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Should We Bring Back Tug-Of-War, Club Swinging?



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, he joins us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Also here in D.C., Dave Zirin, he is the sports editor at the progressive magazine The Nation. In New York City today, Fernando Vila, he is the managing editor of Univision News in English. And joining him in New York, and new to the shop, William Rhoden, sports columnist with The New York Times.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

FERNANDO VILA: What's up, Jimi? How are you?

WILLIAM RHODEN: Hi. How's it doing? All right.

DAVE ZIRIN: Great to be here.

IZRAEL: Fernando, my dude, good to have you back.

VILA: You too, brother. You tweeting still?

MARTIN: Oh, snap.


IZRAEL: Bill Rhoden, first time in.

RHODEN: Yes, sir. How much do you charge by? We didn't ask that. How much for shapeup?


MARTIN: We'll be paying you before...


IZRAEL: Yeah. If you - right - if you survive you'd be doing well. Thanks for coming in and we hope to have you in again.

All right everybody. Well, let's get things started. Hold on. Hold on. We got to get things started with the Olympic theme, right? Hold on.


RHODEN: God. Come on. Please.


RHODEN: Well, there goes one myth destroyed.


IZRAEL: Yeah. I got that from Neal - yeah, Neal Conan taught me that while I was in the cafeteria. So shout out to Neal. You know, it's all Olympics all the time in the Barbershop with the summer games getting started in London. And while most of the competition happens after the opening ceremony, soccer or football, you know, started this week earlier.


IZRAEL: All right. That's not...


IZRAEL: Now that's not quite as good as mine. I'm sorry.


MARTIN: I think we get it. I think we get it.

RHODEN: I'm hot. Show me the pool.

IZRAEL: Right. You know what, Fernando?

VILA: Yeah?

IZRAEL: I got you up. You're going first, right? Your beloved Spain lost to Japan yesterday. Oh, one to zero. You doing OK?

VILA: It was awful. It was awful. It was one of the worst games I've seen them play in years. I mean it was just, I mean they should've lost five-zero. I mean they were lucky to lose only one-zero. It was one of the worst performances I've seen in a long time. I mean just embarrassing.

IZRAEL: Wow. I'm sorry to hear that, man. I guess it's like being a Browns fan.


MARTIN: Oh, no.

IZRAEL: But, you know, for me personally...

ZIRIN: Not that bad.



IZRAEL: Shout out to Cleveland. I love you WCPN. I'm looking forward to the paddle boating. I mean the kayak, the canoe sprint. You know, wait, guys, I'm sorry. Am I alone? Do some of these sports might even seem a little silly as Olympic events? Is that just me? Bill Rhoden, talk...

RHODEN: You kidding me? I'm looking forward to badminton.

IZRAEL: Really?


IZRAEL: Well, what about tug of war, was cut back in the 1920s, right? Is it high time they came back? What about club swinging?

RHODEN: Ballroom - what about ballroom dancing? I mean, you know, a lot of the stuff can't be - I mean I'm a chess guy, you know, maybe see chess. But you do have to draw a line at some point. But, you know, interesting, I joked about badminton but, you know, I've covered a few Olympics and when you see any of these sports like I covered, in fact, Fernando and I were just talking about that, when you see some of this stuff played at the highest level, you can never go to the backyard again and play badminton.

IZRAEL: Really?

VILA: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Well, you know, maybe they'll be an Olympic flip flopping. We get John Kerry to come or Mitt Romney.

MARTIN: Oh no. OK.

VILA: Ooh.


IZRAEL: Anyway, I'm sorry. Dave Zirin, go ahead, man.

ZIRIN: Just, first of all, to say that I absolutely agreed with Bill. I mean to see any sport played at the highest level is an absolute thrill. But I do draw the line at a very simple rule: if you're doing something that you could either gain weight or smoke cigarettes while doing, it's not a sport and it doesn't belong in the Olympics.


ZIRIN: Like badminton, you can't do that. But, you know, like Bill said chess, I don't know. You could smoke some Newports, some Pall Malls; play some chess, that's not a sport.

IZRAEL: Wait. Dave Z, while I got...

VILA: People would argue that you can smoke cigarettes and plays baseball.

MARTIN: It's not in the...

RHODEN: I know.

IZRAEL: Well...

RHODEN: If you're a pitcher you can smoke.


IZRAEL: No, that's beer league softball, which is not a sport...


ZIRIN: ...but baseball is.


IZRAEL: What about competitive eating? Competitive eating...

RHODEN: Oh no.

IZRAEL: Oh wait, hold up, no.


