You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
The ideas that frighten Texas officials

August 31, 2007 | Page 4

DAVE ZIRIN is a sportswriter, author of the books Welcome to the Terrordome and What's My Name Fool? and a columnist for and Socialist Worker. He wrote the following article after the Texas Department of Corrections refused to deliver a copy of What's My Name Fool? to death row prisoner Kenneth Foster.

After his column was published in Texas and elsewhere, prison officials admitted their act of censorship was wrong and apologized to Zirin.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHO KNEW sports history could strike fear in the most fearsome prison system in the United States? But what other explanation could there be for the fact that the history of "America's Pastime" is being denied to Texas death row prisoner Kenneth Foster.

What you can do

Call on Gov. Rick Perry to grant clemency for Kenneth Foster. Call 800-252-9600 (Texas callers) or 512-463-1782 (Austin and out of state), and send faxes to 512-463-1849.

For more information on what you can do to help Kenneth, and on and the struggle of Texas death row prisoners against executions and rotten conditions, see the Free Kenneth Foster and DRIVE Movement Web sites.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site has information on many cases, including Kenneth's--and on how you can get involved in the struggle against capital punishment.

Donations to the Save Kenneth Foster campaign can be made by sending checks or money orders (to the account "To Save Kenneth Foster," no. 831766.1) to: Velocity Credit Union, P.O. Box 1089, Austin, TX 78767-9947.


Kenneth's case has garnered international attention since both prosecution and defense agree that he was 80 feet away from the murder of Michael LaHood at the time it occurred. Earlier in the evening, he was driving the man who pulled the trigger, Maurecio Brown. In Texas, that's enough to dust off the noose.

Foster and I began to exchange letters on sports and politics after he read my book Welcome to the Terrordome. He wrote to me:

I have never had the opportunity to view sports in this way. And as I went through these revelations I began to have epiphanies about the way sports have a similar existence in prison. The similarities shook me...

Facing execution, the only thing that I began to get obsessive about was how to get heard and be free, and as the saying goes--you can't serve two gods. Sports, as you know, becomes a way of life. You monitor it, you almost come to breathe it. Sports becomes a way of life in prison, because it becomes a way of survival. For men that don't have family or friends to help them becomes a way to occupy your time. That's another sad story in itself, but it's the root to many men's obsession with sports.

It didn't matter if he was on death row or Park Avenue, I felt smarter having read his words. But even more satisfying was the thought that thinking about sports took his mind--for a moment--away from his imminent death, the 11-year-old daughter he will never touch, and the words he will never write.

I thought sending him my first book, What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the U.S., would be a good follow-up--but here is where the Texas Department of Corrections got their briefs in a bunch.

A form titled "Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, Publication review/denial notification" issued to Kenneth on August 9 says that What's My Name Fool? was banned from the row because, "It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots." Specifically, "pages 44 and 55" met this criteria.

After lifting my jaw off the ground, I went to those dangerous pages.

On page 44, the radioactive quote in question comes from that seditious revolutionary Jackie Robinson: you know, the guy whose number is retired by all of Major League Baseball.

I quote Robinson's autobiography when he writes about suffering racism early in his rookie season. He wrote:

I felt tortured, and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults, but it was really getting to me. For one wild and rage-crazed moment, I thought, 'To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment. To hell with the image of the patient Black freak I was supposed to create.'

I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.

On page 55, the offensive passage was about Jack Johnson's defeat of the "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries. It reads:

Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked Jeffries out with ease. After Johnson's victory, there were race riots around the country--in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back. This reaction to a boxing match was one of the most widespread racial uprisings in the U.S. until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Let's forget about the fact that there is something bizarre--almost comical--about the Texas prison authorities believing that a sports history could lead to "the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots." Let's forget that they are denying a man reading material in the last hours of his life.

There is something repugnant about the fact that they think a book--any book--would be the source of resistance: not the basic reality that Gov. Rick Perry has executed 159 people since he took office in 2001. Not the fact that the people on the row have no civil rights, and no access to radio, television or even arts and crafts.

It reminds me of the words of Carl Oglesby from Students for a Democratic Society, who said, "It isn't the rebels who cause the troubles of the world, it's the troubles that cause the rebels."

Their fear that ideas--even the ideas of sports history--could cause a crisis in the Texas prisons only reveals how aware the Lone Star Jailers are of how inhumanely they treat their prisoners.

There was a time in Texas when it was illegal to teach slaves to read. The fear was that ideas could turn anger often directed inward into action against those with their boots on Black necks. It is perhaps the most fitting possible tribute to Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson that they still strike fear into the hearts of those wearing the boots.

Home page | Back to the top