There is an old expression that “the fish rots from the head.” Right now the San Francisco 49ers are stinking like a salmon in the sun. Their more general fall from grace has been a matter of public spectacle, as the “Team of the 1980s” has become a mismanaged, cap-strapped embarrassment. Yet the stench that envelops the Niners invaded the rest of our lives last week with the leaking of a media training video meant to “guide players on how to deal with San Francisco’s unique and diverse community.” A noble goal, to be sure. San Francisco is home to significant Asian, Pacific Island populations, and is of course synonymous with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community and culture. The video, however, was not aimed to help players with cross-cultural understanding – but instead an exercise in rank bigotry.
How to talk to the Bay Area Asian community? There is a mock interview with a actor playing a Hop-Sing “bucked tooth Asian man”. How to reach out to LGBT football fans? There is a mockery of Gay weddings and clucking about “bending for the soap” in the county jail. Even worse, the team’s PR department enlisted players such as Julian Peterson to act in the video, with the All-Pro linebacker playing a “bum begging for food”- homelessness being just another hilarious sight on the Bay Area landscape.
“I’m sitting here dumbfounded,” said Rose Pak, head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “You know, this is the 21st Century. And this is San Francisco, a city where 30% of residents and 40% of schoolchildren are Chinese Americans. In this day and age, for a home-based major sports group to be so insensitive … their behavior so disgusting is beyond words.”
Particularly noxious are the comments of the video’s director, former Niners PR Director Kirk. Reynolds. Reynolds said that, “This was the only way I felt I could get the players’ attention.” The Niners themselves have compounded this by defending the video, which basically proves Reynolds’ point. Peterson said, “It was supposed to be an in-house thing” and safety Tony Parrish compared its “sarcasm and wit” to the Dave Chappelle show on Comedy Central.
These comments drew a pained response from Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Thompson. Thompson said on his DC radio show, “I would have walked out of that video on general principle not only because of the so-called humor but more because the ORGANIZATION is showing through that video what they think of me as a man – especially as a Black man – saying that the only way they can get through to me, the only way they can get me to listen, is by playing to jokes, playing to bigotry and stupidity. [That organization] is saying everything about the way they think about me and my intelligence by showing this…. Any player who now is defending this garbage is also defending their own treatment as something less than a fully developed man.”
Thompson is absolutely right. He is right to criticize the players for not putting their foot through the video screen. He is also right that the root of the problem lies with the team, not a wayward employee or insensitive players. This is also the assessment of a certain team consultant named Dr. Harry Edwards. Edwards was the chief organizer of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights, and the author of the classic book The Revolt of the Black Athlete. In the late 1960s, he stood for principles of mass revolt and equality by any means necessary. In more recent years, he has said and stood for far less, most notably being a paid advisor for the Cosby show, and an ESPN Sports Century talking head. But with the release of this video, Edwards could not be silent, saying, “This was not locker room humor; this was front office personnel. The athletes who took part in this skit were asked to do so by the fourth-ranking front office person in the organization”.
This culture of intolerance on an organizational level is deeply embedded. In November 2002, Niners running back Garrison Hearst was asked if he would ever accept a Gay teammate. Hearst did not equivocate.
“Aww, hell no!” the All-Pro said. “I don’t want any faggots on my team. I know this might not be what people want to hear, but that’s a punk. I don’t want any faggots in this locker room.” Fullback Fred Beasley further gave a window into the organizational culture saying, “If people really know what’s going on in the locker room and what we joke about every day, it would be a big deal each and every day. It’s not a big deal to us.”
Then former team president Terry Donahue the most powerful man in the organization – sneered it off saying, “Frankly, we’re way too busy trying to block and tackle and hit passes to be involved in a social issue. I think we’re just going to move on.”
Residents of the Bay Area shouldn’t have let them “move on then, and sure as hell shouldn’t let them move on now. As Thom Lynch, president of the SF LGBT Center said, “The 49ers benefit from their relationship with the city, but they have responded by belittling and ridiculing its diversity.”
There is nothing inherently racist or homophobic about professional sports, or even the NFL. Yet too often the politics of oppression are given free reign to wander, fester, and nest. Every sports fan in the Bay Area who doesn’t share the idea that homelessness, Gay rights, and Asian minstrelsy are punch lines has an obligation to stand up. Let the team know that they may be named the 49ers, but this ain’t 1849.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.