Here we have what are indubitably and without argument, the top seven collisions of sports and politics in 2010 that didn’t involve an elbow and Barack Obama’s mouth. Why seven and not ten? Deflation!
7 - Kye Allums makes history. The Jackie Robinson of 2010 goes by the name of Kye Allums. In November, Allums, a forward for the women’s basketball team at George Washington University, became the first openly transgender player in NCAA hoops history. Allums, who is biologically female, but identifies as male is postponing any medical procedures because he wants to keep his scholarship on the women's team and play ball.
The repercussions of Allums decision to go public are still a great unknown. Transgender athletes throw into question the idea pounded into out heads from t-ball that boys play on one team and girls compete on another. Why do we separate athletes at the youngest possible age on the basis of something so fluid and mutable as gender? As more trans athletes come out, expect this question to go mainstream.
Allums ascent, as well as the uniformly positive reaction he received from teammates and the NCAA is a remarkable tribute to trans individuals and organizations who have in recent years insisted on a seat at the table when discussing, debating, and demanding LGBT rights. It’s impossible to imagine a Kye Allums going public even five years ago. But demonstrations like the October 2009 200,000 strong National Equality March, which gathered right next to Allums dormitory at GW, has made its impact felt. Perhaps Allums should be higher on this list. But the fact that he’s not, speaks to the warm reception he’s received and the fact that even in America, ideas do change.
6 – The sister cities of Vancouver and Johannesburg. It’s hard to imagine two more different cities than Vancouver, Canada and Johannesburg, South Africa. But they were chained at the lef in 2010, co-victims of 21st century international sport. Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and South Africa of course was the site of the World Cup. As someone who skulked the streets of both locales before the start of the spectacle, the similarities were striking. Both places had citizens nervous about the growth of police powers and shredding of civil liberties in advance of the tournaments. Both places had whole areas of housing moved or demolished to make way for sports-related facilities. Both places, in tight economic times, saw billions of public money siphoned off at the directive of FIFA and the IOC. As Johannesburg councilor Sipho Masigo said about the removal of the poor, "Homelessness and begging are big problems in the city. You have to clean your house before you have guests. There is nothing wrong with that."
This is what happens when powerful, stateless actors use sports as neoliberal Trojan Horses to enforce service industry work and heightened police powers (also known as “the new normal”). Harsha Walia of the Olympic Resistance Network said to me in January, "We are seeing increasing resistance across the country as it becomes more visible how these Games are a big fraud." We will see if this resistance continues in 2011 in London, already the site of vibrant protests, as the 2012 Olympics in the UK are in the distance.
5 – Lebron and the law of unintended consequences: No matter the record of his Miami Heat, the free agent odyssey of Lebron James would have made this list. Lebron’s shocking decision to take less money and join forces with two other marquee free agents, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is still creating aftershocks. That Lebron would damage his brand, suffer statistically, and plummet in the public’s eye was predictable enough. (Although taking less money to play with your friends was for some reason received more enthusiastically when free agent pitcher Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies. No fans burned his jersey either.) But the effect on the league was far less foreseeable
I was on record not just hating but HATING Lebron’s move to Miami. As a basketball junkie, I couldn’t stand the idea of Lebron taking a backseat to Dwyane Wade and becoming the most talented second banana in NBA history. I thought it was like Jimi Hendrix volunteering to play rhythm guitar. Watching the Heat the last two weeks, I can say that not only was I wrong, I was an idiot.
Forget about Lebron’s individual stats or forgoing the dream of becoming “the next Michael Jordan.” The unexpected consequence of the Big Three has been far more important. In the early 1980s, it was a given that you needed three Hall of Fame caliber players to contend for a title. For every Lakers trio of Magic, Kareem and Worthy there were the Celtics answering with Bird, Parish, and McHale. The Philadelphia 76ers eked their way into the conversation by winning the title in 1983, with Moses Malone, Dr. J, and the utterly underrated Andrew Toney.
But in the bloated, over-expanded, Jordan and post-Jordan NBA, we became used to the idea that to succeed a team needed one great player, (your Jordan) a stellar second banana (Pippen to Jordan, or Robin to Batman.) and a host of role players. The Heat are turning back the clock. They remind me of those stocked 80s teams at their best. The effect on the rest of the league has been electric.
The Celtics are playing an inspired brand of ball, with Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen finding the fountain of middle-age. The Orlando Magic couldn’t stand pat with Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and the desiccated corpse formally known as Vince Carter so they reloaded their team on the fly and will now have Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jason Richardson to match up with the Heat. The Knicks as well, are playing better than they have in years, led by New York’s most important Jew since Woody Allen, Amar’e Stoudamire, alongside a revived Raymond Felton, and the potential-laden Danilo Gallinari. They now seem ready to trade Gallinari for Denver’s Carmelo Anthony. Why? They need their own big three to take on Miami. This trend away from “Batman, Robin, and the supporting cast” to “every team needs a big three” might create an NBA of haves and have-nots, with entire teams doomed to lottery purgatory. But come playoff time, we will have the best ball the NBA has seen in 25 years. Cue the Little Red Corvette.
4 – Athletes of the World Unite? If there is one thing sports fans and progressives have historically had in common, it’s contempt for athletes engaged in collective bargaining conflicts with ownership. “A pox on millionaires paid to play a game,” or so the thinking goes. But this year, as labor battles loom in both the NFL and the NBA, both leaders of their respective players associations, DeMaurice Smith and Billy Hunter have made unprecedented, and savvy pleas for public support. First, they have both made the case that we are not looking at strikes but owner-initiated lockouts, with the bosses shutting down the fun and games in the name of pay cuts. They’ve also made clear that now more than ever, there is economic common cause between athletes and fans.
