Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Dimension’

Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

The PT’s Own Goal

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government, led by former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rouseff, is in the midst of a political crisis that it may not weather. Embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the state petroleum company, Petrobras, and a number of construction firms, the government has been rocked by massive street protests and the machinations of a ruling elite hell bent on ending 12 years of leftist rule in South America’s largest and most economically powerful country.

Acting through the judiciary, and backed by a corporate media which ignores the corruption of right-wing politicos, the opposition appears to be plotting a coup, pushing for the impeachment of President Rouseff and the imprisonment of her beloved predecessor, the former lath operator and trade union leader, Lula da Silva.

The PT has endured political crises before. Brazil has seen waves of anti-government protest over the last three years. But now the government faces a confluence of factors that has shaken the foundation of Brazilian society, including the spread of the Zika virus, an economic downturn, and a rush to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.

In a country in which sports—and especially soccer—and politics are deeply intertwined, it was the PT’s insistence on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back (in 2014 and 2016) that seems to have weakened support amongst the party’s poor and working-class base. Although the government’s partial break with neoliberalism and strong economic growth has lifted close to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, in a country in which so many still lack access to the basic necessities of life, the millions spent on sporting spectacles has led many supporters to question the PT’s priorities.

Such is the religious devotion to soccer that the PT’s sins might have been forgiven had Brazil won the World Cup. Instead, it crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion in the semi-finals against Germany. The unraveling of the national team seemed to mirror the unraveling of the political compact that has kept the PT in power.

Problems on the pitch

On that infamous day in July 2014, the game started badly. With only 10 minutes passed, Thomas Muller—Germany’s most prolific strike—stood unmarked at the back post and easily converted a corner kick. Ten minutes later, Germany scored again and added another within two minutes. And then, with the home crowd in a state of shock, a fourth German goal a mere twenty seconds after the restart. By halftime, it was 5-0.

After the break, the Canarinho—as the national team is nicknamed—returned to the field looking like they would much rather have been somewhere else. The thousands of Brazilians who had packed the Estadio Minerao sat in stunned silence; the atmosphere eerie for a match of such grand importance.

The game ended 7-1, the biggest defeat suffered by the national team in its 100-year existence. The team of footballing legends such as Zico, Socrates, Girancha, and Pele, had been dismantled, humbled, and humiliated in front of a television audience of close to one billion people.

Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari called it the “worst day of my life.” In a post-match interview, tears streaming down his face, the Canarinho’s captain, David Luiz, said, “I just wanted to bring happiness to these people, my people have suffered so much with other things.”

As the Guardian’s South America correspondent, Alex Bellos, wrote on the eve of the World Cup, the PT was banking on national team success to “help soothe unrest.” “Nothing less than glory,” Bellos noted, “is good enough for the host nation.”

Two years on and with Brazil’s right-wing forces and upper middle class on the march, the PT needs its poor and working class base more than ever. But as Dave Zirin has observed, the “party is not drawing millions of defenders into the streets, partly because there is a mass dissatisfaction with the status quote, and partly because the World Cup and the Olympics have exacerbated the hard times and symbolized a government woefully out of touch.”

On entering office, President Lula had a soccer pitch installed on the presidential lawn. Rumour has it that during kickarounds, the former President liked to play right midfield, emulating his hero Zizinho by dribbling around the finance minister or a trade union leader. It should have been his and the PT’s first and last attempt at capturing sporting glory.


A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 2, Spring 2016.








The Coming Revolution in the NBA (and the Woman Who Will Lead It)

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

When Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Europe was in the midst of revolutionary change. The opening line of the Manifesto is “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” The idea of an economy and society democratically controlled by working people was one that struck fear into the hearts of Europe’s ruling classes.

In the world of professional sports, the bourgeoisie hasn’t quaked in their loafers for some time now. In the past ten years, team owners have boldly locked out players in the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL (twice), weakening collective bargaining agreements in the process. In many ways, labour relations in pro sports mirrors the one-sided state of class struggle beyond the floodlights and scoreboards. Players’ associations, like other labour unions, have been in retreat. In Major League Baseball, the players’ share of league revenue has fallen close to 20 percent in the last 20 years. In the NFL, it’s down from 50 to 47 percent. And in the NBA, the last two rounds of collective bargaining saw a massive transfer of wealth from players to owners—some $3 billion over a decade.

