Where sports and politics collide.
Before we discuss the content of the NFL’s new guidelines relating to domestic violence, let’s be clear: the NFL has about as much of a commitment to do something about violence against women as British Petroleum—or is it Beyond Petroleum—has to cleaning up the environment.
Both are multibillion-dollar corporations with one job and one job only, and that is to maximize their bottom line. Sometimes that project demands acknowledging public relations nightmares, especially when consumers recoil in horror.
Just as British Petroleum invested millions in green technologies and environmental cleanups after the seething outrage that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the NFL found itself embroiled in a public relations disaster after suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games following release of a video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer by her hair out of a hotel elevator.
This week, there was a near-universal outcry that the NFL’s moral compass was disturbingly out of whack and the organization was behaving like a proudly belligerent totem of misogyny, as Brandon Meriweather was suspended for two games for an on-field hit, and Josh Gordon received a year’s suspension for allegedly smoking weed.
The din coupled with the PR hit was too much for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to stomach, and he admitted as much in his statement outlining the league’s new policies, saying, “My disciplinary decision [regarding Ray Rice] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”
There was no such statement after Kasandra Perkins was killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who then took his life in front of his coach. Instead, the game went on as planned. The outcry from the media after that in-season tragedy was mild. The only person among the NFL’s sports media partners to even speak about it politically was Bob Costas, who turned the focus to gun access and not violence against women. That was brave, as the backlash against him demonstrated. It was also a wasted opportunity.
Now, because there is an uproar about Ray Rice in the dog days of summer, without the distraction of actual games, the league realized it was paying a price, and Goodell is attempting to use his unparalleled public relations machine to reclaim something the Ray Rice decision cost him: a moral high ground as the Great White Father committed to disciplining his unruly charges and armed with ownership over every aspect of their personal lives.
Under the leadership of Goodell, as Aaron Gordon has written brilliantly, the NFL has attempted to market itself not only as a corporation, not only as a sport, but as a moral force: an institution to provide ethical guidance for us all. But taking moral guidance from the NFL is like being lectured about diplomacy by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a commissioner who talks on and on about his concern for the health and safety of players, while trying to extend the season to eighteen games. This is a commissioner who has pledged to penalize players for using on-field slurs, yet defends the name of one of his billion-dollar brands, a dictionary-defined slur. This is a commissioner who talks about how much the NFL cares about communities, while demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for billionaires, as meanwhile our schools and hospitals remain in disrepair. This is a commissioner desperate to increase his market share among women football fans and who believes that coming down hard on domestic violence is the way to do it.
As for the plan itself, the best part, as Jessica Luther expressed, is that the NFL has pledged to spend much more time and energy at rookie and player orientations to actually discuss domestic violence. This is important. I’ve been to rookie orientation sessions, and when women are discussed, if discussed at all, they are talked about as people whom players should look at as predators trying to get pregnant or always ready to falsely accuse players of sexual assault. The discussions are how to avoid such situations. Any efforts to discuss women with young players as actual human beings should be welcomed. Luther talks about other initiatives aimed at education and awareness, which hopefully will actually be implemented.
But the section of the new conduct policy that is far more problematic is what we could call the carceral part. Roger Goodell has decided to place the passing of judgment of domestic violence completely under his own power as commissioner without any input from the NFL Players Association. It now resides beneath the umbrella of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That means Goodell has total control as judge, jury and executioner over punishment on the basis of his assessment of what happened in a family’s personal life.
He has pledged to suspend players on a first offense for six games and then give them as much as a lifetime ban for a second infraction. Under the personal conduct policy, he can do this in advance of any trial or any sort of anything in a court of law.
These kinds of punishments could very well serve to discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward, because of the price that could potentially be paid by having their partner lose their career. Anything that discourages a process where women can turn to the league in confidentiality for legal help or guidance is simply wrong.
In other words, it is missing any concept of “restorative justice”: the idea that solutions to domestic violence may require approaches that don’t reside in the punitive, or in harming the economic lives of the women and children in danger.
There is also nothing in the plan that addresses one of the uglier parts of the Ray Rice fiasco: the ways the Baltimore Ravens media machine defended and protected Rice with a big “no big deal” as the team response. This is classic Goodell: go after the players, protect the teams.
But perhaps most glaringly, the plan is missing any conversation about what role the combat of the game itself and the ill effects of head injuries may play in bringing the violence home. Why is it missing this? Because, once again, that might make people actually stop watching the sport, and that’s not the purpose this plan is supposed to serve. This is about reaching women and securing their connection to the league as potential consumers for NFL products and merchandise. Goodell’s slogan might as well be “Hate the player, don’t hate the game.”
Roger Goodell and the NFL—like many corporations before and since—were pressured and embarrassed into doing something. Tragically, in the hands of a league that journalist Steve Almond calls “a nihilistic engine of greed,” every move must be put under this kind of scrutiny and subject on principle to skepticism. That is something they have well earned.
Read Next: Silencing Native Americans who speak out against slurs
Every person who wants the Washington football team to change its name got an unexpected gift earlier this week in the form of a Sarah Palin word salad. Palin decided for reasons that are best left unexplored, that her wisdom was required on this issue. Not to surprise anyone, but the former half-term governor stands resolutely with team owner Dan Snyder and vociferous Redskin defender ESPN commentator Mike Ditka, and against anyone who does not think a racial slur should be an NFL brand.
