Dave Zirin

Why the Movie ‘Concussion’ Spells Trouble for the NFL and Moral Angst for the Rest of Us

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.

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Why the Head of the NFL Is an Accomplice to the Ray Rice Abuse Scandal

The abuser and the savior: In instances of intimate-partner violence, these roles are often two sides of the same coin—both destructive to a survivor attempting to assert control and escape the cycle of violence. In the case of Ray Rice vs. Roger Goodell and the ruling by Judge Barbara Jones, which has voided the NFL commissioner’s ban of Rice for the entire 2014 season, you see the two sides of the coin on full display. And with this ruling, it has to be said: In the story of Ray Rice and Janay Rice, we have seen Roger Goodell play the role of both “abuser” and “savior,” to ruinous effects, without any consideration for the self-determination of Janay Rice.The role of Roger Goodell as abuser can now be seen with utter clarity. For those who have not been following the case, here is the narrative Goodell put forward that was just summarily shredded by Judge Jones. The commissioner says that he heard about Ray Rice punching Janay Rice and knocking her unconscious and called Ray Rice and Janay Rice into his office to hear what happened from both of their mouths. (This month-old revelation—that Goodell had a survivor tell her story to her abusive partner’s boss in front of her abuser—alone should have triggered his immediate dismissal.) The NFL commissioner then determined that “both were at fault” and suspended Rice for two games. Outrage ensued, so Goodell, in full damage-control mode, hurriedly announced a new sweeping set of guidelines. These new rules—not applicable to Rice, who had already been punished—would include a six-game suspension for domestic violence for a first offense and then a lifetime ban for a second infraction.Then the videotape of Ray Rice punching Janay Rice dropped, and the NFL’s world stopped turning. The Baltimore Ravens released Rice, and NFL media sycophants became born-again firebrands. As for Roger Goodell, he not only announced more sweeping changes but said that the videotape revealed that Ray Rice had lied to him about what had taken place in that elevator, and in light of this “new information,” Ray Rice was now suspended for the entire season. To believe this, one would have to believe that Roger Goodell, despite a paper trail to the contrary, had never before seen the videotape. You would have to believe that the bottom-feeders at TMZ have greater resources than the team of former FBI and Secret Service agents who work for NFL security. You would have to believe Roger Goodell over a slew of witnesses who say that Rice described in exacting fashion what had happened on that video. Judge Jones chose not to believe the commissioner. She has said instead that Goodell’s story is simply not credible, and the inference is that he suspended Ray Rice indefinitely out of public relations anxiety or, if one is being profoundly generous, out of a guilty conscience.Now Ray Rice is looking for a team to sign him and Roger Goodell is exposed as a liar. He has also exposed himself to the world as someone who has flipped from being a domestic violence enabler to a self-proclaimed savior. By having an NFL that now says it will end the careers of those suspected of domestic abuse, Goodell has chosen to wear the incredibly ruinous “savior” hat—a hat that flows from the same logic of toxic masculinity that led to years of cover-ups of abuse. That means he has created a new revictimizing system that takes the power away from survivors about how to seize control of their own lives and map out a plan to be safe and end cycles of abuse.Instead, the power rests with Goodell to end the careers, the economic opportunities and the public lives of those suspected of abuse. This will not only disincentivize some survivors from coming forward, it could also create dangerous situations for those figuring out safety plans and strategies to leave abusive partners. The survivor needs to figure out—with assistance if desired—how to best remain safe: either by staying in or ending these relationships. That is not the job of Roger Goodell or the NFL. And frankly, given the track record of a man who continued a practice of covering up instances of domestic violence until the videotape was released, why would anyone trust Roger Goodell to save anyone or anything other than his own career?Ray Rice released a statement through the NFLPA where he said, “I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions.” We should all be waiting for Roger Goodell to take full responsibility for his own actions, as both cover-up artist and wanna-be savior. The NFL a place where toxic masculinity not only festers but is valorized every single Sunday. The commissioner’s office should ideally be a place where that toxicity is countered, not where it originates.(This could not have been written without the assistance of former intimate-partner violence counselor and survivor’s advocate Anais Surkin.) 
Dave Zirin is sports correspondent for The Nation. He is the author, most recently, of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down and Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

NBA Hypocrites: Why Did So Many Put Up With Donald Sterling's Bigotry for So Long?

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Men on the Edge of Panic: Boomer Esiason, Mike Francesa and Toxic Masculinity

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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How Russia Is Scapegoating Gays to Distract from Most Corrupt Olympics in History

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, subscribe to their newsletter. 

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The Shocking Truth About Joe Paterno, Penn State and Governor Tom Corbett

“It is very simple: Joe Paterno was a criminal.”   —Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports

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Should Football Fans Feel Guilty for Enjoying Bone-Crunching Tackles?

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.

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Movement To Get All-Star Game Out Of Arizona Keeps Building

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.

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"This World Cup Is Not For The Poor": The Ugly Truth Behind The Celebrations

At long last, soccer fans, the moment is here. On Saturday, when South Africa takes the field against Mexico, the World Cup will officially be underway. Nothing attracts the global gaze quite like it. Nothing creates such an undeniably electric atmosphere with enough energy to put British Petroleum, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron out of business for good. And finally, after eighty years, the World Cup has come to Africa. We should take a moment to celebrate that this most global of sports has finally made its way to the African continent, nesting in the bucolic country of South Africa. And yet as we celebrate the cup’s long awaited arrival in the cradle of civilization, there are realities on the ground that would be insane to ignore. To paraphrase an old African saying, "When the elephants party, the grass will suffer." In the hands of FIFA and the ruling African National Congress, the World Cup has been a neoliberal Trojan Horse, enacting a series of policies that the citizens of this proud nation would never have accepted if not wrapped in the honor of hosting the cup. This includes $9.5 billion in state deficit spending ($4.3 billion in direct subsidies and another $5.2 billion in luxury transport infrastructure). This works out to about $200 per citizen.

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Christopher Hitchens' Bizarre Attack on the Olympics

Nuance is the mortal enemy of essayist Christopher Hitchens. Whether it's his rapturous support for Bush's Iraq invasion or his best-selling dismissal (God is NOT Great) of religion, Hitchens will always eschew a surgical analysis for the rhetorical amputation. Beneath the Oxford education, he has become Thomas Friedman in an ascot, with all the subtlety of a blowtorch.

