Jim Brown

How Jim Brown Led American Sports From Jack Johnson To Brittney Griner

Jim Brown was a monster, not only as a wrecking-ball running back on the football field but also as a prime example of an ever more popular obsession with people (mostly men) whose admirable achievements are shaded by despicable behavior (mostly directed at women). He died last month at 87 and his obituaries, along with various appraisals of his life, tended to treat the bad stuff as an inevitable, if unfortunate, expression of the same fierce intensity that made him such a formidable football player and civil rights activist.

Often missed, however, was something no less important: what a significant figure he was in the progress of the Black athlete from exploited gladiator — enslaved men were the first pro athletes in America — to the sort of independent sports entrepreneur emerging today. Brown was a critical torchbearer and role model on the century-long path between the initial Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who went to jail for his “unforgivable blackness,” and one of the greatest basketball players ever, LeBron James, who was the first Black athlete to successfully create his own narrative from high school on.

Jim Brown didn’t control his narrative until 1966. By then, he had already spent nine years in pro football, retiring at the peak of his sports career in what was then both condemned and acclaimed as manly Black defiance. In doing so, he presaged Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War and the Black-power salutes of protest offered by medal-winning runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos as the Star-Spangled Banner began to play at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968.

A Life Demanding Study

A year after retiring from football to concentrate on his movie roles, Brown organized “the Cleveland Summit” in which the leading Black athletes of that time, including basketball’s Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), debated whether they should support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the Army. Their positive decision, based on Ali’s in-person defense of his antiwar moral beliefs, was important to so many Americans’ acceptance of his sincerity. It was also a glimmer — as yet to be fully realized — of the potential collective power of Black athletes. And it was all due to how much Brown was respected among his peers. His close friend Jabbar, an important voice in his own right, has written that “Jim’s lifelong pursuit of civil rights, regardless of the personal and professional costs… illuminated the country.“

And that’s probably more than you can say for Miles Davis, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, or Roman Polanski, among the dozens of male stars of one sort or another whose lives have been reevaluated in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a question it raises: “Can I love the art [sport] and hate the artist [athlete]?”

As Nation magazine sports editor and Brown biographer Dave Zirin has pointed out, “Brown’s life calls for more than genuflection or dismissal; it demands study.”

Indeed! Consider some of the countervailing pieces of evidence to his greatness. Although never convicted, Brown was accused of a number of acts of violence against women, which he, along with the male-dominated culture of his time, tended to dismiss as of no significance. In one notorious and oft-recounted incident, he was accused of throwing a woman off a second-floor balcony. He always denied it, claiming she fell while running away from him. Tellingly, when the victim declined to press charges, macho culture interpreted that as proof of his irresistible virility, an extension of his being, arguably, the all-time greatest football player ever (and he was thought to have been even better at lacrosse in college). His brutal style of play would later be reflected in his aggressive, independent style of business and everyday life.

That image gathered force when he was 30 and in London on the set of his second film, The Dirty Dozen. It was then that Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine him daily if he didn’t show up on time for pre-season football training, which was soon to begin. Brown, then one of the sport’s major stars, eventually responded by simply quitting football.

It was perceived as a battle of wills. Modell was usually characterized as a boss always operating in the best interests of his team or (though this was rarer in those days) a classically uncompromising, deeply entitled Big Whitey plantation owner. And Brown was either seen as a defiant Black man, ungrateful for his celebrity and money, or like Ali, as a warrior prince of Black manhood. As in the heavyweight champion’s case, the reality was, of course, far more complex.

On Raquel’s Team

At the time, Brown was conflicted about his choices. In May 1966, as a sportswriter for the New York Times, I happened to be in London covering an Ali fight and had been invited to the Dirty Dozen movie set. Brown confided to me that the film was far behind schedule and there was no way they’d finish shooting his part so he could make pre-season practice in a timely fashion. He had, in fact, hoped to play one more season, his tenth, but couldn’t imagine bailing on the production before the film was wrapped. There were just too many people dependent on him, he told me, and so the Browns would have to wait. After all, it wasn’t as if he were going to miss regular-season games.

But Modell’s insistence that he return immediately (echoed by the media) eventually pushed him into a corner. And Hollywood simply seemed like the better choice — a potentially longer career, more money, and less physical damage. Indeed, Brown would go on to succeed as the first Black action hero in mainstream movies. His on-screen interracial sex scene with Welch in the 1969 film 100 Rifles would also be considered a Hollywood first.

His football retirement, which began as expedience, would only enhance his macho aura, which, for better or worse, was all too real. That same year, in Toronto (also to cover an Ali fight), I found myself having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Brown, Carl Stokes, soon to be the first Black mayor of Cleveland, and comedian and activist Dick Gregory, whose autobiography I had written.

It was a lively, friendly meal until the check arrived. The waiter, an elderly Chinese man, set it in front of me. Stokes and Gregory burst out laughing and began bantering about the racism implicit in the poorest of the four of us getting the bill. But Brown suddenly leaped up, yelling at the waiter and grabbing for him. The other two managed to push him back into his chair, where he then sat, muttering to himself. Eventually, he did manage to see the humor in the situation, but initially he had been deeply offended, and that simmering rage of his (always a potential prelude to violence) seemed ever ready to boil over.

