Taking a knee with Kaepernick

Several NFL players have joined in the “quiet insurrection” started by Colin Kaepernick, but the impact is getting louder and louder, writes Nation columnist Dave Zirin.

Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots raise their fists during the National Anthem

Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots raise their fists during the National Anthem

ON SUNDAY, a small group of National Football League players risked their careers, their endorsements, and their livelihoods. They did so through the simple act of refusal. They refused to be a prop for the cameras. They refused to swallow their concerns about racism and police violence in order to please the needs of their employers. They refused to be intimidated by sports-radio talkers bashing their character or an online army of shameless thugs threatening their lives with the casual click of someone ordering a book from Amazon. They stood in the proudest tradition of athletes who have used their platforms for social change, and they have already felt a backlash that would ring familiar, almost note-for-note, to anyone acquainted with what that last generation had to endure.

Before naming the players who chose to stand against the current, it is worth setting the stage. Sunday was less a current than a red, white, and blue tsunami. This was opening day for the NFL–by an exponential degree the most popular sports league in the United States–and it was also September 11, 2016, the 15th anniversary of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those attacks killed thousands of innocent people. They also launched an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, the scapegoating of an entire religion, and an illegal war in Iraq that continues to produce an unfathomable body count. The leader of these atrocities, George W. Bush, should have had to answer for his actions. Instead, he was there on Sunday in Arlington, Texas, tossing the coin for the nationally televised game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Cowboys were not alone in bringing out–literally–the big guns. President Obama spoke over the Jumbotron in Seattle and Vice President Joe Biden was live in Philadelphia. Every stadium had troops march onto the field with flags roughly the size of Rhode Island. Warplanes flew overhead. Bald eagles–actual, real-life bald eagles–were even set free to soar for the cameras.

Like those majestic eagles, the NFL has ascended to new heights these last 15 years by pinning the image of their league to our permanent state of war. The Pentagon has made sure that this has been a mutually beneficial relationship, tying military recruitment,staged “salute the troops” events, and a hyper-militarized form of patriotism to the NFL’s brand. Journalist Shaun Scott wrote a masterful excavation of this last week on Sports Illustrated‘s website, in an article titled “How the NFL sells (and profits from) the inextricable link between football and war”:

It didn’t matter that NFL players such as Cardinals safety Pat Tillman and Rams center Jason Brown criticized the war; or that actual veterans detested insulting comparisons between the vicissitudes of combat and the triviality of sport.

What mattered was that subcultures like tailgating, fantasy football, and gambling helped the NFL become more popular than ever, and that this popularity coincided with – and exploited – the escalation of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN OTHER words, nothing that happened Sunday, with its big-budget patriotic pageantry, should have surprised anybody. It was business as usual. The true shock and awe was the presence of a small group of players who took that moment to instead express dissent. To be clear, these were not gestures against war or the national-security state. They were acts of solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem demonstrations against police violence. They were protests aimed at stating the simple idea that there is a gap between the values that the flag claims to represent and the deadly realities of racism. They were also–whether intentionally or not–declarations that they would not be intimidated by the backlash felt by Kaepernick or Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who took a knee on Thursday and promptly lost an endorsement deal.

As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played around the country, two players on the New England Patriots: Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty; three players on the Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard and Jason McCourty; and Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs raised their fists during or immediately after the Anthem played. In addition, four players on the Miami Dolphins–Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas, Arian Foster and Jelani Jenkins–took a knee during the National Anthem. The Dolphins’ gesture was all the more dramatic because it took place across the field from the Seattle Seahawks, who linked arms in a gesture of “team unity and solidarity” after their efforts to make some sort of statement about police brutality were snuffed out because, according to the reporting of NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “#Seahawks originally planned to kneel together, hand over their hearts, during the anthem. But some players close with military objected.”

Never mind that these protests have had nothing to do with the military. But that mere perception was enough to suppress a small group of proudly outspoken Seahawks players who wanted to show Kaepernick that they were on his side. The endless howl that any action on Sunday should be interpreted as being “against the troops” and disrespectful to the memory of 9/11–no matter the words of actual troops or 9/11 families–stretched from a sector of the Seahawks locker room to anonymous Twitter bigots to celebrities Rob Lowe and Kate Upton. It’s an absurd argument, meant to derail and delegitimize the actual issue that’s being raised: the extrajudicial killings of black people.

The best response to this came from Kaepernick last month when he said:

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.

The pressure to fall in line was strong enough to compel a group of political players in Seattle to back down from their planned protest. But the capitulation of the Seahawks was overshadowed by these other gestures, which defied not only the political agenda of the league but also its top-down corporate structure. They are gestures that stand as a rebuke to those in the NFL audience who cheer for Black bodies on the field, but rage against Black voices. Jay Busbee at Yahoo! Sports called Sunday’s events a “quiet insurrection.” It is an apt description, with one caveat: This is an insurrection we can only see if we get beyond the noise.

