Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ferguson: The St. Louis Rams 5

FIVE MEMBERS of the St. Louis Rams formed another team on Sunday. But the team that Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens joined over the weekend had more than touchdowns in mind. As the nation grapples again with race and police practice — components of the Gordian knot that defines and cripples America — their action on Sunday raises questions of where the line between professional athletics and personal expression about a social wrong is really drawn, or whether that line should even exist.

Before the Rams flattened the hapless Oakland Raiders 52-0, the five Rams players sprinted from the tunnel during pregame introductions at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis with their hands in the air in the posture of surrender, a nod to the “hands up, don't shoot” meme employed across the country by those protesting the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, by former Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

"We kind of came collectively together and decided we wanted to do something," tight end Jared Cook told ESPN later. “We haven't been able to go down to Ferguson to do anything because we have been busy. Secondly, it's kind of dangerous down there and none of us want to get caught up in anything. So we wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world.”

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Protests over the protests started right away. Interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, Mike Ditka, that leading light of social commentary, said he was said “embarrassed for the players more than anything, They want to take a political stand on this? Well, there are a lot of other things that have happened in our society that people have not stood up and disagreed about.”

The Time Out Sports Bat & Grill, in St. Louis, took the unusual step of disavowing the Rams team completely. In a tweet on Monday, the bar management announced it would now pledge allegiance to the Kansas City Chiefs, a cross-border NFL rival, “due to the bone headed ‘hands up, don't shoot’ act by the number of Rams players.”

On Wednesday, in a tweet that dialed back the position of the first one, the bar management tried to explain itself, using the CAPS LOCK mode common to online hysterics. “We are NOT TAKING SIDES ON THE FERGUSON TRAGEDY. We DISAGREE WITH BRINGING THE PROTEST TO A NATIONWIDE PROFESSIONAL SPORTING EVENT,” it read, drawing a tidy but nonexistent dividing line between sports and society.

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THE OUTRAGE against the Rams players who had the nerve to exercise their constitutional rights of free expression has an underlying assumption that, because they work for the quasi-monopoly of the National Football League, they’ve somehow vacated those rights, that they’re no more than slave labor in football uniforms.

The counter-argument will be that, as employees of the NFL, the Rams players should be barred from making such personal commentaries as a condition of their personal services contracts — an exception to the blanket civic protections of the First Amendment. Except ... there isn’t such an NFL prohibition against this kind of commentary. Nowhere in the NFL Personal Conduct Policy is there anything that outlaws the actions taken by the Rams players on Sunday. The policy generally states that NFL personnel must avoid “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”

The policy then goes on at length to specifically bar players from engaging in obviously criminal behaviors from fraud to racketeering, from domestic violence to violence against other employees, from possessing a firearm in a workplace setting to conduct that “imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person.”

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There’s nothing in that three-page policy that expressly forbids an NFL player from speaking his mind, verbally or otherwise, about anything under the sun. The squishiest part of the policy — the one that might apply to the five Rams players — prohibits action “that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.”

But after the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, the numerous domestic-violence incidents that preceded that one, and especially after the clearing of Rice to play professional football earlier this week, it’s an open question as to how bad any NFL player has to be to undermine the “integrity and reputation” of a league that’s gone to great lengths to do just that on its own. A gesture of solidarity with beleaguered citizens of the team’s home state — citizens that are part of that team’s fan base — would hardly seem to hit that behavioral threshold.

Unless, of course, that part of the policy was intended to be imprecise and situational and a judgment call according to the NFL leadership and any people the NFL thinks it has common cause with. Like police officers.

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JEFF ROORDA, a spokesman for the St. Louis Police Officers Association and apparently no student of the First Amendment or the league’s personal conduct policy, lit into the Rams with an inane, tone-deaf statement that called for the Rams hands-up players to be disciplined or punished.

Pissing in the wind from a great height, Roorda wrote this on Sunday: “[N]ow that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson's account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Aside from being inaccurate about slam-dunk characterizations of the evidence, Roorda’s toweringly foolish statement focuses on the single gesture by the Rams players. He overlooks the wider “narrative,” the social construct behind not just the Rams’ gesture of solidarity but also the multi-generational pattern and practice of social and economic injustices that preceded it. The Rams’ hands-up sign has more than one antecedent. That protest had more than one point of origin in the world of sports.

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There are parallels between the St. Louis Rams players' statement and the equally dramatic stand on principle that prompted John Carlos and Tommie Smith to raise their fists in a black power salute on the medal stand at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in October 1968 ... while the National Anthem was playing. Carlos and Smith faced ostracism from the American sports world, and even endured death threats against them and their families.

That galvanizing, still powerful cri de coeur — coming in the wake of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King that April and the waves of civil unrest that followed — was the 60’s equivalent of the actions of the five Rams players on Sunday.

That much should be obvious even to the casual observer. The current national predicament vis-à-vis race and authority is no less profound today than it was 1968, and the power of mute witness, the impact of a wordless statement that speaks volumes, is no less applicable now than it was then. And for exactly the same reasons.

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AS MUCH as anything else, though, Roorda’s fulminations come to nothing because they make the implicit assumption that all St. Louis police officers speak with one mind and voice. Gloria McCollum would beg to differ. McCollum, general counsel for the Ethical Society of Police, the black police officers organization in St. Louis, issued a statement on Wednesday, as reported in The Daily Kos. In it she said that her organization “completely supports the actions” of the St. Louis Rams 5.

“We think that their actions were commendable and that they should not be ridiculed, disciplined or punished for taking a stand on this very important issue, which is of great concern around the world and especially in the community where these players work,” McCollum’s statement reads.

But Roorda’s preposterous tirade makes its largest point purely by accident. You can’t help but be struck not just by the wrongheadedness of his thinking, but, sadly, by how analogous that thinking is to the deeper societal problems that made the hands-up protest necessary.

The very fact that a predominantly white police officers association, and others, apparently have a problem with African American men taking a stand, speaking out against an injustice that could affect them personally, underscores just how pervasive that injustice is — in Ferguson, St. Louis and America itself — in the first place.

Image credits: The St. Louis Rams 5: CBS Sports. Rams logo: St. Louis Rams/National Football League. Ditka: Getty Images via NFL logo: National Football League. Ray Rice assault video screengrab: TMZ Sports. Carlos and Smith 1968: Unknown, possibly public domain.

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