Going For It On 5th and Goal

The following is written by a friend of the site, Colin, from Philadelphia. Colin is a union organizer, sports fan, and old friend of mine, hope you enjoy it.
best,
Harjit

Proof-readers note: I actually went to these Phillies at Pirates games with Colin, though we sat in different sections. Lucky enough, I have a few pictures from that weekend’s story he mentions. –James

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Colin tailgating before the game with other Phillies fans.

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The view

Early April, 2012…

Drunk, argumentative, loud, white frat boy in a Pens jersey at a Bucs-Phils game:

“Pittsburgh is the greatest sports town in America, who do you guys have? Briiiièrrrre???”

Me, being snarky, and very self aware of who we were surrounded by:

“Whatever, ya’ll don’t even have an NBA team, you don’t count.”

“ooooooooo,” half of the 301 section of PNC Park sang in chorus

Drunk Pens jersey guy: “That’s what makes this town great, because the NBA is stupid and because…it’s filled with Black people.”

Did he just say that? At that very moment, their star centerfielder – a Black man – was making a spectacular catch to end the inning. (Which I didn’t fail to use as evidence of how racist AND stupid that comment was over the next half hour’s argument) Andrew McCutcheon trotted back to the dugout, and I just got livid.

My friend and I shot out of our seats, and blew up on the guy. We called him out in front of the entire section in his home stadium, in front of his friends, who, save a few, abandoned any semblance of defense for the comment. A young woman kicked my seat from behind, proclaiming, “my boyfriend is NOT a racist.”

After a bit of back and forth, my friend decided it was time for a piss break, and I was left surrounded. I thought for a second, “hmmm, I might get beat up in about 30 seconds if I don’t stop this argument…nah, this is Pittsburgh, not NYC or L.A. I can hold my own. I’m from Philly, if I stand my ground, that’ll count for something.

It paid off, because by the end of the game, two of the Pittsburgh fans shook my hands and said, “good game,” and patted me on the back. Not sure if the argument made them think any different, however, I would’ve hated myself if I had stayed silent.

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I think about that situation when I’m at home during the holidays, and some family member or old family friend makes some racist comments or jokes, and I cringe, hoping the pumpkin pie distracts them from saying anything else. In those moments, surrounded by people I grew up around, who I love and cherish, I find myself disarmed, less capable of challenging the nonsense they spit.

How can I be so bold at an away game, ready to pounce on a whole section of cheap seats, unguarded by stadium staff, with nothing but the truth and a semi-drunk buddy – yet I can’t bring myself to stand up to an uncle who complains about “Mexicans taking all the jobs,” or “the IRS stealing our money so they can keep Black welfare moms pumping out babies.” What about the shared experience of a ballgame brings out the courage in us to confront social ills, and demand better from one another?

  “The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way — because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War   when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would   breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.”

– Sports announcer Jimmy Snyder

And they say don’t mix politics with sports, I say sports IS politics, except with a ball and the potential for some actual honest teamwork. Don’t we all wish “the people” could come together like a killer O-line on 4th and inches?

The experience at the stadium left a bad taste in my mouth for a couple of weeks, and I wondered how likely that confrontation could’ve went down at a game in Soldier Field or the Staples Center, or at Wrigley. How deeply embedded is racist fan culture in American sports, and is Pittsburgh exceptional?

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I remained in Steelers country for a while, knocking on hospital workers’ doors, challenging them to demand more from their employer – to dream bigger – to want power and a say in their lives at work. Going door-to-door put me in the car for weeks at a time, 12-16 hours a day, searching for the right time to catch folks at home. I tune in to a lot of talk radio when I’m organizing for the union – it soothes my anxiety about meeting new people. I talk back to the radio hosts, and it keeps me feeling chatty and comfortable with strangers. Often I dial into sports talk, and listen to local fans, and how much they love and hate how their team did the night before. It helps me to break the ice with Steelers fans on the other side of the screen doors. One of these shows happened to be discussing the racist tweets that flooded the social networksphere following the Washington Capitals’ Joel Ward big score for his team versus Boston in a Game 7 overtime nail-biter.