As DeMaurice Smith said to me, “It’s not just us that gets locked out. Every stadium worker. Every waiter or waitress picking up an extra shift at the nearby restaurants. Anyone selling concessions while people tailgate. Each and every one of these hard working folks get locked out as well. Every city will get hit with on average $160 million in losses. Only the owners make money when there is a lockout, making four billion dollars from the networks and paying nothing in salaries. It's bigger than professional football. We all have an interest to avoid a lockout." He’s right. A victory for the players is a victory for all of us, not to mention it will highlight labor and labor struggle in a manner we haven’t seen in years. Smith has said that he will send players or NFLPA reps to any union meeting that wants to hear their side of things. Here’s hoping people take him up on that.
3 – UConn Huskies: when disrespect becomes a point of pride. This should be a moment of celebration and triumph for the UConn Huskies basketball team... the women that is. The team led by the great Maya Moore just surpassed what many thought was the most unassailable record in NCAA basketball: the 1971-1974 Bill Walton UCLA Bruins mark of 88 victories in a row. Yet instead of celebrating this remarkable accomplishment, the default reaction by much of the media has been to denigrate. So angst-ridden has been the response, you would think that UConn coach Geno Auriemma was pulling down the pants of some of these sports columnists and pointing out their shortcomings. Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun Times wrote,“Here’s a news flash for Auriemma: You’re not chasing UCLA’s record of 88 consecutive victories under John Wooden. You didn’t tie it and you’re not going to break it. That’s a men’s basketball record. You coach a women’s team. A women’s team can’t break a men’s record any more than a men’s team can break a women’s record.”
Potash also wrote, “Auriemma should be happy that established media are buying the idea that UConn is breaking UCLA’s record and giving him a soapbox to whine about the lack of respect women’s basketball receives in the sporting world. Women’s basketball gets what it deserves. Probably more than it deserves if you include a professional league that is attached to the NBA like an oxygen machine.”
I’m glad Potash wrote what he did because it gave my SLAM Magazine compadre Ben York, the chance to write this sizzling response: “Women’s basketball ‘gets what it deserves.’ Interesting. So, for playing their hearts out because they love the game and fighting for respect in America and beyond, they get bigotry in return? I don’t fully understand the logic behind that but, then again, I’m just a dumb women’s basketball writer. Additionally, no matter how many times David Stern says it, people seemingly don’t get it. The WNBA isn’t leaching off the NBA. In fact, Stern budgeted it to break even this past year rather than the hundreds of millions of dollars the NBA is losing each year. But we can just blame that on the women too, right?” Damn. York just served up some tasty Potash.
2 - Protestas at the park. In 2010, as the right wing rhetoric on immigration reached a dangerous - and largely unchallenged - pitch, something rather remarkable happened. People protested in the name of immigrant rights before Major League baseball games. In 19 different cities, the ballpark became a place where immigrant-rights activists congregated and spoke out. The protests without fail coincided with the arrival of the Arizona Diamondbacks who became much to their chagrin, "the traveling road show" of Arizona's avalanche of anti-immigrant laws.
While the Arizona Diamondbacks were becoming baseball pariahs, the state’s NBA team took a different approach. Amidst a playoff series against the rival Spurs, the entire team stood up to the state. The Suns came out on onto the court on cinco de mayo in a state where 70% supported these laws, in jerseys that read simply Los Suns. As the great two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash said, ‘It’s racial profiling. Things we don't want to see and don't need to see in 2010." It was the first time in sports history an entire team had come out as one on the question of political principle and it just gave more confidence to demonstrators as the summer wore on.
The size of the protests at the park varied drastically from a dozen people with leaflets to over 500 confidently marching on the field. In some stadiums there were banner drops during the game, in others people even ran onto the field. But each was significant because with each link it created the confidence and feel of a national movement. As the summer continued, two developments grew out of these protests: several dozen major league baseball players spoke out against Arizona's laws (which makes sense given the large number of Latinos in Major League ) and they developed a national focus: moving the 2011 All-Star game from Arizona. There is talk that the demos will continue on opening day as the push continues for Bud Selig to do the right thing before July. The idea that Arizona would be rewarded with the All-Star Game for codifying discrimination is something that Bud Selig, near the end of his time as commissioner, should examine very closely.
1 – America’s love affair with Michael Vick?: It’s Michael Vick, right? How could the number one story not be Michael Vick? Here is someone who three months ago was listed as one of the least popular athletes in the country. Now he has the hottest selling jersey. Here is someone who spent almost two years in Leavenworth. Now he is in high demand to speak at high schools around the country. Here is someone who was picketed by PETA for his past cruelty toward the pit bulls he trained and then killed. Now gives well-received interviews about how he dreams of once again being a dog owner. Here is someone who in 2006 gave a one-fingered salute to his hometown fans who on Sunday’s post-game press conference credibly lectured his vanquished N.Y. Giants opponents on “sportsmanship.” Here is a player who barely got on the field last year and now has division opponents approaching him after games for autographs.
If Tiger Woods in 2009, represented the most dizzying fall of grace in sports history, then Michael Vick has to take the prize for most jaw-dropping comeback. Why the love for Vick? Is it because, in a country with two million people behind bars, prison just isn’t the stigma it once was? Do people really believe this is a changed man? Or is it because Vick is just so damn incredible on the field, he slakes our national thirsts for both escapism and excellence? I’m not sure I know or that it matters. But I do know, the volatility of the Vick saga speaks to a larger volatility beyond the arena of sports. 2010 was quite the ride.
2011: you’re next.