Where sports and politics collide.
This article contains a trigger warning due to its frank discussion of rape and sexual assault.
In 2010, Darren Sharper was the hero of New Orleans: an All-Pro safety who led the Saints to Super Bowl glory. Now retired and working for the NFL Network, Darren Sharper has been formally charged with multiple sexual assaults and is suspected to have raped at least nine women across five states. In California, he has been arrested and charged with drugging the drinks of two women before raping them. His bail was not only set at $1 million but Judge Renee Korn ordered that a condition of his release would be a legal agreement to not be alone with women he didn’t know before October 30. Korn said, “The court considers these crimes quite serious and has to evaluate the protection of the public.”
This news comes on the heels of the online release of video that shows Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée Janay Palmer out of a casino elevator. Police have said that they have footage of Rice physically assaulting Ms. Parker as well.
Sharper’s story has been, according to my own surveying of the top-rated national programs, almost entirely absent from sports radio and Rice’s story has received far greater coverage only insofar as his “legal troubles” affect his future playing prospects. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh has said, “I haven’t seen anything that would remotely make me think” that Rice would not be on the team this fall. This kind of response is all too typical. The news would have been if Harbaugh had said otherwise.
Both the Sharper and Rice stories raise a blaring question: At what point do the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell confront the constant, haunting league-wide presence of violence against women? In 2012, after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child, before taking his own life, Justin Peters at Slate determined, in the aftermath, that twenty-one of thirty-two NFL teams had employed a player that year “with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record.” There is an argument that the actual rate of players accused of violence against women is lower than the national average, and therefore should not be considered a problem. This is hogwash. When one considers the underreporting of these instances, the ways in which our society blames victims and the resources NFL players and teams have at their disposal to make “problems” go away, statistics don’t really get us anywhere. I would also add that the NFL rightly saw the bullying culture in the Miami Dolphins locker room, even if it was atypical, as utterly unacceptable. Even one incident was one incident too many. In other words, even one instance of violence against women should be compelling the NFL to act. But instead, we get silence.
It is stunning that an NFL, which wants to police how players talk to each other on the field and has announced plans to institute an entire new set of guidelines around “locker room conduct,” does not address this publicly. It is stunning that an NFL, which tries to cultivate and grow its female fan base by trussing players in pink for a full month out of the season to display their seriousness in the fight against breast cancer, is silent on the question of violence against women. It is stunning that Roger Goodell, who believes that players should be “role models,” does not address the kind of behavior that is being modeled.
This is about more than violence. It is about a locker-room environment that sees women as little more than “road beef.” Amidst the infamous text messages between Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, lost among the racial taunts and homophobic jibes, were the discussions of “bitches,” “hooker parties,” “strippers who go the extra mile,” and Incognito’s boast that “I was doing work last night. I got those girls hammered.” This is the same Richie Incognito who received second chance after second chance, no matter how many accusations of sexual assault were levied against him throughout his career in college and the pros. The entire Incognito saga could have been avoided if the league had a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women. They don’t, so it wasn’t.
No, the connective tissue between football and rape culture is not created in the NFL, as Incognito’s own history demonstrates. We know too much from stories that span from high schools in Steubenville and Maryville to colleges like Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Missouri to think that it possibly starts in the pros. But shouldn’t the NFL be where it ends? I have no idea why an NFL and a commissioner that is so acutely image conscious does not see how badly this looks. It looks like the league turns a blind eye and shrugs its shoulders, as if violence against women is little more than “boys will be boys.” It looks like they believe that the stink of stories like Darren Sharper’s will not waft into their boardrooms. It looks like they do not care. Roger Goodell needs to read the arrest report for Darren Sharper and admit that this league has fostered, and not fought, a football culture that sees women as collateral damage. He needs to admit they have a problem and he needs to act. He needs to think not only about “how it looks” but also the young people who are doing the looking.
Read Next: A penalty for the n-word, but not for the r-word?
“How is it you can have a team in Washington that’s named after a racial slur for Native Americans, but punish young African- American men for how they speak to each other?” This is how Nation sports editor Dave Zirin thinks boxing legend Muhammad Ali might feel about the NFL’s new proposed rule to penalize players for using the n-word on the field. On the fiftieth anniversary of the famous boxing match between Ali and Sonny Liston—an event that Sports Illustrated called the fourth-greatest sports moment of the twentieth century—Zirin spoke with Ali’s daughter Rasheda on MSNBC’s The Reid Report. The two discussed the role that athletes like Ali play as political advocates, a very germane topic after Jason Collins just became the first openly gay player to play in a major American sport.
Picture it: February 2015, Glendale, Arizona. Michael Goodell, the brother of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, is in town for the Super Bowl. Michael Goodell is gay. He has also garnered media attention in recent months by encouraging the NFL to accept and be welcoming of NFL prospect Michael Sam and all players regardless of their sexuality. Michael Goodell attempts to walk into a Glendale coffee shop for a snack on the day before the big game. The owner recognizes him from the recent press coverage, denies him service and tells him to leave. Michael Goodell, used to a red carpet and not a slap in the face, refuses. The owner calls the police and has the commissioner’s brother arrested because his very presence violates the owner’s religious principles and therefore the laws of Arizona.
