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an Interview with David Meggysey
David Meggyesy was an All-American linebacker at Syracuse University before playing for the National Football League’s St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals from 1963-1969. He was active in the movements for civil rights and opposition to the war in Viet Nam. In 1970 he wrote his football autobiography, Out of Their League, that examined how big time sports in the United States can dehumanize athletes. Since 1981, Dave Meggyesy has worked as the Western Regional Director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
DZ: You were raised in what has been described as a "low-income household in Glenwillow, Ohio."
DM (laughs) Is that how its been described? Actually I was, literally, raised on a pig farm next to a dynamite factory in Glenwillow, Ohio. Before we moved to the farm when I was five years old my father worked as a machinist and was a union organizer in Cleveland Ohio. The dynamite factory was the Austin Powder Company whose property was right next to our farm. The company owned about 1,000 acres of land, the whole Glenwillow township including the town. It was one of the last company towns in Ohio. They had company housing, a company store, a company farm and this factory that was churning out explosives.
DZ: How did your Dad’s politics shape your view of the world?
DM: He never talked about it that much, but he would be considered a progressive. He viewed the world from a radical perspective. He was very critical of the capitalist system and the political economy that we have in place in this country. He was in the middle of labor fights in Ohio in the 1930s. A lot of those guys were fighting for basic workers rights and their battles led to the formation of the National Labor Relations Act in 1936. His line was President Franklin Roosevelt saved the country from going socialist by pushing for the NLRA.
DZ: When did you first realize that there was such a thing as a Civil Rights Movement?
DM: I didn’t have a clue about civil rights or people of color for that matter when I was growing up. I didn’t see a black person until I was 13 or 14 years old and that was on TV. During high school I competed against black athletes and had black teammates on the football team at Syracuse University. During my senior year at Syracuse in 1963 I became aware of the Civil Rights movement.
DZ: How did you get involved in the movements of the 1960s?
DM: Initially it came at it from a sociology seminar I took my senior year at Syracuse. During this seminar we read about and discussed civil rights and various human rights issues This seminar certainly opened my eyes. Then during my first year in the NFL I read Michael Harrington’s book Poverty in America The book had a big impact on me, remember I grew up poor, reading it made me begin to question our economic and political system. I asked myself, how is it the richest country in the world has one quarter of its population living in poverty? As I was asking myself these questions, the civil rights movement was starting to heat up. My third year in the NFL I formed a friendship with anthropology graduate student at Washington University named John Moore. John was in Viet Nam as a Special Forces soldier very early on, long before our government admitted we had military forces in Viet Nam. I remember John had this beautifully made cross-bow mounted on his wall. I asked John about it and he told me a story about being in Viet Nam on patrol and a Vietnamese farmer came up out of an irrigation ditch and shot at his patrol with this crossbow. It started John thinking, what would make this guy have the commitment to do that? John said that he started reading progressive writings including Marx’s Capital and he became a Marxist. John he turned me on to more radical literature. At the time I was a sociology graduate student at Washington University. John is now Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida.
DZ: What did people on the Cardinals think about you exploring these ideas?
DM: Coaches and teammates would see me reading various progressive books and magazines on the away game plane trips and sometimes they would ask me what I was reading but it wasn’t any big deal. We didn’t have sit-ins or study groups reading Karl Marx. I was going through a process of my own self education. Through these various influences I got involved in the civil rights movement. I was reluctant at first to tell my African-American teammates about it. My feelings were that it would be embarrassing for them to have this white guy being active and they may be feeling like they should have been involved. A lot happened between 1963 and 1969. The civil rights and then the anti-Vietnam War movements just exploded in every city in this country. I don’t think you could be a young person or old person for that matter and see on TV the civil rights marches, the police dogs, fire hoses, children being murdered and people gassed and not be moved to do something. It was unbelievable.
DZ: What was it about the war in Viet-Nam that so infuriated you?
DM: Eventually more than half the country was against the war. On the evening news every night people were seeing battle scenes, scenes with American and Vietnamese people being killed and bombed, of kids burning with napalm. There were body counts and increasing American casualties. And the American people were just appalled. There was absolutely no reason to be in Vietnam. Why do you think we have seen nothing during this Iraq war about what is really happening on the ground? We are dropping one-ton bombs on people in Iraq and we see the bombs launched but not the level of destruction or the bodies. We say we precision bomb this, or bomb that, yet we, the citizens who are paying for these bombs and vast military don’t see how many people were killed. We don’t see and aren’t allowed to see the destruction and bodies in street. The political establishment and the military have sanitized every war since Vietnam. They learned their lesson and the media is kept away from what is happening. We the people need to start connecting the dots and asking why are we occupying this country? And we need to connect the dots more than that. Why, in the most fabulously wealthy country the world do we not have national health care system and universal basic health care for everyone? Most folks don’t connect those dots. In the 1960s we were doing that.
