Where sports and politics collide.
Forty years after breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs, Hank Aaron is still receiving racist hate mail—and he keeps it all. After some of Aaron’s comments in an interview with USA Today, he received a whole new batch of derogatory mail. In the interview, Aaron defended President Obama, who he said “is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.” “The bigger difference,” he went on to say, “is back then [racists] had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” Appearing on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This with host Antonio Mora, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin came to Aaron’s defense, saying that, “For someone like Henry Aaron, who’s 80 years old and has already endured so much, I imagine he has far less patience” for the “tidal wave of vitriol” that was inevitably unleashed on the first president of color in the United States.
The best sports biography of the last several years was, for my money, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant. The book makes the case that, in an age of cynicism, we need to study what exactly makes someone heroic, with Henry Aaron being Bryant’s particular profile in courage. What makes The Last Hero particularly compelling is that Bryant doesn’t quantify Aaron’s heroism as being measured by his 755 homeruns but by his ability to keep moving forward while resisting concentrated, poisonous doses of racist invective the likes of which few have ever had to endure. Aaron’s great crime, of course, was challenging the most hallowed record in sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, while black. (The racists of 1974 were untroubled by the widespread belief in the baseball world of the 1920s that Babe Ruth, an orphan, was a black man “passing” as white.)
Aaron, as Bryant reveals, was always silent until he wasn’t. This man born in the Deep South from a family of sharecroppers, would on occasion uncork a smackdown to the collective racists in this country, like it was an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate. He was, pardon the cliché but it fits, a still water that ran deep.
Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the fortieth anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Then Aaron, just like in his playing career, transgressed his image as a stoic who did not encroach on the world outside the diamond and spoke his mind.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Mr. Henry Aaron, a man on a US postage stamp, just said that the children of the old school racists he tangled with, now have a home in the Republican Party. It is basically 1991 and it is Chuck D saying, “These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits.”
Forget for a moment the fact that I believe many of us are past the image of President Obama as someone who would be doing the right thing if only it weren’t for these Republicans. From immigration deportation to the drone war, the list of complaints against this administration on social justice grounds is very real. But consider the reality that a White House occupied by an African-American family has provoked a level of bigotry from the right that, no matter what Bill Kristol says, is undeniable. Consider how seeing that family subject to reservoirs of racism would resonate with someone of Aaron’s life experience. Yet above all, consider that Aaron’s main point was that much of the progress on racial issues since 1974 is illusory, and after he said so has been deluged with racist letters and phone calls. The Atlanta Braves organization reports that it has received “hundreds” of threats levied against Aaron. The only difference between 2014 and 1974 is that many of these threats are coming in e-mail form.
One of these lovely notes came from a person named “David” who vowed to burn his copy of Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero. (Given the content of The Last Hero, which discusses the history of racism in the United States for several chapters before even getting to Aaron, I wonder if “David” ever cracked the spine.) It seemed appropriate for me to actually reach out to Bryant and ask why it is that this 80-year-old, soft-spoken man, someone who never joined the Black Panthers or burned a flag, has been able to produce what can only be described as an Aaron Derangement Syndrome in the darkest corners of this country?
Bryant e-mailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.
“When Henry was playing, there were other people who said what he felt. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali were more charismatic, better quotes than Henry on civil rights,” Bryant wrote. “But the reason he keeps getting all this mail and taking this abuse is because he’s unflinching. He sees the game better than the rest of us because he’s lived it long enough to know that once you get past the smiles and the handshakes, very little has really changed. Henry knows that if you wait long enough and say a little of the truth, the face behind the mask will reveal itself, just as it did Tuesday night. He’s not going to accommodate you. He’s going to stay quiet and let the silence speak for itself until the words can say it better.”
I do not personally believe that in the world of sports Henry Aaron really is “the last hero.” People from Richard Sherman to Britney Griner to Kain Colter are showing that heroism—as something more than a brand—can still exist in a cynical age. But I do believe that if this new generation of athletes is going to “advance the ball” of social justice, they should learn the manifest lessons from the life of this extraordinary individual. The bigots should also know, as if the last sixty years weren’t proof enough, you are simply not going to scare Henry Aaron.
Read Next: Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the tale of two anniversaries
Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other.
On Monday, April 21, the Boston Marathon will take place, and we will be compelled to remember the horror of last year’s bombing attack at the finish line. Three were killed and more than 250 were injured. Two immigrant brothers, driven by their anger, ideology and alienation towards what is called the “Global War on Terror” set the blasts. Two brothers: one now dead the other facing state execution.
Now, one year later, we’ll have what will surely be an emotionally raw celebration of what makes the city that hosts the marathon “Boston-Strong.” Expect round-the-clock media coverage. Expect the names of the dead to be remembered. Expect every politician with a pulse to exploit their particular version of what last year’s bombing “means.” (Here’s hoping that they learn the lesson David Gregory of Meet the Press discovered, and not blithely tread upon the post-traumatic stress of those who were damaged a year ago. The media’s “reality television” just might be someone else’s reality.)
