Fangs out, Luisito! FIFA, Violence, Luis Suárez, Colonialism, Biting, and Blood

Fangs out, Luisito!  FIFA, Violence, Luis Suárez, Colonialism, Biting, and Blood

Tyler Shipley

Could there be any greater crime that the one Luis Suárez has committed? I am referring, of course, to the fact that he unapologetically led Uruguay to defeating and eliminating both England and Italy from the World Cup. That he not only scored twice against England but did so with a mischievous grin on his face. That he not only knocked out two European football giants but, indeed, he enjoyed it, he relished it, he showed the Europeans none of the respect that they feel entitled to by virtue of being European.

He was, in that sense, refusing to be a good colonial subject, refusing to be thankful for being included in the tournament, grateful for the privilege to play, respectful of the rules and norms, humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Rather, he had the nerve to be brash, cocky, and even a little bitey in the face of his “betters.”

None of this, of course, would be spoken aloud by the European and North American (and especially English) press and pundits who have declared all-out war on Luis Suárez since the late stages of Uruguay’s match with Italy. None of it would be part of FIFA’s disciplinary sentencing. Instead, they have all hammered the drum of “sportsmanship” and “class” and claimed that Suárez’s behaviour has no place in the game. And of course the behaviour they are supposedly talking about is biting.

The Daily Mirror were taunting Luis Suárez about teeth and biting even before the incident with Chiellini.  This headline was from days earlier, after Suárez scored twice to knock England out of the World Cup.  Is Luis Suárez "obsessed" with biting or is the English press "obsessed" with Luis Suárez?

The Daily Mirror were taunting Luis Suárez about teeth and biting even before the incident with Chiellini. This headline was from days earlier, after Suárez scored twice to knock England out of the World Cup. Is Luis Suárez “obsessed” with biting or is the English press “obsessed” with Luis Suárez?

Yes, by now it is the vicious chomp heard round the world: the vampiric barbarian, gnashing his teeth and cannibalizing his opponent in a ruthless display that drags the beautiful game into some savage period of uncivilized pre-history. “He’s an animal!” they cry. “How can we explain this to our children?!” The English press has said that Suárez has mental health problems. That he has a deep-rooted “biting obsession.” That he is a child. That he should be kicked out of football for life.  FIFA has banned Suárez from all football activity for four months, concerned about the example his behaviour sets for “the eyes of millions of people on the stars on the pitch.”

And yet, colonial narratives notwithstanding, the video hardly lives up to its billing. No amount of camera technology can find a moment that shows anything more than an awkward head thrust and a nibble, at best, on the Italian defenders shoulder. If Suarez had hoped for a meal, what he got was a paltry hors d’oeuvre. How typically European.

Yes, Giorgio Chiellini put on a brilliant performance, his exposed shoulder sure to ignite the roars of indignant talking heads desperate for an excuse to attack Suárez. But it must be admitted that Chiellini was in no way injured, not even slightly. He stayed in the match, his lazy and underachieving defending unaffected by Suárez’s fangs, and indeed despite his dramatic performance he couldn’t even produce any blood for the carnival of moral outrage to draw upon. What kind of savage bite fails to break the skin?

Arguably, it doesn’t matter whether the bite was successful or not. Suárez has a “history” of biting. Indeed, he has twice flashed his incisors at opposing players and in both those cases they were much more effective in at the very least breaking some skin. And while no violent bite can be found in the tape of Suárez and Chiellini, it is clear that Luis intends some kind of contact, a headbutt or a bite, even if he didn’t accomplish it well. So yes, it is undeniable that when Suárez gets upset and wants to get an edge over an opponent, biting is in his repertoire.

Just as cleat-stomping is in Claudio Marchisio’s. He was red carded in the same match for driving the spikes of his boots into an Uruguayan leg. And yet, no tribunals and show trials and media assassinations against Marchisio. No calls for an end to his sponsorship and a ban from FIFA. No moral outrage, no pathologizing his infancy to find his “history” of using his spikes, no significant reaction at all. In fact, unless you saw the match, I bet you hadn’t heard about it. While I don’t want to have anyone’s teeth nip into my shoulder, I would certainly prefer that to having three metal spikes aggressively driven into my calf, especially if that calf was essential for my football career.

Claudio Marchisio's name has not been on the lips of pundits this week, despite having stomped his metal cleats into the calf of Egidio Arévalo in the same match as the Great Nibble.

Claudio Marchisio’s name has not been on the lips of pundits this week, despite having stomped his metal cleats into the calf of Egidio Arévalo in the same match as the Great Nibble.

