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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

The Eagleton Has Landed: A Response on Sports and Society

The below piece is a response I wrote to esteemed European academic Terry Eagleton in the British Guardian. I wanted to share it with our community here at TheNation.com. Therefore references to "football" are of course about what we call "soccer" and words like "labor" are spelled "labour".

Terry Eagleton has been one of the great minds of the European left seemingly since Cromwell. But in his recent piece on Comment is free, Football: A Dear Friend to Capitalism, his absence of understanding on the relationship between sport and modern society demands a response.

Eagleton writes: "If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football."

He continues, that "for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine". And finally he hammers home: "Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished."

This message is an old trope for the left and so musty that reading Eagleton's column seemed to kick up dust from my computer screen. Those of us who love sport must also be hoodwinked. We must be bamboozled. Are we just addicts permanently distracted from what "really matters" as we engage in a pastime with no redeeming value? This is elitist hogwash.

We don't love sport because we are like babies suckling at the teat of constant distraction. We love it because it's exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art. Maybe Lionel Messi or Mia Hamm are actually brilliant artists who capture people's best instincts because they are inspired. By rejecting football, Eagleton also rejects what is both human and remarkable in physical feats of competition. We can stand in awe of the pyramids while understanding the slave labour and misery that comprised its construction. We can stir our soul with gospel music even while we understand that its existence owes itself to pain as much as hope. Similarly, amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother professional sport, there is also an art that can take your breath away.

But like all art, sport at its essence—what attracts us to it in the first place—holds within it a view of human potential unshackled, of what we could all be in a society that didn't grind us into dust. Yes, far too many of us watch instead of play. But that's not the fault of sport. For our current society is but a fleeting epoch in history. But sports spans ages, and to reject it is to reject our very history as a species.

We now know that as soon as human beings could clothe and feed themselves, they played. Sports is as human an act as music, dance, or organising resistance. While sports may in a vacuum have no "significance", the passion we invest transforms it. Sport morphs into something well beyond escape or a vessel for backward ideas and becomes a meaningful part in the fabric of our lives. Just as sports such as football reflect our society, they also reflects struggle.

Therefore, when we think about the black freedom struggle, our mind's eye sees Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The story of the modern women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's defeat of the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. It explains why the Algerian football team was motivated to outplay Enlgand after watching Pontecorvo's anti-imperialist classic, The Battle of Algiers. And, of course, one of the most stirring sights of our sport in the last century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-gloved podium salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Sport is, at the end of the day, like a hammer. And you can use a hammer to bash someone over the head or you could use it to construct something beautiful. It's in the way that you use it. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it also has an unbelievable potential to bring us together, to provide health, fun, enjoyment, and of course pulse-racing excitement.

Eagleton, who has written extensively about Marx, would do well to remember his maxim: "Nothing human is alien to me." This latest polemic is more about Eagleton's alienation than our own.

Glenn Beck's Blues: Why the Far Right Hates the World Cup

Every World Cup, it arrives like clockwork. As sure as the ultimate soccer spectacle brings guaranteed adrenaline and agony to fans across the United States, it also drives the right-wing noise machine utterly insane.

“It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us,” yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. “It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.”

Beck’s wingnut godfather, G. Gordon Liddy also said on his radio program,

Whatever happened to American exceptionalism? This game…originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior.

Dear Lord, where do we begin? First of all, I always find it amusing when folks like Beck say, “We don’t like soccer,” when it is by far the most popular youth sport in the United States. It’s like saying, “You know what else American kids hate? Ice cream!” Young people love soccer not because of some kind of commie-nazi plot conjured by Saul Alinsky to sap us of our precious juices but because it’s—heaven forfend—fun.

Among adults, the sport is also growing because people from Latin America, Africa and the West Indies have brought their love of the beautiful game to an increasingly multicultural United States. As sports journalist Simon Kuper wrote very adroitly in his book Soccer Against the Enemy, “When we say Americans don’t play soccer we are thinking of the big white people who live in the suburbs. Tens of millions of Hispanic Americans [and other nationalities] do play, and watch and read about soccer.” In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America”—in all its monochromatic glory—rejects it as well. To be clear, I know a lot of folks who can’t stand soccer. It’s simply a matter of taste. But for Beck it’s a lot more than, “Gee. It’s kind of boring.” Instead it’s, “Look out whitey! Felipe Melo’s gonna get your mama!”

As for Liddy, let’s be clear. There is not in fact hard anthropological evidence that early soccer games were played with a human head. Interestingly, though, there is an oft-told legend that the sport took root in England in the eighth century because the king’s army playfully kicked around the detached cranium of the conquered Prince of Denmark. Notice that this tall tale is about Europe, not “South American Indians.” I think we’re seeing a theme here.