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New Orleans Revels in Saints' Superbowl Victory

The New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl 44. I can't believe I'm even typing the words. Five years ago this was the team considered most likely to be moved to Los Angeles. Four and a half years ago, after the levies broke, the concern was not whether there would be a Saints, but whether there would even be a New Orleans. Remember that after Hurricane Katrina, the Speaker of the House, Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert said, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." But now Hastert is on the political scrap heap and New Orleans is the home of the Super Bowl champs. I'm not sure whether it feels like a dream or positively preordained. If nothing else, it's an emotional release from all the idiocy that surrounded the big game. From the military cheerleading, to Tim and Pam Tebow's vapid Focus on the Family ad, to the Who's halftime act which clearly violated the Geneva accords: none of it matters now. We'll go back to building resistance to Obama's wars. Tim Tebow will go back to being the next Eric Crouch. And the Who will go back to Madame Tussaud's. For right now, it just doesn't matter because the New Orleans Saints won the damn Super Bowl.

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"Haiti Needs Help When It's Not Chic As Well": Haitian NBA Vet Olden Polynice

Olden Polynice played center in the NBA for 15 seasons. During that time, he distinguished himself as more than a hardnosed rebounder. He was the most visible Haitian athlete in the history of the United States. In 1993, Polynice was the first U.S. athlete to ever join a hunger strike during the season to protest the treatment of H.I.V. positive Haitian refugees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. Today Polynice lives in Los Angeles and runs the Olden Polynice Hoop Foundation. He calls himself "an activist for Haiti until the day I die.... whether it's chic or not." I spoke with him about the current post-earthquake calamity.

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Zinn's 'People's History' Masterwork Hits the History Channel

On December 13th, a date I've basically had tattooed on my arm like the guy from Memento, The People Speak finally makes its debut on the History Channel. This is more than just must-see-TV. It is nothing less than the life's work of "people's historian" Howard Zinn brought to life by some of the most talented actors, musicians, and poets in the country. Howard Zinn and his partner Anthony Arnove chose the most stirring political passages in Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States, creating a written anthology called Voices of a People's History of the United States. Those "voices" have now been fully resurrected by a collection of performers ranging from Matt Damon to hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco to poet Staceyann Chin.

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Limbaugh's New Low: A Final Word On Racist Rush's NFL Debacle

Over the last eight years, even though it often made me break out into hives, I've listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh. I've heard him express the full gamut of his emotional range: from hateful to very hateful. But over all this time, I've never known him to be pathetic until yesterday.

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The (Unofficial) Caster Semenya Results Are In: The Sports World Is Ignorant and Sexist

The salacious sports media and the puritanical zealots that run international track and field have joined forces to hit a new low. Someone in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) leaked to the press that Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old 800-meter track champion from South Africa, is, in the words of Oren Yaniv in the New York Daily News, both "a woman... and a man!"

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For Team Obama, A Refresher on Jack Johnson and "The Great White Hope"

In a recent monologue, Bill Maher said that the United States has two main political parties: one party on the center-right: the Democrats, and one party in a mental institution: the Republicans. Frankly, his comment insults those who receive care at psychiatric facilities; at least they are looking for help.

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DC Metro Crash: Who Will Die Next Because We Throw Money at Billionaries and Scrimp on the Public Good?

Who will be the next to die because our cities spend money on sports stadiums instead of basic infrastructure?

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Plaxico Burress Shooting: Cue the Hypocrites

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: all Plaxico, all the time. There's nothing like an NFL player shooting a hole in his own leg in a packed nightclub to become our latest walking, talking weapon of mass distraction. Why ponder the global economic meltdown, two wars, and rising unemployment, when millionaire black athletes like Plaxico Burress walk among us ... with guns?

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Will the China Olympics Be a PR Debacle?

"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.

My First-Hand Experience With Government Spies

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.

Racism, Sexism and Speed: Can NASCAR Be Saved From Itself?

For the last decade, NASCAR has tried to shed its legacy as a sport indelibly linked to the confederate flag. Motorsports execs understand that if their sport is ever to go global, burning rubber can't be associated with burning crosses. However, despite NASCAR's efforts to improve their image, it's still a sport where racism thrives below the surface and sexism in the form of bikini-clad NASCAR eye candy is proudly paraded around the speedway, as much a part of the scenery as the stars and bars. NASCAR is in danger of being marginalized by this contradiction. They're attempting to reach an international audience while displaying the worst kind of backward provincialism.

NASCAR execs' preoccupation with having their cake and eating it too has long been a recipe for disaster. Now there is an ingredient that could ruin their entire corporate feast: Mauricia Grant. In 2005, Grant became the first black, female inspection official in the sport's history. Two years later she was fired. Now Grant has filed a $225 million harassment lawsuit against NASCAR alleging "racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination."

"I loved it. It was a great, exciting, adrenaline-filled job where I worked with fast cars and the best drivers in the world," Grant toldThe Associated Press. "But there was an ongoing daily pattern [of harassment]. It was the nature of the people I worked with, the people who ran it, it trickled down from the top."

The lawsuit details twenty-three specific incidents of sexual harassment and thirty-four specific incidents of alleged racial and gender discrimination over a two-year span. It is a fairly mindnumbing recitation of similar stories that go well beyond anyone's notion of political correctness.

Grant has accused two NASCAR officials, Tim Knox and Bud Moore, of exposing themselves to her as well. They are now on "indefinite administrative paid leave" although NASCAR suspiciously says it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

Grant claims she was called "Nappy Headed Mo" and "Queen Sheba." She had a coworker who liked to talk casually about the Ku Klux Klan. Another white official named, oddly enough, David Duke, sent her a text message that read, "I love all Yall mofos i am that niggaHAHAHAHollaPIMPALICIOUS."

So far, NASCAR's response to Grant's allegations has been to go into attack mode. Chairman Brian France said, "The disappointing thing is she makes a lot of claims, none of them reported, The fact that it went on as she stated, for many months, but never bothered to tell anyone at management what was going on--which is what our policy says--is very disappointing." Grant claims she did tell others but that she was told to let it go because her tormenters were "former military guys" with a rough sense of humor.

Mike Wilford,  who is named in the suit and has since left NASCAR, toldThe Associated Press that Grant was in on the offensive "jokes" the whole time. "Graphic and lewd jokes? She participated in them. She laughed, she would never say it was inappropriate," Wilford claims. "She asked to be called the only two names she was ever called. She called herself Mo Money all the time."

Needless to say, this scandal could destroy NASCAR, or at the very least, put it in permanent marketing purgatory. Ironically the person perhaps best-equipped to save NASCAR from itself is Mauricia Grant.

Grant has said, "We have to work together to change the racist culture. Anyone that has an interest in motorsports, they should be allowed to work in that environment without having to deal with racism or sexism."