Indeed, beyond the hysteria about Luisito’s dancing teeth, it is a fact that football is replete with violent challenges and injury-inducing clashes, many of which have left players significantly more affected than anything Suarez can do with his mouth. Chiellini himself threw several aggressive challenges during the match, not the least of which was his elbow to the face of Suárez. Portuguese defender Pepe headbutted Thomas Muller in their match last week, and that same Muller was once punched in the face by then-teammate and current media darling Arjen Robben. We could take it beyond the pitch and observe other forms of violence that aren’t eliciting four-month suspensions: European fans have been showing up at Ghana matches in blackface. A neo-Nazi ran onto the pitch during a match last week. Eclipsing all of this is the violence that has been perpetrated by FIFA and the Brazilian state against poor Brazilians, who have been ignored, attacked, evicted, and in some cases killed in order to facilitate the World Cup, as documented by Dave Zirin and many others.

So why is Suarez the man receiving draconian punishment and public shaming?

Maybe the explanation can partly be found in what he represents in football. Though he is by no means the first player to occupy this role, Luis Suárez is perhaps the standout example of a contemporary footballer who is undeniably one of the greatest strikers in the game, despite working class roots in the slums of Montevideo that made his rise to prominence anything but a sure thing. The odds were stacked so powerfully against him that the whole thing must still, at times, seem like a mistake or a miracle or both to Luis Suárez, the fourth of seven children from a broken home in one of the world’s many and massive urban slums.

In fact, his story is heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure, and is well told here. For Luisito, like millions of children in the global south, football was his ticket to a better life. More than that, it was the only way he could be with his partner, Sofia, whose family had provided Luis with stability and support through his difficult youth. When Sofia’s family moved to Europe, Luis knew that the only way he could be near them would be to play his way into a European league.

He did just that, but it was not easy. At several moments along the way, when his chances seemed like they might slip away, his desperation was manifest in outbursts of relatively minor violence. A headbutt against a referee in Uruguay, a bite to an opponent in the Dutch league.  Understandable and minor, yes, but these are nevertheless not moments for Suárez to be proud of.

Indeed, making a saint of Luis Suárez is neither an easy nor appropriate task. His reputation was further marred by an incident in 2011 in which Suárez called Patrice Evra “negrito,” a term which in Spanish can be used as endearment. Suárez’s grandfather was black and was called “negrito” by his grandmother. But mestizo culture in Latin America contains a kind of ingrained and normalized racism that, in all likelihood, was the real motivation behind Suarez’s outburst. Suárez would not be the first mestizo player to express this brand of racism and it cannot be excused, though it should be distinguished as different from more hateful and violent forms of white supremacist racism.*

It is clear, then, that Luis Suárez is not an ideal role model. He, like so many of us, is a product of his society and, as such, he is flawed and troubled as are we all. Nevertheless, his life simultaneously reflects a beautiful story of love and redemption and possibility. The joy that often exudes from him on the pitch is palpable, the charm and charisma of his public persona in Uruguay is captivating, and the unabashed love he exhibits towards his family is impossible to deny or find fault. One look at his beaming smile can tell anyone with a modicum of sensitivity that his warmth and love are real. And so too is his darker side and the desperation and anxiety that compel it into being, albeit that desperation should be understood as a product of social dynamics, not individual psychosis.

There is something profoundly honest about Luis Suárez, for better and for worse, and ultimately for better. It is precisely his moments of weakness, violent yes but not radically so, that make him so compelling. Fundamentally, it’s not ok to bite another person. But then, fundamentally, it’s not ok to ask a child to grow up in desperation. Which is the greater crime? Should we judge all people by the same moral yardstick, or should we first ask who built the yardstick and why it is so flattering to its designers? Why are some forms of violence acceptable and others not? Does the context of Luis Suárez’s life change the way we understand his hunger for Italian defenders?

I believe it does. The football establishment, stodgy and conservative and colonial, does not like Luis Suárez. They don’t like his nerve, his unpredictability, his irreverence, or his protruding front teeth. They don’t like that he combines those qualities with almost impossible skill. They prefer Giorgio Chiellini, privileged boy from Livorno who graduated with honours, holds a business degree, and is embedded amongst the shadowy fascism that dogs Italian football and especially Chiellini’s Juventus club.

But I think it is fair to ask the question why does Luis Suárez occasionally bite his opponents? What motivates these acts of violence? It is clear that – for all his flaws – his occasional outbursts are not motivated by hatred.

In fact, it is worth concluding on the thought that the relatively minor acts of aggression that has Suárez has registered – recall that his recent nibble was not even the most violent act of that match, never mind the broader footballing world – are at least partially motivated by that early desperation to escape from poverty and isolation. How ironic that FIFA should heavy-hand down a sharp punishment against Suárez for an act that has its roots in poverty, while FIFA is responsible for acts of aggression against impoverished Brazilians that are almost incalculable. Indeed, the entire infrastructure of the corporate spectacle that is the World Cup is a bloodsucking affair wherein FIFA, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and their friends suck wealth out of Brazil, physically attack anyone who resists their will, and build stadiums on top of the rubble that will be empty decaying symbols of the wealth that International Football stole from Brazil for decades to come.

