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The Year in Sports

Over the Edge

by DAVE ZIRIN

Last December I wrote the following: "2004 should be remembered as a year when the hermetically sealed divide between sports and society frayed for the first time in a generation… I cannot wait to see what 2005 has in store. Also in 2005, the Chicago White Sox will win the World Series – and it’s splitsville for Nick and Jessica." [The last sentence was slightly updated for editorial reasons.]

This past year that "hermetically sealed divide" has gone well beyond the fraying stage. The delicate division between sports and politics was ripped apart like it was trying to block Dwight Freeney. Discussing the "politics of sports" became in 2005 as popular as sports itself – for better and worse.

The tone was set by that most apolitical of bodies, the US Congress. In March, when our baseball thoughts are accustomed to turning toward spring training, the House of Representatives engineered what Rep. Tom Lantos called "a theater of the absurd". Past and present MLB All Stars Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, and Jose Canseco among others were called — under threat of prison – to testify about performance enhancing drugs in the sport. The proceedings were shameful. All that was missing was William Rehnquist in his yellow striped robe to round out the farce. Not one trainer was subpoenaed. Nor were any owners – especially a certain former Texas Rangers owner named George W. Bush who ran the steroid crack-house where Canseco held court in the early 90s. As one former player said to me, "When it comes to steroids, distribution is a team issue but punishment is for individuals, which is why nothing changes."

But lost in the brouhaha of congressional preening, Mark McGwire melting, and Rafael Palmiero’s fall from grace, was any serious discussion of steroids themselves. Do they actually help you hit a baseball? Does a potential all-star team exist at every Gold’s Gym? Should the same owners who celebrated the Dionysian home run orgies of the 1990s be trusted with cleaning up the game? Should we trust Mike and the Mad Dog for medical information on the effects of long-term abuse?

The steroid-mania led to an atmosphere of hysteria, which resulted in the Players Union reopening their collective bargaining agreement with the owners to enshrine stiffer penalties. They adopted a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy, where one positive test would lead to a 50 game suspension and a third offense would trigger a lifetime banishment – presumably to a secret prison in Eastern Europe.

Far less discussed in the mainstream press was the fact that significant pressure for a revamped steroid policy was exerted by players themselves, tired of competing on what they perceive to be an unlevel playing field. Regardless, the deal legitimized the congressional carnival so expect to see more of your heroes under the hot lights this year, all with the implication so advanced by this administration: privacy is not a right: it’s a privilege.

But if Congress’s "theater of the absurd" was sports and politics at its most insipid, then the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina saw athletes at their off-the-field best. After seeing the Louisiana Superdome become a homeless shelter from hell for 25,000 New Orleans residents, many pro players felt it was time to act. Millions were donated. Houses were built. And some even spoke out against this most unnatural of disasters.

It’s not surprising so many athletes would feel the devastation in their gut. More than 100 pro ballers come from the little scrape of land known as the gulf region. Amazing, but not surprising when you consider the combo of year round sunshine, poverty, and racism. That is the fertilizer, which has produced athletes from Kevin Garnett to Warrick Dunn. It was a calamity that broke through their gated communities and touched their lives. Brett Farve didn’t know for hours whether his mother was safe. Steve McNair lost his hometown. Even the blue blood Mannings got their hands dirty unloading supplies. But other athletes felt compelled to actually speak out. Joe Horn, the Saints wide receiver said, "It’s devastating to us. I’ve cried three or four times. Seeing kids without any food, elderly people dying and the government saying that help is on the way – that’s the most shocking part."

A much healthier shock to system went down in October when Venezuelan born manager Ozzie Guillen led the Chicago White Sox to their first World Series since 1917. In the wake of his victory, Guillen for the first time publicly showed his pride in Venezuela’s popular President and perennial U.S. coup target Hugo Chavez. Chavez holds a tremendous popularity among Venezuela’s workers and the poor by using the country’s oil profits to fund job training and literacy programs. He has also attracted a global following by exhorting people to resist Bush,s economic and military agenda. Chavez is also a sports fanatic, and one of his heroes happens to be a former skinny shortstop named Ozzie Guillen. Guillen, previously careful about distancing himself from Chavez, appeared on his television show, and after the World Series, when the streets of Caracas were as excited as Chicago’s South Side, said he was going to take the trophy to Venezuela — and might not bring it back.

If Guillen came out of the closet politically, then Sheryl Swoopes did the real thing. The most prominent basketball player of her generation announced to the world that she’s a lesbian – out and proud. In doing so, she became the first African-American in the WNBA to come out of the closet. Saying she was "tired of living a lie" Swoopes could be setting a tone for other WNBA players – as well as all athletes female and male – that being a pro athlete doesn’t mean having to hide who you are.

But there was no closet for rookie Indy racer Danica Patrick to hide her gender. Patrick made seismic waves coming in fourth in the Indy 500 and even more of a buzz navigating the hostile ball-scratching waters of big time auto racing. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, during a "congratulatory" phone call to Patrick, said, "Women should be all dressed in white like all other domestic appliances." He then repeated it during an interview. Patrick, who no one will confuse with Billie Jean King, balked at issuing strong response, but she became a lightning rod to discuss the issue of sexism in auto racing. It was a welcome discussion in a sport where women get to wear bikini tops and tell the racers to "start your engines but are allowed access to little else.

But if Patrick was an unwilling lightning rod, Etan Thomas soaked himself in water, stood on his roof and dared the heavens to strike. In 2005, the Washington Wizards power forward released his pulsating book of poetry and CD of spoken word title "More Than an Athlete." Thomas didn’t just leave it on the page. He brought down the house, speaking at the September 24th anti-war demonstrations, he spoke out in defense of "looters" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he was the only active athlete to speak out in defense of Stan Tookie Williams, legally lynched by the state of California. When questions arose about Thomas’s "unusual" political activities, he responded by writing an editorial for the Washington Post defending his right to have a brain.

In the end, this was a sports year that defined itself on the edge of sports and politics. It was driven by an endless war, and a hurricane that exposed the existence of 21st century Jim Crow. As long as crisis and revolt remain features of the new millennium, sports will never again be a citadel apart.

Let the last word belong to Tony Dungy, the proud, brilliant, soft-spoken coach of the Indianapolis Colts who tragically lost his 18-year-old son James in an apparent suicide. Dungy delivered the eulogy at James’ funeral and said to the NFL players in attendance, "I want to urge you to continue being who you are because our young boys in this country, they need to hear from you. If anything, be bolder…"

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.