Enter Michelle Roberts, pro sports answer to Angela Davis. Last July, the Harlem-based lawyer made history by becoming the first woman to lead a major North American professional sports union, the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA). Roberts is African-American and grew up in public housing in the South Bronx. According to a profile in the New York Times, her mother, Elsie, raised Roberts and her four siblings on her own, cleaning houses and selling home-cooked food to supplement the money she received on welfare.

After attending New York City public schools, Roberts earned a scholarship to a prestigious private school. From there, she went on to the University of California at Berkley, graduating with a degree in law. Roberts became a public defender, reflecting her belief that “poor people have the right to a good defense”, before earning a reputation as one of America’s fiercest trial lawyers. Oh and she picked up a side gig teaching at Harvard along the way.

Despite having no background in labour relations, Roberts beat out 300 other candidates to replace Billy Hunter as executive director of the NBPA. Hunter was considered a soft touch at the bargaining table and had long ago lost the confidence of basketball’s rank-and-file.

In her first big media interview, Roberts struck a markedly different tone than her predecessor. Throwing a verbal hand grenade into the normally polite discourse of NBA labour relations, she called the league’s billionaire owners “replaceable”. Channeling Marx, Roberts asked, “Why don’t we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. [The players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

Then, when asked if she thought she would be underestimated in the male-dominated sports world, Roberts replied, “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” As New York magazine put it, “If you’re looking for the one person most likely to alter the world of sports most dramatically over the next decade … It’s this 58-year-old woman sitting in her office in Harlem, ready to watch the sports world burn.”

Although NBA team owners are crying poor—they always do—Roberts knows that the league has never been more profitable. The NBA is the midst of a revenue boom with a new $24 billion television contract, rising gate receipts, and strong merchandising sales. The average NBA franchise is worth $1.1 billion—and yet owners want to chip away at player gains in salaries, benefits, and working conditions (never mind continuing to squeeze city governments for taxpayer dollars, building shiny new arenas on the public dime).

Well Roberts is having none of this. With her at the helm of the NBAPA and a new round of collective bargaining on the horizon, the players are in a bolshie mood. Even the league’s wealthiest player, LeBron James, is sounding like a basketball Che Guevara and was recently elected to the union executive. A players’ strike could well be on the horizon.

But despite their resources, the players’ have always had one serious disadvantage vis-a-vis owners—a disadvantage somewhat unique to their occupation. When your career is five years long, losing a season’s salary to a strike is a serious financial hit. Roberts answer to this? Ruminating on the future of the NBA, she insisted that the players, if pressed, are capable of forming a league of their own; that is a league managed, owned, and controlled by the players themselves. With Michelle Roberts at the bargaining table, it seems a spectre is haunting the NBA.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 49 No. 2 March/April 2015

Unifor Faces Off Against Owners in Major Junior Hockey Fight

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

The gloves are off in what could be one of the most watched labour fights in recent years. The Canadian Hockey League is an umbrella organization administering three hockey leagues with 60 teams in Canada and the US. The CHL supplies the labour, i.e. the players, to North America’s pro leagues, including the NHL (close to half of all NHLers have come up through the CHL). Despite being big business, CHL leagues self-classify as “amateur student-athlete development leagues” and the average player earns a fee or allowance of $35 to $50 a week for 40 plus hours of work, in addition to educational support in the form of a scholarship. I recently spoke with Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, about the union’s campaign for justice in major junior hockey.

SB: Jerry, why do Major Junior hockey players need a union?

JD: In short, because they are exploited. Here you’ve got kids between the ages of 16 and 20, chasing their dream. They are all working for for-profit CHL franchises. This is big business. The Quebec Ramparts just sold for an estimated $25 million dollars. The London Knights make millions in profit every year. The CHL just signed a ten year deal with Rogers cable worth about $80 million. There’s a significant revenue base. Where does that money go? It goes into the pockets of owners and people who run the leagues. These are for-profit companies that have players working for free. They receive small stipends and they are promised that their post-secondary education will be paid for but more than half of them never receive a dime because of outrageous restrictions on how and when they use their scholarships. The people who run these businesses do incredibly well—and they do so on the backs of unpaid labour.