DZ: What are your memories of Muhammad Ali resisting the draft?
DM: I thought it was great! His famous line, "No Vietnamese ever called me n—-." made sense to me.
DZ: It is thought that the NFL is a bastion of right wing hyper patriotic ideas. How did the movements of the 1960s for racial justice and against the war affect the discussions on the team bus and what not? DM: Probably one of the moments that politicized me and a number of my teammates was when we had to play our game against the New York Giants the weekend after President Kennedy was killed. Athletes tend to hold their political views to themselves. But guys were really pissed about that. We all felt out of respect for the President, we should never have played. But the orders came down from Pete Rozelle with the bullsh– reason that we had to play to save the country that NFL football games would bring everyone together. The players heard that and said, "This is a bunch of bullshit." Believe me it generated a lot of discussion among the guys.
DZ: What about later in the Viet-Nam years?
DM: During the latter part of my career, I began looking at sports and football and began trying to figure out its relations to society as a whole. And I began wondering why other countries don’t play this game. I was coming to the understanding that big time football was more than a game, that it was a form of political expression and political theater. During that time there was this jingoistic, super patriotic, use of football, particularly during the Super bowl to sell the war in Viet Nam. Yet there were a tremendous number of people against the war including myself. My response was to get more serious and start organizing my teammates on the Cardinals. I started a petition drive on the Cardinals, that would be sent to our Congressional delegation and Senators calling for and end to the war. My teammate Rick Sortun and I put it together. Rick was a Goldwater Republican in 1964 and he was my roommate on the road. We had many heated discussions. During the off season in 1967 he went back to the University of Washington and when he came back for training camp in 1968 had gone from Goldwater Republican to a member of the Young Socialist Alliance. I kid Rick and tell him he was my first convert. The times they were a changing. The next petition Rick and I put together in 1969, we had 37 teammates sign it. In the locker room political discussion and debate was quiet because the coaches frowned on it, but if I would be reading Ramparts magazine or an interview with Malcolm X other players including our star running back Johnny Roland would give me a power fist salute as if to say we’re with you. It wasn’t that difficult to do it. There were a whole lot of people against the war.
DZ: What happened with the petition? Did it ever go public?
DM: When I asked the guys to sign the petition I told them it would not be made public. It was a letter we all signed that would be sent to our Congressmen. It was pretty milquetoast given what was going on in other places. We were calling for a negotiated settlement and to bring the troops home now. A reporter from UPI got a hold of it and went to Cardinals owner Stormy Bidwell, asking for a comment. Stormy was pissed livid. He pulled me out of a defensive players meeting and said I had to get a hold of that letter immediately before it went public. So I went outside the stadium in my football uniform, hailed a cab and got the letter back from the Chairman of the St. Louis Anti-War Committee. The next day Cardinals Head Coach Charlie Winner said to me, "I want you to apologize to the team. This is a big distraction for the team and you owe the team an apology." I got up in front of the team and said I was sorry the petition almost went public because I said it would be kept private and that was all I was apologizing for. I told them if they wanted to sign a new petition they could stop by my locker after practice and do it. Charlie almost had a heart attack.
DZ: So many athletes have been "blackballed" for their politics. Did you ever feel that pressure?
DM: They tried to put the hammer on me to get me to stop my anti war activities. In 1968 I was taken outside by one of the coaches and asked, "Do you want to play football? I have been told to tell you by the ownership that if you continue to do what you’re doing, you are going to be thrown out of the League."
A few days later I wrote the Cardinal management and told them if they continued to threaten me this way, I would go public. I said in my letter that half the country is against this war, and my anti war work doesn’t impact my playing, and it is my right as a citizen to protest the war. Nothing happened.
Later in the season NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle sent an order down to the teams that when the National Anthem is being played, we, the players, would have to hold our helmets under our left arm look up and salute the flag. I found it repulsive that anyone would be telling me and my teammates that we had to salute the flag and how to do so. So I did a low key ‘Tommie Smith’ and held my helmet in front of me and bowed my head. The next week a sports columnist wrote about how reprehensible it was that anyone would refuse to salute the flag. The team didn’t know what to do. They thought that if they would be cool, maybe it would go away. So at the start of our next game, some fans unfurled a big banner that said the Big Red [the nickname of the Cardinals] thinks Pink. It was their way of saying that I was a "pinko" (a communist) and we were a "pinko" team.
