The national insurgency against police brutality and murders has finally infiltrated the elevated ether of professional sports in America, quite spectacularly too. It is both surprising and not so at the same time. I want to cite something I wrote in 2005 about athletes and their attitudes toward the outside world. It was in a larger article about the game of cricket and to quote C.L.R. James, how cricket managed to go “beyond the boundary.”
“I have peppered the preceding pages with stories about some players who relegated their careers to the needs and conditions of those surrounding them. Whether by design or not, they became part of a more important struggle, one that embodied notions of justice and equality, not merely winning or self-gain. I believe there is value to be gleaned by placing this in the context of America and its fascination with role models.
Towards this end, I am reminded of a particular experience here that deserves telling. In 1992, when four white Los Angeles cops were acquitted in the trial of savagely beating up Rodney King, a black man, South Central L.A. blew up into a full-scale riot with national implications. During the riot’s aftermath, when many in America, including the media, attempted some kind of search for answers, a popular sports talk show host interviewed a panel of three distinguished black sports personalities, Darryl Strawberry, the New York Mets slugger, Eric Davis, the star outfielder of the Cincinnati Reds, and Jim Brown, the former football Cleveland Browns running back turned actor and community activist. Both Strawberry and Davis had grown up in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts. Jim Brown was then and still is involved in working with gang members and youth programs in Compton, California. Jim Brown wasn’t exactly without his own scars, he had been charged with violence towards women on more than one occasion. Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis had relocated from their childhood community and were then living the lives of pampered sports superstars in neighborhoods foreign to South Central Los Angeles. Jim Brown at least had buried himself in that tough turf and was then trying to do some difficult work. The interviewer heard out Strawberry and Davis, both of whom rattled out the formulaic position of obedience to law and order and had nothing to say about racism, inequality, police brutality, justice and poverty, the very ingredients which ignited the uprising. When Jim Brown had his turn, he immediately pointed this out and reinforced it by emphasizing that both the baseball players had turned their backs on their own community and were irrelevant to its needs. He told the audience to ignore and dismiss everything that Strawberry and Davis had put forward. He accused his colleagues of having nothing meaningful to say to the people of Watts. Jim Brown was never asked another question on that show. He was purposefully cut out of the debate and the audience was left with the sorry platitudes of Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis.
The point is that there is a price to be paid for being honest, even if one is a famous ball player. This is often forgotten here, where the spotlight is continuously on these athletes, and the money that is heaped upon them bears no comparison to the earnings of people who grind out a shift each day. Because of this fantastically lopsided relationship, professional sports people have, for all intents and purposes, already sold out. We should never be surprised by how non-challenging their statements and positions are, how they are lauded by the enforcers of the status quo, and how selfishly they behave. But on the opposite end, we might want to pay special attention to the minority among them who do stand up for something worthwhile, as few and far between as they might be. For every lucky ballplayer that is plucked out of the ghetto, there are hundreds of thousands left behind. This too is worth remembering”.
It is safe to say that this map has changed significantly. Of the four most popular sports in America, two of them are overwhelmingly dominated by black players, and these are basketball and football. Baseball’s ranks have a diminishing number of African Americans, but there is a steady stream of black Latino ball players from the islands and the southern continent. So much so that many pro teams now hire managers and coaches who can at least understand and speak Spanish. Ice hockey is still a white man’s contest. Yet all of these professional leagues have cancelled games, with players (Le Bron, etc.), coaches (Doc Rivers of the LA Clippers NBA organization), and commentators like TNT’s Kenny Smith, walking out in solidarity with the current wave of protests, particularly the Jacob Blake ones in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Even the hockey players have decided to hang up their skates to voice their opposition, Slapshot all over again. Hell, NASCAR has outlawed confederate flags at their oval motor racing jamborees.
