibly tell us about the man with the top jersey sales in the NFL, Tim Tebow? The Broncos quarterback is 4-1. His presence has undeniably revived a moribund team. He has led the Broncos on winning fourth-quarter drives in all four of his victories. If you are what your record says you are, then Tebow at 4-1 must be considered at this moment, one of the best. And yet… he’s just awful. I don’t write that because Tebow is a Focus on the Family spokesperson who has a series of religiously tinged political views I find abhorrent. I write it because I have been watching football since I was sucking a bottle, and I have two working eyes.
Tim Tebow’s completion percentage is 44.8 percent. Take away his magical fourth quarters and the number is closer to 30 percent. This kind of awful is in the “Shaq free-throw percentage, Mario Mendoza batting average” sports hall of fame. But he’s not awful in the turgid unwatchable way that, say, a Kate Hudson movie is awful. He’s fascinating/awful. He’s Reefer Madness awful. He’s old Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss awful. Tim Tebow throws a football like someone heaving a ham-shaped grenade. It needs to be seen to be believed. I’ve never used this phrase to describe an NFL quarterback, and hope I never have to again, but he’s thrillingly campy. Watching him is like watching Sarah Palin be interviewed by someone off the Murdoch payroll. Disaster lurks, but the prurient/erotic ardor of their admirers fills the air around them and you cannot look away. National Review’s Rich Lowry once said, presumably while crossing and recrossing his legs, that Sarah Palin “sent little starbursts through the screen.” Tebow’s fans shake with the same puritanical spasms, as they wear number 15 jerseys with Jesus, instead of Tebow stitched on the back. He’s the promise ring of NFL quarterbacks and I see a spectacle from which I cannot avert my eyes.
Thrilling and campy. In the last three games, he’s gone 9-20, 10-21 and a simply unreal 2-8 passing the ball. He’s inspired sentences like, this one from ESPN’s Ian O’Connor: “As a professional football player, Tim Tebow makes no sense. He is among the most unartful dodgers in NFL history, a god-awful quarterback for about nine-tenths of your average game before voila, just like that, he is magical enough to make a New York Jets season go poof in the night.”
The Denver coaching staff, who turned to Tebow after a listless 1-4 start, have turned their playbook into an index card. It’s the offensive equivalent of the flat tax. And like the flat tax, it fails miserably for the great majority. The Broncos punted eight straight times versus the Jets. Tebow started 6-15 passing. Yet their defense is stalwart and more importantly they believe in Tebow. In other words, they feel that if they can keep the game close, Tebow will find a way to pull it out for them in the fourth quarter. He hasn’t let them down. But how?
Denver coach John Fox has broken with decades of NFL orthodoxy by allowing Tebow to use a system that gives the quarterback the option to run the ball. Here he looks in his element, playing with purpose. Tebow is hardly a Michael Vick, but he’s big, strong and hits an open hole as good as most running backs. He’s rushed for almost 400 yards at about seven yards a carry.
That Tebow has been given the chance to run the option is testament to his coach. It’s also a testament to the racial double standards that have historically defined the quarterback position. The best option qbs over the decades like Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway or Nebraska’s Tommy Frazier, were terrific runners and NCAA national champions, albeit with questionable arm strength. They were also African-American and NFL opportunities were nonexistent. If they did get a chance, like the great Brian Mitchell who was a star college quarterback, they were told to change positions. This stereotype of what makes a good “field general” affected white option quarterbacks as well, like Heisman winner Eric Crouch of Nebraska. Despite a set of unorthodox talents, they were told they didn’t fit the mold. When running quarterbacks showed up with the proper arm strength—like Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick—the player would be harangued by the press and coaching staff that they had to change their style top-to-bottom if they wanted to succeed in the NFL. They were informed that they had to drop back and run only as a last resort.
It’s good to be Tim Tebow. You get to be adored while going 2-8 passing. You get a playbook simplified and tailored to your strengths. You get to prove all your haters wrong. But it’s not Tim Tebow who’s been redeemed. Not yet, anyways. Not after five games. Its every option qb—black or white—told that the NFL wasn’t for them. You are what your record says you are, and Tim Tebow is 4-1. Let’s see, if nothing else, if this provides more opportunities for quarterbacks who didn’t fit the mold and were blocked at the door.
If I were an NBA player, I’d be mighty confused right now. I wouldn’t be confused about why the entire 2011–12 season is now in jeopardy. I wouldn’t be confused about rejecting the ultimatums and “last, final offers” of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Instead, I’d be confused as hell by the media’s reaction to my union’s collective and unanimous stand.
The 21st century athlete—particularly the twenty-first-century African-American athlete—gets regularly blasted for being a weak, watered-down shadow of their more principled forebears and only caring about the money. Entire books (see Shawn Powell’s Souled Out) have been written examining their ego-driven materialism and absence of social conscience. Yet here are today’s players rejecting a deal from David Stern that would have guaranteed them their entire current contracts if they were only willing to sell out the ballers of the future. All Kobe Bryant, who was due the biggest payday of his career, would have had to do was raise his hand in dissent. All NBPA President, Derek Fisher would have had to do is blink. All Lebron/Wade/Bosh, the supposedly selfish Miami Heat Big 3, would have had to do was holler. Stern’s offer would have been accepted and they all would have been paid and paid well.
