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Homage to Rik Sortun: “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Rik Sortun was a professional football professional player; honorary mention All-American at the University of Washington In Seattle, he went on to play six seasons with the then St. Louis Cardinals.

Rik played offensive guard. That meant he was not a superstar, though friends and family might challenge this. His name was not a household word in a game dominated by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and, sometimes, defensive backs. Rik was a journeyman in football; his work was in the trenches, in violent combat, most often out of sight, except perhaps by those with a deeper understanding of the game. The guards’ work goes mostly unspoken of, and Rik’s death, a year ago, was not widely noted, not, anyway, in football circles. The Seattle Post Intelligencer ran a “Where are They Now” series on former Huskies players; Rik has not been among them.

I should say right off that this might have been just fine with Rik; his pride was in his family, his work and his politics; his memorial, organized by his family, was a moving tribute to a person with powerful values; Rik Sortun was of the New Left, a socialist, a sixties radical who remained true to the values of his youth. And to the end, he walked that walk, and it was what he was most proud of.

Still, at a time when black athletes are (again) making news, in ways standing (and kneeling) in the very forefront of the movements for social justice, I think I might be forgiven (by Rik, I hope) for meditating here about Rik Sortun, football player.

As I write, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick bravely continues to remind us of all this, though I think we are just beginning to come to terms with this movement, that is, with the true history of this long, tenacious of the athletes, above all the black athletes, who, in an often hidden history, have taken stands, protested, defied the rules, done the right thing, in deeply subversive interventions into our lives and culture, at once both enlightening and empowering.  We all know its outlines – Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, many more just recently, those who have stood up and out for Black Lives, including just two years ago astonishingly, the entire University of Missouri football team in the wake of the killing in Ferguson.

It’s commonplace, we know, to celebrate athletes for their courage on the court, or on the field. But taking courage off the field remains another thing, hence Donald Trump, President-elect can demand that Kaepernick “find another country.” New York Giants back Nikita Whitlock had his New Jersey home vandalized, smeared with racist graffiti. Broncos’ Marshall Brandon receives stomach-turning hate-mail: the fifth-year veteran is called “worthless fucking nigger” and a “spoiled fucking jigaboo” in addition to other racial epithets. The writer goes on to tell Marshall that “your time is coming, watch out” and “we are ‘channeling’ a devastating hard hit for you. Something to make you an invalid in a wheel chair.” (Guardian, Dec, 9, 2016). Not to mention driving, walking, talking while black.

Ric saw all this in the football racism of his own times and he despised it; in fact he came to hate football because of it, and everything else that went along with it. In the end, it led him to leave the game – in an act of defiance – and courage, all too rare in white athletes.

Henrik (Rik) Sortun, the eldest of six children, was born in 1942 in Tacoma, Washington, the smelly, smoky, blue collar town thirty miles to the south of Seattle. He grew up in Kent, Washington, closer to Seattle, in the fifties still farm land; his father farmed a small plot, his children did the farmyard chores. Rik, classically, milked cows before school. It wasn’t long, however, before it became obvious that he was an athlete – a fate many millions might say they’d die for, yet a fate from the first highly contradictory  for Rik. He was good at sports, all sports; he was big (6’ 2”, 235 lbs. in college) and fast and strong and, what’s new – he was a football player in the making.

The University of Washington Huskies that Rik joined were in the midst of a renaissance of sorts; the 1959 and 1960 teams had each won at the Rose Bowl, the game played at that time on New Year’s Day between champions of the Big Ten and that of the Pacific Coast Conference. The 1960 Huskies were National Champions. This was, it seems, in large part the result of the new coach as well as new recruiting patterns. Coach Jim Owens came to the University in 1957 and coached there 17 seasons. Owens came from Oklahoma, played there under the “legendary” Bud Wilkenson, and by way of coaching at Kentucky and Texas A & M where he assisted the “legendary” Bear Bryant.

The universities in the South, including Oklahoma, were segregated in the fifties and sixties, but it was no secret that there were great black football players there; certainly, Owens knew this. His first real superstar, George Fleming, MVP of the 1961 Rose Bowl, came up to Seattle from Dallas. Fleming wanted to play major college football, and that meant going North – or in this case West. He found this at Washington, but also a regime where “the coaches treated everyone harshly” and that “black players were stacked at positions.” There were then four black players on the team, all running backs. One of them, Charley Mitchell, Seattle born, recalled how this limited playing time and had forced the black players to compete against each other. This concerned Mitchell, but it was “was happening to all black players…stacking was throughout college football. It was everywhere.”

