Where sports and politics collide.
Jonathan Cohn asked an interesting question at The New Republic this week. Where is the mainstream, right-wing reaction to NFL prospect and SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay? This is, after all, a historic story that far transcends the world of football. The news has been at the heart of sports radio and social media commentary for the last week, dwarfing even the Sochi Olympics, for obvious reasons. We have never had an openly gay player in one of the major men’s leagues in the United States, and now, with the bravery of one young man, it looks like an imminent reality.
Many NFL owners, a group that skews decidedly right-wing in both their politics and their financial donations, have gone out of their way this week to tell the world that Michael Sam’s announcement would not effect how they assessed his draft status. Denver Broncos GM John Elway, a person who showed up on Fox News before the Super Bowl to espouse his proud Republican Party identification, praised Sam’s undeniable courage and said, “The bottom line is that it’s about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career.” Elway would seem like an obvious guest for Fox to discuss Michael Sam, and yet the most watched network on cable news has chosen to create a reality where Sam does not exist. Further symbolizing their confusion was Rush Limbaugh, who sounded like that unhinged relative you try to avoid as much as possible. Limbaugh’s commentary about the subject centered on the thesis that “heterosexuals are under assault,” which, in this context, doesn’t even make sense.
Yes, the crazies in Westboro Baptist Church and some of the more reptilian swamps of the right-wing blogosphere have let loose with the homophobia, but the mainstream has been silent. It is not just Fox. Doesn’t National Review or The Weekly Standard have anything interesting, or even uninteresting, to say about any of this? Nothing? Really?
The New Republic’s Cohn even put out a plaintive tweet asking people on the right, “What do conservatives & Republicans think about a gay player in the NFL? Honest question, hoping for positive answers.” He did receive a curt tweet or two in response, mostly of the, “I don’t care as long as he can play football” variety.
Yet the question still hangs in the air. Why have Fox and its various radio outposts operated under a veil of near silence about this story? They did not respond to me for this story, but I did speak to Brian Frederick, an adjunct professor in Sports Industry Management at Georgetown University and a former senior editor at Media Matters. He said, “Fox News’s on-air talent is likely more progressive on the issue of gay rights than their audiences. As a result, it’s one of those topics that’s best left unexamined lest the hosts upset their fan base. Further, the Michael Sam story doesn’t really give them a way to attack the Obama administration or the Democrats, which is almost their sole function at this point.”
I think this is right. I also think the answer lies in the same reason that George W. Bush can organize his entire 2004 re-election campaign around a series of homophobic state referendums against LGBT marriage while his daughters attend a friend’s “commitment ceremony”. It lies in the lonely death of Roy Cohn and the lonely bathroom stall of Senator Larry Craig. It lies in Tommy Thompson, despite his years in the Bush administration, not wanting to touch homophobia when running against the openly gay Tammy Baldwin in 2012 for the Wisconsin senate. Times have changed, and the mainstream right has no idea how to change with them. They are Betamax in an instantly streaming world.
While the Democrats have been far more up-front with their support—rhetorically if not legislatively—of LGBT rights, being gay is not a policy position. LGBT people exist in masses of Republican families, including in those of some of the leading Republican politicians in the country, and not just the Cheneys either. The tension, of course, then lies with the fact that the Bible Belt, Christianist base of the Republican Party wants LGBT people “cured,” not accepted into the human family. Republican elites, caught between their own friends and family and their own donors and voters, have decided that silence is the better part of valor. History will judge this as cowardice. That we now hear nothing from them but a chorus of crickets just makes them look odd.
Read Next: while we celebrate Michael Sam, don’t forget about Sasha Menu Courey.
NFL owners are different than us regular folks—not least of which because, well, they are NFL owners. Yes they are human, rumors about Jerry Jones to the contrary, but they just have different interests. They have an interest in seeing billions of dollars in public money go into stadiums instead of things they don’t use like public libraries and schools. They have an interest in making sure that decades of health records about the ill effects of playing football remain under lock and key. They have an interest in making sure that the term “nonprofit” is as elastic as possible and that we pay taxes so they don’t have to. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, being an owner is not just a better seat at the game. It’s a better life.
Yet there is one area where the interests of NFL owners and those of us who can’t afford a ticket to the game coincide. In this most heteronormative and image-conscious of sports, many in the NFL power structure have a family member who is openly part of the LGBT community. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s brother Michael is gay. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s son Drew is gay. And they are far from alone. Last generation’s closeted owners are this generation’s PFLAG parents.
This reality has never really had an effect on the cultural and corporate homophobia that defines the league. For decades, the idea of creating a locker room that could be a safe space for closeted gay players went unexplored. Gay slurs get tossed around from the locker room to the front office with little to no consequence. When the makers of Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 Oscar-nominated Ang Lee film about a same-sex love affair, asked the NFL if they could use NFL game footage on a television in the background of a scene, they were rejected. Lee had to use a CFL game and fuzz up the screen. As one person intimate to that discussion said to me, “They did not want to be associated with a ‘gay cowboy film.’ ” The league itself only sent official team guidelines about creating a nondiscriminatory environment in April of 2013.
