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Sports and the politics of the Terrordome

July 6, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

Sportswriter Dave Zirin and Chuck D of Public Enemy spoke in May at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City in a discussion about Welcome to the Terrordome--Dave's newly published book, named after the Public Enemy song, for which Chuck D wrote the introduction. Here, we publish excerpts of their speeches.

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Dave Zirin

Columnist for TheNation.com and Socialist Worker, and author of What's My Name, Fool?, The Muhammad Ali Handbook and Welcome to the Terrordome. Dave's writing is featured at his Web site, EdgeOfSports.com.

IT WAS an honor to call the book Welcome to the Terrordome. The reason I did was because the music of Public Enemy was something that I was raised with--it was the soundtrack of my young life.

And it returned to my mind like prophesy after Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf, and the poor of New Orleans were crowded in that nightmare of the Louisiana Superdome--crowded into a facility that they never could have afforded a ticket for.

It was really the ugliest possible collision of what I write about, which is the connection of sports and politics--the sports world and that pesky real world that the sports world happens to inhabit.

For me, as a sportswriter, that phrase--Welcome to the Terrordome--captured so much about the state of our massive athletic-industrial complex, which seems to have so much influence in so many parts of our lives.

It means welcome to a flashy, spit-shined sports world that looks pretty on the outside, but on the inside is rotted out. I think that our athletic-industrial complex has taken something beautiful, which is sports, and turned it into something that's ugly.

And I think in post-Katrina New Orleans, we saw the Terrordome in all its horror. We saw the ugliness of what it means to have our lives dominated in so many ways by the world of sports.

We saw in New Orleans the horror of a city without emergency shelter, but with the largest domed structure in the Western Hemisphere. We felt the horror of knowing that the folks in that stadium were actually the ones who paid for it, because the Superdome was built entirely on the public dime in 1975. And much of Louis Armstrong's historic neighborhood in New Orleans, as well as an aboveground cemetery, was torn up to build the Superdome over 30 years ago.

And we experienced the horror of knowing that the New Orleans business leaders who got the Superdome built as part of building a new New Orleans 30 years ago were actually ahead of their time--since public financing of stadiums has now really substituted for anything resembling an urban policy in this country.

Then the horror turned into the worst possible farce--when the stranded of New Orleans were finally moved out of the Superdome, not to safe government housing, not to shelter, but to the Houston Astrodome.

And in the Houston Astrodome, they encountered something almost as terrifying as Hurricane Katrina. That was Barbara Bush.

People may remember that the "first mother" walked among the dispossessed and the dazed, and then she said to the cameras, absolutely without shame: "Almost everyone I've talked to says, 'We're going to move to Houston.' What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this is working very well for them."

I'll give this much to Barbara Bush, though. At least she was there. If people remember the last State of the Union Address, George W. Bush found time in that speech to recognize NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, who was sitting up there in the presidential box, but two words that George Bush did not say were "New Orleans."

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TODAY, 18 months later, things have not gotten better. People may have read in the New York Times this very morning that much of the city of New Orleans remains shuttered: hospitals, schools, homes. Much of the city is shut down--except for, you guessed it, the Superdome.

The renovation of the Superdome came at a price of $185 million. They had this big celebration with U2 and Green Day, where Bono yelled out, "I'm an American"--which isn't true, but that never stopped him before.

And for me, there was something rather repulsive about it. New Orleans is really the cradle of so much of the greatness of American music, that brought together African musical traditions and European musical instruments to create forms of music that are the foundation of so much that we listen to today. And to see that represented by U2 and Green Day was shocking.

But they did bring out New Orleans musician Alvin Toussaint to do the National Anthem, which is a song that would drench the soul out of Aretha Franklin.

They made this incredible presentation to say that the Dome is open, and New Orleans is back. But they left out a couple things--like the fact that the adjoining mall and hotel connected to the Superdome are still gutted. Or the fact that the city hasn't seen anywhere the amount of money that's so desperately needed for low-income housing, health care or any of the clean up.

For goodness sake--in the New York Times this morning, it said that the levees still aren't rebuilt. They're still eroding, as we speak. The Times put it quite well when it said that all New Orleans has gotten is a huge truckload of nothing.

I think we're being sold this idea--and it's something that the sports world plays a big part in selling--that the road back for New Orleans begins with the Dome. Which is another way of saying that the road back for New Orleans begins not with putting people to work rebuilding the city, but with the tourist industry and low-wage jobs.

