Where sports and politics collide.
“Five shirtless dudes are running through downtown Tallahassee in front of courthouse spelling JAMEIS on their chests.”—Tweet from USA Today Sports Reporter Dan Wolken
Ten takeaways from news that Florida State’s star quarterback, and shoe-in Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston will not be charged with rape after a year-long investigation:
1) This country has a long and ugly history of accusing African-American men of rapes that did not occur. From the lynch mobs of the Old South, to the legal lynchings of the Scottsboro Boys and the defendants in the Central Park Jogger case, to countless stories we will never know, this has been a scar on the history of the United States. Black men have been repeatedly targeted and seen their lives destroyed by accusations that splice the horror of sexual violence and the stereotype of the ravenous predator.
2) This country also has a more recent history of allowing athletes, particularly star athletes, particularly amateur athletes compensated with status, hero worship and entitlement, to get away with rape.
3) This country has an even more recent history in the Internet age of destroying women on social media and threatening their families, if they dare bring forward any accusations of rape against athletes.
4) College football culture will place a black man on a pedestal as long as he can deliver bragging rights, championships and millions of dollars in revenue to small-town colleges and universities. Off the football field, or after your playing career ends, good luck. If Florida’s system of criminal justice has sent any discernable message this past year, it is this: if you are an African-American teenager, you want to be Jameis Winston, not Trayvon Martin.
5) I do not have the slightest idea what happened between Jameis Winston and his accuser. I do know that the statement from this woman’s family could not be more correct: “The victim has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting.”
6) If it is proven true that a local police detective said to the accuser’s lawyer that Tallahassee is “a big football town, and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable,” then we can only hope that the family will pursue charges against the Tallahassee police department and sue them back to the Stone Age.
7) There are too many cases of too many women who are intimidated to come forward and pursue charges of sexual assault. There are too many cases where jock culture and rape culture are so intertwined you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
8) There are too many cases where sports fans believe defending your team means destroying any young woman who dares stand up and try to speak about what happened. Seriously, if you are one of these people, get a life.
9) There are too many sports reporters, overwhelmingly men, that believe the myth that there are just lines of women trying to bring false rape charges against star athletes.
10) No matter the result, the Jameis Winston case has become yet another instance where the sports environment sends a message to women that if you are sexually assaulted, your best course of action is silence. That, above all else, must change.
Dave Zirin looks at how jock culture can support rape culture.
The main difference between a big-time Division I college football game and an NFL contest—other than the unpaid labor on the field—is the crowds. Aesthetically, side-by-side, they are like one of those before-and-after pictures. The crowd at the college games tends to be young and fresh-faced: the people who show up early to the club ready to rage. People at NFL games look like those same people at the party, except it’s 4 am and in those last six hours they’ve been living hard.
I get why the young people at the college games look as caffeinated as they do. The adrenaline, the excitement, the lunacy and the wide-open nature of it all produces a narcotic that few sporting events can match. This is not an activity that promotes introspection. But lasts weekend’s Iron Bowl demands it. For the uninitiated, the Iron Bowl is the annual game between two of college football’s most intense interstate rivals, Auburn and Alabama. This past year’s game was like nothing we have ever seen, arguably the most exciting college football game ever played, as Auburn withstood a ninety-nine-yard touchdown pass and came away with a 34-28 victory. Auburn beat the number-one team in the country and did so on a 108-yard missed field-goal return for a touchdown with no time left.
But this was more than just a football game. The broadcast registered an 82 share in Birmingham, Alabama. That means 82 percent of all of Birmingham’s televisions that were in use were watching this game. That is bonkers. This is not 1960. We have more than two channels now. In our divided entertainment culture with 500 options, video games that are realer than real life, and all kinds of diversions on social media, the idea that 82 percent of any city was doing anything is, frankly, mind-boggling. Introspection is necessary because this national gravitational pull toward football in Alabama took place fifty-eight years to the day (give or take a day) that Rosa Parks entered history and would not be moved from her bus seat in nearby Montgomery. Fifty-eight years ago in the storied Southeastern Conference, the only way an African-American player could get on the field would be to tend to the grounds. Yet on Saturday millions of Alabama viewers and an overwhelmingly white crowd of damn near 100,000 people crowded the stands shouting themselves hoarse for two teams that are overwhelmingly African-American.
The other titanic story in college football is also taking place in the Southeastern United States, albeit not the Southeastern Conference. African-American football star, quarterback Jameis Winston at Florida State, could lose both the Heisman Trophy and a shot at leading his team to a national championship because of rape allegations that could turn into formal charges any day. I am not commenting on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Winston, but I am going to comment on what we do know: he is being vociferously, even violently defended by the Florida State faithful. His accuser has been pilloried over social media by Winston’s fans in Tallahassee, with ESPN’s Jemele Hill reporting that she had already “been sent several photos that are reportedly of the accuser, in addition to screen grabs of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. All this information is being circulated rapidly and thus becoming the Internet version of flogging someone in the town square.”