He was in his eighties the last time I saw him, moving slowly on a cane, and yet he still seemed like one of the two scariest athletes I had ever covered, men whose baleful glares rose so much more quickly than their smiles. (The other was former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.)

It should be no surprise that Brown’s contributions to advancing Black equality were of a piece with his complex life. After all, he often derided civil rights marches as nothing more than “parades” and his best efforts were directed toward lending a hand to the economic advancement of Black small businesses and marginalized former gang members.

What always seemed like a paradoxical conservative streak in him was, in fact, essential Brown, the mood of a man who believed that Black progress would never come from protests or demonstrations — they always seemed like a form of begging to him — but from the power of money, of muscling your way into the marketplace and buying into the system. He believed, in other words, in economic power above all else and, for what must have seemed to him like short-term pragmatic reasons, would end up allying briefly with two otherwise unlikely presidential figures — that football ultra-fan Richard Nixon and then former football franchise owner Donald Trump. Brown even went so far as to defend Trump when iconic civil-rights activist Congressman John Lewis called him an illegitimate president.

Forebears and Descendants

Brown’s unyielding rage evoked the earliest celebrity Black athlete who rattled white folks: Jack Johnson. Although that boxer’s style was different from Brown’s — living in the Jim Crow era, he flamboyantly derided his opponents and flaunted white girlfriends and wives — Johnson also offered a version of intimidating masculinity that led all too many white men to call for a “great white hope” to defeat him. It took the self-effacing, self-destructive Joe Louis, who carefully concealed his affairs with white movie stars, to calm their insecurities and become an acceptable hero for whites.

In recent years, the only athlete who’s come close to Brown’s steadfast individualism in the face of racism was Colin Kaepernick, whose insistence on kneeling during the pledge of allegiance before National Football League games got a distinctly mixed response from Brown. He liked the young quarterback, he said, but as an American couldn’t abide the desecration of the flag (another instance of Brown’s late-in-life cluelessness).

As Zirin aptly put it in his biography Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, his seeming paradoxes were those of a “flawed” figure who was “heroic but not a hero.”

LeBron and Brittany

LeBron James, Brown’s current successor as the model of a modern Black athlete, has proven a far more consistent figure. Already marked as the future of basketball in high school, he’s orchestrated his career in a remarkable fashion, moving to better teams and dictating his own terms in the process. Along the way, he’s also built up his business interests — always with a core of hometown friends — and expressed his opinions openly. While at the Miami Heat, he led his teammates in a protest against the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Not since the days of Muhammad Ali had such a big star been so willing to take such a controversial stand. The basketball superstar with whom LeBron is most often compared as a player, Michael Jordan, was known for avoiding anything that might harm the sale of his sneaker brand. LeBron on the other hand even called President Trump a “bum.”

He was indeed courageous, but of course, he could do that. Global capitalism had his back. It’s even more courageous to take a stand when true risk is involved. So, perhaps a hopeful harbinger of future athletic heroes — regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation — were the members of the predominantly Black Atlanta Dream team in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) who, in 2020, wore T-shirts endorsing Raphael Warnock, the Black Democratic opponent of Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler. It was a gutsy move, since Loeffler, a white woman who had disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement, just happened to be the Dream’s co-owner.

It was, in fact, particularly gutsy because WNBA players are among the most vulnerable in big league sports, playing in a relatively small league that pays relatively low salaries — the average is $147,745 while eight players in the National Basketball Association make $40 million or more annually. That’s why so many of those women play internationally during their off-season. It’s why WNBA star Brittney Griner was en route to a Russian team when she was arrested and detained for 10 months after vaporizer cartridges with less than a gram of hash oil were found in her luggage. (She was finally released in a prisoner exchange last December.)

Although widely admired as warm and friendly, before her incarceration in Russia, Griner seemed to have something of Jim Brown in her personality. She was active with her Phoenix Mercury teammates in protests against the police murders of unarmed Black people and insisted that the national anthem should not be played before sporting events. Since returning from Russia, she’s been active in campaigns to release others who have been wrongfully detained. A lesbian, Griner and her partner were arrested in 2015 for assault and disorderly conduct in a domestic violence case. They subsequently married and divorced.

She may well be LeBron’s successor in the evolution of the Black athlete. At the least, her mission statement, as described in a 2019 interview with People magazine, is both humble and complete. She said: “People tell me I’m going to break the barrier and trailblaze. I just kind of look at it like, I’m just trying to help out, I’m just trying to make it not as tough for the next generation.”

These days, that’s heroic.