But after the players had given back $300 million in revenues, the owners wanted more. They wanted the freedom to limit the future compensation for the sport’s “middle class” role players and to be able to send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to five years while dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players, without dissent, said no.
In this day and age, such action should be seen as admirable. Supposedly selfish athletes are sacrificing their own game-checks for the players of the future.
Instead, the media bile runneth over. JA Adande at ESPN wrung his hands that the players just couldn’t be more greedy. Seriously. He wrote, “The biggest problem with the NBA is that the principal players in this lockout saga weren’t selfish enough…. If the key figures had been thinking of themselves and their legacies, we’d be looking ahead to the Celtics playing the Heat this week…. I still can’t believe that after the players made the huge sacrifice of $300 million a year by dropping down to a 50 percent share of revenue, they would balk at the thought of a few million dollars for a few players.”
Well believe it. Players actually stood together against their economic self-interest. Say it was about ego. Say it was about pride. Say it was about fairness. But you can’t say it was about the money. As NBA veteran, Roger Mason, Jr. tweeted, “Fans talk of NBA players being greedy. But what about the guys willing to sacrifice their big pay day for what’s fair and just for others?”
Absent a coherent narrative, a flailing punditocracy has now resorted to crudely class-baiting the players for being out of touch with “economic reality.” Michael Wilbon, perhaps the most read—and most paid—sports columnist in America, wrote, “I’m tired of the debate, tired of what seems like whining over billions of dollars at a time when so many Americans are searching frantically for a second job just to pay the rent…. They keep telling us how going from approximately $5.4 million (on average) to $5 million is draconian…when my idea of ‘not fair’ is when a 58-year-old single mom with three children has her teacher’s aide salary slashed. Tell her about what’s not fair.”
First, I would like to meet the “58-year-old single mom with three children [who has had] her teacher’s aide salary slashed” with whom Michael Wilbon is in regular dialogue. Then, I’d like the entire varied punditocracy to just admit the truth. The players stood up to a group of the most powerful men in the country, and these same men, through broadcast partnerships with networks like ESPN or even direct employment, pay the six- and seven-figure salaries of Wilbon and his cohorts.
As Wilbon’s longtime PTI partner, Tony Kornheiser said when asked why he wouldn’t critique Washington football owner Dan Snyder’s ugly lawsuit against the Washington City Paper, “There are two companies that provide me with the economic opportunity that I’ve had in recent years, which has been very beneficial to me. And in the words of my colleague Bomani Jones, I’m not gonna mess around with where the money comes from, OK?” (Kornheiser’s daily radio show is on a network Snyder owns. I also believe Bomani Jones deserves better than to be lumped in with this idiocy.)
The players ARE “messing around with where the money comes from” and the response by sports talkers has been robotic in rejection as they bleat, “Does Not Compute!”
No one in these negotiations has been more clear-headed in intent and less decipherable to the press during the lockout than eleven-year vet and NBPA executive board member Etan Thomas. I believe that the union—both players and officials—on the whole has done a very poor job getting the message out. But Thomas has been an exception, regularly posting columns that have had the same message: “No matter what you hear, we are united and we will not sacrifice the future for the present.”
Last week, Thomas who had been working in New York City to get a deal done, took a time out to visit Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street encampment.
Afterward he wrote very thoughtfully, “A few friends of mine told me that although they appreciated my support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I would never be considered as part of the 99 percent (they made the distinction that I was more like the 5 percent). My question is, if an Occupy the NBA were to happen, would the players be lumped in with the 1 percent because of million-dollar salaries? While the issues raised by the Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this lockout, aren’t there obvious parallels in power imbalance?
“Who is in the same position of power as the 1 percent ? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”
Thomas, rather predictably, was slammed for daring to even raise the issue that players, despite their personal wealth, might have more in common with the 99 percent, no matter their bank accounts.
Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote,”I could not believe how out of touch [Thomas] was to view the mission of his union as having anything at all in common with the movement to Occupy Wall Street…[with] people who are unable to feed their families, who have lost their homes to foreclosure and who believe they have been neglected by employers and government?”
I spoke to Thomas about this, and he sounded the same bewildered note as Mason. “If you don’t stand up for yourself, the media is all over you. ‘You’re no Bill Russell.’ But then you do, and it’s ‘How dare you?’ But they can say what they want. We know what we’re fighting for.”
Maybe they’re fighting for a reason so basic, we’ve missed it. Maybe it’s because they overwhelmingly come from the ranks of the working poor, have career lengths of six years and have been facing off against the ranks of true generational, aristocratic wealth in all it’s arrogance, personified by the snide, oozing contemptuousness of David Stern. Maybe they’re just tired of being treated as less than men by the people who write their checks.
Maybe they just hate to lose. NBA players: welcome to the 99 percent.
Earlier this week, in my column The World Joe Paterno Made, I referenced a 2006 incident where the former Penn State coach joked about the suspected rape of a female-student at Florida State. I quoted the Pennsylvania President of the National Organization for Women, Joanne Tosti-Vasey, who spoke with what I called “chilling unintentional prescience,” given the alleged child-rapes and cover-ups involcing former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Tosti-Vasey said, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted."
The Penn State alumnus is still President of Pennsylvania NOW and still fighting to change the culture on campus. After reading my column, Tosti-Vasey wrote to me and explained her current campaign to make sure that the current scandal enveloping the school actually leads to concrete change. As you''ll read, the institutional gears of obfuscation and indifference are already in motion. Check out how, in her own words, she and others are fighting back.