She said, among other things, “Nothing should surprise us lately; but when the Politically Correct Police bust Ditka, they hope the silent majority will cower under leftist control. My goodness, Ditka merely spoke his mind. This accomplished and esteemed coach knows there are big issues to be addressed in America today; there’s no intent to offend by referring to a team by the name they’ve proudly worn since day one and chose with pride in our native ancestry and obviously had absolutely no intent to insult; and the liberal media’s made-up controversies divide our country.”
Then, as part of her effort to not “divide our country” she made a joke that while “Redskins” is a term of honor, “Washington” is the real name that should be changed. (That painfully stale riposte has more dust on it than Ms. Palin’s career in electoral politics.)
The “esteemed” Mike Ditka, another figure who would never dream of trying to “divide” this country, said in his typically healing fashion that the controversy is the result of “politically correct idiots”, “liberals who complain about everything” and the entire debate is “silly” and “asinine.” He then said, “I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history and they should never be anything but the Washington Redskins.”
All of this is code, of course, for the line coming from team owner Dan Snyder and the public relations headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia. The name represents “honor” and “respect”, (let’s forget that they were named by an avowed white supremacist whose own granddaughter thinks the name should change) and the entire issue is the creation of white, politically correct sportswriters. It mirrors the words of sports radio host Steve Czaban whose show airs on the Dan Snyder–owned ESPN 980 in DC. Czaban earned his check earlier this summer when he said that this is all about “guilt-ridden white liberal sportswriters.”
What Snyder, Palin and Ditka don’t realize is that they are creating even more motivation amongst a new generation of Native American activists who are sick and tired of being treated as invisible actors. Here is the list of the tribal councils and Native American organizations that have come out against the team name: they represent real people who have said it is a slur that harms their community. But Dan Snyder and his apparatchiks refuse in cowardly fashion to sit down across a table with any of them. For people like Snyder, Palin and Ditka, these are people who simply do not exist.
I spoke to Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux organizer Jackie Keeler who is one of the founders the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry about the Snyder forces’ obsession with imposing whiteness on their opponents and invisibility on Native American activists. I am posting the entirety of her comments in the hopes that people who support the name reckon with her words and think carefully about whether the Palins, Ditkas and Snyders of the world are the ones with whom you actually want to stand.
“I always find it amazing considering the fight against Native mascotry is something I’ve been aware of my entire life,” she said. “My parents protested against it in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When I was a student at Dartmouth College in the 1990s we Native students were forced to confront this issue. It was at Dartmouth that I first met Suzan Harjo, long-time Native activist who has led the fight against Native people being used as mascots. And of course, National Congress of American Indians, the largest representative body of tribes (two of my dad’s family members were former executive directors) first began an initiative to get rid of Native mascots in 1968.
“This idea that the fight against the mascotting of Native people is something new and led by white folks is an oddly insular and navel-gazing way to understand the issue—and yet another way of cutting Native people out of the American discourse about things that matter to us. By reframing the issue this way, the Washington NFL team continues to make real, modern Native people to disappear, much as their mascot does. It’s a continuation of the extinguishment of the Native voice and the appropriation of our identity and lands. This constant denial of our existence that leads Native youth to feel disconnected from American society and exacerbates the burdens of poverty; Native youth have three times the suicide rate of their American peers of any ethnicity. It also leads to bad policy decisions by non-Native politicians and poor funding for the very real needs of our communities.”
What the right-wing commentators either don’t understand—or understand too well—is that opposition to this team name is not just about a name and does not exist in a vacuum. There is an upsurge of Native American youth activism the likes of which we have not seen in years. Whether we are talking about the Idle No More movement, the push for climate justice or their vocal opposition to police brutality on reservations and pueblos in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, there is a demand that their humanity be recognized. Not even Mike Ditka will be able to bully them into silence.
As for Dan Snyder, he is going to lose this debate for the simple reason that he is not having this debate. He keeps arguing with ghosts: these imaginary white liberal politically correct sportswriting phantasms who in his mind are out to get him and his beloved brand. Meanwhile, he refuses to sit down across the table from the very Native Americans who are objecting to this name. In the toughest of sports, Dan Snyder is running scared.
Read Next: What the Little Leagure World Series and Michael Brown show about America’s attitude toward African-Americans
To paraphrase bell hooks, the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people. It is difficult to not see this reality in the events of the last week: events that counterpose something as American as apple pie, the Little League World Series, and something else that is frankly also as American as apple pie: the killing of unarmed black men and women by police.
On the Little League side, Hollywood could not have painted a more soul-stirring tableau. We have the charming, charismatic champions of the United States, called Jackie Robinson West, hailing from the great metropolis of Chicago. JRW is a team consisting entirely of African-American kids. The fact that such a team has ascended to the finals of the Little League World Series is an astounding accomplishment both athletically as well as demographically. JRW is the first all African-American team to become US champions in over thirty years. During that same thirty-year stretch the number of African-Americans who play baseball has plummeted dramatically, their roster spots in Major League Baseball falling from 19 percent to 8 percent of all players. In college baseball, less than 6 percent of rosters have African-American players.
What else has happened over the last three decades in this country? We have seen the rise of neoliberal economics, the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities. One casualty of the new urban-normal has been Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands. This period of decimation has been followed more recently by an era of gentrification, as the wealthy have moved back into the cities, exploding property values, pushing poor disproportionately black residents to the margins and creating a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the suburbanization of poverty and dislocated ghetto sprawl. With these developments, baseball in urban communities has withered, likened by sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards to a corpse on life support.