Yet one can sense that an ownership that has had a “see no evil, hear no evil, just keep the money flowing” approach to homophobia has had enough. They have been pushed towards having a backbone and literally standing up for members of their own family by Michael Sam. On Sunday, within an hour of Missouri All-American Michael Sam coming out of the closet and as he put it, “owning my truth,” Sports Illustrated followed with a scorched-earth story from Pete Thamel about NFL executives who were saying in effect that Michael Sam’s courage may have cost him a shot in the NFL.
Yet on Monday, as every media outlet assessed Michael Sam’s “baggage” as a “distraction,” teams began to offer a counternarrative to their own doomsaying, homophobic executives.
First Goodell himself issued a statement in support of Michael Sam, saying that the league admired “Michael Sam’s honesty and courage…. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
John Mara, owner of the Giants, cited the two leaders of the You Can Play movement, saying, “As Patrick Burke and Wade Davis constantly remind all of us, regardless of who you are, what your background is and what your personal or sexual orientation is, if you can play, you can play. Michael’s announcement will not affect his position on our draft board.”
Other teams, including the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have released statements supporting Sam. (The Vikings are a particularly interesting team given that they have been accused by former punter Chris Kluwe of releasing him because of his support for marriage equality.)
To be clear, many players have sent messages of support as well—from Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith to DeAngelo Williams. Michael Sam has even united Richie Incognito and his alleged bullying victim Jonathan Martin in solidarity. But this is not a “player’s league” and players will not have the last say on Michael Sam’s future prospects.
The true question comes in the next couple of months. For years, NFL owners have operated on a system of benign neglect when it comes to their league’s homophobia, no matter the effect on their own loved ones. The greater good has always been the image of “the Shield” and the revenue streams for which it stands. Now they are being pushed by one brave college All-American to stand for something more profound than themselves: the idea that the league is truly for everyone and merit matters more than prejudice. We will find out on draft day.
Read Next: Dave Zirin’s initial reaction to Michael Sam’s coming out.
In our light-speed sports media environment we were all given roughly one hour. We had one hour to feel both exhilarated and optimistic about the future of Michael Sam. Here he was: a first-team All-American football player from Missouri and a co-defensive player of the year in the toughest college football conference of them all, the SEC. And now two months before the NFL draft, he was telling the world, on his own terms, that he was gay. As Mr. Sam put it, “I want to own my own truth.”
Even better, his Missouri Tiger teammates had known his “truth” since last August. Michael Sam had come out to them in a team trust exercise, where every player was asked to share something personal. The Tigers not only supported him, they protected him, keeping his secret until he was ready to come out to the world. As he said to John Branch of The New York Times, “Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay. Is that true?’ I would have said yes.”
A couple of Sam’s straight football buddies even hit the gay clubs with him in the lead up to last month’s Cotton Bowl. One joined him at a pride march and, when the season ended, his teammates voted him most valuable player of the overachieving 12-2 Tigers.
This narrative about the locker room is in many ways more important than the coming out itself. What sports general managers have always said in the past, whether they were speaking in the abstract or talking anonymously about unsigned out-and-proud NBA player Jason Collins, is that “the locker room” would not be ready for a gay teammate. No matter how many athletes have come out as allies, no matter how many polls show overwhelming majorities of pro athletes willing to have gay teammates, this is what was always thrown in the faces of fans: the “locker room” isn’t ready. And here was a living, breathing example of an SEC locker room that did not only survive having a gay teammate but thrived.
What a story. For one hour, that song from The Lego Movie, “Everything is Awesome,” seemed to be playing behind every tweet, every Facebook post and every direct message. I exchanged e-mails with Cyd Ziegler and Jim Buzinski, from OutSports, two of the journalists who not only broke this story but helped strategize the timing of Michael Sam’s coming out. They have no illusions that the NFL is somehow a rainbow utopia waiting to happen, but as Cyd said, “I don’t think it will affect his draft stock much at all. It’s impossible to predict where anyone will be drafted, but the NFL is about winning. When it makes sense to draft someone of Michael’s skill, he’ll get taken off the board. I just hope it’s the Patriots so I can cheer for him every game.” Yes, everything was awesome.
Then came this article by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. Thamel collected a series of reactions from anonymous NFL executives about the news of Michael Sam’s coming out, and the operative word here is “reaction.” They belched a collection of comments that would not have sounded out of place in the 1940s, when the sports bosses lectured Branch Rickey about how “the Negro” would make a locker room—and yes, the showers—unbearable. One NFL executive said, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet. In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” (My emphasis.)
Another remarked, “Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’”
You read correctly. NFL executives, many of whom love acting like hyper-macho caricatures for the cameras, are fearful of the media-hordes from Good Housekeeping. For all the fake military rhetoric in the NFL about team executives” being “leaders of men,” they sounded like weak and scared little boys.
The most cowardly part of all of this was that, in comment after comment, these executives absolved themselves of homophobia and bigotry by putting it all on the players. There is also an uncomfortable racial element to this in a league where over 90 percent of executives are white and 70 percent of players are African-American. Call it the myth of African-American homophobia. Yes, there is homophobia in every community, but there is a particular scapegoating of African-Americans as being the great block to LGBT social progress. We saw this when the anti-gay marriage amendment Prop 8 passed in California, and it is hard not to hear its echo in the anonymous statements in Sports Illustrated.