The young woman was also allegedly warned off of pressing charges by a Tallahassee police detective who was also a Florida State booster. This is sick and if found to be true, this detective should be run out of town on a rail. Once again I have to take a step back and ask, What would Rosa Parks say? This is a woman who started her activist career and first traveled to Montgomery as an organizer against rape and sexual violence visited upon African-American women by white men. (Read the book At the Dark End of the Street to hear this story in full.) In Rosa Parks’s day it was not uncommon for African-American men to be lynched on accusations of sexual violence if they were found in any sort of relationship with a white woman. I do not know the race of the Jameis Winston’s accuser, but to see the police and a college town in Tallahassee rally to protect their African-American quarterback from rape charges to save their championship season is like entering Dixie through the looking glass. What would Ms. Parks say? What would she say about a world where just the act of playing football has turned so many of these historical racial tropes upside down?
No matter what the Republican National Committee tweets, racism is not over, nor did Ms. Parks end it. (Their tweet led to the #RacismEndedWhen hashtag on Twitter.) On every conceivable level, from life expectancy, to prison sentencing, to hiring practices, racism still plagues this country. Yet does the iconography of black college athletes actually make racism less pernicious? It would be easy to understand why people would mark the spectacles in football in the Southeast as some kind of progress. I think they would be wrong. In fact, it is far more likely that seeing African-American athletes on the field allows people to turn a blind eye toward the very real effects of racism in society. This is not in any way exlusive to the South, and it is not unlike the argument against using Native American icons as mascots. Celebrating teams like the Redskins allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to very real conditions on Native American communities. It doesn’t push for engagement and actually creates disassociation. Look at the 1980s when a national embrace of Michael Jordan, The Cosby Show and Oprah calmed white America into thinking we had reached some sort of civil rights finish line. The 2008 election of Barack Obama created a similar dynamic. I will never forget hearing comedian turned right-wing-pundit Dennis Miller say after the 2008 election, “If nothing else, we don’t have to talk about [racism] anymore.” The RNC tweet about Rosa Parks ending racism was not a slip of the computer keys but a slip of the mask. As for the rest of us, confusing iconography for progress will just leave us confused.
Patricia J. Williams gives a new perspective on the NFL racist bullying scandal.
There is an argument that a reason to oppose Native American mascots is not only because they are racist. It is not only because they are an act of minstrelsy opposed by Native American groups for decades. It is not only because they celebrate the savage, warlike nature of the Native American people, which for decades has been done—in books, theater, movies, and sports,— as a way to justify the bravery and necessity of European conquest. There’s an argument that it collectively just makes us all stupider.
This was on display last night when Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins and under fire for profiting off a dictionary-defined racist name, used the national television cameras of ESPN to honor the Navajo Code Talkers. These were Navajo soldiers during World War II who used their language to create coded messages to be used over radio that could not be cracked by the Axis Powers. Their presence last night allowed Mike Tirico to bring up the entire “name controversy” on a terrain that made Dan Snyder look like he was honoring their heritage. Tirico also said that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had met with Native American leaders, which was not true. There was a meeting between the NFL and Native American leaders but Goodell did not show. Tirico also made no mention of Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo woman who is currently leading a legal trademark challenge to get the name changed. Tirico also made no mention of the fact that the original “code talkers” were the Choctaw Nation in World War I, which for a decade has had a formal position voted upon by the tribal council to get the name changed. Instead, we were treated to the spectacle, three days before Thanksgiving, of Dan Snyder saying to America, “some of my best friends are Navajo Code Talkers!”
Make no mistake about it: wrapping yourself in World War II veterans is the last refuge of scoundrels. Just as the Republican Party during the government shutdown chose to make the World War II Memorial the great symbol of Barack Obama’s lack of patriotism and the true horrors of the government shutdown (forget about those kids not getting the cancer treatments at NIH), Dan Snyder was rushing for cover behind “the greatest generation.”
This was Dan Snyder trolling and lifting a big middle finger to the Oneida Nation, the American Indian Movement, the Choctaw Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, USA Today’s Christine Brennan, The Washington Post’s Mike Wise, the Capital News Service located at the University of Maryland, his alma mater, Charles Krauthammer, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma Tom Cole (one of two Native Americans in Congress), the DC City Council, the thousand people who marched outside the Redskins last nationally televised game against Minnesota chanting “Little Red Sambo Has Got to Go” and everyone who is said the name is racist and belongs nowhere but the dust bin of history.
