Where sports and politics collide.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is now facing the systematic disemboweling of his legacy as an athletic icon. As revealed Sunday on 60 Minutes—a show that usually doesn’t do sports features unless there’s a synergistic tie-in with CBS Sports—three of Armstrong’s teammates have testified to a federal grand jury that they saw the great cyclist take performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong’s top “lieutenant” Tyler Hamilton said, “He took what we all took…. There was EPO, there was testosterone. And I did see a transfusion, a blood transfusion.”
60 Minutes also broke the news that George Hincapie, Armstrong’s closest friend and teammate, finally relented and testified to federal investigators. According to reporter Scott Pelley, Hincapie stated “that he and Armstrong supplied each other with the blood-booster EPO and discussed having used testosterone—another banned substance during their preparation for races.” Hincapie is apparently shocked that his confidential grand jury testimony was leaked. He released a statement through his attorney where he said, “I can confirm to you that I never spoke with 60 Minutes. I have no idea where they got their information.” (Hincapie will be releasing his LiveNaïve rubber bracelets later this month.)
For what it’s worth, I find these federal grand juries aimed at “cleaning up sports,” a vulgar use of government power. In cycling, it’s particularly noxious. This is a sport that desperately needs organization and labor protections. Cyclists are pushed to extend their bodies beyond all possible human limits. Since 2000, twelvec professional cyclists have died during races. Imagine the outcry if twelve NFL players had died on the field during the same time span. Blood doping is a logical outcome of a sport where people push themselves to death for the enjoyment of fans and benefit of sponsors. Of the seventy top ten finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour De France victories, forty-one have tested positive for PEDS. That’s what happens when there is no legitimate union, commissioner, or controlling authority other than race organizers and sponsors—and highly competitive athletes pushing themselves at all costs to make it through the Pyrenees in one piece.
As for Armstrong, he has come out swinging with his typically furious denials, saying, “CBS’s reporting on this subject has been replete with broken promises, false assurances and selective reliance on witnesses upon whom no reputable journalist would rely.” Armstrong has long insisted on his innocence and touted his reputation as “the most tested athlete on the planet.” Clearly he and the media believe his reputation as an athletic icon—like that of baseball greats Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—is hanging by the thread. But unlike other athletes, Armstrong’s legacy is secure. That’s because his support comes from a far less fickle place than fandom.
In Robert Lipsyte’s recently released memoir An Accidental Sportswriter, the great columnist reveals that the only modern athlete who send his pulse racing is Armstrong. “He’s the closest thing I have to a celebrity jock hero,” says Lipsyte. This is a remarkable statement from a writer who is a great critic of that nexus of sports, media and hero-worship that he brands “jock-sniffing.”
But his affection for Armstrong transcends cycling. Bob Lipsyte is a cancer survivor. Like many cancer survivors, he sees Armstrong as more than an icon of athletics, as an icon of survival and recovery.
Lipsyte’s love was cemented when he heard someone ask Armstrong how his belief in God helped him beat cancer and Armstrong responded, “Everyone should believe in something, and I believe in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.” Armstrong also believes that everyone should have access to the kind of medicine that allowed him to beat death. He’s helped raise, through his LiveStrong foundation with its ubiquitous yellow bracelets, more than $400 million dollars for medical research. This is why Armstrong doesn’t just have defenders. He has, in the legions of cancer survivors across our toxic nation, an army. The Associated Press quoted cancer survivor and amateur cyclist Raifie Bass, who said, “Lance is a true inspiration for so many people. He’s just a person that really is a great motivator for me as a cyclist and as a cancer survivor. What Lance has done for the global message of cancer and awareness, it’s unstoppable.… it’s not how many Tours he won or what he’s done for cycling. It’s what he’s done for cancer.”
What a country. We have a federal government spending untold amounts to “clean up” performance enhancing drugs in cycling, targeting someone whose celebrity and efforts are critical in the fight against cancer. How about we close down the grand jury and in return, cycling agrees to get a commissioner, a union and a method to handle its own drug testing? How about we take the money being spent to find out what someone might have taken to survive these torturous races, and donate it to cancer research? I’m sure federal prosecutors have other people’s garbage to sift through, and 60 Minutes could then be free to finish its hard-hitting story about what makes Roger Goodell so dreamy. But however this ends, I wouldn’t bet against Lance Armstrong. The LiveStrong Army is bonded by something stronger than sports… and stronger than the Feds.
Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game was poised to be a migraine-inducing exercise in Orwellian irony. Forget about the fact that Civil Rights was to be honored in Atlanta, where fans root for a team called the Braves and cheer in unison with the ubiquitous "tomahawk chop."
Forget about the fact that the Braves have been embroiled in controversy since pitching coach Roger McDowell aimed violent, homophobic threats at several fans. Forget that this is a team that has done events with Focus on the Family, an organization that is to Civil Rights what Newt Gingrich is to marital fidelity.
