I love sports.
But I don’t often write about sports.
Maybe that’s because I don’t think my usual core of readers would be interested (That, even though I’ve told my friend Eden that I don’t really care what the fuck they like. I’ll write what I want and take what comes – or doesn’t come).
I love sports.
And sometimes I detest sports.
Why the dichotomy?
Because I’ve become a realist about sports, some might say a cynic and, in my most critical moments, some would call me a downright hater.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to think of sports as the great panacea, a nostrum for all the world’s problems. Athletics was, for me, that most pure form of human engagement. Sports was the classroom where the young could learn and hone values esteemed by society; dedication, hard work, perseverance, loyalty, leadership, patience, accountability and respect.
Hand two enemies a ball and they can become the best of friends.
I picked up those notions in my youth and carried them through to my early thirties.
And then I was struck – hard – by the reality of the darker elements of sports.
It was a disappointing realization at first; not unlike learning that there’s no Santa Claus, or that the love of your life is banging your best friend. As disappointing as spending your last buck on a hot dog and getting it served to you with ketchup slathered all over it
And so, I found the past week’s top stories in sports to be an interesting confluence of the good and the bad, the elements that inspire and dishearten, and frankly, disgust.
Basketball legend Bill Russell died last Sunday. When I was a youth, I couldn’t stand Russell. I didn’t think of him as a bad guy, per se, but he was the villain. He was the guy who, year after year, stood in the key like a granite block, and in the way of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers, whenever they seemed poised to win the NBA title.
Russell’s name always comes up in those, “who was greatest,” discussions, those arguments that are never, ever settled, and never, ever, will be. .
Russell’s career highlights and achievements are legion and legendary:
11× NBA champion (1957, 1959–1966, 1968, 1969)
5× NBA Most Valuable Player (1958, 1961–1963, 1965)
12× NBA All-Star (1958–1969)
NBA All-Star Game MVP (1963)
3× All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963, 1965)
8× All-NBA Second Team (1958, 1960–1962, 1964, 1966–1968)
NBA All-Defensive First Team (1969)
4× NBA rebounding champion (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965)
NBA Lifetime Achievement Award (2017)
NBA anniversary team (25th, 35th, 50th, 75th)
No. 6 retired by Boston Celtics
2× NCAA champion (1955, 1956)
NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (1955)
UPI College Player of the Year (1956)
2× Consensus first-team All-American (1955, 1956)
WCC Player of the Year (1956)
Bill Russell died. That’s the bad news. It might also, in an odd sort of way, be just what the sport’s world needed. More on that later.
What else was going on in sports this past week?
Normally I would spit on stories about golf. Don’t know the game, don’t understand it, don’t play it and don’t like it.
LIV Golf though, is another matter altogether – an odious matter.
LIV is a golf tour, one that conflicts with the long established PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Tour.
LIV has the financial backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund managed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Known as MBS). You know MBS, he’s the guy who gave the green light to the murder and dismemberment of journalist and US citizen Jamal Khashoggi. MBS is the same guy who’s defended China’s brutal persecution of Uyghurs and Muslims. MBS is the guy who’s worked to defang global carbon emissions-reduction agreements (Because, you know, oil?).
And then there’s the malignancy that is Saudi Arabia itself, the monarchy that is notorious for its long list of human rights violations, and for its complicity with the 9/11 hijackers and al-Qaeda operations inside the U.S.
LIV has flooded money into its tour, and bathed in money, the golfers who have jumped from the PGA to play in the LIV Tour. When players are asked by the media why they would be willing to be the sports faces of the Saudis they present their own versions of the same stock answer. It goes something like, ‘the Saudis are trying to change,’ or ‘they’re trying to grow the game.’
Some simply feign ignorance about human rights violations. When asked about gay rights (Or lack of same) in Saudi Arabia, Jason Kokrak replied, “I don’t know enough about the subject to speak on it.”
Maybe it’s just me but whenever I was looking for a new employer, I usually tried to gain some insight into the type of outfit that would be issuing the paychecks.
It’s all bullshit of course. If you choose to be the face of an international pariah, at least have the testicular fortitude to admit that you’re doing it because MBS is handing out money like it’s candy. Don’t expect us to believe nonsense about “growing the game” when it’s all about growing your bank accounts.
LIV took center stage over the weekend when it held a tournament at Bedminster, in New Jersey. You might say that Bedminster is in the shadow of the Twin Towers, but the Twin Towers aren’t around to cast a shadow anymore.
