THE WHOLE GAME

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.

Pop-up Pro Day Gives Small-School Guys a Chance to Chase NFL Dreams

A year without ball.

That’s how one of the players at Marc Lillibridge’s pop-up Pro Day in St. Louis earlier this month described his life.

“Due to the pandemic my Pro Day was cancelled,” explained University of Charleston wide receiver Tremaine Ross. “I was not able to show scouts what I am capable of. Coming from a Division II school, exposure and opportunities are limited. I was really counting on my Pro Day to get my name out there to scouts.”

First, it was the East-West Shrine Bowl. Then the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl went down. Followed by a drastically altered 2021 NFL Combine. Finally, individual school Pro Days closed ranks or canceled altogether.

Speed kills, as anyone who defended against Ross in college may attest. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

“When I learned my college was not going to have a Pro Day, I reached out to every FBS and FCS school to request permission to participate in their Pro Day,” said Ross’ college teammate, defensive back Jeremy Bell. “I even contacted a small handful of DII programs. Every school either denied my request or did not respond to my email.”

The Senior Bowl and the College Gridiron Showcase managed to survive, thanks to the hard work of their respective staffs but the invite-only format left many small-school players out in the cold.

That just didn’t sit right with Lillibridge.

“When the combine was cancelled, I wanted to give guys a shot to get video and testing numbers to NFL and CFL teams,” explained Lillibridge. “Guys need to be seen. The old adage ‘what have you done for me lately’ applies to players in the last 3-4 drafts. Particularly this year with COVID issues.”

So Lillibridge, a former college football (Iowa State) turned NFL player who has deep roots in the football community both as a former scout and a former agent, got to work. He set up the first annual St. Louis Pro Football Showcase on April 3rd at the Lou Fusz Training Center, sponsored by Inside the League and The Brawl Network.

Lillibridge (left) knew that all these guys needed was a chance to be seen. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

Any player that signed up would be professionally timed and videotaped in the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, broad jump, vertical, bench, three-cone and select positional drills with their results signed, sealed and delivered to all NFL and CFL teams.

“Most of the players attending have been recommended by NFL or CFL teams,” acknowledged Lillibridge. “And all teams have requested the numbers.”

Age may be nothing but a number, but a 4.49 40-yard time for a defensive back is something to pay attention to.

“’Bridge’s Pro Day was huge for me because going into my senior year that was one of my goals – to ball out and be able to get a chance at a pro day,” said Kansas Wesleyan defensive back Takota Anderson. “All I wanted was a chance. The one in 2020 was cancelled and so was the one this year. I just really needed to get some official numbers.”

Like Ross, Anderson went a year without ball.

“It didn’t affect my college career as I was able to finish my seasons but it affected my March 2020 pro day, to get in front of some official NFL scouts,” lamented Anderson. “It hasn’t really been positive or negative – it just feels like a standstill. But that’s why I keep grinding and pursuing and taking chances. I’m just hoping for that one opportunity because that’s all I need.”

Anderson wowed when it came to ball skills and recorded a 4.49 in the 40, two things he specifically wanted to showcase to NFL teams.

Anderson (left) was a 2019 First Team All-NAIA selection by the Associated Press (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

“I wanted to show them I’m not slow,” expressed Anderson. “That was one thing about being a small school guy and a white guy in general – they consider you slow until you show them you aren’t. I’m not fast but I’m football fast. I play technique sound and I study a lot to be able to get in the right positions to make plays.”

Several players ran sub 4.5 40-yard dashes, including both Ross and Bell who ran a 4.35 and a 4.38, respectively.

“I believe I was able to show NFL teams that I am one of the most athletically gifted corners in this year’s draft,” declared Bell. “If a scout looks at my numbers, I am top-10 of all Pro Days in the 2021 draft class. To be exact, I sit at No. 7 out of 48 Pro Days on record based on the RAS (Relative Athletic Score). My performance in St. Louis demonstrated that I have the speed and agility to play in the NFL.”

The level of skill and drive on the field that morning was impressive to all those in attendance. The hope and sheer determination echoed off the cavernous indoor training facility and the gratitude from the players radiated throughout the field.

“There were a number of players (probably five or six) that did very well during the testing and workout part of the event,” shared Montreal Alouettes director of U.S. scouting Russ Lande. “Now it is my job to track film of them playing football to see if it matches what I saw during the workout to determine if they are players I think have the talent to play professional football.”

Bell is pretty fast, and he has the numbers to prove it. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

Lande, a longtime friend of Lillibridge’s, was eager to bring his 20+ years of experience in the football world to this event. He joined the small group of seasoned staff working that morning while keeping any potential COVID exposure to a minimum.