Yet here is Jackie Robinson West. It beats the odds, and America is cheering on this fact without examining what made those odds so daunting in the first place. Instead, people are choosing to enjoy this dynamic, magnetic team named after the most universally praised of sports trailblazers, a man who has become a collective symbol of racial reconciliation.
Meanwhile thet same dislocation and suburbanization of poverty that has gutted urban baseball has also produced and created areas like Ferguson, Missouri, a place that has gone from majority white to majority black over the last generation, with the police seamlessly shifting its approach from Officer Friendly to occupying army. To judge by recent polls, white America doesn’t see poverty, police brutality and institutionalized racism in Ferguson or anywhere else. That era is considered long done, defeated by the individual heroism of people like Jackie Robinson. The logic goes, if racism was still throbbing in this country, then the kids from Jackie Robinson West, not to mention Mo’ne Davis, would never have stolen our hearts.
If we choose to see racism as an awful memory, like smallpox, instead of as a living virus, then the killing of Michael Brown is the fault of Michael Brown. Officer Darren Wilson must be being railroaded by a “lynch mob” and the leaving of Michael Brown’s unarmed corpse on the streets of Ferguson for hours was just an unfortunate clerical error. By that logic, all the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police is the deracialized expression of the system working as it should.
If the white majority can go to sleep at night content with the idea that Michael Brown is dead because of the individual choices of Michael Brown, then they don’t have to confront racism as a living, breathing virus, needing to be confronted, quarantined and destroyed. They can cheer for Jackie Robinson West, put on a copy of the movie 42 afterward for the whole family, and marvel at how far the American experiment has allowed us to travel from those dark days before people like Robinson and, of course, Dr. King emancipated us from our past. Anyone who says otherwise surely must be one of those “race hustlers,” otherwise known as—all together now—“the real racists.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were still with us to speak for himself. If only the real Jackie Robinson could pop up as a public service announcement before Jackie Robinson West plays in the Little League World Series to repeat the words he said about police brutality fifty years ago: “One cannot expect [black] leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were alive today, he would undoubtedly say that there is nothing post-racial about a world where two black people are killed on average by police every week. He would say, as he said in the 1960s, “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens as an individual.”
If only the largely white Little League crowds cheering this electric team from Chicago could know as stone-cold fact that if Jackie Robinson were alive, there is no question he would be brimming with pride during the day at the play of the team that bears his name, but at night he’d be in Ferguson committed to the struggle for civil rights. He would also be challenging his white fans to care: to not isolate themselves from what Ferguson has exposed but to help confront it. He would repeat the same words he uttered fifty years ago: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”
Read Next: Ferguson and Parallel Universes.
In my sports/politics circles, the question has come in fast and furious: Where are the athletes—always code for “black male athletes”—speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson? It’s a very understandable question. It’s also the wrong question. It’s understandable, of course, because there is a history of black athletes being the faces and symbols of the struggle in the United States against racism. It is impossible to imagine early resistance to white supremacy and lynching without recalling the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. You cannot tell the story of the civil rights movement without creating space for the story of Jackie Robinson. The black power movement of the 1960s could not be told without Muhammad Ali and two brave souls, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.
People are also asking the question because the sight of black athletes making this kind of stand is hardly ancient history. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat led by LeBron James, and many other athletes posed with hoodies for Trayvon Martin, when it looked like George Zimmerman would not even be arrested for stalking Martin and taking his life. Kobe Bryant even felt a rather thunderous backlash when he was dismissive of these kinds of actions. Hell, there were NBA players threatening to wildcat strike over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants just a few months ago. People desperate to be inspired in very difficult times want to see more of this.
As Justice B. Hill wrote in a commentary on BET’s website,
[Black athletes] were quick to jump on Donald Sterling for his racism; they’ve been slow or silent altogether in standing up and speaking out about a killing that should never have happened… At some point—and this is that point—Black athletes like Doc Rivers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Torii Hunter must stand as a Black president did. They must insist that no more cop killings of unarmed Black men will be tolerated.
Given especially the twenty-first-century narcotics of fame, iconography and killer visuals, imagine what would happen to Twitter and assorted social media if we had a 2014 version of this press conference. Maybe Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, LeBron James, and Carmelo gathered together to say that the killing of two black men a week by police for the last six years has to stop.*
It is also understandable why many yearn for an athletic speakout on this, given the racial divide in the United States, with more white Americans believing in ghosts than in the realities of institutional racism. The thought is that black athletes with their white fan bases have an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to reach white America in a way that is unparalleled in the culture.
Yet this is also—to put it bluntly—the wrong question for those who want to see racial justice. Unlike the case of George Zimmerman, which involved an extremely repellent individual vigilante who hunted down Trayvon Martin and was not going to be arrested, this is a case of a police officer doing the killing. This is the case of challenging a very entrenched set of racist law enforcement practices both in the St. Louis metro area and throughout the country. These practices have become militarized in recent years, creating a reality where many communities feel less like neighborhoods and more like occupied territory. (The fact that as many have pointed out, the same company supplied the tear-gas canisters used in Ferguson and in Gaza speaks volumes.) This is not going to be challenged by players posing on Instagram with their hands up. This isn’t the damn “ice bucket challenge.” To uproot these police practices will take the kinds of mobilizations we have yet to see from organizations with the funds, members and capacity to take on the ways in which black neighborhoods are policed.