93.7 “The Fan” lit up with self-described open-minded callers, complaining about “how bad Boston is, how their fans were just being ‘gay’ and ‘wussies,’ and how they didn’t know how to deal with living in a city with a racist past, etc.” The hosts responded in lockstep agreement, yet didn’t seem to grasp that Boston wasn’t anything unusual. Their shock at the open oppressive nature of the uncensored Twitterverse, revealed their ignorance about the state of their own racial divide, sports world and beyond.

Did they fail to realize that nobody can seem to deal with living in any American city with a racist past? And by “any,” I mean…ALL American cities?

I had to call in, so I pulled over and took an early lunch break. I parked my car in the rolling hills of Braddock, PA, and dialed into the show. They actually patched me in, and I recounted my story of the Bucs game, complete with racist fan, and how Pittsburgh fandom was not immune to that B.S. They thanked me for my time, but tried to cut me off, and dismissed it as, “Well, every city has got a few knuckleheads…even ours.” They chuckled it off with a commercial break and moved on.

Now, it takes two seconds to Google 97.3 The Fan, and two more seconds to peek at the lily-white faces of radio sports broadcasting in Pittsburgh.

(Disclaimer: They do employ Post-Gazette Sports Writer Paul Zeise as a weekender and fill-in guy, as well as Arena Football League announcer and show producer Troy Clardy, both voices of color in the Burgh.)

They droned on and on about how they couldn’t believe sports fans, “in this day and age,” would say such vile and hateful things. They went on about their beloved Pittsburgh icon of racist-past-hand-washery, Roberto Clemente. “We’ve come so far, why would people think this way?” wondered the hosts.

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Clemente immortalized

Let’s be real, jockdom doesn’t exclusively breed racism. Reading some mainstream news coverage later, I found this gem – Dan Lebowitz, director of Northeastern University‘s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said that as soon as he saw the goal, “I knew the backlash was coming…If this had happened to a team in New York or Philly or any other city, or in another sport, we’d have seen a lot of the same reaction…The problem isn’t limited to sport, or to the Internet. It’s a comment on our society.”

“I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”

MLB pitcher John Rocker, when asked if he’d play for a New York team

The question isn’t, “is there room to discuss the problems of racism (or any oppression, for that matter) in the world of sports?”

For me, I believe that sports generates an accelerated version of ourselves, our true selves on fire. We get amped up and proud of our victories, disgusted and vulgar in the face of defeat. Fandom reveals us in the raw, it allows us to be a bit feral. It helps us to be cathartic about what we love and fear.

The real question should be: At what point during halftime do we make room to process how we feel about the world that sports helps us to reflect about ourselves, and how do we let our shared fandom filter our fears and desires about the society we live in, and the one we aspire to create? We need that Section 301 moment, that confrontation in the stands, with our families, neighbors, friends, comrades, and coworkers. We need to realize that comfort isn’t a variable in an equation that demands that we better ourselves. We need to tackle racism like a 260lb linebacker coming up the middle.

It would help if the industry would include professional voices of color at the forefront, helping to shape the narrative. Sports media is truly a cesspool of old-money yacht club fraternity. It’s hard for us to break through the liberal brick wall of tweet-shaming – you know – calling out those ignoramuses that use the really bad racial slurs, and instead shine some light on the true nature of institutional racism, in and around the sports world, especially when the voices of color are drowned out by said institutions. Whether it be radio, cable, newspaper, or social media, we are sorely lacking quality sports narratives that draw from a fundamentally political experience.

Now, I’m not saying Philly is better at making space for voices of color on the radio than Pittsburgh or any other city, it’s just as tough here to capture a sense of auditory authority on racism in sports. In fact, we have our own “The Fan” on the 97.5 spot, and there are, 0h yes, ZERO voices of color. That’s right – all week long – it’s hours of white guy after white guy talking about the love of the game.