The other mendacious part of this is—of course—since when do NFL executives ever listen to “the locker room?” The NFL, as is often said, is not a “player’s league.” Those under the helmet have, on average, about three and a half years in the NFL meat grinder before they are out the door. Every year is invaluable to whatever nest egg they’ll have once the cheering stops. If owners and general managers said that they were going to have a discrimination-free locker room, then that would be the law of the land. Yet in a league where fake tough-guy general managers who never played the game, goad players to “man up” and take the field with concussions, or try to stockpile their locker room with the Richie Incognitos* of the world, this is what you get.
The NFL will continue to be a bigoted institution until its own leadership—its own executives—actually face up to their own bigotry. Michael Sam has said he wants to own his own truth. One wonders if the NFL will ever truly own theirs.
* As I use Richie Incognito's name as a stand-in for negative locker room behaviour, it is worth noting that Incognito has already tweeted out support to Michael Sam, writing, "@MikeSamFootball #respect bro. It takes guts to do what you did. I wish u nothing but the best"
Read Next: four LGBT activists were arrested in Sochi for quoting the Olympic Charter.
1 Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, a 19-year-old top NBA draft prospect, shoved 40ish-year-old Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr. He has told coaches that he did so after being called “the N-Word.”
2 Orr has a wretched reputation, stretching back years, as a Texas Tech “super-fan” who gets off by yelling horrible things at teenagers. No less a source that Dick Vitale tweeted after the incident, “Guy involved in the Smart situation is NOT a fan as HE IS Classless”. Other former OSU players like John Lucas III have taken to Twitter to testify similarly about Jeff Orr.
3 Orr denies that he used any kind of racial slur, but he texted to a friend, “I kinda let my mouth say something I shouldn’t have, I feel bad”
4 Former Oklahoma State All-American Desmond Mason tweeted that Marcus Smart should have kept his cool, but also said, “I was called the N word EVERY game I played in Lubbock!”
5 I have over the years spoken to a ton of former college basketball players who have stories about having racial slurs tossed at them by fans. They are conditioned before games to never go into the stands, and just keep their anger in check, no matter the cost to their mental and physical health. They are also pressured not speak about it to the media after games, to keep up the illusion of college athletics as some kind of innocent, wholesome endeavor. This dynamic, as much as anything, speaks to the utter powerlessness of so-called student-athletes.
6 Moments like this are exactly why the Northwestern football players felt compelled to form a union. “Student-athletes” have no power. They have no grievance procedure. Right now, as we speak, Marcus Smart is being told that the best thing for him, his family and his future NBA draft status, would be to just apologize and take whatever slap-on-the-wrist the Big 12 or the NCAA hands down. The most upsetting part, given the economics at play, is that this is probably good advice. It might not be great counsel for Smart’s mental health, but it is for his wallet.
7 In a just world, Marcus Smart would not be suspended at all. Instead the NCAA would enact a FIFA-style response. That means they would either bar Jeff Orr for life from ever going to another Texas Tech game, or, if it is found out that “the N-word” gets dropped from the stands in Lubbock like it’s open-season on black players, then make Texas Tech play in front of an empty arena for the rest of the season.
8 A lot of former players are saying the equivalent of former NFL wide receiver Donte Stallworth who tweeted, “You don’t get a free pass to say/do whatever you want to athletes because you’re a fan… just save that faux tough guy ish for the internet. If you talk about a players family, fire a racial slur or throw a drink on them, right or wrong, you shouldn’t be surprised at retaliation.” Players are tired of enduring this, and they should not have to.
9 One person tweeted to me that Jackie Robinson would never have gone into the stands when called a racial slur. This “Jackie Robinson: model minority” nonsense needs to be unpacked. First of all, that was 1947. Times have changed. Second, Jackie Robinson, a husband and a father, would have risked organized violence, as in lynch mobs, if he had pursed a physical response against fans. Third, Jackie Robinson was a 26-year-old Army veteran and a college graduate from UCLA. He also carried the hopes and dreams of masses of people with every at-bat. To ask a 19-year-old Marcus Smart to act in accordance with Jackie Robinson is a ridiculous weight to ask Mr. Smart to carry. And lastly Jackie Robinson, if you read his searing memoir, I Never Had It Made, had real regrets about not going into the stands and pummeling racists with what he called “my despised black fists.” Jackie Robinson died way too young at age 53. He and his family always believed that his early death was connected to the stress that he had to carry precisely because he kept it all bottled in on direct orders from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and on society’s orders, shaped by the pre-civil rights times in which he played.
10 Lastly, a note to CBS college basketball insider Doug Gottlieb: I’m not going to say why, but maybe think a little about the myriad reasons why this tweet was a bad idea. “Marcus Smart was like lil Anakin last year, now he is like Revenge of the Sith Anakin… Dark side creepin in. what’s the deal?” What’s the deal, indeed?
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UPDATE—12:50 pm: According to Anastasia Smirnova's Facebook page, she and the other arrested LGBT activists have been released after being charged with "participation in an illegal public assembly." Their court hearings are scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
The message has been sent loudly and clearly from Putin’s Russia: first rule of the Olympics, don’t talk about the Olympics. At least, don’t talk about what the Olympics, theoretically, are supposed to mean. Four activists were just arrested in St. Petersburg for carrying a sign that quoted Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter. That principle states, “Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement.” Principle 6 has become a rallying cry for athletes who oppose LGBT discrimination and we should expect to see the ubiquitous number 6 on rebel athletes throughout the games.