I truly wish that I hadn’t been “prescient” as you stated in your article when you referred to my call in 2006 for Penn State to address campus violence. Due to these newest allegations of child sexual assault and the possible cover-up that may have occurred, I have once again referred to this climate of indifference and minimization of abuse towards others, particularly in the Athletics Department.
On Monday, November 7, I contacted the Penn State Board of Trustees and asked them to expand the focus of their “independent” review to include all forms of violence. On Friday, November 12, the press release on the PSU website from the Board that announced that, “The complete committee membership will be determined and announced in the near future and is expected to be composed of a majority of Board of Trustee members with representatives from each of the board's constituencies as well as representatives of the Penn State community including faculty, students and alumni.”
A committee that is made up solely of members of the Penn State Community is NOT an independent review board. Community members by themselves often have a vested interest in down-playing an issue in an attempt to put the best light on bad situations. We believe that as corporate stewards of this world-class public university, PSU would want to take immediate and far-reaching actions to ensure that the Penn State students, staff, and the families in the surrounding community never have to see this kind of behavior and resulting exposé ever again. Appointing outside people to the committee will help do this.
This review must also be expanded to include all forms of campus violence. PSU, like many other universities, has a long history of minimizing sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking of mostly women. The alleged child sexual assaults occurred due to a general climate that minimizes and ignores campus violence in general.
For almost 20 years, we have challenged Penn State’s dismissive attitude toward violence against women, particularly within the Athletics department. It is time to stop this insular focus. It is time to make sure that NO form of campus violence – sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking – is ever again tolerated. Against any child. Against any adult. Against any member of the PSU community or a visitor to any of our campuses (yes, I am alum).
Pennsylvania NOW and National NOW have therefore called on the Board of Trustees to make the investigative committee transparent and independent by including experts in relationship violence, survivors and people not associated with the University. And we are also urging the committee to broaden its investigation to include all forms of campus violence, which should include but not be limited to -- sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. The panel should review policies and reporting methods across the board at Penn State and specifically within the Athletic Department.
So far we have not heard anything from either the Chair and Vice-Chair of the investigative committee or from the PSU Board of Trustees. We are still awaiting a response to our concerns.
As with all grassroots activism, we have created a petition at to help pressure the Board to expand their investigation and make their committee more transparent and independent. We have, in less than two days, gathered almost 500 signatures. We hope that this pressure, in addition to our direct communications with the University administration and the Board of Trustees, will help make sure that policies campus-wide are reviewed, revised, created (where necessary), and enforced AND that the wall of indifference is torn down so that we no longer have to endure such maltreatment of another human being ever again.
Pennsylvania NOW, Inc.
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. (AP Photo/Daniel Shanken)
Meet John Matko. John Matko is a 34-year-old Penn State class of 2000 alumnus, distraught by the recent revelations that Coach Joe Paterno and those in charge at his alma mater allegedly shielded a serial child rapist, assistant Jerry Sandusky. He was livid that students chose to riot on campus this week in defense of their legendary coach. He was disgusted that the Board of Trustees decided to go ahead as planned with Saturday’s Nebraska game just days after the revelations became public. John Matko felt angry and was compelled to act. He stood outside Saturday’s Penn State–Nebraska game in Happy Valley and held up two signs. One read, “Put abused kids first.” The other said, “Don’t be fooled, they all knew. Tom Bradley, everyone must go.” (Tom Bradley is the interim head coach.)
The response to Matko gives lie to the media portrayal of last Saturday’s game. We were told the atmosphere was “somber”, “sad” and “heart-rending”, as “the focus returned to the children.” The crowd was swathed in blue, because, we were told, that is the color of child abuse awareness (also the Penn State colors). The team linked arms emerging from the tunnel. They dropped to a knee with their Nebraska opponents at midfield before the game. Once again, broadcasters told us, “the players were paying tribute to the victims of child abuse.” We were told all of this, and I wish to God it was true.
I don’t doubt the emotions in Happy Valley are genuine. I don’t doubt the searing shock and pain that must be coursing through campus. But this is the pain of self-pity not reflection. It’s the pain of the exposed not the penitent. Let’s go back to John Matko. Matko stood with his signs behind a pair of sunglasses. He wasn’t soapboxing, or preaching: just bearing silent witness. It was an admirable act, but no one bought him a beer. Instead, beer was poured on his head. His midsection was slapped with an open hand. Expletives were rained upon him. His signs were also kicked to the ground and stomped.
As the Washington Times wrote, “Abuse flew at Matko from young and old, students and alumni, men and women. No one intervened. No one spoke out against the abuse.”
One disapproving student said, “Not now, man. This is about the football players.”
And with those nine words, we see the truth about Saturday’s enterprise. It was about the football program, not the children. It was morbid theater where people were mourning the death of a jock culture that somewhere along the line, mutated into malignancy. It’s a malignancy that deprioritized rape victims in the name of big-time football.
The signs of this malignancy did not emerge overnight. Looking backward, there are moments that speak of the scandals to come. In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope—thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.” Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania’s National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania, was not amused. With chilling unintentional prescience, Tosti-Vasey responded, “Allegations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly. Making light of sexual assault sends the message that rape is something to be expected and accepted.” They called for Paterno’s resignation and short of that, asked to dialogue with Paterno and the team. Neither Paterno nor anyone in the power at Penn State accepted the invitation.
