Where sports and politics collide.
When you study the rosters of all thirty National Basketball Association teams or even casually watch a game, you find yourself facing two stubborn facts: (1) every team possesses an international mosaic of talent; (2) the last All-Star produced by the high schools of New York City is 32 years old and just changed his name to Metta World Peace.
Calling hoops “the city game,” as Pete Axthelm did forty years ago, only makes sense if the city is Barcelona. Two decades of globalization alongside the crumbling of our urban infrastructure has dramatically altered who we see on the court. If there was one moment that represents both the birth and brutal pathos of this process, it was draft day 1998 when two teams took part in what must be seen as the most lopsided trade in NBA history. That was when a Michigan Wolverine superstar born and raised in inner-city Detroit, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, was sent from the Dallas Mavericks to the Milwaukee Bucks for a skinny teenager from a place called Wurzburg, Germany named Dirk Nowitzki, and role-player Pat Garrity. Now Dirk is considered the best player on earth and Robert Traylor is dead, having passed away earlier this year from a heart attack at the tender age of 34.
It’s unbelievable that these two folks were traded for one another. But equally unbelievable is that this was seen as a steal for the Milwaukee Bucks. Then CNN/SI scribe Dan Shanoff wrote at the time, “After trading away No. 4 draft-pick Stephon Marbury last year, the Bucks get it right in ’98 by stealing the marketable and talented Robert Traylor from the Mavs for an overhyped foreign prospect.”
I asked Dan Shanoff about this ill-fated prediction this week, and he said, “Looking back, I am mostly appalled at my simple-minded analysis and implicit xenophobia. Projecting (and developing) draft picks into Hall of Famers demands imagination that Don Nelson and Mark Cuban clearly had and I lacked. I also didn’t account for the maniacal dedication that Dirk would put in to honing his craft. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that as my 5-year-old son became aware of basketball this past spring, he announced that Dirk was his favorite player. Nowitzki’s talents are that obvious. I only wish I could have understood that back then.”
We can laugh, scoff, or shake our heads at Dan Shanoff, but his analysis wasn’t a wild statement by any stretch. They represented my thoughts at the time along with most observers. But in hindsight it’s now clear that this deal was more than the most lopsided trade in hoops history. It was a “canary in the coal mine” for the way the game and the world has changed over the last fifteen years.
The Dirk story is now well known. From Wurzburg, Germany, the 19-year-old blew up in pre-draft workouts and, despite having the muscle tone of a baby deer, became the object of numerous team’s affections, including the Celtics (who had to “settle” that year for Paul Pierce.) But in the shadow of Dream Team I and II and the utter domination of “our guys” at the Olympics, the conventional wisdom was that Euro players were too weak, too fragile, and basically too lame to make it on the big stage. A soft seven-foot jump shooter? Not in this man’s league.
The Traylor story is less known. He averaged sixteen points and ten boards as a junior at Michigan, and was the Big Ten Tournament MVP. His freshman year, “the Tractor “ tore down a rim and made it look easy. With the sweet charisma of a gentle giant, Traylor was in a national sneaker ad before his first pro game. He was “Big Man,” “Barkley Jr.,” and any nickname that speaks to those rare players whose baby fat makes them magically aerodynamic. Traylor, as Shanoff wrote, was seen as a “can’t miss”: the Big 10 Superstar with the big league body.
But Traylor’s body didn’t go from baby fat to Baby Shaq. Instead he battled obesity throughout his career. He also battled income tax evasion charges that ended in a conviction for hiding the money of his cousin, a convicted drug dealer. But Traylor’s greatest obstacle wasn’t weight, taxes or scandal. It was his production on the court. In 438 NBA games, Traylor averaged five points and four rebounds. He then bounced across the globe, playing for professional teams from Turkey to Puerto Rico. It was in Puerto Rico when Traylor was talking on the phone with his wife when, she thought, the line disconnected. Unable to reach him again, she called team officials who found him dead of a heart attack.
It was remarked by those who knew Traylor that this cause of death was painfully ironic, given his generous heart. ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who is from Detroit, wrote, “He was generous to a fault. Traylor, like a lot of promising, black athletes from troubled backgrounds, never learned to say, ‘no.’ He received three years probation after he admitted he prepared a false tax return that hid the assets of his cousin, Quasand Lewis, a convicted drug dealer. He squandered a lot of his NBA millions, admitting in a 2009 Detroit Free Press story that he once took care of as many as twenty friends and family.”