Instead of asking, “Where are the athletes?” We should ask. “Where is the AFL-CIO?” “Where is the climate justice movement?” “Where is Amnesty international and the ACLU?” “Where is the reproductive justice movement?” I know that some of these organizations are starting to move in pieces—some unions, some climate justice activists, some people in the repro justice movement—but we need the full weight of these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined. If an athlete is inspired by this level of activism and is willing to take on the pressure from the media, ownership and their own inner circle, and speak out, then that’s great. It also would be a true echo of the past. All of sports history shows that athletes tend to speak out in response to mass movements. They don’t start them. They amplify them. Let’s stop demanding athletes take actions that we don’t demand of ourselves or the organizations around us. There is real work to be done, and it doesn’t involve waiting for LeBron to save us.
* Yes, there have been moments, such as when the Washington football team ran out onto the field with their hands up. Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon also posed for an Instagram picture along with several teammates with his hands raised. Given the owner of the Washington football franchise, the racist brand that they represent and the pressure they are under to change their name—not to mention Garcon’s own vociferous defense of this brand—these actions can provoke as much cynicism as inspiration.
Read Next: For many politicians, Ferguson isn’t happening.
There is so much good in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Time magazine essay about the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that it almost feels churlish to raise any kind of criticism. After all, here is a basketball legend, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, the master of the skyhook, marshaling his platform to speak about poverty and class in the United States. Kareem even references the new book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by radical journalist Laurie Penny.
Everyone should read his piece. People in the United States with positions of authority rarely, if ever, talk about class. And yet here is Kareem putting not just Ferguson but the whole of the United States directly under that economic microscope saying, “We have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.”
Kareem says—and this is unarguable in my view—that if the 50 million people who live below the poverty line joined together, they would become “a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.”
He talks about the rise in poverty and the ways the modern media and “the 1 percent” keep the poor at each other’s throats. He even references how the mammoth success of dystopian teen fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games symbolizes the ways that so many young people feel hopeless and helpless about their economic futures.
Thank you, Kareem, for writing about class. Thank you for writing about the ways the wealthy divide to conquer. Thank you for quoting John Steinbeck and Marvin Gaye. The entire essay reminded me of the famous quote that if the poor could be organized to spit at the halls of power simultaneously, corruption would be washed away in a righteous flood.
And yet… there is also a serious and extremely fundamental problem with Kareem’s piece. This is first seen when he writes that making Ferguson about the “fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.”
Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black. If he was white, no matter how poor, he almost certainly wouldn’t have died. If that is not your starting point, then you are lost without a compass. Yes, Ferguson is in so many ways a “class issue”. But Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is about racism. If we don’t acknowledge the centrality of racism both in this case and in how racism is used to divide people, then the unity of the 50 million poor people that Kareem wants to see will forever be a pipe dream.
The problems with Kareem’s argument come into sharper focus when he brings up the issues that “keep the poor fractured by distracting them.” He brings up “immigration, abortion and gun control” as reasons why poor people “never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.” Yet immigration and abortion are not “distractions.” They are about race, gender and, yes, class oppression. Immigrant workers are more likely to live below the poverty line than those who are native-born. If immigrant workers can be locked in a purgatory of unorganized, undocumented status and branded as “illegals,” then that serves to drive down the wages and political capital for all workers. Since so much of anti-immigrant rhetoric is built around anti-Latino invective, any kind of class unity will forever be illusory if fighting this kind of racism is not at the heart of how we organize.
The same principle holds true for abortion. The closing down of clinics, the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the fact that 87 percent of counties now have no abortion facilities, amount to an attack on the healthcare available to poor women, particularly black and brown women. If you don’t stand up for the reproductive rights of poor women, why would they want to join your 50 million–strong movement?
The point of all of this is to say that fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle. Oppression acts as a cancer on the solidarity necessary to fight for a better world. If Kareem wants to see class unity, then the people risking their lives in Ferguson should not be seen as people “fist-shaking for a racial agenda” but instead as the brave souls on the front lines in the fight for a better world: a world where people aren’t shot dead by cops because of the color of their skin. Kareem wants to see solidarity. It starts with solidarity with the people in the streets of Ferguson. It starts by arguing explicitly with white workers that their sympathies should lie with the people of Ferguson and not the politicians or the police. With one voice, we need to say that the real looters are on Wall Street, and without justice there can never be peace.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews MVP, a pro wrestler who traveled to Ferguson.
His name is Hassan Hamin Assad. But pro wrestling fans know him as Montel Vontavious Porter, otherwise known as MVP. In a sporting spectacle known for its profoundly backward representations of African-Americans, MVP has always chosen to showcase himself as a man of intelligence and confidence that—when playing the villain—could morph into grandiose cockiness. This past week, MVP—“acting as Hassan,” as he said to me, made the decision to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the police killing of Michael Brown and subsequent clashes with a shockingly militarized police force. I was able to speak with MVP while he was in Ferguson about why he felt compelled to make the journey.
DZ: Why did you, MVP, decide to make this trip to Ferguson?