Luis Suárez was supposed to be one of the poor kids who would be buried underneath the World Cup. Instead, he found love and he found a family and he found football and determined that he would not, under any circumstances, give them up. He rose, instead, to the top of the World Cup, defied the colonial narratives and defeated the English and Italians before being kicked out of the tournament. Along the way, he made some poor judgement calls. But he made them for reasons that are infinitely more forgivable than much of the violence that takes place in football.

And, so far in this World Cup, he has yet to draw blood from his opponents. That is more than can be said of the organization that has passed down his sentence.

Tyler Shipley is the editor of Left Hook.

* Author’s note: after publishing this piece, it was rightly called to my attention that this paragraph served to trivialize and dismiss mestizo racism and the use of the term “negrito” as hurtful racial abuse.  This was not at all my intention, but on reflection, the critique is absolutely fair and I owe a sincere and significant apology for the careless way this paragraph was written. I am familiar with the way the term is used in Central America, if not specifically in Uruguay, and I should have known better than to be so callous in my dismissal. What I was trying to do – ineffectively, in retrospect – was distinguish between acts and expressions of white supremacist racism, on the one hand, and manifestations of racism that emerge out of the colonial experience and the creation of racial hierarchies “beneath” whiteness, on the other. Mestizo racism towards black or indigenous people in Latin America is a product of the position mestizos held in the colonial hierarchy. Mestizos themselves, however, regularly find themselves the subjects of white racism in other contexts. In that sense, my point was to try to complicate Suarez’s location in the ongoing racist legacy of colonialism, whereby people who are subject to colonial racism are encouraged to replicate those dynamics along a complicated and deeply problematic hierarchy.

However, I did not articulate that point clearly, not at all. Instead, in my haste to respond to British tabloids which have capitalized on Suarez’s racism to justify their own attacks on him, I trivialized and downplayed a serious and hurtful piece of Suarez’s history and indeed of Uruguayan and world history. I have understood the term “negrito” to be very context-dependant. Since “negro” translates simply as “black,” it is sometimes used as a self-identifier (as in the case of an organization in Honduras called the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña). Nevertheless, I know that it is also used as racial abuse, to maintain the social distinctions within communities, and to hurt people. It was incredibly careless of me to slide past this without more emphasis, and I apologize to all who have read and been hurt by that.

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Bosnia’s Long March to World Cup 2014

Bosnia’s Long March to World Cup 2014

Morgan Radbourne and Justin Panos

It took just one goal by Vedad Ibisevic against Lithuania on October 15th to send Europe’s most impoverished state, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to the World Cup for the first time ever.

The qualification, in the eyes of many ardent supporters, may signal the greatest achievement of the young country since the defence of Sarajevo between 1992-1995 from siege forces who sought to ethnically partition the country between Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Veteran war correspondent, Ed Vulliamy of the London Observer, calls the Bosnian national team the ‘first truly’ multi-ethnic organization in the country. Indeed, the unification of Bosnians behind the ‘Dragons’ is a novelty in a region where the sport has typically been an extension of hard-liners and social factionalism.

Explosive street clashes in Bosnia have recently occurred between police and locals for whom the government has long ceased to be a representative body. The ongoing street protests emblematize the repressed reality Bosnian citizens inhabit, wherein government office is a proverbial fiefdom feeding the greed of politicos and their cronies. Privatization of state enterprises that were operated in the public good has led to a massive haemorrhaging of jobs in the country and Bosnian workers have formed local plenums in an attempt to wrestle decision-making from unrepresentative governments back to the localities and shop floors.

Today, cities like Brcko are literally under water. The floods near the border of Serbia and Bosnia-Hercegovina have dislocated entire communities while the neglect of governmental bodies gets uglier and more alarming by the day.

The evolution of Bosnian’s national football is bound up in the larger political uprisings as people collectively strive for alternatives to the current configuration of state power and private monopolies that are stifling human development.

From what we saw, the Dragons are leading the people in a positive direction while the government, disfigured by the US-imposed Dayton agreements of 1995 that has entrenched division and maladministration, pulls the citizens into a deeper darkness.

The night they qualified, back in October, we were walking down Marsala Tito street, the main thoroughfare in Sarajevo, watching the fans climb storefront walls and atop street lights, amid smoke and music, laughter and chanting, as empty bottles of Sarajevsko ale kicked about our feet. A sense of united national pride was practically palpable. Providing an upsurge to the celebrations that carried on throughout the night, the victory coincided with Eid al-Adha, a holiday in Bosnia. The fans and citizens were elated about their country’s performance and its prospect on a world stage, an exceedingly rare thing.