Traylor was the guy from the projects who’s bigger, stronger and faster than everyone else and is pegged for the NBA from the time he walked onto a court. Everyone told him that he would be a star, that the money would always be there, and that he had to take care of his friends at all costs. He also, even in Detroit, had the inner-city infrastructure, from youth leagues to avid boosters, that gave him a path to the league. Dirk was a skinny kid who had no justification to believe that a beanpole from Germany could ever be hailed as the best in the game. For several years other GMs watched Dallas, and dipped one toe in the water, thinking the game’s globalization might just be a mirage.
Now the league is filled with badass players from across the earth. It’s also filled with Dirk imitators, born both inside and outside the states: seven footers who rain jumpers for days. It says a great deal that arguably the league’s best player, Kevin Durant, plays like Dirk and is from the Maryland suburbs. Rough, rugged and raw rebounders like Traylor, with a little meat on their middle, are in very short supply. As for Detroit, the attacks on the city’s union and non-union workers has never missed a beat, and it’s spent fifteen years as victim of every neoliberal “shock therapy” on the populace. Last year, it was named the United States’s “most stressful city” by virtue of being in the top ten for murders, robberies, poverty and, yes, heart attacks. Brutal cuts to city programs has also meant that extracurricular activities, exercise and, for some, opportunity, have become casualties of “the new normal.” As we spend this shortened season celebrating Dirk, let’s also remember Robert Traylor and the way this one trade marked a fork in the road toward a very different NBA: a different NBA that reflects the way our world has changed and left many behind.
Last Friday, I wrote a column stating that Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow deserved our pity. Statistically, over his previous three games, all losses, he had been beyond terrible. I pointed out that on Sunday, he would be facing the league’s number-one defense, a Pittsburgh Steelers squad so mean, to use an old saying, that they’d cry over Tebow’s mangled body just to get salt in his wounds. I thought Tebow and his awkward hand grenade throwing motion was headed for a long, sad offseason. I was dead wrong.
The Broncos won 29-23 in overtime, and Tebow threw for over 300 yards including an eighty-yard touchdown pass to win the game. Even more impressively, he only completed ten passes, for an unreal thirty-one yards per completion. Pity this sportswriter, because I’ve been bombarded by Tebow Tee-hadists telling me that I don’t know my ass from my elbow. And on this day they’re right. I was wrong on Tebow, and that’s not all I was wrong about.
My central Xs and Os mistake in predicting a Pittsburgh blowout was ignoring the injuries that had ravaged the Steelers. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had one working leg, with his other ankle swollen to badly he had to wear a larger shoe. Their Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and starting running back Rashard Mendenhall were both out with injuries. Their safety Ryan Clark also couldn’t play with a serious blood disorder. It was certainly ignorant of me to ignore that long list. But I made an even bigger mistake than that.
I made the cardinal error of applying the laws of politics to sports. In the last two weeks, two Republican primary also-rans—Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry—invoked the name of Tim “Focus on the Family” Tebow to inspire their flagging Christianist base. To put it mildly, the gambit failed to work for either candidate. I was over-eager to see Tebow then fail in their footsteps.
In what is not news to my regular readers, I abhor the kinds of politics that Bachmann, Perry and, yes, Tebow, represent. I consider it repellent when politicians crush the hard-won freedoms of others in the name of their version of Jesus Christ. To see LGBT people and women’s reproductive rights demonized, and have that be accepted as mainstream political discourse, demands a vigorous response.
I further can’t stand that Tim Tebow gets a media pass for his extremist politics—the politics of Christianist hegemony—while so many athletes over the years have had their livelihoods destroyed for daring to speak out for the outnumbered and oppressed. I can’t stand the way we all know but don’t say that if Tebow was a devout Muslim, the media narrative about his “faith” would be profoundly different.
If the Bachmann/Perry duo fell short, then surely Tebow would also falter, right? Wouldn’t that be the karmic trifecta?
That didn’t happen, nor should it have happened. But that’s also the great thing about sports, the thing that makes it superior to Beltway elephant/jackass politics. The game is decided on the field, transparently and in full view. There are no Super Pacs to hide behind once the opening whistle sounds. As former NBA player Rasheed Wallace famously said, “Ball don’t lie.” When it counted, against the Steelers in the playoffs, Tim Tebow was the truth. As a sportswriter, I forgot that the game plays by its own rules, and they’re rules governed by heart, skill and coaching. Tebow and the Broncos won on every count. I have lost the debate on Tim Tebow’s skill as a quarterback. But I’ll still challenge Tim Tebow’s politics for as long as necessary. And in that battle, the fight continues.