That, however, did not help these four brave souls in St. Petersburg. They were arrested while preparing to hang a banner with the exact wording of Principle 6 from the city’s Belinskiy Bridge. One of those taken into custody was Anastasia Smirnova, a leading figure in the country’s LGBT movement. Smirnova has received international attention in recent months by continuously linking the oppression of the LGBT community with the Olympic Games. Human Rights Watch highlighted Smirnova’s work last year and quoted her saying, “Ours is a campaign for equality. It is a campaign that promotes the idea of human dignity for LGBT people in Russia—but it is not a campaign against the country.”
We don’t know the names of the others arrested, but it has been confirmed that one is pregnant. We also know, according an LGBT activist who witnessed the arrests, that their demonstration was over before it started, with police speeding in and surrounding the four in the time it would take to flip a coin. As this eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns, said to Buzzfeed, “Either the phones are being listened to or maybe there are cameras all over the city; only a few people knew about this action.”
The charges as of now are unclear. They are in custody for reasons that are still being speculated upon, but are probably being held for “participating in an illegal action”, essentially demonstrating without permission, or being in violation of Russia’s so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws. One of the most frightening parts of these laws is that, as Jeff Sharlet outlined in GQ, they tend to mean whatever the authorities want them to mean. Is it propaganda if your 5-year-old daughter proudly tells her teacher that she has two mommies? Is it propaganda if you listen to music by an LGBT artist that your neighbor can hear through their walls? Is it propaganda if you are the pope and you say about the prospect of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” The answer is a loud and emphatic, “Maybe… but do you really want to risk finding out?” In this way, these laws are not unlike the “no homo promo” laws that exist in eight states in the United States. What does it mean to “promote” homosexuality? Whatever the cops and state want it to mean at a given moment.
As for the St. Petersburg 4, they remain in holding. Whether, like other activists, they are going to be held for the remainder of the Olympics, remains to be seen. As for the International Olympic Committee, I reached out to their press offices to ask the most basic of questions: What do you think about Russian citizens being arrested for quoting your own charter? They have not responded, but if and when they do, I will add their response to this piece. Yet the more pressing question needs to be posed to Olympic athletes who plan on wearing the number 6 in protest of the IOC’s blindness to Russia’s laws. They might want to think about moving the 6 over and adding the number 4. The future of LGBT rights in Russia, after all, will have far more to do with the freedom and future actions of the St. Petersburg 4, than anything athletes do at the Olympic Games themselves. For athletes to be “allies,” they are going to need to ally with four people we can now call first political prisoners of this Olympiad.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the LGBT movement at Sochi.
Since their founding in 1896, every Olympics has arrived with the promise to unite the world. One can still hear the lyrical words of the man who presided over the 1936 Berlin games, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who said that he hoped his Nazi Olympics could help “knit the bonds of peace between nations.”
Hitler’s dream of using the vessel of what is known as “the Olympic Movement” to create a harmonious world has tragically never come to pass, despite the best efforts of the aristocrats in the International Olympic Committee. Tragically, their efforts have been undone by the pesky people being given the glorious gift of the games. As champion of the Nazi Olympics, and longtime leader of the IOC, Avery Brundage wrote about his critics, “Warped mentalities and cracked personalities seem to be everywhere and impossible to eliminate.” In Vancouver there were people chanting about the Olympics and indigenous rights. In Atlanta, the ACLU was up in arms about the jailing of thousands of young black men in advance of the 1996 games. In Greece back in 2004, there were armies of the ungrateful yammering about the exploding price tag and the deaths of Olympic workers. In Beijing, we heard carping about “human rights” and the crushing of dissent. In England, there were nattering nabobs of negativism dulling the Olympic shine by asking why fears of terror attacks were being used to harass activists, not to mention their whining about the extensive use of surveillance drones and cell phone monitoring.
At every Olympics, you can cue the complaints, getting in the way when all we’re trying to do is enjoy a good luge.
Yet it took a visionary like Vladimir Putin, a man with the pecs to match his steely will, to finally figure out a way to unite the world and make the Olympics something for everybody. Everyone, thanks to Putin, has something to care about during the 2014 Sochi Games.
If you are a person with even the mildest concern for anything outside the five feet in front of your face, then this Olympiad is for you. No matter your cause, no matter your passion, Vladimir Putin has given you something to perk up about.
Is your issue the corruption of crony capitalism? Well, Sochi will be the site of the most expensive Olympics in history with a $51 billion price tag, a cool $40 billion over budget, $30 billion of which has somehow magically disappeared in the cavernous pockets of the powerful.
Do you care about LGBT rights? These Olympics promise a cascade of athlete activism against Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws. This legislation, as Jeff Sharlet wrote from Moscow, have made life a living hell for Russia’s LGBT residents. Expect a fierce and spirited competition over which country will punish their athletes most harshly for speaking out.