There are other reasons. Take the case of Tim Nolte, a player for the Spruce Grove Saints. He had to spend $20,000 on dental surgery after getting a stick in the face.  The league’s insurance only covered $2500. Players’ accident expenses should be 100 per cent covered. A young man that is working for an employer, a for-profit company, ought to be taken care of. As long as you’re dealing with an organization that frankly is all about profit first and people second, then you’re going to end up with these types of situations. So the only way these issues can be fixed is if the players have a collective voice and a collective agreement.

SB: The CHL argues that small-market teams will go under if the players unionize. What do you make of this argument?

JD: It doesn’t matter what the industry, when you talk about unionizing, owners say the sky will fall. The fact is that every successful professional sports league has revenue sharing. Small market teams are subsidized by big market teams. The key to a successful business model can’t be having your workers work for free. I worked at Bombardier aerospace. Imagine my employer said “okay Jerry, you buy the necessary equipment, and then you can work at Bombardier for four years for free but we’ll give you a scholarship at the end of it. But wait, you have only 18 months to use that scholarship after you’ve finished or you’ll lose it.” If this scenario is not okay in your workplace, it shouldn’t be for major junior hockey players. 95 percent of these players are not going to have a career in professional hockey. So if the average ticket price is $17 are you telling me $1 cannot go to players’ wages? The person that cleans the ice gets paid. The coach gets paid. The manager gets paid. The person who cleans the toilets at the rink gets paid. Yet the person whose labour generates the profit doesn’t get paid.

SB: What’s the current state of the campaign?

JD: Charney Lawyers have commenced a $180 million class action lawsuit on behalf of all current and some former players in the CHL.  The lawsuit seeks compensation to the players for their back wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay which should have been paid to them while they played. If the court decides that the players are employees, not “amateur student-athletes” then the fee violates minimum wage legislation in every Province and State where the teams play hockey. This process will take about a year but we suspect that when the owners realize they’re in huge trouble we might then be able to sit down and have a common sense discussion about how we take care of these young men. I’ve also had a lot of discussions with the Minister of Sport and the Minister of Labour. So we’re waiting to see how the government responds as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length

Published in Canadian Dimension 49(3) May/June 2015

“We the North” and the Marketing of Blackness

Monday, March 16th, 2015

In my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension, I deconstruct the rebranding of the Toronto Raptors–with a big shout out to  Gamel Abdel-Shehid.

The Raptors are hot. Toronto’s professional basketball team sits atop the Eastern Conference and are arguably the NBA’s most exciting team to watch. But the on-court swagger has been paired with a slick rebranding, the centerpiece of which is the “We The North” campaign.

The campaign’s lead commercial intersperses Raptors’ highlight reel dunks with shots of amateur ballers —primarily young black men—on street blacktops and in gymnasiums. Some of the city’s racialized, working class neighbourhoods—Jane-Finch, Regent Park, St. James Town—act as backdrop. There are graffitied walls, tattooed (black) bodies, and imposing apartment blocks. According to Raptors’ exec, the sixty second spot portrays Toronto’s “authentic basketball culture”. Only two days after its release, the ad had garnered 500,000 views on YouTube.

Last year, the Raptor’s named Toronto-born hip hop star, Drake, the franchise’s “global ambassador”.  But Drake didn’t lead the rebranding efforts; that task fell to a multi-million dollar creative agency called Sid Lee.

The Raps “redefined brand identity”, as the agency calls it, fits an NBA history of on the one hand commodifying blackness—black culture, style, music—while on the other policing black identity and black political expression. For example, ex- NBA commissioner David Stern devised a dress code to prevent players from wearing hip hop fashions like baggy jeans, fitted baseball caps, and chains. As Dave Zirin noted, this move “reflected fears that profit margins would shrink if NBA brass did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority Black league, all with an eye on the green.”

When NBA players recently warmed up wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, responded by saying: “I respect our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for them to abide by our on-court attire rules.”

As We The North and the Raps embrace of hip hop culture suggests, the franchise see profits to be made from marketing a certain kind blackness. In a 2005 essay, “Who Got Next? Raptor Morality and Black Public Masculinity in Toronto”, York University prof Gamel Abdel-Shehid argues that “as an almost all-black league in a racist culture”, the NBA has had to market “a certain kind of blackness as entertainment”. When the Raptors came to Toronto in 1995, the franchise confronted white Canada’s association of basketball with hip hop, gangs, and school violence. To be a commercial success, the team had to “market a certain version of black public masculinity that accords with rigid (essentialist) caricatures of black masculinity in the racist realm of American popular culture.”

