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Barbershop Guys Take A Swing At Sports Controversies


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 shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, he's with us from Chicago. With us from Boston, healthcare consultant and contributor to the National Review magazine, Neil Minkoff. Johns Hopkins political science professor, Lester Spence, is with us from Baltimore. Here in Washington, D.C. - Dave Zirin, sports editor at the magazine The Nation. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas.

DAVE ZIRIN: Hey, hey, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop, how you doing?

LESTER SPENCE: Cold chilling.

IZRAEL: Evidently. Can I get some caffeine up in here? Waitress? Or maybe, maybe, Lester...

MARTIN: ...Don't say it.

IZRAEL: ...Needs a shot of steroids...

MARTIN: ...I was going to say, don't say it.

IZRAEL: Hold on, hold, on. Let's get - obviously with that, let's kind of get things started. You know, Alex Rodriguez - I guess his mom probably calls him Alexander, is hoping to get back on the Yankees field soon. He's dealing with an injury, but he may be benched for life, because Major League Baseball is putting the smack down on juicers of all kinds. That is those people taking performance-boosting drugs, isn't that right, Michel?

MARTIN: That's true, he's one of several players under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs. A number of reports suggest the suspensions could come at any moment - that his representatives are negotiating his penalty with the league. Now he has not been speaking publicly about this, but he did say this briefly to CNN about how he'd like to be remembered, and here it is.


ALEX RODRIGUEZ: For someone that loved the game and then someone that respected the game. And someone that loved his teammates and just loves to compete. The one thing that no one can take away from me is the effort that I put fourth and how much I love this game.

IZRAEL: All right, thanks for that. You know, my NPR game - thanks for that, Michel. You know, my NPR game is so strong - you know, Gary Knell has often accused me or asked me if I've been taking performance-enhancing drugs. I'm just kidding. Just kidding, Gary. Just kidding...

MARTIN: ...Which would affect how you talk?

IZRAEL: Right.

ZIRIN: Well, Chris Rock once said, I would take a pill tomorrow if it made me funnier.

IZRAEL: Well, yeah, I mean, I think we would have to force-feed that pill on Chris Rock. Will somebody give him that pill right now?

MARTIN: ...Could we...

IZRAEL: Dave Zirin...

ZIRIN: ...Yes.

IZRAEL: A-Roid - I mean, A-Rod, you know, he's considered one of the greatest players in baseball. Is he going down?

ZIRIN: He is going down. He's not going to get the lifetime ban, because the Major League Baseball Players Association is fighting it. That's why we've been waiting for news about what his suspension would be, all week. We thought it would come Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I don't think we're going to hear anything until after the weekend for the very reason that it looks like the MLBPA is putting a line in the sand saying, we will accept a suspension for this year and next, we will accept even giving the Yankees the right to buy him out of his massive contract. We're not going to accept a lifetime ban and putting him in the category of people like the people who threw the 1919 World Series, and Pete Rose. And Major League Baseball, which has the friendliest relations with their union that they've had in decades, they don't really want to mess that up right now.

IZRAEL: You know, but...

MARTIN: ...But wouldn't a year or two suspension, at this point, wouldn't that effectively end his career?

ZIRIN: Yes, effectively. That's a very good point, it would. It's a lifetime suspension by another name. But it does give Alex Rodriguez the chance to walk away with his money and a chance to walk away without the dark mark, if you will, of being a lifetime suspendee.

IZRAEL: Well, yeah, he won't walk, he'll strut, bro. That's not - I mean, you got that much money in your pocket - it gives you a little bit of a swagger. You know, thanks for that. Dr. Neil, hello everybody.

NEIL MINKOFF: Hey, how you doing?

IZRAEL: You love baseball and you're a former physician. So we know what drugs you know, well, some of us know what drugs do, but you definitely know what drugs do. You think the fans will stick around if their favorite players get bounced out?

MINKOFF: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, think that they will, because we all know that we're rooting for laundry and we're rooting for the name on the front of the jersey just as much, if not more, than the name on the back of the jersey. I'm not sure, medically, that I would say that a two-year suspension is a de facto lifetime for A-Rod when you look at what Jason Giambi is still able to do as a role player. And in a very similar circumstance, as a slugger who's had his own problems with performance-enhancing drugs that now appears to be a much smaller version of the earlier Jason Giambi.

