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Posts Tagged ‘sports’

Inspiring holiday stuff

Gainesville State School is located 75 miles north of Dallas, next to a town of 15,000.  It was originally a girls’ school, but became co-ed in1974 and eventually all-male in 1988.  The school offers courses in agriculture, horticulture, welding, and business in addition to the standard high school curriculum.

Gainesville State is also a maximum-security youth prison facility.  Incoming students are an average of three years below grade level in reading and four years behind in math, and less than 30% will return to High School upon re-entry into society.

The school has a football team.  Lacking adequate practice time, space, and equipment, the Gainesville State Tornadoes are understandably lousy.  Up against prep school teams with involved parents, endless resources, and home field advantage, Gainesville scored a total of two touchdowns en route to a miserable 0-8 start.

Kris Hogan is head football coach at Grapevine Faith, a Christian school located just outside Dallas.  The Grapevine Lions are high priests in the Texas Football Temple (services Friday evening like Jews).  The Lions made the state title game in 2007, and returned this season with a strong 7-2 record.

Coach Hogan decided to do a good turn for the boys from Gainesville.  With the overmatched prison team on the schedule for the season finale, Hogan emailed team parents and fans requesting that half the group cheer for the visitors.  “Here’s the message I want you to send,” he wrote: “You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.”  Faced with understandably confused parents and players, he stuck to his concept:  “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

Hogan’s commitment converted the unbelievers.  Some 200 hometown fans, approximately half the crowd, sat in the visitors’ bleachers cheering for Gainesville State.  Additionally, for probably the first time in football history, the road team was met with a spirit line, banner to run through, and dedicated cheerleading squad.

Other schools have done things for Gainesville, including providing the students with meals and small gifts.  However, no one had ever given them a cheering section.  It meant a lot more than some trinkets or a snack.  As a Tornadoes lineman explained:  “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games.  You can see it in their eyes. They’re lookin’ at us like we’re criminals. But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!”

This wasn’t The Longest Yard. Gainesville was severely overmatched, and Faith went up 33-0 to start the game.  Eventually, however, Gainesville managed two touchdowns on the day on which three of their players had been cut from the team; released from prison.

The score didn’t matter.  In another football first, the head coach of the losing team was doused with Gatorade:

I know people who teach in the prison system, including both maximum-security adult prisons and facilities like Gainesville for youth offenders.  Sadly, adult offenders including those serving lifetime sentences often have better access to educational programs than seventeen-year old first-time offenders who should still have their whole lives ahead of them.  In New York State, this is partly the understandable legacy of Attica and partly due to the fact that D.O.C.S. is its own agency whereas underage offenders are folded into the Office of Children and Family Services.  (I’d be curious if anyone has had any experience with other states; feel free to post in the comments.  New York is actually regarded as one of the best prison systems in the country for adults, in terms of rehabilitation, security for both prisoners and staff, and a relative lack of gang activity.)

The boys on the Gainesville squad are not unrepentant thugs, not inherently violent kids, not the simple stereotypes too often assigned to convicts.  Only those who have served at least half of their sentence, passed all of their classes, and maintained spotless behavioral records are allowed on the team.  Gainesville State head coach Mark Williams explained the importance of seeing his players in human, humane terms:

“A lot of these kids don’t have hope because they’ve taken a wrong path, somebody’s told them that they’re going to be negative,” he said. “They’re not negative. They were very positive tonight. They were just like the other kids.”

After four quarters of football, the winning players greeted their parents and friends while the losing team returned to their bus under watch by a dozen armed guards.  Before the game, and ten minutes from the final whistle, the Gainesville State Tornadoes were faceless statistics in America’s best growth industry.  For 60 minutes, as Gainesville superintendent Gwan Hawthorne put it, the boys “[felt] like any other high school football team.”

A winless season never ended so well.

(For more on this story, see Rick Reilly’s detailed account and the Waco Tribune‘s local coverage.)

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The other day, Mireille introduced the weird philo-semitism of Ajax Football Club.  Ajax fans, however, are not alone in appropriating Jewishness.  A number of teams worldwide identify with Judaism.  Among them are M.T.K. Hungaria and England’s Tottenham Hotspur.

There are multiple reasons a club gets tagged as “Jewish.”  MTK was founded in 1888 by Jewish businessmen.  Through the end of World War I, this held little stigma.  However, post-war nationalist politicians explicitly attacked MTK in the press, and the team was shut down in the 1940s.  Although the Communists revived the club under a series of political patrons, it still remains identified as the “Jewish” team; which may explain their poor attendance despite an impressive league record.

Rival club Ferencvaros is considered the “authentic” Hungarian side.  It’s a pretty explicit link, framed openly in the political discourse by right-wing MPs:

“Those who consider themselves proper, working-class Hungarians oppose the spirit of business conduct practised by upper-class Hungarians with foreign roots.  The upper- class supports MTK, and Fradi [Ferencvaros] supporters have always felt that they are the oppressed, ordinary children of the nation, while the Jews have secured their place in high society.”

