THE WHOLE GAME

One Senator’s Tweet Should Remind Americans That Everyone’s Fair Game

In the last decade, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives – both from opposite sides of our political spectrum – were shot and nearly killed.

With the impenetrable lock that gun lobbyists clamped and welded onto the gilded upper chamber of Congress, their colleagues in the Senate still did nothing about passing stricter gun control laws. (In the past, the House has put forward legislation for greater measures, only to wilt away in the Senate.)

As the better of us rightfully rage about the lack of action following the mass killings of children in our schools over the last thirty years, the latest tragedy (as well as those in Buffalo and Laguna Woods) underscored what many of us have always known, but are reluctant to admit – that we’re all fair game. 

Yet for this writer, it was the near deaths of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D – AZ) in 2012 and current Congressman Steve Scalise (R – LA) in 2017 that revealed far more about the Senatorial inertia that keeps America from resolving its gun control crisis. As their own colleagues in Capitol Hill were recovering – with Giffords unable to finish her third term in the House due to brain trauma – not even the appearance of self-interest and self-preservation compelled any changes to gun laws.

(Equally as tragic has been Scalise’s voting record, supported by his own words months after his recovery and the Las Vegas massacre: “Don’t try to put new laws in place that don’t fix these problems. They only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to own a gun.”)

But that conceit serves a different purpose for many of those hold-outs as they become indignant not only about the conversation, but who dares to participate in it.

Many of you saw this last night during Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the visiting Boston Celtics and the host Miami Heat. After a moment of silence for the victims of the horrors in Uvalde, Texas, the Heat (through its public address announcer) made an unexpected but mostly welcomed call-to-action for fans at FTX Arena and at home:

Predictably, this didn’t sit too well with Senator Marco Rubio (R- FL), who has a penchant for whataboutism instead of “what-can-I-do-ism” in times like this.

While social media has generally failed as an accurate barometer of what every American thinks and feels at a given moment, it remains a proving ground of sorts for messages on particular issues. At the extremes of the American political spectrum, a tweet can rally a supportive base (or at least the bots) and enrage its opponents (people who regularly quote-tweet their outrage). It can spark off new rounds of campaign fundraising or open up new ways to grift. Most certainly and effectively, a tweet can get the modern content mill masquerading as political punditry – and dolts who are rusty in the writing department like yours truly – to talk about them. In those regards, few are as effective at detrimental tweets over beneficial legislation as the senior senator from Miami.

The NBA is far from a perfect sports league despite its progressive stances over the years. However, there is something incredibly morose about a prominent federal legislator using his time to attack the league for a political quagmire that has nothing to do with the murders of 21 people – NINETEEN CHILDREN! – at an elementary school. (And there’s far more to be said for some of his colleagues in the replies. These are ‘patriots’ who believe that the only way to love America is to hate the people who built and maintained it.)

Yet perhaps because millions of Americans have witnessed these tragedies in the social media age, it feels as if these opportunistic posts from the holdout legislators aren’t hitting the mark as they used to. What we are seeing is that Rubio and many of his cohorts are far more willing to put their hearts and souls into railing against their real and perceived detractors on Twitter than standing in the Senate chamber to at least talk about the issue at hand.

All of that energy for a tweet, but not for a vote. All that energy for a tweet, but not for thousands of American families who lost loved ones or had to endure someone’s arduous recovery. All of that energy for a tweet, but not for his fellow Floridians after Orlando or Parkland.

All of that energy for a tweet, but in all of this time in the U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio hasn’t given an ounce of energy for his own colleagues on the Hill. 

Why Danny Green Missed the Mark With His Comments on Sixers Fans

The Philadelphia 76ers, and their fans, are still grappling with the aftermath of the team completing one of the worst collapses in the history of a city’s sports landscape that is littered with… well, collapses and disappointments. After earning the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers blew an 18-point second half lead in Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals and followed that up by coughing up a 26-point advantage in Game 5. Their 2-1 series lead became a 3-2 deficit, and instead of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, the team was eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in seven games.

Naturally, these circumstances drew the ire of the notoriously tough Philadelphia crowd, with much of the vitriol falling on Ben Simmons, whose offensive play regressed to the point that head coach Doc Rivers was forced to sit the All-Star in key fourth quarter stretches. This play in Game 7 has become a microcosm of the Ben Simmons offensive experience and its effect on the team.