While the event itself was Lillibridge’s brain child, by the end of the day, everybody involved felt a sort of ownership over the effort. The impact those five hours made on the lives of 27 players was not lost on the staff – even if these young men never made it to the league, having someone believe in them enough to help them have a shot was a validation of all their hard work.

“With Bridge’s connections to the NFL, he gave me and the other players an opportunity that we never would have received,” said Bell. “For me, this opportunity to participate in his Pro Day made everything I was doing, the financial investment and all the sacrifices, worth it.”

It’s Time to Give Chris Paul His Roses with the MVP Award

Chris Paul is not the typical NBA superstar of his generation.  He is small by NBA standards, ornery and a big part of his game, the midrange jump shot, is scoffed at by analytics. In a sport full of premiere athletes with size, speed and strength, the future Hall of Famer still on top of his game in his 16th season. CP3 has a litany of accolades, but despite years of point guard supremacy, the MVP trophy continues to elude him.

It is an understatement to say that Paul is long overdue to have an MVP award in his trophy case. Could this year finally be the year when he gets his just due? We know that he is not one of the five best players in the NBA at this stage of his career, but few impact the game in the way that he does.

There are players with better stats, but we have seen guys like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki win the award without having eye-popping numbers. Paul’s averages of 16 points and 8.7 assists are good, but not great. In support of his case, he is a few shades away from being a 50-40-90 guy (shooting percentages of 50% in field goals, 40% from three, and 90% from the free throw line), yet his impact is bigger than what is viewed in the box score. Before Paul’s arrival, the Phoenix Suns were the laughingstock of the NBA. Although the uber-talented Devin Booker showed superstar capabilities, it did not translate into team success.

With the addition of CP3, the Suns are sitting comfortably as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Through 53 games (and Paul missing just one game), their record is 38-15. In comparison to last season, the Suns won just 34 games, which included the stunning 8-0 tally in the bubble last summer.

The Suns turning into a Western Conference power is a culmination of a few things. Booker is inching closer to superstardom, former #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton is improving each game, and Monty Williams is one of the best head coaches in the business. But all in all, the 35-year-old Point God is the wizard behind everything.

Paul continues to stay one step ahead of Father Time despite being one of the elder statesmen in the league. When it comes to changing the makeup of a team, Paul is only second to LeBron James. His track record speaks for itself; Paul has increased win totals in his first season in all his stops as a pro. What he has accomplished in New Orleans, Los Angeles (Clippers), Houston, Oklahoma City and now Phoenix has been nothing short of amazing.

Paul finished second in the MVP voting losing to Kobe Bryant in 2008, and in 2012 and 2013 he finished in the top four (losing out to James each time). Losing the MVP award to two of the greatest players to ever lace them up is not a bad thing, but it shows you how close Paul has been to win.

The landscape of the award changed when Russell Westbrook won it in 2017. Westbrook was the first person in nearly four decades to win the award with their team not being in the top 2 of their conference. The team aspect has always mattered for MVPs, so with that, Paul is the perfect candidate to win it for the first time.

Even with James, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid out of the running due to injuries, Paul has stiff competition with Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and two-time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But then again, few have the type of imprint on a team in the manner that CP3 has.

When legendary athletes and entertainers enter the twilight of their careers, they are typically awarded a lifetime achievement award. That honor celebrates their accomplishments, particularly focusing on the prime years of their peak. In CP3’s case, this year’s MVP actually wouldn’t be a “thanks for everything” award because what he is currently doing is on par with how he played at his apex. The forever-changing criteria for the NBA MVP award will always shift, given the circumstances and depending on who the candidates are. However in this case, it is only right to give the nod to Paul, who has waited for over a decade to hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Ronnie Hampston and his musings can be found via Twitter @ron_hamp. The Ohio native hosts All of the Above with former University of Cincinnati star and NBA vet James “Flight” White.

The Unsurprising (Relative) Silence About the Canucks’ COVID Outbreak

A week ago, the NHL postponed a few games involving the Vancouver Canucks, who like their fellow Canadian franchises have been playing their 2021 season in the North Division. Since last spring, our northern neighbors closed the American/Canadian border in hopes of restricting travel and reducing the spread of the coronavirus. With that closure still in place, the NHL went with a temporary realignment for 2021 where their seven Canadian franchises compete against one another in a single division. While a team’s main roster of 23 players was not increased, it is allowed additional four to six players in what’s called a taxi squad, something that already exists in the NFL. (For the unfamiliar, here is the setup.)

As we have come to expect from all competitions that have gone on in North America, a few positive cases have thrown schedules in flux. Yet what’s happening in Vancouver has been a far greater test than anyone has imagined.

COVID cases have skyrocketed in the Vancouver area and throughout the province of British Columbia. Combined with a slow vaccination rollout up north and mask fatigue (or dismissal) from enough people, and it isn’t a shock that the community spread hasn’t abated yet. ESPN, The Athletic and other outlets reported earlier this week that the number of positive tests were going to rise among the Canucks, but the numbers are still staggering.