On February 5, the Super Bowl will be staged in Indianapolis, Indiana. Given the anti-union, so called “right-to-work” legislative push in the Indiana statehouse, there are demonstrations and even occupations planned around the Big Game. More on this soon, but the big news of the day is that the NFL Players Association, coming off their own bitter labor battle with NFL owners, put out a terrific statement against the legislation. Social responsibility and sports: so lovely when they go together.
NFLPA STATEMENT ON SO-CALLED ‘RIGHT-TO-WORK’ LEGISLATION IN INDIANA
WASHINGTON—As NFL players, we know our success on the field comes from working together as a team. We’re not just a team of football players—we’re also the fans at games and at home, the employees who work the concession stands and the kids who wear the jerseys of our favorite football heroes. NFL players know what it means to fight for workers’ rights, better pensions and health and safety in the workplace.
To win, we have to work together and look out for one another. Today, even as the city of Indianapolis is exemplifying that teamwork in preparing to host the Super Bowl, politicians are looking to destroy it trying to ram through so-called “right-to-work” legislation.
“Right-to-work” is a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights. It’s not about jobs or rights, and it’s the wrong priority for Indiana.
The facts are clear—according to a January 2012 Economic Policy Institute briefing report (“Working Hard to Make Indiana Look Bad”), “right-to-work” will lower wages for a worker in Indiana by $1,500 a year because it weakens the ability of working families to work together, and it will make it less likely that working people will get health care and pensions.
So-called “right-to-work” bills divide working families at a time when communities need to stand united. We need unity—not division. We urge legislators in Indiana to oppose “right-to-work” efforts, and focus instead on job creation.
As Indianapolis proudly prepares to host the Super Bowl it should be a time to shine in the national spotlight and highlight the hard-working families that make Indiana run instead of launching political attacks on their basic rights. It is important to keep in mind the plight of the average Indiana worker and not let them get lost in the ceremony and spectacle of such a special event. This Super Bowl should be about celebrating the best of what Indianapolis has to offer, not about legislation that hurts the people of Indiana.
In the last month, Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann both bluntly invoked the name of Tim Tebow as a metaphor for their presidential aspirations. The argument was that, like Tebow, they are born-again warriors of Christ who will defy all expectations and achieve victory. Bachmann even cut an ad where a voice-over said:
What do Tim Tebow and Michele Bachmann have in common? Well, at first glance, you might say nothing. But look a little deeper. The establishment sports guys just love to hate Tim Tebow. He’s not smart enough, his mechanics are no good, he’s not accurate enough. Still he just keeps winning. Maybe they’re so invested in his failure because he makes them all feel guilty. He doesn’t drink, smoke, cuss or even kick his opponents when they’re on the ground. He has no baggage and, oh yeah, he’s a born-again Christian. Well, the same could be said of Michele Bachmann. No baggage, Christian and, like Tebow, she just keeps fighting and she just keeps winning votes.
Bachmann is now toast, of course, dropping out of the primaries to the chagrin of comedians everywhere. As for Rick Perry, his campaign is over, but no one seems to have informed him of this fact.
Bachmann and Perry couldn’t have picked a worse time to invoke the Tebow name. Coming off three straight losses, Tebow’s Broncos limp into the playoffs this weekend to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team with the number-one-ranked defense in the country. The Steelers defensive front, to quote Jimi Hendrix, looks like they “stand up next to mountains and chop them down with the edge of their hands.” They’re smart, brutal and ruthless. If Tim Tebow is Rick Perry, the Steelers are a combination of Occupy Wall Street, the Teamsters and Brodus Clay.
But the stakes are even higher than just a mere playoff game. If Tim Tebow doesn’t play well, his quarterback career could be over. Seriously. Done. Finished. Over. This isn’t blind conjecture. It’s the discussion across the sports media landscape, where there is open speculation that this weekend could be his last chance.
The reversal of fortune is simply stunning. The same Tim Tebow who led Denver to seven victories in eight games, revived a franchise, made the cover of Sports Illustrated, was mentioned as an MVP candidate and inspired a nationally televised, hathos-drenched love-poem from NBC’s Bob Costas, is hanging onto his job by his fingernails, and for good reason.
In the last three weeks, Tebow has played the quarterback position about as poorly as it could be played. He completed thirty passes in seventy-three attempts over three weeks for just 439 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. As bad as those numbers are, they aren’t very different from the numbers Tebow put up all season. He ended the year as the twenty-seventh ranked quarterback in the NFL, with an NFL worst completion percentage of 46.5 percent, only completing more than 52 percent of his passes once this season. In contrast, Drew Brees set an NFL record, completing 71.2 percent of his passes, and eighteen starting quarterbacks completed at least 60 percent of their throws, In a pass-happy league, where every rule is bent to favor the quarterback, these numbers won’t work.