This would be the fate of LGBT people throughout Arizona if Governor Jan Brewer signs Senate Bill 1062 this Friday. Not content with codifying the racial profiling of immigrants, the Arizona Senate wants to bring yet another twenty-first-century variant of Jim Crow segregation to their state. Brewer has given some early indication that she would not sign the bill, but we have heard precious little from an NFL who by threatening to move the Super Bowl, could cost the state millions in revenue and even more in prestige. So far, all we have heard from the league came from their spokesman Greg Aiello who stated, “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”
This is weak sauce. Roger Goodell should be threatening to pull the Big Game out of the state unless Brewer vetoes the law, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it would be a show of support to Arizona’s own Super Bowl host committee, which said in a written statement, “We do not support this legislation.”
If Goodell threatened to pull the game, he would be following the precedent of his predecessor Paul Tagliabue who, in 1990, moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona because of the state’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Day. I spoke with Wade Davis, former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play project. He recalled that previous show of courage under the previous commissioner, saying, “Similar to 1993 when the NFL moved the Super Bowl [out of Arizona] due to the state’s failed recognition of MLK Day, I firmly believe the NFL will stand in solidarity with human rights advocates who oppose the bill and move the 2015 Super Bowl.”
The Arizona Cardinals have not commented on pulling the Super Bowl, but they did e-mail us their displeasure with the bill. The team wrote, “What so many love about football is its ability to bring people together. We do not support anything that has the potential to divide, exclude and discriminate. As a prominent and highly-visible member of this community, we strive to bring positive attention to the state. We are concerned with anything that creates a negative perception of Arizona and those of us who are fortunate to call it home.”
While we all wait for Roger Goodell to say something about this bill, news emerged this week that the NFL is considering Arizona as the future site of the Pro Bowl. In other words, while the nation recoils at Jan Brewer’s pariah state, Roger Goodell—blinders firmly in place—lumbers forward, doing business with a place that should be seen as radioactive.
It is time for the commissioner to act even if it hurts the men who pay his obscene $44 million salary. Here we have a league that is trying to project itself as welcoming to players who want to be open and honest about their sexuality. They cannot do that and hold the Super Bowl or the Pro Bowl in a state that proudly projects itself as a bastion of intolerance. They cannot put NFL employees, players and family members in a situation where they would be unsafe. Roger Goodell has said all the right things in recent weeks about the league being an open and inclusive environment. He needs to be told that words, when not matched with deeds, are very cheap. For $44 million a year, one would think he could afford to do better.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews Wade Davis on Michael Sam and homophobia in the NFL.
Fifty years ago, no one gave 22-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. a chance against the heavyweight champion, Charles “Sonny” Liston. Even Clay’s own corner pre-emptively mapped out the quickest route from the hospital from the arena. Their fear was rooted in reality. Liston had an arrest record that could fill a file cabinet and in previous lives had been employed by the mob as a strike breaker and enforcer. The recently deceased poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) called Liston “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world.”
Before Liston’s championship fight when he won the title against Floyd Patterson, President Kennedy took the time to call Patterson and express that it would not be in “the negroes best interest” if Liston won. As one writer noted dryly, “The fight definitely was not in Patterson’s best interest.” Liston destroyed Patterso, setting the stage for his fight against Clay.
The great James Baldwin was sent to cover Liston before the fight. He wrote, in a brilliant essay, “[Liston] is far from stupid; if not, in fact, stupid at all. And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sensed no cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have know who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren’t hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy.” Baldwin also pointed that Liston had moved seamlessly in the white-sports media from villain to hero, as they were counting on him to shut the mouth of the young Olympic gold medalist they called “the Lousiville Lip” and “Gaseous Cassius.”
Clay had a gift for gab that made a sportswriter’s job easy. He had also been keeping close company with Malcolm X, and rumors flew through the boxing world that Clay was going to join the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, himself, was a fixture at Clay’s Miami training facility and took great joy in tweaking the sportswriters’ assumptions about the fight. While everyone was predicting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm said, “Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero…. Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although the clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown.” Although the verdict was out on whether he was wise or a clown, no one gave him a chance against Liston. But Ali, quicker, stronger and bolder than anyone knew, shocked the nation and beat Liston. He then famously shouted to the heavens and over a reporter’s questions, “I shook up the world!”
The day after Liston fell, Clay announced publicly that he was a member of the NOI. Words cannot do justice to the firestorm this caused. Whatever disagreements one may have with the Nation of Islam, the fact is that the heavyweight champion of the world was joining the organization of Malcolm X. The Olympic gold medalist had linked arms with a group that called white people “devils” and stood unapologetically for self-defense and racial separation. As Mike Marqusee wrote, “Clay’s embrace of the Nation was provocative in the extreme. First, he was repudiating Christianity in a predominantly Christian country, in favour of what was seen as an exotic and, at best, suspect religion. Secondly, he was repudiating the integrationist agenda of the civil rights movement at the height of that movement’s prestige (six months after the March on Washington), in favour of a militantly separatist politics and practise. And thirdly, he was repudiating American national identity in favour of a Black Nationalist (and internationalist) identity. In the midst of the Cold War, at a time when patriotism was considered de rigeur [sic] for anyone in American public life, this was perceived as virtually treasonous.”
