John Duggan writes about how in dark days, the bravery of sporting icons can guide us to the light.
“That’s f****** crazy, man.”
So said Fred Madison to the ‘Mystery Man’ in a bizarre exchange in David Lynch’s noir film Lost Highway.
When I think of crazy, it’s the best ‘crazy’ line in my head, just as much as the phrase “we want the finest wines available to humanity” from the cult classic Withnail and I is always close to my lips on those rare occasions these days I find myself swinging from the chandeliers.
From the outside looking in, the United States of America is touched by crazy right now.
Their COVID-19 catastrophe has exposed the bankruptcy of American exceptionalism and President Donald Trump is stoking conflagration with the sole aim of winning a second term in office. Fear is the only card he has left as long as the election is fair.
The craziness of the American ‘Reality TV’ freakshow, the addiction of their media industrial complex to ratings, which has transcended entertainment to politics, has real implications for people’s lives.
We have seen lately that other countries are not immune to this. Think Britain, where Brexit became a religion, not an economic argument. Britain always had class and geographical divides, but never an American style ‘Culture War’ until Brexit.
How crazy is it getting? Trump claimed at a White House briefing this week without evidence that 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide over the killing of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was acting in self-defence.
The protests were as a result of the shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, who was hit seven times in the back by a police officer. This incident prompted the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team not to take to the court against Orlando Magic last week. The Milwaukee Brewers baseball team and tennis player Naomi Osaka were among those that followed the Bucks’ example in deciding not to fulfil their respective sporting engagements.
Imagine walking around Grafton Street as a 17-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle strapped around your waist? When I was 17, the highlight of a trip to Grafton Street was Tower Records, the Larry Gogan Roadcaster and a McDonald’s.
Sport and politics
In this world of noise and disinformation, the words and actions of sports stars in taking political stands during turbulent times for the benefit of society can pierce human consciousness more directly than most. These folks are heroes. They can act as an invisible hand in guiding public opinion to a better place.
Some may say that sport and politics don’t mix. At times, the pair can be a catalyst for trouble. The Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star Belgrade riot of 1990 arguably lit the fuse of the devastating conflict between Croats and Serbs.
FIFA is wary of political gestures. They fined Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, both of Albanian-Kosovan heritage, for ‘double eagle’ celebrations when they scored against Serbia at the 2018 World Cup.
However, in a different context, Colin Kaepernick was brave to ‘take a knee’ back in 2016.
His statement was vindicated when the dam burst on racial injustice following the George Floyd murder and if it wasn't for Kaepernick's symbolism, perhaps we wouldn’t have as rich an environment of freedom for players and teams to take matters into their own hands. Even if we feel now that some solidarity with 'Black Lives Matter' is tokenism, at least it’s happening, at least it’s in the public eye.
The Republic of Ireland play Bulgaria in Sofia on Thursday, where a minority of thugs directed sickening racism towards England players last October, resulting in Bulgaria being ordered to play two matches behind closed doors and receiving a €75,000 fine. It’s hard to believe that UEFA would be as lenient if it happened today. Why? Because the mood music has changed. In my view, sports stars pulling out of games is actually a strength now, because it forces the corporates, the communities, the local politicians to act.
Courageous opposition from the sporting world goes back over 50 years.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali gave up a world heavyweight boxing title and his freedom for his beliefs, famously stating “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Free on bail after being convicted of violating service laws, Ali was the subject of opprobrium. Once the veil had been lifted on the tragic imprudence of the Vietnam War, Ali, his conviction since quashed, regained the world title by knocking out George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire seven years later, this time, a hero.
In 1968, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised gloved fists in solidarity with human rights at the medal ceremony for the 200 metres at the Mexico Olympics. Months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, with America a tinderbox of tumult and the battle for civil rights not fully won – not too dissimilar to now – Smith and Carlos made their declaration during the national anthem with the cameras whirring. They were sent home, treated as pariahs and never ran for their country again. It was only when President Obama came to power that Smith and Carlos were invited to the White House. Change though, can take time, and not all progress for a more equal and just world moves in straight lines.
Kaepernick was playing for San Francisco when he protested police brutality and systemic racism during the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. Doing his bit for social justice. One could understand disagreements with his stance – some American patriots may have felt the flag and anthem were off-limits – that it was a sign of disrespect. But it is the land of the free. His reward? A trip to Coventry by the NFL, who have evolved and been gushing in their virtue signalling of late. A little too late for Kaepernick, out of work. With every passing day though, his legacy grows.
When I witnessed the Milwaukee Bucks last week, I thought to myself: “These guys have leverage.”
We have already seen how Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford forced the UK Government to perform an about-turn on free school meals for poor children. By using his profile.
The new NFL season is upon us, and its billionaire owners, some of whom have donated millions to Trump, could have a dilemma on their hands. It’s not 2016, where the ability to muzzle those that go against the grain was greater than it is now.
According to the New York Times, Donald Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn is believed to have coined the apt sobriquet ‘King Kong’ to describe the volcanic and destructive nature of Trump. It’s going to get ugly in America, and when all we have in Ireland is ‘Golf Gate’ and COVID restrictions due to our shallow health service, it’s hard not to notice it.
If there are further flashpoints in the lead up to November, what happens if NFL players, over two-thirds of whom are black, refuse to play? The NFL is the big show in American sports and their brain trust have had time to think about this. For their sake, I hope they have worked out a plan.
Whatever the contractual warnings may be about providing a service for pay, it is possible walkouts may now hold the upper hand and the power will be with the actors, not the owners. Sport or the sporting arena is a powerful stage for social justice and protests. One could argue that on this island, the Gaelic Athletic Association, formed in 1884, was a form of peaceful rebellion in itself against ‘English’ sports and an English way of life. Emily Davison died by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 in martyrdom for the suffragette movement.
In a pandemic, when we are all a little more attuned to our day to day and what’s going on around us, cogent, peaceful voices can soar above the noise to articulate change. There are more turns on this particular road and there will be more figures like Ali, Smith and Kaepernick to emerge. What they have done is made the road easier to traverse.
Think of Francois Pienaar's interview just before he lifted the Rugby World Cup for South Africa in 1995. With President Nelson Mandela in a Springbok jersey, overjoyed and about to hand over the trophy, Pienaar was asked by the interviewer: "Francois, you had 65,000 thousand South Africans here today, tremendous support."
His response: "David, we didn't have 60,000 South Africans. We had 43 million South Africans."
Pienaar didn't need to say it, but he did. Think of the impact of those words on a nation that had been stained by Apartheid. In front of Madiba.
It's hard for me to watch that without tearing up and being reminded of the tremendous power of sport as a change agent.