Where sports and politics collide.
“His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
You may or may not remember the name Mahmoud Sarsak, subject of the most important and most underreported sports story of 2012. Sarsak is the Palestinian national team soccer player who was jailed for three years without charges by the Israeli government. He was denied contact with his family, a trial and kept largely in solitary confinement for reasons that bewilder his loved ones to this day. Finally Sarsak was freed after refusing food for ninety days, losing a third of his body weight, and through his personal agony, spurring international outrage. (Having 2,000 fellow hunger strikers certainly helped.) Organizations like Amnesty International, the 50,000-strong international union of soccer players, FIFpro and even Sepp Blatter, the morally sclerotic leader of FIFA, called for his release. Israel relented but that is clearly not the end of Sarsak’s story.
Now Mahmoud Sarsak is in the news again after refusing an invitation sent by the legendary team FC Barcelona to attend its October Clasico match next week against Real Madrid. Sarsak will not make the trip because FC Barcelona wants him there to mute planned protests against the presence of another person invited to attend the match, former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Sergeant Major Gilad Shalit. Shalit is an Israeli folk hero after being a prisoner of war for five years, captured by Hamas in Gaza on June 25, 2006, on the cusp of Israel’s brutal 2006 bombing campaign in Lebanon, known as the “July War.” One of the many circulated petitions protesting the Shalit invite was specifically written and signed by Palestinian soccer players and endorsed by entire clubs. Their petition read:
“We, Palestinian footballers, athletes and sporting organizations and officials, are dismayed to learn the great team of Barcelona will host Gilad Shalit to the Clasico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, on October 7th, while more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting, many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released….Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine."
FC Barcelona had to respond to the torrent of criticism on its website, stating that contrary to reports it did not in fact invite Shalit itself but “accepted a request” from Israeli authorities to have Shalit “watch a match during his visit to Barcelona.” In the same press release, Barcelona announced its intent to unite Shalit and Sarsak as a symbol of efforts to bring “peace and harmony to the Middle East.”
But this is one game Sarsak wouldn’t play. As Sarsak said of Sgt. Maj. Shalit, “His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
Sarsak also made clear that understood that the roots of the invite wasn’t a desire for “peace and harmony” but a response to protest. “I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.”
The courage of this decision is very real. Not only was Sarsak rejecting FC Barcelona but also his own Palestinian embassy officials who formally asked him to attend. He was making clear that peace and harmony with Sgt. Maj. Gilad Shalit in the current circumstances would do more harm than good, selling the idea that peace under the current circumstances of quarantine and occupation was a peace worth having. As Sarsak said, “I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona but not [as] an invitation for normalization.”
Sarsak also stated that he didn’t want anyone to interpret his rejection of the invite as a refusal to speak out politically about his time behind bars. “It is a great honor and it is a victory for a Palestinian prisoner and for the Palestinian cause and a victory for our principles and stances that a prisoner who is at the same time an athlete should go out and explain the suffering of his people,” he said. “But in the presence of the soldier Gilad Shalit on the same stands, I will refuse this invitation.”
The NFL referee lockout is over and we now have an answer to the question, “What does it take to pierce the shame-free cocoon of unreality where NFL owners reside?” All you need, it seems, is condemnation across the political spectrum ranging from the president of the United States to small-town mayors, to even anti-union corporate lickspittles like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. All you need is one of your flagship teams, the Green Bay Packers, publicly threatening to strike or “take a knee on every play.” All you need are your star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees blasting your product. All you need are online petitions with miles of signatures and 70,000 fans calling the league offices in the twenty-four hours following the debacle of a Monday night game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. All of this collective scorn finally punctured the owners’ magical mental space, bringing them to the negotiating table to settle.
The deal is damn near a slam dunk for the NFL referees. Remember the root of this lockout was two-fold: the league wanted to end the pension system and ban refs from holding jobs outside of the sport. Now the league will continue—and even increase—the pension payouts for the next five years before a negotiated transfer to a 401(k). Refs will also be given a 25 percent hike in pay starting next year, with more salary increases until the end of the seven-year agreement. The NFL owners wanted to hire twenty-one more officials to phase in as full-time employees. The refs agreed to seven new full-time hires, and no restrictions on their own abilities to take outside work. In other words, Roger Goodell and the owners were shellacked by the same people they locked out, dismissed, and disrespected. The now infamous words of NFL VP Ray Anderson, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game,” is now the league’s version of “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”
But there is a bigger story here as well: the entire country received a high-def, prime-time lesson in the difference between skilled, union labor and a ramshackle operation of unskilled scabs. When Scott Walker is sticking up for the union, you know we’ve arrived at a teachable moment worth shouting from the hills. People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment. We should ask not only the Scott Walkers of the world but politicians of both parties drinking from the same neoliberal fever-swamp, Why do you think we need skilled union labor on the football field but not in our firehouses, our classrooms, or even our uranium facilities? Similarly players need to be asking questions to the owners: how can you actually posture like you care about our health and safety ever again after subjecting us to this hazardous environment the first three weeks of the season—or, as Drew Brees tweeted, “Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?”