Not surprisingly, the power brokers of the conservative, mobbed-up, corrupt fight world lost their minds. Jimmy Cannon, perhaps the most famous sportswriter in America, wrote, “The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of mass hate…. Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.”
Ali was attacked not only by Cannon and his ilk but also by the respectable wing of the civil rights movement. “Cassius Clay may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils,” said Roy Wilkins. Ali’s response at this point was very defensive. He repeatedly said that his wasn’t a political but purely religious conversion. His defensiveness reflected the perspective of the NOI. Ali said, “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.”
But much like Malcolm X, who at the time was engineering a political break from the Nation, Clay—much to the concern of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad—found it impossible to explain his religious world view without speaking to the mass black freedom struggle exploding outside the boxing ring. He was his own worst enemy—claiming that his was a religious transformation and had nothing to do with politics, but then in the next breath saying, “I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro Church…. People are always telling me what a good example I would be if I just wasn’t Muslim. I’ve heard over and over why couldn’t I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well they are gone and the Black man’s condition is just the same ain’t it? We’re still catching hell.”
If the establishment press was outraged, the new generation of activists was electrified. “I remember when Ali joined the Nation,” recalled civil rights leader Julian Bond. “The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion that he would do it, that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you…. He was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell; that I’m going to do it my way.”
At this time, he was known briefly as Cassius X, but Elijah Muhammad gave Clay the name Muhammad Ali—a tremendous honor and a way to ensure that Ali would side with Elijah Muhammad in his split with Malcolm X. But the internal politics of the Nation were not what the powers that be and the media noticed. To them, the Islamic name change—something that had never occurred before in sports—was a sharp slap in the face.
Almost overnight, whether an individual called the champ Ali or Clay indicated where they stood on civil rights, Black Power and eventually the war in Vietnam. The New York Times insisted on calling him Clay as an editorial policy for years thereafter.
This all took place against the backdrop of a black freedom struggle rolling from the South to the North. During the summer of 1964, there were 1,000 arrests of civil rights activists, thirty buildings bombed and thirty-six churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. In 1964, the first of the urban uprisings and riots in the northern ghettoes took place. The politics of Black Power was starting to emerge and Muhammad Ali became the critical symbol in this transformation. As news anchor Bryant Gumbel said, “One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that Black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many Black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”
A concrete sign of Ali’s early influence was seen in 1965 when Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama, launched an independent political party. Their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Their bumper stickers and T-shirts were of a black silhouette of a panther and their slogan was straight from the champ: “WE Are the Greatest.”
Yes, it is certainly true that Cassius Clay was born on January 17, 1942, but Muhammad Ali, in every way, was born fifty years ago in Miami.
Read Next: At long last, Jason Collins is the first.
"Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear." - Jason Collins
Finally, more than fifty games into the 2013-2014 season, Jason Collins is on an NBA team. Finally, ten months after Collins told the world that he is gay, the 35-year-old center took the court for the Brooklyn Nets against the Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, at long last, we have reached the day when an openly gay man played for one of the “big four” US sports. If Collins had never been signed, as some were convinced would be the case, the great question surrounding his “coming out” would have never been answered. The great question was less about Jason Collins than how teammates, coaches and fans would respond to the prospect of an openly gay player.
As we all await the coming sociology lesson via SportsCenter, it is hard to think of a better landing spot than Brooklyn. The Nets are coached by Collins’s friend and former teammate Jason Kidd and the veteran leaders of the team are Collins’s Celtic best buds from last season, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Then there is Brooklyn itself. Just as the borough was the spot where Jackie Robinson blazed a new trail in 1947, it now again gets to be a backdrop to history. Yes, it's no longer the post-war, progressive, working class Brooklyn where my father cheered the exploits of the great Mr. Robinson, and no, the arrival of Jason Collins should not put a progressive patina on what brought the Nets to Brooklyn in the first place: a stew of corporate welfare, gentrification and displacement. But it is still a locale where many LGBT individuals and families live openly and it is a locale that will see this signing as a cause for celebration and solidarity. Perhaps most importantly, the Nets are not trying to make a political statement but truly need Collins, a big seven-foot body, as they begin their stretch run to the playoffs. Their star center Brook Lopez is out for the season and they just traded away broad-shouldered rebounder Reggie Evans. This is the oldest, priciest team in the league and they need Jason Collins to contribute immediately. Judging from his press conference, Collins understands the basketball realities in front of him. He said, "Right now, I'm focused on trying to learn the plays…. I've played for 12 years in the league and I know how to play basketball.... I'm ready. Let's do it."
Reaction around the league has been uniformly positive. (My favorite was Miami Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade who said, "One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard.... Welcome back.") Fans in Los Angeles gave the visiting Collins a warm reaction when he entered Sunday night's game and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni echoed a view articulated frequently on social media, saying, “I hope one day if a player can play, he can play. If he can’t, he can’t. That’s all what we should be talking about. I know why we don’t. But eventually, that’s all that will matter. That’ll be a good thing.”