Robert Lipsyte
is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

A Golf Coup, Led By Saudi Blood Money And The 'Commander-in-Cheat'

A Golf Coup, Led By Saudi Blood Money And The 'Commander-in-Cheat'

Here’s the big question in Jock Culture these days: Is the Kingdom of Golf being used to sportswash the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Or is it the other way around? After all, what other major sport could use a sandstorm of Middle Eastern murder and human-rights abuses to obscure its own history of bigotry and greed? In fact, not since the 1936 Berlin Olympics was used to cosmeticize Nazi Germany’s atrocities and promote Aryan superiority have sports and an otherwise despised government collaborated so blatantly to enhance their joint international standings.

Will it work this time?

The jury has been out since the new Saudi-funded LIV Tour made an early August stop at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey. (That LIV comes from the roman numerals for 54, the number of holes in one of its tourneys.) And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was hosted by a former president so well known for flouting golf’s rules that he earned the title Commander-in-Cheat for what, in the grand scheme of things, may be the least of his sins.

That tournament featured 10 of the top 50 players in the world. They were poached by the Saudis from the reigning century-old Professional Golfers Association (PGA), reportedly for hundreds of millions of dollars in signing bonuses and prize money. It was a shocking display for a pastime that has traded on its image of honesty and sportsmanship, not to mention an honor system that demands players turn themselves in for any infractions of the rules, rare in other athletic events where gamesmanship is less admired.

No wonder our former president hailed the tour as “a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia. I think it’s going to be an incredible investment from that standpoint, and that’s more valuable than lots of other things because you can’t buy that — even with billions of dollars.”

The tournament was held soon after Joe Biden gave that already infamous fist bump to crown prince and de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman. The two events radically raised bin Salman’s prestige at a moment when, thanks to the war in Ukraine, oil money was just pouring into that kingdom, and helped sportswash the involvement of his countrymen in the 9/11 attacks, as well as the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Deals They Couldn’t Refuse

The buy-off money came from the reported $347 billion held by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Top golfers were lured into the LIV tour with sums that they couldn’t refuse. A former number-one player on the PGA tour, Dustin Johnson, asked about the reported $125 million that brought him onto the Saudi tour, typically responded by citing “what’s best for me and my family.”

Phil Mickelson, the most famous of the LIV recruits and a long-time runner-up rival of Tiger Woods, justified his reported $200 million in a somewhat more nuanced fashion. In a February interview at the website The Fire Pit Collective, he admitted that Saudi government officials are “scary motherfuckers,” have a “horrible record on human rights,” and “execute people… for being gay.” Yet he also insisted that the LIV was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Family needs and the supposed inequities of the PGA’s previously hegemonic universe were the explanations a number of golfers used to justify biting the hand that had fed them for so long. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, the greatest recipient of PGA largesse and probably the greatest golfer of our time, if not any time, reportedly turned down an almost billion-dollar offer with sharp words for those who had gone for the quick cash.

The PGA obviously agreed and barred any golfer who took up the Saudi offers from its tournaments. In response, some of them promptly sued the PGA.

The Kingdom of Golf

On the face of it, creating a Kingdom of Golf might not seem like a crucial thing for a morally challenged monarchy to do. After all, golf isn’t exactly a charity or a social justice campaign that’s likely to signal your virtue. It’s just a game whose players use sticks to swat little balls into holes in the ground while strolling around. It’s not even good exercise and far less so if you’re driving the course in a motorized cart or hire a caddie to carry your sticks. And it gets worse. After all, the irrigation water and poisonous chemicals necessary to keep the playing fields luxuriantly green at all times are abetting ecological disaster.

Golf symbolized reactionary greed even before the Saudis entered the picture. For starters, its competitors are among the only professional athletes ranked purely by the cash prizes they’ve won. And the leading golfers invariably earn far more from endorsements and speaking engagements. The sport’s almost comic upper-class snootiness sometimes seems like an orchestrated distraction from the profound racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism lodged in its history and, even today, the discrimination against women that still exists at so many of the leading country clubs that sustain the game.

Golf has long been retrograde, exclusionary, and money-obsessed. To put that in perspective, the estimated revenue of the Professional Golf Association in 2019 was $1.5 billion — and it boasts a non-profit status that’s sometimes been questioned. Lucrative as it is, it also proved distinctly vulnerable to an attack by an oil-soaked autocracy that, in warming up to invade golf, had already invested in Formula One racing, e-sports, wrestling, and its most recent controversial purchase, a British Premier League soccer team (which provoked protests from fans and Amnesty International).

Still, the Saudis’ move on golf was even bolder, more ambitious, and somehow almost ordained to happen.

Unlike football and baseball, which are convenient amalgams of socialism for the owners (in their collusive cooperation) and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the players and other personnel, golf is more of a monarchy along the lines of, um, Saudi Arabia. Until the LIV Tour came along, the main PGA tour, that sport’s equivalent of the major leagues, had been all-powerful in its control over both golfers and venues.

Over the years, golfers have indeed complained about that, but except for Greg Norman, a 67-year-old Australian former champion, not too loudly. Now a highly successful clothing and golf-course-design entrepreneur, Norman is called the Great White Shark for his looks and aggressive style. No wonder he’s now the CEO of LIV Golf and the ringleader of the campaign to recruit the top pros to play in the breakaway tour.