But maybe this isn’t just sports as avatar for their racism and imperial arrogance. Maybe their hysteria lies in something far more shallow. Maybe the real reason they lose their collective minds is simply because the USA tends to get their asses handed to them each and every World Cup. After all, as G. Gordon asked, “Whatever happened to American exceptionalism?” When it comes to the World Cup, the exceptional is found elsewhere. Could Beck, Liddy and company just have soccer-envy? Is it possible that if the USA was favored to win the World Cup, Beck himself would be in the streets with his own solid gold vuvuzela? I feel that to ask the question is to answer it. In fact, this is as good a reason as any to hope for a mighty run by the US team. It would be high comedy to see Beck and Friends caught in a vice between their patriotic fervor and their nativist fear.

'At Least Under Apartheid…': South Africa as the World Cup Kicks Off

At long last, soccer fans, the moment is here. Today, when South Africa takes the field against Mexico, the World Cup will officially be underway. Nothing attracts the global gaze quite like it. Nothing creates such an undeniably electric atmosphere with enough energy to put British Petroleum, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron out of business for good. And finally, after eighty years, the World Cup has come to Africa. We should take a moment to celebrate that this most global of sports has finally made its way to the African continent, nesting in the bucolic country of South Africa.

And yet as we celebrate the cup’s long awaited arrival in the cradle of civilization, there are realities on the ground that would be insane to ignore. To paraphrase an old African saying, “When the elephants party, the grass will suffer.” In the hands of FIFA and the ruling African National Congress, the World Cup has been a neoliberal Trojan Horse, enacting a series of policies that the citizens of this proud nation would never have accepted if not wrapped in the honor of hosting the cup. This includes $9.5 billion in state deficit spending ($4.3 billion in direct subsidies and another $5.2 billion in luxury transport infrastructure). This works out to about $200 per citizen.

As the Anti-Privatization Forum of South Africa has written,

Our government has managed, in a fairly short period of time, to deliver "world class" facilities and infrastructure that the majority of South Africans will never benefit from or be able to enjoy. The APF feels that those who have been so denied, need to show all South Africans as well as the rest of the world who will be tuning into the World Cup, that all is not well in this country, that a month long sporting event cannot and will not be the panacea for our problems. This World Cup is not for the poor—it is the soccer elites of FIFA, the elites of domestic and international corporate capital and the political elites who are making billions and who will be benefiting at the expense of the poor.

In South Africa, the ANC government has a word for those who would dare raise these concerns. They call it “Afropessimism.” If you dissent from being an uncritical World Cup booster, you are only feeding the idea that Africa is not up to the task of hosting such an event. Danny Jordaan the portentously titled Chief Executive Officer of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, lamented to Reuters, "For the first time in history, Africa really will be the centre of the world's attention—for all the right reasons—and we are looking forward to showing our continent in its most positive light.”

To ensure that the “positive light” is the only light on the proceedings, the government has suspended the right to protest for a series of planned demonstrations. When the APF marches to present their concerns, they will be risking arrest or even state violence. Against expectations, they have been granted the right to march, but only if they stay at least 1.5 km from FIFA headquarters in Soccer City. If they stray a step closer, it’s known that the results could be brutal.

You could choke on the irony. The right to protest was one of the major victories after the overthrow of apartheid. The idea that these rights are now being suspended in the name of “showing South Africa…in a positive light” is reality writ by Orwell.

Yet state efforts to squelch dissent have been met with resistance. Last month, there was a three-week transport strike that won serious wage increases for workers. The trade union federation COSATU has threatened to break with the ANC and strike during the World Cup if double-digit electricity increases aren’t lowered. The National Health and Allied Workers Union have also threatened to strike later this month if they don’t receive pay increases of 2 percent over the rate of inflation.

In addition, June 16 is the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, which saw 1,000 school children murdered by the apartheid state in 1976. It is a traditional day of celebration and protest. This could be a conflict waiting to happen, and how terrible it would be if it’s the ANC wields the clubs this time around.

The anger flows from a sentiment repeated to me time and again when I walked the streets of this remarkable, resilient, country. Racial apartheid is over, but it’s been replaced by a class apartheid that governs people’s lives. Since the fall of the apartheid regime, white income has risen by 24 percent, while black wealth has actually dropped by 1 percent. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, since there has been the attendant development of a new black political elite and middle class. Therefore, for the mass of people, economic conditions—unemployment, access to goods and services—has dramatically worsened. This is so utterly obvious even the Wall Street Journal published a piece titled, "As World Cup Opens, South Africa's Poor Complain of Neglect." The article quotes Maureen Mnisi,  a spokeswoman for the Landless People's Movement in Soweto, saying, "At least under apartheid, there was employment—people knew where to go for jobs. Officials were accountable." Anytime someone has to start a sentence with “At least under apartheid…,” that in and of itself is a searing indictment of an ANC regime best described as isolated, sclerotic and utterly alienated from its original mission of a South Africa of shared prosperity. A major party is coming to South Africa. But it’s the ANC that will have to deal with the hangover.