The Broncos Team President, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, long rumored to hate being saddled with Tebow, said on Wednesday, “The key thing for [Tebow] is to go out, put everything behind him, go through his progressions and pull the trigger.” That’s like saying, “The key for Dennis Rodman is to shoot three pointers.” It has to be read as Elway setting Tebow up for failure and frankly delighting in the prospect.
For Tebow’s own sake, fans need to stop thinking of him as an MVP mystic who “makes people believe.” The reality is different and, honestly, the reality isn’t that bad. He is a phenomenal athlete who can’t throw a football. Make him a running back. Make him a free safety. Put him on special teams. But put the Jesus/Tebow shirts away and be honest about his limitations.
It’s hard to not see a bit of Sarah Palin in Tebow. Both are physically attractive. Both have fervent supporters blind to their obvious shortcomings. Both, for a period, had the mainstream media cowed into treating them like they were in fact credible at their jobs. Both use a narrative of victimization to explain their success in the face of doubters. Both have inspired internet trolls, on both sides, to new heights of evil creativity. One wore out her welcome. I hope Tebow doesn’t do the same and accepts that there is no shame in not being a quarterback.
This weekend Tebow is going to be fed to the Steelers, a unit that covets nothing less than his destruction. At long last he will be a victim, but not of “haters.” Instead, he’ll be at the bottom of a pile of black and gold, victimized by the blind lust of his supporters and his own arrogant pride.
In a decade of sports writing, I’ve always used a very basic framework: don’t reject sports, reclaim it. In other words, no matter how greedy, hateful, or ugly sports become, you fight for it to change. No matter how many publicly funded stadiums or Redskin logos, or how much sexist doggerel is expectorated by the athletic industrial complex, you remember what you love about sports. You stand your ground and never forget the fun, fellowship and artistry these games have the potential to produce. That’s been my framework, until now. This weekend marks the pinnacle of the college football season. For more than twenty-five years, since a young Ohio State wide receiver named Cris Carter broke every Rose Bowl record, I’ve tuned in.
But not this weekend, and barring a major change, I’m never watching again. It’s not just because the bowl season has turned into an orgy of commercial branding that would shame a NASCAR event. It’s not the crass commercialism of “Chic-fil-A Bowl”, “The GODADDY.com Bowl” or “The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.” It’s not the ugly use of football to sell the business of war, with this year’s “Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman” or “The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl” coming to a television screen near you (these are not made up). It’s not the fact that today seventy teams, including fourteen 6-6 teams, get to play in bowls, making it about as special as a Cracker Jack prize. It’s not even everyone’s favorite complaint: the absence of a real playoff system to crown an actual national champion.
This year I was broken by just how disgusting the institution of college football has become. It started with the scandals at Ohio State and the University of Miami. Both showcased just exactly how hypocritical the system is, as athletes are pilloried in the public square for violating NCAA rules that deny them even modest compensation. But those problems seem positively quaint after the happenings at Penn State and the way the economic, social and cultural imperatives of big-time college football were put ahead of the safety and welfare of small children.
But the straw that snapped my back was seeing free agent head coach Urban Meyer get a $24 million, six-year contract at Ohio State University. Fresh off scandal, the Buckeyes were back in business. There were two things about this that made me physically ill. First was the fact that this money for Meyer is guaranteed, unlike a Ohio State player’s four-year scholarship, which can be rescinded at year’s end by Coach Meyer if that player falls out of athletic favor. This is the rule of the land at every school, and it gives lie to the idea that “players might not get paid but they get to go to school for free!” Then there’s that number: $4 million a year. Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes at the peak of his prominence made slightly more than $40,000 a year. That was just thirty-five years ago.
The money has metastasized dramatically, and as Emerson said, “Money often costs too much.” Athletic departments have now become a moral dead zone. For winning college football programs, the amount of cash flowing in the system is staggering. For mediocre and losing college football programs, the sport is bankrupting athletic departments, but they spend more with the hope that a winning team will cover all losses. Our schools are being sold on margin right under our noses, and I’m done with it. Until the criminal cartel that is the NCAA is finally made a relic of history, until the rancid BCS system is no more, until coaches are no longer the highest paid and most powerful people on campus, until the NFL funds its own damn minor league and stops outsourcing this task to our universities, until all of these things happen, I’m done, and I hope I’m not alone. Unless we boycott sham amateurism and indentured servitude masquerading as sport, we will never reclaim sports.
