Who will follow the example of Muhammad Ali’s principled stand in our day?


6 June 2016

The death of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who, in his day, was a symbol of protest and resistance, has prompted the inevitable and instinctive effort by the establishment to appropriate his legacy for their own cynical uses.

It is hard to believe that more than half a century has passed since the first bout between Cassius Clay (Ali’s birth name) and Sonny Liston in February 1964 and more than 40 years have come and gone since Ali’s astonishing comeback.

Ali was a great athlete, but one could reasonably argue that he made his chief mark on history and popular consciousness by his courageous opposition to the Vietnam War. A product of rebellious times, Ali earned the admiration and respect of tens of millions around the globe for his act of protest.

After upsetting reigning heavyweight champion Liston in February 1964 at the age of 22, the boxer aligned himself with the black nationalist Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He defended his title numerous times, before announcing in 1966 that he would not serve in the US military and then refusing induction into the armed forces a year later.

Ali explained at the time: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what?… How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail!”

Ali’s boxing license was immediately suspended and his title stripped from him by the cowardly, “patriotic” boxing authorities. He was widely vilified by sports writers, generally among the stupidest and most superficial members of the journalistic fraternity. The venerable Red Smith claimed that the fighter had made himself “as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” Another sports writer-sage, Jim Murray of theLos Angeles Times, termed Ali a “black Benedict Arnold.”

Ali was convicted at a trial in June 1967 and sentenced to five years in prison. For four years, when he was at the height of his physical powers and his case was winding its way through the courts, Ali was unable to fight. The US Supreme Court finally tossed out his conviction in 1971. During his suspension he toured the country, speaking at hundreds of colleges and universities in opposition to the war in Vietnam and on other social issues. Ali would regain his boxing license and go on to take back his heavyweight title, lose it in the ring, and then win it back a record third time.

By all accounts, his noisy, self-promoting and occasionally cruel outbursts aside, Ali was a kind and decent man. In an often barbaric sport, he exhibited great gifts, remarkable grace and elegance, and enormous physical courage. Moreover, Ali had a devilishly sharp wit. He was not only impressive in the ring but could hold his own in the company of experienced interviewers and antagonists, and even best them.

Ali’s decision to join the Nation of Islam does not speak to his perspicacity, but it has to be viewed in context: official American political life, only emerging from the depths of McCarthyite anticommunism, had nothing to offer. The most oppressed layers of the population were hunting around for some viable form of opposition.

There is no reason, of course, to idealize the boxer or make his ideas out to be more coherent or progressive than they were. Ali was all over the place ideologically, and by 2005 he was sufficiently domesticated or worn down by age and health issues to accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the arch-war criminal, George W. Bush.

Nonetheless, in early 1966, when opposition to the Vietnam war was not yet a mass phenomenon in the US, Ali’s stance was principled and inspiring. It certainly contributed to and encouraged public disaffection. By the time he refused induction on April 28, 1967, protest demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people had taken place in New York City and elsewhere, including one on April 15 of the same year (addressed by Martin Luther King, Jr.).

To root for Ali at the time was to root for opposition. He emerged as a public figure in an era when hostility to the status quo was a mass popular reality. In the US, Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles and other major cities went up in flames in the mid-1960s. The latter part of the decade witnessed the anti-Vietnam War movement and expressions of protest on every college campus. Big national strikes and battles between American workers and police on picket lines were on the order of the day. Internationally, hated dictatorships fell in Greece, Spain and Portugal. The global crisis reached its potentially revolutionary peak in the great French general strike, in which ten million people participated, in May-June 1968.

The dead, of course, cannot defend themselves against the exploitation of their lives and activities for utterly rotten purposes. Inevitably, President Barack Obama took the occasion of Ali’s death to present an unsuspecting public with another example of his almost supernaturally sinister hypocrisy and cant.

In a statement, Obama asserted that Ali “stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”

As though Obama, the ideal president for spies, policemen and investment bankers, would know anything about “standing up” and “speaking out” when there might be a price to pay. Has this individual ever taken a single step, twitched so much as a muscle, without ensuring himself well ahead of time that it would find approval with the powers that be?

It is a remarkable commentary on the putrid state of the media and public intellectual life in America that Obama can make such an astounding statement without anyone calling him to order. The US president praises Ali for being prepared to go to jail—this from the relentless, vindictive persecutor of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden! Dead and buried opponents of imperialist war are so much less threatening!

“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it,” asserted Obama, the dispatcher of drone strikes that terrorize entire populations, the presider over “kill lists” that spell incineration for men, women and children in various parts of the globe.

One element of Obama’s statement did ring true: his obvious astonishment at Ali’s willingness to sacrifice career and income for principles. This speaks to a wider and genuinely disturbing problem: how is it possible that we are forced to look back to the 1960s for examples of political courage of this kind?

The United States has been at war with the rest of the world for a quarter-century. During that time, innumerable athletes, actors, musicians, artists, scientists and others have received honors at the hands of Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama, each president guilty of policies leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings or more. Not a soul, as far as the public is aware, has turned down an award, spoken out at the White House or the Kennedy Center or generally repudiated honors from one of these blood-soaked administrations.