Is this opportunism? I think not…well probably from the owners’ and money people’s standpoint, but not from the participants’ perspective. The good old boys’ club of NFL proprietors showed their true colors in the Colin Kaepernick outrage, whereby they successfully derailed the career of a black quarterback for his refusal to stand during the national anthem. Kaepernick might have become a bit jaded, but he still had enough game left in him. The owners’ major ally in this scandalous behavior was none other than the pathetic Trump, the so-called leader of the so-called free world. Interestingly enough, despite the criticisms of Colin Kaepernick for later taking the Nike money, he did start something. He probably had no idea then that it would come to this. Who did?
This is a condition that is hard to ignore and it indicates one of the plant rots at the roots of our society. But I am not about to get on the pulpit here or provide some agricultural savvy, plenty has already been said and reported about it all. Instead, in true Hard Crackers tradition, here’s a sports story, albeit from a spectator’s point of view. Plus it’s a foreign one too. I hope it has some legs.
The game of rugby, like soccer, will never become a featured popular sport in the U.S. for the simple reason that there are no breaks except for half-time, ergo no opportunities for commercials. Rugby is as physical and violent as American Football (the NFL) with one significant difference. In rugby games, players do not wear helmets and pads. The phrase “cauliflower ears,” associated with the shape of boxers’ and wrestlers’ ears as a result of the pummeling that they take, is absolutely applicable in rugby.
Rugby’s roots can be traced to English public schools (private ones in our parlance), much like American Football began in Ivy League colleges. In England, young gentlemen would pound each other into the dirt and winter mud for an hour, and then retire to the officer’s mess or club to sing the old school song whilst drowning themselves in warm ale. Similar to its counterpart sport here, the game has radically expanded its social base.
Rugby was exported to all corners of the British Empire, and soon the colonies competed fiercely with the mother country. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, England and now Italy, Argentina and Japan are amongst the top rugby playing states in the world. Samoa is an outside contender. Over the last fifty years, international teams from most of these different countries have had their day in the sun.
In South Africa, rugby has always been the chosen sport of the whites, particularly for Afrikaners (Boers). The Boers bestowed an almost religious divinity on the national rugby team called the Springboks (a leaping antelope). God, the apartheid state, and rugby were the members of their Holy Trinity in that order. During my youth, most of the elite white South African rugby players were Afrikaners, and many of them were either cops, prison guards, or professional army men. Dawie De Villiers, the South African captain in the 1960s, went on to become a prominent ruling party politician and a cabinet member under P.W. Botha’s (the Big Crocodile) watch. At one point, he was their British ambassador. The marriage between apartheid and rugby was not unlike how the NFL here today is wedded to false patriotism and support for whatever foreign war the U.S. might be waging
This umbilical chord made it impossible to get with the program. The powerhouse South African rugby teams came from the Northern Transvaal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State provinces, all bastions of Afrikaner domination. Rugby players, with first names like Stoffel, Frikkie and Mannetjies were enormously hirsute buggers. We used to refer to these kind of blokes as “rock spiders,” a derogatory term akin to “redneck” here. We were not being snobs.
Unfortunately, the Springbok rugby team was more than adequate on the field of play. The South African regime found itself under the microscope in the world sports arena, and they hated it. Racists never desire scrutiny of their crimes, especially besieged ones, and this produced strange results. The South African rugby establishment contorted events to create the opposite illusion to the dismal awful reality of life inside the country.
In 1971, France sent a rugby team to South Africa to play the Springboks in a series of international test matches. Included in the French XV was a black player, Roger Bougarel, who ironically played the position of “right wing.” The Boers made a big song and dance about allowing him into the country to play, and no doubt viewed this as their Glasnost effort, a “See, we’re not the monsters you make us out to be” piece of Goebbelsism. In rugby, if the ball goes out of bounds, it is the job of the left or right winger to throw it back into play in a formation known as a line-out. So Roger Bougarel performed this task for the French team, and the standing joke amongst racist white South African rugby enthusiasts was that the French were so lazy that they even had a black guy throw the ball in at a line-out for them.
