Reclaiming Sports

Reclaiming Sports

Political struggle and its relation to sports is a question not of the past but of the future.


Welcome to the Superdome, home of the often unsuper New Orleans Saints–a team on the rise that once inspired its own fans to wear brown paper bags on their heads. The Superdome was built for crowds of 72,000 people and boasts “9,000 tons of air conditioning” and “102 restrooms.”

It was also the emotional site of the first post-9/11 Super Bowl in 2002, won by the Cinderella New England Patriots. As Steve Serby of the New York Post wrote at the time, “Inside a red, white and blue fortress called the Superdome, they let freedom ring last night, and they let freedom sing, and then they played a football game that stands today as tall as the Twin Towers once did, as a defiant statue of liberty. On the night they wrapped a star-spangled banner around the neck of terror and squeezed tight, they played a football game that will be remembered as Patriots’ Day.”

But when Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast, the “terror” was homegrown. The Superdome morphed into a homeless shelter from hell, inhabited yet uninhabitable for 25,000 of New Orleans’s poorest residents. They scraped, suffered and for the most part survived, in conditions that Jesse Jackson likened to “the hold of a slave ship.” It took Katrina for them to actually see the inside of a stadium whose ticket prices make entry restrictive. At the time of the hurricane, game tickets cost $90, season seats went for $1,300 and luxury boxes for eight home games ran more than $100,000 a year. But the Katrina refugees’ tickets were comped, courtesy of the federal and local governments’ malignant neglect. It was only fitting, since these 25,000 people helped pay for the stadium in the first place. The Superdome was built entirely on the public dime in 1975, a part of efforts to create a “New New Orleans” business district. City officials decided that building the largest domed stadium on the planet was in everyone’s best interest. New Orleans leaders have a history of elevating political graft to a finely honed art, and in this case they did not disappoint. Much of Louis Armstrong’s historic old neighborhood was ripped up for extra stadium parking, and, in an instance of brutal foreshadowing that would shame Wes Craven, an old, aboveground cemetery was eradicated to make space for the end zones.

In many ways, the makers of the Superdome were ahead of their time. Stadium swindles have since become common, substituting for anything resembling urban policy in the United States. They come gift-wrapped as an instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight, SportsWorld shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. Over the last ten years, more than $16 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep in cities across the United States. Unfortunately, these costly public projects end up being little more than monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America’s billionaires built with funds that should have been spent on clinics, schools, libraries–and levees.

Post-Katrina New Orleans showed what these policies reap. And what’s good for New Orleans is good for America, right to the top of the political food chain. As journalist Norman Solomon wrote, “The policies are matters of priorities. And the priorities of the Bush White House are clear. For killing in Iraq, they spare no expense. For protecting and sustaining life, the cupboards go bare. The problem is not incompetence. It’s inhumanity, cruelty and greed.”

The titanic tragedy of Katrina became farce when the Superdome refugees were finally moved: not to government housing, public shelters or even another location in the area, but to the Houston Astrodome. It was the March of Domes.

But as those injured by Katrina attempted to find their footing, something quite remarkable occurred. It made little news, but a wide swath of professional athletes emerged from their cocoons with money, relief and, more important, something to say. Washington Wizards power forward Etan Thomas defended rapper Kanye West when he said that “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people” at an NBC benefit concert. West was called “disgusting” by that arbiter of racial sensitivity, Laura Bush. Thomas came back with conviction, saying, “I definitely agree with Kanye West. Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water? Then you still don’t send help but instead send the National Guard to ‘maintain order’? Are you kidding me?”

Thomas also went public with his defense of the rights of the people of New Orleans to survive by any means necessary:

If I was down there, and starving for five days, after suffering that type of devastation, and I saw some armed troops coming down not with food or water or supplies but with guns drawn, trying to enforce a curfew or whatever they were doing, I would have reacted the same way many of them reacted, with hostility. I am not saying that I condone shooting at the police or firemen; I’m just saying that I understand their frustration. This is unfortunately a direct reflection of the entire Republican platform. The rich are awarded all of the rights, privileges, respect…in this country and the poor are pushed to the side. You see that with education, healthcare, court justice and every other aspect of society.

Thomas was not alone. Saints All-Pro receiver Joe Horn gazed at the place where he set records and said that football couldn’t be farther from his mind. “It’s devastating to us. I’ve cried three or four times. Seeing kids without any food, elderly people dying and the government saying that help is on the way–that’s the most shocking part.”

“The Round Mound of Rebound,” Charles Barkley, never shy to comment, focused on the broader context: “If you are poor and black, or poor and white or Hispanic, you are going to be at a disadvantage. You are not going to have the best neighborhoods or best school…. If you don’t get education and you are poor, then you are at the mercy of this government.”

William Rhoden, the New York Times sports columnist and author of $40 Million Slaves, describes his experience traveling to the Gulf with a group of NBA and WNBA players bringing supplies:

Horrifying images underscored the reality that there are multiple tiers of life in America. The images of death, desperation, hopelessness, and poverty, flushed into full view, made many of us wonder where this America had been hiding. We did not recognize it. Some of us did not even realize this America existed. The hurricane was also a wake-up call for this group of NBA athetes, because the hardest hit were black and poor…. Many of the athletes were raised in Mississippi and other parts of the South. They knew firsthand what it meant to live by a slender thread. Justin Reed, a forward for the Boston Celtics, said he saw himself in the faces of young storm victims. “I come from a single-parent home, and once upon a time we were homeless,” he said. “I know how hard it is to start from scratch, to have to build and build and wonder if you’re ever going to be able to live like you once lived. Dallas Mavericks center Erick Dampier also spoke about the need to “pull together as a group.” The instinctive desire to come together was real, but we–and the people of the Gulf–are still waiting for it to ripen and cohere into the new kind of Civil Rights Movement so needed.

When athletes speak out for social justice, they break what Howard Cosell called “Rule number one of the ‘Jockocracy’–that athletes and politics don’t mix.” But history also shows that when the iron wall of the Jockocracy is dented, it’s usually the sign of deeper discontent in society. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King were exceptional individuals, but also products of social movements that shaped them and that they in turn helped shape.

The response to Katrina, among other rumblings and grumblings in our SportsWorld, demonstrates that struggle and its relation to sports is a question not of the past but of the future. For the last generation, sports have been suffocated by corporate greed, commercialism and military cheerleading. They have become our own personal Terrordome, and there is no exit. Our only option is to stay and fight. If we wish to reclaim sports, we must look at history, learn from the role sports play in our world and listen to the athletic rebels of today who are so often ignored by the media.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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