Bosnia versus USA friendly, 4-3 USA, August 14, 2013

Bosnia versus USA friendly, 4-3 USA, August 14, 2013

Although the Dragon’s chances are decent in the World Cup’s first round, the fate of the country, which suffers from a deep constitutional impasse, is far from a fairy tale ending. The team has a multi-ethnic roster and coaching staff, a high-powered offence (30 goals in qualifiers) and has a growing fan base outside of Bosnia. Meanwhile, politicians shore up party support by appealing to the cheapest form of ethnic populism and run exclusionary local governments that are harmful to the wider body politic.

The first post-war census, conducted early this past fall, was riddled with error, tampering and sabotage. Political leadership hoping to inflate population growth as proof of ethnic dominance announced false results to their constituencies. At the time of writing, despite fanfare from all parties, no official results have been made public. The problems of ethnic-politicking go beyond the census. School systems of the regions, which offer ethnically specific curriculum, are failing to bridge the gaps that are dividing civic society.

Before the World Cup celebrations, the last time Bosnians took to the streets, was during June 2013’s ‘Baby Revolution’. Thousands gathered and blockaded the Bosnian parliament after MP’s failed to address the disturbing legal gap that left babies born after February without passports or medical cards. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks formed a human circle around the parliament that kept the 1500 MPs and government employees locked inside.

A request by unrelenting Serb MPs to issue new and unique sets of ID numbers to Serb children was a wedge issue in the legislative assembly for two long years. Bosniak and Croat MPs refused the special accommodation and gridlock ensued. The constitutional court of Bosnia intervened to force a solution when it suspended the registration of newborns leaving them without proof of citizenship, ability to travel or access emergency services outside of the country.

Explaining the political situation, or, Bosnian politics as war by other means.

The ID card issue was only the latest manifestation of a political crisis that has been playing out since Bosnia declared independence in May 1991, which is arguably as long as a lot of World Cup spectators have been alive and cheering.

A grossly asymmetrical war broke out in Bosnia between 1992-1995. Bosnian Serb forces, comprised of the former Yugoslav National Army, irregular forces, and superior control of weapons caches, had 10 times the armaments the Bosnians had at the outset. Resisting them were a mainly Muslim rank-and-file but with many Serbs and Croats fighting against ethnically-pure partition. Bosnian Serbs desired territorial separation and integration into ‘Greater Serbia’.

Gradually, a tunnel system and clandestine networks helped the Bosnian Armed Forces achieve a military parity with the Serb forces suffering from increasing demoralisation and desertion, as well as protest within Belgrade. The UN more or less facilitated the war and had disarmed many of the pockets of the populations in areas known as ‘safe-zones’ that were inevitably slaughtered. The international community had imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, limiting Bosnian capacities from the outset, while NATO enforced a No-Fly Zone over the former Yugoslavia.

While the massacres at Srebrenica dominated the headlines in 1995, the narrative of Bosnians as victims peddled by the international press disguised the fact that Bosnians were taking back significant portions of the country between 1994-1995. Srebrenica was a savage attack on a defenceless population and arguably a vicious reprisal attack for their failure of Bosnian Serbs to take ‘Safe-Area’ Gorazde in a previous campaign. Indeed, it must be remembered that Bosnians defended the city of Sarajevo for the entirety of the war, never allowing the occupying forces to move beyond Grbavica. (A borough of Sarajevo)

Nonetheless, the outrage of Srebrenica provided the pretext for America’s unilateral involvement under the cloak of ‘humanitarian intervention’, and led by Richard Holbrooke in fostering a peace treaty signed in Dayton, Ohio by all belligerent sides. The widely unpopular Dayton Agreement is a glorified cease-fire and more or less entrenched the balance of forces as they existed in 1995. It continues to shape Bosnian politics to this day. The Serbian separatists were ensured 49% of the country’s landmass by the deal and formed a quasi-autonomous statelet known as ‘Republika Srpska’ that exists awkwardly within the Bosnian borders.

The obstructionism at the heart of Bosnian politics is based on this constitutionalized balance of power. It invariably boded ill for Bosnian football in the aftermath of war.

Football Hooligans at the Front Lines of War

The political manipulation of football in the Balkans is a time-tested tradition. Before the Bosnian war and of course throughout it.

Way back in the day, to spur legitimacy and support, the Fascist regime of Croatia fielded its first national team in 1941. International matches were played among the Axis states like Italy, Germany, Croatia and Hungary.