Last Thursday, Sixers guard Danny Green shared some candid thoughts on the Philadelphia crowd. Specifically, he was asked by Philadelphia sportscaster John Clark if he thought the Philly crowd can “have an effect on someone like Ben.”

“For sure,” Green replied. “It has an effect on everybody, and I think that’s something that needs to change in the city. I love our fans, but when things aren’t going well, they can’t turn on you. They need to be riding with us, regardless of how things are going.”

Green continued:

“We’re the No. 1 team in the East, still playing well, and in some games they’ll boo us – that’s part of the culture here, part of their way of showing they love us – but with a guy like Ben, and other guys, I think they need to stick behind them and stick by them as long as they can, until the horn blows.”

The thing is, Sixers fans have stuck behind this team, through brutal disappointments and a borderline ridiculous rebuilding process. They’ve been there through thousands of horns blowing, waiting and waiting for their patience and loyalty to be rewarded. For Sixers fans younger than 40, they’re still waiting. But still they come, game after game, year after year.

Similarly, the fans have been incredibly patient with Simmons. Before this spring’s postseason regression, Sixers fans have supported, defended and encouraged Simmons at every turn. They’ve done this as Simmons showed flashes of the adjustments and improvements he clearly needs to reach his full potential. They’ve done this as they’ve been teased with offseason workout videos of a sweaty Simmons putting up jump shot after jump shot, all with the promise that this would be the season all that work pays off and bears fruit on the court. But that payoff has yet to come, and during these playoffs the regression was painfully obvious, culminating in a complete unwillingness to shoot no matter how close to the basket he was, and a putrid 34.2% postseason free throw percentage. So, forgive them if they’re a bit frustrated.

The rest of Green’s response was littered with phrases that are problematic: “stand by us like we stand by you” and “be on our side when it’s convenient.”

Here’s the thing, Danny. It hasn’t been “convenient” to be on the Sixers’ side in 20 years.

Let’s just look at the recent history of the team. The fan base watched the organization strip itself to the bare bones, trotting out G League lineups in an effort to maximize the opportunity to hit home runs in the draft. Not only did Sixers fans not complain about this nearly unprecedented commitment to not winning in the short term, but they embraced it, supporting both the team on the court and the philosophy as a whole in hopes they would be rewarded with a championship.

Instead, over the last three seasons, they’ve suffered through Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-doink game-winner in Game 7 of the conference semis in 2019, an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the hated Boston Celtics in the bubble in 2020, and then this year’s epic collapse.

Here’s the crux of the problem. Green has been in Philadelphia for one year. Sixers fans have been here 20, 30, 40, 50 years. They’ve been waiting for an NBA championship since 1983. They’ve been waiting for an NBA Finals appearance since 2001.

Danny Green was born in 1987.

Ultimately, Green was sticking up for his teammate and trying to extract some positivity out of a postseason run that was an unmitigated disaster for the franchise. That’s fine, even admirable. But he failed to consider the lens in which Philly fans are viewing what they just witnessed and how that fits in the 57 years the team has called Philadelphia home. Green was a great addition to the 76ers this season, and his absence after getting injured in Game 3 against the Hawks certainly played a role in what unfolded in the remainder of that series. But he missed the mark on this one.

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA Today Sports Images

Competitive Eater George Chiger’s Road to Coney Island Shares an Unexpected Side Street with the NFL

The first time Ron Heller attended a food challenge event to watch his younger cousin George Chiger compete, he didn’t know what to do with himself. 

“My first reaction was to do a one-man wave and cheer,” laughed Heller. “But George was so focused it was almost like I didn’t want to disturb him. I just remember finding that odd. I mean I’m here at what I consider a very competitive sporting event and I was afraid to cheer. So finally I blurted out ‘C’mon George!’ I just couldn’t hold it in.”

The 12-year NFL veteran offensive lineman felt bad for his perceived faux paus. 

“When it was over, I apologized for not being the greatest fan in the world because I had no idea what to do,” Heller admitted.

The reality is that Heller, like most people, was unprepared for the crazy, misunderstood world of competitive eating.

Millions tune in every year on the Fourth of July to the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. But it’s more for titillation, entertainment and downright morbid curiosity than for the love of the sport.

In fact, sport is not a word often associated with what professional eaters do. 