First published at TheNation.com.


The Olympics’ Most Dominant Athletes Have Cannabis Connections

Phelps was infamously busted doing a bong hit, and Bolt has been known to pass the dutchie.

Usain Bolt beats Justin Gatlin 100m Final WC Beijing 2015
Photo Credit: Youtube screen grab

Holy Ross Rebagliati, Batman! Two of the most outstanding athletes of this year’s Olympic Games have the skunky scent of cannabis wafting around them. One of them is the “world’s fastest man,” while the other owns more Olympic gold than any athlete in history. So much for amotivational syndrome.

On Sunday night, charismatic Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blew past the fastest 100-meter field in Olympic history to win his third consecutive gold medal in the event. Only one other sprinter, American Carl Lewis, has won gold twice in the race, and Bolt has now blown past him as well.

Bolt has said he doesn’t smoke marijuana now, referencing the Olympics’ drug-testing regimen.

“People can say what they want, I know I’m clean. That’s the only thing that counts, not what other people say,” he told the German newspaper Bild. “I was subject of so many anti-doping tests during the Olympic year, between 30 and 40. Nobody in my family or those close to me smoke and I don’t hang out with people who smoke.”

But that wasn’t always the case.

“When you’re a child in Jamaica, you learn how to roll a joint,” Bolt said. “Everyone tried marijuana, including me, but I was really young.”

Then there’s Michael Phelps. At 31, the Baltimore Bullet is dominating his swimming sports for an incredible fourth Olympics in a row. With a handful of fresh gold medals in his pocket already from the Rio games, he now has a whopping 23 Olympic gold medals, twice the number of his nearest competitor. This is the same guy seen doing a honking bong hit in a photo leaked by a tabloid in 2009  That was just months after his historic eight-gold medal win in Beijing in 2008. Phelps as freak didn’t go over too well with the sporting set; USA Swimming suspended him for three months and he was forced to issue the mandatory mea culpa. His behavior was “inappropriate,” he said.

History’s most dominating swimmer has had issues with other substances, too. His bong scandal was bookended by a pair of drunk driving arrests, one in 2004 and one in 2014, with the latter earning him another suspension form USA Swimming, this one for six months.

Phelps has never tested positive for banned substances during his swimming career, but that didn’t stop his party drug history from becoming part of a mini-controversy in Rio. Phelps inserted himself into the tiff between rivals U.S. swimmer Lilly King, who won the gold in the women’s 100-meter breast stroke, and Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who won the silver and who had been suspended twice over failed drug tests.

King said Efimova should be banned for life for doping, and Efimova retorted, “What about Michael Phelps?”

Phelps backed his teammate, saying, “I think people should be speaking out more. You know, I think she is right. I think something needs to be done.”

And speaking of Ross Rebagliati, who won the first Olympic gold medal for snowboarding at Nagano in 1998 and nearly had it taken away after testing positive for marijuana, there’s a new sport set to take the Olympic stage in 2020, and its adherents have just a stony reputation as the snowboarders.

The sport is skateboarding, and one of its biggest stars, Australian Tas Pappas, is raising concerns that the Olympic drug-testing regimen may put off skaters. The sport’s most mainstream competition, the summer X-Games, doesn’t do drug testing.

“I’m wondering how it’s going to work as far as the drug testing is concerned, because some guys skate really well on weed and if they have to stop smoking for one competition (the Olympics) it might really affect their performance,” Pappas said. “I truly believe you do better sober, but I’ve known guys who couldn’t skate unless they were stoned, so I don’t know how it’s really going to work.”

The Olympics and drugs—it’s always something.


Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.


Rio 2016: The “Olympic ideal” and the reality of capitalism


8 August 2016

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” These words, which appear in the Olympic Charter’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism,” are supposed to sum up what is referred to with sanctimonious reverence as the “Olympic ideal.”

There has never been a golden age of the Olympic games, which have for over a century served as an arena for the promotion of nationalism. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was candid in acknowledging that he valued sport not only for its potential for advancing mankind’s development, but also for its use in preparing French men to become better soldiers in war.

With the opening of the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, however, the contrast could hardly be more stark between the supposed Olympic ideal and the reality of a capitalist system mired in economic crisis and social inequality and hurtling toward another world war.

The opening ceremony of the Rio games, held in the city’s iconic Maracana Stadium, was widely covered by the international news media. Less reported was a brutal attack by the Brazilian police against a demonstration organized a half mile away, called against what the protesters termed “the exclusion games.” Police used tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades to drive the demonstrators off the streets, injuring several.