THE WORST CALL EVER…. Reconsidered

On Thursday morning I was apoplectic and an umpire was the target of my rage. Yes it was irrational. Yes I probably need to start putting Prozac on my pancakes. But my anger was real. I couldn’t stand that a major league perfect game—a feat about as rare as a tap-dancing unicorn—was taken away from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga after umpire Jim Joyce missed the call at first base on the 27th out. I couldn’t stand that Joyce was showered with praised in the press for being a “stand up guy.” And now I can’t stand something else. I was wrong. Something more important has blossomed in the aftermath of this game and that should be highlighted to the hills. It’s the actions of Galarraga himself and the reaction among fans. The incredible class and calm Galarraga has shown is an ideal of a word that has become something of a punchline: sportsmanship. He said, “I say many times: Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes a mistake. I’m sure he don’t want to make that call. You see that guy last night, he feels really bad. He don’t even change. The other umpires shower, eat. He was sitting in the seat (and saying), ‘I’m so sorry.'” Reading this and then seeing the Detroit fans actually applaud Joyce the next day has been remarkable. Even the guy who immediately started firejimjoyce.com posted, "You know, after hearing all the talk from both the pitcher and umpire Jim Joyce today, I have only one thought: They are both classier than I am.”

The second moment that changed me was an email from a reader named Britt Robson. I’ve never met Britt but he was checking out my column back when the readership was confined to blood relatives. Britt wrote me, “In your desire to tar and feather a truly execrable character, Bud Selig, you lost your perspective on Jim Joyce.  Galarraga himself exercised more restraint and perspective than you….The best part of your column was the start when you wrote that people should basically get a grip.”

But what finally knocked my surliness down for the count was an email from a gentleman named Mike Isaacs. He wrote,  “What I saw here was something that cut right into my ever-growing cynicism about the culture of sports and the people inside it. Joyce botched the call big-time on the 27th out of a would-be perfect game, pretty amazing in itself. But the real story for me started afterwards. It took on elements that I would never have guessed. First, the umpire sees the replay and admits his mistake and shows great feeling for how his mistake wronged the pitcher; the pitcher realizes that everyone makes a mistake and forgives him in as classy a way as possible. The Tigers players and manager apologize for their in-the-heat-of-the-moment tirades and praise Joyce as an upstanding guy and a good umpire. In a show of great compassion, they send the pitcher out there the next game to present the lineup card to support the umpire. Tigers fans applaud the umpire as he takes the field in a moment of fan empathy that I wasn’t sure I would ever see again. Is it just me or is this all extraordinary?  Finally, at the risk of sounding mawkish, one of the very basic reasons we all hold the ‘lefty’ politics that we hold is because we’re profoundly interested in people being treated fairly and with justice and with respect. I think having compassion for another human being during the most difficult of times is incredibly important in describing the reasons why I have the politics I have. Yes, I know a botched call in a baseball game may not matter in the big scheme of things and perhaps I’m making too big of a deal about the incident. But in a way I so very seldom see in sports or in other arenas of life these days, I was truly taken aback by what was on display after this incident: The principles of compassion and civility and empathy and good will from the pitcher impacted his teammates, manager, fans, and the umpire himself. It might not have been a perfect game because of Joyce’s big mistake but it was a perfect aftermath.”

I can’t argue with this. I believe that sports can speak to the best and worst angels of our nature. When it actually compels us toward compassion, that is in fact more important—and more rare—than a 1000 perfect games.  I lost my head on this one and I’m better for people pointing that out. (But I still can’t stand Bud Selig)

Martin Espada on the Worst Call in Baseball History

It’s not the oil spill in the gulf and it’s not the ongoing crisis in Haiti but on Wednesday night in Detroit, we had an injustice so glaringly obvious and so preventable, it could drive a good man—or woman—to drink.

That most exotic of baseball specimens—the perfect game—was yanked away from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga by first base umpire Jim Joyce on what should have been the 27th out. As if the city of Detroit hasn't suffered enough. This would have been only the 21st perfect game in Major League history. Instead it will be recalled only in the annals of infamy.

If I could, I’d like to turn over much of the rest of this column to my friend Martin Espada. Martin is a renowned poet who wrote the 1996 American Book Award winning collection Imagine the Angels of Bread. But he’s also my go-to guy on matters related to boxing and baseball. On these subjects, like with his poetry, Espada takes no prisoners. Here is his take. I found his anger to be very cathartic and hopefully you will as well.

“The new technology of television has exposed the umpires for what they are: overpaid security guards insulated from their own incompetence, petty authoritarians who are too slow and lazy to keep up with the game at the major league level, buffoons who confuse stubborn ineptitude with integrity.