As a non-aligned regional bloc formed after World War II, Yugoslavia distinguished itself from Western capitalism and the Warsaw states of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia’s first and only leader, Josip Broz Tito, organized the anti-fascist resistance in WWII called the Partisans, which gave birth to the Yugoslav federation. He sought to further unify the six nations through popular organisations such as the Yugoslav national football team, in ‘brotherhood and unity’. Four years after the Tito-Stalin split of 1948, which divorced Yugoslavia from the USSR, the two federations met in the 1952 Summer Olympics. Yugoslavia staged a dramatic comeback against the Soviets to tie them 5-5 and then went on to beat them in aggregates, winning the second leg 3-1.

Children from all over Yugoslavia idolised the players of Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk. The football league was heavily subsidized by the Yugoslav state during the communist era. According to the director of FK Vojvodina, Cvetko Ridosic, football programs were included in municipal and local budgets. The Communist Party poured money into all levels of the game from the lower to the premier leagues.

The intimate link between politics, football, and the building of Yugoslavia is given in the names of the premier clubs in Yugoslavia—Red Star (on the flag) and Partizan, Spartak (derivative of Spartacus)  and Dinamo (a name given to sports programmes by the Soviet political police). Meanwhile, clubs that accentuated nationalist sentiments in their names were forcibly disbanded shortly after the Communists seized power in 1945.

Red Star, however, always had the dormant strains of Serbian folklore among its supporters, which crystallised into a full-fledged nationalist-revivalist ideology by the late 1980s, immortalised in the chant “Red Star Serbia, never Yugoslavia”. Such slogans were more audible in the mid-1980s when the policing of political opposition in Yugoslavia was relaxed and while Glasnost and Perestroika (‘Openness’ and ‘Transparency’) were being implemented in the Soviet Union.

But when Croatia sought to dissolve its ties to Yugoslavia, it withdrew its players from the once-revered Yugoslav national team. Five Croatian clubs and a Slovenian team exited permanently from the Yugoslav league. As evidence of its fledging nationhood, Croatia fielded a team, unacknowledged by UEFA and FIFA, against the United States in 1990.

During the 1990s, football matches were an emergent front in the war between Serbia and Croatia.

On May 13, 1990 a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade became emblematic of the hostilities between states and the transformation of beloved football clubs into organs of paramilitary violence. Unlike the hooliganistic rampages of supporters across Europe, the clashes between Red Star and Dinamo Zagreb were intensely political and as one commentator put it, “bore the hallmarks of a planned campaign”.

Upon entering Maksimir Stadium, supporters became uproariously violent, reaching for pre-placed rocks and acid so as to burn through the barriers dividing the fans. While chanting, “we will kill Tudjman!” Serb fans tore down billboards both to attack Croatian fans and shield themselves from the barrage of rocks being volleyed by Croats. (Franjo Tudjman was Croatia’s first president)

Dismayed by the apparent slow response of Yugoslav police in subduing Red Star fans, the team captain from Dinamo Zagreb, Zvonimir Boban, hurled forth a flying kick to a cop and subsequently came to the aid of a Dinamo fan receiving a hailstorm of punches from another officer. Boban’s tempestuousness rendered him a national hero in Croatia even though he received a ban from football. Since the system of repression—police, military, government, and media—was perceived by Croats to be dominated by Serbians, Tudjman vowed to limit Serb access to these jobs.

Standing beside the Red Star coach during the entire melee was Zeljko Raznatovic, known ominously by his nom de guerre, Arkan.  In 1990,  Arkan had become the head of Delije, the Red Star supporters club. According to one report “When Arkan founded the Serbian volunteer Guard, known as the Tigers, the core of his militia was made up of young men from Delije.” On the Croat side, Tudjman, the former president of Partizan Belgrade, had financial linkages through his ultra-chauvinist party, HDZ, to the Bad Blue Boys, the supporters who led the riots against Red Star fans. The Bad Blue Boys were some of the first to enlist in the incipient Croatian territorial defence forces who sought to defend Vukovar from Arkan and his irregular forces. Vukovar was inevitably levelled by Serbian forces and the road signs vulgarly displayed at a subsequent Red Star home game.

It was Arkan, through his criminal networks of football hooligans and mobsters, that organized out of Delije the Serbian irregulars who first stormed into Northern and Eastern Bosnia. The irregulars maimed, thieved, looted, raped and murdered the unsuspecting inhabitants of Bosnia. The mobilization of Arkan’s White Tigers and other paramilitary forces that were extrusions of Belgrade bears witness to the criminality at the heart of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s. Scholars like Peter Andreas, in his Blue Helmets, Black Markets, have highlighted how explaining the war solely by ‘ancient hatreds’ ignores how the outbreak and persistence of the war was based on a “hierarchy of looters” from Arkan’s White Tigers to Serbian Chetniks and the White Eagles that “sustained themselves through theft, ransoms, and trafficking in contraband.” Indeed, it isn’t a stretch to say that the most heinous irregulars that perpetrated the war’s worst crimes cut their teeth in the violent Serbian/Croatian football culture of the late 1980s.

