Dave Zirin on Sports and Executions: Don’t Kill Kenneth Foster

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Posted on Sun, Aug. 19, 2007

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Are words dangerous?

Texas prison officials wouldn’t let a man on Death Row read Jackie Robinson’s words, saying that to do so might lead to “strikes or riots.”

Special to the Star-Telegram

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Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson swings at Ebbets Field in New York in 1951.

AP archives


AP archives


Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson swings at Ebbets Field in New York in 1951.

Who knew sports history could strike fear in the most fearsome prison system in the United States? But what other explanation could there be for the fact that the history of “America’s Pastime” is being denied to Texas Death Row prisoner Kenneth Foster Jr.?

Kenneth’s case has garnered international attention because both prosecution and defense agree that he was 80 feet away from the murder of Michael LaHood. Earlier in the evening, he had been driving the man who pulled the trigger, Maurecio Brown. In Texas, that’s enough to land him on Death Row.

Foster and I began to exchange letters on sports and politics after he read my book Welcome to the Terrordome.

“I have never had the opportunity to view sports in this way,” he wrote. “And as I went through these revelations I began to have epiphanies about the way sports have a similar existence in prison. The similarities shook me …. Facing execution, the only thing that I began to get obsessive about was how to get heard and be free, and as the saying goes — you can’t serve 2 gods. Sports, as you know, becomes a way of life. You monitor it, you almost come to breathe it. Sports becomes a way of life in prison, because it becomes a way of survival. For men that don’t have family or friends to help them financially …it becomes a way to occupy your time. That’s another sad story in itself, but it’s the root to many men’s obsession with sports.”

It didn’t matter whether he was on Death Row or Park Avenue — I felt smarter having read his words. But even more satisfying was the thought that thinking about sports took his mind — for a moment — away from his imminent death, the 11-year-old daughter he will never touch again and the words he will never write.

I thought that sending him my first book, What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., would be a good follow-up — but here is where the Texas Department of Corrections got its briefs in a bunch.

A form titled “Texas Dept of Criminal Justice, Publication review/denial notification” issued to Kenneth on Aug. 9 says that What’s My Name Fool? was banned from the row: “It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

It specifically said that Pages 44 and 55 met this criteria.

After lifting my jaw off the ground, I went to read those dangerous pages.

On Page 44, the radioactive quote in question was from that seditious revolutionary Jackie Robinson — you know, the guy whose number is retired by all of Major League Baseball. I quoted Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, when he wrote about suffering racism early in his rookie season:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of [expletive] and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

On Page 55, the offensive passage was about Jack Johnson’s defeat of the “Great White Hope,” Jim Jeffries. It read:

“Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked Jeffries out with ease.

“After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country — in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back. This reaction to a boxing match was one of the most widespread racial uprisings in the U.S. until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Let’s forget about the fact that there is something bizarre — almost comical — about Texas prison authorities believing that a sports history could lead to “the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

Let’s forget that they are denying a man reading material in his last hours.

There is something repugnant about the fact that they think a book — any book — would be the source of resistance, rather than the reality that 159 people have been executed since Gov. Rick Perry took office in 2001, or the fact that the people on Death Row have no civil rights, no access to radio, television or even arts and crafts.

It reminds me of the words of Carl Oglesby of the 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society: “It isn’t the rebels who cause the troubles of the world, it’s the troubles that cause the rebels.”

The officials’ fear that ideas — even the ideas of sports history — could cause a crisis in the Texas prisons reveals only how aware the Lone Star jailers are of how inhumanely they treat their prisoners.

There was a time in Texas when it was illegal to teach slaves to read. The fear was that ideas could turn anger often directed inward into action against those with their boots on black necks. It is perhaps the most fitting possible tribute to Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson that their stories still strike fear into the hearts of those wearing the boots.

Dave Zirin of Washington, D.C., is the author of the book Welcome to the Terrordome.

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