As everyone follows the—we hope and pray—safe and successful completion of the marathon, there is a very different kind of anniversary the following day. April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.
Compelled by the attacks on 9/11, Tillman exited the NFL in his prime, leaving millions of dollars on the table to join the Army Rangers. Square-jawed, Caucasian and handsome as hell, he was a dream for people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, David Frum and everyone who drooled at the thought of a glorious, post-9 /11 clash of civilizations. Yet after several missions into Iraq, in a war Tillman believed was “fucking illegal,” he started to read the work of people like Noam Chomsky and other critics of the war. Upon his return to the United States, Tillman even expressed a desire to meet Chomsky .
On April 22, Pat Tillman was killed. The first story, repeated at his nationally televised funeral, was that he was shot down by the Taliban in a ferocious firefight. He was posthumously given a Silver Star, which is awarded when a soldier falls at the hands of enemy combatants. The Bush Pentagon public relations machine was in overdrive, using Pat Tillman in death in a manner he refused when still alive. As his mother Mary Tillman said to me in 2008, “What’s so disturbing about after Pat’s death is the way the media ran with the perception they had of him, some kind of caricature of who they thought he was. It was so off that it was like he died twice.”
As if exploiting his death to aid the Iraqi war drive wasn’t obscene enough, the truth then emerged—Tillman actually died at the hands of fellow Army Rangers, killed in an incident described as “friendly fire.” His military journal and his uniform were burned on site. His death report was falsified.
Tillman’s family has undergone a decade-long quest to find out what actually happened and why they were lied to about his death. As Mary Tillman said to me in 2011, “If it had happened to someone else, Pat would be busting through walls to find the truth.”
But the truth has been hard to find. The person who oversaw what Pat’s father, Pat Tillman Sr., called a “falsified homicide investigation,” Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, wasn’t indicted or brought up on charges. Instead, he was promoted by President Obama, before eventually resigning in disgrace so he could write a book and appear on The Colbert Report.
Today, in Fenway Park, the Army has used the post-marathon Boston-Strong narrative of recovery and community to aid its recruitment efforts. As the blog WMTC discussed, the many screens of Fenway Park now show ads that blare, “There’s strong and then there’s Army Strong!” The message could not be clearer: there is Boston Strong, there is Army Strong and one is only as, well, strong as the other. If you want to keep Boston strong and prevent more bombings, you better join up and make sure than the Army is strong as well. There are no ads to suggest that maybe occupying countries, sending in armed drones and conducting dirty wars in remote lands will create conditions that bring the war back to the United States.
The Army and the government can’t use the Tillmans like they use the Boston Marathon for the simple reason that the Tillmans refuse to be used. That’s also what makes the Tillman anniversary so difficult for the mainstream media, the armed forces and the NFL to commemorate. By continuing to search for the truth, by refusing to let Pat be turned into a prop for war, the Tillmans have no value to those who benefit politically or economically from this era of endless war. For the rest of us, however, the Tillmans are invaluable. They deserve something the US Congress, the NFL and the mainstream media have refused to give them over the last decade: our unconditional solidarity and support as they search for the truth.
Read Next: Why is Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald playing the union buster?
The first thing you have to understand are the power dynamics that exist inside of a college football locker room. The football coach is Zeus, God of Thunder. He—and it is always he—does not just determine your playing time, your media exposure and your overall status in the group. He also determines whether or not your scholarship will last past the year. You go to school at his pleasure. In the best-case scenarios you are gifted a benevolent despot. In the worst, he never lets you forget the power he holds over your head.
Enter Pat Fitzgerald, the esteemed coach of the Northwestern football team. The former star Wildcats player has led his team to a 55-46 record during his time in charge. Fitzgerald has played the role of school ambassador, rainmaker and recruiter. His team wins and his players graduate. Now, however, he is playing another role, that of union buster. Northwestern Wildcat football players are due to vote on April 25 about whether to formally unionize, following the earthshaking National Labor Relations Board ruling that stated they were in fact not student-athletes but employees at the school, and Fitzgerald is on a full-court press to prevent that from happening. Although it is against the law for him and his staff to openly threaten players who want to vote union, Fitzgerald is lobbying hard to make sure that a no-vote takes place in two weeks.