Football as Normalcy amid the Madness

Picture a city of humble and unarmed inhabitants in a deep valley. Now picture the same city rapidly encircled by 13,000 soldiers of the 5th largest army in Europe perched in the normally serene hilltops shooting wildly at anything that moved below. Picture still flaming mortars and constant sniper fire everyday for over 1000 days as people scrambled to locate water, cigarettes and bread. The architecture deformed. Daily life halted. Happiness cruelly eclipsed. That was Sarajevo from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996.

To the outside world, Bosnians were largely cast as hapless victims by the international press, who sensationalized images of a child cut down by a sniper’s bullet or some food queues obliterated by an enemy mortar. But if one looks beyond the conventional portrayal of tormented Bosniaks, the images of the war reveal women collecting water in their finest furs, female soldiers with lipstick of vivid shade. Interspersing the reports of atrocities are the stories of football games held in orphanages, kids doing passing drills in the hallways.

Too often the agency and individual forms of resistance are indeed omitted from the narrative of war. In Beseiged, Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street, Barbara Demick describes how Sarajevans used football to maintain a sense of normalcy amid the craziness. Logavina is a radial street off of Masala Tito drive where Demick lived for 2 years of the siege. In her book, she emphasizes how Vrbanjusa, Logavina’s youth football team brought the outdoor game inside to dodge the constant shelling of the city. Shielded in a local orphanage the players morphed the game by fielding 5 instead of the usual 11 players per side to fit their dreary new digs.

The team shrunk. Literally. With a scarce food supply and price gouging on the black market the size of the boys diminished. In addition to getting smaller physically, the team was decreasing in numbers as players were sporadically cut down by sniper bullets, shrapnel and infectious disease.

“One member was shot in the stomach by a sniper, another grazed by anti-aircraft fire. Four of the best players had fled Sarajevo. One had become a star with a team in Stuttgart, Germany. Two other players were out sick with hepatitis – probably the result of Sarajevo’s tainted water system.”

Vrbanjusa played their matches on the other side of the Milijacka River–which runs through the whole city–in UN territory. Despite the siege, local teams still gathered together to square off. In February 1994, they managed to hold the Bosnian Winter Cup, against the odds.

The Bosnian Winter Cup was a testament of sorts to how much football had suffered because of the occupation but also a symbol of how the popular organisations that Tito had tried to foster were still resilient. Demick describes an outdoor game in April 1993 held to memorialize the liberation of Sarajevo from Nazi occupation. Five were killed from an enemy shell. Before that, in 1991, Vrbanjusa was playing in Pale (newly consecrated capital of the Bosnian Serb entity), when the announcement of an Orthodox Serb for the Bosnian side was made, the 11-year old was blasted as a ‘traitor’ and a barrage of sibilants were directed at him.

The boys of Vrbanjusa were seemingly oblivious to the nationalistic agendas of the politicians and armed forces. They still revered players from Red Star Belgrade, who had won the European Cup in 1991, even though the team’s owner was at the apex of the paramilitary forces ransacking parts of Bosnia. Vrbanjusa coach, Coach Tica, told Demick that “I still keep the ball here [a ball autographed by the Euro Cup ’91 Champs, Red Star] I’ve always felt sports should not be mixed with politics… Its the same way with the kids. They’re always trying to imitate the big stars, no matter where they are from.”

Birth of the Bosnian FA

When the cease fire was put in place, it seemed like a new dawn for Bosniaks. Sasa Ibrulj, a journalist of Bosnian football, recently recalled how the Bosnian national team was slated to play their first ever international friendly only 9 days after Dayton was signed. The Bosnian Football Association applied to FIFA and was barely admitted as a guest member.

The Bosnian Football Association became a FIFA affiliate in 1996 and a UEFA affiliate in 1998. By the 1997-1998 season, Croat and Bosnian teams were facing off for the first time. In May 2002, when Bosnian Serb clubs joined, all the leagues had effectively merged into the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Compared to the 2014 Dragons, the first national team was a rag-tag assemblage who had to buy their jerseys from a sports store in Zagreb hours before flying to Tirana, Albania for their first game. BiH’s first coach Fuad Muzurovic told Ibrulj, “It was a different time with different ambitions. We had only one mission and that was to create a federation and a national team and to be recognised by FIFA and UEFA. We just wanted to play football.”