“I’m not going to lie, I thought this is really neat, but it’s a novelty – a gimmick,” explained the former NFL player and coach. “I’ve never been exposed to competitive eating until several years ago when George first went to Coney Island. My first thought was ‘this is so odd’.”

In one quote, Heller summed up a competitive eater’s most difficult obstacle. 

Just watching Nathan’s is like skipping an entire NFL season and only tuning into the Super Bowl to watch Tom Brady defeat a team by three touchdowns. Of course it’s fun to watch but there is no ethos – you get no sense of the world these eaters live and compete in. (And yes, Joey Chestnut is the Tom Brady of the eating world, for those wondering.)

Because behind every Chestnut is a Chiger, grinding out 10-15 eating competitions and challenges every year in hopes of rising in the rankings and claiming various food championship titles as his own, all while living a whole other normal life. 

“Joey’s been at the top for years but I’m battling the other 14 top-ranked eaters, to get ahead of them and finish in the top-10 or top-5 – that’s my goal in every competition that I’m in,” said No. 15 ranked Chiger.

If you ask him if competitive eating is a sport, of course he answers yes faster than a reversal of fortune.

“People are surprised to hear we even train,” remarked Chiger. “We do. We have hot dog season, we train three months out of the year, once or twice a week. We try to increase our numbers, our capacity, work on our technique, work on our speed. Hearing that brings people around – understanding that it is a sport, that we are putting time and effort in.”

But what about his cousin, Heller, who played the game of football for more than a decade at the absolute highest level?

“I’ve watched what he goes through before a competition but I still didn’t grasp that this is a game day for him,” admitted Heller. “But then I watched his eyes glass over and it got me all jacked up because it did remind me of the night before a football game.”

Once upon a time, it was the No. 1 ranked eater in Pennsylvania who was watching Heller on game day, even begging him to come to his class for show and tell. But now it’s the elder cousin who looks on with pride.

Chiger (l) and Heller (r) are cousins who know big appetites, though for entirely different reasons. (Courtesy of George Chiger)

Heller remembered dialing up Mike Golic Sr., the former ESPN personality who was a college roommate and former teammate with the Philadelphia Eagles. After realizing Golic’s son and current ESPNer Mike Jr. was broadcasting the Hot Dog Eating Contest, Heller had to call his old friend. “I left him a message saying that I heard his son and that he did really well, and Mike called me back and asked which one was my cousin and I said George Chiger and Mike said ‘Oh yeah, my son said he was the best!’ It was a cool moment where I was proud to say I knew George.”

Being a fan might be foreign to the O-lineman but food certainly isn’t. Heller may not be ranked internationally, and his cousin has suggested he not try, but he did put up a solid showing in the one eating challenged he entered. 

“It was a hot pepper contest, a sort of sidebar during the chili contest I was cooking in and you had like 10-15 minutes to eat each pepper and then it’s the next round, next pepper. I took like fifth out of 10 people. And then I had a headache for two days.”

They may not eat on the same level, but the cousins share a very similar appreciation for food. Heller’s wife even sent him to BBQ school with Myron Mixon where he learned about competition barbeque and decided to become a judge. He joined the Kansas City Barbeque Society, took a course and became certified. His team, Smokestack BBQ, which usually scores best in beef brisket, is a past champion of the Montana BBQ Cookoff.

From NFL player to NFL coach to certified barbeque judge – Heller’s resume makes him the perfect person to answer competitive eating’s most polarizing question: is it a sport?

“Oh absolutely,” Heller answered vehemently. “There’s training, there’s technique and there’s competition.”

Tune in today at noon on ESPN to watch Chiger for his final stop on the #RoadToConey. And check out Chiger’s interview on the latest Sideline Sass Podcast episode.

The Olympics is Failing in the Fight for Racial Justice

While some leagues are choosing to lean into racial progress and equity, the International Olympics Committee is deciding to ignore the greatest civil rights movement during the last fifty years for the sake of… well, we’re not really sure. 

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others sparked international outrage and solidarity, spurring protests against police violence, inequality, and racial discrimination worldwide. The Olympics choosing to willfully ignore these movements in order to proceed with “life as usual” is as callous to the lives lost and oppressed populations still fighting for their humanity as it is tone-deaf to the current moment in which all athletes find themselves. 