In fact, with some of the few rebuilding jobs that have been created there's been heavy recruiting of people south of the border in Mexico. They have no union rights, they're making sub-minimum wage, and then, if they try to act out or say anything, then they're sent right back. This is what's happening right now in New Orleans.

But the message about the return of the Saints and the Dome was given a much happier view by George H.W. Bush--otherwise known as the Godfather of No Soul. He was asked by ESPN what he thought was going on, and he declared on TV, "The pessimists who said New Orleans wouldn't come back are wrong, and the optimists who dug in are doing great."

Then he was asked what he believed to be the great enduring lesson of the Katrina catastrophe was. I was half hoping he might say, "Don't hire an idiot to run FEMA." But that wasn't what he said. Instead, he said, "The great lesson is the American spirit. It's back, and it's coming back for more!" Which actually sounds more like a threat than anything that's reassuring.

As all of this played out, the New Orleans Saints had an incredible season this past year. They were a surprise Super Bowl threat, led by Drew Brees and Reggie Bush. And there's no question that it was nice to see a Bush who actually raised the spirits of New Orleans. But that just isn't good enough.

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IN NEW Orleans, what we saw were the pain and politics of sports. But we also saw the promise as well. I would argue that professional athletes, in the aftermath of the hurricane, said some of the best things that were said in this country--some of the most real things, some of the things that had the most potential to connect with the horror and anger that so many of us were feeling.

I want to give a couple examples. This is what Washington Wizards power forward Etan Thomas said: "Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, they wouldn't have had to wait five days to get food or water. This is a direct reflection of the entire Republican platform. The rich are awarded all of the rights, privileges, respect...in this country, and the poor are pushed to the side. You see that with education, health care, the courts, and every other aspect of society."

Etan Thomas was not alone. Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said, "It's devastating, seeing kids without food, elderly people dying, and then the government just saying that help is on the way. That's the most shocking part. That's the real crime."

And then there's Charles Barkley, otherwise known as the Round Mound of Sound, who said, "America is divided by economics, and especially poor kids have to get their education. If you're poor and Black, or poor and white or Hispanic, you're going to be at a disadvantage. You're not going to have the best neighborhoods or best school, and if you don't get education and you're poor, then you're at the mercy of this government."

But there was something funny about the response. These athletes stepped up--really, for the first time, you could argue, in a generation--to say something about the world that they live in and to step beyond the gated communities and the bodyguards and everything that separates professional athletes from real people and how we live our lives. And for that, they received an avalanche of criticism for actually having something to say.

Which is so funny, because if you regularly listen to sports radio, athletes are criticized all the time for saying things like, "Well, we play one game at a time, and the good lord willing, if we play one game at a time, good lord willing, one game at a time..." You always hear announcers complain that athletes are just following a script because they're scared of upsetting their sponsors or of upsetting the owner. But here, when an athlete actually had something to say, they found out what would be waiting for them.

The worst example was the treatment that Etan Thomas received in a column by Tom Knott of the Washington Times--which basically took his head off and ended with this line: "Hey Etan, if you really want to fight injustice, why don't you play at a level worthy of your contract."

You don't have to be Al Sharpton to see that there's racism in that statement. That statement is saying, "Just shut up and sing, shut up and dance, shut up and play, be a minstrel, be nothing else."

So I wrote a column in response and I encouraged people to write in to Tom Knott and say that we like the fact that Etan Thomas has something to say. And a funny thing happened. Tom Knott got, according to what I heard later, a ton of e-mails.

I got a personal letter from Tom Knott, and the letter basically said to me: What are you doing? I can't get my emails. You're getting all these people to email me, come on. You're a writer, I'm a writer."

I told this story to someone who's here tonight, and he put it very well: "What he's basically saying to you is, look, we're both a couple of whores for this industry--we're just working different sides of the street. What's the big deal?"

I wrote him back, and I told him this shit is actually real to me. We're trying to build a new era of athletic resistance, and you can either get on board or get out of the way--and if you want to put up a hand to stop us, then be prepared to get the sharp elbow to the grill as we go up for a political rebound.

In the case of New Orleans, athletes have not only a right to speak out, but they have more of a right than the people who work on Capitol Hill.

One of the stories that came out after Hurricane Katrina, which didn't get a lot of play was that more than 100 pro athletes from the three major sports--NBA, NFL, major league baseball--come from that little scrap of land on the Gulf that was it. That boggles the mind--more than 100 pro athletes from an area of land that's so tiny.