But the simple act of playing football was absurdly hobbled by the form of politics installed after the Dayton peace accords. The government is a truly baffling labyrinth. There are three presidents, 10 cantons, 15 political parties, and 2 political jurisdictions (the Federation of Croats and Muslim and the Republika Srpska). The Football Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (NFSBiH) initially mirrored the tripartite government, having 3 presidents, one for each ethnicity. The system was so stupid that UEFA and FIFA effectively banned Bosnia in 2011 for the failure to have a single representative, after a UEFA statute came into force.

The Bosnian FA was not immune to the venality, cronyism and ethnic politicking innate in Bosnia’s government.  In 2009, two of the top officials from the NFSBiH were arrested for tax evasion in 2001 and 2006 and the illegal misappropriation of $253,932 (USD) from the NFSBiH treasury, according to a Reuters report. The amount is 42 times the average yearly salary for a regular worker in Europe’s poorest country, Bosnia.

The systemic corruption prevalent in the NFSBiH caused popular protest by fans and players alike. According to Ed Vulliamy:

“In support of this groundbreaking team, its fans led a revolution against the Bosnian FA. They organised demonstrations, boycotted matches and staged their own all-star games; they disrupted a game with flares in Oslo for an hour – and they won. In April this year, UEFA and FIFA expelled Bosnia from international competitions until its FA was reformed. Bosnia was readmitted after political appointees were sacked and the association taken over by a “normalisation” committee of sporting figures and heroes. In parallel, Yugoslav and FK Sarajevo footballing legend Safet Sušic was appointed as the team manager, and he in turn enticed back key players who had refused to play under the previous regime.”

Dzeko, Emblem of United Bosnia

Most well-known of the Bosnian team is Edin Dzeko. In the 2014 qualifiers, Dzeko scored 10 of 30 goals. Referred to as ‘The Diamond’, Dzeko is the unquestionable emblem of the Dragons and the heart of their offence. He is also UNICEF’s first ambassador of Bosnia.

The three-time Bosnian footballer of the year is a superstar athlete from Sarajevo who began at the local club FK Zeljanicar in 2003 before being transferred to a Czech club, FK Teplice in 2005 for a mere €25,000. According to The Guardian, “the Bosnian club’s hierarchy thought the sum so preposterous they broke out the champagne. “We thought we’d won the lottery,” one director admitted.”

After some success, Dzeko was transferred to Wolfsburg of the German Bundesliga in 2008-2009. There, Dzeko would breakaway helping the team capture the league championship the same year he was transferred. Dzeko’s rise to eminence reached the next level when he signed with Manchester City in 2011. The €32 million transfer fee for Dzeko was the 6th highest in the Premier League, although only the second highest on Man City (next, of course, to Robinho). Nevertheless, the transfer fee shattered the records in the Bundesliga, the Bosnian league, and the highest ever for a footballer from the former-Yugoslavia.

Dzeko has never forsaken Bosnia. He has reportedly been offered citizenship from the Czech Republic and Germany to play for their national teams, but has turned them aside. When he came home to play Team USA in a friendly this past August, Sarajevo’s streets flooded with blue and white jerseys. It seemed as though the people are as proud to sport his name across their backs as Dzeko is to wear his country’s kit. We followed the fans down Marsala Tito street, past the sight of the 1994 Markale massacres and up towards the Asim Ferhatović Hase Stadium. The entire world watched as the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games were hosted in the same spot in 1984, though reportedly more people attended a league match between FK Sarajevo and FK Zeljeznicar two years prior.

When we arrived at a friendly match between Bosnia and the USA in August 2013, we were corralled through some flimsy gates past a few small scale vendors enticing fans with barbecued cobs of corn. When we reached the hired security certain members of the crowd were caught with the well-disguised and internationally popular ‘vodka in a waterbottle’ decoy and asked to step aside. Well  acquainted with sporting event protocol we ‘watched’ disappointedly in anticipation of the long distance toss of  bottle to trash can common in North America. Instead, and with much delight, the fans with a penchant for drink were politely advised to finish their drink before entering. They happily complied.

Fans were anxious for the start of play and when the players emerged from the tunnel, the fans roared. When Dzeko became visible, almost a full head above everyone else, the crowd spectacularly erupted. Bosnia, led by Dzeko of course, got on the board early and off to a two goal lead. Sadly, the team fell apart in the second half and the Americans took the game 4-3. Bosnian fandom was not too disappointed however for the game was ultimately meaningless.

Dzeko is a local legend. The fans of his first club, FK Zeljo, will tell you nostalgically that its at Grbavica stadium where it all began for the national icon.

When we first arrived in Bosnia, we were greeted by Edin Hrapovic, an elder of the ‘Maniacs’, the aptly named supporters club for FK Zeljinicar. Zeljinicar is the Bosnian word for railway. The team is named so because it was founded by railway workers in 1921. Hrapovic told us FK Zeljo is the club of ‘the people’ while local rivals, FK Sarajevo, are the club of ‘the politicians’.

