The New York Times Whitewashing of the NBA’s Stephen Curry: The Audacity of White Privilege Amidst America’s Racial Anxiety

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White privilege is so powerful and pernicious that it literally blinds us to history; it is a willful repression of facts that are pushed aside for a false narrative, which, in turn, becomes the truth. A whitewash, literally.

This is what I came away with after reading Scott Cacciola’s New York Times piece, “Even Ballet Dancers Are in Awe of Stephen Curry’s Moves” (Nov 24, 2015).

Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?

Want more? Read on, here …

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The Decision II: LeBron James and the New Owners

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“Who owns this body, this body of work?” asks David Shields in his great book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

As I write, we’re amidst the NBA Free Agency Period, 2014: Carmelo Anthony is touring Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles (where he, too, has a home), while still holding on to the Knicks – at least on paper; the Houston Rockets have “ramped up their pursuit of Chris Bosh”; and King James is on vacation while his agent contemplates offers.

“Who owns this body, this body of work?” Indeed.

In “The Bottom Line Should Decide,” Forty-Million Dollar Slaves author and New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden asks, “Who makes the game?”

Answer: “Networks televise the game. Advertisers buy the games. Fans support the games. Players are the game (italics mine).” Rhoden, consistent with his seminal work, Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, continues:

Anthony should keep that in mind and not accept a nickel less than he feels he is worth. Athletes are conditioned early on to feel grateful to be on the team. The reality is that their schools, and, later, their franchises, depend on the athletes to have a program. Athletes are the show.

 

If the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut, or when Pat Riley appeals to James’s sense of loyalty, the Clippers’ pending sale should be a glowing reminder to say no.

 

In an often coldblooded industry focused on the bottom line, players still invariably lead with their hearts, often to their detriment. The new rules of engagement should be, simply, money first.

Who owns the body – and the game? Players.

LeBron James

LeBron James

This a decisive moment in the business of sports, particularly the NBA. For us, the fans, the spectators of the modern age, we began to see this change with “The Decision,” LeBron’s move to Miami, which, says Rhoden, “showed how valuable he was not just to his team but to an entire region, with Cleveland’s economy seeming to take a hit.”

We’ve seen this kind of thing when Tiger Woods plays golf – or doesn’t and TV ratings take a hit; we see this in tennis, too, when the Williams sisters cherry pick which tournaments to play, unlike any other player on the tour, including the top names.

We saw this in the great Muhammad Ali who, says Rhoden in Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, “brought home the concept of principle, that there was something greater in life than wealth, though wealth has its place; something greater in life than fame, though fame has its place. And he taught [me] that in the right hands wealth and fame, the fruits of athletic success, could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle.”

This is where we are – an ongoing, historical process. We’re fixated on tweets and on headlines, going back and forth between salary caps, salary commitments, how much is this guy or that guy leaving behind, but failing to see that we’re moving into uncharted territory where ownership of the game, by star players, is dominating.

The Decision II – yet to be made as of this writing – will put a hole through the old plantation model. What commentary is missing, but, I think, management realizes, is that, “the history of African American survival in the United States is the history of teamwork and a history of individual expression within the context of the larger group,” as Rhoden tells us.

We’re witnessing an unprecedented amount of teamwork – at the business level; in turn, the business of basketball is showing how powerful these great players really are. I agree, these players own the game. They’re moving into ownership without knocking on doors – something Michael Jordan tried with the Wizards in 2000 and was rejected, even fired; they’re simply walking through, commanding leadership roles that will determine the future of the game.

Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

Gabby Douglas and the True Story of the Olympics

This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.

Gabby Douglas — winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.

Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.

The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.

Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.

Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.

Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.

Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.

As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.

What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.

Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.

Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.

In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .

The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.

It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.

We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.

The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.

And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?

The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.

The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national.  Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.

Media, Sports (NBA) and the Order of Things

It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.

Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night.  A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets.  These records show how major corporations work:

The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.

As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality.  In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.'”

Media is the tool that attractively packages  the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us.  It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.

The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money.  This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.

Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm.  The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate.  Who is he protecting?

These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are.  How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed?  “The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”

Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.”  So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball.  Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench.  There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston.  Fans understand that.  But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”

We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives.  What’s left but illusion?

It’s best to let Hedges end this post:

Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.

We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.

Mental Discipline and the Darkness Within: Mavericks and the Heat

Going into the fourth-quarter of the 6th game of the NBA playoffs, Sunday night, June 12th, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, looking a bit dazed, a microphone in his face, came to a conclusion — perhaps an epiphany that escaped him earlier in the series.  He said, “We have to be mentally disciplined.”

Mental discipline, two such simple and easy words. Mental discipline.  Games 5 and 6 of the NBA playoffs demonstrated that the Miami Heat have a long way to go before gaining mental discipline. Understanding mental discipline is the Heat’s journey into a darkness of their own making. But on Sunday night, they got a lesson in this necessity in sports and life from Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and, let’s not forget, Jason Terry.

Swagger is easy, mental discipline is difficult.  It comes by releasing yourself to your heart and soul; it comes from giving yourself to instincts, trusting them — and trusting that the diverse others around you are feeling the same thing, experiencing things as you are inside the enabling constraint, discipline.