This is the world Joe Pa made. It’s a world where libraries, buildings and statues bear his name. It’s a world where the school endowment now stands at over $1 billion dollars. It’s a company town where moral posturing acted as a substitute for actual morality. In such an atmosphere, seeing the players and fans gather to bow their heads and mourn Saturday wasn’t “touching” or “somber” or anything of the sort. It was just sad. It was sad because they still don’t get it.
One PSU student, named Emily wrote the following to si.com’s Peter King,
Truth is, if not for Paterno’s philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn’t be here right now. If not for Paterno…Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good man.
Bullshit. Emily’s words ring as false as the apologists for the Vatican, Wall Street, the military command at Abu Ghraib and any industry deemed “too big to fail.” The same moral code that Emily praises absolutely cannot be the same moral code that covers up child rape. To do so is to make the very notion of morality meaningless. Emily’s gratitiude that her school isn’t “30 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart” can’t justify defending Paterno. To do so, makes you complicit in the crimes and the cover-up. It also ensures that such a thing could happen again.
On Saturday, while Matko endured the physical and verbal rage of the PSU faithful, hundreds gathered around the Paterno statue outside the stadium, laying down flowers and gifts. The pain might run deeply in Happy Valley, but the cancer runs deeper. To really move forward, the malignancy must be removed. Fire everyone. Shut down Happy Valley football for a year. Rebuild a healthier culture. Do whatever you have to do to make sure that the world Joe Paterno made has seen its last day.
Student activists interlock arms as police in riot gear move in to clear a field of grass in front of Sproul Hall on the University of California at Berkeley campus Wednesday, November 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
On Wednesday night, two proud universities saw student demonstrations that spiraled into violence. On the campus of Penn State University in State College Pennsylvania, several hundred students rioted in anger after the firing of legendary 84-year-old head football coach Joe Paterno. At the University of California at Berkeley, 1,000 students, part of the Occupy USA movement, attempted to maintain their protest encampment in the face of police orders to clear them out.
At Penn State, students overturned a media truck, hit an ESPN reporter in the head with a rock and made every effort at arson, attempting to set aflame the very heart of their campus. They raised their fists in defense of a man fired for allegedly covering up the actions of a revered assistant who doubled as a serial child rapist. The almost entirely male student mob was given the space by police to seethe and destroy without restraint.
At Berkeley, the police had a much different response. Defenseless students were struck repeatedly with batons, as efforts were made to disperse their occupation by Sproul Hall, the site of the famed Mario Savio–led free speech battles of the 1960s.
Two coasts and two riots: a frat riot and a cop riot. Each riot, an indelible mark of shame on their respective institutions.
The difference is that at Berkeley, the Occupiers—a diverse assemblage of students, linking arms—pushed back and displayed true courage in the face of state violence. They would not be moved. These students are a credit to their school and represent the absolute best of a young generation who are refusing to accept the world as it is.
At Penn State, we saw the worst of this generation: the flotsam and the fools; the dregs and the Droogs; young men of entitlement who rage for the machine.
No matter how many police officers raised their sticks, the students of Berkeley stood their ground, empowered by a deeper set of commitments to economic and social justice.
No matter how many children come forward to testify how Joe Paterno’s dear friend Jerry Sandusky brutally sodomized them on their very campus, the students at Penn State stood their ground. They stood committed to a man whose statue adorns their campus, whose salary exceeds $1.5 million and whose name for years was whispered to them like he was a benevolent Russian czar and they were the burgeoning Black Hundreds.
Theirs was a tragic statement that proud Penn State has become little more than a company town that’s been in the lucrative business of nursing Joe Paterno’s legend for far too long.
I spoke this morning to a student who was at Sproul Hall and another resident who was a bystander at State College. The word that peppered both of their accounts was “fear:” fear that those with the space and means to be violent—the police at Berkeley and the rioters at Penn State—would take it to, as Anne, a Berkeley student said to me, “a frightening point of no return.”
I would argue that this “point of no return” has now actually been reached, spurred by Wednesday night’s study in contrasts.
November 9 was a generational wake-up call to every student on every campus in this country. Which side are you on? Do you defend the ugliest manifestations of unchecked power or do you fight for a better world with an altogether different set of values? Do you stand with the Thugs of Penn State or do you stand with Occupiers of Berkeley? It’s fear vs. hope, and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher than a BCS bowl.
Joe Frazier (AP Photo/File)
The first African-American man to address the South Carolina state legislature after the Civil War wasn’t Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois or Dr. Martin Luther King. It was heavyweight boxing champion “Smokin’ ” Joe Frazier, who died this week at the age of 67. Frazier had just emerged victorious from his epic 1971 encounter against Muhammad Ali, in a fight that was cast as a culture war between the “draft dodger” Ali and the “establishment hero” Joe Frazier. If you were against the war in Vietnam, you rooted yourself hoarse for Ali. If you wanted the hippies, freaks and Black Power disciples humbled, you wanted Smokin’ Joe.
In the wake of Frazier’s death, many have written that he didn’t deserve this tag: that he was labeled unfairly as a “sellout” by Ali and suffered for it. It is certainly true that Ali and Frazier were friends before their conflicts consumed Frazier with fury. It’s also true that when Ali was forced into exile for resisting the draft, it was Joe Frazier who gave Ali money when many others turned their backs on “The Greatest.”