He is right, but for now, the political implications of this moment are unavoidable. Jason Collins was asked at the press conference if he had a message for other gay athletes and he said, "Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear." Collins also made clear that he would continue to wear number 98, in remembrance of 1998, the year that Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered.
Collins's very presence should also raise immediate political concerns for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as well as the NBA Players Association. Currently the state senate of Arizona has passed a law, SB 1062, that would allow businesses the right to refuse service to anyone they believe to be a part of the LGBT community. Governor Jan Brewer will decide whether or not to sign the bill by this Friday. If she does, what would that mean for Jason Collins on a road trip to play the Phoenix Suns? Doesn’t the league and the union have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of not only Jason Collins but their own newly minted policies against anti-gay bigotry? This question also applies to Roger Goodell and the NFL, which is due to bring the Super Bowl to Arizona in 2015. You cannot be a league that welcomes Jason Collins or Michael Sam and then does business in a state where your players can be expected to be treated like second-class citizens. That is a message which needs to be communicated to Governor Brewer posthaste.
But for now, at least, we should just take a moment to recognize and appreciate the hurdle that Jason Collins just cleared. Thanks to his courage, it will be easier for pro athletes yet to come out. It will be easier for young LGBT athletes debating whether or not to tell their “family” in the locker room their truth. It will be easier for apprehensive straight players to get over themselves and embrace any teammate who helps them attain their goals. It may even save lives. I have no doubt we will reach the moment that Mike D’Antoni mentioned and in the future an openly LGBT teammate will be a nonstory. But today it is a story and an inspiring one at that. At long last, after traveling in the brave footsteps of Dave Kopay, Glen Burke, John Amaechi, Wade Davis and so many others, Jason Collins has made history.
Read Next: Michael Sam and the "man box."
On Saturday, Missouri All-American Michael Sam took to the podium at the NFL combine to face a throng of reporters that gawked at him like he had just made the journey from Mars. Here he was: the man who would become the NFL’s first openly gay player. The size of the media swarm shows, if nothing else, that the right-wing media that have refused to cover the Michael Sam story by saying explicitly, to take one headline, “We really don’t care that you’re gay, gay people,” are living in a reality of their own making.
Yes, people care. The media that make their money by generating page views are acutely aware that people care. People care because the NFL is the closest thing we have in this country to a national obsession. People care because, beyond NFL fans, there is a collective recognition that this is history being written before our eyes. People care because for all the gay players that have played in the NFL, Michael Sam is the first to “live his truth” openly.
As for Mr. Sam, based on the press conference, he seems to be both savvy as hell and acutely aware that there is no need to stoke the embers of this publicity inferno. It will rage regardless, and the best thing he can do is make the best possible impression on his profoundly risk-averse future employers in the NFL.
The sportswriters in attendance certainly swooned at his every word. Sam dolloped out a series of responses, which suggested less a new archetype of masculinity than a recalling of the old: call it Dick Butkus spliced with Sidney Poitier alongside a dash of Gary Cooper.
Sam looked at the buzzing hive and said, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.”
When asked if he was a trailblazer, Sam said, “Do I feel like I’m a trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
For those who relish the prospect a hypermacho NFL player holds to mortally damage the age-old trope that equates being a gay male with being weak, Sam did not disappoint. When asked how he would handle an anti-gay slur, he said, “If someone calls me a name, I’ll have a chat with them. Hopefully it won’t lead to anything further.”
Sam even commented on the standing ovation he just received at a Mizzou basketball game by saying, “I wanted to cry, but I’m a man.” Yup, a regular Gary Cooper.
As welcome as it always is to see stereotypes explode (and to imagine Rush Limbaugh’s head doing the same), there is a vexing aspect of Michael Sam’s square-jawed certitude. Bomani Jones, one of the sharpest knives in the sports writing box, somehow laid this out in 140 characters. Jones tweeted, “What Sam can do is separate sexual orientation from notions of masculinity. So what will we say when he reinforces gender norms as such?”
It’s a question worth asking. So many players in the league are caught in what former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann has called “the man box.” This is the locker-room ideology that preaches, “Bullies are heroes; pain—physical or mental—is for wimps; and women are either ‘road beef’ or collateral damage.” We just received a firsthand look, thanks to Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins, of what the “man box” looks like when the sportswriter’s romantic prose is stripped away, and it’s ugly as sin.
There are many pinning a set of extremely unrealistic hopes onto Michael Sam: the hope that his mere presence will crack open the man box and let some other emotional truths inside the locker room. Brandon Marshall of the Bears has taken it upon himself to actually try to do this in Chicago. He wants to make the Pro Bowl and redefine entrenched league concepts of masculinity at the same time. It’s different, it’s courageous, and given his own—and the league’s—history with violence against women, it’s brave as hell. Michael Sam, for now at least, just wants to play football. To do so as an openly gay man is, in 2014, a radical act. That also may be the only mountain we can—and should—ask this young man to climb. As Michael Sam says, he just wants to play football.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project.