Norman denies that he answers to the crown prince, but his attempts to distance himself from that ruthless Saudi ruler are not taken seriously by most observers of golf, including the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, who wrote:

“Let’s be frank. LIV Golf is nothing more than a vanity project for Norman and his insatiable materialism — and an exhibition-money scam for early-retiree divas who are terrified of having to fly commercial again someday. By the way, the supposed hundreds of millions in guaranteed contracts for a handful of stars — has anyone seen the actual written terms, the details of what Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson will have to do to collect that blood-spattered coin, or is everyone just taking the word of Norman and a few agents trying to whip up commissions that it’s all free ice cream?”

One of the best sports columnists, Jenkins may seem excessive in her attack on Norman, but the passions that golf and Saudi Arabia have raised separately only increase in tandem. On the one hand, there’s the outrage when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s murderous human-rights abuses and Washington’s continuing complicity with the regime, thanks in particular to its ongoing massive arms sales to that country. (The latest of those deals, largely Patriot missiles sold to that country for $3 billion, feels distinctly like a kind of bribery.)

On the other hand, there’s the long-standing resentment of golf as a symbol of rich, white, male supremacy. In fact, it’s still seen as a private meeting place to create and maintain relationships that will lead to significant political and business decisions, the sports equivalent of, um, Saudi missile deals.

The pro golfers profiting from the current bonanza may not engender much sympathy, but the derision for their materialism should, at least, be put in context. Until the LIV came along, they had next to no options in their sport and few of them made Mickelson- or Johnson-style money. Worse yet, their lonely gunslinger lifestyles made unionization at best the remotest of possibilities, especially for figures deeply wired into the corporate community through their sponsorship deals.

The Saudi golf coup (because that’s indeed what it is) has taken place at an interesting juncture for the sport and its two most compelling figures, Trump and Tiger, who have indeed played together, both seeming to enjoy the trash talk that went with the experience.

Tiger in Twilight

Tiger, who is now in steep decline, has long been the face of the sport at its most accomplished, captivating, and richest despite, or perhaps because of, his paradoxical nature.

His first auto accident in 2009 revealed a tortured soul involved in a maelstrom of sexual infidelities and occasioned a re-evaluation of his mythic rise. No surprise then that he’s struggled ever since, briefly regaining his form before more accidents and surgeries diminished his dominance.

As long as he continued to show up and hit a ball, popular interest in the game was sustained and the PGA’s grip held firm. As he diminished, however, so did public fascination with golf.

In a way, he had been Tiger-washing the sport. It was hard to sustain a critique of golf’s retrograde and exclusionary nature, however justified, while it hid behind his Black face. Of course, that vision of golf was already wearing thin when Tiger refused to define himself as African-American, preferring “Cablinasian” — meant to reflect his racial mix of Caucasian, Black, (American) Indian, and Asian.

With Tiger, at 46, fading as an active force, PGA golf had already become vulnerable to a coup long before the Saudis and The Donald appeared on the scene. And who could have been a handier guy for those Middle Eastern royals than one with such experience in coups, even if his first try, with all those armed deplorables, failed on January 6, 2021.

This time around, though, Trump had millionaires with golf clubs, Middle Eastern oil royalty, and the equivalent of bottomless sacks of PAC money.

And, of course, with Trump involved, anything could happen. The first time he was infamously linked to sports, in the early 1980s as the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League (USFL), he managed to destroy his own organization in what would emerge as his signature style of reckless, narcissistic malfeasance. An early Trump lie (in an interview with me, no less) was that the USFL would continue its summer schedule so as not to interfere with the National Football League’s winter one. Within days of that statement, he led a lawsuit aimed at forcing a merger of his league and the National Football League. It ended badly for Trump and the USFL.

This time around, Trump has said that the LIV Tour would avoid scheduling tournaments in conflict with major PGA events. That will probably turn out to be anything but the case, too. So how will his latest foray into Jock Culture play out? Will the PGA beat back the Saudi coup (maybe by raising its prize money) or will the Saudis burnish their global image through a sport undeservedly renowned for integrity and class?

And what about the Commander-in-Cheat? If only this Saudi enterprise would leave him too busy on the links (not to speak of fighting off jail in connection with those purloined secret documents of his) to run for the presidency again in 2024.

Ultimately, whether Saudi Arabia or golf gets sportswashed, it’s Trump we need to rinse out of our lives.

Copyright 2022 Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte is aTomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

Reprinted with permission fromTomDispatch

Flaming Their Fans: Professional Sports In The Age Of Trump

Flaming Their Fans: Professional Sports In The Age Of Trump

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

If you think that the true focus of the recent World Series was what the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves were doing on the field, you were either living in Texas, Georgia, or on some billionaire’s space station. In the world that lies somewhere between rabid fandom and total baseball disinterest, the fall classic actually proved to be a contest pitting the cheaters against the racists with a disturbing outcome that might be summed up this way: to the spoiled belongs the victory.