Grant's love of motorsports is so intense, so pure, that she can separate the beauty of the sport from the ugly underbelly desperately clinging to its wheels. Perhaps she could even inspire NASCAR fans to get up and demonstrate--whether it be at Daytona or Talladega--to show that intolerance and gender inequality are not the cornerstones of the sport they love.

Tiger Woods' Partnership with Chevron Legitimizes the Worst of Corporate America

Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous, and most dominant, athlete in the world today. The 32-year-old golfer with the multicultural background he once proudly described as "Cablinasian" has somehow accomplished the impossible: made golf on a Sunday must-see TV.

Woods is a trailblazer and already a legend for his ability to perform when the spotlight is at its hottest. But he has also established a reputation for reticence when confronted with the real world off the greens. For all his cultural capital, Woods has refused to take stands on issues that should hit close to home, such as restricted golf courses, or even when the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman suggested young PGA players "lynch him in a back alley" in a "joke" about how they might overcome his dominance. Tiger has largely maintained the tight-lipped silence of a Benedictine monk.

After the lynching comment, ESPN's Scoop Jackson became so frustrated with this disciplined quietude he wrote, "Because of who he is, Tiger Woods has the power to make people listen. Not just hear his words--but embrace what he has to say.... It's a stand he needs to take because people who change the world eventually have to take stands. Whether strong or silent, good or evil, they take stands not to prove their beliefs, but to rectify a situation or condition."

His defenders have always said that behind the scenes Woods has been an agent for change, and that he shouldn't be criticized just because he does his good deeds without media fanfare. They say he wields that influence through his nonprofit Tiger Woods Foundation. Go to the website, and a virtual Woods walks right onto your screen and welcomes you to a place where "kids can achieve anything." The site boasts: "more than 10 million young people have benefited from the Tiger Woods Foundation since its inception in 1996. What started out with limited access throughout America, now reaches out to young people around the world."

Yet now the Foundation is "reaching around the world" in a way that has human rights activists concerned about a business partnership that smells like sulfur.

The Tiger Woods Foundation has entered into an extensive five-year partnership with Chevron Corporation, with the oil and energy giant becoming the title sponsor of the Tiger Woods Foundation World Challenge Golf Tournament.

"Chevron has a track record and a commitment to bettering the communities where they operate," Woods said in a press release on April 3. And Chevron's executive vice president chimed in, "Chevron, Tiger and the Tiger Woods Foundation share similar values...as well as a deep commitment to make a difference in local communities."

They have certainly "made a difference in local communities," but it's nothing they should be bragging about, and certainly nothing with which Woods should want his name attached. Chevron is in full partnership with the Burmese military regime on the Yadana gas pipeline project, the single greatest source of revenue for the military, estimated at nearly $1 billion in 2007, nearly half of all the country's revenue. These are the same people who are blocking international aid workers from assisting the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The death toll has been estimated at 78,000, but this number can explode as disease spreads and help isn't allowed through the military lines. Even the US State Department has called the actions of the government "appalling."

Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder and executive director of EarthRights International, wrote in an open letter to Woods, "I myself have spoken to victims of forced labor, rape, and torture on Chevron's pipeline--if you heard what they said to me, you too would understand how their tragic stories stand in stark contrast to Chevron's rhetoric about helping communities." ERI's request to meet with Woods or someone from the foundation has been met with silence

But while the Burmese junta's crimes are localized in Southeast Asia, Chevron is global. Lawsuits have been issued against Chevron's toxic waste dumping in Alaska, Canada, Angola, California. Then there's the matter of 18 billion gallons of toxic waste the company has been accused of dumping in the Amazon.

In a US District Court in San Francisco, the case of Bowoto v. Chevron, Nigerian plaintiffs have accused Chevron of actually arming and outfitting Nigerian oil security forces to shoot and kill protesters. Judge Susan Illston has refused to dismiss the case because, as Democracy Now! recently reported, "evidence show[s] direct links to Chevron officials."

When pressed for comment, Tiger Woods Foundation President Greg McLaughlin issued this statement to The Nation: "The Foundation's vision is to help young people reach their full potential. All our partners share in this vision, allowing us to make a positive impact in millions of young lives." That response, to very serious and very direct charges, is the golf equivalent of a triple bogey.

President McLaughlin should think more seriously about what Chevron is and what they do: they pollute, they destroy, they conspire with dictators, and heaven help anyone who gets in their way. Now they want to burnish their "brand" by partnering with Tiger Woods. Tiger's late father Earl, once said of his son, "He will transcend this game...and bring to the world...a humanitarianism...which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in...by virtue of his existence...and his presence."

The partnership with Chevron makes a mockery of Earl Woods's hopes.

To use an analogy from a different sport, the ball is now in Tiger's court. Will he allow himself to be tamed by corporate interests, or will he roar?

Brutal Chinese Crackdown on Tibet Carries Terrible Echo from the Past

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 Echeverría's instructions.

Echeverría'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 Echeverría 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.

Congressional Steroid Spectacle a Major League Waste of Taxpayer Money

Representative Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, died this week at the age of 80. We remember Lantos for many things, but he's top of mind today as the man who gazed at the very first of these idiotic steroid hearings in 2005, and called it for what it was: "a theater of the absurd." Roger Clemens's face-off with Congress Wednesday officially moved the guardians of our democracy far beyond the absurd.

Before we discuss one word of the tax-funded idiocy on display Wednesday at Representative Henry Waxman's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, let's concede that there are only about 1,500 ways we can think of off the top of our heads that the committee's time could be better spent. They could be asking why the Bush Administration is so keen on bugging our phones, why it grants no-bid contracts to Dick Cheney's pals or why they're underfunding the Veterans Administration. Hell, they could be holding hearings on how it is Bush got that weird black eye a few years back. Anything but this.

Virginia Republican Representative Tom Davis -- the guy with the pumpkin-colored hair -- defended the idea of steroid hearings last month, saying, "This is one of the few things in a partisan, polarized town that the Republicans and Democrats are on the same page. It isn't on the budget or Iraq. But you've got to start somewhere."

Yet the anabolic circus was an absolute parade of partisanship. The positions of lawmakers on the dais seemed as hardened as those testifying. Clemens, under oath, declared that he had never taken steroids or human growth hormones. His ex-trainer, Brian McNamee, a former cop, swears he did. So one person was lying, one was telling the truth, yet both presented to the camera fidgety faces of squirmy deceit. And we ask again, who cares? If steroid use is against the law, these people should be in court. Why are members of Congress focused on testimony as to whether abscesses on someone's buttocks could lead to a better earned-run average?