Earlier clashes were seen along the route taken by the Olympic Torch, which in one case was extinguished by a crowd of workers and youth in the coastal town of Angra dos Reis. They had turned out to protest the expenditures on the Olympics under conditions where public employees and teachers are not being paid and transit service and health care are being cut because of the deepening fiscal crisis.

In 2009, when the Brazilian government secured the 2016 games for Rio, then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proclaimed, “Our time has arrived.” During the same period, Lula was boasting that Brazil, whose growth rate had rebounded to 5 percent, was immune from the effects of the global financial meltdown of 2008.

Since then, the world capitalist crisis has devastated Brazil’s economy, driving the official unemployment rate to over 11 percent and sending real wages falling. Millions are threatened with being thrown back into extreme poverty in what is already one of the world’s most socially unequal countries.

Even as the games unfold, the Brazilian Senate is moving ahead with the impeachment of ousted President Dilma Rousseff on trumped-up charges of budgetary irregularities. Those moving against the Workers Party (PT) president are, like the PT itself, implicated up to their necks in the multi-billion-dollar Petrobras bribery scandal. Nonetheless, they are backed by both Brazilian and foreign capital, which wants a full change of regime in order to proceed with sweeping austerity policies under interim President Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice president and political ally.

In the run-up to the opening of the games, the Brazilian government heavily publicized alleged terror plots that appeared to have little if any substance. In fact, the massive security operation accompanying the Rio games is aimed not at terrorists, but at the Brazilian population itself. An occupation army of some 100,000 troops and police—twice the number mobilized for the already militarized 2012 London games—has been deployed across Rio, many dressed in combat gear, carrying assault rifles and backed by armored cars and even tanks.

This operation has been supplemented by the United States military and intelligence apparatus, which, according to NBC, has “assigned more than 1,000 spies to Olympic security,” hundreds of whom have been sent to Brazil. In addition to the CIA, FBI and NSA spooks, detachments of Marine and Navy commandos from the US Special Operations Command have been deployed on the ground.

This is the culmination of a campaign of repression that has unfolded over the past few years in tandem with preparations first for the 2014 World Cup football tournament and now for the Olympics. Violent police measures have been used to drive tens of thousands from their homes in impoverished districts targeted for development, while thousands more homeless have been swept from the streets in what amounts to an exercise in “social cleansing.” Police have killed between 40 and 50 people a month in the city over the recent period, while extra-official death squads have murdered many more. So much for the Olympics and “human dignity.”

Against this backdrop, the vast wealth expended on the Olympics, all in pursuit of enrichment and private profit, is obscene. Corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Samsung, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonalds and others, have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for exclusive marketing rights and are spending hundreds of millions more to exploit them. TV companies have shelled out $4 billion to broadcast the 19-day event, while marketing revenues are expected to total $9.3 billion.

A relative handful of individual professional athletes will make tens of millions more from product endorsements. The days when the Olympics were a celebration of amateur sports are a distant memory.

Within the games themselves, the overriding atmosphere of social inequality is ever present. While poorer teams are dealing with substandard conditions in hastily constructed Olympic villages, the US basketball “dream team” is residing on the luxury cruise ship Silver Cloud, moored in Rio’s harbor and surrounded by police and navy patrol boats.

Meanwhile, the use of the Olympics to promote nationalism and prepare for war is as virulent in the Rio games as at any time since Adolf Hitler convened the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

On Monday, it was announced that Russian athletes will be banned entirely from the Paralympics to be held next month in Rio in connection with charges of state-sponsored doping of athletes. Earlier, 118 members of the country’s track and field team were banned under a system relegating the decision to the federations of each individual sport.

Washington, the World Anti-Doping Agency, various NGOs and the Western media have waged a virulent campaign to exclude every Russian athlete from the Rio Olympics and prevent the country’s flag from even appearing there, as part of a broader effort to paint Russia as a “rogue” nation that must be stopped by force.

The campaign to bar Russia from the games is inseparably bound up with the growing US-NATO siege of the country’s Western borders, which has been steadily escalated since the US- and German-orchestrated coup that installed an ultra-right, anti-Russian regime in Ukraine in 2014.

The sanctimonious denunciations of Russia for having corrupted an otherwise pristine sporting event reek with bad faith and hypocrisy. The anti-Russian campaign intentionally obscures the wholesale corruption surrounding the entire organization of the games as well as the rampant doping practiced by nearly every country.

The controversy, which has run in tandem with the Democratic Party’s neo-McCarthyite campaign denouncing Vladimir Putin for interfering in the US election, has been pumped up as part of the attempt to prepare public opinion for a military conflict with Russia that could quickly lead to nuclear war.

While this year’s Olympic Games will once again provide a display of astounding athletic ability by participants from across the planet, the entire event is overshadowed by a social system that is founded on inequality and exploitation, and threatens the very survival of humanity.

Bill Van Auken


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.