But, you know, I'm going to say that from a fan point of view, I think there's a difference between a lifetime ban for using substances versus a lifetime ban for the cover-up and trying to buy-out the documents and trying to derail an investigation. And I think that derailing an investigation does put A-Rod more into that sort of bad for the game beyond just what's happening on the field kind of circumstance.

IZRAEL: All right. We doctored up today. Dr. Lester Spence, what do you make of all of this talk? Them trying to cleanup baseball, man, what do you make of it?

SPENCE: I've been for legalization for a while...

IZRAEL: ...What?

SPENCE: I think that - yeah, man. Yeah. I don't do it but I'm for it. I think that the case - what I'm waiting for is for someone, for a player of Alex's stature - former stature, to just come up and say what we all know - people are using, have been using, these drugs and they've been using drugs to enhance their performance for a while. And a lot of it that - and some of these drugs we think is OK and some of these drugs we think are not. But I think the best solution would be just be to make it legal and just to have the government regulate it.

MARTIN: Yeah, I wanted to to ask, Dave, about this. This whole question of performance-enhancing drugs is such a tricky one, because, you know, a lot of what these guys do is inherently dangerous. I mean, it is. Not so much necessarily in baseball but certainly in football. And at this stage - I'm not making a statement about the truth or falsity of these allegations around A-Rod but, generally, the pattern has been that as players get older, that's when they start turning to these substances to help their bodies repair more quickly so that they can stay in the game for, you know, a couple more years. So like philosophically - wait a minute, you're asking 300 pound guys to hit each other but then we're saying don't take this 'cause it's dangerous...

ZIRIN: ...Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Or, you know, in other sports, it's like, we're saying, drive 200 miles an hour around a track but don't take this because it's dangerous. It's, you know...

ZIRIN: ...I agree with where you're going there, Michel. I mean, I've maintained this for years that when steroids - I've read a ton about medical evidence about steroids. The real danger with them, and there are dangers with these pharmaceuticals, are much more dangerous related to abuse as opposed to use. If you are taking steroids and the person giving them to you is not a doctor, is giving you the steroids in a men's room stall, and you're taking dummy agents to avoid testing positive for a test, chances are you're doing terrible danger to your body. If you're taking steroids under the auspices of a physician then it will be a safe process. The question is more will fans abide their players having certain pharmaceutical advantages that previous generations didn't have and what that does to the record books. So it's much more a sports question to me than it is - and a cultural question, then it is a question of legality.

IZRAEL: Can I...

MINKOFF: ...Yeah, can I just...

MARTIN: ...I want to hear - no I want to hear that. I want to hear it, Neil, from a medical standpoint, I want to hear that.

MINKOFF: Well, from a medical point of view, if I'm going to be prescribing steroids to a person in a way that's safe and doesn't destroy their body's natural ability to produce testosterone and other steroid hormones, and is done under my supervision in a way that I know isn't going to do long-term damage - it's not going to help anybody hit and it's not going to help anybody tackle, 'cause the effects will be reasonably minimal. That's the problem, is that if you're using a steroid in a way that's safe, it will not be effective, and if you're using it in a way that's effective, it will not be safe.

MARTIN: Wow. Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Aside - and even aside from that, this is really about personal excellence, I thought. I mean, I thought this was about you being your personal best, you know. So if we legalize steroids, you know, we run the risk of maybe having, you know, 15-year-old, you know, NFL nose tackles, you know, who're all juiced up on Gatorade and steroids. You know, no, I mean, I know the age of the sports hero is dead, I know that, this I know. But we can't encourage, you know, the age of the 'roid heroes, you know. I mean, why not just - I do not know, I mean, you might as well make X-Box an Olympic sport if you're going to do that.

ZIRIN: Well, we, you know, cheer on...

MARTIN: ...Well, how many people in Hollywood have endless...

ZIRIN: ...Yes...

MARTIN: ...Plastic surgery?

ZIRIN: ...That's just what I was about to say...

MARTIN: OK, well, thank you...

IZRAEL: ...Well, they're actors, they're actors. They're putting on a facade. So that's what they do.

ZIRIN: They're entertainers, and who puts on more of a facade than the professional athlete who says, well, we play one game at a time, good lord willing, play one game at a time, or I'm shocked, shocked, to think that my teammate might say a racial slur? I mean, there are constant facades that take place in sports.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which...

IZRAEL: ...Speaking of which...

SPENCE: Segue.

MARTIN: You know...

IZRAEL: ...Nice...

