Exploitation in the NCAA

Exploitation in the NCAA

Kevin Churchill

On Monday night, March Madness will conclude. One of the best months of the sporting year will come to an end, and a national champion will be crowned. While the madness occurs on the court, a different sort of madness is going on behind the scenes. Two separate class action anti-trust law suits have been filed against the NCAA, just last week the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favour of Northwestern football players finding them to be employees of the university with a right to unionize, and sports journalism south of the border is alive with talk about students-athletes being exploited by the NCAA. So, are student-athletes being exploited? What does it mean to be exploited?

I just finished my own basketball career at Carleton University in Ottawa, and I was lucky enough to play on five national championship teams. I am also currently working on a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy at Carleton, and part of my academic focus is the concept of exploitation. I want to make it very clear that I was not exploited as a student-athlete. Exploitation theorists will say that exploitation involves taking unfair advantage; one way to understand taking unfair advantage is in terms of an unfair sharing of profits. I was not exploited because I received a fair portion of the profits in the form of scholarship, which led to a very good education while playing basketball.  This was adequate in my case because my team does not generate any significant money for my school. For the most part, the same cannot be said about student-athletes in the NCAA.

The first reason for this has to do with the revenue generated by March Madness: from the beginning to the end of the tournament, the NCAA will have made about 90% of its nearly billion-dollar annual operating budget, and the players whose work generates that revenue will receive none of it. Television networks are willing to pay the NCAA billions of dollar in order to broadcast March Madness, and this is because advertisers are willing to pay even more than that to advertise during March Madness. Why is this? Because fans want to watch the players play. The source of the money can be traced back to the players, and yet the players get no share of the revenue. This seems very wrong.  The NCAA has a scripted response to this objection: student-athletes are students first, and they get a quality education paid for by their universities. This response, unfortunately, is self-serving and not entirely true, which brings us to the second part of the issue.

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Part of the recent ruling by the NLRB was based on a study that showed that student-athletes at Northwestern spent far more time as athletes than they did as students. Some players testified that the coaching staff at Northwestern did not allow them to take certain courses. So not only are student-athletes obviously athletes first, but their ability to be a student is restricted by their athletic involvement. Further evidence that the quality of the education that many NCAA student-athletes receive is quite poor is a recent study on the University of Connecticut basketball team (who will be playing for the National Championship Monday night). The study showed that since 2003, the graduation rate for UCONN basketball players is 8%; this means that of the 12 players that will dress for UCONN on Monday night, only one or two of them is likely to graduate. These are staggering numbers, particularly when the NCAA is claiming that part of why it is okay for student-athletes not to be paid is because of the education they receive.

Once again, I want to stress how different my experience was than those at Northwestern. The culture of my team ensures that players do well in school, and that those who are under-achieving academically are helped by mandatory time spent in our study hall. The culture of my team involves taking success seriously, both on the court and in the classroom. I have teammates in neuroscience, in engineering, and I have two teammates planning on starting their MBA in the final year of playing basketball. This has all occurred on a basketball team that has won 10 of the past 12 national championships, and beat Final Four team Wisconsin by 13 in the preseason. Of course there are many schools in the NCAA that offer their student-athletes a great education, and this can certainly mitigate the exploitation caused by unfair profit sharing. But only where a student-athlete enjoys fair profit sharing and receives a quality education, as I did at Carleton, is exploitation avoided altogether.

The NCAA is committed to something it calls the Principle of Amateurism, according to which they aim to protect student-athletes from exploitation from professional and commercial enterprises. But the question arises: if the NCAA is protecting student athletes from being exploited by professional and commercial enterprises, who is protecting student-athletes from being exploited by the NCAA? Currently, nobody is. So as we enjoy the basketball game on Monday night, take what you see with a grain of salt: be aware that the players who are putting their heart and soul into their sport and their team are being exploited by the very institutions whose names are plastered on the front of the jerseys.

Kevin Churchill is currently working on his Masters thesis at Carleton University, and his work focuses on the philosophical concept of exploitation  He also just ended his career as a basketball player at Carleton by winning a fourth consecutive national championship.  You can find him on twitter @kchurch41.

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Exposing the Hypocrisy in Toronto Maple Leafs “Forces Appreciation Night”

Exposing the Hypocrisy in Toronto Maple Leafs “Forces Appreciation Night”

Tyler Shipley

Eighteen months ago, the Left Hook project was launched: an online journal that would bring together progressive and thoughtful sports fans to write about the games we love from a critical perspective. The world of sport is dominated by some pretty unpleasant politics, from sexism and homophobia to nationalism and warmongering. The hope with Left Hook was that writing would lead to talking, to organizing and to challenging the domain of sport to include the people and voices it usually ignores.

Last weekend, that hope was rewarded, when activists from Sports Without War pulled off a very effective internet hoax exposing the hypocrisy of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ “Forces Appreciation Night.”

The group created a fake press release from the Leafs promising that the annual hard-rock-pumping tanks-and-guns spectacle would be reformed, this year featuring a moment of silence for thousands of Afghan civilians killed in the war and a program to give free tickets to Afghan-Canadian families who lost loved ones. The release went on to take an explicit anti-war position, pointing out that the young Canadians sent to war amidst fanfare at the Air Canada Centre typically return home to find that there are few resources to help them deal with physical and emotional trauma.

Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) didn’t respond to the press release, except to deny that it was real, which was probably smart on their part. After all, openly denying that they care about all the Afghans and Canadians being hurt by the war might not have reflected well on their organization.

 

Indeed, the brilliance of the Sports Without War action was that it exposed the central lie of “Forces Appreciation Night.” The Maple Leafs claim that it is a non-partisan event that supports the troops without getting into politics. The reality is that it supports the troops in the abstract only — in the surreal spectacle of soldiers rappelling from the arena rafters and generals exchanging pleasantries with Lanny McDonald. It is not the least bit interested in the actual experience of the troops or the actual wars they are fighting.

As a result, it is the exact opposite of what it claims to be. It acts as a propaganda event for the idea of the military. It functions as a political project to lend credibility to whatever engagements the Canadian Forces are sent to fulfill, without asking any questions about who decides where the military goes, why they go there and who they kill along the way. That kind of “appreciation” doesn’t help the troops, their families, or their victims.

In fact, the only beneficiaries here are the top political and military leaders, who use these spectacles to bolster their capacity to use the military however they want; which is primarily in the service of Canada’s largest corporations.

This is no conspiracy theory — it is official Canadian policy. If there was ever a time when Canadian policy was driven by humanitarian or social development goals, that time is long since passed. In recent years, Canadian foreign and military policy has been used to subvert democracy and help Canadian businesses exploit foreign workers and resources in Haiti, Honduras, Libya, Mali and, most notably, in Afghanistan. In fact, a quick scan of the board of governors of MLSE suggests that they are connected into that very small class of Canadians who are making profits from Canada’s wars.

ACCtroops-001“Forces Appreciation Night” erases all that and tries to distract attention from the fact that Canadians are spending billions of dollars in tax money to fund these wars — money that could be spent on health care, affordable housing or decent public transportation. It pretends that the troops only exist as heroes in camouflage on the ice, rather than as broken, abandoned, suicidal and sometimes horrifically violent veterans. It tells us to forget that there are tens of thousands of innocent people who have been killed as a result of the actions of the Canadian military; that it has created a human catastrophe in Afghanistan and elsewhere; that it is responsible for submitting people to torture; and that it has undermined in other countries the values it claims to uphold at home.

In a much needed intervention, Sports Without War exposed all of that, in one simple and effective action. The response to the action was overwhelmingly positive, despite a handful of racist internet trolls in comment sections, and it is a testament to how important it is for thoughtful and progressive sports fans to insist on talking about the politics embedded in sports. It was not the first action Sports Without War has taken — last summer the group protested a military tribute at a Toronto Blue Jays game — but it is so far the most ambitious and most effective.

The positive response to the action suggests that momentum is building, and it can’t come soon enough.

Tyler Shipley teaches at Humber College and York University and is the editor of Left Hook.  This article was originally published on Rabble.ca.

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“That Kind Of Guy”: Richard Sherman, class, and “class”

“That Kind Of Guy”: Richard Sherman, Class, and “Class”

Dragos Nica

On Sunday, Jan 19, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers played a football game. Not just any football game, but a very meaningful one. The winner would go on to the Superbowl; the loser would see their season end at the hands of their biggest rival. At the end of the game, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, matched up against 49ers wide-receiver Michael Crabtree, made the biggest play of his career. The Seahawks won.

Richard Sherman of the Seahawks makes the most important play of his career, earning Seattle a trip to the Superbowl.

Richard Sherman of the Seahawks makes the most important play of his career, earning Seattle a trip to the Superbowl.

Sherman went over to Crabtree after the play was over, gave him a sarcastic pat on the back, and got shoved in the face. Then he made a choking sign towards 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Then Erin Andrews shoved a microphone in Sherman’s face, and Sherman yelled:

Sherman: “Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”

Andrews: “Who was talking about you?”

Sherman: Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m going to shut it for you real quick!”

The horror! With that, the backlash began. Sherman was everything wrong with professional sports. Sherman was ungracious. Sherman was classless. There is, everybody knows, a right way to win and a wrong way to win, and Sherman had done it the wrong way. Tom Brady made this clear on Monday: ““I don’t know him at all. I’ve watched him play. He’s that kind of guy.”

That kind of guy. That kind of athlete. Classless. These are the accusations (along with the typical troglodytic Twitter responses) popping up everywhere since Sherman’s post-game interview. But this narrative is very different than the one you might normally encounter during an NFL game, and especially after a game like the one Seattle and San Francisco played on Sunday. That narrative usually tells us that the men on the field are warriors. Gladiators. That the game is not a game at all, but a battle. And when the war is won, and the bodies are left battered and bruised on the battlefield, the expectation is that warrior Richard Sherman shed the soldier’s uniform and put on a politician’s. After the most intense few hours of his career. After the biggest play he might ever make. After a fight. This request is not just unreasonable in its expectations, but also a form of control over the image of the prototypical professional athlete. This athlete is a blue-collar worker, a “lunch-pail guy,” who is tough, hard-working, and looks like somewhere between your average construction worker and Dennis Quaid. He doesn’t talk much, this athlete, he only “goes about his business” because he’s a “consummate professional.” On top of all this, the professional athlete is classy.