Lastly, it’s another embarrassment after a year of embarrassments, for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has through his arrogance placed an asterisk on this season, left an indelible mark on his legacy as commissionerand created a crisis of confidence in his ability to do his job. He learned that people may not pay to watch referees, but they do pay to watch a competently officiated contest. He also hopefully learned that if there’s one thing people don’t pay to watch, it’s him: sweating before the cameras and doing his damnedest to make the NFL a reflection of the worst corporate arrogance. Hear the message, Roger. This $9 billion league? This unprecedented popularity? This immense national audience? You didn’t build that. Your owners didn’t build that. Your sponsors didn’t build that. It was built by the blood, sweat and tears of those on the field of play, including the referees. It was built by fans who invest their passion and the taxpayers who have underwritten your archipelago of mega-domes in cities across the country. I can’t wait for the union refs to be cheered when they take the field this weekend. We may go back to booing them after the first play, but it will be with respect: respect earned because they stood as one and beat the NFL bosses.
For more on the referee lockout, watch Dave Zirin talk about how the dispute highlighted the problem of class in the US on Democracy Now!
In the ongoing lockout of NFL referees, we have officially now made the journey from tragedy to farce. The tragedy is a collection of team owners sacrificing the very integrity of their sport and risking the very health of its players over a pittance. The farce was last night’s game where the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in a game decided by a blown call that, as ESPN commentator Herm Edwards put it, “Four drunk guys in a bar could have gotten right.”
The tragedy is that there is no settlement, fans are outraged and a preventable brutal injury is just lurking around the corner because the league’s “first responders” are rank, scab incompetents.
The farce is that the NFL owners are so isolated that they can’t see that everyone wants the union refs back, even the Governor whose political fortunes are underwritten by right-wing, anti-labor billionaires: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Yes, that Scott Walker. The same governor who waged war on union teachers and firefighters without care for the social costs, wants his union refs back. Late last night, the Green Bay Packers fan tweeted, “After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs.” The gall of Scott Walker possesses the power of a tsunami.
At least we know where the governor’s priorities are. Unskilled, underpaid, poorly performing teachers and firefighters don’t trouble him. Poorly officiated NFL games do. Maybe he’ll call the Wisconsin National Guard on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as that’s his preferred negotiating tactic.
The only way we’re going to break this cycle of tragedy and farce is the self-activity of players themselves.
It’s their health, their safety and the integrity of their game on the line. If fans boycotted, the money toward owners would still flow in the form of television money and luxury boxes. The only thing that dams the mighty $9 billion revenue stream of the National Football League is if the players refuse to play. The current NFL is in a state of crisis because of management. But a solution can be posed by labor.
For more on the NFL referee lockout, read Dave Zirin's previous post.
As a child, my family owned just one lonely Zenith-brand television with no remote and no cable box. My fearsome big sister controlled the set under threat of violence and would subject me to the lowest form of entertainment: bloopers. Shows like TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes or its sad network competition Foul-Ups, Bleeps, and Blunders—which was co-hosted, amazingly, by Don Rickles—blared throughout our house and like a squat, Jewish Scarlett O’Hara, I swore I would never watch such dreck again.
But now the National Football League owners and their Commissioner Roger Goodell, in their infinite greed, have returned the blooper show to the airwaves with the weekly hijinks of their stumbling, bumbling, scab referees. The lockout of union refs has turned the nation’s Sunday NFL ritual into a profane farce. You could look at it as a living argument for the importance of trained union labor, or like a dangerous practical joke: a group of Sacha Baron Cohens in black and white stripes poking at fans and players to see just how much they’ll take before they snap.
Yesterday we were served the spectacle of 49er coach Jim Harbaugh berating some meek scab into giving him both an extra challenge flag and an additional timeout. Then there was the sight of the referee who threw his hat on the field of play, causing receiver Kevin Ogletree to step on it and slip awkwardly in the end zone. Fortunately, his knee ligaments remained attached. But this was all high comedy compared to seeing helmet-to-helmet hits go unregulated, Bill Belichick physically accosting an official and 70,000 fans in Baltimore chanting “bullsh*t” in unison for a solid minute. The owners might want to note that it’s only funny until the peasants grab pitchforks.
