By any measure this country is in an ugly mood. Double-digit unemployment and a growing sense that the environment, economy, and empire are heading south, has Americans walking with a stoop and a scowl. We have seen this national agenda expectorate into the world of sports. The sporting summer of 2010 was supposed to be a joyous festival of the World Cup, historic baseball pennant races, and the most dynamic NBA free agent period in sports history. Instead, the nation’s fever dream has become the sports world’s nightmare.
First, there was the intrusion on the sports page of America’s favorite doughy mascot of resentment, Glenn Beck. Beck couldn’t let the 2010 World Cup go by without using it to tap into his gravy train of paranoia: globalization, a one world government, and our Kenyan President Overlord Barack Obama. Obama represents "the World Cup of political thought." Beck stated, "It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us…we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it….The rest of the world likes Barack Obama's policies, we do not…..I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat." The most popular sporting celebration on earth had become just more fodder for the 21st century neo-confederate culture wars.
We still had the most exciting free agency period in the history of the National Basketball Association. Two of the three best players in the sport, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, were unfettered to sign with the city and team of their choice. Wade made the choice to stay with the Miami Heat.
Lebron chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join him, creating a duo of dynamic wing players without precedent. Lebron’s decision, however, was handled with the diplomacy of Dick Cheney. He teased cities around the country to maximum media effect, and then announced his choice on a stomach-churning ESPN special, that may have redefined callow narcissism. Going to Miami, perhaps the worst sports town on the planet, to play with Dwyane Wade and fellow free agent superstar Chris Bosh turned the stomachs of NBA fans, coaches, and the Mt. Rushmore of middle-aged NBA legends, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley.
But if his choice left something to be desired, the backlash against James in Cleveland spoke to something far more insidious. The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert posted a bizarre screed where he accused James of “cowardly betrayal.” The next day he approached slander, accusing James of effectively throwing playoff games during his Cavaliers tenure. Cleveland “fans” took to the streets and burned James’ jersey and his family required a police escort to leave town. The NBA fined Gilbert $100,000 for his comments and fans offered to pay the fine.
The awful irony is that Cleveland is the home foreclosure capital of the United States and Gilbert earned his fortune earned as CEO of Quicken Loans, offering zero money down mortgages and reaping he benefits from the misery produced (2009-20010 were the most profitable years for Quicken Loans on record.) It’s a remarkable sign of our times that a person, Dan Gilbert, who has been one of the profiteers of our collective misery, becomes a Cleveland folk hero while Lebron James has to run for his life.
But it’s not the only sign of our times. Politics are not only intruding on the world of sports from the right flank. Boisterous demonstrations have greeted Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks whenever they play on the road. 17 separate cities have become places where protest has come right to the park. In some cities, the protest hasn’t confined itself to the front gates but made its way onto the field of play.
The uniting theme of these actions has been to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix in protest of the vile anti-immigrant legislation that now defines the state. Sometimes you can tell the justness of your cause by those who stand against you, and it was MLB Commissioner Bud Selig who has damned protestors for daring to invade his pristine sport with concerns “best left to politicians.” By extension, Selig was also damning the several dozen ballplayers have spoken out against Arizona’s laws. As St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols said, "I'm opposed to it. How are you going to tell me that, me being Hispanic, if you stop me and I don't have my ID, you're going to arrest me? That can't be.”
To have someone of Pujols’ stature speak out was a moment of hope. Then the star slugger decided to join his manager Tony La Russa at Glenn Beck’s 100,000 plus “I have a scheme” rally at the mall. Sportswriter Buzz Bissinger tweeted that Beck was a Nazi and excoriated La Russa and Pujols for lending their legitimacy to the gathering. Word was that more than a few of Pujols teammates weren’t happy to see him do it either. Then his first eight games after attending this farce Pujols went 3 of 26, with one RBI, effectively ending his opportunity to become the first National League player since “Ducky” Medwick in 1937 to win the Triple Crown, while his team went into a full-scale-swoon. This time, Bud Selig couldn’t rouse himself to criticize the people involved for mixing his sacred, virginal-white world of sports with politics. It was a fitting end to a polarizing, bitter summer in the sports-lovin’ USA….. and the NFL season couldn’t start soon enough.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.