MVP: Because, I was sitting on the couch, watching the footage coming in.… And, I’ve been saying this over and over, I just got tired of shaking my fist at the TV. My biggest issue was watching the militarized St. Louis County Police come in with a heavy-handed approach, to peaceful protesters. Media blackout, arresting journalists, and I just felt like I had to speak up about our Constitution being trampled on and our constitutional rights being violated.
You’ve now been there a couple of days, what’s your sense of what’s happening on the ground?
I’ve had had the opportunity to speak to a lot of the local residents who were there in the chaos. One guy who was actually, according to him, beaten up by the police in the process. And last night was extremely calm, there were peaceful protests… no violence. But there was no police presence. Earlier in the evening, there were a few black police officers, and I think the local police chief—it was, I think, a minimized police presence. The night, as it got darker and as it got later there were even less police. And, I’m sad to say, that much, much later in the evening—probably around 1 am—a few police responded to minor incident at a McDonald’s. There was nothing going on and they left. They didn’t bother anyone, and as they were leaving, some were throwing rocks and bottles at the police cars as they left. Which is counterproductive to do, but unfortunately you always have that angst.
So what’s your analysis of the approach of the police?
I‘ll paraphrase, because I believe the quote was that the St. Louis County Police Department… they hadn’t even had the opportunity to drill for that type of situation. So, what I think you have is a bunch of overanxious individuals with improper training responding to a situation not knowing how to do so. And as seen in some of the video that’s still shot as well as the accounts of some of the people who were there, you had officers on hand who were—instead of de-escalating the violence were intentionally escalating it. Mocking the citizens, there’s a still photo that I saw of some of the officers with their hands up… The major chant [of the protest] has been “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And there’ve been people walking up and down the street with their hands up and T-shirts that say “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Because allegedly, according to eyewitness accounts, Mike Brown had his hands up in a surrender position when he was shot. And there’s actually a still photo floating around that I saw, and a number of individuals related that they saw firsthand of officers raising their hands up, mocking the protesters and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose. That’s not professional, that’s not an attempt to de-escalate violence. There was talk of officers calling them animals. From what I understand it was just a complete lack of professionalism and leadership. Before this, where were the local community leaders? Where was the governor? Where was the mayor? Where was the city council? Where were the people who should have stepped in and called for peace? Where were the people who should have stepped in and said, “Wait a minute, this is not how we handle these sort of situations.”
Speaking of leadership, I don’t know if you knew this or not, MVP, but you are the first person from the world of athletics to actually make the trip to Ferguson and offer solidarity to what’s happening there. Were you aware of that, and are you actually trying to be an example for others to try to leverage their fame to bring attention to what’s happening there?
Well, I wasn’t aware of that, and I think it’s rather unfortunate. I can kind of understand why people wouldn’t want to get involved, but that’s part of my position… I’m so tired of apathy. I got tired of tweeting about it, I got tired of shaking my fist at the TV screen and talking about it. I didn’t come here as MVP, I came here as Hassan, a guy who wanted to stand up for my civil rights and everyone else’s. And if my visibility as MVP can bring more attention to the violation of civil rights and the trampling of the constitution, then that’s cool too. But I didn’t come as a “celebrity” or as a pro athlete, I just came as a citizen that was fed up.
I have to ask: you have always been a strong African-American character in an industry that does not have, to put it mildly, a history of strong African-American characters. Do you feel like you’re also making a statement to the world of professional wrestling that African-Americans need to be treated with more respect and less dehumanization than we’ve seen over the l decades?
While I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement, that thought never crossed my mind, actually. So, one had nothing to do with the other. What I said to a few people in Ferguson was, while the incident might have been set off by a racial distrust, disharmony, discord… whatever you want to call it. It quickly escalated to something much than that. In just this last month there were four African-American men who were unarmed and killed by police. I think that it has to be a conversation about use of force, use of deadly force, and excessive use of force. I think that, and I want to make this very clear, my father was a cop, my brother’s a cop, my sister-in-law’s a cop. I’m the black sheep in a family of cops. I understand how difficult the job is. I also understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and police officers have to be held to a higher standard because we entrust our society to their care. The problem is, when you deal with humans you deal with the frailty of the human psyche and the human ego, and people make mistakes. But when those mistakes are made, somebody has to be held accountable. And in this particular case, we don’t have all of the facts in yet about why this young man was shot, and whether the officer’s life was in jeopardy or whether it was justifiable, but eyewitnesses say that he turned with his hands up, and was surrendering, and was shot multiple times. If that is in fact the case, then somebody has to answer for that. And these other cases across the country… I’m not saying that all cops are bad. There are many who would like to say that. But I believe that you’re complicit by inaction if you witness something illegal take place and you don’t take a step to correct it.
Last question, and I wasn’t going to ask you this, but given that you come from a family of African-American police officers, and given that you’re clearly attuned to these issues it seems appropriate: How big a problem do you think we have in this country of racism in the police departments of the United States, racism in the criminal justice system of the United States? How big of a problem is there that needs to be confronted?