On the flip side, our fine city does feature 94.1 WIP, which recently hit the FM waves, and you can pick up on commentary from ex-Eagles linebackers Garry Cobb and Ike Reese, both strong local Black voices. Also, before you go to church on Sundays, you have to tune in to “Mr. Basketball,” Sonny Hill for some true Sixers knowledge and beyond.

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Sonny Hill

When it came to responding to Eagles’ receiver Riley Cooper’s racist youtube fiasco in earlier in the 2013 preseason, most of the sports media fumbled the story. They focused on picking apart the phonics of a hateful racist slur, instead of reflecting on how it was said in a context of inspiring collective white-on-black violence. The fact that America has a bit of history with white guys screaming, “Let’s kill every (insert racial expletive here) in the room” was somehow lost on the pro sports talking heads?

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Ike Reese at work

Ike Reese laid this bit of criticism on us, “Of course I’m not OK with Riley’s ignorant moment. But I’m smart enough to know he’s not the first and he won’t be the last.” Even as Reese says what most of his white colleagues don’t want to hear – that racism has a history, and that it’s still here and will probably not get worked out anytime soon, and it’ll be here after this story subsides, he still places Cooper’s racism as a ‘lone act,’ apart from institutions around him. It’s just a moment of ignorance.

The racist narrative is so strong, that a pro Black radio personality can’t seem to break out of the pocket. Reese did retweet a suggestion for Cooper’s punishment:

Ha. While playful, and far more biting than what Deion Sanders had to offer, it still feels like Reese plays it safe in a workplace environment that isn’t conducive to breaking power down on a more fundamental level. It almost seems like positions in the industry like his are coveted and that he might be remiss stepping out of bounds as a one of the VERY FEW voices of color in the industry? Let’s see…

According to the latest AP Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card (2012), the jobs taken by white workers in the newspaper sports reporting world hovered around 86%, including editors, assistant editors, columnists, reporters and copy/designers. The top positions lean closer to the 90% range. Interestingly, the one job where there is a slight spike in workers of color is in the field of columnist. While 9/10ths of the top editors are white, and almost as many positions behind the scenes producing the content are white, the workers you might see doing the more “subjective piece,” complete with a brown face in print, seems to showcase how progressive sports reporting must really be, right?

It looks like ESPN and The Sporting News made the most progress at hiring new editors of color over the last year or so, yet hiring practices seem to hark back to Jim Crow days for most of the country’s news outlets. It’s also important to note that as newspapers become digitized, and austerity kicks in, do we have to guess who gets laid off first? With institutions like these, I can’t imagine speaking out about disparities in sports will get you good performance reviews with the bosses at CBS, which owns 94.1 WIP.

The contextualization of the experience of communities of color within and around the sports world is lost to us all, and it’s a shame that fans seem to not consider this disparity. In fact, in a survey done in 2011, only 36 percent of blacks – compared with 65 percent of whites – give the sports world high marks on the question of whether Blacks have equal opportunities to succeed throughout the industry.

With so much racial disparity to overcome, it must seem hopeless to communities of color, that the sports world considers itself so “obviously” desegregated and inclusive, yet, for people in the industry struggling to break these boundaries, it feels more like it does in most other industries. In food service work, hospitality, healthcare, and other low-wage job classes and sectors, there remain key tokenized areas of work. Bosses do a good job of showcasing their hiring practices by spotlighting their progresses, while hiding the disparities behind closed doors. Regardless of the do-gooders and the well-intentioned, whole sections of the sports world remain “whites only,” however invisible that seems to most.

”I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.  They’re interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well.  I think there’s a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn’t deserve.”