Then there are the announcers who with few exceptions talk about these foul-ups, bleeps and blunders like Roger Goodell has electrodes attached to their nether-regions, ready to zap at the slightest critique. In the game I was watching most intently, Washington against the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like I was viewing Soviet state television. Replays weren’t shown to the television audience after missed calls; commercial breaks would cut in rather than dwell on errant whistles; and worst of all, when mentioned, the announcers would speak reverently of the struggles of “replacement referees.” Calling these scabs “replacement referees” is like calling a befouled outhouse a “replacement toilet.” Scour across every minute of every broadcast and the word “scab” is going unuttered. To call them otherwise is like calling a flasher in Central Park a “penile exposure expert.” Their very existence on this elevated cultural plane degrades all labor, organized or not. Their incompetence is an affront to fans and an actual physical danger to players.
The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is that the NFL Players Association is finally being proactive in trying to end this. On September 20 the NFLPA Executive Committee, which includes current players like Drew Brees and Charlie Batch, sent a scathing letter addressed to the owners of NFL teams where they said, in part:
Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.… The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling.… We are all men who love and respect this game and believe that it represents something beyond just money. For our teammates, our coaches and our fans who deserve better, vote to end this lockout now.
This letter represents an escalation in the NFLPA’s rhetoric and direct involvement in the lockout. The next step would be if the players announce that they would not take the field if scabs are also there to officiate. Such a move would end the lockout faster than RG III’s forty-yard sprint-time. Critics will say that a secondary strike might not be legal. Perhaps, but allowing players to put their health in the hands of such incompetents isn’t ethical and the NFLPA has a specific charge to safeguard the safety of the players. They are also the only force in the game capable of ending the madness. We could organize a historic fan boycott 1,000,000 strong and it wouldn’t even make a micro-dent in the NFL’s profit margins. But if only two players on each team, the offensive and defensive captains, held a ten-minute press conference saying that the lockout has to end or no more football, then it would end. They would also be showing the bosses who’s boss. It’s time for a secondary-strike so we can quickly move beyond what is quickly becoming one of the darker chapters in NFL history. Please do it, before someone really gets hurt.
Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin interviewed Rio de Janeiro mayoral candidate Marcelo Frexio on September 18, 2012.
No matter the host city, no matter the country, the International Olympic Committee depends on compliance from local politicians to achieve its objectives. It needs to displace locals, a massive security apparatus and access to public funds. But there may be a “fly in the ointment” waiting for it in Rio for the 2016 games, and he is mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo.
Currently there are eight people running to be mayor of this city of 6.3 million people. Leading the pack is the longtime incumbent, Eduardo Paes, who has fit very snugly in the back pocket of the IOC, not to mention the real estate and private transportation barons funding his campaign. Second is Marcelo Freixo from PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party. Paes is polling at 54 percent of the vote and Freixo stands at 18 percent in the field of eight, with no one else over 2 percent. But what matters when the polls close on October 7 is whether Paes finishes at under 50 percent. Then he would face Freixo in a one-on-one runoff with equal television time mandated by law. Paes’s financial advantage, which is thirty times Freixo’s, would be blunted. It would become a battle of grassroots enthusiasm and on that score, based on the rallies I’ve attended and posters in the favelas, Freixo could win. This would prompt a massive change in Rio’s Olympic agenda.
The October 7 elections may not attract the eyes of the world, but they have captured the nervous attention of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the IOC. They’re right to be nervous. As Freixo says, “They don’t want [to deal with] a mayor. They want a functionary.”
Freixo is 45 years old but appears ten years younger, topped by a thick head of dark hair without a hint of gray. He’s a state assemblyman, former schoolteacher, human rights activist and prison educator. He achieved renown by challenging Rio’s brutal private militias after they murdered his brother in 2005. Freixo speaks with a scratchy, hoarse voice under hooded eyes, a sign of the 24-7 grassroots campaign that has him speaking constantly across the city.
Here we speak to Marcelo Freixo.
Dave Zirin: Why are you running for mayor and what do you hope to bring to the city?
Marcelo Freixo: This is possibly the most important election in the history of Rio. What’s being contested is the future of the city. Rio is on a schedule of change now that no other city in the world has and this calendar [this pace] is bringing very profound changes to the city. The hegemonic project that is being developed right now will create a more unequal city. In this context, I accepted when I was asked to enter this contest for mayor. It will be a very difficult fight, but it’s very important.
What is your assessment of the preparations for the Olympics and the World Cup here in Rio?
The truth is that the preparations are attending to the interests of big corporations and not of society. We had the experience of the Pan American games in 2007 where no benefits were brought to the city. We have currently a city with enormous investments, but also enormous social aggravators. The federal ministry of health recently released a study showing the Rio has the worst public health system on offer in all of Brazil. Additionally, we have precarious and very expensive public transport. We also have a very low-quality education system—one of the worst. So it’s a city with enormous investments taking place, but one that can’t guarantee a minimum standard of living for its citizens.