The Owen’s regime, was incontestably “harsh.” Carver Gayton, another Huskie running back, recounted a day when Owens “was particularly “angry and disappointed” with a practice session, a day when “the temperature was 90 degrees with a humidity level close to 90 percent. After an hour and a half lackluster scrimmage, he [Owens] had the team go through a series of continuous start and stop sprints that took a least another two hours.

“We were allowed no water during the practice. Few of us remember exactly how long it lasted. That practice session is now known as the infamous “Death March.” By the end of the afternoon I had lost close to 15 pounds, many players fainted, at least six were taken to the hospital, and predictably, a number of them quit the team.”

This would continue; indeed, it would be celebrated; for the fans, it meant “conditioning” and conditioning was meant to be the prerequisite of success. For Owens it was a badge of honor. For the players, what alternatives were there?

Junior Coffee too left Texas for Seattle because he wanted to play major college football.  At Washington, Coffey was a three-time all-conference selection and an Honorable Mention All-American. He finished his career as the second-leading ground gainer in school history. Yet Coffee’s career was marked with unexplainable episodes, long stretches of bench time for example. The problem? It was widely assumed at the time that the cause was a date with a white woman, fiercely frowned upon by the coaches (and the University administration so far as one can tell). There were but a handful of black students at Washington in the early sixties, many of these athletes. And for these young men, college was to be football – football, nothing more, nothing less. Junior Coffee followed Fleming and Mitchell into the pros, where he started out with the Green Bay Packers, playing in the famous 1965 game against the Cleveland Browns.

The times, however, were changing. Rik was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, he joined the team in 1964 and played through 1969. Missouri had been, of course, a border state, a slave state yet loyal to the union. In 1964 segregation was the rule in Missouri (if not everywhere) and if the Cardinals were integrated it was on the field only. The rookies learned this at training camp where management assigned rooms on the basis of race and blacks and whites occupied separate wings of the team’s dormitories. There was little mingling off the field, the players drank separately, their wives socialized separately, the tone was almost always set by the (southern) white players. And there was no shortage of abuse and racist taunting, off and on the field.

I suppose the players’ attitudes concerning sex and women also fit the times, though the players were shouldered with an added burden of machismo – at least for the public the men had to be super-masculine. Rik’s roommate, the linebacker David Meggyesy, thought the football players were “actually quite conventional, almost repressed, in their behavior.  Ball players, like beer salesmen and advertising executives continually talk about sex, about the need to get laid and how they themselves almost got laid quite recently.” Still, there were groupies and mistresses for away games, and parties with prostitutes. I think that some years later when women’s liberation swept the campuses, it was no shock to Rik and he would remain in his own words a “feminist” all his life.

The pre-game patriotism – minimal compared to what we now have – and the war-talk of the game (“throwing the bomb”), sickened Rik at a time when war in Vietnam was steadily escalated. On the field, violence was tinged with sadism; yet it was celebrated (as “war”) and relived as highlights, however mundane. This took its toll on the players, all the more so in an era when players might still play every down. Some played both offense and defense – and special teams.

My neighbor and friend Will (Willie) Smith came up to Michigan from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1956 where he played both guard and tackle. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears and went on to play offensive guard first for the Denver Broncos and then the Oakland Raiders. Will tells me a guard then had to be big and strong, but also “fast and smart.” The pulling guard had to “get out in front of the running back, sometimes lead him downfield.” And he had to know the plays, “not only who to hit, say the guy in front of you, but the full design of the plays as well as how they fit the overall strategy.” Will’s own career was cut short by his marriage to Marge, a white student at Michigan, the daughter of an auto-worker from Flint. No regrets, though. Will says the coaches wrote him off as a “troubled personality” – the Raider’s Al Davis cut Will personally, then blackballed him. I’d say Will was far from a “troubled personality,” but no doubt he was trouble for his coaches; too good, too smart, for men like Owens and Davis, all the wrong stuff. Same with Rik.  He was a powerful man, something, however, he was never really at home with.  Rather he valued thoughtfulness and peace.