As he said publicly, “I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no. With the research that I’ve done, I’m going to stick to the facts and I’m going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that. We’ll give them all the resources they need to get the facts.” [my emphasis]
It is unclear what “facts” Fitzgerald is trafficking in, but one wonders if included in his antiunion truth kit is the fact that Fitzgerald is the school’s highest-paid employee, with a salary of $2.2 million per year. He is the first sports coach to ever be the highest-paid employee in school history. Another fact is that Fitzgerald received a $2.5 million loan from the school upon signing his last contract. The players, meanwhile, are asking for a seat at the table and an extension of health and educational guarantees. Even if they vote yes, there will be years of appeals. In fact, Northwestern filed suit on Friday, to appeal the original NLRB ruling. Yet despite all of this, it is too much for the ball coach to abide.
Why is Fitzgerald, a former player, pushing back so hard against the efforts to unionize? Is it pressure from the NCAA, which sees unionization as a threat, in its own words, to “blow up” its entire operation? Is it those in power on a Northwestern University campus that has been hostile to any kind of on-campus organizing? Is it pressure from well-heeled alumni who are being very public about why the players need to vote no? Does Fitzgerald simply not want to break the time-honored power dynamic in a college locker room of Coach as God? Maybe it is as simple as the words of ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson who said, “Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is now in the position of being an employer whose employees are entitled to vote on whether to unionize.” Like so many bosses, maybe he does not want his workers to have a seat at the table. Clearing the table, maybe, but not a seat.
Whatever the backroom reasons, they are collectively less important than his influence. Since Fitzgerald has started to flex his muscle, a team that almost unanimously signed cards to apply for union membership now has numerous players speaking out publicly against the April 25 vote. Despite this, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who was leading this struggle before his graduation, is confident that April 25 will go their way. I was at an event with Kain Colter at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, last week. He acknowledged that the players are under pressure to vote no, but still felt a strong degree of confidence that the vote would go their way. Colter said, “I think it’s tough when you have some criticism that they’ve got. Some people came down [on the players], hollered, and even people within the Northwestern alumni base. That’s obviously tough, but I think they are strong and they still believe in the issue.” Colter believes, with unblinking self-assurance that the basic message they carried will win out over any efforts at intimidation. “I’m very confident,” he said. “All it boils down to is do you want to vote for having rights or not.”
Whether or not the Northwestern football team votes “yes,” this issue is not going anywhere. The NLRB has still cleared the way to organize at other private universities. As Ned Resnikoff reported, state legislatures are at work trying to either make this ruling apply to public universities (Connecticut) or block its extension (Ohio). The issue is not going anywhere because the system itself is manifestly unjust, and Northwestern’s efforts to strangle this movement in the crib will fail. Pat Fitzgerald is a fine coach. He should stick to coaching and get out of the union-busting business.
Read Next: Dave Zirin talks sports mascots with members of Idle No More.
Idle No More is an indigenous persons– or First Nations–led movement that has had an electric effect on indigenous activism throughout North America. Emerging into public consciousness in Canada in December 2012, Idle No More has become a touchstone for a host of indigenous-led movements ranging from economic and ecological justice to the battle to stop the mascoting of First Nation’s people. I interviewed Idle No More members Alexandria Wilson and Erica Lee about their thoughts on mascoting and why they see it as a connected part of their struggle. Dr. Alexandria Wilson is a Cree and the professor and director of the Aboriginal Education Research Center at the University of Saskatchewan. Erica Lee, who is also Cree, is an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Saskatchewan. Ms. Lee recently led a successful movement to change the name and logo of her high school team, the Bedford Road Redmen, in Saskatoon, Canada.
Dave Zirin: Alex, people who want to keep names like Redmen, Redskins, Indians, Braves—like Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football team—often say, “There are bigger problems in indigenous communities than mascoting. Focus on the real problems and not on sporting events.” How do you respond to that?
Dr. Alexandria Wilson: My response is that all of these things are connected, so when people try to minimize the overall impact of racist caricatures and mascots, what they’re doing is erasing the true history of what happened to indigenous people—not just in North America, but elsewhere in the world as well.
Erica, can you talk about the movement to get the Bedford Road Redmen to change their name?
Erica Lee: I’ve been working on this for the past two and a half to three years now. And before that, when I was a student at Bedford Road, in high school, I was working on it. But I definitely didn’t have the courage or the support structure to be able to change it at that point. We had a good foundation, because back in the 1990s there was a group of First Nations people who tried to change the logo but they felt overwhelmed and couldn’t continue the fight. So, what it is about to me is just continuing, being persistent, showing that we’re not going to go away on this, that we’re not going to forget, that we’ll still stand. I think the folks who are fighting the Washington team name are doing a great job on that.
Erica, What’s the connection between Idle No More—and perhaps you can tell us a bit about what Idle No More is—and what you were able to do at Bedford Road?
EL: Sure, Idle No More is a movement that started here in Canada. And it’s about a fight that started against a few bills that were laid down by the Canadian government which limit the rights and the sovereignty of First Nation’s people in Canada, and do a lot of environmental damage as well. So we started Idle No More to get discussion going and to get resistance going on issues that effect indigenous people. Mascots—like Redmen, like the Washington team—are issues that effect indigenous people. Like [Alex] said, it’s not just a small thing on the side, it’s all part of a bigger narrative.
