Where sports and politics collide.
Oday Aboushi and his family. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
A stunning tweet just came across the wires from Major League Baseball’s recently hired “new media coordinator” Jonathan Mael. It reads, “The @nyjets are a disgrace of an organization. The Patriots have Aaron Hernandez, the Jets have Oday Aboushi.” (Mael has since deleted his account, making him a rather ineffectual “new media coordinator”.)
Aaron Hernandez is, of course, the former star tight end now on trial for premeditated murder. So who is Oday Aboushi? He’s a Brooklyn-born fifth-round rookie lineman from the University of Virginia. His crime, in the eyes of Mael, is being of Palestinian heritage as well as having the temerity to discuss what a life of dispossession this has meant to him and his extended family.
This ugly line of thought exists on a plane beyond tweets. In a stunningly unprincipled piece on Yahoo! Sports, a writer named Adam Waksman wrote this week that Aboushi was involved in “anti-Semitic activism” and asked whether he should be drummed out of the league. Waksman compared Aboushi with those who traffic in “anti-gay, anti-black, anti-immigrant, sexist [speech]” and asks, “Does the NFL want its image associated with prejudice, violence or fundamentalism on any level?”
Aboushi is not quoted once in this entire piece. He is just Waksman’s silent, hulking brown mannequin. Instead, the main source Waksman draws upon for proof of his “anti-Semitic activism” is Front Page Magazine. For the uninitiated, this is the creation of David Horowitz, the hard-right-wing minstrel best known for taking out ads in college newspapers arguing that people of African descent should thank Europeans for slavery. Front Page—which bills itself as “fighting the war at home and abroad”—is a one-stop shop for anyone seeking articles cheering on George Zimmerman or catching up on the most frightening anti-Arab rhetoric in Israeli politics. Quoting it for source material on Palestinian activism is like choosing to learn about the environmental rights movement by reading an Exxon/Mobil newsletter.
Front Page says that Aboushi’s “crime” was speaking at the annual convention of the El-Bireh Palestine Society. Waksman quotes Front Page as describing their convention as “a conference run by an organization which denies Israel’s existence and associates with those involved in violence against her citizens.” Waksman cites Front Page as a legitimate authority on El-Bireh even though he concedes deeper in the article that they “should not be viewed as an entirely objective source of information”, writing, “In the end, nothing in the…piece is sufficient proof of much except for activism of a general sort.”
Ah, good to know. Waksman doesn’t include that the organization at whose convention Aboushi spoke simply does not have the politics Front Page describes. The conference was a decidedly mainstream affair held at the Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Speakers included United States Congressman Nick Rahall and Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras director Emad Burnat. El-Bireh’s symbol is an American and Palestinian flag side-by-side, with the Stars and Stripes elevated above the Palestinian flag, and it is currently preparing, according to its website, for its Saturday dinner cruise. Someone call Homeland Security.
Waksman proceeds to discredit his own article further by revealing that Front Page’s exposé of Aboushi confused IR (Islamic Relief), a legitimate charity Aboushi supports, with IRRO (International Islamic Relief Organization), which Waksman—once again without links or evidence—describes as “the one that is believed to be a front for terrorism.”
None of this stops Waksman from ending his piece with the following statement: “If [Aboushi] chooses to make politics and anti-Semitism his calling card, it will negatively affect the Jets, the NFL and all the kids who look up to Aboushi as a role model.”
Yes, Waksman wants to know whether Aboushi will think of the children. Just not the ones living in terror on the Gaza Strip. Once convinced that I was reading a real article and not an Onion-esque exercise in self-parody, it became clear what this was about.
Waksman is using Aboushi as a straw man to argue that any narrative from a Palestinian that’s critical of Israel is anti-Semitic, terrorist, and grounds to be hounded out of the NFL. I’m not an NFL player, but as a non-terrorist who happens to be a Jew, let me say that this is hogwash. It’s yellow journalism without any of the flair. Instead of Waksman asking why Aboushi deserves to be employed by the Jets, I think we should ask Yahoo! why they would publish a piece that accuses an NFL player of anti-Semitism without one solitary quote or piece of actual evidence. This is worse than your typical “keep your politics out of my sports” hit piece. It’s slander.