To be classy in pro-sports, you must exhibit a certain level of white-collar, or at the very least middle-class, professionalism. To conduct yourself in a professional manner. The policy in the NBA is that, when engaging in team or league business, players are required to dress business casual. This look is not uncommon in all major sports. The unwritten policy in all pro-sports, the one Richard Sherman so deeply offended on Sunday, is that, along with the upper-class aesthetic coveted by leagues like the NBA, players must also exhibit an upper-class morality. The coveted sportsmanshipBecause of those necessary qualifications, the way in which we identify “classy” professional athletes has become class-based, and is inherently racist.

In 2011, the Economical Policy Institute published a study determining that ” labor market discrimination excludes many black men from high- wage jobs.” The study presented the obvious: black males were overrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in high-paying jobs. In 2013, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported in its annual “Racial and Gender Report Card,” that 66.3% of NFL players were black; in the NBA, that number was 76.3%. In the NFL League Office, 9.2% of management position were held by African-Americans; in the NBA, 18.3% of League Office professional employees were black. In 2011, ESPN reported on a study declaring that 34% of black athletes in the NBA grew up in households earning no more than 150% of the poverty line. In contrast, no white NBA player had come from a below-average-income home without two parents. It is in these numbers where the white-collar definition of “class” becomes problematic in professional sports; that type of definition disqualifies a large number of athletes who did not grow up and were not socialized in a middle/upper class environment. Perhaps the way we define “classy” is idealistic; perhaps it is unreasonable, but it is certainly not fair.

Football is a rough sport; beyond that, it is a dangerous one. No one is more keenly aware of this than its professionals, the players who risk injury or worse every time they put on pads and a helmet. In the NFL, the players constitute the working-class, and there is a deep respect among them, but this respect does not — and should not have to — come in the form of politeness or placidity. Shaking hands and exchanging kind words after a game is lovely, but it is only a distraction, not the true display of athletic solidarity. This solidarity presents itself in much more significant ways: a prayer circle around an injured player, a strike, nearly 5, 000 players suing the league over its mishandling of concussions. On Monday, when Richard Sherman published his refutation aimed at “those who would call [him] a thug or worse,” he took the time to express solidarity with 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who went down with a knee injury in Sunday’s game and had food thrown at him from the Seattle stands: “Navorro Bowman is a great player who plays the game the right way. When he went down, I dropped to a knee and prayed for him. He deserves better than having food thrown at him as he’s carted off a field. All players deserve better than that.” This is the kind of worthwhile sportsmanship you will find among NFL players.

Richard Sherman is an exemplary human being. He was a great student both at his high-school in Compton and at Stanford, and he has a charity (Blanket Coverage) that provides kids with clothing and necessary school supplies. But by the current definition, Sherman lacked class when he taunted the 49ers. He lacked class when he taunted Michael Crabtree. Hell, he lacked class when he raised his voice during that interview. Of course Tom Brady does not like the way Richard Sherman conducts himself. Tom Brady “goes about things the right way”; Richard Sherman does not.

To grow up poor is to grow up disenfranchised. To grow up without all necessary resources. Growing up working-class does not always breed the ideal “lunch-pail guy.” Hard work is always necessary to make it into professional sports, but it is harder when you are lacking the right equipment or a ride to the game. During the years of hard work and struggle, perhaps it is natural for one to develop the anger, aggression, and passion so often displayed in the NFL. To deny that, and to appropriate the idealized notion of a working-class mentality is to ignore the reality of a professional athlete and focus only on the beauty of the talent. To separate athletes into “classy” and “not classy” based on the current white-centric system of classification is to take part in the deeply entrenched system of athlete commodification in professional sports; even worse, it is to completely ignore inequality altogether.

Dragos Nica is a recent University of Toronto graduate and writes on sports and pop-culture.  He currently writes about hip-hop for survivingthegoldenage.com and can be found @DragosNica on Twitter.

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Rogers Monopoly on NHL Broadcasting Will Hurt Working-Class Fans Hardest

Rogers Monopoly on NHL Broadcasting Will Hurt Working-Class Fans Hardest

Tyler Shipley

It’s never a good sign when the papers carry a picture of Gary Bettman grinning like an idiot.

The multi-millionaire commissioner of the National Hockey League is the human representative of the collective soulless greed of the extraordinarily wealthy owners of NHL franchises, and if they’re happy, it usually means that they’ve found a new way to squeeze money from their workers, their players, or – more likely – everyone else.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has a lot to laugh about as he and Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed ink a deal that will make them both a lot richer.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has a lot to laugh about as he and Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed ink a deal that will make them both a lot richer.

Sure enough, the announcement of a massive $5.2 billion broadcasting deal between the NHL and the Rogers corporate colossus is a victory for the rich, at the expense of we who make them rich.  Though most of the attention this story received was about the fate of Hockey Night in Canada and the CBC more broadly, what was ignored was the effect this will have on working people in Canada.