Alex, let’s bring it back to DC. The latest gambit by the owner of the team, Dan Snyder, was to start something called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charitable foundation. I was just curious, what was your reaction when you heard that this was going to be his response to all of the criticism that he’s been receiving?
AW: I thought that it was kind of juvenile, and once again a way to commercialize our identities. And, honestly, it’s quite ridiculous. And so, rather than making a change that would have some sort of social impact, he’s trying to buy people’s votes, buy people’s public opinion. I think, from a marketing perspective, if he really wants to make money out of this, he could merchandise a new logo and there would be a whole new commercialized aspect. But I think that this is all in line with people who want to erase our stories, and actually just want to erase the visibility of indigenous people in North America.
Erica, you also hear people unfamiliar with the issue ask, “Why are we talking about this Washington football team issue now? Why not five years ago, why not ten years ago?”
EL: I think people forget too is that it’s just recently that this issue has received prominence, but the reality is that we’ve been fighting these things for decades, so it’s not something new. The resistance has always been around, and it’s powerful to know that we now can finally start to make a difference with our voices.
AW: I’d like to add to that too. Suzan Shown Harjo was in a class action suit against the team back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so like Erica said, there’s been resistance going not for just five, ten, twenty years, but hundreds of years on addressing racism towards indigenous peoples. And so, I think one of the significant things that has happened lately is the Idle No More movement, but also its connection to social media. So now we’re able to share information quickly—articles, teach-ins, educational materials that help people understand to put the mascot issue into the larger context of racism. Not only racism, but also sexism and misogyny and hypermasculinity and homophobia and how those are linked too. And I think that’s a really important issue for sports fans, commentators and cultural critics to take into consideration.
Alex, You mentioned misogyny and hypermasculinity. When you speak to indigenous people and you speak about issues of mascoting, do you find it to break on gender lines at all?
AW: I do find in our own indigenous communities, of course the impact of colonization has been internalized, so there is sexism throughout our whole community. That is something that we have to address.
And Erica, when you were working around the high school name, who were the people who sided with you and who didn’t side with you? What alliances were there?
EL: I remember the first time I ever started complaining about this mascot or raising the issue was in high school, grade eleven. And there wasn’t too much backlash from my peers at the time, but actually teachers who really defended the logo and said, “It’s an honor. You should be honored, this is your culture.” And that’s why I backed off, I thought, “Oh, this is an authority figure telling me, then I must be wrong.” And that’s why it’s so frustrating to see so many teachers and educators reinforcing these stereotypes in the minds of young First Nations kids, and students in general at that school and all around the city. It’s the job of educators to encourage critical thought, not to tell them to blindly follow stereotypes of First Nations people. These have real consequences and effects on our everyday lives.
Last question. How can people find out more about Idle No More?
AW: Well we have a website, idlenomore.com or idlenomore.ca. And people can visit that website, and then there are about four hundred and some Facebook pages… So if people just Google ‘Idle No More,’ and there are different regional groups as well. That’s probably the best way to find out information.
Read Next: The UConn Huskies win “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo.”
Congratulations to the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program, which won its fourth championship in the last sixteen years all while holding up a mirror to the most corrupt, amoral entity in American sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). UConn just absolutely nailed a game we could call “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo” in ways that not even NCAA President Mark Emmert’s Dorian Gray, Kentucky coach John Calipari, could have accomplished.
Just look at the boxes the UConn Huskies have checked off, and keep in mind that this is a basketball program being called a “model” now that the team has won twice as many championships as any other school’s over the last two decades. Get out your Nike-swoosh adorned NCAA Bingo cards and let’s have a look at everything UConn tells us about so-called amateur student-athletics.
Have the worst graduation rate of any school in the NCAA tournament, with only 8 percent of their players (one in twelve who enrolled eight years ago) earning a diploma? Check!
Win your title after two years of tournament probation for your school’s abysmal academic efforts? Check!
Have your star player, Shabazz Napier, speak with pride about how probation motivated their efforts and say on national television at the trophy ceremony, with a figurative middle finger aimed at Mark Emmert, “This is what happens when you ban us?” Check!
Also have your star player, the aforementioned Mr. Napier, tell the world that he is so poor, “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities?” Check! (Napier even calls his team “the hungry Huskies,” and it is not clear if he means they are hungry for championships or protein.)
While Shabazz and his teammates starve, have him win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy in front of a crowd of 79,000 people paying $500 a pop for tickets, on a network shelling out $10.8 billion to watch him play? Check!
Have commentators speak repeatedly—with ears made out of the purest tin—about how “underpaid” UConn coach Kevin Ollie is since he “only” makes $1.3 million a year and will “only” receive $166,666 for winning the big game? Have them state with relief that Ollie is now in for a big raise? Check!