But the partisan lineup of majority Democrats going after Clemens and Republicans after McNamee made for bizarre political theater. While Democrats were calling Clemens a liar, Republicans like Chris Shays were shouting that McNamee was, of all things, trading in controlled substances. "You deal drugs!" the Congressman said. Yes, Chris. That's usually who testifies in drug cases.

Clemens is a Republican with long-standing ties to the Bush family. During his testimony, Rocket Roger invoked some strange words of encouragement -- "Stay high and keep my head up" -- that the syntactically challenged George Herbert Walker Bush once gave him. Not the best choice of words at a hearing about drugs.

And the Bush patronage is likely to continue, even if Clemens eventually is charged with perjury as a result of his testimony. McNamee's lawyer Richard Emery today predicted a pardon from Bush the Younger: "It would be the easiest thing in the world for George W. Bush, given the corrupt proclivities of his administration to say Roger Clemens is an American hero, Roger Clemens helped children," Emery told the Associated Press. "It's my belief they have some reason to believe they can get a pardon."

Clemens is also reportedly close to his former boss, Houston Astros owner Drayton McClane, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to various Republican candidates, and to Rangers owner Tom Hicks, the former chair of the Giuliani for President campaign.

Another priceless moment was when Clemens was taken to task on his assertion that he hadn't used steroids, only B-12. Representative Bruce Braley asked him if he had an approved medical reason for taking B-12, if he had been diagnosed with anemia, senile dementia or Alzheimer's, or whether he was a vegetarian or a vegan. The word "vegan" threw Clemens for a big loop. "I don't know what that is," Clemens replied. "I'm sorry."

Having already blamed his wife for getting injected with B-12 to buff up for her appearance in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Clemens tossed responsibility on dear old mom. "My mother in 1988 suggested I take B-12," Clemens said. "I always assumed it was a good thing, not a bad thing."

Sounds like what a lot of people thought when the Democrats took over Congress.

Butts on Parade: When Roger Clemens Met 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace

"The higher you get up on the flagpole, the more your butt shows." Roger Clemens on 60 Minutes 1/6/07

And not since J-Lo's heyday -- or maybe Brad Pitt's rear appearance in Thelma and Louise -- has a butt been so utterly over-analyzed.

We now know that Roger Clemens has a rear end that's seen more needles than Keith Richards' family room. Yet it's what filled the syringes that have the sports-world and the US Congress all atwitter. Last night Clemens tried to sell his anabolic virginity to both 60 Minutes and the great proctologist of American journalism, Mike Wallace. For 15 excruciating on-air minutes, the seven-time Cy Young award winner put himself in Wallace's cross-hairs. He answered questions about Sen. George Mitchell's steroid report and what may or may not have been injected into his Hall of Fame cheeks by his personal trainer Brian McNamee.

The Wallace/Clemens showdown had the hype of a prizefight. But the millions at home didn't see the Mike Wallace who made Vietnam War architect Gen. William Westmoreland cry in his napalm. On Sunday we didn't witness the famed media bulldog, but a chihuahua. If he had looked at the camera and said, "Yo quiero Taco Bell," no one would have blinked. The 89-year-old legend is a regular in Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's owner's box and has called Clemens a friend. On Sunday he seemed to have his own narcotic reaction to the athletic proximity.

Wallace opened the interview by saying, "Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, no question." Then he called the Rocket, "The hardest working man in throw business." As George Vescey wrote in The New York Times, "[60 Minutes] has made politicians, business leaders, clergy and entertainers squirm, but there is something about athletes that brings out the little kid in normally aggressive interviewers."

In the face of Wallace's timid glow, Clemens was a picture of rumpled, stubble-faced outrage. But his efforts to come off like John Wayne hit all the wrong notes. He started by raising his voice and yelling, "I'm angry!... Twenty-four, twenty-five years Mike. You'd think I'd get an inch of respect. An inch!"

When Wallace asked whether it might be impossible to be that good at Clemens' age, the Rocket responded, "It's not impossible! You do it with hard work!" Wallace then summoned 70 years of journalistic experience and said, "Swear?" And Clemens responded, "Swear!" No pinky swears were deemed necessary.

It's hard to find any love for Roger Clemens. He seems like the kind of guy who would borrow your car without asking and get a DUI. And yet despite all the entitled arrogance, Clemens' performance was a sad train wreck that left me feeling disgusted with the whole sorry scene-and less concerned about steroids than the ongoing politicization and deterioration in the world of sports.

On Sunday we saw that Roger Clemens' ability to throw a baseball doesn't make him a great politician or advocate for his own innocence. He wasn't Bill Clinton speaking smoothly about the pain he caused in his marriage or even Richard Nixon jabbering about Checkers the dog.

Even under Wallace's paternal shelter, Clemens' eyes shifted around the room, sweat glistening on his brow, a near parody of guilt. All we needed was a little chain-smoking to complete the picture.

When Wallace read passages from the Mitchell report, Clemens, in between furious denials, twitched like he was doing the lindy hop on an electric fence.

He tried to play Texas tough-guy, particularly when he spoke about all the injections he endured to play through pain and "go out and perform."

But Clemens was most effective when for a brief moment he dropped the Gary Cooper routine and said simply, "And that's our country, isn't it? Guilty before innocent. That the way our country works now." That's certainly the way it has worked for Barry Bonds over the past several years. It's hard to imagine a world where 60 Minutes would have given Bonds similar treatment and respect, interviewed by a friend for a national audience.

Clemens is now getting a taste -- even if the blow is softened by racist double standards -- of what athletes from Bonds to Martina Hingis to Randy Moss to many others have experienced in recent years: the flammable hypocrisy that torches athletes when their careers cross with drugs, whether recreational or "performance enhancing." We now live in a sports world where human beings are glorified and then destroyed for our collective amusement.

When these modern gladiators take substances to extend their time in fame's embrace or find relief from the suffocating pressure of competition, they are punished. Then Congress comes running, ready to pile an extra coating of political distraction on this already noxious spectacle by trading on the pelts of athletes for cheap votes. The Clemens spectacle was yet another demonstration that we need a more sane way to deal with drugs in sports than turning it into reality TV or congressional fodder. No ifs, ands, or butts.

Yankee Pitcher Roger Clemens as Guilty as Bonds

Ever had someone spit in your face and tell you it's raining? That's how it felt watching former Sen. George Mitchell's press conference on steroid use in major league baseball. The former Senate majority leader unleashed his "investigative findings" speaking with the somber, deliberate tones of an exhausted undertaker. Mitchell strained to convey scorn upon both baseball owners and the union for being "slow to act." Yet beneath the surface, his report is ugly, sanctimonious fraud meant to absolve those at the top and pin blame on a motley crew of retired players, trainers and clubhouse attendants. This is truly the old saw of the magical fishing net that captures minnows but lets the whales swim free.