MARTIN: I think you all are taking this in all the wrong direction.

IZRAEL: Competitive eating is coming into its own.

RHODEN: Jimi, come on. Please.

IZRAEL: I'm sorry. Could we please bring this...


ZIRIN: Come into its own, so is asbestos.

IZRAEL: Right. OK.

MARTIN: Excuse me, could we please bring this back to the fact that maybe these fine young people have trained for many years to be here? Could we show a little respect? Could we do that?

RHODEN: Yeah. There you go.


MARTIN: Could we do that? Thank you.


MARTIN: Fernando, excuse me, can I mention you are actually feeling badminton because you spent some time in China, right?

VILA: Yes.

MARTIN: And you've actually seen it played at a very high level.

VILA: I actually try to play it and I don't recommend it to anyone. That little feather is like a treacherous temptress. It kind of floats in front of you...



VILA: ...waiting to be smacked and then it disappears.

IZRAEL: Hey now.

VILA: It's brutal.

MARTIN: But on a serious note, so what's everybody's favorite sport, seriously? What are you going to watch? Dave, what are you watching? What are you most interested in?

ZIRIN: Oh, I'm very excited about the swimming. I love it every four years. It's thrilling. Men's, women's, I just love the drama of the pool, especially now that they have the cameras underneath and can really show it in that kind of new age 21st century kind of way.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: Boxing.

MARTIN: Boxing?

IZRAEL: I'm that dude.

MARTIN: Really?


MARTIN: Both men's and women's or just...

IZRAEL: But men's and women's.


IZRAEL: Until they get Olympic Zumba I'm going to be into boxing.


MARTIN: Oh, OK. Bill, you have a favorite?

RHODEN: Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean to me there's nothing like being in the stadium for the 100 meters...

VILA: Oh, yeah.

RHODEN: ...men, women. I mean that to me is the most, one of the most exciting things in sports, period. The 100 meter, world's fastest human, that's always been it for me.

VILA: I mean I...

ZIRIN: Mickey Rourke is the favorite this year.


VILA: I want to see Usain Bolt break the sound barrier every night.


VILA: It could be done.

RHODEN: It could be.

MARTIN: Did I leave anybody else? Fernando? Who did I leave? Did I leave anybody out?

VILA: Yeah. I'm excited to see the dream team, to see if they live up to the '92 team. That's what I'm going to be watching.

RHODEN: Never.

MARTIN: The basketball team? The men's basketball team.

RHODEN: Well, that strains almost - to me now we start, you know, segueing into nationalism, you know, the whole idea of the dream team, I mean to me that's when the United States crossed the line and they sent in the Marines. That's essentially what the presence in the Olympics was. They, you know, we are angry because, you know, we lost and got the silver so, you know, beginning in Barcelona we sent in the Marines. You know, we wanted to just blast the competition so now, you know, the rest of the world gradually caught up with the Marines remember in, what was it, in Athens.


RHODEN: You know, they caught up. So now we're sending in the Navy SEALs.


RHODEN: The problem becomes what happens when they catch up to the Navy SEALs? Then who do we send?

ZIRIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: I don't know. Batman.

MARTIN: But what's wrong with elevating the level of competition? What's wrong with that?

RHODEN: Well, we're either, I think it gets back to exploitive labor and I'm sure Dave will...


RHODEN: ...chime in on this.

ZIRIN: Who me?

RHODEN: Yeah. You know, remember first we were sending our cheap labor; we were sending the college kids, OK. You know, we were letting them sort of do the heavy lifting. You know, and we could do it. We could send these kids, you know, they're just happy to be there. They're kind of grateful. And then, you know, people started beating up on them, say OK, now let's kind of send in the pros. And then once we introduced that type of capitalism, they're stunned when this year Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, say, well, wait a minute, you know, it was fine in '92, we did it for free but this is very time-consuming, I think we should get paid.

ZIRIN: Yeah. John Carlos, the 1968 Olympian who I know Bill is very familiar with, who raised his black-gloved fist in Mexico City, he says you know why they had the Olympics every four years? Because it takes them four years to count all the money.


IZRAEL: Ah. Whoa, that's good.

ZIRIN: It is a big moneymaking enterprise...

RHODEN: That's right.

ZIRIN: ...and Bill is absolutely right. The dream team is part that plus the advent of corporate sponsorship is what has propelled the Olympics from something that was a money-losing proposition to something that's become like a neoliberal Trojan horse.

RHODEN: Right. In fact...