In a nutshell, the deal works as follows: Rogers pays the team owners in order to gain exclusive rights to the broadcasting of most NHL hockey games across a variety of different media.  Team owners will share some of this cash with their players, to buy a bit of labour peace, but will pocket most of it as a reward for their “hard work.”  In order to profit from this, Rogers will likely develop a variety of expensive cable and internet packages that will charge hockey fans more than they are used to paying in order to see their favourite teams.  And since Rogers will have next-to-no competition, consumers will have little choice but to pay more, or abandon watching hockey.  In effect, then, it is yet another transfer of wealth from the pockets of the poor to the ledgers of the rich.

Hockey Night in “Canada”

So what will this mean for the iconic CBC broadcast, Hockey Night in Canada?  The program televises two games each Saturday night featuring Canadian teams and typically follows most of the Canadian franchises through the playoffs.  It is the CBC’s most popular program – arguably a centrepiece of Canadian television – and it brings to mind all of the mythologies that embody the supposed Canadian identity.

But let’s be honest: the Canadian identity promoted by Hockey Night in Canada is predominantly white, male, and middle class.  At best, people of colour appear on the program as occasional proofs of Canadian “multiculturalism;” Ron MacLean represents white Canada’s “tolerance” as he tells the against-all-odds stories of players like P.K. Subban, one of a handful of non-white players in the league.  At worst, it reinforces white stereotypes of people of colour – for instance, by painting Indigenous player Jordan Tootoo as “undisciplined” and “unsportsmanlike” – and gives a platform to the lunatic and racist ravings of Don Cherry.

Women are systematically tokenised by the program; in addition to the obvious fact that only men’s hockey is part of the actual programming, the telecast typically features one or two women as minor TV personalities who never participate in the critical discussion panels, but are occasionally called upon to conduct an interview or plug the CBC website.  This reached an apex of absurdity last season when Don Cherry screamed from his pulpit that women were “not equal” to men and shouldn’t be allowed to do interviews in team locker rooms, only 30 seconds before the telecast was turned over to Cassie Campbell-Pascall, formerly one of Canada’s elite hockey players, who now primarily recites insignificant statistics as ‘filler’ between Hockey Night in Canada features.

Finally, the entire presentation of “Canada’s Game” is the story of middle class white families.  Playing elite hockey is now a luxury reserved only for children of wealthy parents who can afford all the equipment, the camps, and the clinics, so the players’ stories tend to sound the same, and the greatest hardships they faced are usually early mornings and tough training sessions.  The program doesn’t have much room to talk about people who work three jobs just to pay the bills, or who face constant and daily racism that keeps them locked in working poverty and precarity.

CBC’s romantic picture of Canadian kindness, community, and pond hockey looks nothing like the experience of the majority of Canadians.  So mourning the now-inevitable decline of Hockey Night in Canada seems a little misguided.  In fact, all the emphasis on the Canadian tradition has distracted us from the larger problem here.

Rogers and Me

For all its drawbacks, Hockey Night in Canada is the only way to watch the game free of charge; I watch in my apartment with just a TV and antenna.  In order to see games carried by corporate broadcasters like TSN and Rogers, people have to order expensive cable packages, which can run anywhere from $50 to $150 a month, depending on the package.  It is likely that Rogers will now force consumers to buy even more expensive packages in order to see their favourite teams, worried as it is that people are beginning to shift away from cable TV in the era of internet downloading.

The effect of this will be felt most by working people and families.  For better or worse, hockey is a significant part of the lives of many working people, including those who aren’t represented by the game’s mythology.  Sports, in general, continue to excite the imaginations of people from a variety of class backgrounds and, given the centrality of hockey in Canadian national consciousness, it is no surprise that working people often take solace and refuge from our daily struggles in the enjoyment of following our favourite teams in a fundamentally frivolous pursuit: putting a puck in a net.

The simplicity of the game can be a break from the complicated aggravations we go through from day to day, from deciphering credit card fee statements, to staying on the boss’s good side, to finding safe and affordable day care for our kids, to plugging the leak in the sink.  Sport gives us a temporary outlet from life’s harsh realities.  It gives us something simple to share with our friends and co-workers.  For first- and second-generation immigrant families, it can be a way of engaging with a new, often hostile, community.  For many of us, it is simply exciting and entertaining.

This shouldn’t lead us to romanticize professional hockey: it is still fundamentally a violent, patriarchal, elitist reflection of the racist Canadian ruling class.  But it is still an enjoyable distraction for many working people, who make up the majority of the NHL fan base.  It is working people who will then be most directly hurt by the Rogers deal, which represents a direct transfer of wealth from the poor and relatively poor to the already-astronomically wealthy.

Tyler Shipley teaches at Humber College and is the editor of Left Hook.  He watches Hockey Night in Canada for free with an antenna pointed at the CN Tower.  This article was originally published by BASICS Community News.