Wow. You got an hour? There are people who often, say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.” And, “Nobody’s racist anymore.” And, to that I say, all you have to do is go on Youtube and read the comments. That will tell you just how racist people will be if they can’t be called out on it. Where nowadays, racism isn’t as overt as, say, fifty years ago. It still exists, and I’m not just talking about white against black racism. There’s black against white racism. There’s Jewish against Muslim racism… All people, all cultures have some sort of racism. It’s a cultural thing and I think that part of the issue is that people aren’t necessarily taking the steps to be understanding and aware of other cultures. I think that people are willfully ignorant of other cultures, and black people, white people, Asian people… everybody’s guilty of it. And I don’t think, in the near future, we’re going to see racism disappear. In the criminal justice system, of course it exists. Just look at the disparity in sentencing between people who deal crack cocaine and people who deal powder cocaine. We know that crack cocaine is prevalent in the African-American communities and powder cocaine is a lot sexier, and it’s a little more expensive and therefore used by more affluent people. But if you’re caught with crack cocaine, the same amount of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, your sentence is—I think—five times more severe. There’s something to be said for that. I think that there is racism, just recently I believe in Florida there were two of three cops that were fired from the department because they were exposed to be active members of the Ku Klux Klan. It exists. You can’t deny that it exists, but racism is due to an unevolved thinking and as a society, as a human race, we have to become evolved thinkers. Our thinking has to evolve with our technology and everything else. If you don’t like somebody because of the God that they worship, or because of the color of their skin… there’s something wrong with you, not them. But, I’ll also say this, we don’t—and when I say “we,” I’m talking about the African-American community, the inner city—a dialogue has to be had with young black men about how to communicate with white police officers specifically. You don’t escalate the situation by saying, “Hey, man, why you fuckin’ with me?” You have to be able to communicate, and I think it happens on both sides. You have cops who, unfortunately, don’t de-escalate the situation and, by the same token, [young black men] don’t de-escalate the situation. And they say, “You know, I’m tired. I’m fed up with being racially profiled.” OK, when you’re being taken into custody, at that moment, that’s not the time to protest. That’s not the time to resist arrest. That’s not the time to cuss the cop out. Your best bet is to just be as polite as possible and go file a report or go do whatever you can within the proper channels. And as we know often enough, it gets swept under the rug. But if it happens enough, something has to be done.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
At this point, man, I want to make it very clear. They’re showing the video now about Michael Brown and the cigars that he stole and the shop owner who he apparently had a physical altercation with during that theft. However, now it’s being revealed that the officer who stopped him had absolutely no idea that he was involved in that crime. And, just because of that, I’m hearing people saying, “Oh, well now we have to take a look at this in an entirely different light.” Let’s not be distracted from the issue at hand—excessive use of force. And, that leading to an overt trampling of our Constitution. Even if you are the most overt racist and you are glad that Michael Brown is dead, another young dead nigger… that makes you happy… you can’t be happy about the response of the police department coming in and saying, “As of this moment, the constitution is not valid. It’s a media blackout, we’re arresting journalists who try to take our pictures. We’re going to ban satellite trucks from the area. There’s a no-fly zone so media helicopters can’t report on the situation.” This affects you too. This affects everyone. And, you know what? Today, it’s someone else’s kid, it’s someone else’s neighborhood. Tomorrow it could very easily be your kid and your neighborhood.
When I was 12, I was trudging along on 77th and Columbus with my sister and father, another desultory post-divorce dinner with dad. Like it was yesterday, I remember looking up and doing a double take, then a triple take, then a quadruple take: Robin Williams was walking alongside us. Robin. Effing. Williams.
This would have been Robin Williams at the apex of his powers—at least in the eyes of a 12-year-old. After Mork and Mindy. After Popeye—which I was shocked to find out years later was “a bomb”—after Moscow on the Hudson, after his Night at the Met HBO special, a videotape of which we passed around school with the electric reverence of an illicit nudie magazine. Save Eddie Murphy, there was no one cooler. No one.
Seeing him walking next to me was as remarkable and otherworldly for me as if my own 10-year-old was walking to school and bumped into Finn and Jake from Adventure Time.
As I did speechless double and triple takes, Mr. Williams noticed me gawking at him, looked down and smiled. He was with a woman whose arm was entwined in his and she was bumping into him with her hip, smiling, as if to say, “Look at this goofy kid.” His smile turned into a wide grin beneath his beard as my eyes continued to expand.
At the corner, they crossed the street and I finally was able to find my tongue, turn to my father and sister and stammer, “Wobin Rilliams! Bobin Billiams! Yo! That was Robin Williams!!” I think my father, whose comedic tastes tended toward the cartoons of The New Yorker, may have grunted. My older sister—although I frankly can’t remember her response—almost certainly rolled her eyes, as if I had just said I saw a Sasquatch.
I remember grabbing them both and gesticulating at the couple across the street and saying, “I’m totally serious! That guy is Robin Williams!” After I was able to focus everyone’s disbelieving gaze, Robin Williams looked over at us, and danced. I’m completely serious. He did that Chuck Berry dance where you kick one leg up and down and hop up the street as if you are doing the guitar solo from Johnny B. Good. He looked over at us, and at at our walking pace, did that dance for about one quarter of a city block. Now it was my sister’s turn to have her jaw hit the ground. Then we cheered.
I have, obviously, never forgotten that small moment of pre-adolescent magic. As I’ve been reading the obituaries and remembrances of Mr. Williams it has been striking just how seamlessly that tiny story fits with the words of people who actually knew him. You hear the same things; He was uncommonly kind. He absolutely adored children. He gave of himself without desire for public relations. Hell, he walked picket lines. And he truly—even manically—cared about being loved. Some of the most heartbroken remembrances, tellingly, have come from adults who acted with the man when they were still kids. It’s a rare quality: those who take the time to actually be kind to children.