“I've watched that replay a hundred times. Jim Joyce imploded. He couldn't handle the pressure of the moment. If the pitcher had dropped the ball, or the first baseman had thrown the ball away, then we would all be saying: he choked; the pressure got to him.

Well, Jim Joyce froze. He panicked. He choked. Umpires choke too. Yet, as officials who govern the game on the field, they must be held to a much higher standard. Any umpire who would freeze or panic on a play like that should not be allowed on the field.

“This might have been the worst call I've ever seen, from the standpoint of 1) the difficulty of the call (an easy call, not even close), 2) the line of sight for the call (absolutely unobstructed) and 3) the magnitude of the call (the last out of a perfect game, for Christ's sake).

“Joyce, however, was absolutely convinced he was right. Incredibly, he believed that the runner beat the throw, and no one could tell him otherwise. His arrogance, his hubris--so typical of umpires today--led to his downfall. He was so intent on being The Umpire--calling it as he sees it--that he never saw it. Once he saw the replay, mind you, he was ‘distraught,’ and indeed his reaction has provoked an outpouring of sympathy. Spare me. At the moment of truth, he floundered like a walrus on an iceberg. Imagine what he cost this kid pitcher: not only a perfect game, but millions of dollars in earning potential washed away. He robbed this pitcher, Detroit, Venezuela, baseball and history.

“This butchered call makes the case for instant replay like Clarence Darrow made the case for evolution at the Scopes Monkey Trial. What will Selig do? Nothing. He is an iguana who walks like a man, the pet lizard of the owners. …..If we can't have justice out there in wider world, can we at least have justice in the games we play?”

Martin is right and I would add just one other point: The main argument against instant replay, made by Selig and his prize fighters in the press, is that the holy innocence of the game would be compromised if a machine was introduced into the equation… even if this new fangled invention, instant replay, has been around for four decades.

What hypocrisy from Selig, a man who has treated the traditions of the game like so much toilet paper. This is the same commissioner who brought inter-league play and the wild card to the sport. This is the same commissioner who has overseen s process where more than 70% of parks have been built in the last 20 years with tax dollars and ticket prices that price out working class fans. This is the same commissioner who has had to face zero accountability for what will always be known as “the steroid era.” And lest we forget, this is a commissioner who is tried to sell ad space on second base for Spider-man 2 until a fan rebellion forced him to back off.

It would be a terrible irony if Jim Joyce resigns and Selig remains gainfully employed.  Baseball, like a fish, rots from the head. And Selig’s smell seems to worsen by the day.

Are Teams Right to Refuse to Play Israel?

"[We are] saddened by the mixture of politics and sports.” So said a spokesperson for the Israeli Football Association in response to Monday’s news that the Turkish U-19 (under 19) soccer team canceled its match in Israel. Turkey’s team made the move following the Israeli Navy’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that left at least 10 dead and scores injured. Then on Tuesday, the Swedish Football Association announced that it would formally request European soccer's governing body to cancel Sweden's U-21 game in Israel later this week.

The SFA said that they felt morally compelled to make the move following the flotilla attack and "the harsh responses to those events in Sweden and around the world." SFA President Lars-Ake Lagrell said, "Like all human beings, we deplore violence and are shocked at what we saw…It's not pleasant to play in Israel at this juncture." On Wednesday it appeared that the game would in fact go forward as planned, with Lagrell saying, "Since the United Nations has not decided on any sanctions against Israel we are obliged to go ahead with the match under [European football association] rules.”

This certainly won’t be the last time we hear about countries, teams, or players holding up the flotilla killings as reason to ostracize Israel in the realm of international sport. The question, to pick up the ball from the Israeli Football Association, is whether it should “sadden” us to see politics and sports so brazenly intertwined? Should Israeli sport actually be a safe space from how its government conducts itself? In my mind, the answer is a simple one: hell no. Israel committed an act of state terror on an aid ship in international waters whose passengers included an 85-year-old holocaust survivor, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and hundreds of activists committed to delivering the most basic kinds of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip. It’s actually dangerous, in such a situation, to just “shut up and play” as if there is nothing to see behind the royal blue curtain.

International sport, to awkwardly paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, is politics by other means. It’s used explicitly by all nations as a tool to demonstrate diplomatic goodwill. But in the context of such a visceral crime, international diplomacy morphs into little more than international propaganda and sporting Stratego. If a team refuses to play Israel because they don’t want to be party to the public relations objectives of a state engorged with violence, then that is nothing to be “saddened” about.