Don’t say that Dan Snyder reveres Native Americans and his honoring of the Navajo Code Talkers was a show of that respect. Seventy-eight percent of Washington football fans, according to a Survey USA poll, believe that Dan Snyder should actually sit down with the Oneida Nation and others who are protesting the name. He refuses to do so. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has asked him or someone from his organization to speak about the issue on numerous occasions. He refuses to return their calls. His unmistakable disrespect for Native Americans and their feelings about this issue emanate from his mouth every time he opens it.
Last night was Dan Snyder’s Thanksgiving gift to America. He told ESPN’s Adam Schefter before the game the name would never change and then hid behind World War II veterans, a profile in cowardice. It does not take a code talker to crack this particular code. Dan Snyder is on the wrong side of history, and his legacy will be more than just year after year of the lousy-to-mediocre football his stewardship has brought. His legacy will be to stand with George Preston Marshall, Tom Yawkey and Kenesaw Mountain Landis on the Mount Rushmore on sports leaders who looked at the idea of racial progress and just said no.
Dave Zirin looks at how San Jose State is resting on its laurels while racism stalks campus.
Protests and raised fists have come to life to San Jose State University. For those who have not heard, three white students at San Jose State University have been charged with hate crimes—and a fourth has been suspended—after their African-American roommate was subjected to a series of racist torments that have shocked the entire community. The young man, whose name has not been revealed, had a heavy U-shaped bike lock put around his neck, had racial slurs and swastikas scrawled on dry-erase boards placed around the room and was renamed by the students with whom he was forced to live as “three-fifths” or “fraction”, after the Compromise of 1787, which deemed slaves to be three-fifths of a human being.
At SJSU, there is outrage that a school, which was the incubator of the black athletes’ revolt in the 1960s, could be a place where such a crime could occur. There is also frustration that residential assistants were conscious enough of the situation to ask the alleged tormentors to take a Confederate flag off their door but did not alert anyone in the administration that their black roommate might be in trouble. Then there are doubts that the administration would have even taken it seriously, or whether it all would have been covered up if not for the dogged reporting of the San Jose Mercury News. After the attacks, student leaders asked school president Mo Qayoumi to discuss what could be done. Instead, he chose to keep his commitments at a science and engineering conference in Wisconsin. Students have also gone public with complaints that they cannot get a sit-down with the man about what happened. “This president, unlike the six or seven presidents I’ve seen at SJSU, has the most top-down management style,” Jonathan Karpf, an anthropology lecturer said to the San Jose Mercury News. “He’s not somebody who handles dissent very effectively.”
Now there are students marching with their fists raised like the statue of 1968 Olympic protesters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the center of their campus.
But if people had been listening, then Ron Davis could have told them that was not only possible but even inevitable. Ron Davis was hired to coach the cross-country team in 2012. But he was more than just another coach. In November of 1962, Ron Davis ran cross-country for San Jose State as part of the first integrated team to win the Division I championship. He was also the student assistant for the 1969 team that won the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship. Davis was at the heart of the era that saw people like Dr. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos make history at the school. Over the next four decades, Davis coached around the world from Canada and Ireland to Mozambique and Nigeria, as well as in colleges across the United States. Here is what the interim athletic director Marie Tuite, said upon hiring Mr. Davis. “He’s a great Spartan. He has such an affection for San Jose State. It’s really an honor for him to recruit young men and women to this university.”
This job was supposed to be a great homecoming and the culmination of a remarkable career. Instead, after one season, one last-place finish (in line with the previous year’s performance), and the hiring of a new athletic director, Ron Davis was not reappointed. He is now suing the school for discrimination, saying that the school draped in civil rights history fired him because of the color of his skin. The school was not content to merely dismiss Mr. Davis. They humiliated him out the door, with written evaluations that mocked his intelligence and his communication abilities, and tried to make this man who had been coaching for over forty years sound like an incompetent.
I was able to get in touch with Mr. Davis, and he e-mailed me the following note.
As a San Jose State University graduate, hall of fame member, and member of the first “integrated” team to win the NCAA National Cross Country Championship I am appalled that such a deplorable racist attack occurred. I appreciated your article last week on the racist attack at San Jose State last week. It exposed the truth about what has been happening at San Jose State regarding on going social injustice to students and faculty. What they practice and what they convey to the community is a dishonor to the statue of Dr. John Carlos and Dr. Tommie Smith who were advocates of human rights. Why did it take so long for the terrorism and humiliation experienced by the Black student to be reported and acted on by the San Jose State Administration?