Wade Davis played in the NFL from 2000–03. In 2012 he chose to go public and become the fourth openly gay former NFL player. Davis is now executive director of the You Can Play Project. He has written for numerous publications and just wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated about spending six hours with Michael Sam prior to Sam’s announcement that he would seek to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Dave Zirin: Is Michael Sam ready for all of this?
Wade Davis: One hundred percent. And I say that because he was not overwhelmed at all by this. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like, “Look, I’m ready to get this media hoopla over with and to get back to playing ball.” He gets the magnitude of it from a social perspective, but from a football perspective, he says, “Look, I’m a football guy. I’ve been playing it my whole life and I’m better at it than most.” And he’s going to prove it.
Put yourself in the shoes of Wade Davis, circa 2000. If you had come out as an active player, what do you think happens?
First of all, I think people would say, “Well, who is this kid? He’s a scrub. He’s barely making a roster… How many times has he been cut?” But I think the conversation’s different. We weren’t having conversations around athletes and homophobia and sports, or who’s the first athlete that’s going to come out. I think it would be a very different reception not because the sports community is more or less homophobic, but from a national discourse, we weren’t having the same discussions then. There were no marriage equality conversations happening. I just think the entire world was different. I think people would have been like, “Wow, this kid here is crazy. This is suicide.” Whereas with Michael Sam, people are like, “Ok, he can play… so let him play”
How common was it, when you played, as part of the general culture of a locker room, was being “soft” equated with anti-gay slurs, or not being a good player being equated with anti-gay slurs?
In high school, very common. In college, a little less. And in the pros, it’s largely nonexistent. I think there’s always been an unfortunate association with being a gay man as being weaker or soft. The real issue there being that gay men are equated with women, which again says a lot about the problems that our country has with sexism. It should be okay to equate a man to a woman and not to think that means someone’s inferior. It’s unfortunate that this happens so frequently because, I think it is the main reason that guys don’t come out that they’re gay. Because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. It’s not like athletes don’t want to tell their story, or live in their truth. Often our athletic identity and our masculinity are attached. So if you say “I’m gay,” someone will say, “Oh, he’s not man enough.” Or, “He’s not as strong as this other guy.” I think that’s one of the bigger issues.
[This next question was asked just before the release of the Ted Wells report detailing the extent of the bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room.]
One of the first NFL players to tweet support for Michael Sam was a gentleman by the name of Richie Incognito. And I raise that, because in all of the text messages released between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin you saw a lot of anti-gay slurs. When you saw that Richie Incognito sent that out, did your head go towards “this is part of his image rehabilitation” or did it go toward, “wow, maybe Richie has changed.” What was your reaction to that?
Now, this is the first time I’ve been asked this question. So, to be honest my initial thought was that, “oh, this is just his rehabilitation thing.” But then I stood back and I said, “Why am I judging this man?” I only have half of the information. All that I have is the texts, half of the conversation. But I think what we have to not do is vilify athletes as easily as we do. Jonathan Vilma made his comment that he felt uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate. Good. Let’s bring these things out to the forefront. If you have a problem with a gay teammate.
And isn’t it better than an anonymous general manager saying things to Sports Illustrated?
It’s so much better, because a lot of us have a lot of growing to do as individuals, and that doesn’t make Jonathan Vilma homophobic. If I’m at a gay club, and I’m taking a leak, and a man comes and stands too close to me, I get uncomfortable. It’s just a natural thing, how often are you in close proximity with someone else [naked]. Now what makes a difference is that Jonathan Vilma would be OK with it if the person was straight. But now that he knows that Michael Sam is gay… it speaks to the fact that men aren’t used to the prospect of being objectified.
You’re absolutely right. That’s a huge part of it. Men not knowing what women go through on a daily basis.
You know, it all comes down to having experiences. I guarantee that if Jonathan Vilma has a chance to sit down with myself or any other gay person, he’d be like, “You know what? These old ideas that I had about gay people… they really aren’t true.” It’s not all Jonathan Vilma’s fault. Our country has a very monolithic way that they show gay men—the Modern Familys and what not. The exposure’s great, but let’s have some nuance to show that there are different types of gay people, so Jonathan Vilma’s mind can expand and he can say, “Oh, every gay man doesn’t want me.” Most guys look terrible naked, and I should know. And, straight guys look too… there’s a perception that straight guys don’t check out other guys’ penises, and that’s a lie. The one difference is that some straight guys get uncomfortable and think that every gay man wants them. Wrong. Every man does not look like Brad Pitt.
Football is a violent sport. Do you think that it’s possible that players, whether in practice or in games—at the bottom of a pile—could go out of their way to hurt Michael Sam to make some kind of a statement?
I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think so. Let’s take [hard-hitting safety] Dashon Goldson, right? I don’t think if there was a gay receiver out there, Dashon Goldson could hit a wide receiver any harder. It’s not like they’re going, “Oh, this guy’s straight so I’m going to take a little off of this hit.” Or, “This guy’s gay so I’m going to hit him harder.” Football players play to the max of their abilities because they love it, or because they want to get better contracts or better deals. In the bottom of piles, I’ve been hit or I’ve had my genitalia grabbed or punched. I don’t think it’s going to happen any more or less just because Michael Sam is gay. And, I think that you’re going to find that his teammates are going to protect him more than anyone else because they want the rest of the NFL to know that this is one of their guys. There is a family and a friend dynamic that happens, especially now because people might assume that he will be a target, so his teammates are going to rally around him. And the bond that’s going to be formed is going to be stronger than anything you could have imagined.
The NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, he called the anonymous executives who talked about Michael Sam’s dropping draft status “gutless.” Do you agree with that?
I think it’s interesting that these execs don’t see the brilliance of what Michael Sam is. How many players, or people in general, have stood up in front of the whole world and said, “This is me.” It shows the type of vulnerability that is a strength. It shows courage that any coach, teammate, exec should want to have. So I think they’re looking at it from the wrong angle, and they’re living in the 1940s. And that’s why I’m so grateful for people like Robert Kraft, and the Giants’ owner John Mara and John Elway who said, “Wait a minute. This is the type of guy that I want on my team, because they represent what a majority of the NFL is about.”
Last question for you, sir. There is an aristocracy of NFL players. Everybody knows them: Peyton, Tom—you only have to use first names—hell, Aaron, Drew, we might even be able to put Russell in there after this last Super Bowl, honestly. Last question for you, does it matter to you at all that the aristocracy has not put out some support or love for Michael Sam’s announcement?
No, it doesn’t matter because those guys aren’t typically the ones who do a lot of talking about stuff anyway. I can’t remember the last time Tom Brady spoke out on any issue…
Well, Uggs are very important to him, I hear.
Exactly. And I would say that probably 90 percent of those guys are probably—well, Peyton’s in the film room—somewhere in Jamaica, or somewhere in Paris. So they’re like, “Great, but it doesn’t bother me.” Deion Sanders of the world, who’s my favorite player of all time, spoke up early in support of Michael Sam. So I was very pleased.
Read Next: the Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and the rot in the NFL
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, way back in 2011, there was a moment that starkly showcased the aspiration for a better future alongside the past puking up its own barbarism. That was when the masses of people who had fearlessly gathered to raise demands for a democratic Egypt, were set upon by men on horses and camels, brandishing swords. This was more than an attempt at intimidation. Egypt, as the second-highest recipient of US military aid, had better weapons at its disposal than horses and swords. It was meant to summon the most atavistic fears among protestors and conjure images of age-old horror stories only whispered by elders.
On Tuesday, in the city of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, there was a similar showcase of a barbarism more identified with the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. Members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot were attacked by Cossacks and horsewhipped in the streets of Sochi. Cossacks are brutal, extra-legal militias whose roots in Russia stretch back to the fifteenth century. During times when whichever Czar occupied the Winter Palace needed to show his disregard for human life, the Cossacks were always reliably on call. When my own Jewish grandparents would speak about the Russian pogroms and the mass slaughter, rape and displacement of their own parents and grandparents, it was the Cossacks who were described with the most nervous swallows. Since the fall of the USSR, the Cossacks have made a comeback, particularly in the south. Their very presence in Sochi speaks to a message from Putin in kinship with Mubarak’s setting the horses loose in Tahrir.
As for Pussy Riot, the group, clad in their trademark pink balaclavas, was attempting to play a song underneath a flashy sign advertising the Sochi Games. The tune was probably going to be a protest track they had pledged to perform in Sochi called “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland.” They were never able to play a note.
At least ten Cossacks tore off their signature masks and trashed their instruments, with at least one reported to have used pepper spray. One male PR supporter had his face bloodied. Then the Cossacks pulled out the whips. One group member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was whipped while lying on the ground. Tolokonnikova was one of the two Pussy Riot members who had spent eighteen months in prison for playing a “punk prayer” in a Russian Orthodox temple. It reportedly took three minutes for the police to arrive on the scene and no arrests were made.
Readers need to understand that three minutes, in the context of a highly militarized Olympic fortress is an eternity. One can ask Vladamir Luxuria about that. Luxuria, an Italian politician who was the first openly trans member of a European Parliament, was arrested last weekend in Sochi. Her crime was unfurling a banner that read, “Gay is OK”. Like other attempted protesters, she was arrested in an eye blink.
As for Pussy Riot, the attack by the Cossacks took place just hours after they had been released by police after being held on spurious charges of stealing from their hotel room. One member said, “We were stopped in our hotel, told that somebody had stolen some money, but they detained us for being activists.”
In prison, they accused the Russian police of beating them after they refused to speak without their lawyer present. Upon her release Tolokonnikova tweeted, “Putin will teach you to love the motherland. That’s what makes the Olympics.”
There is no other way to read this other than it being a sign of the desperation of Russian security forces to keep a lid on discontent, not to mention an effort to send a signal to athletes to know their role and shut their mouths. The IOC has helped in this endeavor, threatening the Ukrainian Olympic Committee this week with sanction for asking if they could wear black armbands in commemoration of the loss of life in Kiev. Clashes between the army, riot police and protesters have left at least twenty-five people dead and 241 injured in the Ukrainian capital.