The reason Atlanta was such a brutally awkward setting for a Sunday Civil Rights setting, was because Friday saw the Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, sign HR 87, a law that shreds the Civil Rights of the state’s Latino population. Modeled after Arizona’s horrific and unconstitutional SB 1070, HR 87 authorizes state and local police the federal powers to demand immigration papers from people they suspect to be undocumented. Those without papers on request will find themselves behind bars. Civil rights hero, Atlanta’s John Lewis has spoken out forcefully against the legislation saying “This is a recipe for discrimination. We’ve come too far to return to the dark past."
But there was Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, celebrating civil rights in Georgia, and chortling excitedly about the 2011 All-Star game in Arizona. In the hands of Selig, irony becomes arsenic. Thank God that Commisioner Selig was stupid enough to choose the Civil Rights Game to honor, among others, the great musician Carlos Santana. Santana was supposed to be the Latino stand-in, a smiling symbol of baseball’s diversity. And maybe, he would even play a song!
But Bud picked the wrong Latino. Carlos Santana took the microphone and said that he was representing all immigrants. Then Santana added, "The people of Arizona, and the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves." In a perfect display of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia, the cheers quickly turned to boos. Yes, Carlos Santana was booed on Civil Rights Day in Atlanta for talking about Civil Rights.
Then in the press box, Santana held an impromptu press conference where he let loose with an improvised speech to rival one of his virtuoso guitar solos. He said, "This law is not correct. It's a cruel law, actually, This is about fear. Stop shucking and jiving. People are afraid we're going to steal your job. No we aren't. You're not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy. Who cleans the sheets? Who cleans the toilets? Who babysits? I am here to give voice to the invisible."
He went on to say, "Most people at this point they are either afraid to really say what needs to be said, this is the United States the land of the free. If people want the immigration law to keep passing in every state then everybody should get out and just leave the American Indians here. This is about Civil Rights."
Where was Bud Selig during all this drama? It seems that Selig slunk out of a stadium backdoor in the 5th inning. If there is one thing Bud has become an expert at, it’s ducking his head when the issues of immigration, civil rights, and Major League Baseball collide. If Selig really gave a damn about Civil Rights, he would heed the words of Carlos Santana. He would move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona. He would recognize that the sport of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood has an obligation to stand for something more than just using their memory to cover up the injustices of the present. If Bud Selig cared about Civil Rights, he would above all else, have to develop something resembling a spine. But if Bud is altogether unfamiliar with the concept of courage, he received one hell of an object lesson from Carlos Santana.
In Chile, it was called the The Brick. It was the many-thousand page economic manifesto of Dictator Augusto Pinochet, written by "the Chicago Boys"—Chilean exchange students from the University of Chicago. Disciples of the university's conservative, neoliberal economics professor Milton Friedman, they printed The Brick on "the other 9/11"—September 11th, 1973. As Chile's Presidential palace was being bombed, "Companero Presidente" Salvador Allende was being murdered, and General Pinochet was assuming power, The Brick became Pinochet's economic compass. It guided the country through two decades of slash and burn privatisation, displacement, and inequality—all in the name of "development".
Today, Pinochet is reviled and gone but The Brick has become a default manifesto for much of the globe. it's most ardent sponsors ironically bear its name as an acronym: BRIC. They are Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These ambitious nations have established themselves as the future, not only of global economic growth, but as future centres of international sport. They can offer two things that the decaying, Western powers can no longer provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.
We are seeing this in particularly dramatic form in Brazil. The country will be hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. In the 21st century, these sporting events require more than stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, a willingness to crush civil liberties, and the will to create the kind of "infrastructure" these games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums. That means not just security, but the latest in anti-terrorist technology. That means not just new transportation to and from venues, but hiding unsightly poverty from those travelling to and from the games. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourism and multi-national sponsors.
Every day in the favelas, the slums that surround Brazil's major cities, these international athletic festivals are vividly recalling the ways of The Brick. Amnesty International, the United Nations, and even the International Olympic Committee—fearful of the damage to their "brand," are raising concerns. It's understandable why.
This week came a series of troubling tales of the bulldozing and cleansing of the favelas, all in the name of "making Brazil ready for the Games." Hundreds of families from Favela de Metro find themselves living on rubble with nowhere to go after a pitiless housing demolition by Brazilian authorities. By bulldozing homes before families had the chance to find new housing or be "relocated", the government is in flagrant violation of the most basic concepts of human rights.
As the Guardian reported, "Redbrick shacks have been cracked open by earth-diggers. Streets are covered in a thick carpet of rubble, litter and twisted metal. By night, crack addicts squat in abandoned shacks, filling sitting rooms with empty bottles, filthy mattresses and crack pipes improvised from plastic cups. The stench of human excrement hangs in the air."
One favela resident, Eduardo Freitas said, "it looks like you are in Iraq or Libya. I don't have any neighbours left. It's a ghost town".
Freitas doesn't need a masters from the University of Chicago to understand what is happening. "The World Cup is on its way and they want this area. I think it is inhumane," he said.
The Rio housing authority says that this is all in the name of "development" and by refurbishing the area, they are offering the favela dwellers, "dignity".