This question is going to need to be answered. But questions about how administrators handled—or didn’t handle—the racist incident is inextricable from how a school like San Jose State could so casually disrespect its own history by treating Ron Davis so poorly. Using your history only as public relations, and not as a call to arms to build an institution anchored by principles of anti-racism, can no longer cut it. It is no different from Cal Berkeley in 2011 boasting about its history of dissent on its website, while having students tear-gassed in the quad. The 1968 Olympic protests are not a brand. Students are saying that if you are going to be the home for this statue, you need to earn that right every day.
Mychal Denzel Smith talks about how it isn´t about how far we´ve come on racism, but how far we still have to go.
Editors' Note: This post originally stated that unnamed student suffering abuse had a "bike chain" placed around his neck. We have now corrected this to reflect that it was actually a significantly heavier U-shaped bike lock.
There are times when the line between shock, rage and sadness become so blurred it is impossible to know when the flow of emotion ends or begins. The shock and rage come from hearing about an African-American student violently tormented by his three white housemates at San Jose State University. Thrown together randomly as first-year students tend to be, Logan Beaschler, 18, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, and Colin Warren, 18 found common cause in acts of racist sadism against their fourth housemate. They at times forced a bike lock around the neck of this young man. They barricaded him in his room. They nicknamed him “three-fifths” or “fraction” in reference to the three-fifths Compromise of 1787 that decreed slaves to be less than a full person. They hung confederate flags outside their room. They scrawled swastikas on white boards and hung pictures of Adolf Hitler. Let’s say their names again: Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren, three people who made their dorm into a fascist chamber of horrors for their own amusement.
Arrests have been made, the school is holding its own investigation, and students are rallying, and that is all well and good. The shock and rage becomes sadness, however, because this is not just any old university. This is San Jose State, also known as Speed City, also known as the place where John Carlos and Tommie Smith won NCAA national championships, learned the skills to set Olympic sprint records, and learned the politics to compel them to raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics. It was the place where Dr. Harry Edwards combined anti-racist militancy with sociology and sports, to create a synthesis that led to the formation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It is the place where Lee Evans and Ron Davis showed the world that athletic excellence could be used as leverage to fight for dignity and make history. It is the place where that history is commemorated by the remarkable twenty-eight-foot statues of Carlos and Smith that stand in the middle of campus.
I spoke to John Carlos and I cannot do justice to the sadness in his voice.
“This is a heartbreaking situation,” he said. “At San Jose State that monument was established to promote diversity, love, understanding and respect. It is very difficult for me wake up and think that the school would be a place where students feel they can act in such a manner and think they can just abuse a person of color in such a way. Once again we are bitten by the ugly bear of racism. I would hope San Jose State would deal with this in as firm a matter as possible. This cannot stand.”
Pressure to make sure San Jose State truly confronts what has happened will be necessary. In recent years, San Jose State has made a concerted effort to cut itself off from its history and anti-racist traditions. It is currently being sued by former cross-country coach Ron Davis, the same Ron Davis mentioned above who was a part of those historic teams of the 1960s and a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame. Mr. Davis is claiming racial bias and discrimination led to his firing. He was fired after the school hired Gene Bleymaier, the fired former athletic director of Boise State, who turned that school into a national football powerhouse. Bleymaier is attempting to transform the San Jose State football team into a similar kind of cash cow and a haven for sponsors. Anti-racist history and corporate football don’t mix, and Ron Davis believes that he was a casualty of a new administration with new priorities.
A school that disrespects its own history and its own legacy as an iconic center of African-American liberation reaps what it sows. In this case, several residential assistants apparently knew to some extent what was happening, saw the Confederate flags and did nothing. Yes, Messrs. Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren deserve to be punished to the fullest extent. But this is a school that needs to take a long, hard look at itself. If you are going to be home to “the statue,” you had better be worthy of what it represents.
Dave Zirin looks at the legacy of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
Oh, the drama of it all! New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, facing a 211-game suspension and the effective end of his career, chose to display a unique defense strategy at his arbitration hearing. He slammed down his hands and shouted, “This is ridiculous!” Then the three-time MVP leveled what is being described as a “stream of profanities” at Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer, Rob Manfred. After all of this, baseball’s last great diva topped it off by storming the hell out with a promise to never return.
The official word from A-Rod and his small army of lawyers was that he was enraged that league commissioner Bud Selig would be neither present at his hearing nor required to testify. Whether this was in fact a case of spontaneous combustion or ham-handed choreography, it was mere dinner theater compared to what happened next. A-Rod then journeyed to the last locale in New York City where his word is sacred and his character is above reproach: the radio studio of Sports Radio WFAN’s Mike Francesa.