But this raises another question: if one supports the boycotting of Israeli teams, then where do we draw the line? Would we praise teams refusing to play the United States because of the civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq? What about rejecting China as an opponent because of their labor practices or treatment of the people of Tibet? Should teams refuse to play any countries directly involved in what they perceive as injustice? Once again, I will say hell yes. These particular games that pit country against country – whether in the Olympics, the World Cup or other avenues of international competition – are exercises in what George Orwell famously called “war minus the shooting.” In his essay, titled The Sporting Spirit, Orwell wrote, ”I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

This quote still holds the ring of truth but needs to be updated for the 21st century. Sports are still used at the service of nationalism. But in our globalized world of savage inequalities and dwindling resources, they are also used to present the poisonous relations between countries as somehow normal and even harmonious. And if it is business as usual between nations on the field of play, then surely everything must be A-OK when our heroes shower off the sweat and the cheering throngs wander home. But things are, as Marcellus Wallace said, “pretty f--king far from ok.” If a team wants to stand up and say “hell no” to business-as-usual in international sport, we shouldn’t ask why they are doing it. We should ask why more teams don’t. 

'Our Players are Prepared to Fight': Interview with Billy Hunter

As in the NFL, the NBA is facing a perilous period of player/owner relations. Threats of lockouts loom over the sport, as the economic stagnation of the country has both sides trying to make sure they aren't left out in the cold. Here NBA Executive Board member and Oklahoma City Thunder Player Etan Thomas and Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin  speak with NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter.

 

 

Dave Zirin: Let me ask you the same question I asked NFL union chief DeMaurice Smith: What are the chances of a lockout

 

Billy Hunter: Well, I guess it pretty much depends upon how serious the NBA owners and Mr. Stern are about reaching an agreement. I'm sure that they understand that they have at this point presented us with a proposal that they should've had no expectations of us actually giving any serious consideration to.  So, I don't know whether its just part of negotiations or if they were serious.  If they're serious, then the probability of us reaching an accord is slim to none.

DZ: What was so repellent about their proposal?

BH: They wanted the elimination of guaranteed contracts, the implementation of a hard salary cap, a reduction of the length of contracts, elimination of all guarantees, a general rollback from players reveiving 57% of the revenue back to about 50%. That would mean imposition of a hard salary cap that would
probably be in the area of about $43-44 million as opposed to - most teams are well over the cap now at an average of about $70 million....If that happened, the top players would see salaries compressed to about 11-12 million a year and we'd probably have a system similar to the one that we had in 1998 when we went through the lockout where at least two-thirds of players - were minimum salary-players.

Etan Thomas: One of the things that really amazed me in speaking with DeMaurice Smith was that the NFL doesn't show their union their books,
Now  we don't have that same problem.  But what happens if  we disagree with their numbers or our experts tell us numbers that differ with what they have reported?

BH: Well, if we disagree, we would take the position that we're currently taking which is that we're not going to negotiate based on their numbers.   They're not losing that kind of money. As a matter of fact, for the past 12 years, since the lockout in 1998, the owners experienced with the exception of maybe the last year or two - or a year or so ago when we had the economic implosion -about a 12% economic increase in franchise value per year.

DZ: So what can fans do if they don't want to see a lockout?

BH: I'll use the example of President Obama who says that he understands what people want and he's in a position to make it happen but he needs grassroots pressure from the general public. So, if there are matters that concern them that they think the President should take action on, then they've got to start a movement, they've got to put pressure on him to do it. I adopt the same philosophy in regard to the NBA and basketball that if the fans begin to voice their opposition and express their concern and say that if there's a lockout and you can't reach an accord, they're going to walk away from the game, then I think that creates a problem for both the owners and for us, and it's something that we have to seriously consider. It took us - after the 1998 lockout - it took 5 years for us to recover to get to the pre-lockout revenue and my contention is, with the economy being like it is, if we were to have a work stoppage, it would probably take about 10 years to get back. I would think that's something that would clearly get Mr. Stern's attention as well as the owners, that the league may not recover. Fans may leave and they'll never come back, and so we have to exercise good judgment, good sound prudent judgment.

ET: A few years ago you equated a lockout to the devastation of being a player who tore an ACL, and I thought that was just a perfect illustration of how devastating it would be to the league. You know our fans have been great in support in the face of everything that's been going on economically, but a lockout - just to really impress on people how serious of a problem that would be as far as the league recovering as a whole.

BH: Well, you know I think that the overall attitude in corporate America today just seems to be greed. Everywhere you look, everyone wants as much or more than they deserve, and so they feel they're in a position to demand it, and that's what they've done. We're saying no way. It isn't going to happen.... Now Larry Ellison or Oracle wants to by the Golden State Warriors. Michael Jordan purchased the Charlotte Bobcats. Why are these people buying these franchises if they are such a poor nvestment? And not only are they buying them, but what is the league, or the respective sellers, what are they telling them to convince them to buy them under these circumstances if things are so bad?

ET: Let's talk free agency. The league likes the idea of a free agent market. They hype it up like, where's LeBron going, where's Chris Bosh
going, where's Dwyane Wade going? David Stern was talking about it. Why exactly would they want to restrict that type of movement and flexibility?