Is your issue indigenous rights? The Sochi Games are taking place on the very grounds of the 1864 Circassian genocide, which took place exactly 150 years ago. Sochi is even a Circassian word, not that you will hear that in the Olympic coverage. Nor will you see much of a Circassian presence on camera. As Dana Wojokh, an organizer of Circassian descent from the organization No Sochi 2014, said to me, “By building the games on top the anniversary of the Circassian genocide, Putin is doing more than disrespecting our ancestors or usurping our history. Nine in ten Circassians live in diaspora, with no right of return, while Russia is spending $51 billion to invite the world and celebrate atop a site of our gravest tragedy.”
What about worker’s rights? Since 2009, as many as sixty workers have died in the rush to build Olympic facilities. Many more have been damaged in workplace accidents. The Building and Wood Workers’ International has pledged to demonstrate at the Russian embassy in Geneva. It issued a statement that read, “There is blood in the snows of Sochi and the impunity of workers’ exploitation has to stop.”
Perhaps your issue is the environment. Despite the claims of Russian Olympic officials that they were going to build “an environment in harmony with nature,” their idea of ”harmony” is decidedly off-key. From a “former wetlands buried under two metres (6.5 feet) of crushed rock” to polluted water, to a “wrecked habitat, destroyed wildlife populations and bungled attempts to remedy the consequences,” the environment has been written off as collateral damage to the staging of the games. As Sochi is steeped in very real concerns about terrorism, environmentalists that have raised concerns about the wetlands are finding themselves behind bars for the duration of the games, with one leading activist imprisoned for “swearing in public.”
What about animal rights? Well, Russian Olympic officials have announced the mass extermination of stray dogs. One dog had the temerity to interrupt a dress rehearsal of the opening ceremonies, so now they will all collectively pay for his impudence. As Alexei Sorokin, the head of the contracted “pest control” company said, “A dog ran into the Stadium, we took it away. God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country.”
Let’s say you understand that injustice is a part of life, and you value a free press’s role in reporting what is happening. There will be no free press in Sochi. The Russian government passed a decree in November to “collect telephone and Internet data of the Games’ organizers, athletes, and others, with particular emphasis on journalists.” The text of this law was then published in the state newspapers, an act of press intimidation unto itself. Reporter friends of mine are taking out their cell phone batteries as they walk in between events so they cannot be monitored. The NSA must be having nocturnal emissions at the mere thought of it all.
You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. We would not be able to raise these myriad issues without Putin’s determination to use the Olympics to “remake a region” on the backs of Russia’s most vulnerable, no matter the cost in blood or treasure. He is everything the International Olympic Committee has ever wanted in a world leader. So the next time someone knocks Putin and the Olympics, just remember: they have united people across the world… in collective disgust.
Read Next: the hidden environmental and human costs of the Sochi Olympics.
The Associated Press called it, “The Budweiser Ad That Made You Cry During The Super Bowl.” There was Lieutenant Chuck Nadd returning home from Afghanistan only to be thrown a surprise “welcome home” parade by the good people at Budweiser. He and his wife even traveled through the celebration pulled by Clydesdales “aboard the famously-red Budweiser beer wagon.”
Then, after the ad ended, there was Lt. Chuck Nadd, in the stands at Met Life Stadium watching the Super Bowl. (Hopefully, he did not have to take public transportation there. The Clydesdales would have been a faster ride.)
Seeing Lt. Nadd at the big game was an audacious triple lindy of product placement. You had the military, the NFL and, of course, the smooth taste of Budweiser, all in one Fox camera shot of corporate Americana. (Budweiser is actually owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium, but details…)
Commercials like these, not to mention the NFL’s showing live shots of troops watching the game from Kandahar, have become so par for the course, it does not even register. It also serves a purpose for the NFL above and beyond a nod of respectful recognition to the troops. Drew Magary at Deadspin captured this last November. He wrote, “Any time the NFL slaps a camo ribbon on their unis, any time Fox cuts to a bunch of happy veterans…it helps portray the league as some kind of noble civic endeavor when it’s actually just an entertainment venture and moneymaking apparatus designed to rake in billions of dollars and fuck your town out of stadium money. The Falcons, to take one example, managed to euchre $200 million out of taxpayers for their new stadium. One stroke of a pen, and Arthur Blank has an extra $200 million to put Sicilian marble in his luxury box shitters. Compare that to the $800,000 the league donated last year [to military charities]. That $800,000 helps buy the American flag the Falcons and other teams get to hide behind any time you start to wonder if the league really does have the public’s interests at heart.”
This is all true. The NFL uses the military like Lourdes, all its sins of corporate welfare, medical malpractice and institutionalized racism are washed away in a red, white and blue cleansing courtesy of Uncle Sam. There is another side of this as well. Yes, the NFL benefits by cloaking itself in the military, but the military also benefits by linking arms with the NFL. It makes the military look like a game, an adventure, a burst of adrenaline. You are Marshawn Lynch in beast mode, only you’re holding an M-16 instead of a football. Sure, you will make 1/100 that of an NFL player, but you get the sense of teamwork and the rush you associate with the NFL on Sundays.
I spoke with Mary Tillman, the mother of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan ten years ago this April. “I don’t like that ads for the military are shown at all on TV, especially during sporting events,” she said, “A feeling of camaraderie is important to all humans and I think the camaraderie of sport provides the most reward. Many young men join the military in order to get that feeling of belonging, that feeling of brotherhood. It is irresponsible to try to entice young people into military service with subliminal messages.”