That list of honorees—some of whom have histories of social protest or at least independent thought—includes such figures as Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Paul Simon, Warren Beatty, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin.

Stagnant, opportunist times have encouraged submission and quiescence. In such periods of social indifference, as the Russian Marxist Plekhanov once noted, many souls fall into “a cold slumber” and “their moral level sinks very low.” The sooner we fully emerge from such times the better!

David Walsh



The business of baseball and the Cuban national pastime


By Carl Bronski
16 April 2016

As hundreds of salivating U.S. executives from the telecommunications, heavy equipment, foodstuffs, hotel, air and cruise line industries were packing their bags last month to accompany President Barack Obama on his trip to Havana, only the most avid of sports aficionados would have noticed the arrival at Miami airport of Yuliesky and Lourdes Gourriel Jr., brothers from one of the most legendary Cuban baseball families to ever lace on spikes in the Serie Nacional. Both brothers stand to sign monster, multi-million dollar contracts with Major League Baseball teams later this year.

The brothers’ arrival came only days before a revision in U.S. Treasury Department regulations that would allow American companies to directly hire Cuban baseball players (and other athletes and artists) and pay them in excess of normal living expenses. Prior to this revision in the statutes, Cuban ballplayers were required to first set up residency in a third country before applying from there for permission to seek employment in American professional baseball leagues.

This third country interregnum requirement had been for more than a decade the established method by which Cuban athletes could seek employment in the United States. This method, however, was fraught with danger, often involving clandestine midnight boat rides from Cuban shores organized by criminal gangs and human traffickers. Upon arrival in a third country such as Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, the defecting players would often be held hostage by the gangsters until they signed baseball contracts with American teams and agreed to turn over a significant portion of their signing bonus to the traffickers.

Some athletes and artists tried the more direct “dry foot” route directly into the United States but with much less success. American immigration policy allows for defectors from Cuba to claim landed immigrant status should they manage to reach dry land (usually in Florida). However, should a boat carrying defectors be intercepted whilst still on water (or even on mud or swampland) by U.S authorities, the passengers would be summarily sent back to Cuba where a jail sentence or other sanctions awaited.

Baseball fans will be familiar with the trials and tribulations of star players like Yasiel Puig, Yunel Escobar, Yuniesky Betancourt and Leonys Martin.

Puig, who had twice failed to defect directly to the United States, eventually was spirited to Mexico by human traffickers. There, he was held for months in a Yucatan motel by the Zetas cartel who sent regular threats to Puig’s agent that they would soon be shipping the outfielder’s fingers or even an arm by special delivery unless a suitable arrangement was worked out.

Martin was held at gunpoint for weeks until he agreed to pay 30 percent of his earnings to the gangsters. Smugglers demanded Escobar’s agent pay a $150,000 “ransom” if he was to be released from their clutches. Less skilled ballplayers who accompanied Escobar were “auctioned off” to interested agents. Betancourt, who reportedly stopped payments to a criminal gang after his release, faced threats of physical violence throughout his major league career.

By 2007, describing matters like a mining executive might speak of a mother-lode of valuable ore buried in rough terrain, agent Joe Kehoskie gushed, “There’s at least half a billion dollars of baseball talent in Cuba right now and probably a lot more”. The trick was to get it. Such was “the business of baseball” after the occasional dribble of professional talent just before the turn of the new century steadily grew into a torrent.

The path taken to Miami by the Gourriels, however, is of a piece with internal economic reforms first initiated by Raul Castro in 2010 combined with the more recent rapprochement with the United States.

Reeling under the continued pressure of the U.S. economic embargo and the fall-out from the global economic crisis, Cuban President Raul Castro launched in 2010 a two-phase 300-point plan that represented the deepest changes to the Cuban economy since the taking of power by the Castro regime in 1959. Like austerity plans being carried out elsewhere in the world, the aim of these measures was to make the Cuban working class pay for the world capitalist crisis through mass layoffs, privatization, speed-ups, and the elimination of social welfare measures.

Plans were made to lay off half a million workers in state-owned industries. State-owned companies were to be sold off. The hiring of labor by individuals and property transfers would be permitted. Health and welfare spending was cut. At the port of Mariel, a massive Chinese style “free-enterprise zone” was authorized where labor, tax and customs laws would be suspended. The 2013 Second Phase consolidated the moves toward the privatization of state-owned companies and floated plans to unify the two-pronged Cuban currency system.

Social inequality, poverty and increased class tensions rapidly began to increase on the island.

In 2007, there were still only ten Cubans in Major League Baseball. That number would nearly triple over the next seven years on top of more than a hundred Cuban defectors signed to minor league professional contracts in the United States.

Faced with a rash of very high profile defections – world record fire-baller Aroldis Chapman in 2009, five tool phenomenon Yoenis Cespedes in 2011, Puig in 2012 and home run king Jose Abreu in 2013—the Cuban government included changes to its sports policies alongside a second package of wide-ranging economic reforms introduced in the summer of 2013.