Now that UConn has achieved the ultimate NCAA Bingo (plus one for good measure), all you need is for the students at UConn’s Storrs campus to have an impromptu, entitled, alcohol-fueled riot and celebrate their school pride by smashing the windows of their university’s buildings and setting fires. Hey! That happened too! (Do we have to mention how different the Storrs police response would have been if, say, it were the student-athletes themselves smashing windows instead of the overwhelmingly white student fanboys?)
So let us recap: we have a team of majority African-American basketball players not getting an education and not getting paid, but generating millions of dollars for their coach and billions of dollars for the NCAA, CBS and the assorted sponsors. We have a state college suffering budget cuts and tuition hikes, that has been trashed by students thrilled that their team of unpaid mercenaries has brought them a measure of reflected glory. All the evening was missing was a war in the Middle East to get everyone truly good and frothy.
It is difficult to not recall the press conference of NCAA President Mark Emmert over the weekend who spoke out with mottle-faced passion against the mere concept that NCAA athletes should ever form unions. He does not want NCAA student-athletes having any kind of a seat at the table so they can discuss everything that is manifestly and obviously poisonous in the NCAA system of student-athletics. Emmert said that if student athletes were unionized employees, “it would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.” The response to that should be two simple words: “You promise?”
Read Next: Boomer Esiason, Mike Francesa, and toxic masculinity
This is not another shooting-fish-in-a-barrel commentary about the antediluvian swinishness of Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa. This is not another swipe at their comments criticizing the efforts of Mets second basemen Daniel Murphy for missing opening day to be with his wife for the birth of their child. For those who missed it, Esiason opined, “I would have said, ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to, because I’m a baseball player.’”
Fellow troglodytic troll of the NYC sports radio airwaves Mike Francesa commented, “You’re a major league baseball player. You can hire a nurse.” Francesa also called the paternity leave at his own company “a scam-and-a-half.”
I spoke to my friend Martha, who is a midwife—and a Mets fan—about their comments. She said simply, “I would ask if they knew how it sounded, talking about this woman like she is a human incubator to be cut open in a dangerous, often unnecessary surgical procedure so Murphy can make it to Citi Field on time. I would ask that, but honestly, if you can’t see why the asshole-levels on these comments are off the charts, then I can’t help you.”
I also spoke with Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and someone who has devoted his life to challenging the ways in which sports have the capacity to communicate a toxic, destructive brand of masculinity. Ehrmann said, “I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values.”
Ehrmann also pointed out the ways in which these statements create a culture that normalizes the alienation between fathers and children. He said, “Comments like these put every man in a position to think about career and co workers opinions ahead of father/husband/partner roles. So even in companies with paternity leave, many new dads won’t or feel like they can’t take advantage of leave without a stigma being attached to them…. This is one more arena where sports/athletes could be a metaphor for social change and elevate the birth/nurture/fatherhood role and responsibilities over work.”
He then said to me that this kind of sexist mentality not only harms families, not only harms men, but also quite specifically harms athletes. “I’m convinced the number-one common denominator in locker rooms is father-child dysfunction,” he said. “It’s what pathologically elevates many performances. ‘I will prove to [the coach/father figure] I am worthy of my dad’s love and acceptance,’ at the expense of self and others. If any group should understand need for dads in delivery rooms it should be athletes and the athletic world.”
I would also add that the only reason Daniel Murphy even had the option to take this time off is because it was collectively bargained into his contract by his union. There are millions of men in nonunion jobs who don’t even have this option, not to mention millions of women who risk their employment in the United States by taking time off after the birth of their child.
I think there is something else going on as well. The comments from Boomer and Francesa smack of a kind of existential fear from an older generation of sports radio jockeys about the ways in which definitions of masculinity and sports have been rapidly changing. There have been two dominant kinds of masculine archetypes for the last thirty years in sports. Either you could be heterosexual, misogynist, talking loudly but saying nothing with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand; or you could be a heterosexual evangelical Christian, talking humbly with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand. Those who strayed outside of these norms have only done so with considerable risk to their standing in the media or even their job.
But in the last two years, these archetypes have changed. We have seen players such as Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam break new ground as gay athletes. We have seen Royce White and Brandon Marshall speak out about their mental health challenges and show that this kind of openness does not demonstrate weakness but courage. We have a new cultural consensus that does not see concussions as a bizarre badge of honor but a danger sign. We’ve had Jonathan Martin go public about being bullied by teammates, forcing the NFL to confront long-standing locker-room behaviors. Poisonous, narrow definitions of masculinity are being challenged. A player’s missing opening day to be with his wife on the birth of their child clearly caused Boomer’s and Francesa’s brains to rupture. Their idealized sports world as a masculinist cocoon absent of progress and insulated from the real world, where every day is 1985 (or even 1955), is withering before their eyes. People are deciding that ruining your life and your relationship with family in the name of a code that impresses the Mike Francesas of the world isn’t worth it. This is progress, but as in any time when we see progressive healthy change, the hounds of reaction will still nip at its heels.