Bob Dreyfuss calls out those who believe playing the anti-Semitism card means that you can play with the facts.
Democratic Senators Wendy Davis and Kirk Watson lead a rally before start of the special session. (Reuters/Mike Stone)
In the category of sentences I never thought I’d write, there is this: When it comes to a thrilling televised spectacle nothing beats sports, except perhaps a filibuster in the Texas state senate.
Like thousands of others, I was riveted to the live feed of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster aimed at keeping her colleagues from destroying women’s reproductive health in the state. I was frankly in awe of her marathon eloquence, physical endurance and cool head. She did it all while simultaneously having to explain Sex Education 101 to a room of ham-faced men who were taking an infuriating pride in their own ignorance.
Then with several hundred thousand others watching on the live feed, I careened from awe to depression to elation over the next hour. First, Wendy Davis was removed from the floor on specious grounds. It looked to all of us that this awful vote was going to be pushed through just before the midnight deadline. Then it was stopped at 11:45 pm by what will now be known forever as “the People’s Filibuster.”
For fifteen minutes the spirit of Molly Ivins came alive and the kickass women of Texas—along with their male allies—raised their voices and prevented a travesty. As the clock ticked toward midnight, and the smug, anti-choice men of the Texas State Senate developed a deathly pallor, we started to count down like it was New Year’s Eve. On Twitter, even the normally apolitical sports bloggers I follow were zeroed in like it was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Now the fight begins anew on July 15 as the Republican Senate again attempts to ram through the closure of most of the states clinics that perform abortions, and a mass march has been called that very day to protest their cowardly efforts. There is also a call for local demonstrations in cities across the country in solidarity with the reproductive rights community of Texas. In honor of this effort, I wanted to turn over my space to one of those kickass Texas women who seized the moment in June so she could take us inside “the People’s Filibuster” and talk about what’s next. I give you Katie Feyh.
It was like a wall of sound. I’ve never heard anything so loud in my life, or so powerful. I thought we might blow the doors off the Senate chamber. Throughout the day and night we had been quieted by Senate decorum rules and the caution of groups who understandably wanted to maintain a presence in the Senate gallery. But coming up on midnight we realized we had nothing left to lose. So we made noise. Lots of noise. I was up on the third floor of the rotunda just outside the Senate gallery. My friends were spread out on the first and second floors as well. We were all packed in tight, sweating from the heat, when the crowd began to roar. Before long, our ears rang with thousands of Texas women yelling, “Kill the bill!” and “Our bodies! Our choice!” The groups that had been holding back joined in and called for more. They, too, knew we had nothing left to lose.
We left the Capitol unsure of the fate of the bill. But when we got word that SB5 was effectively dead, it was a joyful moment. We’re used to defeat after defeat in Texas politics. The People’s Filibuster was a rare and beautiful victory, won both inside and outside the Senate chamber. We had the feeling that Texas women and allies had the power to change the course of politics.Our victory was short-lived, as Governor Rick Perry called a second special session, determined to shove anti-abortion legislation through, even though a majority of Texans oppose it. Using rapist logic, he said, “The louder they scream, the more we know we are getting something done.”
This past week has been exciting. A Democratic Party–led rally on July 1 drew nearly 10,000 to the Capitol—again, a rarity in Texas politics—followed by a 2,000-strong activist march. On July 2, when we went to testify against HB2 (an omnibus bill in the House similar to SB5), hundreds surrounded an anti-choice rally, chanting, “Our bodies! Our lives! Our right to decide!” Testimony was cut off by the House State Affairs Committee with over 1,000 voices left unheard. The House originally reported 2,181 in support of the bill and 1,355 against, but those numbers were reversed. Decked out in orange, pro-choice forces far outnumbered anti-choicers that day and every day at the Capitol so far.