FK Zeljo’s home pitch is in the Grbavica region of Sarajevo, which is where occupying forces first took over in 1992. It is where they would stay for 3 years but the furtherest into Sarajevo that they would get. Stadion Grbavica was built up over the Communist era. During the war in the early 1990s, the pitch became a main theatre of war. The stadium sits at the foot of a hill where sniper positions were and mortars had burnt most of the terraces to the ground.

We entered the stadium for a mere 6KM ($4.5 CAD). As soon as we passed through the side gate, a massive smoke cloud filled the sky above the opposing keeper, whose back was to the Maniacs. An amorphous mass of people jumping and cheering unstoppably, singing in unison, and more or less surrounded by police whose watchful glances supposedly keeps them in check. Clashes with police happen occasionally and a Maniac controversially died in one 6 years ago—although the official cause was an asthma attack.

Stadium Grbavica, FK Zeljeznicar versus FK Radnik Bijeljina, 2-2, August 25, 2013.

Stadium Grbavica, FK Zeljeznicar versus FK Radnik Bijeljina, 2-2, August 25, 2013.

That night, FK Zeljo was playing for top spot in the league. The game was tense and finished in a 2-2 draw after a late equalizer by the opposing side, As we left with Hrapovic, we walked through the Grbavica region to a local pub. He told us that low-rise apartments that fill out the area were originally built by the communists in order to house members of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). When the League of Communists was dissolved by Belgrade in 1991, the loyalties among the 138,000 soldiers severely strained. Communism was the ideological glue underpinning Yugoslav society and helped multi-ethnic institutions like the armed forces transcend caustic ethnic vendettas. Without that bond, a nationalistic military junta in favour of partition was able to emerge from the tattered army. Many of the nationalists were concentrated in the Grbavica region, which explains why it fell so quickly in early 1992 when the remnants of the JNA was hijacked by Belgrade and used to squelch dissent and resistance.

Conclusion: the Road to the Sao Paolo, Brazil

Hrapovic let us in on a family secret. He was the son-in-law of Faruk Hadzibegic, the retired captain of the Yugoslavian National Team, who played in the Bosnian, Spanish, and France premier leagues. Over shisha, Hrapovic told us that, in his mind, the wars in the former Yugoslavia might have been avoided if not for one simple twist of fate.

In the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Yugoslavia was squaring off against the Argentines, including Diego Maradona, in the quarter-finals. The Yugoslav team had no breakaway superstars but in terms of team play, were one of the tightest units in the world. After a 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time, the game went to penalty kicks. Hadzibegic, the 2nd most capped player in Yugoslav history, was the last to kick. Giving everything he had, the penalty kick tragically ricocheted off the woodwork. He had missed and Yugoslavia was sent home. Germany would go on to win the title.

Had he made the kick, Hrapovic imagined, Yugoslavia would have stayed together, the many and various people united by their loyal support.

Not likely. But the sentiment cuts to the heart of how people feel about the 2014 Dragons. The team has defied the political vendettas of the apparatchiks who control the organs of the state. They’re heading to the world stage behind an unusually united population. Football is no substitute for substantive constitutional reform but the international stage will undoubtedly bring a recognition to the desperately serious situation in Post-Dayton Bosnia. No cup could replace the joblessness, poverty, and underlying tensions pervasive in the country. It would be a nice consolation though.

Another set of question is how the team will perform. They have a favourable draw in the group stage (Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria). But might Dzeko be the team’s undoing, his elevated stature detrimental to team cohesion? Coach Safet Sasic, another of Bosnia’s greats, will need to strike a balance between letting the top scorer lead the charge but, most critically, play with the team. Dzeko is one of the EPL’s biggest stars and with the weight of his nation on his shoulders, playing with and not above his team is critical.

During our last meeting with Hrapovic, he told us of the immense challenges facing him: how can he get the necessary funds together in a few short months to attend the World Cup in Brazil—the price of admission and air fare equivalent to one year’s pay for the average Bosnian. With another child on the way, the challenge is daunting.

Win or lose, the happiness and excitement the Dragons have brought to Bosnia and Herzegovina is well-deserved and long, long overdue. The World Cup is becoming fiercely political. From street clashes in Brazil to the savage working conditions of labourers building up Doha, Qatar for 2022, the global stage is giving voice to the myriad political struggles common people are waging against the powers that be. Bosnia is no exception and the history of the Dragons bears witness to the long and tumultuous struggle of Bosnians to control their collective political destiny.

Morgan and Justin both live in Toronto and travelled through the Balkans for 3 months in the fall of 2013. Follow them at @justinpanos and @morganradbourne

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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.


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

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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 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.


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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