The IOC Rule 50 guidelines states that “the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance” and that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” 

Examples of what’s considered a protest include the following items among others:

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands 
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling 
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol

At the end of the statement, the IOC finishes off their All Lives Matter diatribe with a dog-whistle that would make the entire America First caucus proud. “In conclusion,” it reads, “these guidelines have been developed with the aim that each and every one of you can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.” 

It is unfortunate that the Olympics is digging its heels this far into the ground. In the past couple of months, we have witnessed mass murders and hate crimes of people from Asian communities, ongoing destruction in Gaza which resulted in numerous Palestinian lives lost, and the unending loss of Black American lives at the hands of police. Athletes across the country have plenty to stand up for, and even more to fight for. Forcing them to separate their race, ethnicity, culture and communities to perform and compete on behalf of their countries overlooks the plight each competitor will face when they return home. 

What vividly stands out in the statement from the IOC is the assertion that proclaiming that Black lives matter, demanding to #StopAsianHate or believing that trans rights are human rights can be considered “divisive disruptions.” Instead of acts of hate and prejudice admonished throughout the world, the IOC decided to punch down towards all of the oppressed, marginalized groups fighting for their lives. It chose to condemn them for resisting at all. When indirectly stating that fighting for equality and humanity for all is considered divisive, the IOC has made its decision on which side to take. 

As we further examine the statement from the IOC, we see statements centering neutrality for the sake of peace and harmony. 

“As athletes, we are passionate about our sports and achieving our sporting performance goals. For each and every one of us, that passion continues into everyday life, where we advocate for change on issues of great importance to us and our world. That desire to drive change can naturally make it very tempting to use the platform of an appearance at the Olympic Games to make our point.
"However, all of us are here at the Olympic Games because, one day, we dreamt of being an Olympian, and maybe even an Olympic champion. The unique nature of the Olympic Games enables athletes from all over the world to come together in peace and harmony. We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations. 
"If we do not, the life’s work of the athletes around us could be tarnished, and the world would quickly no longer be able to look at us competing and living respectfully together, as conflicts drive a wedge between individuals, groups and nations. That is not to say that you should be silent about the issues you care deeply about, and below you will find a list of places where you can express your views at the Olympic Games.”

This word salad is the most elaborate way of saying “I don’t see race” you might ever read. Phrases like “conflicts drive a wedge between individuals” and “neutral and free” highlight the sterile stance that the IOC has decided to take during such a momentous period. We know that silence is not an option when fighting for progress. Even with the approved list of “places where you can express your views,” which includes interviews, team meetings and social media, the powers that be are doing their best to do nothing to stand with persecuted communities. As legendary South African humanitarian Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Olympics, meet mouse. And no, we don’t appreciate your neutrality. 

The IOC is hoping to avoid the legendary moment fueled by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the iconic civil rights activists who raised their fists in solidarity with those fighting for human rights worldwide. They did this with the backdrop of the devastating Vietnam War while the Black Panthers advocated for Black lives stateside. In a recent interview, the now 75-year-old Carlos went as far to state that the Olympics apparently “haven’t learned anything over 53 years”

While the IOC thinks it can quell athlete activism on the world stage, it would not be surprising to see at least one athlete risk punishment in order to send a message of unity to the members of their community. All things considered, this is just a mere hiccup in the ultimate push for civil rights as this version of the racial justice movement is still in its infancy and only growing stronger. Carlos eloquently stated that “the fight that you’re in is not necessarily a fight for yourself, but the fight is for your offspring.”

The Olympics has shown time and time again that it does not understand this, but the athletes speaking out and protesting for equality definitely do. And they will continue with or without the blessing of the IOC. 

Jahmal Williams: full-time husband, father, and activist. Part-time beer drinker. Anti-insurrectionist af.

Photo credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of His Fight, Edgar Berlanga is on the Superstar Path

Over the course of 2020, boxing saw the emergence of young talent gaining more notoriety. With the pandemic halting sports and its return being tunneled into basic cable television, fans didn’t have to use pay-per-view to see new and exciting fighters. Promotional company Top Rank had a major hand in this, collaborating with ESPN to have championship bouts on the network. Terrence “Bud” Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko are two of the bigger names who had title fights last year. But there were stars made on the undercard as well. One of those is knockout sensation Edgar Berlanga.

Berlanga is a 23-year-old Brooklyn native. And like another 23-year-old Puerto Rican Brooklyn native, unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez, fighting on ESPN has given Berlanga the platform to enhance his star power. He has taken advantage of the eyes watching him as he’s knocked out all 16 of his opponents in the first round. But there are three aspects he possesses that are building blocks to the foundation of a superstar fighter.