And don’t think this was purely a baseball phenomenon. I can’t wait to see who will be competing in next February’s Super Bowl, although the most obvious early contenders are homophobia, sexism, and vaccination misinformation. As for the basketball, hockey, and Olympic seasons, I’m putting my money on the likelihood that predatory sexuality, financial inequality, and transgender discrimination will be right up there alongside the commercials for Nike and gambling.

I consider all this the upshot of what appears to be a shift in the very nature of fandom, a moral drift. Fandom has traditionally been mostly regional. In recent years, however, it has begun to take on the worst of the corrupted tribalism that has dominated so much of life outside the arena, the ballpark, and the stadium ever since Donald Trump became America’s coach. Before that, sports was generally considered a crucible for character, a place to define righteous principles, or at least to pay lip service to the high road, whether anyone was on it or not.

Of course, as Trump himself was more a symptom of ongoing developments in this country than the originator of them, this moral drift in sports started years ago when TV and shoe company money further corrupted the arms-race competition among colleges for box-office athletes. Think of Trump as the blowhard who fanned the already growing flames, or perhaps more accurately — by provoking the fanatics — flamed the fans. This shifting sense of sports, fandom, and life in America started gathering velocity in the late 1990s as performance-enhancing drugs proliferated and the National Football League’s (NFL’s) ongoing cover-up of the brain traumas the sport caused so many of its players began to be revealed.

Soon enough, though, cover-ups of just about any sort became unnecessary as the world of Trumpism affirmed that the strategic use of lies and bad behavior was at least as acceptable as were well-thought-out personal fouls in soccer and basketball. And all of that was before the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic led professional athletes to realize that it was about time they assumed active responsibility for their own physical and mental health — if they wanted to survive.

International stars like tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Olympic medal winning gymnast Simone Biles found themselves crushed by the pressure exerted on them by major sports institutions whose only interests, whatever their fates, seemed to be eternal profits. Even pro football players are becoming involved in their own mental health.

The Fall Classic

A milestone of the current moral drift was the World Series just past.

Like every major sporting event these days, it opened with a media-generated narrative. Such story lines generally feature a star’s comeback (from a slump, an injury, or more recently, suspensions for drug use or domestic violence) or perhaps a franchise’s chance to finally win a title and so repay a city for its endless sufferance of mediocrity and tax breaks. Such narratives help ratings and circulation. Baseball, losing popularity lately, depends on them, especially to reel in the “cool” Black audience so important to current pop culture and style.

That’s why this year’s baseball narrative was so startling — and effective in terms of ratings. I think of it as: root for the lesser of two evils. In this case, the lesser of those was either a team that broke the rules to win the title or a team that marketed its racism.

Three years ago, the Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series, apparently with the help of an intricate system of cheating, which involved shooting video of the opposing team’s pitching signals and relaying them to their own batters. The subsequent punishments meted out by Major League Baseball (MLB) were clearly designed not to be harsh enough to damage the Astros’ future possibilities in any way. And when the team showed up at the 2021 World Series, it was with a new manager, Dusty Baker, a highly appropriate yet seemingly cynical selection of the team owners.

Baker, after all, is Black and celebrated for his integrity and decency. As a player, he was mentored by Atlanta slugger Hank Aaron. As a veteran manager, he was well-liked by his players and by the media. For a team that had cheated the last time around, he was, in other words, a seemingly unassailable and all-too-necessary figure. (Well, actually, maybe not quite. Despite managing slugger Barry Bonds for 10 years at San Francisco, he claims to have had no idea whether Bonds used steroids, which, for some at least, makes him either a liar or a self-blinkered leader.)

In any case, Baker’s reputation made it possible for fans and the media to look past the Astros’ previous transgressions long enough to focus instead on those of the Atlanta Braves. In a time when the Cleveland Indians have changed their name to the Cleveland Guardians and the former Washington Redskins have dropped their (as yet to be replaced) terrible name, Atlanta and Major League Baseball nevertheless defended not only that team’s use of what was considered a racist slur (“Braves”), but its promotion of the despicable tomahawk chop gesture among its fans in the stands, which former President Trump so notoriously demonstrated when he attended game four of the series.

If perhaps you don’t know what happened but still care, the “Braves” beat the Astros, four games to two, to win the series. In what once was arguably the national pastime, they seemed to prove that racism tops cheating in Trumpist America during this season of moral drift.

Email Slurs

But what about the sport that left baseball in the dust, and now passes for the national pastime? Can diverse bigotry beat anti-vaxx mendacity in pro football?

Last October, Jon Gruden, justifiably famous for good-old white mediocrity, resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after a trove of emails revealed him to be an equal-opportunity slinger of slurs. Those emails were discovered while lawyers were investigating alleged sexual harassment at the Washington Football Team (those former Redskins). The Gruden emails had mostly been exchanged 10 years ago with Bruce Allen, then the Washington team president when Gruden was an ESPN sports analyst. Racial and homophobic slurs abounded in those old, white, frat-boy-style exchanges.

Allen was fired and Gruden is now suing the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for allegedly leaking those emails in an attempt, he claims, to divert attention from the transgressions of the league and of Goodell himself. It’s not all that far-fetched a notion in this time of conspiracies. Who knows what medical, racial, and financial wrongdoing pro football continues to conceal today?