Ali said to Frazier, “You just keep whupping those guys in the ring, and I’ll keep fighting Uncle Sam and one day we’ll make a lot of money together.”
But by 1971, both men were playing their roles. Ali taunted Frazier for being an Uncle Tom. Frazier also, which is less remembered, taunted Ali for being against the war. He said that because he loved America, he’d proudly fight in Vietnam. He also repeatedly insulted Ali by calling him by his birthname, “Clay”
And then, after he whipped Ali in the “fight of the century,” Joe Frazier accepted that invitation to speak at the South Carolina legislature: a conquering hero.
One of thirteen children and born in abject poverty in Beaufort, South Carolina, it’s certainly understandable why he would accept the historic invitation. But that doesn’t make it any less of a full embrace of his role as the “good one” in the Ali-Frazier melodrama.
Speaking in a room with a Confederate flag backdrop in front of a chamber with only three black representatives among its 170 elected officials, Frazier’s message was gentle. He told jokes to great laughter about growing up in Beaufort and saying, “Yes, bawse” and “No, bawse” no matter the question.
He also said earnestly, “We must save our people, and when I say ‘our people’ I mean white and black. We need to quit thinking about who drives the fanciest car or who is my little daughter going to play with, who is she going to sit next to in school. We don’t have time for that.” Then his own 10-year-old daughter, to great cheers, stood and said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. My daddy is the one who whipped Muhammad Ali.”
While the chamber and national media swooned, Ali seethed. The beaten champ said Frazier was “consorting with the enemy.” He had, in Ali’s eyes, become a hero to the very people who as a young man in South Carolina wouldn’t have even spit in his direction.
As the 1970s labored on, and the movements that thrived at the decade’s inception began to wither, Ali’s taunts of Frazier became less political and more indefensible. When their epic 1975 fight in Manila loomed, Ali repeatedly called Frazier “a gorilla.” He spoke verses on how “black and ugly” Frazier was. For Ali, it was part of the show. For Frazier, it was more scarring than any punch in Ali’s arsenal.
Years later, Ali commented, “I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”
Joe Frazier didn’t want to hear apologies. In retirement he would express joy at any role he may have played in Ali’s Parkinson’s disease. When Ali famously lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics, Frazier expressed grief that he couldn’t be there to shove Ali into the fires.
The roots of his anger were deeper than just anything uttered by Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier was the 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist. He never dodged a draft. He never boasted of throwing his medal in the Ohio River. He never said “God damn America.” Yet there was Ali lighting the torch while he was stuck at home. The establishment had chosen the anti-hero, and Joe Frazier was cast merely as the foil and the fool.
It boggled Frazier’s mind when his adopted home of Philadelphia put up a statue of a boxer, and chose the very fictional—and very white—Rocky Balboa as their favorite fighting son. He did things “the right way” and Philly gave him the back of their hand like they were just another “bawse” in Beaufort.
This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: the convenient hero of everyone who wanted to see Ali punished for his politics. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: internalizing and nursing every barb from “Gaseous Cassius” instead of letting it roll off his back. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: rejected by the same establishment so quick to embrace him when it suited their needs. Smokin’ Joe deserved so much better.
After forty-six seasons coaching at Penn State University, coach Joe Paterno now faces a crisis that could burn the storied football program to the ground. And if recent charges are true, his legacy deserves to burn along with it. For those who haven’t heard, longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky, 67, who coached the vaunted Nittany Lions defense for twenty-three years, has been charged with forty sex crimes against boys dating from 1994 to 2005. All of the minors were under the care of Sandusky’s charity for impoverished youth, The Second Mile Foundation, which Sandusky founded in 1977. As the grand jury presentment stated: “Through The Second Mile, Sandusky had access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations.” Sandusky is denying all charges through his attorney, but the grand jury report is a damning and detailed account of a man exercising his power and authority to rape young boys.
On one level, it’s a horror story we’ve heard before: vulnerable children become targets for the very people trusted with their care. But this case is far, far worse, because it could have been stopped in time to spare future victims. It could have been stopped, but it wasn’t because the image of Joe Paterno Nittany Lion Football was deemed more important than the children at risk.
The grand jury summation describes one scene where Sandusky was caught raping 10-year-old “Victim Number 2” in the Penn State football team shower. The graduate student who witnessed it was “distraught” and “traumatized.” Did he go to the police? No, he went directly to Joe Paterno’s home. Paterno immediately turned the matter over to athletic director Tim Curley and, for reasons I don’t understand, Gary Schultz, the senior vice president of finance and business. Curley and Schultz conferred and acted. According to the grand jury report, they sat Sandusky down and said that he could no longer use Penn State football facilities while accompanied by Second Mile children. That’s it. Pennsylvania state law requires Curley, Schultz and Paterno to have reported the charges to the police. They didn’t. (Curley and Schultz are being charged with perjury and obstruction. Paterno is not.)
Curley even admitted to the grand jury that he “advised Sandusky that he was prohibited from bringing youth onto the Penn State campus from that point forward.” Yet as Deadspin.com reported, even this “punishment” was fictional. As late as 2009, Sandusky was on campus running a sleep-away camp for boys as young as nine years old. One alleged victim told the grand jury that Sandusky brought him to a Penn State preseason practice in 2007—a full five years after Paterno was made aware of the shower rape. This is why it’s hard to take seriously Paterno’s statement on Sunday, where he said, “If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.”