This week the Texas Senate will hear testimony on SB1, the successor to SB5. HB2, an identical bill, has passed out of committee and is on its way back to the House for floor debate. Given the dynamics of the special session, it is possible that these anti-choice bills will be rammed down our throats before long. But we are determined and prepared to keep on fighting. A number of organizations, from Planned Parenthood and NARAL to the International Socialist Organization, GetEqual and Occupy Austin, have been working hard inside and outside the walls of the Capitol to keep up momentum in opposition to this legislation. Anti-choice forces are mobilizing as well, but so many are coming from out of state. Our opposition is homegrown, and it is loud.
With the legislative process so stacked against us we need to look outside the Capitol to find activists and allies to keep the struggle going. We need to build a movement not only to fight these bills but to win back so much of what we’ve lost over the years of legislators chipping away at women’s right to control our own bodies. I’ll be protesting on July 15 to show that we do have a pro-choice majority deep in the heart of Texas. I’ll be protesting because I want to join with other activists to rebuild a fighting abortion rights movement here and across the country. I’ll be protesting to show that, even if we lose the battle over these bills, Texas women have awakened, and we’re determined to win the war.
If anyone wants to contact Katie Feyh about interviews or upcoming actions, she can be reached at email@example.com.
Jessica Valenti wonders if we are looking at the future of pro-choice activism.
Imagine anyone saying, “Boston Red Sox fans have proven invaluable to the mass, revolutionary struggle in the United States.” I can’t either. But that just speaks to how historically remarkable the Egyptian ultra fan clubs have been over the last two and a half years.
In Egypt’s recent era of popular upheaval, the hyper-intense soccer fans known as the ultras have played a critically important role that’s both practical and political. Practically, their experience in how to effectively fight the brutal Egyptian police proved invaluable to the initial 2011 securing of Tahrir Square as well as in subsequent demonstrations. Politically, the ultras have been a consistent force of resistance no matter who has held the seat of Egyptian power. They opposed President-for-life Hosni Mubarak; they opposed the first military interregnum; and then they opposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. The ultras could never be pacified because their political compass has always been directed to one central question: whether the state police and military will be held accountable for repressive violence against the people of Egypt. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had harsh words for the post-Mubarak military leadership when seventy-four Ultras were killed at the infamous Port Said soccer match, due to conscious police neglect. But when the MB did nothing to get justice for the “Port Said martyrs” upon assuming power, ultra opposition to Morsi was set in stone.
Now that the hated military is back in charge, one might assume that the ultras’ fierce brand of resistance will also be back. But not everyone believes this will be the case. At the invaluable news and analysis website Jadaliyya in an June 30, 2013, article titled ‘Egypt’s Ultras: No More Politics,’ Mohamed Elgohari writes that “the Egyptian Ultras groups, as collective bodies, will no longer become involved in Egypt’s ongoing political conflicts.”
He also argues, “Politics, by definition, implies compromises, variations in opinion and behavior, and perhaps fundamental divisions… engaging in politics instead, weakened these groups’ internal ties…. A collective political role for the ultras groups in the future is unlikely to be repeated unless there appears another immediate threat to their identity akin to the events of Port Said. The ultras groups’ identity simply cannot survive outside the stadium.”
Sure enough, the prominent Ultras Ahlawy group issued a statement that they from this point forward will have “nothing to do with politics.” The group says quite plainly that they will “not to get involved in politics again after realizing that the opposition doesn’t care about the country but simply aims to rule.”
I believe that Elgohari makes some very pertinent points, but people—particularly the military rulers in Egypt—would be wildly underestimating the ultras if they think they’ll sit out this next stage of the revolution.