I asked a friend of mine who's a coach down there how that little scrap of land produces so many professional athletes. And he looked at me like I had a screw loose, and said, "Well, Dave, you've got poverty, you've got institutional racism, you've got horrible schools, and you've got full-time sunshine all year round. That is the perfect soil to produce professional athletes in this country."

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THESE TWO aspects of the Terrordome--the horror and the hope--are getting, I would argue, sharper and sharper. The sports world is getting uglier than even a couple years ago, and the athletes--and fans and writers--are getting far less insulated from the real world than a couple years ago.

As far as the ugliness of the sports world, it runs the gamut from the horrible to the ridiculous.

The horrible is the way the sports world really worked hand in hand with the Bush administration to exploit the death of Pat Tillman. There was George W. Bush, speaking on the Jumbotron at Cardinals stadium about Pat Tillman, God bless America and let's rally together.

Not a word about the fact that Pat Tillman died in an incident of friendly fire. Not a word about the fact that they lied to his family about the conditions in which he died. Not a word about the fact that Pat Tillman thought the war in Iraq was illegal. Not a word about the fact that he was writing letters to political radical Noam Chomsky, as a way to try to figure out why he felt the war was wrong.

In so many ways, Pat Tillman was like the majority of people in this country. After 9/11, he joined up with the Army Rangers, feeling like he was defending his country. And then, in the process of actually living what it meant to be a foot soldier for U.S. empire, he came to very different conclusions.

And the result at end of the day: Why did Pat Tillman die? He didn't die for freedom. He didn't die for democracy. He died for p.r. for the Bush administration and the National Football League.

That's the horrible. But then you get the ridiculous. And once again, the New York Times is always a terrific source for the ridiculous.

People may have seen a story about George Steinbrenner, the owner of your New York Yankees, who is having ushers, security guards and police officers put up chains at Yankee Stadium along the sides of the lower bleachers so people can't leave during the "Star-Spangled Banner" to start the game, or during the second national anthem during the 7th inning stretch, when they do "God Bless America."

They put up chains so you can't leave! For what I do, George Steinbrenner is just the gift that keeps on giving.

So this is what's happening in the sports world. But you're also getting athletes who are fed up and speaking out--and doing it in far greater numbers than a lot of the media reports.

There's a group out there--a small group, but a very real group--of Jocks 4 Justice who are facing off with a hostile media in their efforts to be heard. This is a different situation than even a couple years ago.

And you can go through a quick list of high-profile athletes who have made statements against the war in Iraq. You're talking about Etan Thomas, Steve Nash, John Amaechi, Josh Howard, Nick Van Exel, Adam Morrison, Martina Navratilova. These are all people who have stepped up to say they disagree with the war in Iraq.

And why should we surprised about this? We're talking about a war that's lasted longer than World War II, being led by a president who has a popularity rating slightly below Nixon's corpse. So it shouldn't surprise people that athletes themselves are feeling this, and feeling like they want to speak out.

Just another example--a story that ESPN reported, which wasn't picked up in a wider way, but which I thought was remarkable. There's a linebacker who plays in the NFL named Scott Fujita, who's half Japanese. His father was born in an internment camp--his grandparents were interned as part of Franklin Roosevelt's effort to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.

And Scott Fujita has decided he wants to tell people about what it's like to come from a family that was interned. He was asked why he feels like he needs to tell this story. And he said, look at what's happening this country right now. Maybe masses of people aren't being interned, but when you see civil liberties being taken away the way they are today, with such little response in the face of it, then you know this could happen again. So we have to speak up and do something about it.

That's Scott Fujita, an NFL linebacker who feels like he has something to say. There is no way that Scott Fujita makes that statement five years ago. There's no way Scott Fujita makes that statement 10 years ago. He made that statement now because there is a mass of people who are getting fed up and want to stand up to what they see in the world.

That's what you're going to find in this book Welcome in the Terrordome. It's a look at sports that isn't pretty. It's a look at sports behind the curtain, and a look at athletes, fans, coaches and even writers who are trying to tear the Terrordome down, one hypocritical brick at a time.

I want to end with two quotes. The first is from someone who I think very much represents the hope and promise in our sports world, and that's Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. What she did that was amazing was when Don Imus let loose with his carnival of sexism and racism, she used her sporting platform to fight back.

I want to read something that she said on Keith Olbermann's show. She said, "Too often, politicians and religious leaders speak for us, and we sit back and don't realize the power in numbers, and when to say enough is enough...