In a fourth-quarter timeout, Terry said to Nowitzki, “Keep pushing. Remember ’06.”  These are the tools of discipline; they involve knowledge of the self, leadership and an understanding of history. The Heat have no history; theirs is disparate, broken apart. They have histories.  James, Wade and Bosh are individuals, not a cohesive whole. They looked lost when their eyes met, wondering who would drive to the hoop, who would take the next shot; who would lift them past the malaise.  Their eyes told a story of confusion — and a lack of discipline.  Sometimes, they confused defensive alignments. They were confused by the Maverick disciplined execution on defense and offense.  In fact, the Mavericks gave the Heat a lesson on how defense is played in the NBA playoffs, particularly in the fourth-quarter in games 5 and 6.  The Mavericks understood discipline and cohesion, where the Heat lived in chaos, as if children needing guidance.   The Heat personified unknowing.  The experienced adult won the NBA championship.  Age beat brawn.

When LeBron James left Cleveland, a darkness followed.  He was embraced by the Gordon Gekko-like president of the Heat, Pat Riley.  The Heat organization — and James — believed that by buying talent, an empire that could win championships would be forged and make history ad infinitum.  This is an age-old story, a false history, a misunderstanding of history. What happened to the Greeks?  The Roman Empire — anyone hear of the Fall of the Roman Empire? Anyone hear of the Empire of Illusion when referring to the American decline?  Somehow James and Riley thought that they could exist outside history.  We mortals, unfortunately, cannot.  We mortals tend to repeat the mistakes of history, rather then learn from them.

As I sat watching the Mavericks tutor the Heat, I thought about us, Americans; I thought about the state of us.  I wondered,  with an ironically named Corona (crown in Spanish) in hand,  why hubris seems always to be the stalwart guide when what we need is a calm, slower and reasoned approach. We need discipline. It comes from understanding diversity, opening up to it. James ran into this notion when the diminutive J.J. Barea battled him for a rebound early in the game.  Barea effectively boxed out James — a classic move young kids are taught as soon as the can shoot a basketball.  The giant James forgot this, thinking that he could overwhelm tiny J.J. . What James didn’t know is that David and Goliath is always ongoing in history; it never ceases — rebels vs Gaddafi, the Egyptian Revolution, Rosa Parks.

Barea (David) Boxes Out James (Goliath)

Can two events happen simultaneously in time?  Yes, of course, and they can.  Death, for instance, is always ongoing and we, the living, experience those that have left us in different forms, different ways of being.  This is undeniable. Historical events, personalities — is Gordon Gekko Iago? — even thoughts, all of which create causes, leave a residue that revisits us in time. Our recession is being compared to the Great Depression. In many areas — education, the environment, and definitely in foreign policy, President Obama is following the policies of George W. Bush.  Tragically, Obama is following Bush on matters of race, too. We are fallible, and it’s because we are that self-interest — “Greed is Good” — wins out over historical truths and we become blind and repeat the mistakes of the past. This is destiny. This is also how and why empires are always destined to fall. The fall is already present in the creation. Understanding entropy might help here. Ice always melts. Systems fall apart. Humans fall apart, age.  What lives must die.

LeBron James’ Gekko-like, Iago-like, dark decision of the soul to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers because management there couldn’t build an empire around him, is pregnant with decay.   Decay is ongoing.   While James must have felt that the Cavaliers were at their end, the end — the seed of decay and endings — now germinates in the Heat enterprise.  It comes, first, in the form of fear and anxiety — the notion of ending a career without a title, which Bill Rhoden expresses so well in his post game article, “Two Veterans Finally Access an Elite Club.”  Rhoden says that not reaching that NBA title ring is a “haunting gap” on the athlete’s psyche, his résumé.  James’ move to Miami is the fear of this “haunting gap.”  A fear such as this one can be debilitating, which is what we saw in James’ — and the Heat’s–performance once they reached game 5. They broke down.  Even on television you could see the fear in James’ eyes. He was paralyzed, as was the rest of the team.

The fear in James’ eyes, we’ve seen before.  We saw it in Tiger Woods’ comeback, for instance. We see it now in Obama’s second bid for the prime seat of power as he tries to “Win Back Wall St. Cash,” only, sadly, Wall St has never left the White House or politics, suggesting that it’s irrelevant who sits in the White House (Obama or Mitt Romney) since it’s Wall Street and the corporate class that run government, politicians their foils — a marked return to the Roman Empire of there ever was one.

The fear in James’ eyes is our very own, too.  It is the exhausting, paralyzing fear we feel as we look around at the world.  No matter how one may feel about the “evil empire,” Miami, and LeBron James, secretly, we wanted them to win. We wanted to see James victorious because in doing so, it would have meant that history doesn’t repeat itself; that history is not fraught with failures we repress and repeat; that even with our fallibility, we can somehow move forward and secure our luxurious futures by expending large amounts of capital to buy it.  But, of course, this didn’t happen. The only hope left is that we might reflect on the meaning of this event in our lives, the meaning of the narrative of James and the Heat and the stalwart Mavericks (not surprisingly, the team is lead by an old German!).

What might we learn from this lesson?  What we witnessed is who we are.  And sometimes, like Ishmael on the Pequod, we get on the wrong ship and, well…

What Happened?