ï»¿Why do I believe the film Concussion will deliver a teeth-rattling blow to the NFL? Why am I sure this Christmas-release Oscar hopeful will raise far-reaching questions about the price we collectively pay for loving football? Why can I guarantee it will it even further erode the already-subterranean reputation of league commissioner Roger Goodell? Because Concussion has something most “message films” do not possess: It’s expertly paced and one hell of a film. If you didn’t really give a damn about the tobacco industry but found yourself riveted by Michael Mann’s The Insider, then this is your film—whether you watch football or not. The pacing, the acting, the kinetic athletic sequences, the use of familiar names, stories, and uniforms, give Concussion an accessible verisimilitude that does not only educate. It shocks.
This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.
This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.
With each passing week, I hear from football fans saying that it's getting harder to like the game they love. They've spent years reveling in the intense competition and violent collisions so central to the sport, but this is the first time these NFL diehards feel conscious about what happens to players when they become unconscious.
On Sunday in DC, I attended the seventeenth ballpark protest of the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2011 baseball season. As in the other actions—in cities from Houston to San Francisco to Milwaukee—people chanted a loud and clear message to Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig: move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona and make the state pay a price for enacting legislation that sacrifices immigrant families at the altar of election-year politics. But this demonstration was also deeply different from the sixteen others. It was a day of rain, risk-takers, racists and rancor. And it couldn’t have been more terrific.
"Go Red for China!" was the slogan unveiled on the Chinese mainland by Pepsi-Cola, whose ubiquitous blue can will, "for a limited time," be red. Pepsi is just one of many companies advertising at the Olympics, at a cost of up to $6 billion, in an attempt to tap a largely untouched market of more than 1 billion. "You've never seen the Olympics in a market that has such domestic commercial scale," Michael Wood, chief executive for greater China at advertising firm Leo Burnett, told the New York Times. "When the Olympics were in Los Angeles and Atlanta, the U.S. market was already fully developed."
This is the Olympics the West wanted: games where the grandest prize is not a gold medal but a glittering entree to China's seemingly endless army of potential consumers. This is the reason that George W. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies, the first U.S. President to do so on foreign soil, and that in March, mere days before the crackdown in Tibet, Condoleezza Rice, laughably, took China off the State Department's list of nations that abuse human rights.
But if the stakes are high for Western capitalism, for China they may well be higher. Beijing has spent as much as $40 billion to build train stations and Olympic facilities, uprooting more than 1.5 million residents, all in the hope that the games would mark, as the official Xinhua news agency put it, a "historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation."
National renaissance, however, may be giving way to revolt, both internally and from the athletes themselves. The buzz in the lead-up to 8/8/08 is not merely in Beijing. It's in Hunan, Shanghai, Guizhou and earthquake-devastated Sichuan, which have all recently seen mass demonstrations against Communist Party rulers. Provincial authorities are now under extraordinary pressure to crack down on protests. Instructions from Beijing are to "go on a war footing" to head off further upheaval before the games.
The steady percolation of the conflict at home has been matched -- or even exceeded -- by international anger. Athletes, activists and globe-trotting protesters are poised to raise a panoply of issues, including China's crackdown on Tibet, its support for the Sudanese regime and environmental concerns. The Communist Party has been forced to respond to this pressure cooker by opening a steam valve, announcing on July 24 that public protests will be permitted during the games inside three designated city parks. But as the Times reported, "Demonstrators must first obtain permits from local police and also abide by Chinese laws that usually make it nearly impossible to legally picket over politically charged issues."
If Chinese leaders believe that will release enough steam for a smooth games, they could be in for a surprise. Olympic protest may extend beyond the parks. More than 200 athletes from "Team Darfur" may be wearing bracelets and speaking out against human rights abuses. As Jessica Mendoza of the U.S. softball team told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I don't think it's my place to tell China what to do. But I do think it's my place to tell people what is happening. I want people to know that nearly 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2004." Athletes are also angry that the air quality in what Beijing is calling the "green Olympics" could be hazardous to their health.
A public relations catastrophe could be in the making if dissenters manage to break through the media blockade that runs from Beijing's troubling record on press freedom to NBC's soft news coverage. It should not be China's to bear alone; it should be shared by the Western nations and corporations that got the games they wanted.
Finally, at long last, I have something in common with Muhammad Ali.