If you are elected mayor, what would you be able to do differently with regards to the Olympics and World Cup—which of course are coming to Rio no matter what? What would you be able to do in power to mitigate the worst effects of these mega-events on the poor?
The investments being brought here should be thinking about the city and not just profits. They should be directed towards things that will benefit the poor like transportation and increasing transparency. These are things that can improve with the staging of these events.
The transparency of how these resources are being spent would change [if I’m elected]. Right now there’s absolutely no transparency in the investments or in the construction that’s happening. The construction works are being made to benefit the construction companies and not the population. The Olympics must leave a positive legacy for the population.
If you are elected mayor, would you be able to promise that there would be no involuntary displacements for the Olympics and World Cup?
I’m radically against the politics of evictions. The way they are happening today is illegal and arbitrary. The law determines that the priority should be the upgrading of the resident’s home. And that if it’s necessary that the house is removed, that the residents are relocated nearby. That’s not what is happening today. The evictions today are just attending to the needs of real estate speculation. Take the federal government’s “Minha Casa, Minha Vida”—my house, my life—program. [This is a federally administered public and affordable housing program]. For residents in this program who earn zero to three times the minimum wage, the lowest income-earners, 87 percent of them have been relocated in the extreme west zone which is without basic sanitation, schools or hospitals.
I know people connected to the IOC who say that it’s their worst nightmare, the thought of you being elected mayor. Do you want to say anything to calm their concerns?
The people from the IOC need to know the city a bit better. My only objective is to ensure the interests of society are higher than private interests. But I’m happy to know that they are worried…. The IOC does not want a mayor, they want a functionary who will carry out their plans.
A question about the social movements of which you are part: do you think that whether or not you are elected that the social movements will grow and take a strong stand to make sure that people are put ahead of profit with regard to the Olympic and World Cup planning?
The social movements are growing increasingly strong here. In the 1990s we suffered a decline in the movements, but I think now in this moment they are increasing. And that’s what is giving our campaign increasing dynamism. Our campaign has managed to bring together many of these movements, which is rare because the social movements rarely dialogue with electoral politics. Independently of the outcome of the election, I believe the social movements are gaining strength, and after the elections they will emerge stronger. Today there was a very interesting article in O Globo newspaper that’s worth reading. It talks about “rebellious Rio” and it mentions our campaign. It talks about the rebellious side of Rio that is coming back, and that is reflected in this campaign.
The Olympics are seen as the “crown jewel” of [former Brazilian President] Lula’s tenure as the leader of Brazil. Has the reign of the Workers Party been helpful or destructive to the growth of the left in Brazil today?
The arrival of Lula in power actually weakened social movements initially because it co-opted them. These were people who had historically fought side by side with the PT [Lula’s Worker’s Party] and with Lula. So they naturally wanted to go with Lula, but many of them were co-opted as Lula moved to the right during his time in office.
One of the damaging aspects of this is that for young people, it looks like all parties are the same. That they all form coalitions and come to power and behave in a similarly corrupt way.
Lula is now allied with Fernando Collar who was impeached in the early 1990s, and with Sarne, who was a corrupt politician, Brazil’s first democratically elected president [after the end of the military dictatorship]. They’re all now aligned in the government. This generated amongst the population a sense that “they’re all the same.” That’s very difficult to reverse. We are working on this, trying to reverse this perception: that’s why our campaign has involved social movements as well as many young people.
What do you say to people who say that neoliberalism has been good for Brazil? That there’s more stability, not just for tourists, but for the poor as well, that people have been lifted out of poverty, etc?
We have some social assistance programs that are very strong, that is true. But in terms of distribution of wealth, Brazil is still a country of latifundios: there is still an enormous concentration of land ownership that actually has gotten worse. It’s still one of the most unequal countries in the world. There’s a prevailing idea of growth that is more focused on corporations and agribusiness than on the people who need the land. But of course, if you compare Lula with his predecessor Cardoso, there are advances but fewer than we could have had. And that’s the problem. Because we compare him with Cardoso, and not with what is possible in terms of really eliminating inequality.
It’s very common to hear political commentators in the United States say that “socialism” is a word for the twentieth century and not the twenty-first century. But your candidacy has been very successful here as a PSOL candidate. What do you say to people who say that socialism is an ideology of the past and not the future?
Of course, we are not going to create socialism by winning one election in Rio. I’m running for office, and not running a revolution. But there are political principles at stake: the conception of the public servant, what is the role of the state, transparency, the relationship with youth. Why education and healthcare should be priorities. Even well short of a revolution, we can achieve significant changes in all these areas.
I believe you once headed a union of teachers—is that correct?