We are past prayer and into the realm of criminal negligence (and the major players are circling the wagons. Sunday night, after an emergency meeting of the Penn State Board of Trustees, Curley requested to be placed on administrative leave so he could devote himself full-time to his defense. Schultz also announced he would be retiring, effective immediately). I agree with the Washington Post’s Mike Wise, who wrote, “They would all be party to a worse crime than any crooked, pay-for-play booster at Miami, Ohio State or even SMU ever committed: guilty of protecting a program before a child.” But at the same time I would argue that the connective tissue between benign booster scandals and this monstrous state of affairs are more substantial than people want to admit. It’s connected to the Bowl Championship Series, “conference realignment” and all the ways in which college football has morphed over the last generation into a multibillion-dollar big business. This isn’t about Sandusky. This is about about a culture that says the football team must be defended at all costs: a culture where the sexual assault of a 10-year-old is reported to Paterno before the police.
This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic and spiritual heartbeat of an entire section of a state. The Nittany Lions football regularly draws 100,000 fans to Happy Valley. They also produce $50 million in pure profit for the University every year and has been listed as the most valuable team in the Big 10 conference. Another economic report held that every Penn State game pumps $59 million into the local economy: from hotels to kids selling homemade cookies by the side of the road. It’s no wonder that Paterno is revered. He took a football team and turned it into an economic life raft for a university and a region. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mindset kicks in. Protect the team above all over concerns. Protect Joe Pa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.
Penn State has never been an “outlaw program.” It’s what every school aspires to become. Think about that. Every school aspires to be the kind of place where football is so valuable that children can become collateral damage. If the allegations are true, if the school in fact knew this was going on, then the program should be shut down. If the allegations are true, Joe Paterno should be instructed to take his forty-six years and 409 wins and leave in disgrace. It’s tragic that it’s come to this for a legend like Paterno. But it’s even more tragic that protecting his legend mattered more than stopping a child-rapist in their midst. Damn Sandusky. Damn Paterno. Damn Penn State. But above all, damn the fact that the billion-dollar logic of big-time college football leads to decisions as venal as those made in Happy Valley.
The Christian right hasn’t had such a bad day since their leaders discovered rentboy.com. Tim Tebow, Focus on the Family spokesperson, missionary, and anti-abortion crusader, found out yesterday that all the charisma, good looks, and athleticism in the world won’t help you play quarterback in the NFL if you can’t throw a football.
Against the Detroit Lions—an upstart team with the league’s twelfth-ranked defense—Tebow was 18-39 for 172 yards. He also fumbled a ball that was run in for a touchdown and threw an interception returned 100 yards for a score. Believe it or not, those numbers were even padded after the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt. The idolized Florida All-American started the game an unreal 8-for-26 for eighty-five yards. The final tally was 45-10, and it wasn’t even that close. During the game, the Lions openly mocked what’s known as "Tebowing" (defined as “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”) Lions defender Stephen Tulloch adopted the pose after the second of seven Lions sacks.
But the post-game assessments of Tebow were, if anything, more brutal than what took place on the field. Deon Sanders on the NFL Network said. “I like Tebow but that was pathetic. That wasn’t the resemblance of an NFL quarterback.”
The Denver Post’s Woody Paige tried the Halloween theme and said, “Tebow was as ghastly as that Regan character in ‘The Exorcist’ who cursed, threw up and spun her head 360 degrees.”
Mike Silver of Yahoo Sports, reporting from the Lions locker room, said Tebow was being “ ”low-blowed with a degree of disrespect that blew my mind.”
One Lions defender said to Silver, “Come on—that’s embarrassing. I mean, it’s a joke. We knew all week that if we brought any kind of defensive pressure, he couldn’t do anything. In the second half it got boring out there. We were like, ‘Come on—that’s your quarterback? Seriously?’ ”
Silver went on to say, “Words like atrocious, terrible, completely exposed and not even close to ready kept coming up in these conversations; a couple of Lions even used the term oh my god.”
You can excuse the Lions for being particularly chippy. The league’s own website NFL.com, shockingly in my view, billed this game as GOOD (picture of Tebow) vs. EVIL (picture of Lions defensive star Ndamukong Suh.) Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have penned it any better. After the game Suh said, “I guess evil won out.”
But it wasn’t evil that won out. It was merit. There is nothing that makes NFL players angrier than, to mix my sports metaphors, the idea of someone born on third base who acts like they hit a triple. After Tebow led the Broncos from the brink of defeat to victory against the winless Dolphins last week, former Bronco and ESPN commentator Tom Jackson said, “He might not be able to throw in the traditional sense, but he has something special. Something mystical. I wouldn’t bet against this kid.” There are a 1,000 similar quotes all saying the same quasi-religious thing: “Throw out the handbook because Tebow has something special we mere mortals cannot explain.”
Those of us who pointed out that Tebow had issues actually throwing the ball were dismissed as haters, know-nothings or, even worse, prejudiced against Tebow because of his piety. Let’s address this. I could care less about the religion of Tebow or any player. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner was always must-see TV for me, and he has spent more time in church than stained glass windows. The difference between the two is instructive. Warner was never given half a chance to succeed. He was a 27-year-old rookie backup who played his way onto the St. Louis Rams after a stint in the Arena Football League. He then played his way into being a future Hall of Famer. His religion was just part of who he was. Tebow, for all the breathless articles about his work ethic, is the picture of entitlement: a first-round draft pick, starting in the NFL because assorted scouts, writers and owners were besotted with his “goodness.” He’s handsome. He’s wholesome. He does missionary work in the poorest parts of the world, where he circumcises young native children. At the ripe old age of 23, he even penned a memoir.