Read Next: Richard Sherman defends his dirt.
The NFL traffics in rank hypocrisy often without consequence. Profess concern about head injuries, while demanding an eighteen-game season? Decry racial slurs while profiting off of a team called the Redskins? Say you are role models while ignoring domestic violence? Profit from publicly funded stadiums while maintaining nonprofit status? This is Roger Goodell's shield and you can smell the rot from outer space.
Stepping into this moral vacuum we have Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman is more than a breath of fresh air. He's oxygen in a moral corpse.
After spending Super Bowl week compelling the media to recognize what they are actually saying when they call young black athletes "thugs," Sherman called out a different hypocrisy. Even better, he did it for a friend.
The NFL world roiled last week when Philadelphia Eagles star wide receiver DeSean Jackson was abruptly released. News then leaked that a reason was that Jackson had "gang ties." It is unclear whether this was whispered by the Eagles to justify the cost-cutting move, but there was definitely a whiff of something that did not sit right. The cutting of Jackson and subsequent leaking of the "gang ties" accusation also happened after Eagles re-signed their N-bomb dropping wide receiver Riley Cooper.
In normal NFL times, acts of hypocrisy such as this go unchecked. But DeSean Jackson grew up in South Central Los Angeles with Richard Sherman. In Sherman's words, "we come from the same dirt" and he felt compelled to write a response to all the rumors.
Sherman's piece in Sports Illustrated about DeSean Jackson should be read in its entirety but here is the core of his argument. He writes:
I’m not going to tell you that DeSean Jackson isn’t in a gang, because I can’t say unequivocally that he isn’t.... I can only tell you that I believe him to be a good person, and if you think, say or write otherwise without knowing the man, you’re in the wrong. And if it’s true the Eagles terminated his contract in part because they grew afraid of his alleged 'gang ties,' then they did something worse.... But go ahead and judge DeSean for the company he keeps. While you’re at it, judge me, too, because I still live in Los Angeles, and my family does, too. We didn’t run from where we grew up.
He then commented directly on Riley Cooper writing:
"This offseason [the Eagles] re-signed a player who was caught on video screaming, 'I will fight every n— here.' He was representing the Philadelphia Eagles when he said it, because, of course, everything we do is reflective of the organization. But what did they do to Riley Cooper, who, if he’s not a racist, at least has 'ties' to racist activity? They fined him and sent him to counseling. No suspension necessary for Cooper and no punishment from the NFL, despite its new interest in policing our use of the N-word on the field. Riley instead got a few days off from training camp and a nice contract in the offseason, too."
Altogether it is a remarkable statement about the double standards of race and class that stain the league. It stands as a rebuke to the relentless, unending stigmas young black men endure based upon not only how they look but where they are from.
Sherman's article also speaks to an NFL that alternates between protecting or demonizing its own players, depending upon the financial imperatives of the moment. (The Washington football team, in need of a receiver, wasted no time in scooping Jackson up.)
As for Richard Sherman, he is something we have not seen in a long time: an athlete who is perilous to his own paymasters. What makes him dangerous is that he is both untouchable as an athlete and merciless as a critic.
I think I started thinking Richard Sherman was truly special when a reporter compared him to Muhammed Ali and he would not hear it.
He said, “It’s very humbling to be compared to Muhammad Ali because...he had to really stand his ground and almost go to jail because he wanted to stand up for what he believed in. So I think his situation was a lot more brave and a lot more serious than my situation is now, obviously, and he had to deal with a lot more scrutiny and just headache and criticism."
Richard Sherman is now officially risking more than just "headache and criticism." We have had more than a few athletes over the last thirty years who refused to "know their place." But we've had few who also knew their history. That's what makes Richard Sherman so dangerous to the NFL and that's also what makes him so valuable to the rest of us. By defending his dirt, Sherman shows how much the league acts in a manner that can only be described as dirty.
Read Next: Dan Snyder's anti-public relations and #CancelColbert.
Did the “#CancelColbert” hashtag and subsequent uproar really, as so many are saying, let Washington football team owner Dan Snyder off the hook? Did protesting Stephen Colbert’s at best tired use of anti-Asian satire really take all the focus off of Dan Snyder’s wildly offensive “Washington Redskins for Original Americans” foundation, and thereby do him a colossal favor?