Sanctioned by Commissioner Bud Selig's office, the Mitchell Report was seen by some as an unprecedented act in sports: a $20 million internal investigation aimed at rooting out "performance enhancing drugs and human growth hormones" in the game.

The Mitchell Report certainly contains a great deal of sexy sizzle. First and foremost, it names names: including MVPs Mo Vaughn, Miguel Tejada and Barry Bonds, as well as former all-stars like Eric Gagne and Lenny Dykstra. It also names a man being called the Moby Dick to Mitchell's Ahab: seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. For some time, people in the game have whispered about Clemens being on the juice. And for some time, the 45-year-old Clemens denied all charges as a compliant media lapped it up. As Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel wrote, "Year after year he peddled the same garbage. Roger Clemens was so dominant for so long because he simply outworked everyone. It played to the nation's Puritan roots, made Clemens out to be this everyman maximizing his skills through singular focus, dedication and a commitment to drinking carrot juice, or something. It's all gone now, the legend of Rocket Roger dead on arrival of the Mitchell Report; one of the greatest pitchers of all time, his seven Cy Youngs and 354 career victories lost to history under a pile of lies and syringes."

The Mitchell Report confirms not only suspicions about Clemens, but also the existence of an outrageous media bias and double standard. While seven time MVP Barry Bonds was raked over the conjecture coals for years, Clemens got a pass. Two players, both dominant into their 40s, one black and one white, with two entirely different ways of being treated. It doesn't take Al Sharpton to do the cultural calculus.

And yet, flaying Clemens shouldn't excuse the gross whitewash at work.

There are three fundamental problems with the Mitchell Report:

1. Mitchell himself. George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader best known before today for helping negotiate the peace deal in Northern Ireland, has had a massive conflict of interest when it comes to baseball. The man is on the boards of both the Boston Red Sox and also the Walt Disney Co. The Disney Co. owns ESPN, baseball's No. 1 broadcast partner. Joe Morgan has spoken out about how in the 1990s, ESPN execs encouraged him not to state his suspicions about steroid use on the air. As Morgan said, "I would be broadcasting a game, and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them."

2. No testimony from players. The only active player to speak to Mitchell was New York Yankee Jason Giambi, and he spoke under threat of suspension. Mitchell says he invited the accused to come clear their names, but no one took him up on this generous offer. Yet if you are a MLB player, why would you come forward to legitimize a process in which you wouldn't even have the opportunity to face your accuser? This is a process where Mitchell was judge, jury and executioner: Gitmo meets Skoal. Reputations have been ruined -- and the essential "truth" of the report is still based on hearsay.

3. Same old narrative. Mitchell paid lip service in his press conference to "slow acting" owners -- calling it "a collective failure." At one point, Mitchell said -- without explanation -- that baseball execs were slow due to "economic motives." Yet the overarching narrative is that the owners and general managers were merely ignorant or obtuse, with a complete absence of malice. The real fault lied with players and independent-acting clubhouse attendants, like the soon to be famous Mets worker Kirk Radomski, who says he secured the juice for players and named names. Radomski was described by former Mets GM Steve Phillips as "the guy who would pick up the towels or pick up a player's girlfriend from the airport." Yes, Kirk Radomski, a regular Pablo Escobar.

Mitchell went on to say that players have actively and on their own made great efforts to foil the owners' poorly organized efforts to clean up the game. This is the same kind of political cover -- as Naomi Klein has written so brilliantly -- that the mainstream press gives the Bush administration on Iraq. Errors made are ones of people with good intentions who made terrible choices. Those who suffered from these choices are blamed for their barbarism and self-interest. When Baghdad was looted and destroyed, Iraqis were pilloried for their greed. Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney were blamed for being "overly optimistic" and "trusting them too much."

This is poppycock, whether we're talking about the Bush cabal, or major league owners. Performance-enhancing drugs were funneled into the game along with smaller stadiums, harder bats and incredible shrinking strike zones to boost power numbers and ratings after the 1994 strike. (Read Howard Bryant's excellent Juicing the Game for the full breakdown.)

The idea that owners and GMs facilitated these measures while leaving the very conditioning of players to themselves simply strains belief: this is George H.W. Bush saying he was "out of the loop" on Iran-Contra. This is Dubya saying, "I never read" the National Intelligence Estimate before claiming World War III is on the horizon. In other words, this is the way people in power stay in power during times of crisis: take some heat, blame the underlings, cry some tears and call it a day.

Indicted! Barry Bonds Is a Perfect Distraction from Real Events

Barry Lamar Bonds faces thirty years in prison because the Department of Justice is a corroded husk of political decay. The baseball Home Run King has now been officially indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges and it only took three years and millions of tax dollars to make it happen.

The DOJ's entire case hinges on the ridiculous question of whether Bonds "knowingly" was on the juice, or lied on the witness stand when he said he took such substances "unknowingly." The actual indictment parses in language that would shame a Clinton. It reads, "During the criminal investigation, evidence was obtained including positive tests for the presence of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing substances for Bonds and other athletes."

This is idiocy raised to the level of law. It makes me wonder what they're teaching at Jesus-land Legal Academy these days. Did Bonds actually test positive for steroids or were pharmaceuticals only found in these mysterious un-indicted "other athletes"? And what is a "performance enhancer"? That's not even a legal or medical term; it's sports radio shorthand. The cortisone shot into Curt Schilling ankle in the 2005 playoffs was a performance enhancer. The Viagra coursing through Bob Dole's veins is a performance enhancer. Whatever keeps that smile glued to Laura Bush's face is a performance enhancer. It's a colloquial phrase tells us nothing. It only raises the question whether the indictment was written by Mike or the Mad Dog.

Most of the media has focused on the prison release of Bonds' trainer and childhood friend Greg Anderson. Anderson has spent the last four months in jail for refusing to testify against his friend. The press is atwitter with speculation that Anderson may have finally turned. But his attorney Mark Geragos says that this is absolutely and unequivocally not the case.

It's far more likely that Anderson was released because now that the indictment has been served there is no legal basis for holding him. The media, however, has their eye on the wrong ball. The timing that's important here is not Greg Anderson's release but the ascension your brand spanking new Attorney General, Mike Mukasey, and his desire for a cheap hit.