Maybe something was lost in the translation. Or perhaps a bureaucrat's conception of "dignity" is becoming homeless so your neighbourhood can became a parking lot for wealthy soccer fans. And there is more "dignity" on the way. According to Julio Cesar Condaque, an activist opposing the levelling of the favelas, "between now and the 2014 World Cup, 1.5 million families will be removed from their homes across the whole of Brazil."
I spoke with Christopher Gaffney, Visiting Professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro and Vice-President of the Associacao Nacional dos Torcedores [National Fans' Association].
"It's like a freefall into a neo-liberal paradise," he said."We are living in cities planned by PR firms and brought into existence by an authoritarian state in conjunction with their corporate partners. These events are giant Trojan horses that leave us shocked and awed by their ability to transform places and people while instilling parallel governments that use public money to generate private profits. Similar to a military invasion, the only way to successfully occupy the country with a mega-event is to bombard people with information, get rid of the undesirables, and launch a media campaign that turns alternative voices into anti-patriotic naysayers who hate sport and 'progress'."
It's a remarkable journey. Pinochet is now a grotesque memory, universally disgraced in death. But The Brick remains, a millstone around the neck of Latin America. Expect a series of protests in Rio as the games approach. And expect them to be dealt with in a way that speaks to the darkest political traditions of the region.
Atlanta Hawks basketball player Etan Thomas refuses to be silent, especially when the state of Georgia seems poised to take a major step backward toward its dark past. This week, Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal is expected to sign an immigration bill, HR 87, that promises nothing but racial profiling and broken lives. HR 87 grants state and local police the powers of federal immigration officials. That means local police can arrest people for the crime of not having their citizenship papers at the ready. It means immigrant communities will be hesitant to call the authorities if there is a fire, a crime, or an abusive family member in their midst. It means horrible echoes of the days of Jim Crow when Georgia’s black population needed written documentation if they wanted to travel the state without being thrown into prison. Etan Thomas, who has a history of entering the fray and standing up against racism and the death penalty, wasn’t going to sit this one out.
“I can't believe that anyone would be in favor of racial profiling,” says Thomas. “This bill is very similar to the Arizona bill [last year’s infamous SB 1070] and authorizes law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of "certain criminal suspects." So this means they can pull anyone over at anytime and their only crime could be minding their business. That goes against everything this country should stand for.”
Thomas is right. The bill doesn’t just echo Jim Crow, but has been pushed through on racist grounds. State Sen. Renee Unterman, in debating the bill, said that recent efforts at cooperation between federal immigration officials and local police was effective because "I see fewer foreigners driving around.” Don’t be caught “driving while brown” if Untermann is in the area.
Thomas, amidst a successful playoff run by the Hawks, took the time to call for vocal and active resistance to these measures.
“I applaud the thousands of people who gathered at the Georgia Capitol Thursday to protest this legislation,” he said. “Governor Nathan Deal has dreams of legislation where anyone who looks Hispanic are criminals. There simply should be no place for that in our society. What if after the Oklahoma City Bombing they passed legislastion allowing police to detain and question every young white male? That would correctly be interpreted as a violation of their civil rights. And just as this example seems completely absurd, so does detaining every person who looks like they could be Hispanic to see if they are legal or illegal.”
Thomas’s voice should remind us of the way the NBA’s Phoenix Suns stood up to Arizona’s legislation by wearing jerseys that read Los Suns. Maybe Atlanta should wear uniforms in their series against the Hawks that read Los Hawks? It could be an act of solidarity with their proud Dominican All-Star teammate Al Horford. Or maybe, like in Arizona, activists should bring the fight to Major League Baseball?
Last year, there were protests outside twenty different Major League ballparks to oppose the staging of the All-Star game this summer in Arizona. They took place every time the Arizona Diamondbacks came to town, and they were all aimed at SB 1070. The Major Leagues currently rest on a foundation of Latino talent: 27.7 percent of major league players were born in Latin America as well as 50 percent of minor leaguers.
Georgia activists have taken note. I communicated with the organization Somos Georgia (We Are Georgia) and they have targeted the August 19-21st series between the Atlanta Braves and the Arizona Diamondbacks as a place where they are going to make their voices heard. If Atlanta Braves heroes like Alex Gonzalez and Martin Prado are in the wrong place at the wrong time—and not in uniform—they are in as much danger as a day laborer.
They said to me, “Somos Georgia/We Are Georgia understands there is no option but to boycott the state should the Governor sign HB 87 into law. People of conscience nationwide will not come to a state that legislates hate and bigotry—as the boycott of Arizona has demonstrated. Georgia will lose money, jobs, and we’ll lose our reputation as a good place to visit and do business. We will be rallying outside the Braves-Diamonback game in August to call attention to the immoral path both states have taken and to urge all people of conscience to oppose such hate."
The state of Georgia like the state of Arizona will pay a steep economic price for scapegoating and bigotry. But the wound will be self-inflicted. As Etan Thomas said to me, “This law has no place in a democracy. If they are looking for a way to correct the problem with illegal immigrants, punishing the masses can't be the solution. We are better than that.”