So many are saying “yes” to this that it seems to be becoming a self-evident fact, but to really answer this question, you need to know something about Dan Snyder. One of the great curiosities throughout the Washington DC area is Snyder’s wealth. The official word is that he made his fortune through “communications” yet it strains one’s mental faculties to think of someone who has ever been worse at communicating to the public than Dan Snyder. We all have our favorite Snyder gaffes, all mercifully catalogued by Dave McKenna, although nothing can match his aggressive and ill-fated effort to sue the Washington City Paper, ironically spurred by his belief that the City Paper’s cover presented him as a Jewish caricature. Yes, the owner of the Redskins attempted to drive a publication out of business for what he believed was a culturally insensitive cartoon. Snyder’s gaffes are impressive in their variety, yet most of them arise through his ham-handed, meat-fisted attempts to defend the use of “Redskins” as something other than a racist caricature.
There was the time he sent a public letter to fans stating that the “Red Cloud Athletic Fund helped design the team logo in 1971” only to have it revealed that this was a lie and the Red Cloud Indian School was virulently opposed to the name.
There was the time his minions, including hall of fame coach Joe Gibbs, promoted ESPN columnist Rick Reilly's article about Reilly’s Native American father-in-law's love of the name. His Native American father-in-law later said that he not only opposed the name and not only had Reilly misquoted him, but his dear son-in-law had refused to make a correction. There was the time the team aggressivly promoted the endorsement of Chief Dodson, “a full-blooded American Inuit chief” who loved the name and said, “We don’t have a problem with [the name] at all; in fact we’re honored. We’re quite honored…. When we were on the reservation, we would call each other, ‘Hey, what’s up redskin?’ We would nickname it just ‘skins.’” It turned out, as Dave McKenna wrote, Dodson was “not a chief, and probably not an Indian.”
The latest gambit, and the target of Colbert’s skit, was Dan Snyder's roundly mocked, roundly criticized, roundly disparaged new nonprofit organization called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. It has already been mercilessly torn to shreds by both Native American leaders as well as mainstream media. Carly Hare, a Pawnee/Yankton and the executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy described it as, “Poverty Porn meets White Privilege in taking Cultural Appropriations to a whole 'nother level.”
That was the good news for Snyder. Days after the announcement, it was revealed that the man Dan Snyder trusted to run his foundation, Gary Edwards, should not be trusted with much of anything. According to a 2012 report from the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior, Gary Edwards’s nonprofit, the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, was charged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the recruitment of 500 Native Americans for police and security training. He succeeded in recruiting none, despite spending one million dollars to do so.
Their assessment of Gary Edwards is brutal. These reports are usually couched in legalese, but this says bluntly that Gary Edwards’s NNALEA "took advantage" of the Bureau and they received "no benefit" from their efforts. (Read the full report here. Or read Aura Bogado at Colorlines for some more damning statements from the report.)
We at The Nation contacted Tony Wyllie, the PR director of the team. He just sent back a curt quote from Gary Edwards that read, “NNALEA believes it met and exceeded all of its obligations under the contract with the bureau of Indian affairs, office of justice services and subsequently was paid after the contract was completed.” Remember, Edwards did not supply one acceptable applicant.
This latest gaffe only further shows that exposure is no friend to Dan Snyder. When Stephen Colbert mocked Snyder’s foundation using racist satire, and Suey Park started her #CancelColbert campaign in response after seeing Colbert’s disembodied, decontextualized tweet, a great many people slammed Park for directing people away from the issue of mascoting and toward her own issues/selfpromotion/ethnicity.
Let’s forget for a moment the smug Colbert fans (and there is no “smug” quite like the “smug” of a Colbert fan explaining satire), who were enraged that Park challenged whether their liberalism insulated themselves or Colbert from criticism. I’m more focused on the dedicated Native American activists who are angered that #CancelColbert “let Snyder off the hook.” The brilliant Jacqueline Keeler, a writer and activist of Navajo and Yankton Dakota descent, wrote, “Native people are messaging me that they feel their work has been co-opted. 90,000 [people] go to stadiums EVERY SUNDAY in redface—how much hashtag trending would that equal in #CancelColbert terms? If our allies did that much twittering for us as they do for a satirical skit, redface would be banned from stadiums tomorrow.”
Keeler is of course correct and it is difficult to not sympathize with her critique. It is also true that if everyone defending Colbert as a genius satirist of n racist name took a minute to email the NFL, we could get the name changed. But I also believe that politically, #CancelColbert brought more of Dan Snyder into the spotlight, onto news stations, and into magazines—like The New Yorker (brilliant piece by Jay Caspian Kang) and The Wall Street Journal—where discussion of his racist branding are not normally found. We can see clearly from the record that attention does Dan Snyder no favors I know for a fact that both the team and the NFL have had to deal with phone calls and queries from a new set of reporters asking them for comment about the entire situation.