MARTIN: You all heard about the Philadelphia Eagles Riley Cooper was caught on camera making a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert. I think Jimi's really most appalled that he was at a Kenny Chesney concert. But it went viral. It was taken last month, it went viral somehow this week and you heard him say, I will fight any N-Word here. And, apparently, he was upset that an African-American security guard wouldn't let him backstage...

IZRAEL: ...Yeah, that's a shame...

MARTIN: ...So he made a public apology and he said he was drinking. But that wasn't an excuse. Here's a short clip.


RILEY COOPER: I'm disgusted and I'm sorry. That's not the type of person I am. And I wasn't raised that way. I got a great mom and dad at home and they're extremely, extremely disappointed in me.

MARTIN: Yeah, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Yes, yes. Thanks, Michel. You know, social media lit up and some people reacted strongly to the video. Me, not necessarily. One of them, Marcus Vick, as it turns out, brother to Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick, offered a bounty on Cooper's head via Twitter. He deleted that Tweet, gratefully, sometime later. But Michael Vick and several other players say that he accepts Cooper's apology. You know, why not? I mean, I don't - I guess, you know, I've been in the barbershop, you know, for a minute.

You guys know I don't really fault anybody for being a bigot. I mean, it is - I mean, this is America, you can be a bigot without getting your head chopped off. You may lose a few friends or you may gain a few friends, but if he wants to be a bigot, I'm all about it. You know, but here's the rub, here's the rub - so you're a public person, you know, you should know that, you know, everybody's got a cell phone, so you should watch your mouth and if you get caught out there, that you have to pay the price. I'm not even sure what the price should be, you know. I'm thinking he should give every black person he sees some kind of pastry, you know, as reparations.


SPENCE: How about a Twinkie, how about a Twinkie?

IZRAEL: But - yeah a Twinkie. But the whole apology, but the whole fake apology, you know, I'm a disgusting human being and my parents hate me...

MARTIN: ...Why do you think that's fake? Why do you think that's fake?

IZRAEL: It has to be fake...

MARTIN: ...Maybe he's was drunk...

IZRAEL: ...So wait, Michel...

MARTIN: ...And he was stupid and he's sorry.

IZRAEL: ...Does any of us in this room, I mean, this virtual room, believe that this is the very first time he dropped the N-bomb? Are you serious now, are you serious right now? He probably drops the N-bomb like a preposition. No, I'm not buying that.

MARTIN: I don't know. Dave...

IZRAEL: Dave Zirin...

ZIRIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Dave, jump in here.

ZIRIN: First of all, award to the NFL for saying, we absolutely will not stand for racial slurs in our league, now go Redskins.

IZRAEL: Right, right.


ZIRIN: So that's the first thing. The second thing that I find interesting about this as well is Michael Vick was the first person to forgive him, but what's Michael Vick going to say? I don't believe in the concept of forgiveness and redemption? I mean...

IZRAEL: ...Right.

ZIRIN: ... That would be a tough thing for him to say. The toughest thing for Riley Cooper, honestly, is that the best player on the Eagles is running back LeSean McCoy. And LeSean McCoy's comments - we talked about the facades of athletes, he was very honest, he says, you know what, I had a friend yesterday, I lost a friend today. And that's going to be a tough thing for a locker room to take.


IZRAEL: Word. Lester?

MARTIN: What about Lester? Yeah.

IZRAEL: Yeah, Lester.

SPENCE: Yeah, I mean, well, first of all, I think it's interesting - he says I had great parents, they raised me right. As if it's not possible to have great parents who are themselves bigots. As if it's not possible to have great parents and be a bigot, right? We tag racist as if they're all Ku Klux Klan white sheet wearers, when the reality is far more nuanced than that.

IZRAEL: Some of them are you neighbors.

SPENCE: Yeah, you know, some of them are my students, right?

IZRAEL: Right.

SPENCE: So I think that, in this case, first, what's up with Marcus Vick only having a $1,000 bounty?


IZRAEL: I noticed that too...

SPENCE: ...That's kind of a cheap bounty...

IZRAEL: ...Like, really, bro?

SPENCE: ...Like really...

IZRAEL: ...Step your game up.

SPENCE: ...Step your game up. I mean, real talk. You know what I mean?

IZRAEL: Yeah, I mean, offer a home-cooked meal if you're just going to offer a thousand dollars.