The IOC nixed their request saying that it was ”impossible according to the Olympic Charter.” These kinds of responses from the IOC and the Russian state are why Yelena Goltsman, founder of a New York City group for Russian-speaking Americans called RUSA LGBT, said, “I am not surprised [there have been few protests in Sochi]. This is not Russia. This is a city that is made up. It was leveled, then created into theme park.”
It’s a theme park, all right. It’s Putin-Land, where a trip to feudal Russia, complete with horse whippings from Cossacks, only costs the price of a song.
Read Next: Sochi unofficially bans protest (unless you’re an American homophobe).
Zack Barsik is the founder of the Circassian Cultural Institute located in New Jersey and has been working on Circassians Affairs for the past twenty years. He is also one of the founders of the No Sochi 2014 campaign that has brought the Circassian plight back to the forefront. His work also led to the recognition of the Circassian Genocide by the Georgian Parliament. Learn more at nosochi2014.com or follow at @nosochi2014.
Dave Zirin: Who are the Circassian people, where are they from, and how does this relate to the Olympics?
Zack Barsik: This is something we’ve been working for over the past few years, to bring awareness to the world that the Circassians are the indigenous people of Sochi. If you look at history, we’ve been there for thousands of years, up until 1864 when Russia and the Czar Nicholas I culminated a 101-year war by eradicating, erasing Circassians from history. In those days, any news, or any journal where you would find the word “Circassian” was on the front pages in Europe. And we disappeared for 150 years, until Sochi was picked for the Olympics. Circassians used to be part of the ancient Olympic games, and being a Circassian also means that sports are very important for our culture. However, now with the Sochi Olympics we have absolutely no role in the Olympics in our capital, which is Sochi.
Isn’t Sochi a Circassian word?
That’s correct. It means ‘The Land Between Sea and Mountain.’ Many events that Olympians and guests of Sochi will see will be in Fisht Stadium. Fisht is another Circassian name. In Russia, what they’ve done is take everything that’s Circassian, but invite no Circassians to the party.
What happened 150 years ago? I’ve heard it referred to as the Circassian Genocide. What took place?
Recently we were able to gain access to the Georgian archives. The Georgian Parliament gave Circassians access for the first time. And, for the first time in our history we were able to see what the Russians did to us. We have an oral history; we’ve heard it from our mothers, our grandmothers crying. Telling us about the killings, of families being erased, of villages being destroyed. But it was more of an oral history. But a couple years ago when the Georgians gave access, to see this with their own eyes… to see the Russian campaign against Circassia, it was unbelievable to see this. And, two years ago the Georgian government recognized it officially as a genocide. [For those who want more information about the 1864 Circassian genocide, I recommend this article.—DZ]
What are the demands of No Sochi 2014?
The first demand that we’re looking for is the justice and the respect that the Russians should give Circassians by making the world aware that Sochi is the land of Circassians. They can’t hide this anymore. With the world being invited, every flag in the world will be flown except the Circassian flag. This is one of the most basic demands that we’re asking for. But we’re also have another demand. We have 200,000 Circassians in Syria, the only European minority in Syria, and they want to return. My relatives are getting killed there and Russia won’t let them in. The Russians in Syria were invited back and offered asylum [as war in Syria continued], but they never took back the Circassians. So that’s another big concern for us and we’re hoping to address this in the near future along with the human rights violations against Circassians for not allowing any of us to return
What is Russia’s explicit justification for denying right of return for Circassians? Have they said anything explicitly or is it just that they ignore the demand?
They ignore the demand. We constantly ask the government for some response, trying to create a dialogue, but their answer is always pretty much the same. You’re a small nation, you’re a victim of colonialism—deal with it.
I know that people from No Sochi 2014 were able to travel to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics and to the London Olympics in 2012. Were those trips beneficial for you? What kind of connections were you able to make and what kind of similarities to your cause did you see?
We have to thank those two events for bringing the case up to the international level. Russia’s been trying to keep this a Russian problem, but Circassians live in fifty-eight countries. We make up 10 percent of the population of Turkey. But even our own communities were shocked to see Circassians going to the Olympics and demonstrating because they didn’t know the message, this important message that needed to be told. And, by the way, we wanted to go to Sochi, but they didn’t let us in.
Talk about that for a second. What did you want to do for the 2014 games? Did you submit visa papers? Was there an official response from the government?
Well, an official response we’re never going to get from the Russians. They’ll just deny and say that you were not accepted and that’s it. Constantly calling and we’re not able to get any feedback. It’s pretty much the same for anyone: for journalists, for activists—we know that there are activists for the environment there that were just shipped out of the region and sent to Moscow. Just to keep them out of Sochi.
Let’s take a step back. There’s obviously, as you’re well aware, myriad issues of injustice surrounding these Olympics, from worker rights, to the environment, to LGBT rights, to now animal rights and the rights of the Circassians. So many issues surround these Sochi Games. The terms of the debate around this Olympics have been, should countries just boycott the games because there’s so much injustice taking place? Or should athletes view it as a vehicle for dissent because boycotting wouldn’t really do anything? What’s the position of No Sochi 2014 on boycott versus using the games to raise awareness?