Lee Evans needs our help. The Olympic Gold Medalist and political activist, who exploded all records in the 400 meters at the 1968 Olympics, has been hospitalized with an aggressive brain tumor. The prognosis for the 63-year-old Evans is not good. As his fellow 1968 Olympic activist John Carlos said in an e-mail, “All of our teammates want to go out and say some prayers. All there is left to do is pray.”
But the situation is made far worse by the fact that Lee Evans, after four decades teaching and coaching at schools ranging from the University of South Alabama to Nigeria, doesn’t have health insurance. This has meant, according to Lee’s sister, Rosemary, that he has been terribly mistreated during his hospitalization. Rosemary said to me, “I heard his doctor in the hall and I heard him say he wished [Lee] had been transferred somewhere else because he didn’t have insurance…. Lee is in intense pain. Not even morphine is helping. He hasn’t eaten in several days, yet there was no IV in his arm when I first went into his room. He’s lying in his filth and nothing is happening. If family members aren’t vigilant… If we aren’t vigilant, I don’t know what would happen.”
Thanks to this pressure and vigilance, the basic conditions of Lee Evans’s room has improved in the last twelve hours. But the fact that his care is even a question constitutes a national disgrace. Lee Evans, in addition to his 1968 Olympic gold medals in the 400 and 1,600-meter relays, is a central part of athletic and American history. A founding member of OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Lee Evans helped turned the sports world on its head by attempting to organize a boycott by African-American athletes of the ’68 Olympics to protest racism and oppression both at home and abroad. They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia disinvited from the games. They wanted the Hitler-sympathizer Avery Brundage removed as head of the International Olympic Committee. They wanted Muhammad Ali’s title, stripped for his opposition to the war in Vietnam, restored. They wanted more African-American coaches hired. They pledged to boycott, protest and raise hell if their demands were not met.
This protest was punctuated with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s famous raised-fist salute after finishing first and third in the 200 meters. As for Evans, he famously wore a black beret, in a nod to the Black Panthers, on the medal stand. Recently, Evans has been working to build a school on thirteen acres of land he purchased in Liberia. He has even been trying to sell his gold medals to raise money for this dream saying, “I don’t need the medals,” he said. “I need money to build the school.” Evans’s wife, Princess, is a Liberian refugee, and his dream was to build the school and name it after her.
Africa has always been dear to Lee Evans’s heart. I interviewed him several years ago and he said, “As soon as I learned about what Jim Crow meant and I found out that my ancestors were Africans, I wanted to go back to Africa. So that’s what I did. I went back to Africa in 1975 and I worked there for about twenty years and I was fortunate to coach three Olympic medal winners on Nigeria’s team. I’m going to go back to Africa again and continue my work over there.”
I spoke with Ron Davis, who was National Track and Field Coach in Nigeria with Lee Evans, coaching alongside him for close to nineteen years. This constitutes just part of a friendship that stretches back for more than four decades. Davis said, “We were black Americans before and after the Olympic Games. That meant we were victimized by class and racial oppression in America, except at the Olympic games where for that moment we were just ‘Americans.’ This hypocrisy is what Lee, Tommie, John and others were organizing against in 1968. And this is why Lee is suffering now. And I have to say that Lee Evans story is another example of the need for Universal Health Care for all Americans”
Ron Davis is absolutely correct. The idea that Lee Evans, Olympic record-setter, and a critical architect of the most important athletic social movement in history, is suffering to such a degree is an indictment of this country. Lee Evans warned us about the perils of social regression forty-three years ago. Now he’s living it to his last breath.
[Finally a Paypal link to help Lee Evans: 1968 Olympian w/a brain tumor & no healthcare. bit.ly/w53dKZ]
The sports media have moved on from the scandals at Penn State. There are new shiny athletes to worship (Tebow) or tingly scandals to inhale (was a drug dealer on the Chicago Bears roster?) or even other “scandals” at Penn State (locker room fight knocks out quarterback!). Meanwhile, the trial of Penn State coaching legend Jerry Sandusky continues with a sports radio yawn and a far dimmer spotlight. And yet, in a SportsWorld where the media floss with the line that separates public relations and journalism, the happenings at Penn State require our collective vigilance. It matters not only because of the heinous nature of Sandusky’s crimes. It matters because it’s a story about how Big Football, together with the Cult of Coach, created a company town in Happy Valley as venal as Homestead, Matewan, Ludlow or any of this country’s corners colonized by robber barons a century ago. It matters because these university company towns dot the national landscape, living by their own rules.