"We see [injustice] all the time. A kid that steals something with a plastic cap pistol, and spends 10 years in jail, and yet you see the white-collar thieves that steal millions of dollars [get off]. And I do think that if people stood up, politicians [wouldn't] wait for a poll, but [would be] strong enough to make a decision and stand...

"I would gladly exchange winning a national championship if we would stand and allow the country to somehow be empowered, and that we take back our country."

I want to end with another quote by someone I interviewed for the book. I interviewed all manner of sportos--including the ultimate fighting champion who's against war and capitalism, and has a big Industrial Workers of the World tattoo across his back. But of all these people I quote, the interview I'm proudest of is a sports interview with death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This is something he said in the interview: "Sports often mimics the most repressive agencies in life. Young guys are taught to inflict pain (especially in football, on command). To follow the rules of elders (generals). To go with the program. They're like beautiful Indian ranis held in plush harems, until they are told to dance for the princes. Be silent. Dance. Entertain me. Make me happy. And don't forget to shut up. But they can also be brave, principled political actors who can rock the world."

I've got no pretensions that a book in a vacuum can rock the world, but I'm hoping that folks who are interested in that project of rocking the world will add the book to their bookshelf.

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CHUCK D is here. For those of us who came of age in the parched political desert of the 1980s, Chuck D and Public Enemy was water, it was sustenance. I remember being at a friend's house, being 16, being angry as hell at all the wrong things--and then hearing a song called "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

The opening four lines blew out my skull:

I got a letter from the government the other day.
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers.
They wanted me for their army or whatever.
Picture me givin' a damn, I said never."

For us sitting in the room, we thought: Damn! Chuck D is so fierce hat he doesn't even have to rhyme! He rhymed "other day" with "suckers."

For me, there was my life before and after I heard those lyrics. They convinced me that resistance could be strong, and that it could righteous. He's also a big sports fan, so I want to introduce, Mr. Chuck D.

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Chuck D

Leader of the group Public Enemy, coauthor with Yusuf Jah of Chuck D: Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary and cohost with Gi'ana Garel, of the Air America radio show On the Real. He wrote the introduction to Welcome to the Terrordome.

IN MY acquaintance with Dave, when he's been a great and humble guest on Air America radio, and filling in for me as host a couple weeks ago, it's always been a pleasure just to be able to be in his presence--to be able to jell sports and politics, the issues and the topics of race, especially in these times, when we had "Imus in the Morning."

I wrote the forward to this book. When Dave told me he wanted to write this book--this is after we talked about What's My Name, Fool? and I interviewed Dave--he said, my next book is going to be Welcome to the Terrordome. He said we could base it off the politics around Katrina.

Public Enemy was on our 57th tour two months ago, and I spent a day in New Orleans. And really, the Lower Ninth Ward--it's a wrap. Expect Starbucks and a new stadium for whatever team wants to play in the Ninth Ward. It's going to be a beautiful spot, with no Black folks.

You could see one house in the middle of a flattened-out terrain of empty cribs and broken glass everywhere. And you heard banging--somebody was trying to fix something in their basement, on the bottom of a twisted crib. It was the first time I ever saw a twisted crib--the foundation was straight, but the top was twisted.

I kept saying that this dude is trying to hold on, but it's a wrap. The pole was in front of the crib and the electrical wires were all over, but they weren't working. It was kind of devastating, knowing that this person would not give up on this place, because this was the only place that he knew. He probably owned the crib, lock, stock and barrel, which was a rarity in the Ninth Ward and other areas of New Orleans.

Dave said he was going to write Welcome to the Terrordome, and use that as a hub and a point of view. I can't wait to speak as loud as I can about the book.

I'm humbled by the title. I like to always divert attention. When I first came along in the realm of rap music and hip hop, I knew my goal and my obligation and my responsibility was to be an antenna that diverted the attention to those who were in the trenches every day.

That was my job--to say that it isn't about me, Chuck D, or Public Enemy. We're serving as the dispatchers of information, and we will dispatch to those who are in the trenches, doing the thing, who aren't going to get any attention.

Somehow, in a very American way, people started saying, "Hey Chuck, you're our leader." But understand, I'm pointing to a lot of people who have always done something, who are doing something, and who are about to do something. That was my job in rap music--to use the music as a radio station to point to people doing real things in real times.