As a Circassian, No Sochi 2014, just because it’s on the land of genocide, we definitely until now believed in the boycott. There is no peace and harmony in the sports being promoted when you’re dancing on the graves of 1.5 million people. Now, this is not the Olympians’ fault. We do understand that the Olympians, the majority, are not aware of this. We did send packets to all the Olympic Committees around Europe and America. We found out that in Sweden they refused to give these packets of information out to their athletes. So there is this block of information to Olympians because perhaps when they are made aware of these atrocities they’ll boycott themselves.
We are not against the Olympic spirit. We understand that this is part of sports, but we have to make everyone aware of this dark side. One point that I’d like to make is that Putin has hidden this from the world. The world’s going there expecting gold medals, 150 years ago Russia was handing out gold medals to Russian soldiers for committing a genocide.
I know that when you were in Vancouver you met with indigenous groups there. What connections do you see as a Circassian with the Native Americans, the indigenous community in the United States and Canada? What connections have you sought out?
We have a lot of parallels with the Native Americans, the First Nations. One of the leaders of the First Nations visited us in New Jersey and we had a panel. There’s so many similar stories and a common history, and it happened at the same exact time. So the 1850s and the 1860s were very harsh for the Native Americans and the Circassians. We do see the parallels. If you don’t feel connected to your land, you lose your spirit. A Circassia without Circassians is no longer Circassia.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on how the 2014 Sochi Olympics have united the world in disgust.
The long-awaited report from Ted Wells investigating Richie Incognito’s alleged racist and homophobic verbal assault against Jonathan Martin in the Miami Dolphins locker room is officially out. It is almost 150 pages, and after reading it, several points now are certain. We can safely remove the word “alleged” from the accusations against Incognito, and we can add “physical assault” to the list of offenses.
(Wells refers to the forced miming of male rape as “improper physical touching,” just one of the many euphemisms the investigator uses in an attempt to shine this turd to the best of his abilities.)
We also learn that this should not be referred to as the “Incognito scandal” any longer. This toxicity extended far beyond the two central players. Teammates on the offensive line, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry and even offensive line coach Jim Turner were all a part of this swirling whirlpool of hatred. We also learn that those “bullied” extend beyond Martin to a teammate on the offensive line and a racially taunted Asian-American trainer. (I have gone back and forth about even using the word “bullying” to describe what is a case of assault, pure and simple. My belief is that while I understand why some people believe the word both minimizes and masculinizes the offenses on display, I also believe that “bullying” universalizes it, and allows for empathy into what Jonathan Martin and others had to endure. Reading the report, if you were ever made to feel powerless because of someone’s ability to physically intimidate you, then you can understand Jonathan Martin’s reality.)
The entire report is one collective “trigger warning” of the vilest imaginable behavior. People can read it themselves here. They can also read the heartbreaking written messages Jonathan Martin sent his parents. Rather than rehash them, I want to comment on what was for me the part of the report I found to be both predictable and gobsmacking. Ted Wells has determined that this culture of bullying was entirely confined to the team’s offensive line and their coach Jim Turner, who is still employed by the team. We are also supposed to believe that Head Coach Joe Philbin and the front office knew nothing. An entire section of the report is even titled, “Coach Philbin and the Front Office Did Not Know About the Harassment.” This feels like every single report we ever see about corporate or government malfeasance from Iran-Contra to Abu Ghraib to baseball’s steroid era. The goal is always to protect and insulate those at the top, who are, by the way, commissioning the report. There is even a superfluous, entirely irrelevant section at the end of the report titled, “The Dolphins’ Plans To Improve the Team’s Workplace Conduct Policies Are Commendable.” After reading the previous 140 pages, I could only think, “Who gives a shit?”
I have never understood why being ignorant acts as a shield of blamelessness for those in power. If Philbin did not know what was happening, then he looks like a fool. If he did know, then he looks malicious. Philbin’s ignorance was described by one ESPN anchor as “hard to believe.” I agree. This is a case of either benign neglect or malignant intent. Either way, he should join former General Manager Jeff Ireland on the unemployment line.
The timing of this report also comes just as the NFL is attempting to show the world that it is a safe space for Michael Sam and any player who tells the world that he is gay. Instead, we get a glimpse of a locker room that seems to be steeped in racist and homophobic violence, a bigoted gay-bashers’ paradise. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has told me that this Dolphins shit-show is an outlier. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has told me that they have never heard the kind of invective Jonathan Martin and others were subjected to. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has said this is utterly unique. I hope they were not just feeding me a line, playing their role, protecting “the Shield.” I hope they weren’t protecting the Shield, because it is only too obvious from this report that the only thing the Shield looks to protect is its own brand, players be damned.
At one point in the report, Ted Wells includes Jonathan Martin’s private list of pros and cons for staying in the National Football League. One reason for leaving was, “I won’t die from CTE” (brain damage). Underneath that was another reason for leaving, “Maybe I’ll start to LIKE myself.” Those two statements, to me, need to be the start of the next discussion we need to have: how the rot in this league extends far beyond Richie Incognito.
Read Next: why NFL owners should stand up for Michael Sam.