21 players, four staffers.

(You can blink.)

21 players, four staffers.

This is fairly close to that doomsday scenario we feared when sports leagues resumed play last year, isn’t it? A group of young and seemingly healthy men – who by and large as among the best-conditioned human beings on the planet – with older peers, though they might also be in fairly good shape when considering their line of work.

It’s a complete contrast from the successful restart of the 2019-20 season this past summer, though the structure was entirely different for understandable reasons. No one in the league would want to bubble up again, and the only reason why there was almost unanimous buy-in for the bubble was that the playoffs were about a month away when the league shut down in the first place. The one saving grace right now is that unlike some teams stateside, not one of the Canadian teams have brought fans back to their arenas.

It’s honestly a bit surprising that this hasn’t generated more discussion throughout media, or at the very least some chatter with the Extremely Online crowd in sports. Perhaps this is yours truly being cynical of the cynics, but many of those who were quite vocal about their displeasure about sports pushing forward last summer and fall seem rather quiet right now about what’s going on with the Canucks.

What doesn’t help is that barely a word is being said in legacy media on any sizable scale. No wraparound coverage of the ordeal outside of local media or sport-specific beats. No Sunday news show swooping in with drones at the Canadian border and socially-distanced roundtables to make mountains out of molehills. Not even a joke from the late night talk circuit (although The Daily Show is the best equipped to get a decent slapshot off).

Is this because the outbreak isn’t happening in the States, where the country is flirting with a fourth wave despite the uptick in vaccinations? Is it because the NHL isn’t back on ESPN just yet, which would suddenly bring back some cultural cache that doesn’t exist with NBC Sports? Is it just that low on the totem pole for everyone when it comes to the daily deluge of bad COVID news?

But all of that aside and as cliché as it might sound, one has to wonder if this outbreak happened in the NBA, how loud the volume would get. After all, it’s already been pretty loud.

The NBA has already drawn much ire this season in its handling of COVID; some earned, some unearned. The Kevin Durant saga back in February inspired days of talking points and rage tweets as the Brooklyn Nets forward was pulled, re-inserted, then re-pulled from a game due to what turned out to be a positive diagnosis. His bizarre night got attention beyond sports media as it made its way to hard news, business news, and People Magazine, of all places. Yet, the outrage was largely on point as the league made a huge mess, putting just about everyone on the court at risk of catching the virus.

Yet some weeks later, another superstar’s comment about the COVID-19 vaccine had arguably too much ink devoted to it in all likelihood because of who said it. LeBron James could literally say “I like ketchup on my French fries,” and people would lose their minds. So when he said that his decision is “a private matter,” and that he would like to speak with his family before deciding whether he would get vaccinated or not, the media world predictably pushed the story as if it was Game 1 of the NBA Finals. One particular opinion from Martenzie Johnson at The Undefeated went even further on James, making a hotly-debated connection to the social justice statements from NBA players this past summer by stating:

… when NBA players rightfully took up the mantle of speaking for all Black people this past summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they, unknowingly or not, agreed to be the face of all Black issues going forward. Black lives cannot truly matter to a person if they refuse to support vaccines for a disease that has killed nearly 80,000 Black people in a year’s time.

With respect to Johnson, it would be hard to imagine expressing this view if it was Evander Kane or P.K. Subban or any Black player in the NHL… or any player in the NHL, for that matter. James moves the meter like few others in the world, and the same can be said for the NBA, which played an outsized role in the first quarter of the pandemic. Though the NHL began to heed CDC warnings days before Rudy Gobert’s now-infamous press conference, it was the Utah Jazz center’s positive test that made America and much of the wider world take COVID more seriously.

Like their peer leagues, the NHL has had several clusters of outbreaks among its teams in their regular season. Yet the alarms aren’t being rung the same way at this critical moment as our rightful worries would have suggested. In all of this speculation of why that’s been the case, there is a deeper and more sinister question to be asked: do the alarmists even care at this point? If the demographics of the athletes are dictating concern, then the concerns themselves are selective, highly performative and incredibly problematic. We shouldn’t need CNN’s breaking news chryons about outbreaks in some sports to be reminded about the severity of the pandemic.

The affected players and coaches are going through hell. Though it appears that everyone can and will eventually be okay, we are still discovering the long-term affects of COVID and there’s a chance that at least one person that will become a COVID long-hauler. While Canada has far more people to worry about, there are significant lessons for public-facing institutions such as pro sports leagues to learn from this frightening scenario.

Unsurprisingly, our media at-large may need some education as well.

Jason Clinkscales is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whole Game. All praise, money and cookies can be sent to @asportsscribe while all criticisms can be sent to someone else.