First and foremost, as James Dorsey has pointed out, the statement by the ultras about “not getting involved in politics” is almost identical to one they issued in January of 2011, just days before they exploded onto the international scene in the battle to depose Mubarak. These kinds of statements are aimed to protect both their fan clubs and their individual members from being targeted by the state or by employers. The belief is that if they “officially” reject politics, then it allows them to avoid political repression. It has to be said that this may have worked in January 2011, but no one in their right mind would ever associate being an ultra with an apolitical pose at any time in the near future. The role of soccer fan clubs in Turkey and even at the demonstrations in Brazil, all of which paid tribute to the Egyptian trailblazers, only further consecrated their reputation as less soccer fan clubs driven to protest than basically political street fighters who just really really love soccer.
Secondly, the ultras aren’t a normal political entity that’s vertically structured and organized around a set of political principles. Everything flows more organically from the slogan of ultra groups worldwide, “ACAB” or “All Cops are Bastards.” In non-revolutionary times, that means they take to the streets and fight the police after a match, hooligan-style, in actions of frustrated release from the drudgery of daily life. But in times of upheaval, they grasp this “ACAB” principle and apply it to the situation at hand. In the Egyptian context, that means they arrive at the protest site, identify each other by scarves, shirts or signs, and quickly set about securing a given area from police violence.
What next, however, from these fans who fan the flames? They have been in the streets during the mass demonstrations that led to this week’s coup, often as a very welcome force protecting artists, dancers and singers doing street performances for mass audiences. Their hatred of the military also means, I believe, that they will be in the streets again in the days and weeks ahead. The ultras may celebrate with the best of them, but they won’t rest until the Egyptian military and police are held to account. That makes them extremely vital to this process and in the eyes of the state, quite dangerous. No one should be surprised if they are targeted ruthlessly by the military government in the weeks to come. The ultras have been there for the revolution. The revolution is going to need to be there for the ultras, if this dynamic process is going to move forward.
Aaron Hernandez. (Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall)
Crime hysteria is as American as genetically modified apple pie. Whatever the rates of violent street crime in society, the existential threat of the black/brown youth predator can always be counted upon to repulse and titillate both the mass media and the popular consciousness.* The other all-consuming National Pastime centered on gawking at the black body in a spectrum of violence is the National Football League. Put these two together—crime hysteria and the NFL—and we have what can only be described as a cultural nocturnal emission.
Much ink has been spilled about the twenty-nine—yes twenty-nine (!)—NFL players who have been arrested since the Super Bowl. At the center of all the coverage is former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, accused of the premeditated execution of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. The details surrounding Lloyd’s murder get more ghastly by the day, but putting Hernandez’s photo at the center of a collage of the other twenty-eight arrested players makes it seem like there is some kind of violent, to quote one site, “NFL Crime Wave.” There is another serious case this off season of undrafted Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott who was arrested for attempted murder last Wednesday after punching a man outside of a New Jersey club. Outside of that, most of these twenty-nine arrests revolve around domestic disputes, marijuana possession, driving while intoxicated and even “drag racing.” I don’t want to make light about any of these issues (Except for the weed. I shall happily make light of that.) But attempts to create connective tissue between these incredibly disparate cases reeks of a highly racialized hysteria. You don’t have to be Cornel West to see the racial coding in articles like this one by Mark Madden that reads, “The Aaron Hernandez saga is hardly an isolated incident. It’s the latest chapter in pro football’s shameful litany. Gangsta culture perpetrating gangsta acts.”** Then there is NFL Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton on Fox & Friends, babbling, “We cannot let thugs and criminals into the locker room!”
All concerned should put down the smelling salts, stick the fainting couch back in the closet and deal with reality. First of all, there is no “NFL crime wave.” The twenty-nine players, some who were not even on active rosters, constitute around 1 percent of all players vying for NFL roster spots. Also, in a study last December by Stephen Bronars, “NFL players are arrested about one-fourth as often as men age 22 to 34 in the general population…. The arrest rate for NFL players has averaged about 2.9% compared to 10.8% for men age 22 to 34 (based on FBI crime data by age for men in 2009).”