Midway through 1969 season I got benched. That hurt as much as anything because the ultimate power management has over a player is whether you play or not. At the professional level this is also your livelihood. When they benched me I just couldn’t believe it. Clearly, I was superior to my back up.
On the plane ride back to St. Louis with Rick Sortun after our last game in Green Bay we decided were going to quit. We were tired of being part of what we saw as an American war game and political theatre that was supporting the Vietnam War. Personally, what really hurt was not being allowed to play. During the trip fellow linebacker Larry Stallings sat down beside us and said, "Dave, I don’t know what went down with you and the coaches, but you not being in there really hurt our defense."
When I was benched for "political reasons" all kinds of self-doubts began to creep into my mind. Because one of the core values in sports from the athlete’s point of view is that it is a meritocracy, the best players play. An athlete has to believe this is true or he can’t play. When someone messes with that it messes with everything that is great about sports. That’s why it was so incredibly gracious for Larry to tell me what he did and it showed his integrity. Larry’s comment meant a great deal because I knew my teammates understood.
DZ: What do you think of people who say that athletes don’t have ‘the right’ to use their public profile to ‘speak out on political issues?
DM: I think that is absolutely wrong. Athletes probably have more of an obligation to do so precisely because of their public position. Athletes are citizens too. In the 1960s Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad All and others stepped up and took principled positions on issues. Now athletes are either making the most milquetoast statements or shilling for corporations that exploit their workers. For instance, Michael Jordan who was the public face and billboard for Nike while they make their money off of Asian sweat-shop labor. A few years ago Jerry Rice came out to the grand opening of Nike’s San Francisco downtown store. When Jerry showed up the press started asking him about child labor in Nike’s Asian factories and he was just blown away. He said, "What right do you have to ask these questions?" Well, if you shill for Nike, you should have to answer those questions. In a way Jerry was an innocent man, he didn’t understand the connections.
DZ: Can you see players today speaking out against the war in Iraq?
DM: It’s possible, I doubt if it will happen. I think all people need to be more political, including athletes, but we need a mass movement to raise our political consciousness and push the political establishment. It is a chicken/egg problem but I see signs of it building because people are feeling the pain of the present administration’s policies. In the 1960’s there was more of a mass movement that coalesced around civil rights, rolled into Vietnam and the women’s movement. You could not held be exposed to those ideas of economic and social justice. Just as today, a lot of athletes were pretty traditional about the system back then. That "don’t question authority" attitude was more entrenched back then but began to change when these movements began to build. Of course we had great national leadership during that era in Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. I think a lot of people are opposed to the Iraq occupation and if that goes on too much longer it will ignite people. I want to be clear, I think no one should be obligated to do anything. Freedom means freedom to choose how you want to live your life. But that cuts both ways. History shows that if the citizens do nothing or very little the elites will rob them blind. My position has always been that everyone has the right to be free to speak out on anything. That is the biggest stone in our country’s foundation. Last season Toni Smith the woman’s basketball player from Manhattanville College Smith turned her back on the U.S. flag protesting poverty and injustice here in the US. It was a courageous and remarkable act, exercising her right of free expression. In the 1960s, athletes saw how sport was connected to politics. Smith and Carlos wanted to open the world’s eyes as to how African-Americans were treated at home. They said that you can’t just send us out to run and jump and represent the United States and say things are groovy.
DZ: Do you think we need a new revolt of the athletes?
DM: I think we need a revolt only in the sense that fundamental change needs to happen in many sectors of society. In our major professional sports the athletes made tremendous positive changes via their unions during the past 25 years. At the NFLPA we organized the players and built a strong union and now we have power and equity, a seat at the table and leverage and to get the compensation the athletes deserve. I think the professional sports unions are excellent examples showing how unions can effect positive change, how people can use ideas and organization to change structures. That is what the 1960s were really all about. People say we need – and I think they are right – political mass movements to effect positive change in the major political and economic structures. I think right now, today, with Bush, the Iraq occupation and what his government has planned for the country and the world, we are looking down the barrel of a gun. It is time to act. As we used to say, back in the day, "Don’t mourn America, organize."
DAVE ZIRIN is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post, Prince George’s County’s only black-owned paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He also is launching www.edgeofsports.com