What Abdel-Shehid called “Raptor Morality” hinged on an aesthetic that tied together basketball, black masculinity, capitalism, the failed nuclear family, and a mythologized “inner city”. It played on individualistic narratives of young Black men working hard, staying out of trouble, and “making it” through pro sport.  “In place of a collective struggle to combat the nightmares of racism, police brutality, and class exploitation,” Abdel-Shehid writes, “the Raptors offer a Hoop Dream.”

For Abdel-Shehid, the Raptors’ success “attests to the ways in which forms of capital have relied on pop cultural notions of blackness to sell an image to everyone, regardless of the average level of consciousness of ‘race’ and racism … It is important to pay attention to the kind of blackness that the Raptors attempt to narrate, and to locate this process within the history of Canadian attempts to write black experiences out of the nation.”

So back to We The North, the Raptors and TO in 2015. While people of African descent make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they account for 25 per cent of the civilians stopped and documented by the police. Black men are up to ten times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In the city’s high schools, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites.

In the interests of profit, the Raptors market a commodified blackness while as a franchise remaining silent on the policing, state-sanctioned violence, and other forms of institutionalized racism to which Black bodies are subject to in the city on a daily basis. There are some aspects of the Black experience in Toronto that just don’t fit the Raptors “redefined brand identity.” To paraphrase legendary comedian Paul Mooney, “everybody wanna be black, but nobody wants to be black”.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine Volume 49 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2015

Samba, Soccer and the Limits of Social Democracy

Monday, December 30th, 2013

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I reflect on the summer protests in Brazil and the upcoming World Cup of soccer.

During its coverage of the summer demonstrations in Brazil, the New York Times ran a clever little online feature: they posted photographs of two marches, one in Sao Paulo and another in the city of Recife. Each image captured hundreds of protest signs—move your computer cursor over a given sign and an English translation of its contents appeared on the screen.

Slogans ranged from the general: “Come take to the streets to change Brazil!” to the particular, “I’d exchange a congressman for 334 teachers.”

Some seemed like they’d been thought up by a policy wonk caught up in the crowds on their lunch break:  “10% of the GDP for education!”, “Put 10 cents in the public health system!”

The politically ambiguous, “No right or left, we’re all Brazilians!”, “Too many reasons to fit here!” were uneasily juxtaposed with the rallying cries of revolution: “Workers, come take to the streets!” and the perennial “Smash the capitalist state!”

Such was the cacophony of cir de coeurs rising up from the Brazilian streets.

Yet if there was a single collective grievance prioritized by the masses, it was the World Cup of Soccer, due to be hosted by Brazil next summer: “Wake up Brazil! Teachers are worth more than [soccer star] Neymar!”, “Lower the bus fare and put it in FIFA’s check!”, “I want health and education on FIFA’s standards!” (FIFA being the bloated, corrupt world governing body of the beautiful game).

Brazilians frustrated with public transit fare hikes or dismayed at dilapidated hospitals and schools, see the billions being spent on new stadiums, security, and Cup-related luxuries (e.g. inflatable mascots guarding the entrance of public venues) and ask “can we afford this?” Among those stuck in Sao Paulo or Rio’s infamous traffic jams or public transit queues, a unified chorus emerged: “imagina na copa” or “imagine during the cup”.  

In Brazil, soccer is a national religion. The country has won the World Cup more times than any other nation. Brazil is home to the great Pele and a breeding ground for the game’s most skilled, creative…and mononomous players: Ronaldo, Fred, Hulk, Ronaldinho, Kaka. The national team prides itself on fast-paced, rhythmic, technically complex style of play inspired by Samba, the music and dance that permeates Brazilian life.  

And soccer is woven into the country’s political fabric. Take the figure of Socrates, a stylish attacking midfielder who captained the club Corinthians during the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the team of Sao Paulo’s working class, counting former president Lula da Silva amongst their fans, yet ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites.  From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the ruling junta.  The movement eventually wrestled control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy.