A similar propaganda ploy also resulted in one of the All-Black rugby teams (ironically again, the All Blacks was the nickname of the New Zealand national team, because they wore black jerseys) touring South Africa in 1970 and being captained by their scrumhalf Syd Going, a Maori. If Syd Going had not been part of the visiting rugby fraternity, he wouldn’t have been allowed to stay at the same hotel as the rest of the team, catch a taxi, or wander freely wherever he so pleased. He would have been denied entry to all of the South African institutions that so blatantly stamped “Geen Non-Blankes” or “For Europeans Only” on their fences, padlocked gates, walls and doors.
As kids, we would always support the touring teams on principle, whether they were the Australian Wallabies, the New Zealand All Blacks, The French Tricolors, or the British Lions. National allegiance no longer mattered. Rooting for the Springboks was out of the question.
Whenever an international rugby team would arrive, I, and my friends, were part of the minority in the white crowd that would loudly punt for the visitors. If the French were playing, we would don berets, black and white “swag” sweaters, arrive with loaves of French bread and a bottle of Loire Valley red plonk under our arms, stand for the French national anthem, and sit for the South African one. If the British Lions came to play, we would wave the Welsh red dragon flag from the bleachers, and carry on about leeks, choirs, coal mining, Tom Jones, Richard Burton, and wear Gareth Edwards (the wizard of a Welsh scrumhalf) tee shirts. This wasn’t without risk, one always took the chance of getting beaten up by a pissed-off Boer. (In the 1930’s, the Communist Party U.S.A. used to send its members to baseball stadiums to protest the segregation of baseball. They, the commies, wouldn’t stand during the national anthem. People were killed.) As unsophisticated as our sports statements of resistance were, it was my introduction into the world of the politics of protest and it was fun too boot. We thought it was worthwhile. What did we know?
Here is a shout out for Dennis Brutus, a black South African liberation activist, who long campaigned for South African isolation from the international sports arena. A former Robben Island political prisoner, Dennis Brutus formed SANROC (the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee) and understood the importance of the sports boycott and how it would mess with the white South African psyche. I met him in 1978, when he was teaching at North Western University in Evanston, Chicago. Dennis was an acclaimed poet, one of his early volumes of poetry was entitled Sirens, Knuckles and Boots. Dennis Brutus was a pathfinder in the sports struggle. RIP.
In 2007, I was visiting my kin in Port Elizabeth, South Africa when the Springboks won the International Rugby World Cup. They trounced the English team in Paris. I confess, this was the first time that I ever wanted them to win. I had not watched a rugby match in over thirty years.
The Springboks repeated their World Cup championship last year, thumping the English again in Japan. This one was even more rewarding since they were huge underdogs and their skipper, Siya Kolisi, hailed from Zwide township, an impoverished hellhole just outside of Port Elizabeth.
This was a far cry from when the Springboks were a pariah team. In 1981, a Maori led campaign against the touring South African rugby team to New Zealand resulted in a national emergency. Protests stopped games, demonstrations became violent, and New Zealand had its own law and order moment.
In 1982, the Springboks toured the US of A. Protests forced them to play games in the early morning on lonely muddy fields in places like rural Wisconsin. People were arrested, some with serious charges. None of this meant too much for the American audience, but it had a real deflating effect on white South Africa. And these were all pre-dated by the 1969-1970 disruption of the Springboks visit to Britain, led by Peter Hain, a former white South African activist who later became a member of the Tony Blair cabinet and was Secretary for Northern Ireland (how’s that for switching sides).
My point is that sports, spectators and protest had found a common ground, and it produced ripples that meant something to the liberation fighters on the ground. For sure, they knew they weren’t alone, and that is extremely important. When a youngster from the Kenosha projects sees the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team walk away, he or she feels emboldened. The next contribution that these pros need to make should be in the wealth-sharing department. If they claim to understand inequity, this should be automatic. After all, they are amongst an elite few who are major beneficiaries of the enormous wage gap.
Meanwhile, don’t blame me for you now not knowing too much about what it’s like to go to an international rugby match. Viva whoever else!