It may be unlikely but, should the upcoming Super Bowl feature, say, the Raiders or that still-to-be-renamed Washington team against the Green Bay Packers, it could rival the World Series as a “lesser of two evils” (or greater of two evils?) event. Matched against the bigotry that lost Gruden his job would be the peculiar prevarications of the Packers’ once exemplary quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. He lied about getting his Covid vaccinations, putting teammates, fans, and sports reporters at risk.

One of my favorite sports commentators weighed in mightily on the subject. The Washington Post‘s Sally Jenkins wrote:

“Lord knows Rodgers is inventive with the football, but of all the dodging, narcissistic, contrived moves. ‘Yeah, I’m immunized,’ he said, so artificially, when asked in the preseason whether he was vaccinated. That was a lie by omission. And not just a single lie but a daily willful deception along with a weirdly callous charade. On multiple occasions he went into postgame news conferences — which tend to be closely packed, fetid affairs — unmasked. And there should be some queries about the steam and sauna and rehab rooms, too.”

Former National Basketball Association star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was fearful of the damage Rodgers might have done to the very image of pro athletes by, among other things, claiming that

“this idea that it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it’s just a total lie… If the vaccine is so great, then how come people are still getting Covid and spreading Covid and, unfortunately, dying of Covid?”

As Jabbar pointed out,

“Those two statements don’t even belong together. Statistics from many sources conclude that around 97% of those being hospitalized or who have died in the past several months are unvaccinated. The CDC found that the unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die than those vaccinated. If he thinks that’s a lie, what credible evidence does he have? None.”

Fun fact: Rodgers also auditioned to be the new host of the TV game show Jeopardy, a potential job he soon put in… er, jeopardy.

Sadly, pro football was not exactly “woke,” despite the sustained courage of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Just before Trump was elected president, he dropped to a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial mistreatment in this country. His stature has only grown since, even if he could never again get a job in the NFL. In fact, this February, your time might be far better spent on the new book just published about Kaepernick’s impact on our world or the new TV series on his life than watching the Super Bowl.

On Thin Ice

The drifting morals of major league sports have even tainted the whitest and usually least controversial of those leagues, the National Hockey League. In October, it began its latest season dealing with one old tumult and a whopper of a new one, both involving the same team.

The old controversy has been dragging on for years, the slur-ish name and logo of the Chicago Blackhawks. The new one concerns the cover-up of the sexual abuse of a young pro player by a coach, a shocking tale in a particularly stoic, macho, and tight-lipped sport. The club and the league at first professed surprise at the charges for an incident which allegedly occurred in 2010. Nobody knew anything, as usual… until, of course, it turned out that they did but, in the interests of the sport and of winning, had kept quiet.

In a remarkable interview with Rick Westhead of TSN’s SportsCentre, the victim, former Blackhawk player Kyle Beach, said:

“I am a survivor. And I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one, male or female. And I buried this for 10 years, 11 years. And it’s destroyed me from the inside out. And I want everybody to know in the sports world and in the world that you’re not alone. That if these things happen to you, you need to speak up.”

Had Kyle Beach spoken up earlier, it might have helped Jonathan Martin, a football player whose mental health issues were triggered by the homophobic and racist harassment of a teammate. Martin is only now coming to terms with his psychological needs. His nemesis, Richie Incognito, had a long college and pro history of aggressive behavior, but his size — 6-4, 322 pounds — and his skill allowed him to flourish even as he appeared on police blotters and was considered by some of his peers to be the dirtiest player in the league.

There is a moral to this story. A discouraging one. The bad guy wins. Martin was driven out of pro football in 2015 at age 26, his early talent unrealized. Meanwhile, Incognito, 38, is still in the league, a Trump supporter now playing for the Las Vegas Raiders. Don’t you wonder if he misses his former coach, Jon Gruden?

But before you get too discouraged, take heart in this Ohio State University study which finds that less than half of Americans surveyed think “that sports teach love of country, respect for the military, and how to be an American.” Those who do think that way tend to be “men, heterosexuals, Christians, and Republicans… groups that have traditionally had high status in the United States, been comfortable with their situations, and therefore have positive feelings about these values.”

Maybe there’s a better moral out there and hope for sports yet. If we can drive the moral drifters off the field, maybe we can have a brand-new ball game.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte is aTomDispatch regularand a former sports and city columnist for The New York Times. He is the author, among other works, ofSportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

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As Sports Protests Spread, Who Will Take The Knee Next?

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Last year, when LeBron James described some of President Trump's public statements as "laughable and scary," Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham ordered the basketball superstar to "shut up and dribble."

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How Football Culture Groomed Us For President Trump

How Football Culture Groomed Us For President Trump

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Because everything is so Trumpian these days, there’s less air or space for the only other mass entertainment that promotes tribalism and toxic masculinity while keeping violence in vogue: football.

In the age of The Donald, it’s hard to remember that football was once the nation’s greatest television reality show. Because real people actually got really hurt in real-time, you could be sure it wasn’t fake news. Now, football is just another runner-up to President Trump, whose policies actually get people killed.