Mary Tillman is absolutely correct. You hear what the NFL and the armed forces want you to hear. You never hear about what you might be asked to do overseas and how that might change you. One of my friends joined the military in the late 1990s for college money, not knowing the United States was about to enter a decade of war. He was one of the most gregarious people I knew, an athlete who was the sort of person that would break up daily scuffles on the court. After five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, he made it home. I saw him and although much quieter, he was still a kind, open person. He was so open, he told me matter-of-factly that his marriage ended because he could not stop choking his wife and screaming in his sleep.
I also was friends with a woman who joined the Army. It is in many ways a similar story. She thought that she could get money for college in the peacetime of the 1990s and found herself on the outskirts of Baghdad. Three years ago, she told me a story about being out one late night on patrol. She had to go to the bathroom far from any facilities. She knew fellow female soldiers that wore adult diapers because they worried that using the bathroom outside could leave them vulnerable to sexual assault from a supposed “brother” soldier. She would not do that and went to the bathroom and was attacked. She told me she fought off the soldier with three well-placed knees to the nuts, but spent her remainder of time looking over both shoulders, until she cracked from the pressure, as she put it, “of seeing crazy everywhere” and was sent home on mental disability. Sure enough, as of 2009, according to the government’s own figures, “prevalence of military sexual assault among female veterans ranges from 20-48%, and 80% of female veterans have reported being sexually harassed.”
The NFL and the Pentagon walk comfortably together not only because they present pumped-up versions of masculine invulnerability as admirable qualities. They also rely on dishonest narratives about what happens to the good people who go through their grinder. Just as we are only now finally waking up to the fact that generations of former NFL players end up penniless and suffering from tragic neurological damage, the Pentagon highlights people like Lt. Chuck Nadd, the people who make it home intact, with reservoirs of love, community and support systems. They say to young people, “You too could be Chuck Nadd.” They don’t say that, as a soldier, you are equipment, and like the NFL, the Pentagon is pitiless when it comes to damaged goods.
Read Next: why the Northwestern football team decided to form a union.
If you are a fan of the Denver Broncos more power to you. If you’re down with the Legion of Boom and the Seattle Seahawks, then put on your silver and blue, play some Macklemore—or Blue Scholars—and have a great Sunday. But let’s just say you happen to be somebody who has no rooting interest in the Super Bowl or, even better, are not a football fan but will find yourself at a Super Bowl party and want something to do other than rank the best commercials. Here is one reason to go all-in and root for the Seattle Seahawks. No, my one reason has nothing to do with Richard Sherman, although I bet his victory speech would be one for the ages. The reason to root for Seattle can be found behind center. And his name is Russell Wilson.
My rule on these matters is simple: when you don’t have a rooting interest, stand with a squad on the basis of the conversations beyond football that they can provoke. Put simply, if Russell Wilson wins this game, then the most retrograde voices on sports radio, at the neighborhood bar and in social media will have to shut their mouths.
If Russell Wilson holds the Lombardi Trophy amidst the swirling environs in New Jersey, here are some things we are never going to have to hear again. We are never going to have to hear that Doug Williams, way way back in 1988, remains the only quarterback of African descent to lead a team to Super Bowl victory. That tired line, usually said by an uncle after too many beers, will have to die.
The second thing we will never have to hear again—and believe me, this cannot come soon enough—is the backward-looking concept that you can only win a Super Bowl if you have some dropback pocket passer with feet encased in mafia-grade cement like a Tom Brady, Joe Flacco or, oh, I don’t know, Peyton Manning. The scouting groupthink is that if you are Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, then your style of play, no matter how “entertaining,” will lead to inevitable failure. Being able to run is a nice bonus for a quarterback, but irrelevant when it’s time to win. What I hate about this conventional wisdom is that racism runs through it like a jagged scar people pretend not to see. There is certainly a strong argument that the scampering Steve Young should have put all of this to bed in 1995 when he threw six touchdowns and led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl glory. Or even a player like Aaron Rodgers who led the Packers to victory in 2011 with mobility to spare. But no. The trope that mobile quarterbacks can’t win the big one lives on because all too often it is code for “mobile black quarterback” in the tradition of showstoppers from Randall Cunningham to Michael Vick. A generation of great college players like Jamelle Holieway, Brian Mitchell, Tony Rice and Tommie Frazier, to name only a few, never had a shot at playing quarterback in the NFL because, being mobile black quarterbacks, they did not fit the mold. What is so amazing about Russell Wilson—and I hope RG3 is taking notes—is that he absolutely is a “pocket passer,” only he redefines what we understand to be the “pocket.” Wilson scrambles and scurries every which way, but his eyes are downfield at all times.
Then there’s the height thing. Russell Wilson stands at 5' 10" tall. If he wins, he becomes the first under-six-foot quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. (Although I want to see true measurements on Drew Brees.) If Russell Wilson can make this happen in a copycat league, it opens up space for a lot of QBs who have the skills but don’t happen to look like Blaine Gabbert, one of a long list of 6' 4" first-round quarterback busts.