Yes, many years ago.
The teachers of Chicago just ended their strike of the third-largest teacher’s union in the United States. Do you have any words of solidarity for them?
The ideal is that we never need a strike. That teachers are always seen as important and that they are valued as such, and the importance of public education is recognized. But many governments don’t see it in their interests to have quality public education—they are actually fearful of quality public education, because they fear people being educated and informed. The more the people can think, the more they can act. And in this sense, there is no other path, the teachers have to fight.
For more on the politics of the 2016 Olympics, read Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”
Carlos Tukano worries that the hundred-year-old Indigenous Cultural Center will be demolished for Maracanã Stadium parking spaces.
Carlos Tukano is around 50, give or take a few years. He’s an indigenous Brazilian born in the state of Amazonas who worked for thirty years to build a collective organization of Brazil’s dozens of indigenous groups. Now he lives in Rio and cannot sleep.
There’s no sleeping when a 1 billion Real ($500 million) fast-track construction project is happening next door, with twenty-four-hours-a-day of deafening noise: of jackhammers, cranes and whistles that mark the shift-changes of blue-overalled construction workers.
It’s the price of living adjacent to perhaps the most famous sports arena on earth, Maracanã Stadium, now undergoing a massive facelift in preparation for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
That’s not the only reason Carlos can’t sleep. He lives with eleven other families in the remains of the city’s abandoned Indigenous Cultural Center, and all the residents fear they will be swept away with the construction’s debris.
The families live in trailers next to the museum in protest of its dilapidation, disrespect and neglect. Founded in 1910, the Indigenous Cultural Center is an achingly beautiful three-story structure with twenty-foot-high ceilings and a world of history. While the formal museum is gone, there are now several makeshift exhibits and cultural displays put in place by the current occupiers, but the interior is in terrible disrepair. The floors are covered in rubble. The wrought-iron stairs still have their skeletal shape, but the handrails and marble stair treads are ripped out. Climbing them is like going up sixty feet on an diagonal ladder, and it’s a long way down.
But the site has a history that reaches back decades. It was one of the first indigenous cultural museum’s in the Western Hemisphere, built just two decades after the country formally abolished indigenous enslavement. “We speak to the government and they just put us off,” says Carlos. “But we will not leave because we want a place to show the power, history and pride of the indigenous people.”
The entire structure could be rebuilt for 20 million real, a pittance compared to the Maracanã rebuild. This is particularly so considering that five years ago, the government spent 400 million reals to refurbish the stadium—changes that are now being completely demolished in the current renovations.
With only a fraction of these funds, the Indigenous Cultural Center could become a symbol of Brazil’s rich and diverse history. It could even be an attraction for those coming to Rio for the World Cup and Olympics, a feel-good advertisement for the beneficence of the Brazilian state. Instead, it’s slated to become parking lots.
This is why one of the occupiers, Arrasari, says, “I am not moving. I will stay until I am not more than a pillar of salt. They think we’ll go because they’ve cut us down like trees. But the root remains.”
The same logic that drives the bulldozing of the Indigenous Cultural Center into parking space mirrors the renovation of the Maracanã itself. The “Circus Maximus” of Brazil’s soccer-loving multitudes, with a capacity that could once stretch to 200,000, is being downsized, sanitized and utterly transformed. The new Maracana will seat only 70,000 people, ringed by luxury boxes, and is intended be sold off to private business interests after the 2016 games.
As Chris Gaffney, a professor of architecture and urbanism in Rio who writes and organizes on the effects of mega-event,s said, “It’s the killing of popular space in order to sell Brazil’s culture to an international audience.”
Rebuilding the Maracana is a twenty-four-hour job: three eight-hour shifts, a constant flow of workers rebuilding their stadium into a structure they won’t be able to afford to enter.
In the meantime, Carlos cannot sleep. Outside his bedroom hangs a billboard displaying for passers-by the new Maracana. It’s topped by a Brazilian flag with the slogan, “Brazil: A country for everyone.” From a distance, we can call this irony. For Carlos, it’s an obscenity.
For more stories of Olympic injustice, see Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”
Vila Autodromo resident Armando shows us his house, which the city government of Rio de Janeiro wants to demolish for a 2016 Olympic site.
You can’t understand what the 2016 Olympics are going to do to Rio de Janeiro, unless you understand what went into building Armando’s house. Armando is a diesel mechanic who lives in a community known as Vila Autodromo, so named because it sits right outside the city’s famed Formula 1 racetrack. Armando built his home from scratch over the course of fifteen years. Now it’s two stories high with plumbing, electricity, and his own sweat and handiwork in every square inch. The fixtures, the tile, even the wire to a lamp stretched tightly so it hangs behind a framed picture of his son and gorgeous twin grandchildren, bear the marks of toil and love.