And yet football is still here, in plain sight, waiting to resume its cultural dominance once Trump is gone.

To avoid any further erosion of its base, it is cosmetically modifying itself at every level with “reforms” focused on the image of increased safety. From small rural high schools to the Fifth Avenue offices of the National Football League (NFL), plans are being generated to protect America’s most popular and prosperous sport from the two things that could destroy it — the players’ mortal fear of having their brains scrambled and the fans’ moral fear of awakening to their complicity in such a process.

The players, mostly black and conditioned to believe football is their best ticket out of modern Jim Crow, have not yet fully awakened. But fans, despite being conditioned to believe that supporting your local team is little short of a civic responsibility, have more options. They are, after all, mostly white and not as likely to need to sacrifice their health for their short-term livelihood. There’s hope that, in the end, those fans will come to understand, for example, that watching the Super Bowl is casting a vote for the values that have helped bring us the show most dangerous to our survival as a civilization, the Trump administration.

Football’s Playbook

As a voter’s guide, here are the six ways in which football groomed us for Trumpball and is still trying to keep us in its grasp:

1. Inflame Racial Divisions: Helping to spread America’s primary disease, racism, is Trump 101, but the NFL got there first. Seventy per cent of its players are African-American. At the start of this season, only four head coaches and two general managers of the 32 teams were men of color. Only two owners were not white men: the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Pakistani-American Shahid Khan and the Buffalo Bills’ Korean-American Kim Pegula (a woman).

So, who would have thought that the same year — this one! — would mark not only the 100th anniversary of the NFL but the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on the soil of what became the United States of America? Somehow, neither milestone has been celebrated all that much this year — and never together. In his indispensable book on race and sports, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, former New York Times columnist William Rhoden maintains that, by cutting off black athletes from their history and communities, the sports industry has managed to control them. “The power relationship that had been established on the plantation,” he wrote, “has not changed even if the circumstances around it have.”

To make sure the NFL owners would stand firm against players kneeling during the national anthem, President Trump called Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to say, according to a sworn deposition given by Jones and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”

No wonder that these days, whole teams or many members of them refuse invitations to the White House.

2. Crush Dissent: The CliffsNotes saga of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick is pretty straightforward — a star (though not a superstar) refuses to stand for the pre-game national anthem as a protest against racism, particularly of the white-police variety. His act is spun as disrespect to the nation and its flag. Thereafter, no team will hire him because he would be a “distraction.” That was three years ago and, ever since, Kaepernick has kept himself in playing shape, becoming a martyr to some, a loser to others, and one of the genuine heroes of this generation of racial activists. He has collected millions of dollars (and given away more than a million of them) from both a Nike campaign and a settlement with the NFL in return for withdrawing a collusion case he had brought against the league. More recently, a league-sanctioned open workout, hastily organized for him to audition for a new quarterback job, collapsed amid bad intentions and confusion.

Perhaps most interesting is the striking lack of support Kaepernick has received from many of his fellow players. Are they against his demonstration or fearful of antagonizing their owners and endangering their own jobs (which only last, on average, slightly more than three years)? After all, at a 2017 rally, Trump told those same owners (a striking number of them donors of his) that they should respond to protesting players by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!”

He really didn’t have to tell them. They understood that holding the line against the Kaepernicks of this world means keeping the progressive barbarians at bay, something already baked into the game. The canceling of the Other, of anyone not on the team (so to speak), be they rivals, uncooperative college faculty, or most women who aren’t moms, cheerleaders, or girlfriends who understand that the team comes first, remains the norm.

3. Normalize Brutality: Football was born in brutality. In 1909, the year 26 football players died, former Confederate colonel John Mosby reportedly called the sport a “barbarous amusement” that “develops the brute dormant in man’s nature and puts the player on a level with… a polar bear.” This from a cavalry raider once known as the “Gray Ghost.”

Although the game has since been made safer, it’s always been a contest battled out man-to-man and based on the violent aggrandizement of territory. Attempts to create rules to avoid, say, crippling blocks and tackles have generally been met by howls of anguish from chickenhawk fans who cried out: don’t sissify football.

Particularly in the warfare between offensive and defensive lines, football is a game of domination by bullies. The most notorious of contemporary bullies (and yes, he’s a Trump supporter) is Richie Incognito. As an all-star offensive lineman at Nebraska, he picked fights that probably would have ended his career at most other universities. But he was such a good player that Nebraska sent him to the Menninger Clinic for anger-management counseling. This, however, proved no cure for the six-foot-three-inch, 300-pounder and Incognito eventually was kicked off the team. While some pro teams refused to draft him on the basis of “character” issues, the St. Louis Rams did so in 2005. He played well (and with bad character). He was routinely picked for all-pro teams, while, in 2009, being voted the “dirtiest player in the league.” In 2013, he bullied a fellow 300-pound Dolphin, Jonathan Martin, off the team and eventually out of football.