Sunlight is not Dan Snyder’s friend. In fact, it is the greatest disinfectant to everything rancid he has brought to the public discourse about Native American rights. Every bit of publicity that gets showered on the reality that we have a team branded with a racial slur chips away at Daniel Snyder's authority. If you think the NFL wants one of their brands at the heart of the story-of-the-moment, as well as a national discussion about whether or not “Redskins is as racist, more racist, or less racist, than an anti-Asian slur," then you do not know the NFL. Dan Snyder is on the clock to change his name. In my view, the more the NFL hears that clock tick, the better.
Read Next: Stephen responds to #CancelColbert—after Jon launches #CancelStewart
In traveling to Brazil to write a book about Brazil and the 2014 World Cup, I learned one thing if nothing else: a favela is not a slum. That is why the weekend’s Associated Press breaking news about major military incursions into the Rio favelas set off a carnival of alarm bells. The AP headline reads, "BRAZIL POLICE PUSH INTO RIO DE JANEIRO SLUMS." The actual deployment of 1,400 heavily armed police and Brazilian marines was into Rio’s Maré favela, home of 130,000 people.
The word “slums” conjures images of places that demand this kind of militarized presence, often in the minds of people who have never actually spent time in these communities. Yet, again, favelas are not slums. As written on the website of the Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities:
According to the UN-HABITAT definition, a slum is a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing, squalor and lacking in tenure security. This description doesn’t apply to the vast majority of favelas in Rio: the primarily brick and cement houses are built well and to last; conditions are not squalid, with running water, electricity, garbage collection and Internet access, though of low quality, reaching the majority of homes… The word ‘slum’ originated from the Irish phrase ‘S lom é’ meaning ‘it is a bleak or destitute place,’ and it is this meaning that it carries forth until today. Anyone who has visited a favela can attest that they are for the most part vibrant places that buzz with life and activity.
When I was in Brazil, speaking with residents in the favelas as well as community organizations, they convinced me that the World Cup and Olympics were being used as a pretext to depopulate and then develop the valuable land where the favelas sit. There is a real estate speculative boom taking place in Rio, and only so much land. Once unheard of, Rio’s wealthy are now looking at the hillside favelas and see the future of residential and commercial development. This is particularly true of areas that could be parking lots, athletic facilities or security zones for 2016 Olympic construction. The problem is the pesky people who happen to live there. Characterizing favelas as slums aids the depopulation effort. Characterizing them as festering dens of criminality aids that effort as well. Raising concerns about the World Cup provides the final justification.
None of this is to romanticize the very real poverty, crime and challenges that do exist in the favelas. Yet it is difficult to grasp how military occupation helps improve these problems or further stabilize these communities. In other words, we have another war on poverty that looks more like a war on the poor.
I spoke with Christopher Gaffney, Rio activist and former professional soccer player, who said, “The continued expansion of Rio's ‘pacification’ program in strategic areas pertaining to Rio de Janeiro's tourist, sports and transportation infrastructure has the look and feel of a counterinsurgency. While there are undeniable benefits to expelling armed drug traffickers from low-income communities, the military occupation has not been accompanied by equivalent investments in other necessary infrastructures. A military police can only treat citizens as potential enemy combatants. The World Cup and Olympics are doubling down on this model, which has tremendous human costs that are borne by those least prepared to bear them.”
Those “bearing the costs” are, ideally for developers, then compelled to leave in an act of "self-deportation." Think of it as USA-style gentrification, except instead of being propelled by Stop and Frisk police tactics, rising rents and artisanal brunch spots, it’s just done by the marines. And for all the talk that this is an "effort to push out heavily armed drug gangs," the people in the favelas have also regularly been subject to routine and indiscriminate police violence.
Theresa Williamson, the director of Catalytic Communities also pointed out to me the article’s description of the favela as a "treeless, flat area of about 2 square miles" is made by the Associated Press without any kind of reflection whatsoever. "They don't ask why an area of 2 square miles with 130,000 people has no trees? All of the areas historically denied services by the city also are bare treeless spaces. The urban heat island effect in these communities is intense, with temperatures well above the wealthy tree-filled parts of the city."
Then there was the site of the raid itself: Maré. All you would know from the piece is that Maré is “a complex of 15 slums.” Maré may be the most politically active of all of Rio’s favelas, with, according to Catalytic Communities, “more than 100 community organizations and NGOs.” Last June, after a deadly BOPE (Brazilian special forces police) raid into Maré, a series of protests and creative civil actions took place. This is not a community that will stand by silently.
In other words, this battle for Rio is far from over. Remember when you see protests at the 2014 World Cup, it is happening because Brazil's government, in conjunction with FIFA, has chosen to turn a soccer tournament into a real estate land grab. They have done this without regard for the people who happen to be living on the land. There is an absence of justice for those in the favelas. Because of this, it is hard to imagine how, during the World Cup, there will be peace.
Read Next: The Northwestern University football union and the NCAA's death spiral.