Mukasey believes that the pillars of these United States are Mom, apple pie, and protracted torture. As the New York Times wrote on November 1st, "Mukasey, a well-respected trial judge in New York ... has stunned us during the confirmation process by saying he believes the president has the power to negate laws and by not committing himself to enforcing Congressional subpoenas. He also has suggested that he will not uphold standards of decency during wartime recognized by the civilized world for generations."

The fact is that Bonds is under attack from a collection of torture-loving, Habeas Corpus shredding, illegal wire tapping, political operatives. The idea that a Barry Bonds indictment becomes the first act of Mike Mukasey's Justice Department only exposes Sens. Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, and the other Democratic pols who backed his confirmation. They called him "a man of character" as well as "a strong leader, committed to depoliticizing the agency's operations." There is no evidence of character and leadership in this indictment; only the tawdry political desire for headlines.

Mukasey and friends may have worked themselves into a lather over the thought of their "Capone" behind bars. But they shouldn't be picking out his orange jumpsuit just yet. The indictment comes on the heels of the resignation of San Francisco US Attorney Kevin Ryan. Ryan was by all counts a Bush loyalist but he had earned the ire of the DOJ for, among other things, not indicting Bonds. He apparently didn't relish the thought of prosecuting the local hero in a San Francisco courtroom. Prosecutors will have that same hurdle of convicting Bonds on his home turf with apparantly no fresh evidence.

Because it appears that the DOJ has nothing new to say, the plan will be to scorch the jury pool by raising the temperature on the story. Already in the wake of the indictment, the White House felt the need to weigh in saying, among other insipid platitudes, "learly this is a sad day for baseball." You would never know that there are wars and occupations going on that might require some attention. This is like FDR delivering a fireside chat on the death of Fatty Arbuckle. It's also yet another sign that the justice system has more holes than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Tomorrow (Friday) I will be demonstrating in front of Mukasey's Department of Justice along with thousands of my closest friends. We will march because they refuse to indict people for hanging nooses, or see the rape and torture of Megan Williams as a hate crime, or do anything to change the perception that justice means "just-us." But my vocal chords might be a little more raw than usual at days end. The idea that they have no time for Megan Williams, but invest years in the prosecution of Barry Bonds should make any good person of conscience utterly enraged.

Think about it: Barry Bonds joining Marion Jones in prison. Feel any safer yet?

The Colorado Rockies: God's Baseball Team

21 wins in 22 games. An improbable run to the World Series. One of the hottest streaks to end a season in the history of the game. And not two pitchers the average fan could even name. Ladies and gents, your Colorado Rockies: a team performing what even an atheist could call a baseball miracle. And "miracle" is an appropriate term for a team that riled the baseball world last year by claiming that filling the dugout with Christian players would grease the skids to greatness.

Last year the Rockies went public with the news that the organization was looking for players with "character." And according to team management, "character" means players who have chosen Jesus as their personal Lord and manager. "We're nervous, to be honest with you," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said at the time. "It's the first time we ever talked about these issues publicly. The last thing we want to do is offend anyone because of our beliefs."

Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort took it further, saying, "I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." The team took some heat for its statements, especially when former players spoke of having their lockers searched for dirty magazines and feeling pressure that you had to be down with the God Squad to feel part of the team. It also raised the question of whether the team was discriminating against non-Christian players -- would Jewish icon Shawn Green be welcome? What about just straight-up heathens?

But as the team makes its miracle run to the series against the Boston Red Sox this year, the Rockies are playing down their holier-than-thou image.

"Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that," O'Dowd said in the New York Times today. "If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that's their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody's looking. Nothing more complicated than that. You don't have to be a Christian to make that decision." "There are guys who are religious, sure, but they don't impress it upon anybody," Jewish pitcher Jason Hirsh also stepped forward to say. "It's not like they hung a cross in my locker or anything. They've accepted me for who I am and what I believe in." (That could be a great pitch for recruiting free agents: "They won't hang a cross in your locker!")

Have the Rockies really turned over a tolerant new leaf -- as the Times report suggested -- or is this merely the sin of spin? Relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt said, "When you have as many people who believe in God as we do, it creates a humbleness about what we do. I don't see arrogance here, I see confidence. We're all very humbled about where this franchise has been and where it is now, and we know that what's happening now is a very special thing."

Humility and confidence are fine -- indeed, novel -- traits in an athlete. But the troubling part of that statement is the assumption that Christianity by definition brings character to the table. Maybe it's because I live in Washington, DC, a town full of politicians who blithely invade other countries with other people's children and deny healthcare to millions of kids and say they are guided by God. Maybe it's because I find a team using a publicly funded stadium as a platform for an event originally dubbed "Christian Family Day" exclusionary and a gross misuse of tax dollars. (Later, the events were renamed "Faith Day" to sound more inclusive.)

But for those of us who believe that freedom of religion also should mean freedom from religion at the ballpark, it doesn't matter if you call it Buddha-Jesus-Jewish-Vishnu-Islamic-Wicca Awareness Day. We just want to go to the ballpark without feeling like we're covertly funding Focus on the Family's gay-retraining programs. Religion and sports: it's a marriage in desperate need of a divorce.

That's why it was hard not to feel a tiny taste of supernatural satisfaction upon learning Tuesday that the team website crashed following what Rockies officials called "an external, malicious attack." The team's efforts to sell all its World Series tickets online was unprecedented and seen by many diehard Rockies fans as a way to sell tickets to out-of-town corporate entities and shut out the locals waiting in line for days to buy them in person. Unless your lord is Michael Milken, gouging home-town supporters doesn't seem very Christian at all.

So who could be the perpetrator of this "external and malicious" attack on the Rockies website? Was it God, punishing the team for squeezing the common fan? The Devil, trying to derail their grace-driven run? Some Red Sox Nation hacker getting his jollies? Whatever, it was hard not to smile at the biblical significance for one of baseball's most sanctimonious teams. They could throw the money-changers out of our sporting temples, but that would leave the owner's boxes empty. And we can't have that.

Bonds' Accomplishment Leaves Baseball a Polarized Place

Feared Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz says there is one immutable law under his roof: "When I am home and Bonds comes up it's the house rule that no one is allowed to talk." This is the part of Barry Bonds's legacy that we won't be hearing about now that the San Francisco Giants outfielder has passed Henry Aaron to claim the most sacred statistical title in all sports: Major League Baseball's home run king.