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Freedom to Oppress: Why We Shouldn’t Do P.R. For The Police

Freedom to Oppress: Why We Shouldn’t Do P.R. For The Police

Riaz Sayani-Mulji

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) hosted the first annual Toronto Police vs Artists hockey game on October 18th 2013, taking place at the Mattamy Rink in the fomer Maple Leaf Gardens. After the hockey game there was a panel discussion at the 519 Church Street Community Centre entitled “Freedom to Create: Art, Freedom of Expression and Power.”

In the lead up to the event, the CCLA asserted that, in the fallout of police brutality during the G20 protests, “animosity and generalizations [about the police] are not helpful.”  They added that this event was about “building bridges between communities that seem to share little common ground” and would be “an important step in dialogue.”

I, on the other hand, believe the exact opposite is true.

Last year, when I was running a youth basketball program in a low-income neighbourhood in Hamilton, Ontario, my managers proposed the idea of bringing in some police officers to the community centre to play basketball with the youth.

The managers thought this would be a fantastic way for these youth to “build bridges” with the police and to stop stereotyping all officers as “bad” individuals. My coworker and I, who incidentally were the only two people of colour in attendance at this meeting, were speechless.

I had to explain that the neighbourhood we were working in had been subjected to various efforts to “clean up the streets,” and this meant that the majority of youth had been stopped, harassed, intimidated, threatened, or assaulted by the police.

I had to explain that the youth in this area were often seen as “thugs” and “hoodlums,” and that because the majority of the youth attending the basketball program were youth of colour, this meant that they were even more likely to have had negative experiences with the police.

It was two years ago that Pamela Markland and her eight children in Hamilton were subjected to a police raid on their home that saw a flash grenade thrown at Pamela’s nine-year old son with autism, as well as the handcuffing of him and her other seven children. Earlier that year, 19-year old youth Andreas Chinnery was gunned down by Hamilton police in his East-end apartment. Most recently, Steve Mesic, a man suffering from anxiety who had checked himself out of a mental health care program at a local hospital, was found wandering through traffic on a highway, after which he was shot several times and killed just outside of his own home.

And these are just some of Hamilton’s publicized incidents of police violence – here in Toronto few can forget the devastating murder of Sammy Yatim that took place just this summer, or any of the others, like Junior Manon and O’Brien Christopher-Reid, both dead at the hands of the Toronto police.

Any person who has been through police violence will tell you how triggering it is to be around police officers. Or how when one’s family members, friends, or acquaintances have had negative experiences with police, those triggers can still exist.

So by bringing Hamilton police into a basketball gym with young people who have suffered at the police’s hands’, my managers would be jeopardizing the mental health and safety of the majority of players. They would be taking the basketball gym, a place that is a sanctuary for so many young people, and making it unsafe.

How do I know this? Well, when the idea was suggested, I thought the best thing to do would be to ask the youth what they thought about it. And the responses were unanimous. The police were not wanted.

When prompted, some youth spoke at length about their experiences being stopped and assaulted by police – others got a pained look in their eyes and simply said they wouldn’t be comfortable.

We also discussed why the non-profit organization I was working for and the Hamilton Police Services would be interested in partnering and having this basketball event. Not surprisingly, the youth at the gym had a pretty clear perception of its purpose: a publicity stunt for the non-profit and the police, who could claim they were “building community,” when in fact poor communities often have to rally together against police violence.  In fact, some of the youth rightly noted that the police might use the event to try to make friends with a few of the youth who they could then try to use as informants; quite the opposite of community building.

HockeyGamePosterNoDate-219

So back to the CCLA’s Toronto Police vs Artists hockey game. As in Hamilton, the event was framed as “building bridges” and “dialogue,” but I see nothing that would suggest this to be true, just as it wasn’t true for the young basketball players in Hamilton.

The CCLA exists to defend the human rights and civil liberties of Canadians, with a lot of their work focusing on the police. They ostensibly advocate on behalf of those affected most by police brutality, harassment, and violence – meaning people of colour, First Nations, Queers, people living around and under the poverty line, and sex workers.

As noted previously, many of the members of these groups would not feel safe at an event like this, as being around police is extremely triggering to survivors of police violence, as well as to those who have had friends, family members, and acquaintances hurt by the police.

A great deal would also not show up simply because those who have been, and continue to be, victimized by the police likely have no interest in playing hockey with them! Before they can even get to that point, there has to be accountability for the police’s actions and significant guarantees that these actions are going to change.

So how can the CCLA claim to have been “building bridges” when those that are the most important here – the survivors of police violence – weren’t included?

Now it’s not that dialogue with the police isn’t needed – it can be an integral part of the healing process. But, you can’t have a genuine dialogue when one side holds all the power and has shown no indication in sharing that power with the community it ostensibly exists to protect and serve.  And when that “dialogue” is not accompanied by substantial guarantees of change, recognition of past and ongoing abuses, and acknowledgment by the police that what they have done to our communities is destructive – it begs the question, who is the dialogue really serving?  Are those who have been victimized by the police actually benefiting from an event like this?

It makes me wonder whether the CCLA organizers recognized what a privilege it was to be able to put on and attend an event like this. Did they not look around and realize that the people who felt comfortable playing hockey alongside police tended to be those who have never had to experience police violence?