The right-wing strain of evangelical Christianity to which his family subscribes bleeds seamlessly into politics. Tebow proudly appeared, during the Super Bowl, in an anti-abortion commercial sponsored by Focus on the Family. FOF is an organization that believes in gay reparative therapy, ending women’s reproductive health, and organizing the far-right fringe of American politics. And yet Tebow was spared the normal media smackdown that “sports and politics don’t mix.” Instead, his courage was compared in ESPN to people like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (For the record, not only was Ali never given a spot in the Super Bowl to express his politics, he could also actually box.)
There’s something noxious about seeing, in real time, someone being manufactured as a leader, a poster boy and even an icon without his proving it on the field. The Tebow experience has been like seeing the DC political media establishment swoon over the “next big thing” for higher office. The difference is that in football, there are no speech doctors, no slickly produced ads, no one who can just play “quarterback” at press conferences and photo ops. You can either play or you can’t. But pity not Tim Tebow. With that smile and sparkle, he can always find a home in national politics: a profession in which neither substance nor merit is required.
Well, that didn’t take long. About ninety minutes after I posted an article criticizing Lawrence Lessig’s call for unity between the Tea Party and the Occupy movements, the good Harvard professor had a response locked and loaded. I appreciate that he takes the debate seriously enough to respond in such fast form, but that’s where my appreciation ends.
Lessig chose to ignore several of my points: that left-right alignments historically end in disaster, that he was serving to legitimize the Tea Party as a credible political institution, and that his call for alignment would repel everyone in the Occupy movement—unions, immigrants, people of color, feminists—that have found themselves in the Tea Party’s crosshairs. Instead, he focuses on the part where I said that Lessig himself, by going to Occupy sites and arguing for people to embrace the Tea Party, “wasn’t helping.” He replied,
Helping what, exactly, Dave? Helping the Left rally the Left? Agreed. That isn’t my aim. The #Occupy movements are doing that quite well on their own. As a Liberal, I celebrate that rally. Helping the Left lead a movement for real reform? You tell me how your path does that better. Here’s the fact about America: It takes an insanely large majority to make any fundamental change. You want Citizens United reversed, it is going to take 75% of states to do it. You want public funding of public elections? It’s going to take 67 Senators to get it.
What we have is a fundamental argument about where social change actually comes from. If the labor movement had waited for sixty-seven senators to give their approval, words like “Social Security,” “the eight-hour day” and “the weekend” wouldn’t even be in our vocabulary. If Dr. King, SNCC and the NAACP (the group that Lessig’s friend, Tea Party leader Mark Meckler, calls “racist”) had waited for 75 percent of states to sign off, African-Americans would still be riding the back of the bus. If women had waited for a pat on the head from sixty-seven senators instead of “striking for equality,” any notion of reproductive rights and pay equity wouldn’t exist (although for too many women it is still just a notion). In fact, the failed, legalistic, state-by-state approach to the Equal Rights Amendment is a painful example of how the Lessig method produces little more than well-meaning, excruciating failure.
If Lessig can’t produce the evidence that right-left alliances work in history, he finds proof in his calculator. As he writes,
It’s great to rally the 99 percent. It is a relief to have such a clear and powerful slogan. But explain this, because I’m a lawyer, and not so great with numbers: Gallup’s latest poll finds 41 percent of Americans who call themselves “conservative.” 36% call themselves ‘moderate.’ Liberals account for 21 percent. In a different poll, Gallup finds 30% of Americans who “support” the Tea Party. So who exactly are we not allowed to work with, Dave? 30% of America? 41% of America? All but 21% of America? And when you exclude 30%, or 41%, or 79% percent of Americans, how exactly are you left with 99%?
These numbers actually tell us very little about what ideas hold sway among the mass of people in the United States. Instead, look at the powerful majorities that support taxing the wealthy (80 percent), universal healthcare (62 percent) and increased spending for public education (81 percent). If you read Rasmussen’s poll in 2010 that shows almost half of those under 30 “prefer socialism to capitalism,” you see the potential for even more: a new twenty-first-century radicalism.
As for the 30 percent who support the Tea Party—and let’s be clear, some polls have that number at 20 percent or even 8 percent—these are overwhelmingly working- and middle-class people influenced by Tea Party ideas, but hardly the card-carrying members who gather in dwindling numbers on the National Mall. Any progressive movement worth its salt will reach out to those people—and anyone—trying to move from anger to action
But there is a world of difference between debating patiently with Tea Party sympathizers and linking arms, as the professor has proudly done, with actual Tea Party organizations. You don’t win people over by providing cover for Koch Brothers/Freedom Works–funded institutions that exist to deflect anger and destroy unity. You do it by building a strong Occupy movement and publicly making an argument that Wall Street is a much more apt target than whomever Glenn Beck is choosing to scapegoat on that given week. By catering to the Tea Party/Beck crowd, the Occupy movement would alienate far more people—women, LGBTQ people, people of color, unionists—than it could ever hope to win.