In twenty-five years of watching baseball, Bonds is simply the greatest player I have ever seen. In the 1990s, he averaged thirty-six homers and thirty-four steals every season. At 37, in 2001, he hit a record seventy-three home runs; at 38 he batted .370 with an ungodly .582 on-base percentage; at 39 he won his sixth MVP, hitting forty-five home runs in only 390 at bats. At 40 he set a record by being the first person to have an on-base percentage over .600. He mastered the game like no modern player in any other sport save Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

But Bonds will leave baseball a polarized place. Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become festivals of vitriol. Much of the media talk about him as if he were Barry bin Laden or, as Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observercalled him, "OJ [Simpson] Lite."

All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark. Seeing the nightly sports highlights of mostly white fans letting it all hang out against one of the most prominent African-American athletes in the sport has deepened the polarization. In the latestNew York Times poll, African-American fans were almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron's record of 755 homers; 57 percent of blacks were rooting for Bonds to break the record, versus only 29 percent of whites.

Making the journey more difficult is the man Bonds was seeking to pass: Henry Aaron. Bonds is painted as symbolic for "what's wrong in sports," while Aaron has become one of baseball's elder statesmen and living legends. Aaron made a surprise appearance on the Jumbotron Tuesday night after Bonds hit his historic blast. This surely must have confused members of the media who have used Aaron's refusal to be at the game to beat Bonds over the head.

As Jemele Hill from ESPN wrote, "Hank Aaron deserves better than to see his record broken by an unlikable, arrogant cheater who has done nothing but heighten stereotypes of Black athletes. He is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and the best player of this generation -- but he is not nearly the man Aaron is, and should not surpass him in any way."

Aaron's refusal to attend was drenched in irony. In April 1974, he broke Babe Ruth's seemingly insurmountable record by hitting his 715th home run, doing so in an atmosphere of open racism. In 1973, as he closed in on Ruth's record, the US Post Office reported that Aaron received 930,000 letters, many of them death threats. One that Aaron later said was similar to many others read, "Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth."

As the Associated Press wrote at the time, "The threats on Aaron's life began to arrive in earnest in the early days of the chase, both by mail and phone. As he got closer, they steadily increased in numbers and specificity -- everything from the city and the time purported assassins would hit, right down to what the killer would be wearing."

This was not some bygone era but the 1970s. Also, unlike Bonds's experience, the prime source of the open rage against Aaron wasn't in visiting parks but at "home" in Atlanta.

Aaron later wrote, "The Atlanta fans weren't shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 nigger striking out with men on base." As news of the threats became public, Aaron received support and solidarity from supporters around the country, including Babe Ruth's widow, Claire. That support did not extend, however, to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. On the day Aaron finally broke the mark, Kuhn made the decision not to attend.

Current commissioner Bud Selig, of course, chose to stand in Kuhn's tradition and deny the baseball world his presence at the game. Selig did attend the game in San Diego when Bonds hit his 755th home run; he stood as Bonds circled the bases but chose not to clap.

As for Aaron, we don't know why he refused to be present. Yet his stance has made it easy for anti-Bonds pundits to say that racism has nothing to do with the rancor Bonds is receiving around the country.

Bryan Burwell, an African-American sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and MSNBC.com, writes, "Anyone who honestly thinks that Aaron is the bad guy and Bonds is the tragic victim either has absolutely no sense of American history, or is a complete idiot."

Burwell goes on to write, "Hank Aaron was a victim of America's dark soul in his 1974 pursuit of Babe Ruth's home-run mark. The hatred and resentment that Bonds is feeling now are all about the self-inflicted wounds of a cheater's out-of-control vanity and ego."

The problem with this kind of discourse is that it shuts down people who are very rightly concerned about the way racism becomes accepted as an outgrowth of the media's anti-Bonds avalanche. If folks like Burwell, Hill and Sorenson (among many others) don't realize that they are spraying lighter fluid on the fire, then they need to get out of the press box and into the cheap seats to hear what people are actually saying as Bonds goes up to the plate. Instead of sparking a serious discussion on sports, steroids, celebrity and race, they have made the Bonds soap opera about the moral failings of one man -- and in the process are doing Aaron and the memory of what he endured a grave disservice by keeping the animus alive.

Playing for Country... Shilling for Bush?

As the 2006 world championships begin this week in Japan, USA Basketball is the Joe Lieberman of the sports world: defeated and desperate, using every means to claw back toward relevance. They don't have much to build on: In the 2002 world championship, the former goliaths of the hoops universe stumbled to a sixth-place finish. At the 2004 Olympiad in Greece, they won the bronze medal but suffered more losses than the team had in its entire Olympic history.

It's understandable that Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball men's team, and coach Mike Krzyzewski are now pulling out every trick to turn things around. This year's team is rich in talent with the potential to win gold, but they're greener than a Minnesota banana. Featuring young superstars like LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, the starting lineup may end up being on average younger than 23.

With such a raw squad, Colangelo and Coach K are understandably striving to develop team cohesion and unity. But their methods are both disturbing and worthy of criticism. As Colangelo explained to Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith, "Coach K and I were having dinner last summer and talking about ways to connect this team with America. We talked about engaging ourselves (with the military): 'Can this become their team? America's team?' It seemed like a natural." The two brought in people like Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and celebrated soldier Col. Robert Brown to speak about how, Smith wrote, "the military, like a basketball team, requires a unified, unselfish approach."

It is not surprising that Coach K loved the military angle. He's a graduate of West Point who led the Army squad for five years. And there is nothing new about coaches using the language of war to inspire a winning team. But how does "engaging with the military" translate in these troubled times? It means that Colangelo and Krzyzewski have brought out soldiers maimed and crippled by the war in Iraq to inspire their "troops" in high-tops. This has included Capt. Scott Smiley, who is now blind after a Mosul suicide car bombing sent shrapnel into his brain, and another, Sgt. Christian Steele, who had part of his hand blown off. As Smith wrote, "It was a more than subtle message that playing with 'USA' on your jersey means a lot more than trying to win a medal. And it seems to have produced the desired effect of breaking down individual team loyalties and more quickly uniting this American team."

The team, reportedly, was moved to tears. But there is something unnerving about these motivational tactics.

Etan Thomas, the power forward/center for the Washington Wizards, saw the military presentation on NBA TV and knew in his gut that it was wrong. He said to me, "I don't have a problem with the troops talking to the players on their own. But for them being brought in to build a better basketball team just feels wrong. If I was there, my reaction would have been completely different. The fact that... Scott Smiley has lost his sight would not have made me feel patriotic pride. It would have made me feel ashamed, angered and saddened that this soldier was blinded at the service of a war we shouldn't have been in in the first place."

