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Shop Talk: Athletes Behaving Badly


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

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He's with us from Cleveland. Here with us in Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, NPR digital news correspondent Corey Dade, and sports editor for the Nation magazine, Dave Zirin.

Lucky for us, three of you are all here in Washington, D.C. this week. Miss you, Jimi, but you can take it from Cleveland.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, I appreciate that, Michel. Hey, thanks. Fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.


DAVE ZIRIN: What's up, man?

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get started talking about the latest development in the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case. Zimmerman, you remember, was charged with second-degree murder this week, more than 40 days after he shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager.

The incident caused outrage and national debate about racial profiling, Michel.

MARTIN: Yes. And in case you missed it, we were able to reach his new attorney, Mark O'Mara. We heard from him earlier in the program today. Hopefully, people can catch up on that conversation if they missed it. But I asked him if he thought that the second-degree murder charge was perhaps a tactic to get Mr. Zimmerman to plead to a lesser charge thereby, you know, not having to go through sort of the emotion of a trial. This is what Mr. O'Mara had to say.

MARK O'MARA: I know so little about the facts of the case right now - I truly do - that trying to second guess the prosecutor, who has had all the information in front of her, I would just be guessing and I truly don't want to do that.

MARTIN: You know what kind of jumped out for me, thought, Arsalan? You're the attorney here. Is that he also said that he didn't think - he thought that it would be a year before this trial...


MARTIN: ...gets started. Does that sound right to you?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, Dave and I were just talking about that. You know, you're going to have a lot of pretrial motions and, most importantly, you're going to have a motion for a venue change. You know, Zimmerman's attorney might want to change the venue from Sanford, Florida. Then the discussion becomes, where do you move it? Do you move it to South Florida? Do you move it to Tallahassee in the north, where the jockeying is going to happen there.

What's interesting for me, in terms of the second-degree murder charge - I think it was a brilliant legal strategy by the prosecutor, not only because Zimmerman could eventually plead to a lesser charge, but what's interesting is that by overcharging someone, what people don't know is that usually includes all lesser offenses. So that means that a jury could ultimately find him guilty of a manslaughter charge, whereas if he was indicted on a manslaughter charge, you cannot go upwards and find him guilty in that regard. So I thought that it was a good legal move on the prosecutor's part.


ZIRIN: Two things are really striking to me. I mean, first of all, the reality, which I think has been blared out on screens across this country, that without a movement these charges don't get brought. Without the dozens of high schools who walked out, without the Miami Heat, who wore their hoods, without the thousands - tens, hundreds of thousands of people who've expressed their outrage, this doesn't happen. And I think we have to reckon that that's a reality of the 21st century in this country.

And the second thing that strikes me so much is that this happens alongside the explosion of this book, "The New Jim Crow," by Michelle Alexander, now a staple on the New York Times Best Seller list.

And what you're seeing in this country, I think, right now, is the beginning of the shaping of the idea that says all of the petty humiliations to the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin, the petty humiliations that African-Americans face on a daily basis, driving while back, being followed in the store, whatever, like there is a political way to understand it that Michelle Alexander lays out that a lot of people are discussing right now, that says this is systemic. This isn't about bad people with bad ideas in their heads. This is about depriving the African-American community of political and economic power.

MARTIN: Corey, you were at the convention center, I believe - the Washington convention center where the Martin - Trayvon Martin's parents were appearing, participating in an event there when they got the news. Could you just tell us a little bit more?

DADE: Sure. They were at the National Action Networks convention.

MARTIN: That's Al Sharpton's organization. Reverend Al Sharpton, who's now an MSNBC host, but before that this is his kind of group.

DADE: Yeah, exactly. And they had a press conference with Al Sharpton and, you know, they reacted to the news and I've got to say, they have been - I've interviewed them in the past. They were about as composed and as calm and measured and disciplined and on message, so to speak, as you would expect - as you would ever expect, considering what they've gone through. They have been sort of the picture of composure. Interviewers are talking to them every day multiple times a day.