“I’m not into rejoicing over a killed enemy.”—Kevin Durant
In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, the sports world embraced the public eruption of patriotism. From the spontaneous cheers of 40,000 fans in Philly, to amped "Military Appreciation Night" celebrations at stadiums around the country; from the chest-thumping tweets of athletes and sports writers, to entire blocks on sports radio exalting in the rush of bin Laden’s dramatic demise.
Yet some athletes dared to buck the trend, and in the process have learned a tough lesson about the limits of free speech in the jockocracy. Chris Douglas-Roberts, former Memphis basketball All-American and current Milwaukee Buck, responded to bin Laden’s death by listing a litany of reasons for why he wasn’t playing the Toby Keith on repeat, tweeting among other things, “It took 919,967 deaths to kill that one guy. It took 10 years & 2 Wars to kill that...guy. It cost us (USA) roughly $1,188,263,000,000 to kill that...........guy. But we winning though. Haaaa. (Sarcasm).”
Profanity, threats, and the general belief that he was "stupid," a "moron" and that he should shut his "dumb [expletive] mouth" because he is "not intelligent" came rolling in. CDR tried to hit back, tweeting,
“What I'm sayin has nothing to do with 9/11 or that guy (Bin Laden). I still feel bad for the 9/11 families but I feel EQUALLY bad for the war families. ... People are telling me to get out of America now b/c I'm against MORE INNOCENT people dying everyday? B/c I'm against a 10 year WAR? Whatever happened to our freedom of speech?..What I've learned tonight, athletes shouldn't have perspectives. But I don't care. We feel certain ways about things TOO.”
Rashard Mendenhall, the pro-bowl running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, raised eyebrows even higher with his comments, writing, [“For] those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell and piss on his ashes, I ask how would God feel about your heart?... What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…”
Mendenhall then took it somewhere Douglas-Roberts did not, raising the exhaustively debunked conspiratorial doubts about the events of 9/11, tweeting, “I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition.” This caused Sports illustrated's senior football writer Don Banks to write a piece titled, Mendenhall just the latest NFL player to spout utter nonsense.
The outrage intensified to the point where Steelers President Art Rooney II, a big money bundler for President Obama stated, “I have not spoken with Rashard so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments. The entire Steelers’ organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.”
Whether or not you supported some or all the wars of the last decade (I think they’ve been a hellacious, unconscionable waste of human life that has serve to make the world a more dangerous place), there is a bigger lesson that the guardians of Jock Culture seem to be trying to teach: by being an athlete you have signed away your right to have an opinion beyond your choice of sneaker or sports drink. This is something that runs very deep in the marrow of our sports culture: that athletes, particularly black athletes should just “shut up and play.” They should feel fortunate to just to have the good fortune to get paid and they have no right to say anything that might make anyone even a bit uncomfortable.
If you look historically at athletes who today are admired for their courageous honesty—people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell—they were all told by the sports columnists of their day that they should button their lips and just play. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists, a young sportswriter for the Chicago American by the name of Brent Musberger wrote, “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” going on to call them, “a pair of black-skinned storm-troopers.”
In other words, to be a political athlete in any way that doesn’t involve wrapping yourself in the flag has always been apostasy in the eyes of the guardians of Jock Culture. I would argue this is a deeply destructive line of thought that damages our society beyond the confine of sports. Athletes are role models whether we want to admit it or not. Do we really want them modeling that a lack of political thought is a virtue? Or that having the biggest contract makes you the best possible human being? Or do we want them modeling the simple idea that having something to say about the world is something to be emulated?
If you disagree with what an athlete says, say so. I don’t agree with Tim Tebow that women shouldn’t be able to have abortions because the star quarterback disapproves. I don’t agree with Rashard Mendenhall that 9/11 was any kind of inside job. But let’s argue out these issues on the merits. Let’s stop perpetuating the idea that athletes have forfeited their right to say whatever they damn-well please. To Chris Douglas-Roberts: yes, athletes DO have a right to have perspectives, and I hope we can continue to hear what's on your mind. But your silence only will embolden those who believe otherwise, and make it that much harder for the next athlete with something to say.
Howard Cosell said that "rule number-one of the sports jockocracy" was that sports and politics don't mix. And yet last night, at the ballpark in Philadelphia, we received another reminder that some political expression is deemed not just acceptable but glorious.
When the killing of Osama bin Laden reached the Philadelphia Phillies fans, amidst their fourteen-inning loss to the New York Mets, boisterous chants of “U-S-A“ filled the park. This was praised across the sports landscape as a remarkable, yet altogether appropriate moment of national joy. “It was beautiful,” said one radio commentator. “It reminded all of us what is so wonderful about sports in our society.”
The eruption of patriotic emotion at the park should surprise no one. Since 9/11, the sports arena has been an organizer of patriotism, a recruiter for the US armed forces, and at times a funhouse mirror, reflecting the principles of freedom in a manner so misshapen and distorted as to rise to the level of farce.
