Neil W. Blackmon
Thursday, Michael Wilbon told Jurgen Klinsmann to “Get out of America.” Then he told him to “Get the Hell out of America.” And then I became sad. Greg Howard at Deadspin took the high road, shrugging the remarks off as more of the same from the four letter network. I won’t.
A once proud and reputable journalist has flown the shark, tarnished his reputation, demonstrated the type of narrow-minded American exceptionalism that damages the perception of Americans, including American intellectuals abroad, and worst of all, engaged in the type of discriminatory, harmful xenophobia that belongs in the dark but never forgotten American past, along side the Donald Sterling’s and the Boston fans who never accepted Bill Russell and the white racists who booed and spit vitriol at one of Michael Wilbon’s professed heroes, Jackie Robinson.
In case you haven’t heard Wilbon’s remarks now- here they are, with lousy audio.
And about the context of the comments- before you flip the script and accuse a soccer writer of overreacting or chastise me for placing the comments in the Sterling/overt racism and xenophobia context– here goes:
The New York Times’ Sam Borden wrote a piece this week called “How Jurgen Klinsmann Plans to Make US Soccer Better (and Less American”) which ran this week. An excellent piece of journalism with a regrettable title, Borden utilized a collection of interviews with Klinsmann on his grand scheme for US Soccer under his stewardship, a stewardship extended this December by Sunil Gulati and the US Soccer federation.
The theme of the article was about Klinsmann’s vision for US Soccer, which includes, but is by no means dominated by, the manager’s notion that American players should challenge themselves in the best leagues. Aligned with these comments, mostly made by Klinsmann well before his World Cup roster announcement, was the now well-discussed exclusion of Landon Donovan, the greatest field player the US have ever produced, from the 2014 World Cup roster. The NYT piece questioned the exclusion directly- as many other outlets, including this one, have done. And then Klinsmann dished out his usual answer, which you can agree with or not: selections were about 2014; he felt Donovan wasn’t where the players selected were; we should not evaluate US players based on their history but rather based on “the now.” Klinsmann then criticized the American coaching custom of deferring to team stars, based on their past:
“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann told Borden, citing Kobe Bryant as an example. “Why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”
Setting aside the fact that even if the context of this quote was absolutely correct, Klinsmann is probably correct, at least as it relates to Bryant, the point of the statement was consistent with his grander view that US Soccer must move forward, being respectful to its past but not deferential. And the statement wasn’t nearly the most critical of the statements made by Klinsmann in the Borden article.
But Wilbon pounced, telling Jurgen to “Get the Hell out of America” and suggesting he should stop talking about sports that are “American”, and get back to doing whatever it is that he’s doing. To cap it off, Wilbon called Klinsmann “gutless.” There is so much “absurd” here it almost covers up the blatant, misguided and inaccurate xenophobia.
Blatant because Wilbon suggests Klinsmann doesn’t belong in America, talking about “American” sports, whatever that means.
Misguided because the notion that any sports save perhaps American football are, in the age of globalization and the World Baseball Classic, the multiple FIBA championships and so forth, “American” and insulated from comment or discussion abroad is ludicrous. Adam Silver’s campaign to grow the NBA in China and the NBA’s reputation as a progressive, avant garde sports league by race scholars like Dr. Richard Lapchick, who works on the side for Wilbon’s parent company ESPN, are just one example of the NBA’s effort to make the league a global one– and that’s before you scoff at Wilbon’s criticism of Klinsmann commenting on an NBA star who grew up not sure if he wanted to play professional soccer or basketball, and who commonly spends time at soccer matches abroad.
Inaccurate because Wilbon told an American citizen who lives in California to get the hell out of America. This is the primitive type of xenophobia the faceless opponents of immigration reform sell daily, the “otherizing” of anything that doesn’t sound American or comport with an ideal of what “America” ought to be– as if there ever has been such a vision, especially since the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Perhaps it was Klinsmann’s German accent that threw Wilbon off? Perhaps its just that American sports fans, in the main, are still trying to understand the spread of soccer in this country, beyond the suburban walls of the minivan culture that many who now write about the sport grew up with. Or perhaps, more sadly, Michael Wilbon was presented with a moment where discrimination and an openness to “otherness” meet, and traveled the darker road, succumbing to what Bill Rhoden once wrote was discrimination and racism’s “constant, irritating hum in contemporary American life – too distracting, too draining, too time-consuming to constantly deal with. Ignore the hum and pick your spots. Sometimes the spots pick you.”
If, as Rhoden also wrote, the media can shape, define and project images without saying a single word (Tony Kornheiser’s tacit acceptance, with a smile, of Michael Wilbon’s shameful remarks does just that), then Wilbon went a step further, and he did without a secret tape recording behind closed doors like Donald Sterling, instead dishing out his hate in a way that shames not just him, but the many who behind their television sets laughed or nodded in agreement.
Covert racism and xenophobia are often the larger problem in America. That’s part of the reason the reaction to Sterling’s “overt” remarks was so strong, surefire and quick. We don’t do overt racism in American sport anymore- as Lebron James suggested– to large Wilbon applause- there’s “no room for that in the NBA”, or America (a Wilbon addition!). Yet, here, on live television- even if it’s a simple reading of “code” in Wilbon’s rhetoric, a man who calls Jackie Robinson a hero engages in a xenophobic, protectionist type of hate speech far more overt than Sterling’s tape-recorded remarks.
I don’t write this to suggest Wilbon or Sterling are equals or one is worse than the other. We should all reject “oppression contests”– it’s not productive to spend time saying who is more racist than who– but we should, at every turn, reject instances of discrimination, hate, racism, xenophobia and fear. It would appear, sadly, that Michael Wilbon, once the American sportswriter of the year, will get out of this without even having to apologize, much like many of the men who mocked and spilled hate out at Jackie Robinson over 60 years ago.
Because Jurgen Klinsmann handled the affair with dignity at the Jacksonville press conference yesterday, saying “some” took him out of context, and expressing admiration for fellow Californian Kobe Bryant, the story will likely go away. Except the damage is already done.For reminding us that we haven’t gone as far as we think on issues of race, discrimination, xenophobia and hate in America, Michael Wilbon should be ashamed. And it’s that reversion to the ugly corridors of our hateful past that’s the real tragedy.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.