In the forty minutes that followed, we were treated to the spectacle of what it sounds like when someone who has led a remarkably charmed life suddenly perceives himself to be Jean Valjean, the honest man being mercilessly persecuted by powerful people enflamed with vengeance. In A-Rod’s mind, his Javert, the man with a “vendetta” who “hates [his] guts”, is even more frightening than a singing Russell Crowe: 80-year-old Commissioner Bud Selig.
There is the old expression that a liberal is a conservative who has been to jail. A-Rod, who supports Republican political candidates like an honorary Koch brother, was a born-again radical in Mike Francesa’s radio booth, raging against “injustice”, and railing against “the system.” Mike Francesa backed him up, saying, “This is not about a rogue player. It is about a rogue sport.”
What was remarkable about the interview is that it was possible to be disgusted by his self-serving sense of victimization, to remember the lies he told to the face of Katie Couric, to roll your eyes at the tenderly asked questions of Mike Francesa and still agree with the overwhelming thrust of what he was saying. The most honest part of A-Rod’s interview was when he said to Francesa that people on the street stop him and say, “I hate your guts and you’re being railroaded.”
You could not find a more dubious messenger, but the message is not necessarily wrong. Major League Baseball promised mountains of evidence that Alex Rodriguez was not only prescribed performance-enhancing drugs by Anthony Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic but also “obstructed justice” by attempting to buy evidence from Bosch and keep witnesses from testifying. Yet all evidence of this that we have seen thus far is rooted in the testimony of Bosch himself. A-Rod’s team alleges that Anthony Bosch has been paid as much as $150,000 by Major League Baseball for his testimony, along with promises that he would not be prosecuted by the Florida attorney general’s office for distributing contraband pharmaceuticals. There are witnesses who have come forward to say that, yes indeed, Major League Baseball brought out the checkbook to acquire his allegiance.
“Vendetta” is a strong word, but Rodriguez is probably right that Bud Selig looks at him and licks his chops. The 211-game suspension is in flagrant violation of the collective bargaining agreement with the union, but MLB is determined to push this through. This is Selig’s opportunity, one year before his own announced retirement, to look like someone who helped clean up the sport. The same Bud Selig who sat on his hands and looked the other way during the go-go steroid 1990s; the same Bud Selig who along with his fellow owners became unimaginably wealthy as the balls went flying out of the park; the same Bud Selig who has been subject to withering books, news exposés and documentaries about why he chose to do nothing as locker rooms became all-you-can-inject pharmacies, wants A-Rod’s pelt to be part of his legacy. Instead of “Bud Selig, steroid enabler,” he becomes the man who stood up to the union and cleaned up the game.
Meanwhile, here is Alex Rodriguez, the speed bump on the way to Bud Selig’s retirement, on Mike Francesa’s radio show sounding like Norma Rae, saying that he will fight this to very end. “I have no regrets,” he said. “It’s the system that is wrong.” He may be right, but waging and winning a fight against Major League Baseball would require an outpouring of solidarity from his fellow players and trust that this is not all a self-serving smokescreen. Solidarity and trust: for all his hundreds of millions of dollars, these are two things he has never been able to attain. A-Rod may try to sell himself as baseball’s Jean Valjean, but that may be beyond even his own dramatic powers.
Dave Zirin takes a look at A-Rod’s Maryland slums.
November 19 marks what would have been the fiftieth birthday of Len Bias, the University of Maryland’s galactically talented power forward who died at the age of 22 of a heart arrhythmia related to the ingesting of cocaine. His death came two days after being picked second by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Never in the history of sports has so much potential been extinguished with such swift cruelty.
Athletes and other cultural figures in the prime of life have died before and since. But the memory of Len Bias still has the power to make grown adults feel numb like it’s happening all over again: a moment where the world as we knew it changed and something we did not even identify as innocence died in an instant.
Understanding the impact of Bias’s death starts by understanding Bias on the court. His abilities were magnetic. Bias was the genetic splicing of Doctor J and Charles Oakley: a high flying, muscle bound, talent who made you feel like you were watching a sneak preview into the game’s future. During his time in the ACC, it was common to refer to Bias as the most physically gifted player in the conference: the second, being that kid from North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Take a moment, watch these highlights and just notice where Les Bias’s head resides, relative to the rim. This was simply something we had not yet seen.
For basketball lovers, his death was the asphyxiation of a limitless potential, and to quote Bethlehem Shoals’ words on Lebron James, “an American Dream that most of us are too bashful to even dream of.” Now that I live fifteen minutes from where Len Bias went to college at UMD and ten minutes from his High School, Northwestern, I have also learned that his death crushed the heart of an entire community. Len Bias was the kid from Landover who never left Prince George’s County, one of the most vital majority African-American regions in the country. PG County is the only municipality in the United States that went from majority white to majority black while rising in per capita income and education. Len Bias was not only going to rep that to the world, he told everyone that he would be bringing them along for the ride.