They have not said anything that's been inflammatory toward Zimmerman. I think what struck me more than anything is that they - from the time that Angela Corey, the special prosecutor, took over this investigation, they've been encouraged that this was going to be the result. And, you know, at the same time, watching them the other day react to this news, they were still fairly measured. They're still not quite sure if they're going to get the result that they want.

MARTIN: Jimi, how does this all strike you?

IZRAEL: You know, it's weird. Dave Zirin is kind of happy that the national outrage may have instigated some kind of action down in Sanford. But I'm hoping that's not what it was. I'm hoping - I'm taking Angela Corey at her word that the process just had to go through because you know what? Maybe I'm crazy but I feel like when somebody, somebody has to go to jail when somebody else gets shot. You know what I mean? And I'm hoping that's the country I live in. And I'm happy that, you know, somebody's in jail and somebody's charged finally.

You know, people and what's interesting is I'm hearing conversation, people talking about black-on-black crime or black-on-white crime. That misses the whole point. You know, black perps seldom get away, number one. And Trayvon Martin, he wasn't shot in the commission of a crime. He was shot simply because he was black. His blackness was somehow disquieting to somebody. And if Zimmerman hadn't been arrested and charged I have this feeling that we were setting up this opening hunting season on pant saggers, break dancers, loud music players and black Skittle noshers all over America. So God bless America for finally charging this guy. And let's just sit back and let the system work.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, Jimi, I want to follow, I'm glad that you picked up on what Dave said, because Dave said that these charges would not have occurred without a kind of community really national response. It's almost like it was like a national protest, a lot of which was online. And I'm wondering if, do you credit that? Because I'm, one of the things that I've been struggling with...

IZRAEL: I hope that's not true.

MARTIN: ...is, you know, there's been, this is not the only incident where you've had kind of, you know, a racial aspect to an encounter that became violent. I mean in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the police, where these it looked as though these two individuals were targeting black people, the authorities there were aggressive in their efforts to solve this case. So I what...

IZRAEL: Well...

ZIRIN: I would say one could make a strong case though, that the aggression in Tulsa was because of the movement around Trayvon, because I could also name several cases - multiple cases. I mean we could talk about from Oscar Grant in Oakland, which had a national profile, to a lot of people whose names we don't know of - unarmed black men - who die and we don't even know their names because it gets covered up and quieted so quickly. I'm not happy about the fact that it took a movement in 40 days to get these charges. I just think that it's a reality of the situation that this would have been stand your ground and forgotten. Because remember, it was several weeks after Trayvon died before even anyone had word of this. And I remember seeing articles like why aren't people talking about this case in Sanford? And that had to really marinate for a while to even get the word out, otherwise I think he would've died in silence.

IZRAEL: Do you know what I think it was?

MARTIN: Jimi, you were saying?

IZRAEL: I think what was is sadly for the Wrigley Company, I think everybody's children, no matter what color your child is, your child probably enjoys Skittles. And I think strangely enough, I think that idea of your child, anybody's child walking down the street eating Skittles and being accosted and then killed really resonated, it resonated with everybody. It kind of transcended color. If this young man had been walking down the street, you know, with a boom box or something like that, that might have changed people's minds. That might have made the – that might not have made the headlines. But I think the idea that this could've anybody's child, and he was a child. I don't care how tall he was; he was still a child. And I think that's what made this resonate. I'd like to believe, like I said, I'd like to believe we live in a country that this still would've gotten to the court system without all the hoopla, but that's just me.

MARTIN: Let me just say that George Zimmerman, of course, through his representatives, his family members have denied that race was a factor here. And just to tie a bow on it Jimi, remember when Representative Corrine Brown, who's district the incident took place in, said, she cosigns what you said. She said that many of the parents, she's been hearing from, from parents of all backgrounds, white parents as well, demanding that she pay attention to this because of their, the way this resonates with them as parents.

So, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the roundtable - the Barbershop roundtable - with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sports editor for The Nation Dave Zirin, and NPR Digital News correspondent Corey Dade.

Jimi, back to you.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Let's move on to lighter topics. Sports and there are a few athletes, coaches and managers who might need to consult a PR agency to help them get their image tightened up. Let's start with Miami Heat basketball player Dwyane Wade, who's yeah, he definitely needs a full-time PR agent.

Anyway, he caught some flak this week for saying that Olympians should get paid. He's on the Olympic basketball squad and he said quote, "you're not playing for the dollar, but it would be nice if you could get compensated," end quote. Yeah. OK. Whatever. But anyway, but after some criticism he tweeted yesterday that he wasn't referring to himself. Right.


IZRAEL: And pride for this country motivates him more than a dollar amount. Spoken like a true American. I think I'm going to drop a tear, Dave Zirin. You know, you wrote about this, wrote about the need to pay college athletes. What about Olympians? Should they get paid, Dave?

ZIRIN: Look, Jonathan Carlos, the 1968 Olympian, he once said to me why do the Olympics happen every four years? I said why? He said it takes them four years to count all that money. Now look, I am not going to play any violins for Dwyane Wade. I think the issue of him getting paid is slightly less important than what the Olympic mascot is going to look like. But at the same time, anything that exposes the kind sham amateurism on display at the Olympics. It is a corporate feeding frenzy for everybody but the people we tune in to watch and that's worth mentioning and worth saying.


MARTIN: Arsalan, you think?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. So this is Arsalan. You know, I've loved D. Wade since his days at Marquette, but I have to give him both redonkulous and the come-on-man award for this one.


ZIRIN: Come on, man.

IFTIKHAR: Really? Come on, man.

IZRAEL: Double down.

IFTIKHAR: I mean, you know, at the end of the day, you know, playing on an Olympic team is an honor to represent your country. I mean if D. Wade and Ray Allen don't want to play, you know, there are NBA players that would line up to play for free. The multimillionaires in this economic, you know, depression that we're facing as a nation. Again, I don't think there's anybody who would agree with Dwyane Wade on this statement.

MARTIN: I don't know. Maybe. Corey? I don't know.

IZRAEL: C.D. Player, Corey Dade, jump in here.


DADE: Well, I don't think he should get paid. I mean the whole point of the Olympics is to showcase amateur athletes. But the truth of the matter is most top-flight Olympic athletes do get paid. They make money through their sponsors. There are athletic apparel companies that sponsored. They do earn an income. I think the bigger point that I think Dwyane Wade was trying to raise here is what it means for an NBA player to actually play in the Olympics. They have a season where they play from November to May or June, if they're good they're going deep into the playoffs. They've put off surgeries. They use the off-season for injuries, to recuperate from injuries, and now they've got to turn around and go and play in the Olympics to the point where by the time they finish with the games they have maybe two months to get in surgeries, rehab and get ready for the next season. And for these athletes who obviously are heavily compensated, but at the same time they are commodities all the time, they feel I think what he was saying - because he said in that tweet he feels like, you know, the Olympics, corporations who sponsor the games are getting rich off of their backs.

MARTIN: Well, you know, what about injury issue?

DADE: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's one of the questions I always have. What if you have a career ending or a career impacting injury while you're in that time period? What do you do?

DADE: And that's their point. Kobe Bryant raised that issue during the last Olympics. And when he came off the Olympics he was slow getting going at the start of the next season. This is - their bodies are their tool. That's what they got.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Well, all right. Well, see, I'm glad we have different opinions here. So, but you know what's going to happen. Nothing.

DADE: Yeah.


MARTIN: So anyway, So sticking with the sports news, Dave, you know, this is very - this is a really interesting story that Marlins' manager Ozzie Gullien suspended for five games without pay for comments he made to Time magazine saying how much he respects the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for staying alive, despite how many people want dead. And that did not go well in Miami for some reason, so...