The latest news from court, with not a sliver of the earlier publicity, does further damage to Paterno’s reputation and reveals a culture where the possible serial sexual abuse of children was seen not as a crime but an inconvenience. Paterno’s testimony (read into the court transcript because he is undergoing treatment for cancer) had, even in these jaded times, the capacity to shock. The legendary football coach testified about hearing from assistant coach (formerly a Nittany Lion quarterback) Mike McQueary that he had witnessed Sandusky’s sexual assault of a child in the Penn State showers. In Paterno’s own awful words: “He (McQueary) had seen a person, an older person, fondling a young boy. I don’t know what you would call it, but it was of a sexual nature…. I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends, (so) either Saturday or Monday, I talked to my boss, Tim Curley, by phone, saying, ‘Hey we got a problem’ and I explained the problem to him.”
That phrase, “I didn’t want to interfere with their weekends” deserves to harpoon Paterno’s sixty years as a coach and educator. His supporters will call that profoundly unfair. But Paterno’s grand reputation is built on the care and stewardship of the young. His blasé reaction by very definition, warps and should force re-evaluation of all that came before.
The testimony by others is equally evocative, if not more agonizing. There was ex–athletic director Tim Curley, who testified, “I never reported it to University Police. I didn’t think that it was a crime at the time.” (Curley was raised in State College, grew up parking cars on game day, and went on to play quarterback for Paterno.) Then there is McQueary himself, the man who kept what he saw under wraps for years, while advancing up the Penn State coaching ladder. In open court he spoke about what he had witnessed and how he described it to Paterno. “I never used the word sodomy or anal sex out of respect for Joe Paterno. I would not have done it [said it that way]. I sat at the kitchen table and told him that I saw Jerry with a young boy in the shower and it was way over the lines, extremely sexual in nature and thought I needed to tell him about it.”
All of this is after, as McQueary testified, “I thought that Jerry was molesting him, having intercourse with him. I didn’t see insertion or hear protest. Jerry having some type of intercourse with him, that’s what I believe I saw…. I heard rhythmic slapping sounds, two or three slapping sounds, like skin on skin. I looked into the mirror and shockingly and surprisingly saw Jerry in the shower with a young boy, with Jerry behind the boy.”
As stomach-churning as it all is, let’s review what the court proceedings have now revealed: McQueary, an ex–PSU quarterback, saw abuse and didn’t stop it. He went to head coach Paterno but didn’t describe in detail what had occurred out of “respect” for his coach’s delicate sensibilities. If Coach was that Victorian, it didn’t occur to McQueary to, perhaps find a cop he could say the words “rhythmic slapping” to. Then Paterno kept it under wraps because he “didn’t want to interfere” with anyone’s weekend and then Monday when he finally told another former quarterback, Tim Curley, his athletic director “didn’t think there was a crime.”
This isn’t just a story of the amoral leading the oblivious. It reveals an athletic department that existed in its own moral universe. In such a universe, the needs or honor codes of the greater institution, not to mention the broader community, is at best an annoyance. All the pabulum about honor codes are sacrificed on the altar of “revenue-producing” sports. This is the most important sports story in the country because while the details are particular to Penn State, the perverse situation of universities’ getting led by the nose by big money sports is everywhere. We have created a network of company towns where the industry is football. The very places charged with “producing the next generation of leaders” are churning out students who feel not a sense of collective outrage but a sense of collective victimization when “their school” is caught behaving badly. This is the world the NCAA made, and it’s been flowering for decades. As Ambrose Bierce defined it in his Devil’s Dictionary a century ago, “Academe, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught.” What makes Penn State matter is that it shows just how low a school is willing to go to preserve this reality. Don’t think for a second that this is just a Penn State problem.
Christopher Hitchens, best-selling author, polemical powerhouse, Bush Doctrine supplicant and militant atheist, died of cancer yesterday at the age of 62. Perhaps more than any Western intellectual, Hitchens deserves credit for popularizing the framework that the United States was absolutely correct to invade Iraq as part of a “clash of civilizations” against “Islamofascism.” It was quite a journey for Hitchens, who went from fierce polemicist against imperial war to being equally fierce in favor of it, a process anti-war British MP George Galloway described as “evolution in reverse, from butterfly to slug.”