In perhaps one of the bravest acts in politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players decided to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians–and particularly Corinthians’ working class fans–to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and the Corinthians Democracy movement is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

As the mass protests of this summer suggest, some thirteen years after the historic election of Lula, Brazil’s social democratic experiment is pushing up against its internal limits.  Under Lula and now Dilma Rouseff, the governing Workers’ Party has sought to massage big capital, reduce poverty, please its working class base, and keep the middle class on side. But now no one seems happy: the middle class don’t like mixing with the newly mobile poor; the poor want better housing and more social programs; the rich, lower taxes; teachers, a raise; doctors, a vacation; rural peasants, land reform; urban workers, higher wages; and students, free transit. And absolutely no one seems in the mood for a game of soccer. For the country’s political class, that may be the most disturbing trend of all.

 Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2013 Issue

On Sport

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

I recently had the pleasure of guest editing a special sports issue of Canadian Dimension, the first of its kind in the magazine’s fifty year history. Below is my introduction to the issue. Thanks to all of the contributors and to Dimension’s publisher and coordinating editor, Cy Gonick, for the opportunity.

Terry Eagleton has got it wrong. In his 2007 book The Meaning of Life, the literary theorist and doyen of the British Left proclaimed, “It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.” For Eagleton, the human desire for solidarity and physical immediacy are the raw materials of movements for social change. Yet when these desires are fulfilled through sport, collective struggles go wanting. In Eagleton’s worldview, we either charge the barricades or lace up the skates, march on Parliament or sit in the bleachers, organize a demonstration or organize a softball league.

Yet as the sports-loving, card-carrying leftist contributors to this special issue attest, sports do not supplant social struggle, nor are they simply a ruling-class safety valve for the revolutionary energies of “the people.” Sport, rather, is a terrain of social struggle, a landscape upon which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender norms and identities are shaped and subverted, heteronormativity, racism and the politics of empire are open to contestation. Sport does not stand outside “the struggle” — a distraction from politics proper — but is inherently political. Somewhere between the finest critical sports book ever written, C.L.R. James’s classic on cricket and colonialism, [Beyond A Boundary], and the recent emergence of a new breed of socialist sports writers (including one of CD’s guest contributors, the preeminent left-wing sports journalist of the day, Dave Zirin), the Left chose to treat sport with suspicion, not dialectical thinking.

I can hear the boos from the red seats. Yes, sport — at both amateur and professional levels — often reflects the dominant and interlocking values of neoliberal capitalism, sexism, ableism, racism and imperialism. We need a ruthless critique of sport because as good socialists, it is our duty to engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists. But to dismiss sport as innately capitalist, sexist, and so on — as far too many on the Left have done — is to understand sport, in the words of Charles Springwood, as “a stable, monolithic cultural institution,” not as the site of creative resistance it can be, a space where emancipatory energies emerge, and a new politics of liberation from multiple forms of oppression can take root.

So ignore your lefty instincts; it’s not the picket sign or the tennis racket, the protest or the playoffs. In sport, ideas are in a state of play. We cannot afford to yield sport to the forces of the right — to the free-market fundamentalists and the socially reactionary conservatives — any more than we can afford to yield religion, education, the family or the media. As a reader of CD, you’ll know this is a magazine for people who want to change the world; and if we want to change the world, then we must change the world of sport.

Published in Canadian Dimension, July/Aug 2013

The Meaning of Hillsborough

Friday, January 18th, 2013

On April 15th 1989, Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest met at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, in the semi-final of English soccer’s oldest and most prestigious competition, the FA Cup. With only minutes played, police stopped the match. At one end of the stadium, in the lower tier of a stand allocated to Liverpool’s traveling support, fans were climbing the security fences which penned them in. Others were being lifted to safety by those seated in the stand above. Attempting to ease crowd pressure outside the stadium, police had ordered open a large exit gate; bodies surged into the stand’s lower-tier.  96 fans died in the crush; hundreds more were injured.

In the days following, higher-ups in the South Yorkshire Police engaged in a secret campaign of misinformation and victim-blaming that has taken twenty-three years to uncover. Many fans knew the truth—that the police were criminally negligent—yet their voices were ignored by the powers that be. Ignored because they were working class people from Liverpool –and because they were football fans. Only ‘trade unionist’ and ‘young black male’ were more despised identities among the ruling elite of Thatcher’s Britain.