The shock of Len Bias’s death is the only way to understand how, after one tragic night, he became a one person “shock doctrine”, and inexorably changed the conversation of how the United States dealt with illegal drugs. “The shock doctrine” is Naomi Klein’s theory about how “shocks” like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes open the door for radical right-wing reforms that people would reject if they were not in a state of mental disarray over the destruction of their lives. Len Bias’s death had a similar effect.
When Bias died, as longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in 2009, “I never again mocked Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug efforts, not when even a Len Bias could be struck dead.”
Masses of people were inclined to agree. The problem was that Nancy Reagan’s “anti-drug efforts” involved a shift toward criminalizing the poorest sections of our cities. Instead of speaking about drug addiction as a medical issue, it became a criminal justice issue. Instead of selling drugs being seen as an economic survival imperative of communities left behind by the “Reagan Revolution”, it became seen as an act that demanded a military response with those on street corners seen as enemy combatants. And no one wanted to talk about how the drugs came into the communities in the first place.
It might be hard for people under 25 to even understand our ignorance and fear, but we really thought that there would be graveyards of people, from little kids to star athletes, dying after their first snort of cocaine or their first puff of crack, and there was federally approved school curriculum carrying that very message. In 1988, the US Congress even passed the bi-partisan Anti-Drug Act, known as “The Len Bias Law.” It created more mandatory minimums for drug offenders, expanded police arresting powers, and poured more money into the DARE program at schools. I remember DARE and being told about my duty to turn in my parents if I ever saw them with “illegal drugs.” Fortunately for them, I never caught them because at age 11, with Len Bias’s death on my mind, I think I was ready to do it.
We seem to be waking up from this nightmare, at least rhetorically, but even with more people recognizing that the expansion of the prison system to swallow non-violent drug offenders has created a “New Jim Crow” and even with more states adopting more sane approaches to marijuana, the war on drugs plods along. Today in the DC area that Len Bias called home, black men are eight times more likely than whites to get stopped and arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. Len Bias’s death was an unspeakable tragedy. What people in power have done with his memory has metastasized that tragedy beyond comprehension.
Liliana Segura asks why non-violent offenders should face life in prison.
The New York Yankees of Egyptian soccer, Al Ahly, have officially expelled one of its top players, striker Ahmed Abdel Zaher. Did this extraordinary act take place in the aftermath of a heartbreaking loss? No, the team had actually just triumphed 2-0 and Zaher had even scored a goal. Was there an off-field scandal? Did Zaher find himself caught with steroids, or bullying teammates or running a dog-fighting ring? None of that. He was, by all accounts, a model citizen. Zaher’s crime was choosing to remember the massacred victims of Egypt’s dictatorship on the field of play, and in the Egypt of 2013, such an act will not go unpunished.
After Zaher scored in Ahly’s 2-0 win over South Africa’s Orlando Pirates in the African Champions League in Cairo on Sunday, he flashed four fingers while running back down the field. That simple gesture has changed his life, because flashing four fingers in today’s Egypt is a gesture as incendiary as raising a black gloved fist in 1968.
The Arabic word for “fourth” is Rabaa, and uttering the word “Rabaa”—like whispering the word “union” in nineteenth-century coal country—can get you in all kinds of trouble. It was just last August when hundreds of peaceful Egyptian supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi were killed by security forces at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. They were sitting in and demanding some kind of electoral justice after Morsi was deposed by Egyptian General Abdel Al-Sisi. After they had occupied the area for six weeks and with no end in sight, Al-Sisi had them summarily slaughtered. Once the blood had been washed away, the dictatorship has set about the project of erasing any memory that such an atrocity had occurred. Currently situated at the site of the massacre, a statue has been erected. It is not to commemorate the dead, but it’s a monument to the Egyptian military and police. And yet there are those throughout Egypt who choose not to forget. Their symbol is those four raised fingers: “Remember Rabaa.”
Ahmed Abdel Zaher in particular had a dear friend die in Rabaa. He wanted him to be remembered. Al Ahly however, would have none of it. The club already has a very precarious relationship with the current dictatorship. This stems from a match last year against Al Masri in Port Said where Al Ahly saw seventy-two of its fans killed. Most died of asphyxiation, as waves of Al-Masri fans pressed them against locked gates. It is widely believed, with ample supporting video evidence, that security officials did not intervene so as to punish the hyper-intense Al Ahly ultra fan clubs who played a leading role in the ouster of President-for-life Hosni Mubarak. Since Port Said, the Al Ahly ultras have demonstrated, sat-in and fought in the streets, demanding justice for those killed. But management at Al Ahly seems desperate to not ruffle any more feathers, and Zaher will pay for that with his job, if not worse. He is also due to be “interrogated by the state-run Egyptian Football Association in the coming days.