It was a literal slap in the face of 9/11 survivors and family members of the deceased.
That Bedminster is a Trump property isn’t surprising. For his part, Trump brushed off any criticism, saying, “Well, nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11, unfortunately, and they should have.”
That’s in direct conflict with statements Trump made in 2016 acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11. But when has Trump ever been consistent when consistency doesn’t serve him?
In the end, LIV is just another version of “sports washing,” a relatively new term for the age-old practice of using sport as a tarnish remover.
Got a bad human rights record? Hey, no problem, just host an Olympics or a World Cup or a Grand Prix and the world will look the other way and ignore your murders, persecutions and genocides.
China and Russia were gifted with recent Olympics and Qatar gets the upcoming World Cup. If you’ve got enough monetary grease, the sports committees will bend over for you. This is why I no longer watch the Olympics and will not watch the World Cup.
Over the weekend, National Football League quarterback extraordinaire, Deshaun Watson learned his fate for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
What was it that Watson did?
Watson was allegedly looking for some extra services (aka happy endings) from masseuses whom he hired to administer what the masseuses assumed would be sports massages. Over the course of seventeen months, Watson hired sixty-six masseuses. Who does that? Out of over sixty you can’t find one who can satisfactorily get the knots out?
The first allegation of sexual impropriety, came in March of 2021 and it was followed by a host more. All told twenty-four lawsuits were filed against Watson, many of which described miniscule towels and an “erect penis.”
To be clear, Watson could have availed himself of team therapists but he chose to use private therapists who worked out of their homes.
For his part, Watson has denied the allegations though he decided to settle most of them out of court (as of this writing, one lawsuit of the two dozen is still pending).
Watson’s football fate was put in the hands of an arbiter, retired Federal Judge Sue L. Robinson, who issued a damning sixteen page report (link here) that confirms Watson’s guilt.
Why does this whole affair stink like that trout you caught last spring but forgot to take out of the trunk of your car?
Let’s start with Watson getting paid 10 mil for sitting on his ass in 2021 and then let’s move on to the Cleveland Browns giving him the keys to a bank vault.
In January of 2021, the talented quarterback asked to be traded by his team, the Houston Texans. When Watson’s trade demand wasn’t met, he decided to sit out the season. The team, apparently wanting the Watson massage brouhaha to simmer on a back burner, not only allowed Watson to sit on his ass all year, they paid him his $10.54 million dollar salary to do so.
During the past offseason, Watson was traded to the Cleveland Browns who signed him to a five year, $230,000,000 guaranteed contract. In 2022, Watson will earn a base salary of $690,000 and a signing bonus of $44,965,000.
What company would hire a guy who’s under the shadow of two dozen sexual misconduct lawsuits?
An NFL football team of course. Because, as college football coach Red Saunders once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The quote was alleged to have been repeated by former NFL coach, troglodyte and league deity, Vince Lombardi.
If Deshaun Watson was a second tier right guard and not one of the league’s premier quarterbacks, he’d now be applying for for a gig as a barista.
But that’s never the case when the athlete can likely lead a team to multiple playoffs and maybe a Super Bowl trophy.
For its part, the Browns issued a statement defending the signing. “It was pivotal that we, along with (Browns GM) Andrew Berry and (head coach) Kevin Stefanski, meet with Deshaun to have a straightforward dialogue, discuss our priorities, and hear directly from him on how he wants to approach his career on and off the field. He was humble, sincere, and candid. In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said the team had done a “comprehensive evaluation” of Watson’s situation. I’ve no doubt that they did a “comprehensive evaluation” of Watson’s QB rating and decided that any fallout over the signing will be smoothed over by a bright shiny Super Bowl trophy sitting in the team’s headquarters.
Oh, did I mention Watson’s punishment? He’s been suspended for six games, not even half the season, and was not fined. He will however miss out on about $300.000 dollars in salary — essentially pocket change.
The NFL was looking for a season long suspension and can appeal the suspension which would lead to a final decision by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee of his choosing. Watson’s camp, fearing a punishment more severe than the six games, jumped at Robinson’s decision.
Most of public opinion, aside from the rabid Browns fan base, and assorted Neanderthals and misogynists, has been one of outrage over this slap on the wrist.