I’d advise the professor to put down the high school citizenship textbook, take a break from the Federalist Papers and read some Malcolm X instead. Malcolm said:
You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they’ll label you as a ‘crazy Negro,’ or they’ll call you a “crazy n——r”—they don’t say Negro. Or they’ll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red, or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough, and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom…. So don’t you run around here trying to make friends with somebody who’s depriving you of your rights. They’re not your friends, no, they’re your enemies. Treat them like that and fight them, and you’ll get your freedom; and after you get your freedom, your enemy will respect you. And I say that with no hate. I don’t have hate in me. I have no hate at all. I don’t have any hate. I’ve got some sense. I’m not going to let anybody who hates me tell me to love him.
Please don’t tell me to love the Tea Party, Professor. And please don’t use your considerable stature to guide the Occupy movement down a slow path to certain failure. It’s movement time. Please join us or please get out of the way.
Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University delivered a speech at Occupy DC last week where he argued that the Occupy Movement should seek alliance with the Tea Party. At Occupy Chicago, last Saturday, I called that idea "horseshit,” a statement that made it onto Twitter. Lessig was unamused. By Tuesday, the Professor wrote a 1000 word response at the Huffington Post called "Something More Than Polarization" on both the need for liberals to ally with the Tea Party and the counterproductive nature of my potty mouth. I strongly recommend for people to wade past Huff Po’s breathless coverage of Jennifer Lopez and read Lessig’s piece. It's a beautifully written bizarro blueprint of exactly what we don't want to be doing if we want to see this movement grow.
To be clear, there is nothing novel about Lessig's call to link arms with the radical right for progressive ends. When he writes, "the movement needs to find the common ground between the populists on the Right and the populists on the Left" he is attempting to resuscitate an idea best left in history’s tomb. From the Socialist Party in the US opening their arms to southern segregationists and anti-immigrant bigots to the Populist movement's embrace of Jim Crow to broaden their ranks to the Nation of Islam seeking common ground with the White Citizen Councils, these alliances are toxic recipes for how powerful movements become disoriented and die.
But Lessig ignores this history entirely. Instead he begins his piece by chest-thumping about a Harvard conference he built with the Tea Party Patriots which, as he writes, "was designed to explore the possibility, and to demonstrate that people from the Left (my friends) and that people from the Right (the Tea Party Patriots, and some of my friends) could discuss these issues like decent souls do. At the opening session, Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler gave by far the most impressive speech of the event." The idea that he would brag about working with a group that was reported by CNN to have spat and hurled racist and homophobic epithets at members of Congress is frankly bizarre. The idea that Lessig would have such fulsome praise for Meckler who has written about “the NAACP's long history of liberalism and racism" is nauseating.
But Lessig will happily use his considerable stature to legitimize the Tea Party Patriots because his greater concern is not a confident, resurgent right wing but that word: "polarization." He writes, "That is the question I care most about right now: finding common ground. It may not be there, but I believe it is. I’ve built organizations, mobilized thousands of volunteers, given hundreds of lectures, and now written a book to argue that it is. But regardless of whether there is, when I or others try to find it, or motivate people to find it, or to talk about it, or to dream for it, we’re doing something different from what we do when we wear the 'Working for my side' hat. Something different. And IMHO, right now, something critical and important." [the "h", by the way, in IMHO stands for "humble." Seriously.]
Unlike Lessig, I don't think we should live in fear of whether we are producing "polarization". Polarization isn't created out of thin air by, as he writes, "The National Review, the Nation", or "Fox and MSNBC.” It’s a byproduct of a brutally unequal society where a top 1% lives in obscene luxury while the rest of us fight over the scraps. It's what happens when one quarter of this nation’s children go to bed hungry, when 2.4 million people are behind bars, when sexism and homophobia run rampant, and when our lives are built around paying off debt.
This isn't an America Lessig acknowledges as existing. Instead he writes, "I get the need to rally souls, as Zirin did, to address the important ‘issues of race, sexism, LGBT.’ But it can’t be ‘horseshit,’ can it?, to also ask us to practice another great liberal value—tolerance—at least enough to talk about an alliance with those with whom we disagree.
I don't know what part of that sentence to disagree with first. Suffice it to say, our movement will never be of the 99% unless we are absolutely intolerant of those who would demean and dehumanize the true American Majority. The true American Majority means immigrants, documented and not. It means LGBTQ people. It means our sisters making 74 cents on the dollar. It means African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and all people of color. It means working class white kids crushed by debt who are flocking to the encampments in droves, proud of being part of something the right wing, not to mention the Tea Party, abhors. To dust off an old chestnut that actually has a track record of victory, solidarity is the only way to win. It's not easy to build this solidarity, as new people are drawn into struggle, carrying with them all the prejudices of our society. But by going to Occupy sites and arguing for a Tea Party alliance, Professor Lessig, to put it mildly, isn’t helping.
Lessig ends his piece with an impassioned plea against the kind of polarizing rhetoric I just put to paper, impugning it's sincerity, writing that learning to love the Tea Party "might not pay, it might not drive ad revenues, it might not rally members: but sometimes those goals are just not the most important." Well, I agree with that last part. The most important goal is actually winning change. Lessig's argument to repel our allies and cozy up to Tea Party Patriots who consider us "evil" isn't political strategy. It's masochism. As Howard Zinn said, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." I fear that Professor Lessig is still on the platform and the train has long left the station.
Click here to read Lawrence Lessig's response to this post.