RHODEN: You know, it's interesting. Fernando was talking about bemoaning the fact that Spain, the Spanish national team lost. But in reality, one of the best Spanish private corporate team could probably beat the national team.

VILA: Oh, yeah.

RHODEN: And I think that's probably where we're going to be headed. In maybe 40 years these are probably going to be corporate Olympics where you're not going to have national teams anymore.

MARTIN: Interesting.

VILA: "Blade Runner" or something.



MARTIN: Well, speaking of the, you know, speaking of the fact that there are kind of widely ranging levels of sophistication and of athletes participating in these games - and if you just joined us, we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with writer Jimi Izrael; sports editor Dave Zirin, sports columnist William Rhoden, and journalist Fernando Vila.

We're talking about the fact that - well, Jimi apparently one Olympian missed your warning a couple of weeks ago about staying off the Twitter.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Voula - that last name Papa...

MARTIN: Papachristou.

IZRAEL: Papachristou.


IZRAEL: Yeah. Wow. You know what? Initially, she dismissed the criticism about her with that unfortunate Tweet. But now she's kind of issued an apology and, you know, for what she called a tasteless joke.

MARTIN: Well, let me just bring people up to date if they missed this. She's a very popular athlete in her home country of Greece. She competes in the triple jump. But earlier this week she was expelled from Greek's, from Greece's national team for a social media post which she wrote on her Twitter page. This is how it's been translated into English: With so many Africans in Greece , the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food.


ZIRIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Wow. Yeah.


MARTIN: I guess, so the question that is...

ZIRIN: Greek standup comedy isn't what it used to be.

IZRAEL: Right. Ba dom bom. Bill Rhoden, you know what? After Voula was suspended she told Reuters her main emotion was bitterness and that her punishment was excessive. Do you agree?

RHODEN: No. Are you kidding me?


IZRAEL: Now tell us what you really think.

RHODEN: No. No. I mean and I think this kind of gets into the larger thing about we have to find a way to begin to rein in carelessness and recklessness, you know. And particularly, you're going to the Olympics? The one moment in our just sort of abysmal history of global conflict this is supposed to be the one, you know, couple of weeks where we at least have the illusion of nations getting together and you're going to start off with this kind of nonsense? You know, which means number one, you don't even study the Olympic charter, you know, so no. I mean it wasn't, it wasn't harsh. In fact, she should probably even never be allowed to be on the Greek national team anymore.

MARTIN: OK. Anybody disagree?

ZIRIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Dave Zirin.

ZIRIN: Well, it's not so much that I disagree but I think we should realize this is as much a Greek domestic political issue more than it's an International Olympic Committee issue. It was the Greek Olympic Committee independent of the IOC that pulled her home. That's a very political body, the Olympic Committee. It's appointed by politicians. And I think the real tipping point was less the joke and more when people went through her Twitter history it was found she is an avid supporter of this organization, Golden Dawn, which has seven percent of the parliament. It's an open fascist, open Nazi organization and that's like - that's the rail of Greek politics right now. And now she is a folk hero. She was on the home page of Golden Dawn's website. She is their martyr. She is their spokesperson. So she's actually been elevated politically by this whole imbroglio.

And I just got to say the great irony of this is that there is such a history of fascism in the Olympics in terms of the organizers, in terms of Avery Brundage who headed the Olympics, in terms of the '36 Olympics in, of course, Berlin's Nazi Germany under the auspices of Adolf Hitler. So it only took them until the 21st century, but it's good to see somebody get sent home for fascism.

MARTIN: Well, they call themselves nationalists. I'll just, for whatever that means. For whatever that means.

RHODEN: Well, your political party...

IZRAEL: Bill Rhoden?

RHODEN: Yeah, the political party is one thing. I mean, you know, that's one thing. Racism is racism, though.

MARTIN: Well, what's...

RHODEN: You know what I mean? I don't care, you know, the political party is one thing. Who you're affiliated with, that's fine, that's what you do. But you have to keep your racism to yourself.

MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of the R word Bill Rhoden, do you remember - how many of you remember this particular comment? Here it is.

JIMMY THE GREEK SNYDER: I'm telling you that the black is a better athlete and he practices to be the better athlete, and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War.

RHODEN: Jimmy the Greek. Jimmy the Greek.

MARTIN: Now do you all remember this?

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That was the former - the sports commentator Jimmy the Greek Snyder.

ZIRIN: The Greeks are having a rough time on the Barbershop today.