By the end of that year, select Cuban ballplayers would be allowed to play professionally in Japan, Canada, Colombia and Mexico as long as they remitted 10 to 30 percent of their earnings to the government and pledged to return to play in international tournaments and the Cuban winter league. In addition, Cuban player salary caps on the island would be lifted. Prior to 2013, top tier Cuban players earned only $50 U.S. per month to play in the Serie Nacional. But now star players began to see their salaries jump by ten-fold and even more overnight. Yuliesky Gourriel, considered one of the best third basemen currently playing on the planet saw his salary increase to nearly $1,200 per month–a paltry sum by international standards but a princely income in Cuba.

The following year, seven Cuban stars would sign officially sanctioned overseas contracts. Yuliesky Gourriel joined the Yokohama DeNa BayStars in the Japanese League on a one-year, one million dollar deal with only a ten percent remittance to the Cuban government. His older brother, Yuniesky, would sign with a Canadian team in a Can-Am Independent League, whilst youngest brother Lourdes followed in 2015 with a tentative deal in Japan. In February of 2016, Yuliesky and Lourdes, in a strange, semi-official “defection” intended to force matters along, walked away from the National Team after a tournament in the Dominican Republic and declared their intention to seek employment with Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States.

At last month’s “Baseball Summit” in Cuba, along with Obama and his 1,200 strong corporate delegation, MLB sent its own 200-person contingent including Commissioner Rob Manfred. The Tampa Bay Rays, which played an exhibition game against the Cuban National team during Obama’s visit, went further, opening an office in Havana.

A number of serious hurdles remain, however, before full normalization of relations between Cuban and American baseball authorities. Primary amongst them, of course, is the Congressional legislation enforcing the continuation of the general economic embargo against Cuba. Cuban officials have insisted that any arrangement allowing Cuban ballplayers to legally sign with American teams must be accompanied by compensation payments made by MLB to either the Cuban government or a joint U.S.-Cuban non-profit entity that would plough monies back into Cuban sports programs. In return, the Cuban government would withdraw demands requiring expatriate players to return to the island for the winter league.

Already in most countries where professional baseball is played, MLB has agreements in place to pay foreign teams “posting fees” for signing away their home-grown talent. These fees can be quite enormous. Until recently, MLB teams were paying Japanese team owners a minimum of $50 million to transfer each of their super-stars. The provisions were only recently re-negotiated. It now costs a MLB team $20 million to buy the rights to negotiate with a Japanese player.

Revenues for MLB last year topped a whopping $9 billion–about 12 percent of the entire Cuban GDP. Almost a billion dollars have been paid to a handful of Cuban stars over the past four years. The Los Angeles Dodgers alone have spent $200 million in that time frame for nine players.

In 2015, almost 150 Cuban players defected, most of them to the United States. This migration has virtually hollowed out the winter league Serie Nacional. Attendance has plummeted throughout Cuba. Sportswriters fill their columns with complaints about the embarrassingly poor quality of play in the country’s proud national pastime. Such is the dearth of established talent that this year, eight of the 16 teams in the league were disbanded halfway through the schedule so that the better ballplayers could join the more elite teams and improve the on-field spectacle. Last year the National Team tumbled to an unprecedented sixth place in an international tournament.

The decline has not gone un-noticed by American officials. With fewer highly skilled prospects remaining on the island, U.S. negotiators have sought more concessions from the Cuban government in hammering out the framework for official transfer deals.

Baseball in Cuba has held a certain cultural pride of place amongst the general population of the island for over a century. Brought to Cuba by returning students and sailors in the 1860’s, the game quickly took on dimensions much wider than a simple sporting experience. The first professional league, established in the late 1860’s, funneled monies to nationalist guerrilla units fighting the Spanish colonial regime. After an anti-colonial uprising was crushed in 1869, the Spaniards banned the game as a subversive activity of the unwashed masses, promoting in its place the much more staid and aristocratic bull-fight. With that, baseball became an integral part of the Cuban culture.

In the 20th century, Cubans introduced baseball throughout Latin America. Fully integrated since the game’s inception, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers established his team’s spring training camp in Havana in 1947 in preparation for breaking MLB’s color bar that year with the legendary Jackie Robinson. After the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, Fidel Castro proclaimed athletes to be the “standard-bearers of the revolution, playing for the love of the people, not money”. In more recent times, a wildly popular 2008 Cuban pop song asks the question “Is it possible that without baseball, we could not dream?”

From 1987 to 1997, the Cuban National Team won 156 consecutive games gathering numerous world championships and Olympic gold medals. The extraordinary medal run began at the 1988 World Championships in Italy with Lourdes Gourriel Senior’s dramatic home run in the ninth inning that led to the defeat of the much-vaunted American team. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent dire economic conditions of the “Special Period” in Cuba saw the beginnings of a precipitous decline in living standards. With it came the first defections; a few players at first, then dozens and now hundreds.