BH: Remember, free agency was negotiated some 20 years ago in the NBA. The reality is that the publicity generated by LeBron James creates a
lot of attention and positive press for the NBA, the act that people all over the world are concerned as to where this kid is going to go. Obviously the impact, and I think the argument that David (Stern) is making, is that he feels there should be a relationship between a given player and the community to which he is assigned to a given team. You have LeBron in Cleveland. They would like to see him stay there because he has obviously had a positive impact on the city of Cleveland, it's economy, the franchise, etc. But, because he is a professional athlete, and because we do have free agency and that he should have the right to seek others who are prepared to pay him.

DZ: There are a lot of similarities in terms of what the NFL Players Association is dealing with and what the NBA Players Association is dealing. Do you see opportunities for perhaps joint work with the NFL PA and the NBAPA and how would that work?  Is that something that you and Demaurice Smith have discussed at all?

BH: Yeah, as a matter of fact, De called me the other day. We have our summer meeting coming up on June 23rd, and DeMaurice  raised, the
possibility of us having some kind of joint meeting sometime before the summer ends where we have his players come in, our players come  just so we can exchange ideas. They can hear what it's like to go through a lockout. They can benefit from our experience. For whatever reason, I tend to
think that basketball and football are kind of leading the way in professional sports in terms of where it's going to go, what things are going to be like in the future for professional athletes, what they can expect in terms of rights and privileges, what they can expect in terms of compensation....I think basketball players, the people I represent, are pretty sophisticated, and in 1998 I think we shocked everybody because we stayed together. We were unified. We withstood the 7-month lockout and we ended up then striking a compromise which was very fulfilling, and it benefited our players greatly. Our players are prepared to fight. So, they are just not going to take a bad deal. I think that in a way what it does is - I think our stance, and I think what
[DeMaurice Smith] feels is that the stance taken by basketball players will help to strengthen his position with his own players, and
probably it'll give them the support that they need to take a similar stance.

DZ: Could you ever see yourself in a situation where you and the NFL Players maybe do something like a joint press conferences or joint public meetings where you actually have players from both sports come together and speak about a kind of cross-sport solidarity open and to the public?

BH: Dave, that was the kind of relationship that Gene Upshaw and I had. As a matter of fact, Gene Upshaw stood with me when I went through the lockout in 1998.. As a matter of fact, we had few dollars and Gene came to me and said that the NFLPA would loan us as much as we needed to get through the lockout. That was the kind of commitment we had. So, I'm all for it, and I'm going to have that discussion with DeMaurice, and I'm going to look for Etan to remind me and to help push the matter.

ET: I will remind you.

History as Farce: Rush Limbaugh is NOT Muhammad Ali

This morning on National Public Radio, Rush Limbaugh's biographer Zev Chafets equated the object of his affection to boxing’s own Muhammad Ali. This is not a joke

 

As Chafets said, “In the book I compare him to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was, in public, a very bombastic guy. And in private people say he was very soft-spoken and that his public persona was just a ramping up of his real personality, and that he did the public persona to gather a crowd. And I think that's very true of Limbaugh also."

 

The historical and ethical problems with Chafets’s comparison abound. Yes, both Limbaugh and Ali belong in a Talkers Hall of Fame and both used a larger-than-life public persona to “gather a crowd.” But Limbaugh used this skill to become richer than Croesus by exploiting fears based upon race, religion, gender, and sexuality. He's the great exemplar for all conservative media celebrity: revel in bigotry; become unbelievably wealthy; blame liberal media as your quotes are circulated; rinse, repeat.

 

Ali in contrast sacrificed. He sacrificed millions of dollars, national heroism, and in the end, his very motor functions, because he was a militant opponent of racism and the war in Vietnam. The only thing Ali and Limbaugh have in common is that they both did what they had to do to avoid military service in Nam. The slight difference of course, being that Ali risked five years in Leavenworth while Limbaugh claimed he couldn't wear the uniform because "pilonidal cysts" (anal abscesses rfrom ingrown hairs") prevented him from service. To say that they have a lot in common because they are both “big personalities’ is like saying I have a lot in common with Lebron James because we both play hoops.

 

Here are some other people with "outsized personalities" who Chafets could also have used to compare to Limbaugh; Hulk Hogan, Harvey Fierstein, Benito Mussolini... the choices are really endless. So why choose Ali? I fear that Chafets chose Ali for the same reason that Tom Horne, Superintendent of Arizona schools, said he was moved to abolish the Tucson ethnic studies program: because “Martin Luther King gave his famous speech in which he said we should be judged by the quality of our character, rather than the color of our skin."

 

This is one of the right's favorite strategies: defend the indefensible by cloaking arguments with the martyrs of the black freedom struggle.  This might be effective rhetorically, but it requires debasing history for political expediency. I wouldn’t expect much more from Horne or the Texas School Board or any of the know-nothings who wear their ignorance like badges of honor in the culture wars. But I’d expect more from Chafets who wrote a terrific expose of the Baseball Hall of Fame last year called Cooperstown Confidential.