In contrast, consider the case of quarterback Colin Kaepernick who, in 2016, started taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before games. Kaepernick’s protest was a statement against racial injustice that, of course, drew the ire of racist President Donald Trump and the self-styled “patriots” who deny that America has a race problem. Kaepernick played sparingly during 2016 due to injury. He played his last game for the San Francisco 49ers on Christmas Eve, 2016.
A quarterback more talented than many currently on NFL rosters, Kaepernick hasn’t had a spot on a roster since being released by the 49ers before the 2017 season. As it turned out, Kaepernick was blackballed by the league, which might lead one to believe that in National Football League-land, kneeling for human rights is a more egregious offense than being a sexual predator.
The LIV and Watson affairs weren’t all of the depressing news out of the sports world. There’s basketball great Kevin Durant’s demand to be traded, one year after signing a four year deal because, well, his stint with the Brooklyn Nets wasn’t all he’d hoped it would be. If you’re a superstar and you don’t like your deal then you can tell the world that your word on a legal document isn’t worth shit.
There was the Warriors Draymond Green asking for a max contract extension worth $164.2 million over the next five seasons, an extension that ends when Green turns 37. This is the Dray who averaged an uninspiring 7.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, hardly max numbers. Add to that, the fact that Green was benched in Game Four of the NBA Finals because his play stunk like the aforementioned trout left in the trunk.
Which brings me back to my comment that Bill Russell’s passing might’ve been just what the sport’s world needed.
Allow me to clarify. It wasn’t his passing, it’s been the remembrance. Russell’s death prompted memories of his greatness, his grace, dignity and his impact both on and off the court. Recollecting Bill Russell’s life has provided a brief antidote to the toxins that have poisoned sports recently.
On Monday, the day after Russell’s passing, respected sports journalist Michael Wilbon commented on Bill Russell, stating, “To me he [Bill Russell] was the most important person to put on a basketball uniform – ever.”
Decades before right wing-nut Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” for talking about politics, Bill Russell was practicing social activism.
In 1961, when Black members of his Boston Celtics team were refused service at a Lexington, Kentucky diner, Russell convinced his fellow Black teammates, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones and Al Butler to protest by refusing to play against the St. Louis Hawks. At game time, the Hawks Black players joined the protest and the game was played by the two team’s white players.
After returning to Boston, Russell stated, “I will not play any place again under those circumstances.”
Circumstances? Russell was faced with circumstances that would make lesser people wilt. He played his entire career for the Boston Celtics in a town, which at the time was, to put it kindly, not charitable to Black men.
During games, Celtic “fans” yelled epithets at Russell; “Go back to Africa,” “Baboon,” “Coon,” and of course, the “N” word.
In 1968, while playing on a road trip with the Celtics, and, ostensibly, the city of Boston, vandals broke into Russell’s home, and spray painted racist epithets on the walls, destroyed his trophy case and left feces on the bed.
In truth, Russell never played for the city of Boston; it was always for the Celtics. When his number 6 was retired by the team, Russell insisted that the jersey raising ceremony in the Boston Garden be a private one, before an empty gym.
For decades, I’d only known Bill Russell as the Lakers’ kryptonite, the guy who always kept Wilt at the doorstep to a championship. Later on I came to know Russell better.
After his playing and coaching days, Russell was a TV analyst and listening to his commentary I learned about the game. I also got a glimpse into Russell’s infectious personality and his intellect.
Many years later I learned about Russell’s activism, learned that Russell, at age 29 joined Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell a much deserved Medal of Freedom.
Two years later, on the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Russell opined in an op-ed in the Boston Globe,
“Now, lately, I’ve heard a lot about how far we’ve come in 50 years. But from my point of view, you only register progress by how far you have to go. … I’m here to join you, and to implore you, the fight has just begun. We can never accept the status quo until the word progress is taken out of our vocabulary.
“I thank you for being here and (want) to encourage you, young and old, men and women, to understand that progress can only be measured by how far we have to go. I want to thank you for letting me speak to you and to encourage you, as we used to say in the projects, keep on keeping on.”
In June of 2020, Russell took to Twitter to assail President Donald Trump. Above a photo of himself kneeling, Russell tweeted, “#Trump you projected your narrative that #TakingAKnee is disrespectful & #UnAmerican it was never about that! You are divisive & a coward. It takes true courage 2 stand 4 what is right & risk your life in the midst of a #pandemic #Proud2kneel.”
Two months later, Russell contributed a powerful essay to the magazine, Slam (link here) in which he discussed his fight against racism.