But let’s go deeper and talk more about this “nightmare” off-season. Most revolve around NFL players getting pulled over in their high-end automobiles and officers finding some form of contraband. They are getting caught in the gap between the privileges they believe will come with pro football fame and an increasingly all-encompassing criminal justice system that targets and warehouses masses of black and brown people at alarming rates.***
The criminal justice system has changed, but the mentality of NFL jocks simply hasn’t caught up. If you hear stories about the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, players were always just an autograph and a wink from having a police officer look the other way. Today we live in a surveillance society where there are speed cameras on every street, drug and gun-sniffing dogs at major train stations, and mandatory sentencing guidelines and a voracious for-profit prison industry. We are also living in the age of racial profiling where if you are a person of color and in a fancy car, you will draw more attention than Tim Tebow at the San Francisco Pride parade. Even without the fancy car, police harassment follows black and brown bodies in numbers unimaginable in those pre-9/11 days when we were all indignant about racial profiling for about an hour and a half. To take one example, n 2002, according to the ACLU, the police stopped New Yorkers 97,296 times; 80,176 were immediately released (82 percent). In 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 532,911 times and in 473,644 cases were let go right away. In 87 percent of these cases, they were black or Latino.
Maybe what’s happening to NFL players is best understood as collateral damage of a US society addicted to arrests and a player’s culture where they expect privileges that no longer exist. This country jails more people than any nation on earth. We shouldn’t be surprised that NFL players have been caught in the undertow.
NBA Homophobia Wave? Not Quite. But anti-gay bigotry is certainly alive and well on hardwood.
* The mere fact that George Zimmerman’s defense of “I feared for my life, as I stalked this teenager with my gun” isn’t being laughed out of court is just more evidence of this.
** Let’s agree, internets, that unless your spellcheck is broken no more spelling gangster with an “a.”
*** What’s so fascinating about Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is not just it’s content, but the way it has connected with the experiences of millions of people across the country.
Eduardo Galeano. (Courtesy of Flickr user Mariela De Marchi Moyano)
For decades, Eduardo Galeano has been our deliriously lyrical poet of resistance to empire in Latin America—part Salvador Allende and part Isabel Allende. Galeano’s work and wisdom are indispensable to anyone attempting to understand the diverse culture and even more diverse methods of protest on the continent. Of all his writings, my favorite Galeano book might be Soccer in Sun and Shadow, where he examines the history of Latin America through the lens of its obsession with soccer. His insights are so piercing, his love of the sport so absolute, and his hatred of those who would use the beautiful game as a tool of oppression so intense, it was difficult to not think about the old master as protests have raged in the streets of Brazil. “What would Galeano say?” enters my mind every time I attempt to get my head around the dizzying dynamics of a country engulfed in its largest protests in a generation, with World Cup spending at the center of popular discontent. Well, now we know. As reported on the website of The Nation Institute, Galeano has spoken. Here is what he has to say.
As far as I’m concerned, the explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified. In its thirst for justice, it is similar to other demonstrations that in recent years have shaken many countries in many parts of the world. Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”
That second to last sentence—“The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it”—is one we shouldn’t forget. You see it in the streets, favelas, and beaches of Brazil, where soccer hasn’t stopped just because the season of protests has started. You see it in the great Brazilian players like Neymar and Hulk who have supported the protests. You see it in the calls by demonstrators for “FIFA quality hospitals and schools.
The people in the streets of Brazil are giving the world a lesson in sports sociology by making plain that the target is FIFA, not the beautiful game itself. They are telling us that one needs to be rejected, the other reclaimed. This Sunday, everyone should pay extremely close attention, as we will see massive protests outside of legendary Maracana Stadium in Rio during the Confederations Cup finals. We will also almost certainly see a brutal police response. As Galeano says, “The explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified.” We will see if the explosion is able to catch fire in the months to come, as the World Cup lurks in 2014.