ZIRIN: No it didn't go well.

DADE: How about that?

ZIRIN: Shockingly.

DADE: You think?


ZIRIN: Look, if you say anything about Fidel Castro and don't follow by spitting in Miami you're going to get in some kind of trouble.

DADE: That's right. Mm-hmm.

ZIRIN: This story is really about two things. It's not about Gullien's comments, which are quite benign, they have the political depth of a white bread sandwich with mayonnaise and no lettuce, tomato or turkey...


ZIRIN: That's what these politically. The issue here is the incredible power of the Cuban exile community getting every single newspaper and political official bam, like within 24-hours calling for Gullien's head.

MARTIN: OK. But how is this any different from people not appreciating Rush Limbaugh, you know, commenting on Monday Night Football because they don't like his comments which they think are racist? Is this any different? This is like this is your audience.

ZIRIN: Yeah. I think...

MARTIN: So, you know, you know, what's the difference?

ZIRIN: I'll let other folks say I just think the biggest difference is Limbaugh did that in the context of his football analysis. This is him talking off the clock.

MARTIN: OK. Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: So now, you know, this is Arsalan. I grew up as a Chicago White Sox fan so I had Ozzie as my shortstop and then as our manager. If he had said this comment in Chicago we'd have been like oh, that's Ozzie just being Ozzie. Again, I think it is about knowing your audience. But this is free speech begetting free speech. You know, he had the First Amendment right to say whatever he wants and the Miami Marlins had the free First Amendment right to suspend him as his employer.

I think what's interesting to note, as my homeboy Dave Zirin recently said on Current TV, you know, this is not the first time that professional athletes have, you know, been reprimanded for things that they've said. We remember the former NBA point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly known as Chris Jackson, who was essentially exiled from the NBA...

DADE: That's right.

IFTIKHAR: ...because he didn't stand up for the national anthem. You had Greg Hodges, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, both who happened to be black Muslims athletes, essentially exiled for his opposition to the first Gulf War. So, you know, this is just another case in a long line of history.

DADE: I think you're right, Arsalan. I used to be in Miami. I used to live there and I covered Ozzie Gullien when he was a player briefly. And, you know, the Miami Marlins knew what they were getting with him.

ZIRIN: Yeah.


DADE: He has a long history of inflammatory comments. But I think this is not so much a free speech issue as it is an issue about whether or not Ozzie Gullien wants to accept the role that he has as a manager. He's not just there to win games. He's actually there build goodwill with that Miami community.

ZIRIN: Right.


ZIRIN: Because this new stadium $2 billion with a lot of ill will with the community...

DADE: That's right.

ZIRIN: And it's right there in Little Havana.

MARTIN: That's deep. That's deep. Jimi, before we let you go, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think I don't know why reporters are asking sports guys about politics. You know, I...


MARTIN: Oh, snap.

IFTIKHAR: Amen, brother.

IZRAEL: I think you stay in your lane, you know, that's what I think. I think you stay in your lane.

MARTIN: OK. What's yours? What's your lane, man?

ZIRIN: Oh, man. Man, James Baldwin said...

DADE: Don't ask.

IZRAEL: You're trying to get me in trouble. Are you serious?


ZIRIN: James Baldwin said America is devoted to the death of the paradox. I think we should be allowed for athletes to also be political and not have people just live in their box.

IFTIKHAR: We got enough political opinion.

IZRAEL: Nice James Baldwin.

MARTIN: I know. That was nice. That was good. That was buried deep.

IZRAEL: I'm all about that. All about that.

MARTIN: I'm going to take that with me for the weekend and put that on a greeting card.


MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelancer journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Dave Zirin is the sports editor for the Nation magazine and host of Sirius XM radio's "Edge of Sports Radio." Corey Dade is a correspondent for NPR's Digital News. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Arsalan, Dave and Corey were here in Washington, D.C. with me.

Thank you all so much.


ZIRIN: Thank you.

DADE: Thank you.



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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.