Mandela understood sports to be a powerful unifier, which is why he backed the Springboks, South Africa’s (long reviled) national rugby team, during its surprise run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And it’s why Mandela was instrumental in helping his country land the 2010 World Cup. Sports can supersede all other differences, perceived or recognized, and in commemoration of Mandela Day, it’s worth revisiting Wright Thompson’s classic 2008 piece (for ESPN the Magazine) which examined what the World Cup meant for South Africa:
As the members of the [Springboks] dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He’d come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who’d grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar’s Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela’s name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.
At Bleacher Report, Jessica Luther spends time with the young women of GTB — Girls Travel Baseball. Boys’ teams drop out of tournaments rather than play them and they’re mocked by opposing players and sometimes even parents. But they play because they love the game, even though they know their opportunities right now are limited.
One day, maybe, one of them will return and stand on the field as an MLB player. These girls, however, know what they are up against. The youngest of all the GTB girls is Savannah Strickland, who turned 10 in February. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and like all her teammates, she is the only girl on a local travel team. When asked how long she’s played baseball, she thinks about it and then says, “For as long as I can remember.” Strickland pauses and then asks, “Can I say something else?” Confidently and unprompted, she says, “I will want to play baseball until I’m not allowed to play anymore.”
She’s only ever known baseball, and she already knows one day someone will stop her from playing.
Despite starting 57 games, throwing 72 touchdowns, and rushing for an additional thirteen TDs, it is likely that Colin Kaepernick will not play in the NFL this upcoming season. The quarterback, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring in the hopes of signing with another team, has been blackballed from the league, a side effect of kneeling during the national anthem last year. Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in the resurgence of athlete activism, and as such, he might have taken his last snap in the NFL.
But after eight years and nearly 9,000 points, he was gone. Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam just after he became a pro, and midway through the 1996 season he began a campaign of sitting during the national anthem. As he explained to the New York Times, “I just hope that this can be something that will cause people to look into issues more…It has made me realize more how, whether you want to use the word hypocritical or backwards, sometimes we are.”
Following a one-game suspension by the NBA which cost him $32,000, Abdul-Rauf and the league reached a compromise—the guard was allowed to stand and pray with his head bowed during the anthem. But he was soon traded after the season, and would spend just two more years in the NBA before bouncing around several teams overseas. Perhaps Abdul-Rauf was just ahead of his time; the NBA was still dominated by hulking frontcourts that slogged through an offensive possessions, it wasn’t a league styled for Abdul-Rauf’s talents. Combined with his outspoken beliefs, and what seemed to many to be a radical and dangerous worldview, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t even get a try-out with another team once his contract with the Sacramento Kings expired in 1998.
It’s been two decades since Abdul-Rauf faded from the public eye, but with the arrival of the Big3, a three-on-three basketball league launched this summer for aging ex-NBA superstars (e.g. Allen Iverson, Rashadd Lewis), Abdul-Rauf, who suits up for the 3-Headed Monsters, has been rewarded with another platform to speak his mind. “To try to influence people to be socially, racially and politically conscious opposite of what the mainstream wants us to think is unacceptable,” he told the Undefeated. “Athletes are looked at and viewed with much more importance than teachers and professors by far by the youth.”
When a person like Kaepernick or anybody else comes and stands out against anything that is contrary to what image they want you to have as an athlete, then they will make an example of you because they want to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing.
In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar,a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.
While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.
Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.
The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.
With Wimbledon well under way, it’s the perfect time to talk about one of the more shameful aspects of the sport of tennis: unsportsmanlike conduct in the form of racket abuse. Earlier this year at the tournament in Indian Wells, American Ryan Harrison, ranked 41 in the world on the men’s tour, destroyed a total of five tennis rackets after losing to a competitor.
In the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas has a profile of 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, ranked 20th in the world, and a reluctant rising star who has beat the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios has been known to sour when matches don’t go well, and joins a long list of players who take out their frustrations on their rackets.
Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.
Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.
The cathartic act comes with consequences: Players are often fined several thousand dollars for racket abuse. At last year’s Wimbledon tournament, Serena Williams was fined $10,000 for repeatedly smashing her racket out of frustration.
LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach seven years ago, teaming with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form one of the first ‘super teams’ of the 21st century. During that same time span, the Heat won two titles, thoroughly justifying James’ decision to spurn a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was still very much in the midst of self-discovery and instead join a team with the best odds of becoming an NBA champion.
The move did not go unnoticed by other NBA franchises. Since James left Cleveland, the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone to three other teams that have similarly followed the Heat’s lead, including the Golden State Warriors, who this past summer signed Kevin Durant and promptly trounced the James-led Cavaliers. (Following his four years with the Heat, James famously came home and led the Eastern Conference squad to three straight NBA finals.) And we aren’t even including the Boston Celtics, who formed arguably the original super team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen a decade ago. Forgotten amidst the formation of these power teams is the influence the NBA draft used to have when it came to building title teams.
A quick primer on the draft: The league’s worst teams are allotted the top fifteen slots in each NBA Draft, with the express purpose of landing one of the best players to provide the necessary boost to compete in upcoming seasons. From Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing to Vince Carter, and even LeBron, the draft was integral to the construction of a playoff-caliber squad.
But based the draft which took place last weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the event felt more spectacle than instrumental. There is a trend of teams attempting to clear enough salary cap space to sign enough top players to contend against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, the league’s two top teams. The Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has drafted the second pick for the past three years, dumped its 2015 pick (D’Angelo Russell) for the chance to land Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (who will likely be traded this offseason), while the Minnesota Timberwolves unloaded draft picks and Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, for Jimmy Butler and a chance to challenge in the Western Conference next season.
Neither of these teams will actually contend in 2018—the finals, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still pit the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. But there is a contend-now mentality that seems to have overtaken the NBA, and as such, the proliferation of teams that believe the only way to win isn’t through development of draft picks but by hoping to craft the next super team-cum-dynasty. Might Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers join the San Antonio Spurs? Could Gordon Hayward reunite with Brad Stevens, his college coach at Butler, in Boston? Which soon-to-be contender will be able to pry Kristaps Porzingis from the Big Apple?
The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last franchise that attempted to build its team from the ground up—Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Durant were all first round picks, and as the team molded around the triumvirate of superstars (with Ibaka as the rim running, glass crashing big every contender requires), the Thunder seemed destined for NBA supremacy. But then Harden and Ibaka were traded, Durant left on his own accord, and just Westbrook, who was recently named the NBA MVP, remains. The Thunder’s experiment was a lesson for other NBA squads—building a contender the old-fashioned way takes a patience that few are willing to endure, and the future of the NBA is bound to be controlled by those teams that can convince enough superstars to join its ranks.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently touched on Minnesota’s moves on draft night and the swirling trends of building a championship-worthy squad:
This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can’t (or shouldn’t) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is — how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league’s 15 best players. That doesn’t happen, ever.
At Howler Magazine, Jeff Maysh tells the story of Cyril the Swan, the misbehaving mascot of Welsh football club Swansea City. It’s a story about the fading, post-industrial city that embraced the swan’s antics as a symbol of local identity. But it’s also the story of club groundskeeper Eddie Donne, the man inside the costume, and the making (and unmaking) of ultra-local heroes. In a particularly surreal scene, Maysh recounts a disciplinary hearing between league officials and the mascot — who appeared in full swan regalia.
Neil McClure hired Britain’s most famous sports attorney, Maurice Watkins, to defend Cyril. In 1995, Watkins had represented Manchester United star Eric Cantona after he kung fu kicked a spectator. He wanted Cyril kept away from the hearing because, Watkins told me via e-mail, he was “unpredictable to say the least.” This, he said, almost caused Lewis to “have apoplexy as the interest in the case had already generated huge sales of Cyril memorabilia, and [Lewis] had just commissioned the purchase of thousands of Cyril statuettes.” Donne avoided the TV crews and fans out front by sneaking in a back door and carrying Cyril in a bag. When Donne poked Cyril’s head out of a window, the mob went wild and began chanting, “Save our swan!”
Welsh FA chairman Alun Evans and two officials were sitting behind a long table in a barren conference room when they called for the defendant.
“They wanted to see what my vision was like,” Donne says. Cyril kicked the doors open and staggered inside. “I was falling over on purpose,” he says. “There was a plate of biscuits, so I pecked them, knocked the plate over.” As the biscuits went flying, the FA officials looked on in disbelief.
When Lewis explained that Cyril was a mute swan, the chairman instructed him to act as a translator.