MARTIN: I know. Right? You know, I thought about that but that's how he was known.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: I couldn't not say it. And he was fired in 1988 by CBS for those remarks. And, but recently though, the Olympic gold medalist, African-American Michael Johnson echoed that sentiment. He told the Daily Mail that he believes that Africans - people of African heritage in the Diaspora will dominate the London Olympics in part because of the slave ancestry and what that, you know, produced. And so I just have to ask you all, what about that? Is that a worthy topic of conversation or not?

I don't know. Bill Rhoden, you wrote the book "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete." Have you ever, what do you think about that?

RHODEN: Yeah, I think that yeah, they're going to dominate because, you know, the slavery connection is they're pissed off.


RHODEN: I mean but listen, I'm not a geneticist. Maybe some of the people on our panel are. I'm not. But this is what I will say though, is that I think that I always felt that as African-Americans we have a survival, a psychic spiritual survival gene, and that the history of our - of us in this country is surviving. It's not necessarily genetics and race; it's how we relate to racism. So I'll leave everybody else to...


RHODEN: ...to argue about genetics. But I'm just, you know.

MARTIN: I hear you. What about Fernando? What do you think?

VILA: Well I, you know, I feel like this, we have to be very careful about this. I mean again, we're not scientists either and sort of assigning the percentages of success, you know, whether it's race or upbringing or socioeconomic status is always is going to be inexact and very problematic. I think the big issue is sort of the if we are sort of to have this conversation, sort of addressing the subtle racism that always exists in team sports and sort of what positions are you supposed to play if you're a certain race or and how sort of pernicious that can be once you start addressing these topics. And...

MARTIN: Hmm. You know, it's very limiting, isn't it?

VILA: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's sort of like well, this is what you're supposed to do because of this or that other thing. It's so interesting like for example, earlier in the program we heard from an Olympic, you know, rower who is not at all from kind of to the manner born and he is at the top of the sport and I don't know. There is a - Dave, what do you think?

ZIRIN: Junk science. The worst kind of sociobiological, social Darwinistic, deeply, deeply, deeply racist science that has its roots in the white supremacist movement of the 19th century. I think it should be rejected. Yes, it's certainly true that people of certain backgrounds gravitate towards different sports. I would argue that's entirely socially constructed. And you want to know the best proof of that? Look at the number of European players who are now stars in the National Basketball Association. I mean for a long time it was like oh, well black people are the best basketball players because genetics blah, blah, blah. People made those arguments in the 1970s and 1980s. But then you go to Europe where there's less of - that baggage doesn't exist in the same way where, oh, you're only supposed to play this sport and not this sport and people are able to come over and compete. So the idea of social construction is very important.

MARTIN: But, you know, well it's kind of funny though, because, you know, the early history of the sport, how many of the standouts in the early history of basketball were Eastern...

ZIRIN: Irish and Jews.

MARTIN: ...were, yeah, exactly.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So there's that piece. But, Jimi, final thought on this?

IZRAEL: Well, I mean I don't see it as a race issue so much as - I mean it's one of those conversations that good white people aren't supposed to have. You know, and black people say all the time it's like look, listen, my great-grandfather he was born with wide shoulders, you know, because he came from a farm background. You know, my grandfather also born of wide shoulders. My dad, me, I'm wide shouldered. You know, and I built for football? No. But I'm built for something physical. You know, if you're people are farmers or if you're from a colonized people and your people were used as labor, it makes sense that those genes are going to come down the pool. So I don't think it's so much that, you know, blacks and or blacks or African people were, you know, because they're not smart they do sports. I think physically they just have a better muscular strength.

MARTIN: Well, how come you can't keep your houseplants alive?


RHODEN: Michel?

MARTIN: Yes, sir. Nineteen seconds.

RHODEN: Nineteen seconds? Well, maybe not. This is a kind of longer point.



MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll come back to it some other time...


MARTIN: ...if it warrants. Well, thank you for coming, Bill Rhoden.

RHODEN: Oh, the pleasure is mine. Now, you know, I've never - very few Barbershops I've been to when you have a beautiful sister cutting hair.


MARTIN: Well, you have traveled enough, Bill Rhoden.

IZRAEL: Yeah, you need to get out more.

MARTIN: Sports columnist for The New York Times....

ZIRIN: So smooth.

MARTIN: Also with us, Fernando Vila, managing editor of Univision News in English, he was also in our New York bureau. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He is also an adjunct professor of film and social media act Cuyahoga Community College here in D.C. Also in D.C., Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and host of Sirius XM Radio's "Edge of Sports Radio." Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

RHODEN: Thank you.

VILA: Thank you.

ZIRIN: My pleasure.

VILA: Tweet on, Jimi .

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.