I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer. Its subject was the death of NFL player turned army ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. This was before anyone knew anything about the lies or cover-up following Pat’s death. My piece was more a lament that Pat Tillman—described by friends as a complex, iconoclastic, human being—was already being exploited by the Pentagon in a way he would have despised. I was also at the time a regular marcher and agitator against Bush’s wars, having helped start a group called DAWN (the DC Anti-War Network). I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.
With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Hitchens had been drinking, and about to join a table of 20-somethings who peered up at him like they were tweens at a Bieber concert. I said to him, “Sir, I write about politics and sports for your former employers at The Nation magazine.”
Before I could speak another word, Hitchens interrupted. Cigarette fastened in the corner of his mouth, he said, “Did you write this week’s piece on Pat Tillman?” I was taken aback, a little shocked, and frankly flattered. I stammered a “yes” and Hitchens, out of kindness or sensing weakness said, “That was the finest piece of anti-war polemics I’ve seen since combat began.” Now I was practically blushing. Praise from Caesar.
Then he said four words that soured the discussion dramatically. He said, turning away from me, “You used Tillman brilliantly.” I couldn’t tell if he was still buttering me up or sticking the stiletto between my ribs, but after speaking to people who loved Pat all week, it was more than I could stand.
Before he could walk away, I called out, “Well, he was a great human being. And if it wasn’t for your war he’d still be alive.” There was now a pause and Hitchens turned back around like he was “Wild Bill” Hickok in the Polemicists Saloon. He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”
I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”
Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud. To be spit upon by Christopher Hitchens, for an anti-war activist in 2005, was an honor worth its weight in gold. It also felt real. Most public figures of his ilk are so full of hot air and self-regard, they aren’t even human. For Hitchens, you could see, decades after his days as a student socialist agitator, he was conflicted by what he had become. This is obvious in much of his recent writings: a constant effort to reassure himself that he hadn’t really morphed into what he had once despised. If nothing else, he was consistent in his hatred of Henry Kissinger, and I for one, regret that the aged war criminal outlived his most effective foe.
Christopher Hitchens was a man of prodigious gifts, but in the end, he used those gifts to promote wars that produced a killing field in the Middle East. That, tragically, is his lasting legacy to the world, and no amount of flowery obituaries can change this stubborn fact.
The morning buzz in sports is about the greatest point guard of our generation, Chris Paul, joining the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s a dizzying thought, but the Clippers, the much-mocked baby brother to the mighty Lakers in LA, now have the city’s better basketball team. This is a day for Frank Stallone, for Billy Carter, for Roger Clinton…. the day that your little bro with the runny nose and the toilet paper stuck to his shoe inherited the earth.
Paul is a 26-year-old future hall of famer who might end his career as the greatest point guard to walk the earth. He now joins a team with reigning rookie of the year Blake Griffin, terrific young center DeAndre Jordan and former finals MVP Chauncey Billups. They are young; they are loaded; they are primed for a sprint of a sixty-six-game season where youth will reign supreme. The Lakers, in sharp contrast, are old, creaky and bitter that their own trade for Paul was voided by the league earlier this week.
I recommend going here and here if you want more analysis of the trade itself. I’m more interested in the cultural shift at play. Not unlike seeing Newt Gingrich at the head of the Republican primaries, having the Clippers rule Los Angeles hoops is like living an alternative universe. To put it in LA terms, it’s like one of the Jackass movies winning the Oscar for best documentary.
The Lakers have been to thirty-two NBA Finals and won sixteen championships. The Clippers have the most sixty-loss seasons in NBA history. The Lakers are the team of Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, with the ubiquitous Jack Nicholson in the front row. The Clippers are the team most known for their geriatric, feral, furtive owner Donald Sterling, who favors unbuttoned shirts and gold chains and has been accused of bringing “escorts” to ogle at his players changing in the locker room. In recent years, Sterling has had to fend off racial discrimination suits from both former Clipper employees and tenants living in his archipelago of slums.
As comedian Nick Bakay once wrote, “The Lakers’ luxury box is prawns, caviar and opera glasses while the Clippers stock Zantac, barf bags, some good books, and cyanide.” They share an arena, the Staples Center, that has over the last decade resembled a coke-fueled celebrity yacht party for Lakers games and a dour family reunion no one attends for the Clips.
These aren’t two NBA teams. They are the two Americas.
But in a 2011 where we’ve seen global revolutions from the Middle East to the Mid-West overturn accepted truths in thought and deed, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate way for the SportsWorld to end its year. The Lakers have always been the ultimate team of the 1 percent. The Clippers are the also-rans, the afterthoughts, bottom-dwelling 99 percenters of the first order. One trade, and this sacrosanct truth has been turned on its head. To see an exhilarating symbol of the change 2011 has brought and 2012 will bring, you can do worse than remembering the names Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the soon-to-be almighty Clippers.