I emailed Chafets to ask him if he could understand why some might find comparing Limbaugh to Ali a tad off the beam, historically. He replied,

 

“Sure. But I wasn't comparing them as anti-war figures or good guys. And I want to remind you that Ali was, at that time, a Black Muslim who fervently believed (and often proclaimed) that white men are literally the devil.  He changed his views later. But Limbaugh, the putative racist, has never gone anywhere near anything like that.  He believes and says that all people should be judged on the content of their character, regardless of race.  He and I got into it over my view that this is a misguided and overly simple--and possibly disingenuous-- formula in today's racial environment. But I don't consider  Rush is a racist. He is a racial conservative, (ie a liberal circa 1965) and a candid racial talker in the discussion Eric Holder has called for.”

 

It’s worth punching a few holes in this response. Liberals in 1965 were actually a far more principled breed than their 21st century counter-parts, let alone Limbaugh. They believed in the concept of a Great Society and that government had an obligation to take sides on questions of racial and economic justice.. It was liberals, circa 1965, who were getting beaten, arrested, and even killed in the struggle for civil rights. It was liberals who turned against Lyndon Johnson when, as Dr. King put it , “The Great Society was shot down on the battlefield in Vietnam.” To say that Limbaugh, who has called President Obama, ”the little black man-child” and reveled in playing “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is just “a candid racial talker” strains belief.

 

As for Ali’s embrace of the Nation of Islam, this was driven by the very racism and violence that was poisoning the United States. The fact that Ali, as a privileged sports celebrity, took these stands, only speaks to what he was willing to risk. For all of Ali’s faults – and there were many – this part of his character is precious and worth defending. He had mettle. He had guts. Limbaugh revels in the isolation of his studio where opposing views never risk entry. Even Ali’s harshest critics cite his courage. And even Limbaugh’s fondest admirers, like Chafets, would do well to acknowledge his cowardice. There is really no comparison. It’s Ali in a first round knockout.

 

Boycott Phil Jackson: Why Lakers Fans Should Root for Los Suns

The community of Los Angeles has made it crystal clear where they stand on Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, which sanctifies racial profiling as state law. The LA city council voted 13-1 to “ban most city travel there and to forgo future business contracts with companies headquartered in the state.” The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page called for the moving of the 2011 Major League Baseball All Star game from Phoenix writing, “A new law in Arizona seems almost certain to lead to racial profiling against Latinos, violating the American values so integral to baseball.”

Yes, Los Angeles is standing as one against Arizona’s spastic extremism. Everyone in Los Angeles, that is, except for iconic Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson.  In an interview with ESPN, Jackson spoke in support of SB 1070 saying, “Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislature] say ‘we just took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state.’” When sports reporter J.A. Adande remarked that SB 1070 actually represented “the usurping of federal law,” Jackson responded, “It’s not usurping…. they gave it some teeth to be able to enforce it.”

He then chided his upcoming playoff opponent, the Phoenix Suns, for coming out as a team—from owner to players—against the bill.

“I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff,” Jackson said. “If I heard it right the American people are really for stronger immigration laws, if I’m not mistaken. Where we stand as basketball teams, we should let that kind of play out and let the political end of that go where it’s going to go.”

Yes, Phil Jackson in the same breath, supported this draconian bill and then blasted the Suns for making a political statement about it. That’s what my grandmother would have called “cheek.”

Jackson’s words have sparked a petition campaign by the group AltoArizona.com which reads,

“Coach Jackson, Stand with Los Angeles. The city just denounced Arizona's hateful law and so should you. Targeting people based on their skin color isn't ‘giving [the law] teeth’. It's a backwards and terrible step on the wrong side of history. On or off the court, there's no room for haters. Los Lakers need to take a stand with the fans."

There is also a call to protest outside the Staples Center on May 17th before game one of the Lakers Western conference championship series against Los Suns. It states,

“What if during a basketball Game in Arizona, Lakers Fans get questioned about their immigration status? Protest outside Staples Center on Monday May17th, at 5pm to denounce Lakers Coach Phil Jackson for his support of Racist Arizona bill SB1070. We all know that a great deal of our community members support the Lakers. ….People want the LAKERS to take a stand or for Phil Jackson to clarify his position on the racist bill that criminalizes fans.”

Phil Jackson has a reputation for being some sort of liberal. But he’s really more of a cliché: the 1960s flower child who has made the lucrative journey from rebel to reactionary.   It was Phil Jackson when the NBA passed dress code requirements for players, who lectured, "I don't mean to say [this] as a snide remark toward a certain population in our society, but they have a limitation of their attention span, a lot of it probably due to too much rap music going in their ears and coming out their being…. The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years. All the stuff that goes on, it's like gangster, thuggery stuff.”