His home has also been targeted for demolition by the city government of Rio for the good of the next Summer Olympic games.
As his six toddler grandchildren played underfoot, Armando expressed his frustration:
“We are fighting for our right to survive here. Our right to live. Do you know how many years I’ve worked my butt off to build this house? I did it for my kids and for my grand kids so we would have a place to live and be a family, so days like today we could all have space to be together.”
Armando’s situation isn’t unique. The 3,000 people of Vila Autodromo are all facing forced eviction.
Vila Autodromo is a target for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s a favela. “Favela” is commonly translated as “slum”, although that really doesn’t do places like Vila Autodromo justice.
All favelas share a common history as squatter settlements that were developed autonomously by Brazil’s working poor and unemployed—with minimal government support. Today, many of them are quite large—sometimes 100,000 people or more—and contain within them a wide range of income levels and employment statuses, as well as churches, schools and small businesses. Many, if not most, favela houses are solidly built with materials not commonly associated with slums, and usually have electricity, running water, as well as Internet access.
The Olympic preparations have put these “slums” in the cross hairs of city officials, President Dilma Rouseff and the International Olympic Committee. But to enter a favela like Vila Autodromo is to see a place that could teach the powers that be something about civilization. I don’t want to romanticize the poverty and very real day-to-day struggles to survive many in Vila Autodromo face. But I saw a community where people keep their doors open and children play joyously with each other in the streets. It’s a place where people like Armando’s build and develop their homes over decades to fit their changing families.
It’s a peaceful, beautiful community, and herein lies another obstacle to Armando’s keeping his house. It’s too beautiful. The land on one side of Vila Autodromo faces the F1 track, but the other side rests right on a large picturesque lagoon—Lagoa de Jacarepaguá—that looks like it was plucked from a postcard. That means the developers and real estate speculators, according to many residents, drive through salivating at the thought of taking it over. The Olympics provide the pretext. Across the lagoon stand luxury condominiums.
The neighborhood ringing the lagoon as well as Vila Autodromo is Barra da Tijuca, one of the fastest-growing middle- and upper-income parts of the city. Think parts of Northern Virginia: strip malls and a car culture so intense you need to drive to get from one side of the street to the other. Theresa Williamson, founder of the nonprofit Catalytic Communities that aims to raise the visibility of the favelas, said to me, “People on the other side of the lagoon see Vila Autodromo and they see an eyesore. But people here as well as sympathizers look at the pollution, development, the high rises, and see the same.”
The plans for Vila Autodromo are always shifting. On one master plan, it will become a parking lot. On another, a bizarrely serpentine superhighway. The shape-shifting goals obscure the real objective: take over Vila Autodromo.
Jane Nascimiento, who is a director of the neighborhood’s association, said to me:
“You can’t have an Olympic legacy that hurts the very people who built the city. To them this is like covering trash with a red carpet. They want to walk all over the carpet and not look at what is underneath.”
If they look underneath, they’ll see something worth preserving. It’s not too late. We’re going to save Armando’s home. I asked him if there was anything anyone could do to help and he said, “Just let people know that we’re here…and we don’t want to leave.”
For more on the impact of Olympic construction in Rio, see Zirin's report on the hundred-year-old Indigenous Cultural Center that will be demolished for Maracanã Stadium parking.
This is a column about rules. It’s about rules we are expected to follow and rules that the rulers—call them the new aristocracy, the 1 percent, the Masters of the Universe—don’t deign to notice. It’s about hypocrisy, double standards and twisted logic. But it’s really about a strike and two lockouts that on basic principle demand our support.
The Chicago teacher’s strike has more angles than Cecil Cooper’s swing. But there is one criminally under-discussed aspect of it. It would be so helpful if just one of the many politicians and newspaper editorial boards lining up to lambast the teacher’s union could explain why Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision for a model Chicago public school is so at odds with the education he is providing for his own children. Mayor Rahm is fighting to create a school system dominated by high-pressured standardized testing. Everyone and everything must bow to the test. Cut art, cut music, cut physical education, extend the school day and create an educational environment that revolves around filling in a bubble.
Yet Rahm sends his own children to the University of Chicago Lab School. As labor journalist Mike Elk reported, “The Lab School has seven full-time art teachers to serve a student population of 1,700. By contrast, only 25 percent of Chicago’s ‘neighborhood elementary schools’ have both a full-time art and music instructor. The Lab School has three different libraries, while 160 Chicago public elementary schools do not have a library.”
Rahm wants less art and more standardized testing for Chicago’s children, while he wants more art and less high-stakes testing for his own children. One set of rules for him and one for the rest of us.