Feeding stories of fan drunkenness and aggression to the conservative press, South Yorkshire Police produced a history in which they were exonerated from any wrong doing.  Newspaper headlines read ‘Dead fans robbed by drunk fans’,  Liverpool fans ‘were drunk and violent and their actions were vile.’ Rupert Murdoch’s Sun ran the headline ‘The Truth’ claiming fans had urinated on police officers resuscitating the dying. Thousands of Liverpool fans arrived ticketless at the stadium, The Sun claimed, so they were ultimately responsible for the tragedy. The deceased were at fault for their own deaths.

This September, after 23 years of Liverpool fans campaigning for the real truth, an independent Hillsborough investigative panel released its final report. The panel found that 116 of the 164 police statements taken in the wake of Hillsborough were doctored to show the South Yorkshire force in a better light. Broken turnstiles, unheeded safety concerns, but most importantly, police mistakes had led to the dangerous overcrowding and the deaths of the 96. The panel’s most tragic finding was that 41 of the victims may have been saved had the police’s response been competent.

The police-orchestrated cover-up reflected the contempt for working class people, and particularly the working class of Liverpool, which characterized Thatcher’s rule. Liverpool was a city in revolt against Thatcherism, refusing to quietly accept the neoliberal doctrine of ‘free markets and disciplined people’.

Monetarist policies designed to punish the industrial working class had led to high unemployment rates across Britain’s industrial north, but nowhere was harder hit than Liverpool, with unemployment bordering on 50% in some inner-city neighbourhoods. The Liverpool riots of 1981, two years after Thatcher’s election, saw unemployed youth fight street battles with the city’s police.

Thatcher’s advisors said there was “a concentration of hopelessness” in Liverpool, the result of a declining economy caused by industrial strife. In other words, the city’s working class was too unruly, driving capital elsewhere.  Responding to calls for investment in the city, one of Thatcher’s cabinet ministers said “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’?”

Following the riots, with their collective middle-finger up at Thatcher, the people of Liverpool elected a socialist city council, run by a radical left faction of the Labour Party. To borrow the title of a history of the period, Liverpool was A City That Dared to Fight.

Given this context, it is a shame that the independent investigation was unable to determine was how high up the police ranks the Hillsborough cover-up went—classified cabinet documents on the matter will be released in 2019. By the time of the disaster, the South Yorkshire Police had formed a close relationship with the domestic intelligence service, the MI5, collaborating to crush workers in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.  If the miners were the ‘enemy within’, as Thatcher branded them, then the city of Liverpool was ‘enemy territory’. We know now of the collusion between Thatcher, the secret services, the police and the tabloids to defeat the miners. What we are yet to find out is how far the Conservative government went to humiliate, vilify and defame the rebel city of Liverpool.

Published in Canadian Dimension Jan/Feb 2013 Issue

Heroes and Villains

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

With so much going on at the crossroads of politics and sports, I’ve decided to name my sporting heroes and villains for the year to date:


Caster Semenya

Persevering through some of the most discriminatory treatment meted out to a modern athlete, Semenya will carry her country’s flag in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and likely be the 800m gold medalist by the time this column goes to press. As the lefty mag the New Statesman put it, Semenya “unintentionally instigated an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world.”

John Carlos

Bronze-medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos, along with Tommie Smith, is best-remembered for his black power salute while standing head bowed, shoeless—in a gesture of solidarity with the world’s poor—on the medal podium. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team and subject to years of hate mail, death threats, and public denunciations. Carlos has spent the last year on a book tour for his new memoir The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World; a tour which included stops at Occupy sites across the US.  Forty-four years after the event, he remains an inspiration to all who struggle for social justice.

Herb Carnegie

Hockey legend Herb Carnegie passed away this spring. Born in Toronto, the son of Jamaican immigrants, NHL scouts recognized Carnegie as a magnificent talent. Conn Smythe said he would pick Carnegie for the Toronto Maple Leafs “if someone could turn him white.” Carnegie spent the next fifty years campaigning against racism in hockey, mentoring players of colour, and helping the young to become stars in a league that would not have him.

Mahmoud Sarsak

Palestinian national footballer Mahmoud Sarsak spent three months on hunger strike, losing half his body weight, in protest against his imprisonment by Israel’s apartheid state. Sarsak was arrested while on his way from Gaza to the West Bank to play in a soccer match. Held for three years in Israeli custody without charges or a trial, Sarsak was released in early July pledging continued resistance to occupation and oppression.