As the Phillies faithful cheered, I thought about the NFL postponing games following 9/11, but only after a players revolt led by Vinny Testaverde made clear to Paul Tagliabue that no one was in a condition to play a game. I thought about the spread of "Military Appreciation Nights" at the stadium and the increased prevalence of jet flyovers and troops processions in the field. I thought about the military recruitment stations organized outside preseason NFL games.
I thought about Major League Baseball adding the second national anthem, “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch. I thought about the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner having chains put up along the side of the bleachers and hiring off-duty police to make sure no one did anything but pay fealty to the flag. I thought about a young man named Bradley Campeau-Laurion who was led from the park in handcuffs because he left his seat to use the bathroom during this celebration of freedom. I thought about ESPN’s week of SportsCenter from Iraq in September of 2004, which allowed the network to do what George W. Bush couldn’t: connect Iraq to 9/11.
I also thought about the athletic dissenters. I thought about then Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado who refused to come out for the second seventh-inning stretch anthem, saying, “I don't [stand] because I don't believe it's right, I don't believe in the war. It's a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It's [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever.”
I thought about then Washington Wizards forward Etan Thomas electrifying a mass antiwar rally in DC in September 2005. I thought about Steve Nash wearing a T-shirt at the start of the Iraq invasion that read “No war. Shoot for peace.” I thought about NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. imploring people to see Fahrenheit 9/11. I thought about the fiercely brave Manhattanville women’s basketball captain Toni Smith turning her back on the anthem and igniting a firestorm with her courage. I thought of Adalius Thomas, Josh Howard, Nick Van Exel and all athletes who used their platform and spoke out.
But more than anyone, I thought about Pat Tillman. I found myself wondering if the 19-year-olds who were turning Ground Zero and the White House into a frat party last night even knew who Pat Tillman was. And if they were aware that a man named Pat Tillman once walked among us, which Tillman did they know? Did they know the Tillman the NFL wants us to remember? That Tillman was a star safety who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract after 9/11 to join the Army Rangers, only do die in combat twenty-two months after enlisting. In the immediate aftermath of his death Tillman became a caricature, used to promote and encourage war.
But the Pat Tillman his family has fought to be known is the actual, thinking, opinionated human being. This Pat Tillman believed that 9/11 had been manipulated to justify an illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. As journalist Jon Krakauer said, “He thought the war was illegal. He thought it was a mistake. He thought it was going to be a disaster. And in the Army, you’re not supposed to talk about that. You’re not supposed to talk politics. And Pat didn’t shut up. He told everyone he encountered, ‘This war is illegal as hell.’ ” He started reading the antiwar theorist Noam Chomsky and sent word that he wanted to meet Chomsky upon returning to the states.
This Pat Tillman died not at the hands of the Taliban but in an incident of “friendly fire,” a fact hidden from his own family for weeks after his nationally televised funeral. Pat’s family has spent years fighting to get the true facts of his case known. I thought about Pat’s brave mother Mary and I was just so sad. We killed bin Laden and all it took was three wars, a million deaths, a trillion dollars and countless broken families and broken hearts.
Yes, sports has been co-opted, exploited, scarred and turned inside out by the aftermath of 9/11 and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Some have wondered if now that bin Laden is dead, life will “go back to normal.” But as we saw in Philly last night, this is the new normal and will continue to be so, until every last troop is home. Maybe then we can enjoy sports as an escape from, rather than a promoter of, this country’s culture of war.
For links to The Nation's complete coverage of Osama bin Laden's death, click here.
On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that was as hypocritical as it was bizarre. I would even call it “career ending” if the sports media wasn’t so terrified of Goodell, or football fans actually read the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In this malformed missive Goodell excoriates Judge Susan Nelson’s injunction against the owners’ lockout of the players. He said that the game America loves is now on a dark path to destruction.
It’s a stunning piece. Goodell begins by writing, “Late Monday afternoon, US District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued a ruling that may significantly alter professional football as we know it. For six weeks, there has been a work stoppage in the National Football League as the league has sought to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players.”
This is not a “work stoppage.” Some Frank Luntz protégé might have massaged that phrase for Goodell. Calling it a “work stoppage” makes the situation sound like a weather pattern. “When will the work stoppage blow over?” Own it, sir: It’s a lockout. You and the owners chose to rip up the collective bargaining agreement two years before it was due to expire. You chose to reject the NFLPA’s offer to continue under the existing CBA until a new agreement could be reached. You are the reason there is a lockout and the reason it was overturned.
But Goodell doesn’t own it. Instead he chooses to not even reckon with the judge’s decision, writing, “Nelson ordered the end of the stoppage and recognized the players’ right to dissolve their union.” I want to hear Roger argue why Nelson was wrong. Is she wrong that the lockout is doing “serious harm” to a workforce that on average only has three and a half years to ply their trade? Was she wrong to invoke the number of injuries on the field? We don’t know.
But the true chutzpah is yet to come. Goodell writes, “By blessing this negotiating tactic, the decision may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history. What would the NFL look like without a collectively bargained compromise? For many years, the collectively bargained system—which has given the players union enhanced free agency and capped the amount that owners spend on salaries—has worked enormously well for the NFL, for NFL players, and for NFL fans.”