Then there is the ongoing lockout of 119 National Football League referees. NFL owners, led by their flak-catching Commissioner Roger Goodell, don’t care that for the cost of several dozen Peyton Manning autographed footballs, they could rehire their highly trained officials. This is a league that secretes money, but the billionaires in the owner’s box can’t stand the thought of paying for competent officiating when there are replacements willing to work for less pounding at the doors.
The connective tissue with the teachers of Chicago isn’t the greed. It’s the gap. It’s the gap between the rules Commissioner Goodell and the owners expect others to follow and their own moral code. Goodell has decided to make the “health and safety” of players golden buzzwords that justify all decisions. “Health and safety” are why players should be fined $50,000 for “helmet to helmet contact." “Health and safety” are why the league leveled reckless “bounty” allegations against four members of the New Orleans Saints, despite what’s now been deemed an absence of evidence. And Roger Goodell’s care for the “health and safety” of players is why the league just donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health to study brain disease.
Yet here are the NFL referees, uniquely charged and trained to protect the health and safety of players, and they can’t get on the field. The very people called “the first responders” by the league, comparing them to emergency medical technicians, have been locked out. I don’t want to argue just how embarrassing their scab lingerie-football-league replacements have been. The point is that Roger Goodell has one set of standards of safeguarding “health and safety” for players and another for himself, just as Rahm Emanuel feels that there is a kind of school good enough for his children, but not anyone else’s.
Lastly, the owners of the National Hockey League are going to lock out their players this weekend. This will be the league’s fourth work stoppage since 1992. Rather than negotiate, commissioner Gary Bettman has left the players with a “take-it-or-leave it” proposal. Since the league canceled their 2004 season in the last lockout, revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. Despite this growth, or perhaps because of this growth, owners wanted players to cut their piece of the pie from 57 to 43 percent. But the issue isn’t the revenue. It’s the existing contracts. As one official said to me, “This isn’t about revenue as much as it is that they don’t want to have to pay the contracts offered over the last year. They want to be able to rip up and renegotiate all existing contracts. They want us to save them from themselves.”
And here once again we encounter the problem of rules. A contract is supposed to be an inviolate, legally binding agreement. That’s what working families were told when they signed onto the predatory loans that eventually claimed their homes. That’s what we are told when our cars are repossessed. That’s what the union autoworkers in the United States were told only to see their wages slashed in half in the much-ballyhooed auto-industry bailout. Instead not only NHL players but also all of us get sent a message that a contract is only worth a damn if those in power choose to honor it.
There is no winning a game when the rules have been rigged, but there is power in numbers. There is power in struggle. And there is power in pizza. The easiest way to support Chicago teachers is to order them a piping hot pizza pie. You can get food to the picket lines by calling Gus or Daisy at Primo’s Pizza at (312) 243-1052. When pizza shows up to the tired picketers, everyone’s spirits are lifted. It’s read to them from which part of the country a pie was ordered and it makes them feel that much less alone. We don’t have the power of a Rahm Emanuel or Roger Goodell. But we do have numbers and perhaps we can even the score one pizza at a time.
Speaking out always holds the risk of a backlash: especially for pro athletes and especially when standing up for LGBT equality. The Baltimore Ravens’ Brendan Ayanbadejo experienced that reality this week. For years, the 36-year-old Ayanbadejo has been outspoken in support of Marriage Equality and LGBT rights. Now, Ayanbadejo is publicly supporting a November ballot initiative for Maryland to join the states that recognize same-sex marriage. This was too much for Baltimore County state delegate Emmett Burns. Burns, a Democrat, sent a formal letter to Ravens team owner Steve Biscotti writing, among other things, “I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse same-sex marriage, specifically as a Raven Football player…. I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.” Then Burns went even farther and requested that Biscotti, “take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.” Yes, you read that correctly. Burns is calling on Ayanbadejo’s boss to coerce him to shut up.
It’s worth noting that this last statement just isn’t true. Players such as Scott Fujita, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, the San Francisco 49ers team and even Sports Illustrated NFL preview coverboy Rob Gronkowski have all spoken out for LGBT rights. Ayanbadejo responded to Burns forcefully, defending his own freedom of expression and then saying to USA Today, “It’s an equality issue. I see the big picture. There was a time when women didn’t have rights. Black people didn’t have rights. Right now, gay rights is a big issue and it’s been for a long time. We’re slowly chopping down the barriers to equality.”
But the greatest response to Burns and perhaps to anything in the history of everything was made by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe also happens to believe in LGBT rights as well as the rights of athletes to be able to speak their minds. The punter sat down at his computer and produced the greatest political statement by any athlete ever… or at least since Muhammad Ali told the US government that “the real enemy of my people is here.” Perhaps that’s hyperbole. Certainly it’s arguable. But what’s undeniable is the greatness of Kluwe’s rant. I quote my favorite parts below, but I strongly encourage people to read it in its entirety here at deadspin. Warning that it’s brilliantly profane, or profanely brilliant, so you might not want to print it out at work and leave it lying around. Then again, if you work in a place with NFL fans prone to homophobic slurs, you might want to leave it everywhere.