By hosting this event, which seemed like nothing more than a publicity stunt, the CCLA has alienated the people it exists to serve. Advocates and survivors of police violence in the community, who have been active for years on police accountability and transformation of policing in our society, expressed their concerns over this event. They saw it is an act of betrayal that directly undermines and discounts their work in rallying together and responding to police violence.

The CCLA heard their voices loud and clear – but instead of heeding the call of the survivors and the grassroots, and canceling the event, it went ahead as planned.

I’m sure they had a good turnout, with lots of photo-ops. And I’m sure in the discussions folks found common ground in their opinions about the police. It’s just a shame that the people who matter the most in the conversation were kept out.

Riaz Sayani-Mulji has been a youth worker in Hamilton for the past five years. He is currently a J.D. candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

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“Don’t Play With The Dictator:” Politics and 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus

“Don’t Play With The Dictator:” Politics and 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus

Mark Norman

Sporting mega-events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, despite claims by their organizers and boosters about the political neutrality of sport, are deeply enmeshed in political structures. In recent months, a number of these high profile events have drawn the ire of political activists, citizens, and some media precisely because of their political implications. Consider the following examples:

Each of these examples highlights some of the ways that sport is enmeshed in, and can contribute to, unequal power relations between individuals and groups in various societies around the world. Thankfully, sport mega-events are increasingly coming under public scrutiny and are having their politics examined in the press. However, there are many other examples of sport contributing to social injustice that are happening on a smaller scale. One such event, which has gained relatively little media attention (especially in North America), is the upcoming 2014 Men’s World Hockey Championships in Belarus.

belarus001089_565901-001

The 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships (commonly known as the World Hockey Championships) was awarded to Belarus in 2009. In many ways, the choice makes a great deal of sense: Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union, has never hosted a major international hockey tournament since gaining its independence in 1991; the country has enjoyed modest success in international men’s hockey and the sport enjoys a passionate following amongst Belarusians; and the country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, is a massive hockey fan who has spearheaded arena construction across the country. However, there is a dark side to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships – and, quietly, talk of moving the tournament to another country.

The controversy over Belarus’ hosting of the championships stems from the repressive rule of Lukashenko’s – who, under shady circumstances, has remained President of Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko’s regime has been marked by questionable elections, violent repression of opposition politicians, and other worrying authoritarian trends. Many media outlets, such as The Guardian, refer to Luksashenko’s Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Human Rights Watch summarizes the situation in Belarus as such:

The Belarusian government continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to fair trial. September 2012 parliamentary elections preserved the status quo, with a victory for parties allied with President Lukashenko. The opposition won no seats. New restrictive legislative amendments have paved the way for even more intense government scrutiny of civil society organizations and activists. Government harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers continues, including through arbitrary bans on foreign travel. Belarus detains a number of political prisoners. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist.

Lukashenko is, seemingly, genuinely a huge fan of hockey. However, he has also clearly tried to use the sport to bolster his image in Belarus and abroad. There are numerous examples of Lukashenko blurring the line between his hockey fandom and his attempts to cultivate a positive PR image. For example, in 2004, then-Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin celebrated his day with the Stanley Cup in Minsk – an event at which Lukashenko was conspicuous. As described, in fairly breathless tones, by the Hockey Hall of Fame:

When the plane touched down at the Minsk Airport, a throng of better than fifty media members awaited the Stanley Cup’s first ever moments in Belarus. . . . Khabibulin held a press conference at the airport, welcoming the Stanley Cup, then took the trophy to Junost, an arena in Minsk. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko donned hockey equipment and took to the ice along with members of the national team abetted by Nikolai Khabibulin in goal to face off against Junost Minsk. Teammates continually fed the president passes on the tape of his stick until at long last, he beat the netminder for Junost Minsk.

Lukashenko has made many other public appearances or statements relating to hockey. He takes an active interest in the dealings of Belarus’ only Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, Dinamo Minsk, opining in a 2013 interview about whether the team should remain in the KHL or join another league. In 2001, the President participated in a friendly – and well publicized – hockey match in Moscow, which pitted Belarusian and Russian athletes and politicians against each other. And in 2011, after a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Lukashenko inserted himself prominently into Dinamo Minsk’s tribute to the fallen team, skating on the ice in a Belarus hockey jersey accompanied by his young son:

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Lukashenko is well aware of the possibility for politicians to turn sport to their own ends, having once stated that “sport is diplomacy and politics. Actually no, it’s great politics, especially ice hockey.” Given Lukashenko’s passion for and political relationship with hockey, the awarding of the 2014 World Championships to Belarus must have been a great coup for the President – and it has spurred him to approve the construction of dozens of expensive and impressive hockey arenas across the country. However, now that his regime is facing criticism about its human rights record and calls for the championship to be moved, Lukashenko is doing an about-face and falling back on the oft-cited claim that sport is divorced from politics:

Last year [Lukashenko] dismissed the threat of a Western boycott as “pure politicking”.