Russell Wilson was a third-round draft pick and the sixth quarterback taken in 2012. He was chosen by the Seahawks, even though they just gave a truckload of money to a free agent named Matt Flynn. Wilson was even picked one spot after the Jacksonville Jaguars (the team that drafted Gabbert) took a punter. Wilson was lightly regarded despite the fact that as a senior at Wisconsin, he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and set a single-season college football record for passing efficiency. Given how many teams sacrifice first-round draft picks on quarterbacks who miss as often as they hit, the ascendancy of Russell Wilson is also a living, breathing example of just how bereft of imagination and fearful twenty-first-century football scouting has become. For the scouts, Wilson just did not check enough of their precious 1970s boxes. Maybe if the Seahawks win, those boxes will change.
And then there is the last reason to root for Russell Wilson. He really is, PR and fluff aside, someone you want to root for. His grandfather Harrison Wilson Junior is a legend in HBCU (historically black college and university) circles, based on his two-decade tenure as president of Norfolk State. Over twenty years of stewardship, Harrison Wilson increased the number of students enrolled in the Norfolk State graduate program by 600 percent and the school graduated more African-American teachers than any institution in the country. Wilson did this openly, proudly and defiantly in the years 1977–96, a time when HBCUs were under constant attack both financially and ideologically. His ability to have Norfolk State thrive in that era is revered and often mentioned in HBCU circles as a stirring display of excellence, despite doubters and pitfalls on all sides. Harrison Wilson Jr. was not supposed to achieve the way he did. All the metrics and trendlines were supposedly against him. Suddenly, Russell Wilson’s bold belief and cool confidence that he could, against all conventional wisdom, be an NFL star makes a hell of a lot more sense.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on seeing Dan Snyder at an event to promote racial justice
On the Thursday of Super Bowl weekend in New York City, I was a guest at an awards ceremony being staged by the Fritz Pollard Institute, an organization that aims to challenge the NFL to improve racial diversity in the ranks of coaches and general managers. Among those in attendance were heroes of mine, including three people in this photo, Walter Beach, John Wooten and Jim Brown. Then the unexpected took place.
Just after the lights slightly dimmed and the program began, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder walked through the door. It was bracing, and not only because this is someone I have written about critically for years, without ever actually seeing face to face (surprisingly fit!). But the shock ran deeper than my own personal feelings. Having Dan Snyder at an event that celebrates minority hiring is like seeing Michele Bachmann at a mosque. The Redskins in their entire history have never hired a full-time African-American head coach* or general manager. Snyder just continued this dismal tradition by making Jay Gruden, a coordinator with a famous name and no head coaching experience in the NFL, his new man in charge.
But that is not, of course, the only reason it was a shock to see Snyder. His team has been under relentless fire from Native American organizations, a coalition of civil rights groups and African-American clergy for having a racial slur as their team brand. Snyder has rebuffed every effort to sit down with these groups. Instead, rather than taking the whole “reconciliation” approach, Dan brought in a professional consultant to help manage this crisis. His name is George Allen. That would be the same George Allen who is the brother of team president Bruce Allen—the same George Allen who was known for keeping a noose in his office when running for the US Senate in Virginia to highlight his “tough stance on law-and-order issues,” the same George Allen whose presidential aspirations went up in smoke when he was caught on camera making a bizarre racial slur. Yes, in an effort to keep accusations of racism at bay, Dan Snyder brought in the Macaca guy.
Dan Snyder is one of the very few owners (I counted three as well as Commissioner Roger Goodell) who deigned to show up at this event. And good for him. But the question remained: Why would an owner under fire for having a racist name, and with no record of hiring African-Americans to executive or head coaching positions, be at an event to celebrate the movement to hire minority coaches? I wanted to ask him, but alas, he left early while the event was still in progress.
After the dinner, I contacted Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation, who has devoted considerable resources in the last year to push the team to change their name, including recently taking the issue to the United Nations. He pointed out that Dan Snyder not only has his own legacy to account for but the legacy of a team founded by arch-segregationist George Preston Marshall. “As the last NFL organization to integrate—and to only do so under threat of federal prosecution—the Washington team will always be remembered for being on the wrong side of history during the civil rights movement” he said. “If Mr. Snyder wants to make amends for that, he should finally stop using a dictionary-defined racial slur as his team’s name.”
Basically, if Dan Snyder believed in racial justice he could stop defending the legacy of the proud, Dixie-playing, Stars and Bars–waving confederate fetishist, George Preston Marshall.
I also spoke with Suzan Harjo of the Morningstar Institute, and the Spartacus of the decades-long struggle to change the name, about her thoughts on why Snyder would attend an event like the Fritz Pollard dinner. She said, “It reminds me of Senator Jesse Helms, who used to get funding for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to mask his contempt for African-Americans by showing support for another minority group.” Ouch.
I also gave a shout to David Whettstone, a radio talk show host at WPFW and an African-American organizer in DC fighting to change the name. He said to me, “Snyder probably feels that he has no problems with us folk [i.e., African-Americans] and probably thinks he is doing right by us. It’s a total disconnect from the reality: a study in non-engagement. We are all just consumeristic suckas in his book.”