Let’s leave aside that the above comment would be news for fans priced out of seats and the players who end up crippled without medical care. Goodell is arguing that the status quo has been a resounding success. On a financial and ratings level, this is absolutely true. But it also flies in the face of every utterance the man has made over the last year. For months all we’ve heard is that the status quo was “unsustainable.” The league needed more games, an expanded playoff system, more off-field discipline and more money back from the players or the league wouldn’t survive. Now we’re hearing that the status quo was great but then this psycho judge and uppity union could potentially be destroying it. This about-face amounts to the kind of jaw-dropping sophistry that would shame a sophist. With this, Goodell has confirmed his legacy as the Don Draper of commissioners. He looks great in a gray suit, but beyond the terrific hair, he’s empty of substance. He’s the man who isn’t there.
But it gets more bizarre. Goodell then attacks Nelson’s support of union decertification by writing, “Under this vision, players and fans would have none of the protections or benefits that only a union (through a collective-bargaining agreement) can deliver.”
Hey! It’s Norma Rae! Who would have thought that the man who has waged a relentless financial and public relations war against the NFLPA was actually Eugene Debs in a $5,000 suit? When a CEO starts praising unions, one word of advice: set your skepticism on high alert.
The rest of the piece involves Goodell painting a picture of a dystopian, barren future where there is “no draft,” “no limits on free agency” and every effort to “discipline” players or test for steroids is met with a lawsuit. Drew Magary does a brilliant send-up of the coded racism and ham-faced authoritarianism embedded in Goodell’s cry of dispair, so I won’t try.
It is stunning, though, to read Goodell’s apocalyptic vision of an NFL future that looks like outtakes from Road Warrior, and then remember that he and his masters in the owner’s box brought us to this point. Only someone isolated enough to be influenced by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal would take any of this prattle seriously. It’s the panicked response of a man who was handed the keys to the greatest luxury boat on earth and made an unprovoked beeline for the nearest iceberg. If Goodell really wants to save his league, he should be respecting the decision of Judge Nelson and opening the gates for the start of training camp. But the owners are filing an appeal. Of course they are. When the entitled and arrogant among us find themselves in a hole with a shovel, all they can do is keep digging.
On Friday, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times that put forward a common sense solution to the current ownership disaster that is the Dodgers franchise: public ownership. Last week, Major League Baseball (MLB) and its Commissioner Bud Selig took the unprecedented step of seizing the team from Frank McCourt, its bankrupt chief executive.
In my column, I asked the question: instead of selling off this historic franchise to the highest bidder, why not allow the fans to be the new bosses? What if Selig and Major League Baseball pursued the solution so successful for the Green Bay Packers—public ownership? The Dodgers’ faithful could buy shares in the squad. Then—like in Green Bay—60 percent of concessions could go to local charities, premium tickets could be made affordable to working-class Angelenos, and one of baseball’s most storied teams could repair its ruptured relationship with an alienated fan base. Let Los Angeles be a baseball town again. Let them truly be the people’s team.
It’s unlikely that MLB or the sclerotic Selig would want any of this. After all, since 1961, it’s been written explicitly in the league’s bylaws that fan ownership is as forbidden as the spitball or aluminum bats. Selig sees his number one job as protecting the profits and interests of ownership—not safeguarding the best interests of the game. Proclaiming to the world that fans can own a team and sports owners are superfluous creatures runs counter to Selig’s very DNA. In other words, I didn’t expect the suggestion to gain much traction at MLB central.
But I also didn’t expect Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn to step up to the plate and swing for the cause. Hahn, the daughter of former City Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, is now running for US Congress. The day following publication, Hahn cited my LA Times piece on her campaign website and issued the following statement: “The Dodgers have been previously owned by FOX and the McCourt family, it is clear that the only ones who have the teams best interest at heart are the fans. If elected to Congress, I will introduce an amended version of the ‘Give Fans A Chance Act’ which would allow Major League Baseball teams to be owned and operated by their fans, much like the Green Bay Packers are structured today.”
This is an idea whose time has come. Major League Baseball for years has relied on public subsidies to make mountainous profits. We have collectivized the debt and privatized the profit for years in operating the national pastime. But now, as our states face historic cuts, it’s time for payback.
I spoke to Sarah Knopp, a twelfth grade teacher in an LA public school, and she said: “Just a percentage of the revenue from merchandise sales could help save the hundreds of art and music teachers being pink-slipped right now. At my small school for at-risk kids, art is one of the main tools that keeps students engaged and practicing higher-order thinking. And we’re losing our art teacher. Then there’s physical education. Maybe Dodger revenue could help us to develop world-class sports programs, rather than cutting them. When I was a public school student, girls’ sports were crucial for me during those formative years of self-esteem development. I’m scared that a whole generation of girls [and boys] will suffer the effects of not having those opportunities.”