The day after Bill Russell’s death I heard Michael Wilbon opine that Russell could indeed be considered the greatest basketball player ever because, stats aside, he achieved his greatness under pressures that recent and current players could never imagine
Bill Russell died peacefully at the age of 88, with his wife by his side. That was only right.
RIP Bill Russell. Your memory has temporarily washed away some of the grime that’s soiled sports lately. Your legacy will outlive and outshine the histories of the Deshaun Watsons and the LIV golfers.
9 thoughts on “A Sports Story: Love, Hate, LIV, Watson and Bill”
This is a wonderful tribute to Bill Russell. Russell was a big man, figuratively an literally. He was not afraid to take a stand. We lost another hero of mine last week, Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhuru.
Hello John, So sorry for the late response. We’ve lost a few recently. Nichelle Nichols, Vin Skully, David McCullough, and Olivia Newton John. They seem to go in waves.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
LIKE (the “Like” at the bottom of your post won’t ‘take’ no matter what I do).
Thank you. I wish I had the solution. The WordPress folks tell me it’s because you aren’t signed into your account.
Bill Russell, as you pointed out, played for a team based in a city that historically lagged behind on racial issues. The Red Sox could have had Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Instead, their stubborn refusal to integrate led them to being the last team to integrate in 1959 with the “immortal” Pumpsie Green. They could have had Robinson and Mays but chose not to. Russell’s activism for decades says everything about him.
I agree with you about the dichotomy of sports. MLB’s blind eye towards steroids for too long is one example. For any Giants fans reading this, Barry Bonds was a cheater who didn’t deserve to be the all-time home run king. That honor to me still resides with Henry Aaron. Some of the hypocrisy with the Olympics over the years equals the hypocrisy of many pro sports teams.
That golf tour you wrote about, no surprise that it exists and that at least a few of the participants don’t seem to be bothered by it. Money talks and it often talks louder than rational behavior is spoken of. Think of many athletes over the years who turn down a huge multi-million multi-year deal for one even more absurdly high, then tell reporters that they turned down the lower offer because “I’ve got to feed my family”. Strange how people making regular working world wages can manage to feed their families but multi-millionaire athletes can’t do so without grabbing the fattest paycheck offered to them.
Deshaun Watson being suspended for 6 games is no surprise unfortunately. He should have gotten a full year suspension. Some Cleveland sportswriters, notably Terry Pluto and Mary Kay Cabot, have written about their disgust that the Browns signed Watson at all and for arguably more money than he is worth, that worth including public opinion and overall decency. If he manages to lead them to a Super Bowl win, that will be what many fans will praise him for and conveniently forget about his off the field issues.
Another RIP goes to the late great Vin Scully, who by all accounts had a level of humility equal to his greatness as a broadcaster. Here in L.A., there has been much mourning over the loss of the man who in many respects was the shining star of the team he worked for.
Hi Scott, Thank you for the well thought out comment.
Where to start?
Since I posted, Watson’s case is front and center again since the NFL issued an objection and a new decision will come down. I’m figuring that Jimmy G will be quarterbacking the Browns this year when the new decision comes down sitting Watson out for the season.
“…no surprise that it exists and that at least a few of the participants don’t seem to be bothered by it.” NONE of the participants are bothered. A few have been honest and said they’re in it for the money – not that it makes theme any less despicable. I hate this whole sports washing phenomenon. It’s taken so much of the enjoyment out of sports.
Willie Mays: I recall the problems he had in the San Francisco Bay Area, being rejected by the Olympic Club. He also had trouble buying a home near St. Francis Wood because the seller feared backlash for selling to a Black man. I wish that I could say that we’ve overcome our racial problems. I wish I could – but I can’t.
See Paul? I was right!
You should write what you want to write, and you certainly know sports. This piece, however, is about so much more than sports. It’s about throwing money at people who don’t have the intellectual capacity to live honourably.
I have zero respect for the golfers who hopped over to LIV. They can try to convince the public they’re unaware of Saudi politics; they might even believe their own lies. And if they travel in circles of other amoral, ignorant, misogynist white men, then it all works out for them. Greedy bastards — I hope they burn big time. I don’t care for the sport, but at least their biggest name, Tiger Woods, did not defect. I read he was offered 800 million to join, and he turned it down.
Bill Russell <<<< SO much respect for this man.
Thanks for writing this terrific piece,
Excellent piece, Paul. Well said.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting.