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Talking Sports from Death Row

by DAVE ZIRIN

Kevin Cooper is a sports fan. Kevin Cooper loves the Steelers. Kevin Cooper makes his home on death row at the notorious San Quentin Penitentiary in California. Cooper awaits execution for a crime many observers are convinced he did not commit. He was to be injected with poison until his heart stopped on February 10th, 2004 but received a stay after massive public pressure was brought to bear. The holes in his murder conviction were that egregious, that shocking. As one federal judge put it days before the execution, “When the stakes are so high, when the evidence against Cooper is so weak, and when the newly discovered evidence of the state’s malfeasance and misfeasance is so compelling, there is no reason to hurry and every reason to find out the truth.”

Here I interview Kevin Cooper about his love of sports. There are two reasons why I wanted to hear Cooper’s thoughts. The first quite simply is that I oppose the death penalty. Kevin Cooper’s case exemplifies everything that makes my stomach turn about capital punishment: it’s racially biased. It punishes the innocent. And every last person is on death row ­ innocent or not ­ because they couldn’t afford the representation that would have saved their lives. As the saying goes, “Those without the capital get the punishment.” When we actually read and hear the voices of those on the row, it makes it that much harder for executioners like Schwarzenegger to sell the idea that they are somehow less than human and should be put down like dogs.

The second reason is that Kevin Cooper through his writings and public statements has proven himself to be a sharp and thoughtful observer of society. Often with writing, vantage point is everything. Cooper takes his status as “Dead Man Walking” and refuses to let his mind die. Spike Lee said, “If you want to learn about the world, start with the sports page.” Here we learn about the world of sports by talking with a man who refuses to be defined by death.

DZ: How able are you to keep up with sports? Are there particular teams or players that you follow?

KC: I am able to keep up with sports by way of radio, TV, and newspapers. I follow the Pittsburgh Steelers football team because Pittsburgh, PA. is my hometown.

DZ: What are your earliest sports memories? Are they positive?

KC: All of my earliest sports memories are positive, and that’s because during the 60s when I was growing up the only positive Black people who were seen in the media were sports stars. I looked up to black athletes, and not just black athletes; my earliest memories are trying to play baseball like Roberto Clemente.

DZ: How have you seen the world of sports change over the course of your life?

KC: The inclusion of women in just about all sports has changed the world of sports in my lifetime, as has the fact that Black men are no longer seen as “unintelligent” and therefore “unable” to be quarterbacks, head coaches, baseball managers, or front office people or any other job that requires them to think. AND that people have, for the most part, stopped calling Blacks “natural athletes.”

DZ: What are your earliest memories of some of the most political athletes, like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Billie Jean King?

KC: Some of my earliest thoughts about Jackie Robinson changed after I found out that he spoke out against Paul Robeson and others who were doing their part in their own way to fight for Black people. Doing their part in their own way just as he did in 1947 by not just going in to play pro baseball but signing an agreement saying that he wouldn’t fight back or speak out when he was disrespected by white ball players. He signed that pledge in order to do his part to help Black people.

Concerning Muhammad Ali: he’s simply the best and the greatest, and my thoughts and earliest memories of him have only gotten stronger after all of these years. In fact, I honestly use him to help keep myself strong and focused as I fight for my life and try to end the death penalty here from this cage on death row. Billie Jean King is someone I didn’t really know about growing up, but I do know about her now. Her contribution to women’s equality in tennis is truly a great thing. Because of her doing what she did back then, standing up for her rights, women today in tennis get paid a hell of a lot more respect than they did when she played. And of course they make more money, too.

DZ: Can sports be a site of resistance today, given how commercialized the culture has become?

KC: If the athletes of today had the same mindset that people like Ali had, or John Carlos and Timmy Smith had during the 1968 Olympics, then, yes, today’s athletes could make sports a site of resistance. The only athlete that I know who is of the mindset of Ali, Carlos, and Smith is Etan Thomas, though there may be others. Sometimes it seems to me that today’s athletes are too worried about getting paid for the most part, and in getting that they’re losing out on what’s really important. Especially since sports provides a platform for them to make positive change that not many other professions do.

DZ: Why has sports, in your mind, become such a central part of the Black experience in the United States?

KC: Throughout the history of America, white people have always loved to be entertained by Black people, especially Black men. The masters of certain slaves would put their slaves up against other slaves from another plantation and they would fight, sometimes to the death. Just as dogs or roosters did. This evolved into sports such as boxing and wrestling. As new sports were invented, and more white people wanted to be entertained, more Blacks were either forced to participate against their will, or they joined in because they found some type of respect if they were good at it. The master’s prize fighter got good food, access to women, and was respected and treated pretty goodThat is until he lost

As time went on, and the white man refused to give jobs-at least good-paying jobs-to Blacks because of racism, a Black man found that, through sports, he could make a decent living. Just look at Jack Johnson and the opportunities the Blacks had in society when he was alive. These same conditions exist today, in so much as that a Black person, male or female, knows that in this country if you can make it in sports, you can make it big, and can become rich. That is our collective experience in this country.

DZ: What do you think of NBA commish David Stern’s efforts to impose a dress code on players?

KC: Imposing a dress code on NBA players is stupid to me. It’s not the outside of the players that matters, it’s the inside. If anything needs to be changed, it’s their mentality. The deadliest person of all is a police officer in a suit.

DZ: In New Orleans, when Katrina hit, the only place available for emergency shelter was the stadium, the Superdome. What does that tell us about our world today?

After Hurricane Katrina hit and the poor people of New Orleans found themselves in the Superdome, it showed the world that, in this country, if you are poor then you are shit out of luck. Nobody will help you when and how you need help, and if you can’t make it on your own you are in trouble.

DZ: The last one is all you, Kevin. Is there anything you want to share about sports and life?

KC: Sports and life are both full of contradictions because both have rules and sometimes the rules are broken and ignored. Mistakes are made but not admitted to. Certain people make calls in both, and for the most part it is the ordinary people who suffer because of the calls made by the leaders or owners. It’s the people at the bottom who pay for the mistakes made by the people at the top. It’s a dog eat dog world, the winner takes all, and too many people are set up to lose from the get-go.

In struggle from death row, Kevin Cooper

For More Information on Kevin’s case, visit savekevincooper.org

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com

 

 

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DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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