This is Phil Jackson: if you dress a certain way, you must be some sort of criminal thug. If you look a certain way, police have every right to demand your papers. He’s a man of the 60s all right. The 1860s.  Not only should people sign the petition. Not only should people come out to the Staples Center and protest on May 17th. People in LA, lifelong Lakers fans, should boo Phil Jackson and his team. They should root and cheer for Los Suns, devoting every last particle of karmic energy toward sending the Lakers home for the summer. As Alto Arizona says, “A coach that doesn't support the community doesn't have the community's support.” Vivan Los Suns.

New Reason to Protest the Arizona D-backs: House Bill 2281

Protests against Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks are planned for this Saturday at Turner Field in Atlanta and next Monday in Miami when the D-backs play the Florida Marlins. Both demonstrations are aimed at Arizona's anti immigrant Senate Bill 1070 and both look like they will draw serious numbers. In Atlanta, at a demo called Atlantans to MLB Commissioner: “Pull the 2011 All Star Game from Arizona;  Don’t Play Ball with the State of Hate!” nearly 100 people have confirmed that they will attend.

As Phil Aliff, an Iraq war vet and protest organizer said to me, "We are protesting at the Diamondbacks game in order to send a clear message to Major League Baseball, the state of Arizona, and legislatures across the country that racial profiling and scapegoating is unacceptable. Everywhere the Diamondbacks go, we should demand that Major League Baseball pull the all-star game out of Arizona in order to hit the state where it really hurts... their wallet."

In Miami, the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), the South Florida Jobs with Justice, SEIU Florida, UNITE HERE Local 355, the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, and South Florida AFL-CIO are all on board.

The protests matter because they allow people to nationalize an issue that far transcends the state of Arizona. They also shine a light on Diamondbacks CEO Ken Kendrick who while he says through his public relations people that he opposes the bill, continues to support and promote politicians who wear SB 1070 as a badge of honor.

Now we have another reason to isolate, expose, and protest Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks, and the state of Arizona. Gov Jan Brewer just signed into law a bill that should curl the toes of anyone with a thread of anti-racist conscience. Thanks to HB 2281, the Tucson school district’s academically successful ethnic studies program has been outlawed. Brewer made this move hours after United Nations Human Rights Commission formally opposed the bill on the basis that any ethnic group has the inherent right to learn their own history.

The Tucson ethnic studies program, which serves 1,500 primarily Mexican students, is an interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on contributions made by Mexican Americans, African Americans and Native Americans in literature, history, and science. Destroying the program has long been a pet project of State schools chief Tom Horne who in the words of the Associated Press,  “believes the Tucson school district's Mexican-American studies program teaches Latino students that they are oppressed by white people." Well, if students didn't believe it before, they would be forgiven for believing it now. Ironically, Horne's crusade was inspired when a Tucson guest speaker, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, said in a classroom in 2006 that “Republicans hate Mexicans.” Hard to see how this bill will disavow any students from agreeing with this assessment. Horne is running for state attorney general and he clearly sees wedge politics as a path to promotion.

The bill's chief promoter in the State Senate is Russell Pearce, who in addition to being the sponsor of SB 1070, has gotten in hot water for hugging Neo-Nazis on camera and forwarding emails from white supremacist websites.  Pearce said on the Senate floor, "History is one thing. Misinformation, hateful speech, sedition is not appropriate with my tax dollars." No, but ordering police to stop people without just-cause and having the state monitor classrooms for "sedition" is in his twisted mind, appropriate use of public money.

The bill is equally twisted. HB 2281 bill specifically forbids classes that,

"1 - Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

2 - Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

3 - Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

4 - Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

The first two points are dime-store fear mongering. There is zero evidence that "revolution" was being taught in Tucson public schools and the idea that a child learning about their ethnic heritage “promotes resentment" is another right wing canard. It's the last two points that expose the real goals of this bill: HB 2281 proponents don’t want a growing Mexican population seeing the benefits - as every ethnic group in the history of the United States has done - of finding a common political interest.

Political bottom feeders like Tom Horne, intellectual lightweights like Jan Brewer, and stone-cold racists like Russell Pearce worship at the altar of ignorance and want the students of Tucson to do the same. But through both SB 1070 and HB 2281, they are actually giving all of us quite the political science lesson. They are teaching the nation that none of this is about immigration, crime, or "enforcing federal law." It's really about, as right-wing radio hero Michael Savage thunders, "Borders, language, and culture."

As a friend of mine, who is a prominent sports radio producer (who happens to be white) said to me, "If anyone doesn't think this is about race and the anger towards immigrations isn't about race, they are living in an alternate universe.  This is about people being afraid that the Mayberry country they were sold is changing and they don't like it."

If Ken Kendrick truly believes that SB 1070 is bad law, if he objects to HB 2281, he needs stop funding the very politicians who promote it. Until then, we should protest the D-backs at every opportunity. The times demand nothing less.

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