As the Cuban government increases the pace of its rapprochement with US imperialism and its full integration into the world capitalist economy, the Serie Nacional is fast joining its counter-parts in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela as little more than another cog in the global conveyor belt that is the American baseball industry.




NFL admits connection between concussions and degenerative brain disease


By Alan Gilman
19 March 2016

During a House Energy and Commerce round-table discussion concerning concussions and football held last Monday in Washington, DC, Jeff Miller, the National Football League’s (NFL) senior vice president for health and safety policy, admitted that there is a link between American football and degenerative brain disorders like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Until Miller’s testimony the official NFL policy which it had maintained for decades was that football-related concussions have no long-term health effects. To support this position the NFL mirrored the methods of the tobacco industry, which had for years denied that smoking had any adverse health effects.

Miller’s admission came after a leading CTE researcher, Dr. Ann McKee, had presented her findings, showing that nearly 200 former NFL players who had died were afflicted with the disease.

Dr. McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist, has diagnosed 176 CTE cases over the past five years, including 90 out of 94 former NFL players whose brains were examined; 45 out of 55 college players; and six out of 26 high school players. During Monday’s Congressional panel, McKee warned, “It cannot be rare. In fact, I think we are going to be surprised at how common it is” in football players.

The NFL’s sudden reversal last week from its long held position, however, has little to do with accepting responsibility for the horrific damage this multi-billion dollar industry has wrought upon its players, but instead has everything to do with protecting its immense wealth from future lawsuits. The official admission that football-related concussions cause CTE will now make it harder in the future for players to accuse the league of concealing the dangers of the sport.

“Strategically, the NFL’s admission makes a world of sense,” said Jeffrey A. Standen, the dean of the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. “The league has paid a settlement to close all the claims previous to 2015. For future sufferers, the NFL has now effectively put them on notice that their decision to play professional football comes with the acknowledged risk of degenerative brain disease.”

The multi-billion dollar NFL, like “Big Tobacco,” utilized its well-paid “experts” to promote the claim that football-related concussions had only minimal short-term effects and were otherwise harmless. The same well-paid shills would also work to discredit and intimidate anyone who stated otherwise.

This strategy was epitomized in the NFL’s attacks on Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist employed by the Pittsburgh Coroner’s Office who had made the initial finding connecting football with CTE.

Dr. Omalu had performed the autopsy on Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at age 50 after experiencing prolonged emotional and cognitive decline. Dr. Omalu concluded that Webster had died of CTE and found that “this case highlights potential long-term neurodegenerative outcomes in retired professional NFL players subjected to repeated mild traumatic brain injury.” Dr. Omalu’s findings were subsequently published in the journal Neurosurgery.

The NFL’s concussion committee responded to these findings by writing to the journal claiming that Dr. Omalu’s paper had “serious flaws” and demanded its retraction—a request that was denied. The committee similarly attempted to discredit two subsequent reports of CTE that Dr. Omalu had diagnosed in other deceased former players.

The NFL also attempted to have Dr. Omalu fired by the Coroner’s Office, and engaged in further acts of threats and intimidation against him. These events were depicted in the 2015 film Concussion.

In 2011, in response to these findings and to the decades-long denial by the NFL of any connection between repeated concussions sustained by players and the high incidence of brain disorders sustained by former players, a class action was filed by several hundred former players against the NFL.

By then it had become common knowledge that many former players were suffering from early onset of dementia. Many others were committing suicide at alarming rates. Among those were: Terry Long in 2005; Andre Waters in 2006; and Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling in 2012. The families of these players insisted that the brains of these players be autopsied for brain damage, and all were subsequently diagnosed CTE.

With so many former players suffering from dementia and the repeated findings of CTE in deceased players—34 out of 35 in 2012—the NFL owners determined it was to their financial benefit to limit the financial damages. Consequently in 2013 the league reached a tentative $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players. One of the principal terms of the settlement was that the agreement “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football.”

Many players objected to this settlement because they correctly understood that it would not cover the enormous costs that are associated with caring for brain-damaged players. Consequently the court was compelled to later reject this initial settlement proposal.

In September 2014 during hearings on proposals to attempt again to settle this case the NFL admitted in court documents that it expects nearly one-third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that these conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

In April 2015 the court approved a settlement for all players who have sustained serious medical conditions associated with head trauma. It only, however, applied to players who retired before July 2014 as well as family members of players who died before that date. More than 200 former players, however, opted out of the settlement, believing it to be inadequate, and can now sue the NFL separately.

During Super Bowl week this year the NFL continued to deny any connection between CTE and football. Dr. Mitch Berger, who leads the league’s subcommittee on former players and long-term effects of brain and spine injury, repeatedly asserted that there is no proven link between football and CTE.

Now, by publicly acknowledging such risks, the NFL will attempt to absolve itself from any future claims for liability by asserting that its players knowingly assumed the risks of sustaining brain injuries by agreeing to play football.



Race: Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By Alan Gilman and David Walsh
10 March 2016

Directed by Stephen Hopkins; written by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse

Race chronicles the storied athletic career of Jesse Owens, which culminated in his four gold medal performance at the 1936 Nazi-sponsored Berlin Olympics.