Not surprisingly, the NFL is as practiced when it comes to reaching out to bad boys as the present administration is. (Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, one of three SEALs tried for war crimes, whom President Trump intervened repeatedly to protect, has been referred to as the Richie Incognito of the SEALS.) Incognito, who continues to pile up a police record, played this season with the Oakland Raiders while Martin, a Stanford graduate, still struggles with his depression.

4. Sustain Inequality: Recent legislation in California allowing college athletes to share in any profits from the sale of their images has been both hailed and attacked as revolutionary. It’s the beginning of a fair new deal in the saga of the “unpaid professionals” and the end of amateur sports as we knew it. There was always a very good reason for keeping jocks on an unguaranteed dole called “scholarships”: control. But an even better reason was keeping all the profits for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the colleges, the apparel companies, and the retailers.

The crushing economic inequality in college athletics (especially in football and basketball, the so-called revenue sports) has been justified by the “free” education that “student-athletes” — a term concocted by former NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers — receive if indeed they go to class and graduate. If indeed they even have time.

The ripping-off of college athletes has been carefully ignored by legislators, universities, and fans. Later in life, Byers would aptly call the NCAA “a nationwide money-laundering scheme,” but this phenomenon runs through all of sports. The 32 NFL teams collect more than $13 billion in revenue annually and protect themselves with elaborate “salary caps,” so that no team can start spending too wildly on players or launch the football equivalent of an arms race. Of course, by the time you turn pro, the least you can make is $495,000 (this year’s rookie minimum) with millions more for first-round draft picks.

As Colonel Mosby pointed out so long ago, the real problem still begins in college. As he put it, “It is notorious that football teams are largely composed of professional mercenaries who are hired to advertise colleges. Gate money is the valuable consideration.”

5. Apply the Lie: In the deadly tradition forged by Big Tobacco and climate deniers, the NFL relentlessly insisted that there was no relation between brain trauma and the game, even as middle-aged former players slipped into early dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease. For years, the league was dismissive and stonewalled on the issue. In all of this, the media and a cult of faux masculinity were accomplices. Those head-banging hits you’ve been wincing at on TV? Just dingers a real man should be able to shake off.

It took a young New York Times reporter, Alan Schwarz, a young pathologist, Bennett Omalu, and the brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru-Wada, with the help of a PBS Frontline documentary, “League of Denial,” to finally get the story out in full. And it would prove a particularly hard sell for fans invested in the game. They generally didn’t want to give up their viewing pleasures, however guilty, and tried to justify them by claiming that the players were well aware of the risks and well-compensated for them, even if the settlements crafted by NFL lawyers have never seemed adequate to the damage done.

As Americans learned that the damage was usually caused by thousands of hits to the head — from pee-wee football through high school and college — youth football participation started to drop. Even successful pros began to say that they wouldn’t allow their sons to play football.

More troubling yet to the NFL have been decisions by stars like Andrew Luck, a 29-year-old quarterback who quit while he could still walk and think.

6. Control the Media: Covering football from high school to the pros can be a walk in the park or a slog through hell, depending on whether the reporter is considered part of the booster squad or a “ripper,” out to score his or her own points in opposition to the team’s brand image. Admittedly, even in this heightened moment for sports journalists, few reporters have been physically attacked by coaches or athletes, although intimidation, micro-aggressions, and attempts at shunning have always been common. Lately, real-time access to key players has been harder to come by and has led to more speculative coverage, which, in turn, often results in adversarial writing, sometimes in defiance of media employers.

Not surprisingly, then, leading a recent “stick to sports” campaign have been football’s media partners, not its players or fans. Anything that seems remotely political, even if posted on private social media platforms, has been subject to being shut down. Jemele Hill, an ESPN star now writing for the Atlantic, may be the most striking example so far of a good journalist ousted in this way, but many have also been lost to devastating lay-offs at ESPN, Deadspin, and other sports sites where real coverage has been giving way to cheaper, uncontroversial puff pieces.

Ultimately, in such a climate, political figures, too, may feel ever more comfortable expressing themselves aggressively to journalists on critical coverage. Here, as David French described it, is a possible harbinger of such a future:

“In 2017, the congressional candidate Greg Gianforte ‘body-slammed’ the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs tried to ask him questions about health-care policy. It was a cowardly, criminal act. Not long after, Trump praised him. At a campaign rally, the president of the United States said of Gianforte, ‘Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.’”

“My guy,” by the way, went on to win his Montana seat in the House of Representatives.

For those who remain unconvinced that an unqualified vote for football is a vote for Trump, the Jock Culture Department of TomDispatch suggests you follow Richie Incognito to the Menninger Clinic. For those who promise to at least remain open on such subjects, however, we’re prepared to look the other way while you watch the Super Bowl in a SportsWorld made ever more toxic by the racism, sexism, classism, and violence encouraged, or perhaps more accurately, marketed by Donald Trump. And while you’re watching the festivities (and the head-banging to follow), hang on to the possibility that this will be the president’s last Super Bowl as national head coach.

Robert Lipsyte, a TomDispatch regularwas a sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Robert Lipsyte