No, I'm not the heavyweight champion of the world, and haven't been named spokesperson for Raid bug spray. Like "the Greatest" - not to mention far too many others -- I have been a target of state police surveillance for activities -- in my case against the death penalty -- that were legal, non-violent, and, so we assumed, constitutionally protected. In classified reports compiled by the Maryland State Police and the Department of Homeland Security, I am "Dave Z." This nickname was given by an undercover agent known to us as "Lucy." She sat in our meetings of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, smiling and engaged, taking copious notes about actions deemed threatening by the Governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich. Our seditious crimes, as Lucy reported, involved such acts as planning to set up a table at the local farmer's market and writing up a petition. Adding a dash of farce to this outrage, she was monitoring us in the liberal enclave of Takoma Park, Maryland, a place known more for vegans than violence, more for tie-dying than terrorism.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the ACLU, we now know that "Lucy" was only one part of a vast, insidious project. The Maryland State Police's Department of Homeland Security devoted near 300 hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars from 2005 and 2006 to harassing people whose only crime was dissenting on the question of the war in Iraq and Maryland's use of death row.
The brutal crackdown by Chinese authorities against Tibetan independence protesters ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing August 8 carries with it a terrible echo from the past. Scores of protesters are reported dead in the capital city of Lhasa and more repression has been promised. Tibet's China-appointed Governor Champa Phuntsok said, "No country would allow those offenders or criminals to escape the arm of justice and China is no exception." A Tibetan exile group said Monday that Chinese troops were shooting down protesters "like dogs."
Even after decades of occupation, the ruthlessness of the crackdown has shocked much of the world. It happens the week after the U.S. State Department removed China from its list of the world's worst human rights offenders.
Yet the concern expressed by world leaders has seemed less for the people of Tibet than the fate of the Summer Games, with Olympic cash deemed more precious than Tibetan blood. The Olympics were supposed to be China's multibillion-dollar, super sweet sixteen. Britain's Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown told the BBC, "This is China's coming-out party, and they should take great care to do nothing that will wreck that."
Other countries hankering after a piece of China's thriving economy have rushed to put daylight between the crackdown in Tibet from the Olympics. The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that "attempts at politicizing the holding of the 2008 Olympic Games in China are unacceptable."
While the European Union, Russia, the United States and Australia have ruled out the idea of boycotting the games, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday that the EU should at least consider boycotting the opening ceremony if violence continues.
Whatever happens next, China's crackdown in Tibet is not happening in spite of the Beijing Olympics, but because of them. It is a bold play by China to set a tone for the remainder of the year. Since its occupation of the country in 1951, China has suppressed its Buddhist faith, despoiled the environment and made Tibetans a persecuted minority in their own country via the mass migration of millions of Han Chinese. As monks and young Tibetans took their grievances to the streets over the weekend, the government made clear it would brook no protest and tolerate no dissent.
But it's helpful to remember that in many countries, including our own, pre-Olympic repression is as much of a tradition as lighting the torch.
In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young black men in the infamous Olympic Gang Sweeps. The 1996 Atlanta games were supposed to demonstrate the gains of the New South, but the New South ended up looking much like the old one, as public housing was razed to make way for the construction of Olympic venues, homeless people were chased off the streets and perceived trouble-makers were arrested.
As Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project recently recalled in Vancouver, BC, another city poised to crack down on crime, drugs and homelessness in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2010, Atlanta officials "had six ordinances that made all kinds of things illegal, including lying down. Lots of people were shipped out, and lots of people were put in jail. [The Olympic Planning Committee] actually built the city jail. Activists there called it the first Olympic project completed on time."
But the worst example of Olympic repression -- and the most similar to the current moment -- came in 1968 in Mexico City, where hundreds of Mexican students and workers occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, 1968, ten days before the start of the games. Recently declassified documents paint a picture of a massacre as cold and methodical as President Luis EcheverrÃƒÂa's instructions.
EcheverrÃƒÂa's aim was the same as China's: a pre-emptive strike to make sure that using the Olympic games as a platform for protest would not be on the itinerary. The irony, of course, is that while EcheverrÃƒÂa succeeded in crushing the protest movement outside the games, on the inside U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in an expression of Black Power, cementing the 1968 games as a place defined by discontent. It's a lesson the 2008 athletes might remember. Officials may try to smother dissent on the streets of Lhasa and elsewhere in China, but in the games themselves -- from the path of the Olympic torch up Mount Everest to the opulent venues constructed in Beijing -- the risk for protest, and the opportunity, is real.