Rush Limbaugh

Limbaugh, the #1 most listened to talk radio personality in modern radio history, and certainly the highest paid, gets away with stating the obvious, but in a twisted, racist way. Of course we should want Black players and coaches to succeed, however, Limbaugh posits that it’s somehow undeserved, as if Black athletes and coaches are overrated. McNabb may have been undeserving of the hope and credit invested in him by the media, but that’s me speaking as a disgruntled Eagles fan, wanting the QB of my team to do well, not because I think McNabb got more attention for the color of his skin. Trust me, as racist as Philly fans are, we are relatively fair when it comes to being brutal about the failures of the athletes we love and hate on our own teams. We’re ready to trade World Series champions after a couple of bad ABs, and Chase Utley is not immune to this scorn.

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I don’t have a way to quantify it yet, but I’m going to make an educated semi-scientific guess that most Philly team fans that favor white players unfairly are from Jersey.

There, I said it. Deal with it.

As for the success of Black coaches, and whether they “deserve our hope and due credit,” one needs only to look at this disparity – in the last 7 Super Bowls, 14 teams met on the grid iron, 5 of those teams were headed by a Black coach, making over 1/3 of the head coaches taking their team to the biggest game in professional American sports in the last 7 years a Black man. However, in 2013, no new head coaches hired were Black, which leaves 3 Black head coaches in the NFL, a dismal 9% of the total coach workforce. In a study released earlier this year by the University of Central Florida, a ton of data pointed to Blacks in the NFL lacking “second chances.” Writer Jarrett Bell of USA Today sports sums up the report well with this analysis:

“Since 1980, 30 former NFL head coaches accepted similar positions at the major college level. All were white. None of the six African-Americans who have held the position as interim coach in the NFL became a head coach. After losing their first NFL head coaching job, 53 were re-hired as head coaches. Of that number, 46 were white and seven were minorities. Of the 42 who landed as offensive and defensive coordinators after losing their first head coaching job, 40 were white. Two minorities became coordinators; the overwhelming majority of minority coaches landed as position coaches.”

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These facts don’t sit well with Rush Limbaugh, but of course, the “Liberal Media” has so much to gain by creating a narrative of workers of color in the industry getting undue credit. They have so much money to make from selling newspapers by dressing up “special interests” as inclusive hiring practices. Rush Limbaugh currently enjoys an 8 year contract with Clear Channel Communications, worth about 38 Million per year. If he were a professional athlete, he’d be THE highest paid salary (per year) professional athlete in THE WORLD, save Floyd Mayweather and a couple of Formula One racers from Europe. Does anyone truly think Limbaugh is deserving of our hope and due credit?

Back to Pittsburgh…

By the end of April 2012, after many moving conversations with hospital workers about what it’s like working for a larger-than-life corporation, with little to no say about conditions or pay, a picture started to emerge of a workforce divided by color. It became obvious that the staff at the hospital that felt the most strongly pro-union, was overwhelmingly from Black communities. Over and over, tales of lack of respect at work, a feeling like they were second-class citizens, or that there was an invisible hand of institutional favoritism divided by color lines, and it was hard to quantify. I often wondered out loud with workers whether or not evil actions by the boss could be tallied using sabermetrics, and I was equally often met with confused looks.

The reality in this country remains clear: From janitor to color commentator, racism invades the workplace, both in anecdotal ways and as an institutional, intergenerational framework that makes space for some, and throws up roadblocks for others.

That cool spring night at PNC Park provided one shining moment that we can all feel good about. The racist with the relish-stained Crosby jersey lost his watch around the 6th inning, and drunkenly announced to all his friends that they had to help him find it – it was a birthday present from his girlfriend. Even his friends gave up the search after a few minutes. A couple innings deeper, and a guy two rows down produces his watch from under a seat, but before giving it back, he proclaims loudly, “eeeewwww, it’s a Yankees watch!”

Instantly, a hundred or so Pirates fans (racist guy’s friends included), together with a dozen Phils fans loudly and clearly fell into unified solidarity on this ages-old subject, one that – to them – is far more important than racism in sports. The Bucs raised the Jolly Roger, and Section 301 proclaimed with collective conviction:

“AAAAAAASSSSSSSSSHHHHHOOOOOOOLLLLLLLEEEEE”

-Colin Flory

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