(Right) Stephen James as Jesse Owens

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, the film begins in 1933 with a young Owens (Stephan James) arriving at Ohio State University to run track. Owens is immediately confronted with racial bigotry, particularly from members of the all-white football team.

His track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), recognizes Owens as an extraordinary talent. Snyder impresses on the youthful athlete that if he demonstrates single-minded, fanatical focus he will be unstoppable, not only on the college level, but also at the 1936 Olympic Games to be held in Berlin.

Owens follows Snyder’s advice, despite the pressures of fatherhood (he has a baby daughter with his girlfriend, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Branton). He quickly becomes a top collegiate track athlete, and in 1935 at a meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan performs the astonishing feat of breaking three world records (long jump, 220-yard dash and 220 low hurdles) and tying a fourth (100-yard dash) in 45 minutes. This is widely considered one of the greatest single-day performances in athletic history.

Meanwhile, a campaign is underway within the American Olympic Committee, led by Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), to boycott the Berlin Games because of Nazi racism and anti-Semitism.

Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a builder and real estate developer, and future International Olympic Committee president, leads the anti-boycott forces. Brundage shrugs off Germany’s anti-Semitic and racial issues, “It’s not our place to tell a sovereign nation what to do, and besides, when was the last time any of you nay-voters socialized with a Jew or a Negro?”

To help resolve this dispute Brundage agrees to embark on a fact-finding mission to Germany and meets with Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), the Nazi propaganda minister, who “promises” the Germans will not discriminate against any athlete, including Jews. With this agreement in hand, Brundage is able to defeat the boycott forces by a vote of 58 to 56.

James and Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage

Later, during the Olympics, when the Germans break their promise not to discriminate, Goebbels quickly puts an end to Brundage’s feeble protests by threatening to expose a commercial agreement—essentially a bribe—the two parties have entered into.

Other groups, including the NAACP, continue to support boycotting the Olympics, and place pressure on Owens. Ultimately, with the support of his family, he decides to go to the 1936 Games.

In Berlin, Owens is surprised to find that within the Olympic Village the American athletes are housed in integrated housing, something that never occurred in the US. Outside the Olympic venue, however, we see scenes of Jews being beaten and rounded up by the Nazis.

Owens proceeds to win four gold medals, in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter race, long jump and 400-meter relay. He is the most successful, and wildly popular, athlete at the Games and is credited with having delivered a devastating blow to the Nazi myth of “Aryan supremacy.”

In one of the more poignant scenes in the film, German long jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), the European champion, befriends Owens. After Owens fouls on the first two of his three attempts to qualify for the long jump, Long marks a spot several inches in front of the takeoff board, pointing out to Owens that if he takes off from there he will still jump far enough to qualify. Owens does just that and then goes on to defeat Long, who wins the silver medal.

Long is the first to congratulate Owens after the event, shaking his hand. The pair pose for photos and run a victory lap together.

That evening Long explains to Owens that he detests the Nazis for what they are doing and that many other Germans feel the same. At the end of Racethere is an acknowledgement that Owens and Long continued their friendship for several more years and that the German athlete was killed in Sicily during World War II.

Owens’ last race is the 4 x 100 relay, an event that he has not trained for and is not scheduled to run. He participates because the team’s only two Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), are benched at the last minute, on the demand of the German authorities. (Glickman went on to become one of the most prominent and talented American sportscasters in the postwar period, the voice of several New York sports teams, only retiring in 1992.)

As the film ends, a title notes that Owens was never invited to the White House or congratulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Nazi leaders in Race

There are some valuable elements and moving moments in Race. The story of Owens’ accomplishments, in the face of considerable odds, inevitably touches on some significant historical questions.

Jesse Owens was the youngest of 10 children born to Mary Emma Fitzgerald and Henry Cleveland Owens, a sharecropper, in Oakville, Alabama. His impoverished family took part in the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the Northeast, Midwest and West, moving to Cleveland’s east side in the early 1920s. Owens’ father and older brother worked in steel mills, the former only irregularly.

As the result of his athletic prowess, Owens stumbled onto the stage of world politics in the 1930s. The opposition of Avery Brundage, head of the Olympic movement in the US, to a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, held under the aegis of the Nazi regime, had a significant ideological and political content.

Historian Carolyn Marvin explains that the foundation of Brundage’s world outlook “was the proposition that Communism was an evil before which all other evils were insignificant.” His other views or beliefs included “admiration for Hitler’s apparent restoration of prosperity and order to Germany,” the conception “that those who did not work for a living in the United States were an anarchic human tide, and a suspicious anti-Semitism which feared the dissolution of Anglo-Protestant culture in a sea of ethnic aspirations.” Brundage described opposition to American participation in Berlin as a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”

The vile machinations of the Hitler regime in regard to the Olympics are also part of the historical record. The leading Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, editorialized in the strongest terms that no Jews or blacks from any country should be permitted to compete. Faced with the possibility of an international boycott, however, the Nazi government relented, even adding one token participant, a female fencer with a Jewish father, to the German team.