Kluwe begins by calling out Burns for his “vitriolic hatred and bigotry.” He then schools Burns on the constitution, the First Amendment and the history of racism and segregation in the NFL, But the coup de grâce was his defense of LGBT equality.
I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c—kmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you? In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterf-ck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I’m fairly certain you might need it.
Kluwe then ends by writing, “P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your ‘I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing’ and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. A—hole.”
For the first time in football history, a punter is truly leading the way. Thank you Chis Kluwe, for the greatest political statement made by any athlete in decades. The fact that it happens to be about LGBT rights only shows how far we’ve traveled, in the streets and in the locker rooms.
Beneath the fireworks, concerts and breathless hype that will mark the start of the 2012 NFL season, is a league that’s haunted. It’s haunted by future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau who killed himself in May at the age of 43. It’s haunted by the recent suicides of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and OJ Murdock. It’s haunted by the now widespread knowledge that the country’s most popular sport can leave you damaged in ways never before suspected. What a sign of the times that the start of the season wasn’t punctuated today with chest-thumping and military flyovers but with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement that the league’s owners would be donating $30 million to the National Institute of Health to further study the affects of brain injuries.This recognition of the danger inherent in the sport has sparked a high profile debate across the political spectrum. The terms of the debate are simple: Given all we are learning about head injuries, should football be banned? Should it be the focus of a new prohibition movement? Both sides of this debate, I would argue, leave much to be desired.
On the right, you have people like Rush Limbaugh saying that any discussion about prohibition, or even mild reforms like rule changes or limiting full-contact drills, isn’t about science or the welfare of players but really about a nefarious plot to end freedom. As he said, “It’s not going to be long before the wusses, the New Castrati in our society are going to suggest that tackle football be banned.”
Perhaps the best response to this “wuss” argument was Junior Seau himself who said to his friend, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, “Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don’t have a father who can’t remember his name because of the game, I’m pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids’ name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn’t there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren’t changing. That’s not right.”
But there is one thing Limbaugh is poking at that’s actually true. A lot of the people who are making the prohibition argument are reasoning that players somehow need to be saved from themselves as well as saved from us, the bloodthirsty mob. The most prominent prohibitionist is probably celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s argument is that football is like dog fighting, another “barbaric” sport that was once legal but which, as he argues, we now look down upon and criminalize. He implies that players are like the dogs: good people, bred to be violent, who need to be saved. As he wrote in The New Yorker, “In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain….A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess ‘gameness,’ and game dogs are revered. Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness.”
It’s an argument drenched in condescension as well as a kind of neo-missionary racism. This is one of those moments when having some perspective is very important. If people like Gladwell want to raise awareness against unsafe working conditions, there are much more productive places to turn to than the NFL. The United States has the most unsafe workplaces in the industrialized world and more US workers died on the job in 2011 than US soldiers have died in Iraq since 9/11. If you want to see US workers treated like “dogs,” visit a non-union auto-plant.
To really get at the fundamental error here, we can go back to another prohibition movement, the movement a century ago to ban alcohol. Prohibition found sympathy among a diverse set of characters, including the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. But Debs never went all in on prohibition.
In one letter to a prohibition leader, he said, “I admit all you say about the liquor evil, and we differ only in the way this evil will be destroyed. Prohibition will never do it…. Theft and murder are prohibited but it is to be doubted if these crimes are lessened to any appreciable extent on that account. The world pays too much attention to the effects while it ignores causes and this is as true of the liquor evil as it is of any of the evils that afflict society.”
Apply this reasoning to football. It’s a violent sport that reflects our violent world. If we want to change the culture of the sport, we’d be far better off rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on changing the world.
The best way to understand the NFL is to see it as another of this country’s profoundly unsafe workplace. Efforts by the NFLPA to make it as humane as possible should be supported. The insistence of NFL owners to use untrained replacement “scab” referees should be seen as a direct attack on the health and safety of players. As fans we should also never forget that the people on the field are actual human beings taking a tremendous beating for our entertainment. And here we get to a kind of knowledge that’s very difficult to shake. As Arundhati Roy said in a rather dramatically different context, “The trouble is, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” For the first time in my life, I could imagine myself drifting away from a game that’s brought me such joy over the years. I can’t unsee Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. None of us should. And if that affects the bottom line of NFL owners, it serves them right for caring so little for so many years about the people we’ve tuned in to watch.