He’s Aware

Fighters starting their careers undefeated is nothing new. The reasoning on this is based around getting the prospect’s confidence up in the ring while learning the minute details of the sweet science. It’s why early on, bouts are typically scheduled for four or six rounds, gradually increasing the potential total of frames as the fighter gets better. Berlanga has knocked every opponent out in two minutes and 40 seconds or less of ring time. As exciting as it is for viewers, it’s tough to gain experience when the competition isn’t lasting long enough.

To say it another way, he has 16 professional fights and only amassed 16 total rounds. The best part of this, however, is that Berlanga is aware of this. “[I want] rounds,” Berlanga said, as reported by Boxing Scene. “The better competition, the better opposition we fight. I believe we’re going to get those rounds in. We ended 2020 with a bang. 2021 is a big year for us, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Both Berlanga and his camp understand that though he’s been impressive, he still has a long way to go before he is truly ready to fight top tier competition.

He’s Assured

With the previous point stated, knocking out every opponent well within three minutes is incredibly amazing. Berlanga is doing the boxing equivalent of winning by lopsided margins and having the outcome decided early. In a sport like boxing where bravado is a positive trait, Berlanga is as confident as they come. It may come off as unfounded arrogance, considering the lack of in-ring experience and questionable quality of competition. But when the lack of experience is the result of his own speedy destruction of stuff competition, that confidence has some merit to it.

Presumably, the opponents get more challenging as boxers move up in rank. And while it’s clear Berlanga isn’t fighting top contenders, he is still putting every opponent on the canvas. Yet because he understands that experience is vital to his growth, his confidence doesn’t seem to have the tarnish of foolish pride. He recognizes that he’s good — really good — but still needs to improve.

The best athletes are supremely confident. His projected skill is trending upwards and it is okay to know it and revel in it. One can’t become champion if they don’t believe it to be more than possible first.

He’s Mean

Any fighter who steps in the ring has more than a little courage and heart as a person. Trained fighters of any rank are registered weapons. But there is a special breed of fighters who look to take the will of their opponents. It’s as if victory must come with a physically implemented understanding that boxing may be a sport but these matches are fights. Boxers with that mentality who come to mind are Mike Tyson and the late great Joe Frazier.

Edgar Berlanga is that kind of mean.

“I’m a [expletive] monster!” he roared after his knockout of Lanell Bellows for his then-15th straight first-round KO. Berlanga steps into the ring looking to take the will of his opponents. And as the knockout counter grows, the intimidation factor does as well. It’s to the point that his camp expect future opponents to want more money to fight him. “Fighters are going to want to get paid to fight me now,” Berlanga told the media in a Zoom call in December, as posted by DAZN. “They aren’t going to want to jump in the ring with me for chump change. It happens to the best.”

This idea is confirmed by at least one other fighter, 31-year-old Jesse Hart. Hart (26-3, 21 KOs) says if Berlanga wins his upcoming fight, he’d love to have a bout in June — for the right price. “It’s been talked about,” the Philadelphia native said, as told to Boxing Scene. “As I’ve always said it doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t make dollars. The money has to be right for that fight but I would love to fight that kid.” Even a fighter like Hart, who also said he’d love to “expose” Berlanga, still understands the risk of getting in the ring with such a tactically barbaric opponent, and he’s asking for more compensation to take that risk.

Meanness is often reserved for heavyweight boxers, from the legends like Tyson and Frazier to current stars like Deontay Wilder, despite his recent slippage against WBC and linear champion Tyson Fury. But the smaller fighters can also be that way while blending it with a little more style and flash. The aforementioned Bud Crawford went on a profanity-laced rant on ESPN’s Max on Boxing before his fight with Kell Brook. Berlanga, a super middleweight, hasn’t done anything like that yet, but it is clear he becomes a bully when the bell sounds. Again, knockout artists have been a staple in boxing, especially early in their careers. But the dismantling of opponents with the brute force Berlanga uses is special.

Some boxers try to hit as hard as they can. Berlanga looks like he actually does it.

Ahead of his fight against Demond Nicholson on this Saturday April 24th, whether he continues his first-round knockout streak or not, Edgar Berlanga appears to have the right facets to his fighting persona to blossom into a true superstar of the sport.