Ferencvaros fans chant “the trains are leaving for Auschwitz,” among other things, and through the 1990s celebrated goals with Nazi salutes.  These days the club has bigger problems, having been demoted to the Hungarian second division due to financial mismanagement.  Predictably, supporters blamed the “red media” and the Jews.

Tottenham is a different animal.  The club has no particularly Jewish roots in its founding.  It earned the badge of Zion either because of the large number of Jews in the White Hart Lane neighborhood; or because of a 1970s television show.  Whichever the cause, opposing fans have long targeted Spurs supporters with chants about Hitler and gas chambers.  Obviously, the great majority of Tottenham fans are gentiles.  They have met these taunts by building the “Yid Army” identity, a strange co-optation of Jewishness if there ever was one.  Franklin Foer, whose book is the source for much of this post, relates the story of Manchester City fans chanting the following during a game against Tottenham in the 1980s:

“We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,

We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,

Singing I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin and you ain’t

We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t.”

How did Spurs fans reply?  A handful went around their group identifying Jewish supporters, and then brought them together to simultaneously drop their pants and wave their dicks at the Manchester City crowd.  Statement made.

What does it mean when a largely gentile group decides to identify as Jewish?  Michael Brenner, author of Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, notes that Spurs fans also began flying Argentine flags during and after the Falklands War.  The co-optation of Jewish identity is an attempt to build solidarity and kinship through victimhood.  Marginalization, real or perceived, adds depths to the supporters’ emotional ties to their club.  Unlike MTK, there is no historical Jewish context for Tottenham supporters to draw on.  Simply, as Brenner cites one fan saying, “Spurs supporters…really like putting two fingers up to the rest of the world.”

Judaism is useful shorthand for any number of things: defiance, group unity, or even hipness.  Witness the counterculture philo-semitism of Holland’s greatest club.  During the 1960s, it was Johann Cruyff and Ajax whose “total football” trashed traditional formations and forced players, coaches, and fans to rethink the game.  Cruyff, who was not Jewish, had a pregame ritual of eating Kosher salami and decorating his pep talks with Yiddish phrases.  The club’s Jewish physiotherapist recalled, “the players liked to be Jewish even though they weren’t,” and Cruyff himself has been spotted wearing a yarmulke in Israel.  Foer suggests a link between the cultural radicalism of Amsterdam in the 60s and the faux-Jewishness of the Ajax clubhouse.  While it is obviously impossible to prove directly, it can’t be a coincidence that the one club revolutionizing football was the one trying hardest to look like outsiders.

It’s strange watching non-Jews revel in Jewishness, probably not unlike how Chuck D must feel knowing that rap is mostly consumed by suburban white teenagers.  Fake Jewish identity gives the gentile fan something to cling to, a sense of victimhood and authenticity without the historical baggage that would actually justify those feelings.  (All the sympathy, half the Holocaust!)  There’s an old saying that a philo-semite is simply “an anti-semite who loves Jews.”  That may be a little unfair, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of those gentile Spurs fans voting BNP before donning their Yid Army gear for match day.

Go out and get Foer’s book for more on this and other random social insights drawn from the beautiful game.

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Our local (American) football club has a uniquely unpleasant history.  Consider this image of an elderly black fan dressed in faux-native garb.  What makes it so incongruous is not simply the appropriation of someone else’s culture; it’s the fact that the Redskins are historically the most racist franchise in football against blacks too.  Owner George Preston Marshall, the franchise’s patriarch, brought the team to Washington in 1937.  NFL clubs began signing black players in 1946, but Marshall held out until 1962.  He rationalized being the last franchise to sign black players, long after all other teams had:  “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”  He eventually backed down when JFK’s Secretary of the Interior threatened the lease on his stadium on grounds of discriminatory hiring practices.

This was only part of Marshall’s southern strategy.  When they came into the NFL, the Redskins were the league’s closest thing to a “southern” team.  (Franchises in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere would come later.)  Marshall aggressively marketed them to the south, and mostly drafted players from southern colleges.  His wife composed the lyrics to the team’s Dixie-lovin’ fight song “Hail to the Redskins.” Renowned sportswriter Shirley Povich once described Marshall as “one of pro football’s greatest innovators and its leading bigot.”

(In a possibly apocryphal story, head coach George Allen once called a play requested by Richard Nixon.  Allen’s son went on to greater fame.)

The Redskins obviously aren’t Marshall or Allen’s team anymore.  I like seeing them win as much as the next guy.  That said, the historical context still makes it a little incongruous seeing African-Americans old enough to have been raised under segregation all decked out in ‘Skins gear.

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I would imagine by now most people are aware of my aversion to using ethnic groups as sports mascots and how deeply bewildered I am by the fact that my home town’s football team happens to be the Redskins. I’m not even going to entertain the idea that the name isn’t racist– the very fact there is a debate over if ‘it is or isn’t’ shows the invisibility and disenfranchisement of Native peoples in the United States.