The only way this option could be pursued is with a tremendous amount of pressure. This pressure needs to be of two kinds: popular, fan-based pressure on Major League Baseball, and political pressure on—and through—the political powers in LA and California. People should rally, fans should hold up signs, politicians should be questioned and every union in greater Los Angeles, should back Councilwoman Hahn’s call. The Bud Selig alternative involves selling off the team to the highest bidder, with no guarantees this broken franchise would even stay in Los Angeles. Today Selig announced, that former member of the George W. Bush inner circle and ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer would be running the team. This is not the right direction for the team or the city. The answer lies not in Bush-land but Green Bay.
It should be noted that this franchise was founded when it was stolen from the people of Brooklyn. Then, the actual Dodgers Stadium was built on the original sin of the Chavez Ravine land grab. At that time, Chavez Ravine was a beloved residential community of Chicanos known to all as “the poor man’s Shangri-La.” Shangri-La was seized by the state and handed over to owner Walter O’Malley. Second base now sits on what was once someone’s house. It’s past time we take the team back. Doing so would rectify the past, aid the present and maybe play a part in changing the future.
This wasn’t supposed to happen in Barack Obama’s America. We were told that these sorts of prosecutions wouldn’t be the priority of an Eric Holder Justice Department. But just as Guantánamo Bay detention centers and military tribunals have remained in place, the perjury witch hunt trial of Major League Baseball’s home run king, Barry Lamar Bonds, continued unabated and has now reached a predictably ugly conclusion.
After seven years, and millions of dollars in court costs, Bonds has been found guilty of obstruction of justice. As for the all-important three perjury charges, the jury couldn’t agree whether Bonds lied to a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) when he swore under oath that he never knowingly took performance enhancing drugs. Without corroborating evidence from Bonds’s trainer and lifelong friend Greg Anderson, the jury was deadlocked and the Judge declared a mistrial on all perjury charges. But the obstruction of justice conviction makes Bonds a convicted felon, and sets him up for a May 20 hearing where he could get as many as ten years behind bars.
What did Bonds do to “obstruct justice”? According to one juror, “Steve,” the obstruction of justice charge was reached because, “The whole grand jury testimony was a series of evasive answers. There were pointed questions that were asked two or three or four different ways that never got clearly answered. That’s how we came to that.” Wow. Apparently, a “series of evasive answers” lines you up for a ten-year sentence behind bars. By that standard, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby should be breaking rocks in Leavenworth for their performance at the Valerie Plame trial.
As BALCO founder Victor Conte—who is no friend of Bonds—said to USA Today, “This verdict absolutely makes no sense to me. Of all of these counts, the one that makes the least sense to me is the obstruction charge. Tell me how there was obstruction of justice. This is all about the selected persecution of Barry Bonds. This is not fair. I was the heavy in this. I accepted full responsibility and the consequences and went to prison. How is that obstruction? Doesn’t make sense.”
It doesn’t. After all the public money, drama, and hysterics, this is what we’re left with. He was “evasive.” Keep in mind that we live in a country where the US Department of Justice has not pursued one person for the investment banking fraud that cratered the US economy in 2008. Not one indictment has been issued to a single Bush official on charges of ordering torture or lying to provoke an invasion of Iraq. Instead, we get farcical reality television like the US vs. Barry Bonds.
This was a trial where you longed for the somber dignity of a Judge Judy. Since Anderson wouldn’t talk, the government was left with two real witnesses: Kimberly Bell, Bond’s mistress, brought in to discuss his sexual dysfunctions resulting from steroids, and Steve Hoskins, the business manager whom Bonds fired for alleged theft and fraud. But their real star was a once-anonymous IRS official named Jeff Novitsky, who has proudly seen Bonds as an all-consuming obsession, US Constitution be damned.
ESPN legal expert Lester Munson described the verdict as “a major triumph for federal agent Jeff Novitzky.” That alone should chill our bones. Without a warrant, Novitzky started his BALCO investigation by rooting through Victor Conte’s trash and taking it back to his house to sift through in his leisure hours. But Conte was a nothing to Novitzky. From the beginning, his sights were on Barry Bonds.
Jonathan Littman of Yahoo! Sports wrote, “two agents working on the case knew that Novitzky ‘hated’ Bonds, and heard him brag about his hopes to cash in on a book deal. The agents demanded to see copies of his reports and were rebuffed by federal officials. Novitzky, however, was given carte blanche by the head of the IRS to drop the normal duties of an IRS agent—investigating tax fraud and money laundering—and became our de facto national sports doping czar.”
In 2004, accompanied by eleven agents, Novitsky marched into the offices of sports-drug testing monolith Comprehensive Drug Testing. Carrying a warrant which authorized him to see the sealed drug tests of just ten baseball players, he paraded out with 4,000 supposedly confidential medical files, including records for every baseball player in the Major leagues. As Jon Pessah wrote in ESPN the Magazine, “Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a ‘callous disregard’ for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence…”
During closing arguments, Bonds’s attorney, Cristina Arguedas, looked at the jury as she pointed at the prosecution, accused them of misconduct and asked, “Why are we even here?”
It’s a good question. But asking the question is much safer than answering it. We’re here because Major League Baseball and the US government has long decided that Barry Bonds would shoulder the burden for the steroid era. We’re here because a surly Black athlete who thinks that the press is just a step above vermin was easy pickings for an industry rife with systemic corruption. Major League Baseball made billions off of the steroid era, an era many now see as a rancid, tainted lie. It was an era where owners became obscenely wealthy and billions in public funds were spent on ballparks. The press cheered and America dug the long ball. Now the dust has cleared, our cities have been looted, Barry Bonds could be going to prison, and Commissioner Bud Selig still has a job—and a RAISE. With apologies to Harvey Dent, this is the story of the Black athlete today: die a hero or live long enough to be a villain. And the men in the suits walk—or in Selig’s case, slouch—all the way to the bank.
Around the start of the trial, nearly a decade ago, Bonds said, “This is something we, as African-American athletes, live with every day. I don’t need a headline that says, ‘Bonds says there’s racism in the game of baseball.’ We all know it. It’s just that some people don’t want to admit it. They’re going to play dumb like they don’t know what the hell is going on.” We shouldn’t play dumb either. Both President Obama and Attorney General Holder said words to the effect that the US government would no longer be in the steroid-inspection business. Like so much else in the last two years, it was just words.
Al’a Hubail is a legend in the world of Bahraini soccer. In 2004, along with his brother Mohammed, he led the national team on a rollicking VCU-esque run into the Asian Cup semi-finals. Hubail then became the first Bahraini player to win the prestigious Golden Boot Award after scoring five goals against the continent’s best team.
Now, the winner of the Golden Boot has gotten the boot; expelled from the national squad and arrested after news cameras caught him at an “anti-government” protest aimed at Bahrain’s royal family. His soccer-playing brother, Mohammed, who stood alongside him at a peaceful protest across from Bahrain’s shoot-first army and the imported armed forces of Saudi Arabia, was also sacked from the team and put into custody. Both brothers, along with two other players, were cuffed and frog-marched off the practice field in front of shocked teammates.
According to the Times of London, Bahrain’s state news program had focused on the Hubail brothers at the demonstration to “shame the sports stars” for taking part in the protest and referred to them and all the demonstrators as “stray hyenas.” The state news report didn’t mention that Al’a Hubail is a trained paramedic and EMT who was also acting as a volunteer nurse at the protest. Considering the dozens killed and hundreds injured by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s armed forces since the protests began, he should be lauded as a true international hero. Instead, he is behind bars.
The Hubail brothers were the most prominent athletes affected in what has become an ugly crackdown on the country’s jocks for justice. Bahrain, a country run by a royal family so decayed with gluttony and corruption, they could be honorary Trumps, has announced that 200 athletes have been indefinitely suspended on charges of “supporting the popular revolution in the country.” Among them are nationally known basketball, volleyball and handball players. The Associated Press quoted a government official, speaking under the cloak of anonymity, saying these athletes have been branded “against the government” for having supported “anti-government” protests. No other specifics were given. All 200 have also been banned from any international play. All 200, like the overwhelming majority of demonstrators, are part of the country’s oppressed Shi’a Muslim majority.
Shamefully, yet completely unsurprisingly, the Bahrain Football Association backed the move, saying, “The suspension falls under misconduct, and the breaching of the rules and regulations of sporting clubs….not to engage in political affairs.”
Also, shamefully, yet completely unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama and the US government have said nothing. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote, “President Obama…loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.” This isn’t just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another fifty years. It appears that this favor has given them the right to spill the blood of peaceful protesters with impunity. There is no no-fly zone over Bahrain, and no emergency UN Security Council meeting. There are no breathless comparisons by news columnists of the Bahraini royal family with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Darth Vader or Sauron. Instead, with a lockstep consistency that would impress the state media systems of the old Eastern bloc, US politicians of both parties—and the American media—have chosen to remain silent.
This isn’t the first revolt in Bahrain’s history, but it is by far the most serious. Once the wave started across the region, Bahrain was an obvious place where the sentiment of rebellion against autocracy would find fertile ground. I spoke to Chris Toensing, the editor of the Middle East Report, who said, “Because it is located atop the hydrocarbon jackpot of the world in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has the image of a wealthy nation. In fact, a large part of the native population is poor. That poverty plus the sectarianism chauvinism and tyranny of the royal family have made the country restive for decades. The 2011 revolt is but the largest and most brutally repressed of a series of popular struggles for justice.”
But just because the political class and the front page of your paper have surrendered their morality and said nothing doesn’t mean the sports page should follow suit. Every soccer writer with a pulse should be calling for the release of the Hubail brothers. Every sports union should release statements saying that they stand with their 200 brethren and want them reinstituted immediately and without delay. Every player who believes in the concept of fair play should call upon the Bahraini royal family to cease and desist. The Royals want to practice their repression in shadows. We can offer light. Sports teams are often referred to as families. Well, when members of our family are being abused—you say something. Bahrain’s royal butchers are banking on our silence. But when silence equals death, it’s no longer an option.