All this came to weigh heavily on Rik; years later he would tell his wife, Elizabeth Kaye, that there were nights when he would sit alone in his room, listen to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and “It’s All Right, Ma,” and dread the next morning. He came especially to hate training camp, to hate the haircuts and the weight programs. He’d ask himself, why football, “they never asked if I wanted to play piano” – rather than football. He’d lost his front teeth at Kent-Meridian; no one asked if he wanted to carry on. Why hadn’t he had a choice? Most of Rik’s personal history now resides with Elizabeth, though she’s graciously shared some of this with me. I remember best the more public Rik – how he made no secret of letting his hair grow – as long as possible before the next season. And getting rid of the weight.  He didn’t like to talk about all this that much, he wasn’t really a talker – I wouldn’t say he was shy, certainly not reclusive, but he was quiet and serious with his words. He was always clear about what he felt and why.

Rik came back to Washington to get a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, and soon became part of a fledgling Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Dave remembers getting a card from Rik in spring 1967; he’d just been part of the Seattle contingent to San Francisco for the big West Coast anti-war march. Rik and Dave made their own news in 1968 by circulating an anti-war petition amongst teammates; the coaches were not pleased. Dave was by this time an SDS veteran at St. Louis’ Washington University, both were coming to the end of the line. It’s interesting now to recall this, Dave’s 1969 response to the National Anthem: “I’d thought a lot about this and decided that saluting the flag was ridiculous. Every time I even looked at it I saw only a symbol of repression, so I decided to protest. My original idea was to pull a Tommy Smith by raising my right fist in the air and bowing my head. Instead I decided not to salute the flag but to pretend I was nervous before the game. I was aware that if my protest was too obvious I’d be severely fined. When the national Anthem started I stepped out of line and began kicking the dirt and holding my helmet down in front of me with my two hands. My head was bowed and I was spitting on the ground and moving side to side scuffling the ground with my shoes.” Nevermind, the next week the New Orleans fans greeting him screaming, “Meggyesy, you goddam commie, why don’t you go to Hanoi.” At the end of the season, they’d had enough. Rik and Dave made a pact, this would be the last season; they shook hands and indeed it was.

Interesting too, that winter the UCLA basketball national champions came to Seattle to rout the outmanned Huskies. Stars Lou Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabar) and Lucius Allen turned their backs on the presentation of the flag. The fans, of course, incensed; but few asked why do we do this? Why make our games patriotic exercises. It’s an American thing, done, I think, nowhere else.

On reflection, Rik would later write, “The athletic field or floor, particularly in football, is perhaps the most regimented, brutalizing institution in our society outside of the army and the shop floor…”

And later, “I couldn’t stay true to my beliefs and stay in football. I was using the game as a six-months’ moneymaker so I could have the freedom to do what I wanted in the other six months. But I didn’t really enjoy the game. I was part of a system I felt was wrong. “

I can’t say we didn’t notice it when Rik began attending SDS meetings. The thing was how he did it – he came on board as a rank-and-file member, a journeyman, one might say, willing to run the mimeo, willing to hand out flyers, attending meetings and sub-meetings, endless meetings, as a responsibility of membership, a sign of commitment. In January, 1967, 68, 69, he’d arrive, big, short hair, by June slim, long-hair. I think we always felt a bit of a fringe at the UW, outsiders; Rik brought credibility, helped make us feel real. We regularly congregated, weather permitting, on the steps of the Student Union building, the HUB, where we set-up “literature tables,” and held impromptu “open” forums.  On nice days, we’d play touch football; Rik would not join in, however much we teased him. The campus Vietnam Committee focused on the war and organized teach-ins and marches. SDS was into “the movement;” it supported the grape boycott, then the Black Student Union (BSU) – and its sit-in in spring 1968, and the Black Panther Party.

Meanwhile, trouble on campus, lower campus. (The UW was divided, upper campus, lower campus, the latter was the campus of playing fields, stadiums, parking lots, drilling ROTC cadets and above all, football) In November, 1969, four players, all black, were suspended for refusing to pledge 100% support for Jim Owens and his program –  Greg Alex, Harvey Blanks, Ralph Bayard and Lamar Mills. They were supported by the eight other black players on the team. The four cited racial discrimination, stacking, selective punishment and mismanagement as their issues. The suspensions, according to the Seattle Times, “ignited a roaring protest inside the black community, on and off campus.” The following Friday, The BSU organized a demonstration of some 200 blacks and whites to meet the players bus and urged the eight supporters not to make the trip to Los Angeles. Larry Gossett, (now a King County Council Member) then the President of the BSU reminded me that there were so few black students at the UW that they had to recruit relatives and sometimes just people off the street. The players agreed. “If we went, we’d have to come back,” said Roy Reason, “What then? We live here.” The all-white team lost that Saturday to UCLA, 57-14, the second worst defeat in UW history. The Athletic Director denied there was a racial issue. But the Black Athletes Alumni Association rejected this: “Jim Owens has failed miserably as a football tactician and as a student of human relations,” demanding Owen’s ouster. There were more demonstrations in the spring; including against having Brigham Young University on UW schedules. BYU, the Mormon University in Utah, was then the target of a national campaign protesting the University’s racial policies. The issues would not die.