I don’t want to speculate about why Robin Williams took his life. People trying to tie it to the vicissitudes of his career—his show was cancelled!—frankly need to stop. Depression in this day and age is that powerful. If it finds you in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can swallow you whole. It’s happened to people I’ve loved. It’s happened to Robin Williams. I hope if nothing else that people in a similar circumstance reach for a phone instead of whatever instrument of death is handy. I also hope that Robin Williams’ family knows that their dad was truly loved. Not just for his art but for the small anonymous moments that revealed who he actually was when the applause stopped. I wish I’d been able to meet him as an adult and simply thank him for gracing my young self with a dollop of magic.
Read Next: The NBA finally hires a female coach
The biggest line of horseshit you will ever hear in professional sports not uttered by Dan Snyder is that no one in the executive suites cares if you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight. As long as you can help the team win, there is a place for you. Wrong. The pivot of all executive decisions is not “How can the team win?” but “How can I keep my damn job?”
The front office fear is that if they bring in a “distraction” and the team flounders, they’ll be scapegoated for bringing in this “distraction,” quickly dispatched, unemployed or otherwise ass out. (And Lord do I hate that word “distraction” as a stand-in for “triggers someone else’s bigotry.”)
That impulse to avoid difference rewards cowardice—politely called “risk-averse behavior”—as teams bypass players that differ from established norms, even if they can help. Someone has to choose to not be the coward. It took the St. Louis Rams’s Jeff Fisher to make the decision to not be another NFL milksop and draft Michael Sam at the end of the seventh round.
Gregg Popovich, coach and Kaiser of the San Antonio Spurs, is no one’s idea of cowardly. So predictably, even obviously, it was Coach Pop who made the decision to hire Becky Hammon as the first full-time female assistant coach in any major professional men’s sport in the United States.
“I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff,” Popovich said. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”
Hammon comes to the Spurs after sixteen years in the WNBA, her last eight with the outfit in San Antonio where she got to know the Spurs operation. But Becky Hammon on a bench was going to happen. As Kate Fagan wrote in her indispensable piece on the hire, “If you know Becky Hammon, one thing has always been clear: She would become a coach after she finished playing….
“She could see a play once and know all its options and offshoots, categorize them from most to least effective. And she could do this for every position on the court, instantly—as if the X’s and O’s had been coded into her DNA.”
Becky Hammon by all accounts has the skills to coach. Yet that glass ceiling would have been a glass fortress if not for Pop’s being Pop. Of course it was going to be Coach Pop. Beneath the military crew-cut and Roger Murtaugh demeanor, Coach Pop lives his life as the reality of Phil Jackson’s image. He doesn’t talk in New Age riddles and hang out with lefty celebs while, when it matters, scoffing about keeping politics out of sports.
Instead, Coach Pop looks for real ways to make his corner of the world a little more just. Hiring Becky Hammon on the merits of her ability—while not giving one holy hell about the fallout in Texas or beyond—is how he does it. I don’t know if a part of Pop is also fighting for the idea that there is a place for women in sports beyond being sexist clickbait, but that’s the result. I do know from my interactions with the man that he admires those who have historically risked their perch of privilege in pro sports to impact the works. He thinks about the world beyond sports and wants it to be better.
American sports—structured and codified over a century ago as a leisure pastime created by men for male consumption—just got marginally better, and that is cause for celebration. While the NFL seems to see disrespecting its female fan base as part of its mission statement, Coach Pop—by just being Pop—lives by a different code. Because of that code, Becky Hammon will be a coach in the NBA. It feels great to tell my young daughter about the news. Hell, it feels great to even type the words.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the needless killing of a Palestinian soccer legend
All it took was a recording of Donald Sterling insulting Magic Johnson in a derogatory manner for the twenty-four-hour news world to stop on its axis. Now imagine if Donald Sterling—in all of his paranoid, racist fervor—had an army at his disposal and bombed Magic Johnson in his home, killing him in his sleep.
If such a scenario sounds like hacky Phillip K. Dick fan fiction as written by Mike Lupica, then you have not been paying attention to the dystopian, genocidal panorama in Gaza, where no one is safe. You are unfamiliar with the name Ahed Zaqout.
Ahed Zaqout was a 49-year-old sportscaster and television host in Gaza, a national sports voice for a people without a nation. Two decades ago, he was a soccer star: the midfielder for the Palestinian national soccer team. On Wednesday, he was killed in his bed by the bombs of the Israeli Defense Forces.
As Gaza sports journalist Khaled Zaher told Reuters, “Palestine has lost one of its best players, he may have been the best midfielder we ever had.”
Why the IDF was “defending” itself against Zaqout is a mystery. He was no Muhammad Ali, using sports to advance any kind of political cause. He was that most conventional and familiar of person in sports: the ex-star jock turned broadcaster. But in Gaza, what we may see as conventional can become political. Zaqout was someone whose voice, sharp wit, and trenchant analysis was a source of joy and escape for a people under constant siege. Providing escape to the trapped of Gaza was in and of itself a political act.
Was Zaqout actually targeted, or did he die in yet another pitiless IDF bombing of civilians? If we believe Netanyahu and his defenders—that the reports by journalists and the United Nations of indiscriminate mass killings are a fabrication—then it is worth asking, Why did Ahed Zaqout have to die?