“Ask Cyril, Mike, can he see a football at his feet when he is wearing his costume?” said Evans.
The swan shook his head: no.
“Ask Cyril, Mike, did he intentionally kick the ball in the direction of a Millwall player?”
Again, the answer was no.
“Mr. Watkins,” the chairman barked, turning to the lawyer, “were you aware that Cyril patted an official on the head shortly after Swansea had scored their third goal … after encroachment on the field of play?”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” Watkins said. “Cyril thought that he had seen a coin thrown at the linesman and went over to console him.”
Brilliant, Maurice, brilliant, Lewis recalls thinking.
Cyril was dismissed from the room. As he was leaving, Donne saw referee Steve Dunn sitting in a chair in the corridor.
The craziest rock-climbing event in the world happens annually in the Ozarks of Arkansas, in a u-shaped canyon with enough routes for 24 straight hours of nonstop ascents. They call it Horseshoe Hell, but don’t be fooled: for outdoor athletes who love physical challenges with some partying thrown in, it’s heaven.
From 10 a.m. today to 10 a.m. tomorrow, two-person teams will climb nonstop—or as close to nonstop as they can manage—racking up points for each route they complete. To be considered official finishers, each climber will have to send at least one route per hour; to automatically qualify for next year, each will have to do 100. Some teams will climb hundreds of pitches.
Time crawls by in a blur of increasing pain and exhaustion. At 4 a.m., with six hours to go, there’s a scramble of activity as each team completes a mandatory check-in, the event volunteers verifying that nobody is so thrashed that they become a danger to themselves or others. The temperature has dropped to a halfway-reasonable 67 degrees, but the humidity has climbed to 98 percent. The night is a swamp, the darkness punctured only by headlamps bobbing up and down the rock walls. The cicadas scream. Flying, biting insects charge into every small pool of light.
Last week, I had the privilege of watching Roger Federer beat his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer went on to win the tournament.
Tennis has long been a young person’s game, with the majority of the top players from both the men’s and women’s pro tour being in their 20s. At 35, an age when many tennis players have retired or considered retirement (Pete Sampras, for example, announced his retirement at 32), Roger Federer is finding success again with his latest wins in Indian Wells and at the Australian Open (his first grand slam win in five years). His resurgence has garnered him a GQ cover and a profile by Rosecrans Baldwin in the magazine’s latest issue. Baldwin asked Federer about what it felt like to win his latest grand slam title:
So how did it compare with the others? The 2009 French Open stands out, Federer said, when he clinched the Career Grand Slam and also tied Sampras’s record of 14 Slam titles. Then he beat Andy Roddick at Wimbledon a few weeks later—during the same summer that Mirka gave birth to their first children, their twin girls—and the record was his. A magical summer. But still, he said, “this one feels very different.” Less about legend, more about legacy. After a silence, Federer mused, “You have a better perspective when you’re older. You’re more at peace.” A second later, “Sometimes you want it more because you know time isn’t on your side.”
It’s a lovely profile of an athlete reaching the twilight of his career. Unfortunately, GQ undermined the story with a single tweet: Read more…
GQ published an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong? last May — and while it’s nominally about football, violence, and why the sport isn’t going away anytime soon, it’s also a prescient analysis of current U.S. politics.
There’s an embedded assumption within all arguments regarding the doomed nature of football. The assumption is that the game is even more violent and damaging than it superficially appears, and that as more people realize this (and/or refuse to deny the medical evidence verifying that damage), the game’s fan support will disappear. The mistake made by those advocating this position is their certitude that this perspective is self-evident. It’s not. These advocates remind me of an apocryphal quote attributed to film critic Pauline Kael after the 1972 presidential election: “How could Nixon have won? I don’t know one person who voted for him.” Now, Kael never actually said this. But that erroneous quote survives as the best shorthand example for why smart people tend to be wrong as often as their not-so-smart peers—they work from the flawed premise that their worldview is standard. The contemporary stance on football’s risk feels unilateral, because nobody goes around saying, “Modern life is not violent enough.” Yet this sentiment quietly exists. And what those who believe it say instead is, “I love football. It’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America.” It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the semantic distance between those statements is nonexistent. And if that happens, football will change from a popular leisure pastime to an unpopular political necessity.