The fascist regime also temporarily took down signs denouncing Jews from areas of Berlin where visitors were likely to see them. The German Ministry of the Interior instructed the city’s police to round up all Romani as part of a “clean up” and place them in a concentration camp. Pro-Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl was in charge of filming the Olympics (she is portrayed ambiguously in Race by Carice van Houten), and produced her grandiose two-part documentary, Olympia (1938).

Racism and the Depression in the US, fascism and anti-communism, the run-up to the Second World War … big issues all of them.

Hopkins’ Race refers directly to a few of these questions, hints at others and merely side-steps another category.

The film suffers from a generally formulaic approach. James and Branton as Jesse Owens and Ruth Solomon are given little dramatic room to breathe. Their conventional, roller-coaster relationship does not shed much light on their personalities or the nature of the times. Nor does Owens’ affair with a woman he meets on the road as a now-famous athlete or his relations with his coach help out much. There is something hagiographic about the presentation of Owens in particular, although certain of his failings come in for treatment.

The general dramatic arc of Race is predictable—initial difficulties, first successes, crisis and failure, final triumph. Even if the viewer did not know ahead of time how Owens would ultimately fare in Berlin, he or she would have little difficulty in seeing what was coming.

Sudeikis is more impressive as Snyder. The actor-comic has performed amusingly in a number of works, but smugness (for example, in the Horrible Bosses films) has threatened to sabotage his efforts. Here he is relatively convincing as Owens’ hard-driven, but fair-minded coach. Irons is always on the mark, although the portrayal of Brundage is not as devastating as it might have been. Kross ( The Reader ) is memorable as Luz Long, as is Metschurat as the menacing, monstrous Goebbels and Andrew Moodie, in a small part, as Owens’ long-suffering father.

To its credit, the film is not laced with identity politics, but a more “old fashioned” liberal humanism. Race, despite its title, preaches a sort of solidarity of Jews, blacks and anti-Nazi Germans against Hitler and pro-fascist Americans.

There are distinct limitations to this approach. Hopkins’ presentation of various racist and anti-Semitic incidents, although moving, is largely devoid of any historical content or deeper understanding of the social forces involved.

The weakest aspect of Race is its attitude to the various questions of political or moral principle that arise: the first involves US participation or boycott of the Berlin Olympics; the second, Owens’ decision to go or stay home; and, finally, the exclusion of the Jewish athletes from the relay race and the response of the rest of the American Olympic team.

In each case, Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse create justifications for the various, often self-serving decisions taken by the characters, thus allowing the narrative to move forward toward its inexorable conclusion. There is something pragmatic and rather unprincipled about this: Owens in particular always emerges morally unscathed from the sordid goings-on.

There is no need for that. A more profound and historically insightful film thanRace would have found a truthful way to deal with the contradictions and concrete social obstacles that reality, not mythology, presents.



Concussion: Highlighting the perils of American football

By Alan Gilman
14 January 2016

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, is a dramatized account of the discovery and revelation that repeated head blows sustained by American football players can result in serious and lethal brain damage.

The film takes place in Pittsburgh, and is based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. In that article, Laskas detailed Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of a connection between playing football and brain damage. This same article was also the subject of the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary,League of Denial.


Dr. Omalu, played effectively by Will Smith, is a Nigerian-American pathologist who, while working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in 2002, performed an autopsy on Mike Webster, a former National Football League (NFL) center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the Hall of Fame. Webster, who died at age 50, had been living in his car, suffering from dementia-like symptoms, and had taken to using Super Glue on his rotting teeth and to stunning himself into unconsciousness with a Taser gun to relieve his back pain.

Puzzled by Webster’s disturbing behavior and the seemingly inexplicable cause of his death, Dr. Omalu begins studying Webster’s brain in the hopes of finding an answer. What he finds is that Webster had suffered from progressive degenerative brain disease. He ultimately determines that Webster died as a result of the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head—a disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Omalu calculates based upon the years Webster played, and how as a center he had head contact on almost every play, that he had sustained over 70,000 blows to his head. With the help of former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes a paper on his findings, which is initially dismissed and ridiculed by the NFL.

Over the next few years, Omalu discovers that two other former Steelers players, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, who both committed suicide, as well as Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagle, who also committed suicide, all had all experienced symptoms very similar to Webster’s and all had CTE. These findings were then used to further support and confirm the relationship between repeated head trauma experienced by football players and CTE.

Aside from a stereotypical Hollywood love story between Omalu and his soon to be wife, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the remainder of Concussion focuses on the efforts of the NFL to discredit and intimidate Omalu and his supporters, particularly his boss, County Coroner Cyril Wecht.

Omalu finds it incomprehensible that the NFL would deny what is clearly uncontroverted science. Wecht has to explain to the football naïve Omalu that he is going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week. “Sundays once were the province of the church, but now belong to the NFL.”

Wecht, who refuses to denounce or fire Omalu, is soon subjected to a politically motivated Federal criminal indictment charging him with 84 counts of public corruption and has to resign.