What passed for theory in the sixties SDS was thin; each fall it came in a new outfit; half-the-way with LBJ, the new working class, “students as nigger,” then Maoism and 1,2,3 many Maoisms, the latter especially in the spring of 1969, as prelude to the implosion of SDS and the beginning of the end of the student movement. Our little group in SDS self-identified as a pro-working class tendency, implicitly Marxist – we weren’t armchairs by any means, we were among the first to support the Black Panther Party and our members introduced women’s liberation at the UW. We were, however, a bit heavy with graduate students; it’s easy to see looking back why we were less than attractive to the undergraduates, the action-faction, “no more bullshit in classes” crowd. Whatever, Rik flourished; he was tutored  in economics by Judith Shapiro, our 22-year-old (genius) Assistant Professor, in 1966 fresh with a PhD from the London School of Economics. For Rik, Marxism was about economics, and the study of economics clarified for him his attraction to working class socialism. In January, 1969 he produced a piece for the Western Front, short-lived newspaper of the Peace and Freedom Party, “Exploitation at $20,000 a Year,” an expose of the National Football League as a business, its players as property, also as its workers. Rik made himself a Marxist, something he kept with him until the end.

It’s been reported – see Wikipedia for example – that Rik was a member of the International Socialists (IS), then a (very) small group, centered in Berkeley, after that Detroit. This was true, and, in a sense; to Rik’s credit – theory demanded practice and commitment. The 1969 split in SDS left our group politically homeless, the idea of a local group uninspiring, the chance of expansion, none. What else was on offer, disbandment? Not after what we’d been through. We rejected the Trotskyists, Maoism and the Communist Party, then chose, the IS, a group which at the time seemed open, capable of adapting, allowing of difference – all in contrast to the ongoing proliferation of sects. The Seattle group would exist for a few years, weathering some splits, not others. It’s members, rarely more than a dozen, came and went, nearly all moved on, including Rik. Some of us stayed longer than others, but none, it must be said, were suited for the sect life. So, while it’s fair to say he was once a member of the International Socialists, it was not true that he was a member for long, hence unlike some of the others he avoided being expelled. He was not affiliated politically when he died – apart from the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA). Was he still a socialist? Committed to the working class? A man of peace? Certainly.

Rik went on to work for the National Labor Relations Board as a field examiner for the Board’s Northwest Region (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and part of Montana) until he retired in 1998. He made no secret of the fact that he saw his mission as one of standing up for the worker, that is, what he believed to be the true purpose of the Board. “Rik was always on the side of the worker,” Elizabeth wrote of him in her obituary. This mostly involved defending unions against the employers not so easy in years when the Board was led by Reagan and Bush appointees – unlike many others in his position Rik was also quite willing to take up the defense of workers mistreated or misrepresented by their unions. It depended on the evidence.

Rik became an active member of the NLRB workers’ union, the National Labor Relation’s Board Union (NLRBU) and quickly rose to prominence, first as national Chair of the Grievance Committee, then in 1983 as President of the union. Eric Brooks, later also a President of the union, remembers Rik’s “in your face style” in negotiations; his militant dense of his members’ rights, even, especially in the hard Reagan days, when right-wing Board appointees fought him tooth and nail.

Rik was openly left wing, also popular. He was reelected five times. In 1985 he joined a labor delegation visiting then war-torn Nicaragua. This all required him to spend a considerable amount of time in Washington, DC. More than once, management tried to recruit him, significant pay raises were used to entice him, but each offer he declined and was proud of doing so, even as Elizabeth joked, “What about us workers?” But she too was proud of him. Rik had three children, Eric and Chris in his first marriage, and Ava with Elizabeth. He and Elizabeth lived in a modest home in the working class (so far) neighborhood of Ballard in Seattle. As a Retirement Advocate, Rik typically was happy to be a rank-and- file member, ready to stuff envelopes and lick stamps. Rik’s sport of choice? He was a Formula One racing fan most of his life; of late he had relented a bit on football; he liked the way Pete Carroll of the Seahawks coached and he liked the team’s outspoken players, Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman, also it’s quiet non-spokesman, Marshawn Lynch.