To use a deeply unpopular war from which, according to a recent Zogby poll, 72 percent of troops want to escape, and using the injured for public relations purposes, feels more like exploitation than motivation, especially when spearheaded by Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo once owned part of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks. Currently, he's chairman and CEO of WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, and he also has aspirations that extend beyond a gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

Colangelo has been pouring his money into efforts to strengthen ties between Republican politics and the religious right. He was a deputy chair of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in Arizona, and Colangelo's deep pockets contributed to what is called the Presidential Prayer Team, a private evangelical group that claims to have signed up more than one million people to drop to their knees and pray daily for Bush. During the election summer of 2004, as Max Blumenthal has reported, Colangelo bought ads on 1,200 radio stations urging listeners to pray for the President.

Colangelo has never been shy about using sports to project his politics. On April 5, 2003, he designated the Phoenix Suns' contest against Minnesota Arizona Right-to-Life Day.

The former Diamondbacks CEO also helped launched a group along with other baseball executives and ex-players called Battin' 1,000, a national campaign that uses baseball memorabilia to raise funds for Campus for Life, the largest antichoice student network in the country. Battin' 1,000 stands against all abortions, even in the case of incest or rape. Its motto: "Pro-life--without exception, without compromise, without apology."

Colangelo has a fellow political traveler in Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K is a longtime Republican donor who made waves when he hosted a 2002 fundraiser for North Carolina senatorial candidate Elizabeth Dole at the university-owned Washington Duke Inn. His group, to the consternation of many non-Republican faculty and students, was called "Blue Devils for Dole."

In addition to their politics, Colangelo and Coach K have something else in common: There is no published evidence that either ever served in combat. They might have gained a different perspective on the meaning of sports and war had they actually suffered the pain, boredom, fear and death of a live battle.

One injured veteran Colangelo and Krzyzewski didn't bring in was Army Specialist Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, who lost her hand in a grenade attack on a Baghdad police station. She would have been particularly appropriate as a motivator for USA Basketball because in college she was also the starting point guard for Notre Dame. But Green told reporters from her hospital bed in 2004, "They [the Iraqis] just don't want us there.... I personally don't think we should have gone into Iraq. Not the way things have turned out. A lot more people are going to get hurt, and for what?"

That question still hasn't been answered. Maybe Colangelo hopes that with all the exciting basketball to watch, we just won't get around to asking it.

A Racist Slur at the World Cup?

Imagine Michael Jordan in his last game, with the score tied in overtime, knocking out his defender with a punch to the throat. Imagine Derek Jeter in game seven of the World Series, at bat with the bases loaded, thrashing the opposing team's catcher over the head with his bat. Our collective shock would only be exceeded by disappointment. No one, fan or foe, would want to a see a great player end their career in an act that speaks to the worst impulses of sports: when hard competition spills over into violence.

Now imagine if Jordan and Jeter claimed they were provoked with a racial slur. Does their violence become understandable? Even excusable? Herein lies the case of French National team captain, the great Zinedine Zidane. Zidane, competing in his last professional match, was kicked out of the World Cup final in overtime for flattening Italian player Marco Materazzi with the head-butt heard around the world. Zidane, or Zissou as he is known, became the first captain ever ejected from a World Cup championship match.

The announcers denounced Zissou for committing a "classless act and the French team withered, eventually losing to a demonstrably inferior Italian squad in overtime. The following morning the international tabloids with their typical grace, gave Zissou a new nickname: "butt-head." Less examined was the fact that Zissou was literally carrying a lightly regarded French team to the finals. Less examined was the fact that Zissou had been grabbed, kicked, and fouled all game by the vaunted Italian defense. Less examined was the fact that Zissou had almost left minutes earlier due to injury, his arm wilting off his shoulder like a wet leaf of spinach. This unholy amount of pressure is the primary reason the 34-year-old veteran snapped and planted Materazzi into the pitch.

Now the great mystery is what set Zissou off. What could Materazzi have possibly said to send him over the edge? Answers are beginning to filter out. According to a FIFA employee transcribing what was said during the match, Materazzi's called Zissou a "big Algerian shit." A Brazilian television program that claims to have used a lip-reader said Materazzi called Zissou's sister "a whore." The highly respected French anti-racist coalition SOS Racisme issued a press release stating, "According to several very well informed sources from the world of football, it would seem [Materazzi] called Zissou a 'dirty terrorist'."

Materazzi, in an answer that can only be called Clintonian, said, "It is absolutely not true. I didn't call him a terrorist." Of course he didn‚t comment on what he did call him. Zissou himself has only said cryptically that he would reveal what Materazzi said "in the coming days."

Right now, we do not know beyond a shadow of a doubt what was said but all the circumstantial evidence points at least toward a variant of SOS Racisme's claim. Zissou is the son of Algerian immigrants who has sparred verbally with Europe's far-right political machine for more than a decade. He is an outspoken anti-racist on a team that has defined itself by its multiculturalism and stubborn insistence to stand up against bigotry both inside and outside the sport. Materazzi on the other hand, will be playing this year for the Italian team Lazio, where his father was the former coach. Lazio's fan club, The Ultras, are notorious for their Fascist-friendly politics. Lazio's hardcore Ultras, known as the "Irriducibili," have members in Italy's extra-parliamentary far right and try to use the club to recruit. The group has frequently uses racist and anti-Semitic banners, one time hanging a 50-foot banner that said their opponents were a "team of niggers."

It's wrong to taint Materazzi for the actions of Lazio's fans, but there is more. Earlier this season in a match that pitted Messina against Inter in Sicily, Messina's star African player Marc Zoro famously picked up the ball and walked off the pitch in protest of the monkey chants rained upon him by Inter supporters. In a stirring act of solidarity, many of the Inter players immediately showed support for Zoro's actions. But one opponent yelled, "Stop that, Zoro, you're just trying to make a name for yourself." That opponent's name was Marco Materazzi.

At the start of this tournament I wrote a soccer column with my colleague John Cox, called "Racism Stalks the Cup." We expressed our concern that the monkey chants, banana peels, and peanuts raining down on African players this year would continue on the sport's grandest stage. This largely did not occur. But then in the final act, at the moment of most exquisite tension, it seems racism may have actually emerged from the shadows. I, for one, am damn glad that when it did, it ran smack into Zissou's beautiful head.

We don't know with iron certainty what Materazzi said, but if it turns out to be more of the anti-Black, anti-Muslim, garbage that has infected soccer like a virus, the Italian team should forfeit the cup. They should voluntarily give the greatest trophy of them all back to FIFA as a statement that some things in this world are more important than sports. Racism will be the death of soccer if things don't change. Italy can set the sport back on course, with one simple, stunning gesture. Give the damn thing back.

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