So I was very happy to write the forward for Dave's book. He delivered his point very eloquently in his writings, and he's a rare cat to be in the middle of it--considered a sports journalist. All the haters, they don't know what to call you now.

Dave looks at sports as being something that's deeper than what you see and deeper than what you hear--something that goes way past the scorecard and the scoreboard. That's very important, especially in these times, where it seems like images are bigger than life. It's like the images are supposed to speak volumes. And my thing is: let the person speak volumes.

We were just talking earlier today about what's happening to Barry Bonds right now. I remember when I was 14 years old, and Bowie Kuhn was talking about how he wasn't going to attend when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth in home runs. In 2007, Bud Selig is saying the same damn thing about Barry Bonds [when he breaks the home run record].

Now this isn't personal with me. But as I told Dave earlier, Roger Clemens is doing more harm to baseball than Barry Bonds could ever do. But nobody will ever say anything. This dude is saying, no, I want to stay home, and I want to pitch on Saturday, because my wife and I go fishing on Sundays, and I don't really want to leave Houston. And then, all of a sudden, I don't want to be in Houston, I want to go to the Yankees.

People like that made me give up on baseball. If he can move around like a fish in a fish tank, the hell with this sport.

Every time I look at Barry Bonds, his job is to get up, back up what he's talking about, and hit that ball way out of the park. And people say, he's got to be on something, and then, when they find out he isn't on something, and they say he's just full of shit.

How the hell did Jason Giambi and Mark McGuire and Rafael Palmeiro basically get passes, but they still beat on Barry Bonds to the point where it isn't about just breaking the record--they're talking about putting him in jail?

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SO MUCH racism has seeped inside sports--especially baseball, a sport that I grew to love so much.

When I was growing up, my hero of all time was Roberto Clemente. And nobody tell me anything about Jackie Robinson, ever. He breaks into the major leagues in 1947--before that, he breaks into organized baseball in 1946, in Montreal, Canada, of all places. He does spring training in Florida, and he and his wife go through hell.

Don Newcombe was at Dr. Martin Luther King's house about a month before he was assassinated in Memphis, and Dr. King tells Don Newcombe that he and Jackie Robinson gave them the strength to carry on in the 1950s.

So it wasn't just about breaking baseball's color barrier in 1946 and 1947. It was about making a statement--we're here, now you've got to acknowledge us for being men representing a group of people who haven't really been acknowledged at all. Accept us in this place as equals, because that's what we've been looking for, and we're tired of the door being slammed in our face.

When I was 12 years old, the Cincinnati Reds were playing the Oakland As in the World Series, and Jackie Robinson throws out the first ball. He's only the 52 years old, with grey hair, going blind in one eye, and stricken by diabetes.

The amount of pressure that Jackie Robinson went through--maybe from the time that he was court-martialed in the U.S. Army, all the way up to 1950--is huge. We can't even measure the amount of pressure that a mind, body and soul had to endure during that time.

But there's the detachment of the real story from the general population, and instead, we get simple sound bites--Jackie Robinson broke the major league's color line in 1947, and everything was happy. Then came Willie Mays and then came Hank Aaron, and then, all of a sudden, we got Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds. What about the real damn stories in sports?

We're talking about Rutgers now. Rutgers has a place in the history of football, because the great Paul Robeson was an incredible football player at Rutgers, as well as being a high-level scholar--someone who was an international ambassador for the United States. But once again, as the script rolls out, he gets dissed by the United States.

But if the average person who looks at ESPN Sports Center can't make that connection between Rutgers and its importance today, and where it came from, then you're talking about this process where you take away a people's past, you let them get doses of the present, and you make sure that their future's blurry.

You don't have a past, and don't have a future, and people think right now that the present is a gift. No, you have to purchase the present. You have to buy your present status. There's a problem, because if business is going to be the galvanizing force behind these universal languages that are providing outlets for us to be able to communicate with the rest of the world as human beings, then something's got to bring it down to earth.

So Welcome to the Terrordome is yet another step in the direction of making sense of it all--making sense of all the things that we simply look at as simply outlets, and also entertainment.

It cracks me up when you look at music and sports and culture and politics, and it's on everyone's lips, but people know so little about any of it that's coming at us. You have to get the full story to know where you're going to go.

Right now, when we're talking about music is being scrutinized and looked upon from the outside with a magnifying glass, now, they're looking at sports, and they're looking at radio jocks, and everybody's under the big microscope now--or the magnifying glass held up to the sun. There's a lot of heat on the other side of that magnifying glass.

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