Al Ahly may be the ones officially putting Zaher “up for sale”, but his release was clearly engineered by the Egyptian state. Only after sports minister Taher Abouzeid said that “dissuasive sanctions await the player by his club and the soccer association,” and that he was confident the team would make “the right decisions,” did Al Ahly buckle and send him packing. They then released a statement, seemingly out of commitment to turn this tragedy into a farce, saying that “the club’s principles” were rooted in “its firm rejection of mixing politics with sports.”
At least Zaher is not being singled out. Last month, Egypt’s Kung Fu Association banned international star Mohamed Youssef from participating in international championships for two years after he wore a T-shirt bearing the four-finger sign at a tournament in Russia. Youssef was not wearing it while competing but during the medal ceremony where he was awarded the gold. Last week there was another kung fu tournament in Malaysia where Youssef’s replacement, Hesham Abdel Hamid, won the silver. He also flashed four fingers to both remember Rabaa and support his teammate. Abdel Hamid was also punished and stripped of both his medal and prize winnings. As one fan of the sport said to me, “Egypt has not won any medals for years. Yet they punish their champions.”
What is so informative about this crackdown is that Egypt’s dictatorship has committed not only to punishing athletes but punishing their best athletes. They are not only going after demonstrations of remembrance of Rabaa but doing so on the highest possible cultural platforms where they are fully aware it will engender the widest possible coverage. The message is clear: no one is safe, and you will remember Rabaa at your own risk and your own peril.
And yet despite the crackdown, the resistance continues. I spoke with Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of the forthcoming Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. He said, “Since the tragic events at Rabaa, the wave of protests has only grown across the country. The attempts to censure the actions of conscientious Egyptian athletes and artists who oppose the return to authoritarianism, reflects a desperation on the part of the current regime due its failure to establish its legitimacy. Zaher’s demonstration in solidarity with the victims of the military is a clear sign that the leaders of the coup have not yet succeeded in their mission.”
This “mission” to establish legitimacy, can take place only if people allow the dictatorship to control the memory of what was done to achieve power. That’s what makes the actions of Zaher, Youssef and Hamid so brave and so important in the quest to achieve democracy in the region. Their message is simply to never forget.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous talks about a new draconian anti-protest law in Egypt.
In a classic episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David ties himself into a knot of racism and white guilt over whether he should fire an African-American handyman who did what he felt was a lousy job installing his television.
Larry never realized that the problem was in fact his own inability to switch on the satellite. His friend Wanda Sykes figured it out in three seconds and said, “You gotta turn the damn satellite on for the TV to work! See the little green light? Just gotta turn it on! Or you can fire the black man. Whatever works for you.”
It boggles the mind that this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying saga, a story about an n-bomb dropping abuser, a complicit coaching staff and the ways “sausages are made” in the National Football League, has for many commentators come back to “blaming the black man.”
The fault, in this narrative, is not with the toxic nature of the Dolphins locker room or a coaching staff abiding a racist culture in order to “toughen up” players, but with an apolitical generation of young black men who have no problem with white people dropping n-bombs like Vanilla Sherbet in Fear of a Black Hat.
So many commentators have taken these comments and gone on the generalization express train, which always seems to stop at the “blame young black men station.” In this line of commentary, young black men don’t know about civil rights and have no conception of what their elders went through. If only they weren’t so ignorant, this Richie Incognito situation would never have happened.
Jason Whitlock, in a column that actually has a great deal to offer, writes that their acceptance of Richie Incognito as “honorary” is the fruits of our “incarceration nation” and a “prison yard” locker room that valorizes a certain kind of black masculinity—more represented by Incognito than the Stanford grad Martin—and has turned every young black man into wanting to be Adebisi from Oz, or risk being a “punk”.
This all sounds convincing, but only if you are predisposed to see NFL players already as a collection of thugs. Does the violence of the NFL or the violence of the neighborhoods of their youth spill over into player’s lives? Absolutely. But the idea that the NFL locker room is a “prison yard” where players are “predators” and white players drop n-bombs while black players laugh it up is not supported by facts. (This stereotype also slanders many of the more than 2 million people who live behind bars and are trying to hold onto their humanity in a deeply dehumanizing environment.)
The most important thing that anyone in the media can do with this story is to try and untangle what is part of “NFL locker room culture” and what is unique to the Miami Dolphins locker room.