Joe Paterno and Penn State Football

The definitive report into the Penn State scandal concluded that Joe Paterno was “an integral part of the act to conceal” former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexual abuses. Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving ten young boys over the course of 15 years.  There is a culture of cowardliness and hypermasculine group-think that is imbedded in most men’s varsity sports programs—a culture that normalizes hazing, homophobia, and rape. Joe Paterno and his staff did nothing to challenge this culture and I fear few programs will learn from the tragic example of Penn State football.

London Olympics and security firm G4S

Never have cupidity and stupidity found a more welcome host than Olympic organizing committees. In a nation stricken by high unemployment, Conservative pols could not understand why so few job seekers turned up to fill the thousands of security positions created by the Games. How about sub-poverty wages? The London Olympics drove down wages and working conditions through a cut throat competitive bidding process rather than making this the first Olympics to implement a living wage policy.

The Union of European Football Associations

UEFA’s milquetoast response to racism at the Euro Cup provided another example of football officialdom’s failure to live up its anti-racist rhetoric with meaningful action.

Don Cherry

For yet another season of being himself.


Shout outs to the new online journal Left Hook (, a project that seeks to bridge the sphere of progressive social/political analysis to the world of amateur and professional sport. The journal is edited and published by my York U comrade Tyler Shipley.  If you enjoy this column, you’ll love Left Hook.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2012 edition of Canadian Dimension

Race, America, and the Meaning of Jeremy Lin: An Interview with Jeff Chang

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Jeremy Lin is an overnight NBA superstar. Back in spring, Lin led the New York Knicks to nine wins in 12 games in his first 12 starts, creating a media firestorm—dubbed “Linsanity”—that quickly swept across the world. Lin, who is Asian-American, is a basketball phenom in a sport hugely popular in East Asia and among Asian-Americans but in which few Asians have excelled in the world’s top league.  I spoke with Jeff Chang—radical historian, journalist and author of the forthcoming book Who We Be: The Colorization of America—about the meaning of Jeremy Lin for race in America.  

SB: In reference to the Jeremy Lin phenomena, you’ve said “we’ve just turned a page in the way Asian-Americans are represented in the United States.” What do you mean?

JC: I don’t want to overstate this–because it’s not like everyone should now applaud the end of racism against Asian Americans. But for a couple of weeks in February, everyone was talking about the complexity of Jeremy’s story and pondering its significance. When Asians in the U.S. have not been portrayed as unknowable, permanent strangers, we have been seen as sort of white ethnics. We’re either the harder-working, smarter whites or the uglier, desexualized whites. We’re not seen as real people. We are caricatures meant to teach a lesson to other whites and other people of color.

What Jeremy Lin has done in a way that no one has since perhaps Bruce Lee is to put a real breathing and yes, complicated Asian American man firmly in the minds of people everywhere, as opposed to a ‘type’. When he broke through, it was the first time many people had to consider what it might mean to actually live as an Asian American, had to put their feet in our shoes.

SB: The NBA, the Knicks and Lin’s sponsors look to be making the most of Linsanity, using it to push the sports marketing machine in East Asia. What are some of the problems and opportunities arising from the use of Lin to globalize American sports?

First off, Jeremy is a born-and-bred American boy. He’s not Yao Ming. He’s not an ambassador from China or Taiwan, if anything he will be an ambassador for the sport to the people of China and Taiwan. I am sure he will represent well. But you can tell by his accent, how he dresses, the car he drives, his humor—his sensibility is thoroughly Northern Californian, thoroughly Taiwanese American, thoroughly Asian American. The kids in China or Taiwan read him that way. Period.

I don’t know about his politics. I don’t know if he hopes to become a Jackie Robinson type of figure. His college career doesn’t bespeak a hidden Ali or John Carlos streak. I hope that he will make his opinion known on issues other than his identity. I also hope he doesn’t shy away from identity questions as he grows into his role in the NBA universe, that his candor about his upbringing and his background doesn’t disappear as it has for people like, say, Michael Jordan.

SB: There’s been a racist backlash to Lin and his stardom. How have Asian-Americans responded to it?

JC: We have responded the way we always have–by calling bullshit on it.

SB: Finally, just how good is this guy?

JC: I’m a fan. He clearly has lots of things to work on–his defense, his ball-handling, his court vision. So I’m in the wait-and-see camp as far as him as a player. If he thinks about longevity, transformation, and leadership, he’ll be fine.


Published in Canadian Dimension 46 (3) May/June 2012: 55