In twenty-five years of playing organized and disorganized basketball, I probably was involved in a dozen fights on the court. Call it a natural side effect of playing under the hoop, banging bodies, taking (or giving) a stray elbow and then having tempers flare. In none of those dust-ups did I ever face felony charges, mandatory jail sentences, and the prospect of a ruined life for my ill-temper.
But now players from the University of Cincinnati and Xavier, storied cross-town rivals, are staring at the prospect of criminal charges after an ugly brawl took place at the end of Saturday’s game. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters released a statement that his office is considering a series of charges that could include assault and battery or disorderly conduct. No one condones fighting on the court, but the idea that college basketball players could go to prison speaks to the worst kind of hypocrisy and the most twisted traditions of the city of Cincinnati, a place with a history of institutional racism that would make Mississippi blush. [NEWS FLASH: JUST ANNOUNCED THAT NO CHARGES ARE BEING FILED AGAINST THE PLAYERS.]
Cincinnati has spent the last decade trying to heal after the police shot and killed an unarmed African-American 19-year-old named Timothy Thomas in 2001 which led to the largest urban riots in the United States since Rodney King and the LAPD crossed paths in 1992. The Cincinnati riots were an expression of bottled rage against a police department that saw, between 1996 and 2001, fifteen African-Americans died at the hands of Cincinnati police.
Given this history, and given Deters own history, we should look at this threatened prosecution, with a very suspect eye.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that hockey brawls, no matter how brutal and no matter how many teeth end up on the ice, don’t end with participants behind bars. There is a different reaction by the press, by a school’s administration and clearly by law enforcement when it’s young black men throwing the punches. This is a racist double standard that has the potential now to ruin the lives of the young men involved.
Myron Metcalf, the African-American college basketball journalist for ESPN started his column this week by stating, “I guess I’m wired this way. But my first thought about Saturday’s Xavier-Cincinnati melee centered on race. My initial response disregarded the pending suspensions or the blood spilled or the trash talk. Instead, it was simply: ‘Dang, young black men fighting on national TV.’ I wondered if other African-American viewers had the same reaction.”
It’s a bizarre comment on our times that Metcalfe would confine his comments to the African-American viewers and assume that only they would have a reaction colored by race.
Then there is the good prosecutor Joe Deters himself. Deters is a very ambitious political figure who was the local chair of the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign. Deters knows his base and maintains a friendship Jim Schifrin, author of a notorious Cincinnati rag described as a “racist political tip sheet,” The Whistleblower. Schifrin has been reported as having referred to Cincinnati’s first directly elected African-American mayor Mark Mallory as a “gay darkie,” and called Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent Rosa Blackwell “mammy.” It was also reported that Deters and Schifrin told jokes about President Obama being assassinated, a charge to which Deters never responded. When questioned about their friendship, Deters, said that this was his “personal life” and would not comment. This is the person who is now in a position to pass judgment on the players.
As Nathan Ivey, a talk radio rebel on Cincinnati’s 1230AM WDBZ said to me “Once again the Hamilton County Prosecutor is quick to deliver his very own brand of ‘Go-Go-Gadget’ justice. Joe Deters has an uncanny knack for pulling out the wrong gadget at the wrong time. In this case he should have used common sense. Instead he pulls out a flamethrower, choosing the classic Cincinnati knee-jerk reaction. From his political associations to his selective application and interpretation of the law, Joe Deters bungles and juggles justice so much, that I honestly can’t tell if he’s an officer of the court, or a clown yet another trait that he shares with Inspector Gadget.”
The players involved have expressed all the right remorse. Cincinatti guard Yancy Gates, suspended for six games, wept deeply on camera saying, “I’m just not that type of person. A lot of people have been calling me a thug, a gangster.’’ The fact is that this is a rivalry both schools have ginned up over the years to the point where the tensions transcended basketball. The more hype, the more tickets, the higher profile for the programs and the higher revenues. It’s been played up as the large public school against the elite small Catholic school, with every provincial prejudice tied up in which side you stand on in a game the schools call “the cross-town shootout.” But the players themselves don’t share these differences of class and community. They are gladiators thrown against each other for the joy of boosters on both sides. Now they are facing the judgment of a man like Joe Deters. Somewhere a toothless French Canadian on skates is breathing a sigh of relief he doesn’t play hoops in the city of Cincinnati.