Meanwhile Omalu and his wife, who are subjected to repeated insults and harassment, anonymous threats, and being followed in cars by mysterious men, are forced to leave their dream home outside Pittsburgh and move to Lodi, California where Omalu assumes a similar position with the local Coroner’s Office.

Omalu is vindicated a few years later, however, when retired player and former NFL Players Association (NFLPA) executive Dave Duerson, who had opposed Omalu’s findings, and who had denied the aforementioned Andre Waters’ disability claim, commits suicide as a consequence of his own growing cognitive problems. In his suicide note Duerson admits that Omalu was right and requests that his brain be examined. The subsequent examination confirms that he too suffered from CTE.

Omalu is thereafter invited to address an NFLPA conference on concussions and CTE. Amid growing scrutiny from Congress, the NFL is forced to take the concussion issue more seriously and take steps to make the game safer.

In September 2015, a few months before the film’s Christmas release, news reports appeared regarding dozens of hacked Sony Studio emails. These emails purported to show how Sony executives; director Peter Landesman; and representatives of Will Smith, discussed how the studio which produced the film could avoid antagonizing the NFL by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.

The most damaging email was from Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, who declared, “We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”

In response Landesman stated, “We don’t want to give the N.F.L. a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie…. There were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the N.F.L. or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as filmmakers. We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own. There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the N.F.L.”

The NFL has had a number of run-ins with Hollywood over the years. In 2003 the ESPN drama “Playmakers” lasted just one season before former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue contacted Disney head Michael Eisner to complain of the subject matter depicted in the fictional league (drugs, domestic violence, paralysis, homosexuality, to name a few), according to the New York Times. Tagliabue deemed the show “one-dimensional and traded in racial stereotypes, and I didn’t think that was either appropriate for ESPN or right for our players.”

Disney is the parent company of ESPN, which has several broadcasting contracts with the NFL. Eisner decided against green lighting the series for a second season. “How would (Disney be) like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told the Philadelphia Inquirer, referring to the infamous Colombian drug lord.

It must be said that in viewing the film, the NFL is depicted as being cold, ruthless, and manipulative, and it assumes the role of a “Big Tobacco” like entity.

Moreover, Landesman’s connection of the political prosecution of Wecht as a product of NFL intimidation was likely untrue. Wecht’s indictment actually came before Omalu’s most important findings were published. It is widely believed that the indictment was motivated instead by a number of controversial statements and rulings that Wecht had made during his years as coroner, including his findings that the cause of death of several people killed by the police were homicides, which meant the police should have been prosecuted, something that the District Attorney refused to do. Eventually all charges against Wecht were dismissed.

Most players who have seen the film have been supportive of the film and disturbed by its conclusions. Keith McCants, the fourth overall pick in the 1990 draft who played six years in the NFL said,“…. I watch this movie and I know we were paid to hurt people. We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”

In a Federal Court class action suit brought by former players, the NFL admitted in 2014 that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that these conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

Despite its limitations, Concussion serves to bring before a mass audience the grave risks inherent in playing America’s most popular sport, as well as exposing the NFL as a multi-billion industry that promotes and profits from these risks, and its efforts to conceal or minimize the catastrophic and deadly consequences that occurs to many of those who play it.



Odell Beckham and the NFL’s fear of of gay men

“Football is the most homophobic subculture this side of the Westboro Baptist Church”

New York Giants star blames gay slurs for losing control on field. Because in the NFL, there’s still nothing worse

Odell Beckham and the NFL's fear of of gay men: "Football is the most homophobic subculture this side of the Westboro Baptist Church"
New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. leaves NFL headquarters in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. Hearing officer James Thrash upheld the suspension for multiple violations of safety-related playing rules after hearing an appeal by the New York Giants wide receiver earlier in the day. Beckham will miss the game Sunday night at Minnesota. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)(Credit: AP)

Last Sunday, the New York Giants star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. lost his composure quite publicly in the team’s loss to the Carolina Panthers. He attacked his defender, Josh Norman, in a manner best described as weaponized helmet assault, and was eventually suspended for a game by the NFL.

Beckham has suggested, through proxies, a plausible motive for his nutter: various Panthers hurled gay slurs at him.

Because if there’s one thing that justifies a pro football player going crazy on national TV—at least in the eyes of other football players and fans—it’s being called a faggot.

And why might that be? Maybe because football is the most homophobic subculture this side of the Westboro Baptist Church?

Think about it, folks: the entire football universe freaked out last season at the mere prospect of welcoming its first openly gay player, Michael Sam.

Of course, nobody ever just comes right out and says, “football hates fags.” Instead, players and sports pundits speak in a familiar code.

Here, for instance, is how all-pro receiver turned broadcaster Michael Irvin defended Beckham.

For some reason, everybody goes after him with gay slurs. He’s a different kind of dude. He has the hairdo out, he’s not the big muscular kind of dude. The ladies all love him. He’s a star. I wonder why people are going in that direction. It blows my mind. I told him he can’t let stuff that people say get to you.