“This is a purely politicised process, and it has nothing to do with sports,” Lukashenko insisted. “And if [a boycott] happens, this will be a blow to the world hockey federation’s image. Belarus deserves this championship.”

Yet, the 2014 World Championships are intimately connected with Lukashenko’s political regime. Viorel Ursu and Joanna Hosa of the Open Society European Policy Institute write that:

Ice hockey is highly political in Belarus. Its president, a renowned hockey player and self-confessed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is using hockey to play for legitimacy. . . .

For a country popularly known as home to “the last dictator of Europe,” there was surprisingly little outrage in 2009 when Belarus was awarded the right to organize the championship. Some saw it as a chance to open up Belarus and its economy. René Fasel, the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), was determined to focus on sport. He praised Belarus as a “hockey nation” and said he is always happy to go to Minsk. . . .

Despite [efforts to move the tournament], Fasel confirmed the decision to hold the games in Minsk. He fell back on the dogma that “sport cannot and should not be a political tool”, ignoring the reality that his sport is already highly politicised, and a tool for one of the most infamous regimes in Europe.

Lukashenka is using the championship to boost his image, both externally and internally. In May 2012 he assured his parliamentarians that Belarus is ready to host the games and welcome foreign fans. He added that foreigners believe lies on the Internet, but once they come and see Belarus for themselves, they will discover that it is a beautiful, modern country and that there are no “bears and no evil sabre-rattling dictator rambling in the streets of Minsk.”

There are encouraging signs of opposition to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships. Paavo Arhinmyaki, Finland’s Minister of Sports and Culture, last year called upon the IIHF to consider moving the tournament if Lukashenko continued his political repression. A number of German politicians made similar calls. Peter Stastny, a former NHL star and current Member of the European Parliament for Slovakia, has also spoken out on the issue, saying:

Ice hockey championships is like the Olympics, it’s a matter of prestige and I don’t personally want ice hockey to be associated with the dictator in Belarus.

Meanwhile, a campaign named “Don’t Play With the Dictator” is working to have the World Championships moved unless Belarus addresses its human rights abuses. The campaign, which is supported by a number of international human rights NGOs, states on its website:

To hold the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus would support and legitimatise a regime which violates the human rights of the people of Belarus in an alarming way.

We urge the IIHF and the representatives of the national IIHF member organisations to support the victims of human rights violations by removing the 2014 IIHF World Championship from Belarus.

The 2014 IIHF World Championship should only take place in Belarus after the Government of Belarus has:

- released all political prisoners unconditionally

-  introduced a moratorium or abolished the death penalty

- stopped the use of violence, ill-treatment and torture against peaceful protestors and prisoners

- abolished criminal code article 193.1

- ensured the registration of independent NGOs and democratic political parties in a fair, impartial and transparent manner

- stopped the persecution, harassment and intimidation of dissidents

- fully rehabilitated all those prosecuted for political reasons

It is encouraging to see a movement emerge to contest the Lukashenko regime and its attempts to bolster its legitimacy through hosting the World Hockey Championships. However, it remains to be seen whether the campaign will have any success – certainly, a relocation of a tournament scheduled to take place in six months seems unlikely, and a boycott by any participating countries even more remote. That being said, last month Lukashenko himself admitted the possibility of a boycott or relocation.

Even if it is unsuccessful in moving the World Championships, the campaign still has an opportunity to raise awareness of Belarus’ human rights abuses and leverage the tournament to pressure politicians into pushing for the Lukashenko regime to reform its practices. Raising widespread public consciousness of Belarus’ human rights record, while certainly not enough to change it, is certainly an important step in pushing for change.

That being said, when the cameras roll, the crowd cheers, the national anthems play, and the puck drops to open the tournament, will the lives of Belarusian citizens and activists be improved or look more hopeful? That question will be central to determining whether or not the campaign against the Lukashenko government and its hosting of the World Championships has been able to make a difference.

Mark Norman is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures.  This article first appeared at Hockey in Society on October 14, 2013.

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Carlos Delgado and the Less-Comfortable Legacy

Carlos Delgado and the Less-Comfortable Legacy

Tyler Shipley

Earlier this season, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured former star player Carlos Delgado by adding his name to the “Level of Excellence” along the rafters of the Skydome, in a fitting tribute to a player who put up consistent all-star numbers over many seasons with the sometimes truly dismal Blue Jays of the 90s and 2000s.  But among the many individual accolades that Delgado was remembered for, notably absent was any significant discussion of the fact that Delgado was an outspoken advocate for peace.

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To be more precise, Delgado opposed wars of imperialism and injustice.  The Puerto Rican athlete was an activist against the U.S. occupation of his homeland, taking particular exception to the fact that the U.S. navy tested conducted bombing practice off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which left the area physically and socially devastated, and which led to the killing of a civilian in 1999 by an errant bomb.  After the killing, Delgado connected with Ismael Guadalupe of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and got involved in the demonstrations against the Navy in Puerto Rico and the United States.  Under pressure from Delgado and others, the Navy ceased the bombings, but the mess they left remained: “you’re dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally,” Delgado said.  “This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven’t cleaned the place up yet.”