Often I illustrate how offensive this name is by saying something like: “Could you imagine if it were any other minority group? People would be up-in-arms over the San Fran Chinks or the Tri-State Area Jews.”

Tickle me surprised when I find out that there is in fact a Dutch football club nicknamed the Jews. According to Ye Olde Wikipedia:

This nickname for Ajax fans dates back to before World War II, when Amsterdam was home to most of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews and the Ajax stadium itself was located near a Jewish neighbourhood. Most Dutch Jews were killed by the Nazis during the occupation, and today very little remains of Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter. But the tradition at Ajax survived.

The truth of this account is still up for debate.

Sociological Images has an interesting dissection of the appropriation of Israeli political symbols by Ajax fans and this NYT article spotlights some of the more sinister anti-Semitic antics of both rivals and fans. This includes Nazi salutes, people shouting “Hamas! Hamas!” and hissing to imitate the sound of gas entering a death chamber. Let me be the first to say: Keep it classy, European futball fans.

And what of the Ajax fans who are actually Jewish? Well, many of them reportedly find the atmosphere so hostile they are unable to attend matches. Quoth a former member of the board of directors: “A lot of Jews all over the world believe that Ajax fans are proud to call themselves Jews, but it’s a kind of hooliganism.”

The outsider status fans feel by labeling themselves Jews has become a badge of honor, they think of themselves as being part of a distinctly oppressed subculture and gain a sense of group cohesion from that. The only problem is that they aren’t actually members of this oppressed ethnic group and appropriating the symbols and rhetoric of that struggle for the sake of sport is totally . Despite Ajax’s best efforts to nip this thing in the bud (spurned not by the rampant antisemitism, but by a chant calling a star player’s girlfriend a whore), decades of identification can’t be stopped–I mean, honestly, do you expect all those gentiles with the Star of David tattooed on their shoulder to just drop it?

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Don’t buy a Bulgarian football club

I know it’s on your to-do list, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  I also know you read the Sofia Echo, so you’ve seen this already:

Holding the presidency of a football club can be hazardous – even deadly – in Bulgaria. Dozens of examples over the past 19 years attest to this. The latest is that of Yordan Andreev, president of second division Marek football club from the small southern town of Doupnitsa.

Andreev was beaten by two unidentified men on October 27, possibly in relation to match-fixing allegations.  This is standard operating procedure for Eastern European football, with club owners alternately being accused of crimes and shot at.  The Sofia Echo listed some cases from Bulgaria:

Kostadin Hadjiivanov, owner, Belassitsa Football Club:  Arrested on smuggling charges.

Ivan Slavkov, president, Spartak Varna:  Charged with human trafficking and money laundering.

Angel Bonchev, president, Litex Lovech:  Kidnapped along with his wife.  (Both were found alive, she was unharmed but he was missing two fingers.)

There’s also Alexander Tassev, the third chairman of Lokomotiv Plovdiv to be murdered within two years.  (He had been under investigation for vote-buying and fuel smuggling.) Three football club chairmen were murdered in Bulgaria in 2004 alone.

Football is a nasty business in the former Soviet bloc.  The game is tainted by the hooligans, (often associated with paramilitaries,) and the mafia influence and violence.  Referees have been suspended and coaches and clubs investigated.  Serbian warlord Arkan once ran FK Obilic, and when he met a fitting end, his wife took over the club.  Unfortunately, the football fits its societies, so it’s unlikely that these problems can be addressed simply by sports oversight mechanisms.  Until the governments in the former Soviet bloc get a handle on organized crime, the football scene will continue to be tainted by violence.

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Don Haskins dead at 78

Don Haskins was the head basketball coach at Texas Western (now UTEP) in the 1960s.  Haskins made history in the 1965-1966 season when he started five black players in the national championship game against the University of Kentucky.  Although college basketball had already been integrated, Haskins’ Miners were the first all-black starting five to play for a title.  In the championship game, they defeated the top-ranked, all-white Wildcats, coached by four-time national title winner Adolph Rupp.

Haskins denied wanting to make a social statement.  Rather, he insisted, he simply wanted to start his best players.  Assistant coach Moe Iba explained: “He’d have played five kids from Mars if they were his best five players.”  Whatever his intent, Haskins and his team made history and paid for it.  The team was not offered the customary national champion’s appearance on Ed Sullivan; much worse were the barrage of death threats to the players and coach.  Haskins called the weeks after winning the title “the worst time of his life,” and the media spread rumours questioning the players’ academic credentials. (Four of the seven black players on Texas Western received their degrees, while the remaining three went on to careers as a detective, a buyer for El Paso Natural Gas, and an Executive with a Houston liquor company.)

The full Times obituary is here.

…and on a poetic side note:  Head coach Tubby Smith, who led Kentucky to the 1998 national title, is the son of a sharecropper.

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