Based on my reporting and all the reporting I’ve read from others it is clear that, yes, this type of bullying is far too common in the NFL. Yes, the kinds of so-called jokes about sexual assault and homophobia are also very common, although the homophobia, reflecting our culture, is getting better. But also every person I’ve talked to have said that “no way no how” do white players walk around the locker room dropping n-bombs in a friendly way as if they are just one of “the boyz.” As Ted Johnson former New England Patriots said to me, “The only time I ever heard white people saying it was if they were being racist and were actually looking for a fight.”
As much as I respect actor and former NFL player Terry Crews and his comments about the NFL—they called him Tyrone!—the league is not, as he said, “jail with money.” It takes an insane amount of focus, dedication and hard work to make it to the National Football League. Talking about players like they are thugs only reinforces both racial profiling and racism. It also valorizes is the very qualities that Richie Incognito seemed proud to represent: the bullying violence and disregard for others.
And as for this specific Miami Dolphins locker room, it sounds both like many other locker rooms but also unique in its toxicity. But as in every single locker room, it is a place like in every NFL locker room where the life of a player is incredibly precarious. There is no way that Richie incognito gets away with dropping n-bombs without approval from the coaching staff. Many are saying that they wish more players had been more confident to stand up to the 320-pound Richie Incognito. But those saying that should also take a step back and realize that is exactly what Jonathan Martin just did.
Greg Mitchell on Richard Cohen’s controversial gaffe about multi-racial marriage and de Blasio’s family.
Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer landed the interview everyone wanted when he sat down with Richie Incognito on Fox Sports Sunday. Upon seeing the interview I was angered and disgusted. But I also now realize I did not in fact see the whole interview, which aired Monday in its entirety. Having now spoken with Jay Glazer and others involved in this story, I want to be honest and straight up about both.
First and most obviously, I was wrong in thinking that what was shown on Fox Sports NFL Sunday pregame show was the entire interview. The heart of my critique involved all the questions that I believed went unasked, as well as the choppy editing and quick cuts that made it appear as if the interview was sculpted to put Incognito in the best possible light. In fact many of the questions I took Jay Glazer to task for not asking, he did in fact ask. Glazer, when you see the full interview, asked in a tougher tone about Incognito's racism, asked more about the bullying and how far it extended, and asked whether the coaches "ordered the code red". These questions are important. They also ended up on the initial cutting room floor, as I saw last night on Fox Sports. I maintain, given the importance of this story, that Fox did us all a disservice by not being brave and just saying “heck with the pre-game show. Let’s show this interview to the widest possible audience.” But they didn’t and that is not on Jay Glazer. (Glazer it is worth noting, disagrees with me about this, saying that they have "a responsibility to all the NFL fans who don't care about this story." I think the story is big enough that they should have just gone for it.)
Second, I wrote in my piece that Jay Glazer was wrong to do this interview because he had, as reported elsewhere, an “existing personal and financial relationship” with Incognito. This is not in fact the case. I spoke to Jay Glazer, did my own research and determined that while Incognito did at one time train in the Mixed Martial Arts Studio, co-run by Glazer, he never, ever paid Glazer to train there. There is a strong case to be made that by allowing big time NFL athletes to train there for free, it improves the brand of the facility and inspires more people to sign up for its $5,000 per month training progream. Glazer says that whatever money goes in, it goes to the trainers and he "doesn't make a dime." However it operates, people should stop saying that Incognito and Glazer were “business partners” because it is just not true. (I did make an effort to confirm or deny all of this before my piece went to print but did not hear back.)
Now for the critiques I maintain. In any interview, especially on very complicated topics, you never get every question you want asked but I thought Jay Glazer himself set a very high bar when he tweeted, “I held nothing back, asked him everything.”
But Jay Glazer did not ask Richie Incognito about accusations of sexual assault made against him last summer. Speaking to Glazer he said he believed that to be “a separate story.” I disagree because it speaks not only to Incognito’s character but also how the team could see someone accused of any act of sexual violence as an elected “leader” in that locker room.
Glazer also gave Richie Incognito a platform to say that Jonathan Martin sent him a text that said, “I am going to kill your whole family.” Neither Glazer nor Incognito told the audience that this was actually a forwarded piece of kitschy digital art complete with cute pet and smiling person. This was important because without that, it came off as a very one-sided attack on Martin’s character, an attack that looked even worse when Martin’s lawyer released the actual text.
These are my criticisms and I stand by them. We need to hold those covering this story to the highest possible standard – myself included – because I truly believe that the issues raised by this story have provoked the most important discussion on sports, race, and manhood we have seen in years. But my harsh judgment of Jay Glazer’s journalistic chops in terms of the questions asked and his personal relationship with Incognito were both over the top.