The very fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony is one that is rarely discussed; indeed, the self-proclaimed beacon of world freedom is a direct colonial power in an era where imperialism is typically more carefully concealed as “humanitarian intervention.”  Delgado, like the many Puerto Ricans with whom he demonstrated during the Navy-Vieques Protests in the early 2000s, did not consider the occupation benign.

But Delgado’s activism and awareness was even broader than that.  Understanding that imperialism was a system, he saw it at work in George Bush’s post-9/11 wars, especially in the occupation of Iraq, which he called “the stupidest war ever.”  Delgado quite rightly recognized that, in the early 2000s, professional sports was a key arena for building patriotic consent to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; suddenly, every ballpark in Major League Baseball was directing its fans and players to sing “God Bless America,” and pay tribute to the dead of 9/11 and the soldiers killed in American wars.  Delgado refused to participate, staying in the dugout or the dressing room during the singing.

“It’s a terrible thing that happened on 9/11.  It is a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war.  But I think it’s the stupidest war ever… You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction.  Where are they at?  You’ve been looking for over a year.  Can’t find them.  I don’t support that.  I don’t support what they do.  I think it’s just stupid… I’m not pro-war.  I’m anti-war.  I’m for peace.”

He was booed heartily by fans across the league and especially in New York.  But as he put it, the simple fact that you are a celebrity athlete does not mean that you cease to be “part of society.”  Carlos Delgado, despite intense pressure from the media, the fans, and no doubt some members of the Blue Jays organization, consistently stayed in the dugout during the singing of “God Bless America,” because he understood that it was part of the project to convince people that it was necessary and legitimate for the U.S. to invade, conquer and control Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it had done in Puerto Rico.

Delgado’s Legacy

Hats off to Carlos Delgado, to be sure.  But what is to be said of his legacy in Toronto?  Many Canadians agree with Delgado’s assessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would likely applaud his courage in standing up for his beliefs.  This is certainly reflected in the fact that much of the reporting of Delgado’s ceremony this July talked about his refusal to stand for “God Bless America” and typically gave him credit for sticking to his convictions.

But it was often only a brief mention, a sidenote in a story that was really about home runs, hip surgeries and the money he gave to charity.   It is hard not to think that this mild discomfort with Delgado’s anti-imperialist legacy stems from the fact that Canada is now delving deeper and deeper into its own imperial wars and is participating in precisely the same patriotic militarism that Delgado stood so firmly against.  Indeed, there is a rather twisted irony in the fact that the same writers who commend Delgado for his stand against “God Bless America” have yet to say a word against the Blue Jays’ new “Sunday Salute,” in which a member of the Canadian military is brought onto the field and honoured for their contribution to one or another of Canada’s wars.

Would Carlos Delgado have celebrated Canada’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan?  Would he have paid tribute to Canadian pilots who dropped bombs on Libyans?  Would he have stood on ceremony for the General who bragged that the role of the Canadian forces was “to kill people?”  Would he have honoured Canadian troops who overthrew the democratic President of Haiti and trained the police to liquidate his supporters?  Would he be proud of the Canadians who have facilitated and whitewashed the torture and assassination of social movement activists in Honduras?

The answer, I think, is that Carlos Delgado would not have happily paid tribute to a Canadian military that now behaves in a manner indistinguishable from that of the U.S. military he has opposed consistently throughout his adult life.

Bigger than Baseball

Delgado’s hero, fellow countryman Roberto Clemente, similarly refused to abandon his politics in favour of his celebrity.  He insisted that his name remain Roberto – not Americanized to “Bobby” – and he continued playing ball in Puerto Rico while he was a Major Leaguer.  He called out racism in the sports media: “you’re trying to create a bad image of me… you do it because I’m black and Puerto Rican, but I’m proud to be Puerto Rican.”  He was a leader in the baseball players union.  He died in 1972 while trying to directly deliver aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua after discovering that the U.S.-supporter Somoza dictatorship was hijacking aid shipments.

Carlos Delgado was inspired not just by Clemente’s ability to play ball.  “People thought he was a good player,” said Delgado in 2009, “but the stuff he did off the field goes beyond the 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame.”  As Clemente said, “anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”  That insistence that politics and activism were bigger than baseball is what has set apart athletes like Clemente and Delgado and for that they certainly deserve to be honoured.

But the fact that the Blue Jays used this season to honour both Carlos Delgado and the Canadian military demonstrates the extent to which the organization actually rejects Delgado’s true legacy.  Indeed, they even went as far as to celebrate Delgado’s legacy on Sunday, a few innings separated from the “Sunday Salute” itself.  They absurdity is patent; not one of Carlos Delgado’s 473 home runs was nearly as significant as his decision to use his role as a Major League star to take a principled stand against imperialism.  And yet in the very act of honouring Delgado, the Blue Jays are undermining his legacy, but attempting to dilute it back into being simply about baseball and charity.

Tyler Shipley teaches at York University and is the editor of Left Hook.  He is a Blue Jays fan, but he will be outside the Skydome on Sunday, September 15 to protest the “Sunday Salute.”  All are invited to join him.

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