Based on the description and reports of the bombing, it is doubtful that his was a pinpoint assassination. Far more likely, Zaqout was a victim of Netanyahu’s mania for total war—a mania that makes my earlier Donald Sterling comparison frankly insulting to Mr. Sterling. But if he was in fact targeted, it would be yet another example of the ways in which Israel has attacked the soccer community of Gaza as a way to choke any respite or relief that the people could possibly possess.
Soccer is about people feeling a sense of collective joy and hope. It creates scenes, like the ones in earlier this year—it feels like a lifetime ago—of thousands of people on the Gaza beach celebrating the ascension of their national team.
Attacking soccer is about attacking these very national aspirations. It’s the inhumane act targeting a collective expression of humanity.
Currently FIFA is debating sanctions against Israel’s membership in the organization because of formal accusations that it has used state violence to stunt the Palestinian national team
Ahed Zaqout should be a part of this debate. Whether Zaqout was targeted or was caught up in an indiscriminate killing should be irrelevant to FIFA. One of their own was killed, and that has to count for something.
A critical voice in this debate is FIFA’s European President Michel Platini. Platini has been sharply critical of Israel yet also has championed the staging of tournaments there over international objections. Platini was also once a great player for the French national team. In a 1994 friendly match between France and the Palestinian national squad, Platini played across a fair-haired whippet named Ahed Zaqout. Perhaps he will remember his name as this debate moves forward.
I know it is stunning to think that FIFA could be any kind of force for social justice, but unlike the United Nations, the United States can’t unilaterally block FIFA’s decisions. And unlike the United Nations, FIFA could do something that would have teeth and that people across the world would actually notice. Perhaps in the face of the bloodshed in Gaza and in the memory of Ahed Zaqout, it will send a message that a country that imprisons another has no place in the world of international sports. If the politicians won’t act, then perhaps the world of sports must. After all, even Magic Johnson just cancelled an event in Jerusalem.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the luxury of medical care in a country where hospitals aren’t bombed
I’m in the hospital as I write this, getting ready to be cut open for some kind of intestinal surgery. I feel stressed, a little scared, yet given the news in the world, oddly grateful. I’m grateful that this clean facility, and its overworked but exceptionally kind staff, is not in the process of being bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
It is a sick sign of our times that human beings throughout the world cannot take for granted the concept that your hospital will not have a bullseye on its roof, but this is exactly where President Benjamin Netanyahu has dragged us. He is not the first, and he will not be the last, to take this tactic as a legitimate means of war. But defending these actions by saying, “George W. Bush has done it!” or “Assad does it, too!” is only an argument the morally bankrupt could possibly make.
No part of Israel’s war on Gaza—or any war—is more unconscionable than the targeting of hospitals. The shelling of institutions where people go to heal not only adds to the spiraling body count, it also creates mortality figures that will never ever be uttered by Wolf Blitzer, as the sick, the dying and the pregnant find themselves imperiled by Netanyahu’s slaughter. The reports from the UN about the effects in Gaza on pregnant women makes one wonder when fetuses became enemy combatants—their mothers, human shields.
Then there is Al-Wafa hospital, the only facility equipped to handle brain and spinal injuries in Gaza, which is now a “smoldering ruin.” According to Jonathan Miller of NBC News, in a devastating report, patients had to be evacuated from the hospital and carried to the center of Gaza City in blankets.
As of this writing, Al Shifa hospital, the most well-equipped in Gaza, has been under bombardment. Israel is arguing that Hamas has bombed their own hospital. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC News, who witnessed the shelling, reported otherwise, although the story from NBC has changed repeatedly without explanation.
This is yet another example of Netanyahu’s—as he speaks of his war on Gaza being one of “civilization vs. barbarism”—violating Geneva protocols.
As Allison Deger summed up in her searing report on Al-Wafa hospital,
According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) hospitals are protected sites. Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: ‘The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit…acts harmful to the enemy.’ The Geneva Convention also requires ‘a reasonable time limit,” for allowing an evacuation. If a hospital is used to launch weapons, under IHL it can only be targeted when there is an imminent strike originating from the location. Even storing caches of weapons do not meet international law’s stringent threshold for firing on humanitarian sites.
As for Al-Wafa, there were no weapons, no rockets. Just doctors, nurses and patients. Just teenagers, like Aya, paralyzed with a tumor on her spine, being transported with makeshift gurneys into an open space. Just bodies. Just civilians increasingly seen as legitimate targets by the IDF.
One final point. I write this from a hospital bed in the middle of the night, with help from a bedside lamp and extension cord attached to my computer. In other words, I have electricity.
The main power plant of Gaza has been bombed, plunging the city into darkness. CNN reported that this was either an accident of the IDF or Hamas took out their own power. (If Wolf Blitzer said Hamas was killing Israeli unicorns with the key to eternal life at this point, no one in Atlanta would blink.) Fox News was more blunt, saying that Israel was “striking at symbols of Hamas’s power.” How the media spin this is irrelevant to the pressing fact that it has imperiled every health facility for a place with a population three times the size of Washington, DC. I have a lot of worries right now, but the absence of electricity is not one of them. Nothing exposes the lies underpinning Netanyahu’s battle for “civilization” quite like this kind of savagery. Nothing feels more illustrative of the horrors Israel has unleashed quite like feeling privileged that my hospital isn’t under lethal attack from the skies.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on violence against women in the NFL