Marina Amaral and Natalia Viana write about why it isn’t just economic justice that is fueling protests in Brazil.
Brazilians hold a demonstration with a banner that reads, “My party is my country,” in Sao Paulo June 22, 2013. (Reuters/Junior Lago)
Sepp Blatter, the all-powerful don of FIFA, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, and Pelé, the legendary soccer star are three extremely different people. But they all share the same perspective about the demonstrations rocking every major city in Brazil: Don’t even think about blaming the World Cup.
As Dilma said in her nationally televised address, “Brazil, the only country to have participated in every World Cup and a five-time world champion, has always been very well received everywhere. We must give our friends the same generous welcome we have received from them—with respect, love and joy. This is how we must treat our guests. Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence among peoples.”
Sepp Blatter, displaying his renowned empathy, was more blunt saying simply, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard…. When the ball starts to roll, people will understand!”
And Pelé had to backtrack dramatically after saying that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.”
They are begging the people of Brazil to not turn the 2014 World Cup into a symbol of what ails the country. What frightens them is that clearly people don’t see the World Cup—not to mention the 2016 Olympics in Rio—as some sort of abstract, postmodern symbol of poor public services and high taxes. They see the World Cup as a literal tool of neoliberal plunder.
Neoliberalism at its core is about the transfer of wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever had to rely on public services—little things like schools or hospitals—would understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular with much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police and simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil and even New York City in the early days of the Occupy movement, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.
The Olympics, World Cup, and other kinds of mega-events have over the last thirty years provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. That’s why these events are best understood as “neoliberal Trojan Horses.” The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan Horse are the games people are initially proud to host, until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh.
The countries change but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and tax haven for both corporate sponsors and private security firms; obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party’s over and the hangover begins. But in Brazil, they’re not waiting for any hangover after the cameras are gone and the confetti has been swept away.
The mass actions of the last two weeks have exposed all the neoliberal theft rooted in the planning and execution of the World Cup. A prominent slogan in the streets is, “We need FIFA-quality hospitals and schools.” This is a direct reference to a line from the World Cup planning committee that repeated ad nauseam, “We need FIFA-quality stadiums.” The people have taken the neoliberal priorities of the international athletic complex and turned them on their head, and their demands are influencing even those in the world of sports.
As former Brazilian soccer star Romario said last week, “FIFA is the real president of our country. FIFA comes to our country and imposes a state within a state. It’s not going to pay taxes, it’s going to come, install a circus without paying anything and take everything with it. They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public’s money. The money that has been spent on the Mane Garrincha stadium could have been used to build 150,000 housing units.”
The politics amidst the masses are mixed and there are real battles in the streets that will determine where this goes. Brazil’s disorganized right wing certainly sees an opportunity to turn masses of people against a nominally leftist government. But the overwhelming mass of people are actually in the streets because they want basic economic justice in a country where it’s promised but most are left at the mercy of the market. As Theresa Williamson, the director of the Rio-based organization Catalytic Communities said, “It is about individual demands and frustrations that converge into a unified whole. This is a future-oriented movement. If a handful are trying to appropriate it you can bet the movement will get them out. If they don’t, things will digress only to evolve in a few years into something even more substantial.”
Next Sunday a mass demonstration has been called for the finals of the Confederations Cup at the gates of legendary Maracaña Stadium in Rio. On that day we’ll see even more clearly just where this movement is going and who is on the ground fighting for its future. Whatever politics carry the day, it is clear that masses of young people are marching with the basic hope that their dreams for a more just and democratic nation will take concrete form. They’ll be acting to reshape their country with incredible bravery amidst the tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. If people in the stadium feel the itch in their eyes, or hear explosions in the distance, then they will be forcibly conjoined with those in the streets in seeing the reality of international sports in the age of neoliberalism. Sepp Blatter did say, “When the ball starts to roll, people will understand.” They might understand when the ball starts to roll. But as the smoke wafts into Maracaña, they will understand something far different than Blatter, FIFA, and President Rousseff had planned. They will understand that the World Cup in the twenty-first century arrives with a terrible price.