So back now to the football front, if things were quiet, it was superficial. Owens was despised in Seattle’s black community – there was an unofficial call on black players to boycott the University. His teams were mostly better than average, but 3-5-2 in 1968 and 1-9 in 1969. There was improvement in 1970 but no Rose Bowl. His fans remained loyal; he received a hero’s ovation in the game that followed the UCLA debacle. The Regents too stuck with him, but for the administration he came increasingly to be seen as a liability.

The final blow came in the Spring of 1971. Sports and racism were still much in the air, above all in Berkeley, where Berkeley Professor Harry Edwards, an organizer of the 68 Olympics Boycott, was campaigning on behalf of the black athlete; there too Jack Scott had organized the Institute for the Study of Sports and Society. His home was described as a “half-way house” for athletes on the way out – David Meggyesy early amongst them.

Rik proposed the IS hold a teach-in on “Sports and Society,” though we all knew the target was Owens. The Black Student Union co-sponsored, as did the UW Rugby Club (another story that needs telling, the radical, often long-haired, anti-war rugby players led by their captain, the English Socialist, Jeff Corkill from Leeds) and the Linguistics Department.

We reserved the ballroom in the student union building; it held more than 1000. Rik invited Edwards, Scott and Meggyesy, but also a host of black alums including speaker Dave Greenlee, another UW All-American, drafted in 1967 by the Chicago Bears. The IS women insisted there be a woman on the program. Joan Bird, President of women’s crew was invited. I’m not sure if there was resistance to this or not but there was worry concerning the reception she might receive.

The teach-in was a big success, in every sense. The ballroom was (over) packed; the event went on all afternoon; it was the largest student gathering since Kent State. The student paper, The Daily (April 12), reported that ‘the program dealt with how racism, sexism and authoritarianism dominate big time sports.” Edwards, responding to questions about the source of the UW’s racism, was reported as saying that “it was a device of racist , degenerative athletic departments like the one at the University of Washington to keep black and white athletes at each other’s throats so that they forget who the real enemy is – the coach.” The Daily’s coverage included Joan Bird explaining the obstacles facing women athletes, including, as an example, how the Crew coach had once suggested that “the team be hostesses for the men’s crew.” It quoted both Edwards and Scott saying “the women have a damned good case going for them.”

Finally, the Daily‘s headlines said it all: “UW, Most Racist in Athletics.” Strong words. I like to think this was the last nail in Owens’ coffin; it was just a matter of time. The coach stood indicted, no one could ignore this. The Daily would call for Owen’s to resign, University administrators assured critics that his remaining was temporary, the result of technicality – the Regents remained loyal, however, the final hurdle.

Not so easy, however, to get rid of college coaches, often rich, entrenched men.  Consider Nick Saban, today the Alabama coach, he receives a yearly salary of more than $7 million. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer – at $6 million plus -makes more than the Governor of the state. Chris Petersen, the Huskies Coach signed on with a five-year contract at $18 million, then was given a two-year extension. This money gives these men power; it talks. This is big business; the players are professionals in this context, in all but salary (none) – they bring in millions for their universities yet far from rooting for the home-town boys, today we watch  teams recruited nationally. The Huskies this year head for the national play-offs – I counted 50 Californians on their roster, half as many again from someplace else other than Washington State.

The final credit at Washington must go to the black players, right back to Fleming and Jones and Mitchell, and especially to the heroes of 1969 – Alex, Blanks, Bayard and Mills – and to Seattle’s black community which fiercely, stubbornly, and faithfully supported them. Here, I think it is fair to say that credit too goes to our rank and filer, Rik Sortun – and to the students, black and white (always too few), who supported the black students – and the black athletes. This support for Rik was a responsibility, and if his own background as a player empowered others, all good then. Seattle was a bit of a backwater in the sixties; we usually had to catch up. Nevertheless, all together we changed the UW, at least for a time. In 1968 black studies came to the UW. In 1969, 10,000 students marched on the administration building, demanding an end to ROTC. In 1970, in the aftermath of Kent State, 50,000 stormed the freeway, I-5. In 1974, foreshadowing the future, Jim Owens was, finally out, now history.

 

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Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California,(PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review). He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org

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