The most surreal part of seeing Dan Snyder at this event was that the Fritz Pollard Alliance devoted the heart of the evening to honoring the late Johnnie Cochran, a civil rights attorney best known for representing O.J. Simpson, but also the person whose threats of a class-action lawsuit spurred the first movement toward the NFL’s adopting of “The Rooney Rule,” which mandates that owners must interview coaching candidates of color. Several speakers, in celebrating Mr. Cochran, made reference to his relentless twenty-seven-year effort to get the wrongly convicted Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt, a Black Panther revolutionary, out of prison for a murder he did not commit. Born Elmer Pratt, Geronimo took the name of the great Native American leader out of respect. It signified Mr. Pratt’s commitment of resistance to people like George Preston Marshall. I could only wonder what Snyder thought every time speakers spoke about Cochran’s efforts to liberate to a man named Geronimo. It was a crash course, if Snyder could hear it, in the difference between honoring a culture and making it into a cruel cartoon.
I had a very respectful short speech to say to Mr. Snyder after the event ended but, as mentioned, he left early—and quietly—while the formal program was still in progress. I considered getting up and disrupting the proceedings as he moved toward the door, but this was an event to honor minority head coaches and Mr. Cochran. Their families were in attendance and I had no right to raise hell in those surroundings. I can say that afterward, I learned I wasn’t the only person who had such temptations. There were several of us who gathered and talked about what we would have said if Dan Snyder had stuck around to socialize. We all had different angles and different tones, but it centered around a very basic idea: Dan, if you really care about social justice and aren’t here just for cheap public relations, then you’ll change the name.
Read Next: why Republicans protect the “honor” of offensive team names.
When you talk union in Chicago, you are telling the story of the Haymarket Martyrs, the nineteenth-century general strikes for the eight-hour day, and the rank-smelling stockyards captured in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In recent years, this tradition has been reignited with the 2006 May Day protests that brought the city to a standstill, the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors and the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike that made Mayor Rahm Emmanuel bluster and blink. What you don’t think about is Northwestern University, where tuition is $63,000 a year (holy shit, is that number even right? Yes, it is), and you certainly don’t think about the football team. Well, think again.
In news that will resonate far and beyond Evanston, Illinois, the Northwestern Wildcats football squad announced this week that they would be the ones: the first team in the history of college athletics to try to form a union. The team members, in a near-united fashion, filled out their union cards and filed their paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in the hopes that they can fight back against the NCAA, the cartel that runs college sports. Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association as well as organizers from the United Steelworkers Union aided their efforts, but this was all about the Wildcats.
At Northwestern, this move has been led by team quarterback Kain Colter, who was one of the players who wore the initials #APU, or All Players United, on his uniform last fall. “The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” Colter said to ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players—at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come…. Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
An even stronger comment was issued by a Northwestern player anonymously to the website Reddit. He wrote, “This isn’t about getting paid. What it is about is protection. Many of us will have numerous injuries throughout our playing careers. A group of those players will continue to feel the effects of those injuries long after their playing days are over. The goal is to have some sort of medical protection if we need surgeries stemming from injuries sustained while playing for our university.… Would it be nice to have some part of jersey sales or memorabilia sales? Absolutely. But that is not the goal as of right now.”
Not surprisingly, the NCAA’s chief lawyer, Donald Remy, who, I can guarantee, does not work for free, unlike the players he is attempting to smash, issued a statement that was about as contemptuous as you could expect. Remy said, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.”
Let’s forget the condescending “union-backed attempt” line as if the football team at Northwestern is just a hand puppet for that all-powerful ascendant force otherwise known as the United Steel Workers. Focus on Donald Remy using the phrase “student-athlete” five times in five sentences. For those who did not read Taylor Branch’s masterful takedown of this rhetorical swill, “student-athlete” is a legal phrase created by the NCAA in the 1950s to avoid paying workers' compensation benefits to the widow of a football player named Ray Dennison who died on the field.
But lawyers are not the only gatekeepers of this sinister status quo. Many of the forces that slurp at the college cartel gravy train are also up in arms over the temerity of Northwestern’s players. The winner of “most obnoxious comment” has to go to Doug Gottlieb, the CBS Sports college hoops analyst who tweeted, “The greatest gift you can receive in the world is a free college experience/education—the need for a greater gift is sickening.” (That was Doug’s bolding of the word “gift”, master of subtlety that he is). It is hard to know which part of that tweet to correct first, but suffice it to say, exploitation is not a gift. Seeing your coaches make millions off of your sweat while you are an unpaid billboard for Nike is not a gift. Missing classes because you have to fly to the Great Alaska Shootout is not a gift. Driving thirty straight hours while fighting staph infections is not a gift. Hell, seeing Doug Gottlieb make a ton of money that should by all rights be in your pocket is not a gift. The only thing “sickening” is the rank contempt Mr. Gottlieb has for a group of young people daring to stand up and be heard.
Whether or not the Northwestern players succeed in their efforts to unionize—and the NCAA will spend however many billions it takes to make sure this does not happen—their efforts today will long be remembered as the opening shot that cracked the NCAA Cartel. They deserve our support. They deserve our respect. Most of all, they deserve our solidarity. In 1922, that author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wrote, “College athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become a monstrous cancer.” I do not know what Sinclair would make of a twenty-first-century world where coaches make 100 times the salaries of professors. I think we can say safely, however, that the actions of the Northwestern football team would have made Mr. Sinclair very proud indeed.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews 1968 olympian John Carlos, who speaks out on LGBT rights.