Marina Amaral and Natalia Viana write about why it isn’t just economic justice that is fueling protests in Brazil.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons)
One has to hearken back to 1968 in Mexico City, when thousands of students and workers marched against the Olympics, to find a sports-related demonstration that compares to the size and militancy of the mass anti–World Cup/Olympic uprising taking place in Brazil.
As in Mexico City thousands of people in Brazil are in the streets—and outside stadiums hosting Confederations Cup matches—raising slogans that connect the spending and austerity that surround these mega-events to a much deeper rot in the nation’s democratic institutions. As in Mexico City the central question is one of priorities: spending for sports while other vital needs—health, education, transportation—go unheeded. As in Mexico City, the spine of protesters is disaffected youth, educated beyond their parents’s generation because of expansions in higher education, but without jobs or opportunity when leaving the academy. As in Mexico City, the ruling elites feel a desperate need for the events to go as planned as a way to demonstrate to the world that Mexico is a leading player in the game of nations.
Also as in Mexico City, we hear the ridiculous canard of those in power not to mix sports and politics. Then it was Avery Brundage, the Nazi-sympathizing head of the International Olympic Committee, railing against what he called “the politicization of sport” and saying that “one of the basic principles of the Olympic games [is] that politics play no part whatsoever in them.” Now it’s the reptilian FIFA chief Sepp Blatter saying, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard. Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We did not impose the World Cup on Brazil. They knew that to host a good World Cup they would naturally have to build stadiums.”
And as in Mexico City, the splits in the streets are reflecting themselves in the athletic community as well. Then it was Jesse Owens telling 1968 Olympic protesters John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith—all of whom were influenced by the struggles in Mexico City—to just shut up and play. Now it’s Brazilian legend Pelé saying, “Let’s forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let’s remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.” Another Brazilian soccer hero, Ronaldo, said in response to critiques over stadium spending, “You can’t hold a World Cup with hospitals.”
In contrast, national team star Neymar said in an epic statement,
“I’ve always had faith that it wouldn’t be necessary to get to this point, of having to take over the streets, to demand for better transportation, health, education and safety—these are all government’s obligations. My parents worked really hard to offer me and my sister a good quality life. Today, thanks to the success that fans have afforded me, it might seem like a lot of demagogy from me—but it isn’t—raising the flag of the protests that are happening in Brazil. But I am Brazilian and I love my country. I have family and friends who live in Brazil! That’s why I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest! The only way I have to represent Brazil is on the pitch, playing football and, starting today against Mexico, I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilisation.”
True to his word, Neymar starred in the victory against Mexico.
The differences are also crucial to recognize. In 1968, the student and workers movement in Mexico City was politically organized with many protesters being aligned with the National Strike Council, an organization that had delegates from 240 schools. Their demands were public and organized.
The protests in Brazil can be better defined as being far more an expression of extreme anger and disaffection. While polls of mass demonstrations should be taken with a grain of salt, one survey of demonstrators shows that 84 percent don’t ally with any political formation. It’s a catch-all for every grievance under the sun, with the World Cup and Olympic spending becoming symbolic of an austerity economy beyond the reach of any semblance of democracy. This character is both a strength and weakness. It’s a strength because the country is learning lessons in real time about democracy in the streets, with city officials already repealing the hated proposed bus fare hike in an effort to quell demonstrators. It also is a weakness as forces from the right wing are entering the fray, hoping to turn demonstrators against the Workers Party government and to make this an issue about “government spending”. It’s a cheap, opportunistic effort to deflect attention from the corporate feeding frenzy in conjunction with Workers Party, which is actually taking place behind the green curtain. It also deflects attention from the fact that the right wing in Brazil has no problem with austerity, just with who is administering it.
The Mexico City protests of 1968 were of course drowned in blood with hundreds of students and workers, with aid from US intelligence sources, executed in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in what’s known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, ten days before the start of the Olympics. In Brazil, it was announced this week that the National Force, Brazil’s feared federal troops, will be deployed outside soccer stadiums for the duration of the Confederations Cup. We need to keep a close eye on Brazil and provide solidarity to what will now be known forever as the “salad revolution.” We need to listen to the ghosts of Tlatelolco Square and say that never again will the world turn a blind eye just because “the games must go on.”
Brazil isn’t the only country coming under criticism for its audacious spending on sports. Dave Zirin writes about the corruption and abuse at the backbone of Russia’s 2014 Winter Games.
LeBron James. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keith Allison. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Game Six. The Miami Heat were done. Trailing by five points to the San Antonio Spurs with twenty seconds to go, the notoriously repellent Miami Heat fans were abandoning their $2,000 seats and heading for the exits. The championship stage had already been pushed courtside. The trophy was out of the case. David Stern, ready for his close-up, was perhaps checking his teeth for spinach. Snarky tweets about Heat MVP LeBron James were in full force. It was over.
“King James,” after a fourth quarter of dragging his team back on offense and guarding the quicksilver Tony Parker on defense, was running on fumes. The game was done, but then the Spurs cracked. They missed free throws, they missed rebounds and the league’s most disciplined defensive team left Heat shooters open. For example, up three points, they didn’t guard the best three-point shooter ever, Ray Allen. Allen hit a three, sending the game into overtime, and the Heat escaped 103-100. This combination of unbelievable self-belief on one side and a haunting collapse on the other has only one historical comparison. It hit me in the throat through my television because I was there.
Game Six. My dad scored tickets for game six of the 1986 World Series in the first row behind the Mets dugout. I still have the ticket stub (list price $40!). The events of that night have been over-discussed to death, so what’s one more time? It was 5-3 in the tenth inning, and the hated Red Sox were on the verge of winning it all. The Series MVP would be Boston pitcher Bruce Hurst. Clubhouse attendants had even hung plastic in the dugout to prevent clothes from getting soaked in the champagne.
I’ll never, ever forget Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez, my boyhood idol, lining to center for out number two. As he walked to the dugout, a guy next me, through choked tears said, “It was a great season, Keith.” Hernandez, who hadn’t made eye contact with us all game, looked up and shot lasers through the guy. Sure enough, the Mets kept getting on base, until a ground ball by Mookie Wilson went through the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner and the team from Queens was alive for game seven.
As people danced on the dugout and sprayed beer all over me, I remember being less thrilled than unnerved. (Granted, that could have been the cop on horseback ten feet away on the field with his nightstick over his shoulder.) My Mets had succeeded, but partially because Bill Buckner had failed. The Spurs, a team incredibly easy to root for, “Bucknered” this game and unless you are a diehard Miami Heat fan (and really, who would admit to such a thing?), this game should leave you feeling thrilled at the competition but a little queasy about just how victory was earned.
There is still a game seven where the Spurs can make every emotion they’re feeling right now go away. It’s also a game seven for LeBron James and the Heat to show yet again that they deserve all the hype. As for Buckner, in game seven of the 1986 World Series, under unimaginable pressure, he had one of the most under-appreciated clutch games in history, going 2-4. He was arguably the only Sox player that day who was big enough for the moment. But his team didn’t win, so game six became his legacy. Winning, in this peculiar universe of sports, eternally cures all blemishes. Whether it’s the the over-hyped Heat or the choking Spurs, someone is getting dipped in Lourdes on Thursday night. And that’s why we’ll watch.
Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell’s obituary here.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paulo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasília, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracaña Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.
Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.… The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30 billion is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.
Dave Zirin urges baseball to rethink its approach to steroids.