Translation: the fact that Beckham bleaches his hair and doesn’t have big muscles puts his heterosexuality in doubt, which is why he gets called a faggot all the time. But he has sex with lots of “ladies,” which makes him totally legit, so he shouldn’t worry about it.

Beckham’s own teammate, punter Brad Wing, offered the same brand of frat boy logic. He hinted that a photo of Beckham embracing a former LSU teammate may have triggered rumors of his homosexuality, then went on to elaborate that Beckham “was kind of actually happy about it, because all the girls he’s messing around with weren’t fighting with each other anymore.”

Got that? If, as an NFL player, you hug another man, you’re under suspicion as a homo—until such a time as a teammate can vouch for your heterosexual promiscuity.

Officially, of course, the league condemns all forms of discrimination. But football is, and always has been, a cult of hyper-masculinity. It’s a realm in which the attitudes around gender and orientation aren’t just out of date. They’re medieval. Men are defined as big, strong, violent, physically courageous warriors. Women are defined as sexual hood ornaments. Homosexuals aren’t just abhorrent, they’re aberrant, betrayers of the given order.

Think about it this way: dozens of NFL players have been accused of rape, or domestic abuse, or even animal abuse stemming from dog fighting. None of their teammates are expected to experience existential anguish when these guys rejoin the league. Nobody says, “Geez, is the NFL really ready for a violent criminal?”

And why would they? Violent transactions—of the sort that would be illegal in any other context—are the profit center of pro football.

Every now and again, of course, some player will be foolish enough to express his honest feelings toward homosexuality. At which point the rest of the football world will loudly revile them.

That’s what happened to San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver two years ago, when he was asked about Ravens defensive tackle Brendan Ayanbadejo, a vocal advocate for LGBT equality.

“I don’t do the gay guys man,” Culliver told a local radio host. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do … Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can’t be…in the locker room man. Nah.”

If you want an even more revelatory peek inside the sanctum of an NFL locker-room, take a look at the so-called Wells Report, which was prepared, at the NFL’s request, to investigate the locker-room bullying that led a Miami Dolphins offensive lineman named Jonathan Martin to quit the team in the middle of the 2013 season and check into a hospital for psychological treatment.

Back when this news broke, much was made of the racist invective used by Richie Incognito, the white bullying ringleader, against Martin, who is bi-racial. What got overlooked was the overt sexual nature of the harassment.

Incognito, for instance, made numerous vulgar comments about Martin’s mother and his sister, a medical student he had never met. “I’m going to bang the shit out of her,” he explained, “and spit on her and treat her like shit.”

Incognito also made it a point to ask a male Asian trainer for “rubby rubby sucky sucky.” He nicknamed a mild-mannered teammate “Loose Booty.” At one point, one of Incognito’s henchmen grabbed “Loose Booty” and told another bully to “come get some pussy.” The second bully then simulated anal penetration with his victim.

What rascals!

Such grab-ass hijinks are typical of locker rooms, where internal homoerotic anxieties often get projected onto suitable victims.

Which is what makes Incognito’s targeting of Martin so fascinating. Based on the record, it seems to stem, at least in part, from Incognito’s forbidden feelings of affection for Martin, whom he calls (without apparent irony) “my bitch.”

The Wells Report describes the two as inseparable. They exchanged 13,000 text messages in the course of their fourteen-month relationship, or nearly 30 per day. They sought each other out “at all hours of the day or night” and discussed “the intimate details of their sex lives, often in graphic terms.”

When Martin declined Incognito’s offers to hang out, Incognito reacted like a spurned lover. At one point, Incognito pressured Martin to vacation with him in Las Vegas. This text exchange caused Martin to back out:

Incognito: No dude hookers [male prostitutes] u faggot

Incognito: Don’t blame ur gay tendancies on [Player A]

Martin: I’m gonna get more bitches in 2 nights than all of you combined

Incognito: Stop it. By bitches u mean cocks in ur mouth

Incognito: U fucking mulatto liberal bitch

Incognito: I’m going to shit in ur eye

Incognito: Goodnight slut

What’s almost touching about the Wells Report is the tenderness that bleeds through all the profane banter. “Let’s get weird tonight,” Incognito wrote to Martin, at one point. And a bit later, “What’s up pussy? I love u.”

Even after Martin left the team, the two texted. “I miss us,” Incognito wrote.

The Dolphins eventually fired Incognito. But he was never ostracized by teammates. Just the opposite. He was a popular player, a guy seen by many of his brethren as the victim of a politically correct witch-hunt.

Within the culture of the NFL, teasing dudes for being gay isn’t some radical act. It’s part of the whole juvenile male gestalt.

After a season and a half out of the game, Incognito was signed by the Buffalo Bills, for whom he played this season, and made the Pro Bowl.

Which brings us back to Odell Beckham, who is definitely not gay, even if he has a funny hairdo and a slender physique, because he has sex with lots of women.

Fans have every right to love football for its many merits. It’s a thrilling game that showcases astonishing feats of grace and valor. But gay and female fans shouldn’t delude themselves. To many of their heroes, the only thing worse than being called a pussy is being called a faggot.