I want to thank Dr. Christian Christensen for his
principled disagreement with my recent columns about
Diego Maradona and Terrell Owens.
However, let's not confuse being principled with being
correct. His arguments reflect common views about
sports, which I believe must be discarded if we are to
develop a fuller understanding of how these innocuous
games influence our everyday lives.
The two columns in question are in fact quite
different. One lauds soccer legend Maradona for
helping lead recent demonstrations against George W.
Bush and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas
agreement in Argentina. The other column simply argues
that Owens, the brilliant and often obnoxious NFL
star, had been unfairly deactivated in violation of
the league's collective bargaining agreement. Owens
suspension was not for his play, but his off the field
words and efforts to secure a new contract. I, like leagueoffans.org Ralph Nader, thought this was wrong.
Maradona and TO are two very different athletes.
Comparing them is like comparing Muhammad Ali and Hulk
Hogan. But Dr. Christensen conflates both columns, and
by extension both athletes, saying I am uncritically celebrating two people who are grotesquely rich "cogs in the global corporate sports machine" and deserve neither solidarity nor support.
For Dr. Christensen, Maradona practices a "double
standard" in protesting the FTAA since he has made
millions as "the poster child" for globalization and
sells goods on his website that cost more than a
typical Latin American family earns in a month. As for
Owens, he is an overpaid showboat who, as Dr.
Christensen informs us, makes as much as "a person
earning $30,000 . for 333 years". The point seems to
be - stop the presses - that top-tier athletes make
ungodly sums of money.
This is certainly true. But surely Dr. Christensen
doesn't believe we should go back to the days -- a
mere 30 years ago -- when athletes worked in quarries
in the off season to pay their bills; when health care
wasn't part of a standard contract; when players were
bound to their teams like chattel. The fact is that
athletes make these sums of money because a generation
ago people like Curt Flood sacrificed their careers
and union struggles were waged to get a bigger piece
of the sports pie. The fact is that sports is a bigger
business than US Steel. If players made less, it
wouldn't mean lower ticket prices; only that George Steinbrenner would have another gold mast on his yacht. Of course, salaries for top athletes are obscene, but certainly far less obscene than what's made in the owner's box.
Maradona himself was the first major soccer star to
demand that international labor standards be applied
to soccer and that teams should open the books. As for
Owens, the typical NFL player plays for only four
years and has a life expectancy of 69, seven years
below the national average. And there is a lifetime
of hideous injuries to go with it. Think about Johnny
Unitas, the greatest quarterback who ever lived, dying
at the age of 59, unable to even grip a ball. Owens,
in the world of no guaranteed contracts, should have
the right to do what every owner does every off
season, and that's tear up his contract and demand
more - no matter if he's a jerk or not (people weren't
nearly so upset when NFL good guy Hines Ward did
something similar this off season).
In fact, if high salaries somehow stain athletes, we
should have shunned Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and
Billie Jean King in the 70s. We should have questioned
Martina Navratilova's commitment to Gay rights in the
80s (after all, she profited from a homophobic
"system") and NBA star Etan Thomas should have been
kicked off the stage at the September 24th anti-war demonstrations.
I believe that this is a very basic question of "which
side are you on?" When Diego Maradona fights in the
streets against Bush and the FTAA, I will link arms
with him any day. Maradona, in Dr. Christensen's eyes,
is the "poster child of global capitalism". This is
true insofar as he rose from abject poverty to make
money around the world. But I believe that this only
makes his stance in Argentina more powerful. Would Dr. Christensen prefer that Maradona be like Pele, taking millions from mega national corporations, appearing in photo ops with dictators and being a mouthpiece for the system? I will take Maradona any day, someone who understands - as do the masses of Argentina from bitter experience - that an economic system with the power to create one soccer millionaire while impoverishing a nation is nothing to celebrate.
Admittedly, the TO question is far more complicated.
As I wrote in my piece, no one should confuse him with
Nelson Mandela. But if a trend begins where teams can
suspend players not for their performance on the
field, but for what they say off the field - I think
we have a problem. You don't like TO's attitude, then
bench him. You don't want him on the team, cut him.
But to "deactivate" him and flout the collective
bargaining agreement in the process, is something that
must be opposed. It's a slap in the face not to TO but
every player who fought - and fights - in the NFLPA
for a stronger union. For Dr. Christenson to write,
"It is an insult to working people (you know, the
people who make as much in one year as Owens makes for
5 minutes of football) to discuss this situation as if
it has anything to do with real working life" I think
displays a profound misunderstanding of how sports and
culture can influence our world. Anytime someone takes
such a public hit, in clear violation of their union
contract, it sends a message felt all too clearly in
many union shops that labor exists to get slapped.
I appreciate Dr. Christensen looking at my work with a
critical eye. I also understand how ugly the dance
between big money and pro-sports can be. This is all
the more reason to stand with players like Maradona
when they get down from their hyper-exalted perch, and
Dave Zirin's new book "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is now in stores. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.