MARTIN: I am not in this conversation. I am not in this conversation


ZIRIN: Maybe a pastry?


SPENCE: I believe in the ability of the Philadelphia Eagles to take care of this. And I believe they will.

IZRAEL: All right.


MINKOFF: It's not going to take a bounty. Two quick things - one, the game is going to police itself. This guy is going to get lit-up over the middle of the field a number of times. And more than one player who lights him up is going to remind him of that extra little incentive they had to make sure that he knew that they were coming, is the first thing. And the second thing is the thing that drives me nuts is kind of going on what you were saying, Jimi, besides the fake apologies, now the Eagles are sending him for counseling.

IZRAEL: Of course.

MINKOFF: And that goes along with that whole thing - with this - this is a big pet peeve, as you know, of mine, which is this whole idea that two sessions with a therapist erase any and all bad behavior in the past. And that just makes me crazy and I hate that the Eagles are buying into that.

MARTIN: Well, but - is counseling bad? I mean, maybe they should all have it. What's bad about it?

MINKOFF: The light bulb has to want to change. I mean, that's - one of the problems with court-ordered or mandated counseling - is that people go in, they sit there and as soon as their time is done they're done. The way therapy works and counseling works is the person acknowledges that there's a problem and seeks help rather than being forced into it. It's much less effective, if at all.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But that's the logic behind the aggressive enforcement of drunk driving laws, is in part obviously for safety but it's to protect people from your consequences of your bad behavior, but it's also to bring accountability to you to make the consequences serious enough that you'll face your issue, right? So is this different? I mean, I don't know.

IZRAEL: Michel, if you want to do something and your parents spank you, you're going to do it anyway. I mean, let's just be for real. You know, I mean, even with adults - you get a little spanking but if you want to get that N-word out, I mean, you're going to get it out. You know, I mean, there's not enough spanking in the world to take the N-word out of your mouth.

MARTIN: It's just interesting to me that like, I'm thinking about the actor - that actor, Isiaha Washington...

ZIRIN: ...Isiaha Washington, yeah.

MARTIN: Who basically lost his career over - he had a similar outburst directed at a gay colleague on the set and he lost - for some reason, I still don't know exactly what was the issue there that he just lost it...

IZRAEL: ...he was black.

MARTIN: ...And he really hasn't worked since. And so, it's just interesting, like, why some people get to make an outburst and be rude and offensive to other people and hurt there feelings and they still get to work. And then other people don't. I mean, there's always that sort of question. what's the...

ZIRIN: ...And some leagues get to make billions of dollars by saying Redskins and nobody cares because it's .6 percent of the population in the D.C. metro area...

MARTIN: I think people care.

ZIRIN: ...I certainly...

IZRAEL: Michel, can I get this out?

MARTIN: Go ahead, before we...

IZRAEL: ... Can I get this out? About the apology. The apology, it often can appear that the person - it depends what color the person is. Or what - how the apology is accepted. If the person is white, they make this apology and then that's it but if the person's black - they got to stay on their knees and just give everybody the most heartfelt - they got to draw tears. They got to draw tears to get anybody to forgive them. And then after that, they still have to live with it, still the rest of their life. They have to live with something that they've done. Every time they're in the press, it gets mentioned.

ZIRIN: I will say this...

MARTIN: ...Go ahead, Dave.

ZIRIN: ...Riley Cooper's career might be done. I mean, no mistake about it. They have another receiver named Jeremy Maclin who tore his ACL about a week ago. If Jeremy Maclin doesn't tear his ACL, he's already released. And he still might be out of the NFL when this is all done.

MARTIN: Well, it's an interesting question, it'll be interesting to see what happens. We'll check back in a little while and see whether Jimi's thesis here is true. Unfortunately, we did want to talk about the Red Wings arena in Detroit. That apparently the state's going to offer a significant tax incentives to build this new arena for the Red Wings. And we all know that Detroit is now in bankruptcy. And I know a lot of you wanted to talk about that. So maybe we'll talk about that in the future.

We don't have time now. But Jimi Izrael's a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College, with us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. Neil Minkoff is a healthcare consultant. He's a contributor to the National Review, with us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, with us from Baltimore. Dave Zirin is a sports editor for The Nation magazine, with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all.

ZIRIN: Peace.

SPENCE: Peace.

MINKOFF: Hey, hey.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And remember if you can't get enough barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our barbershop podcast, that's in the iTunes Store or at 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.

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