Lever Time

On this week’s Lever Time: David follows up Barre Seid’s history of political donations; and interviews sportswriter Dave Zirin about the politics of the NFL.

Show Notes

On this week’s episode of Lever Time: David Sirota is joined by The Lever’s Andrew Perez and ProPublica’s Andy Kroll, who break down their follow-up reporting on Barre Seid, the secretive Chicago billionaire responsible for the single largest political advocacy donation in U.S. history (3:25). Then, David sits down with political sportswriter Dave Zirin to discuss his new documentary about the history of the NFL’s political influence on American culture (24:16). 

If you'd like access to Lever Time Premium, which includes extended interviews and bonus content, head over to LeverNews.com to become a supporting subscriber.

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A rough transcript of this episode is available here.

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What is Lever Time?

From LeverNews.com — Lever Time is the flagship podcast from the investigative news outlet The Lever. Hosted by award-winning journalist, Oscar-nominated writer, and Bernie Sanders' 2020 speechwriter David Sirota, Lever Time features exclusive reporting from The Lever’s newsroom, high-profile guest interviews, and expert analysis from the sharpest minds in media and politics.

David Sirota 0:10
Hey everyone, welcome to lever time the flagship podcast of the lever, which is an independent reader supported news outlet. I'm your host, David Sirota on today's show. I've got a really busy show I'm going to be talking about the lever and ProPublica is follow up reporting on that billionaire Barry side, the reclusive Chicago funder who made national headlines a few weeks ago for making the largest known political advocacy donation in American history $1.6 billion. We're going to be diving into more details on who side is and what his mission is. Then, this week kicked off another NFL season. So I'm going to be speaking with political sports writer Dave Xyron, about his new documentary, which looks at how the NFL has become a political weapon. Listen, you may hate sports, but if you care about politics at all, you should pay attention to how sports influences literally every part of our politics and our culture. This week, also our paid subscribers will get a great bonus segment, my conversation with the former spokesman for British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who answers all of my really dumb American questions about the royal family, the passing of Queen Elizabeth, and why Britain and its monarchy still pretend it's Westeros in Game of Thrones, if you want access to lever time premium, you can head over right now to lever news.com To become a supporting subscriber that gives you access to all of our premium content. And you'll be directly supporting the investigative journalism that we do here at deliver. As always, I am joined by producer Frank What's up Frank

Producer Frank 1:52
now much David very excited for the show today, I watched Dave's documentary on the NFL and full disclosure, I am not a sports fan. I do not care for sports. But I really enjoyed this documentary.

David Sirota 2:05
I feel like you were dreading having to watch a documentary about the NFL. Like when I told you we're gonna have Dave on the sort of, I could there was kind of a sigh kind of like a god sports. But I told you, right I mean, like you can't understand American culture and politics. If you don't understand some of the most important cultural and political weapons in our society. The NFL being one of them.

Producer Frank 2:28
Yeah, I did not get it when you pitched it. You're like we're going to talk about the NFL. I was like David we do a politics podcast. I don't understand. But no, it's it's it's a very political documentary and Dave did a really really great job on it. Did you take in any any NFL games this weekend? No. Like I said, I do not watch sports. I do not care for them and which is great because I have a ton of free time.

David Sirota 2:52
I'm constantly people look at me when I around town here in Denver. If you if they ask, Hey, do you watch the game I don't usually watch the Broncos games. But this is such a huge football town. I mean, I grew up in Philadelphia, which is also a huge football town, the Eagles the Broncos I kind of people's fandom about sports in the two towns that I've lived in. It's like nobody cares about the other sports really at all. It's all football all the time. And so I was psyched to watch Dave's documentary over the weekend as well. So that's coming up later on in the show. But first, we're going to take a deep dive back to a story we told you about a couple weeks ago, the story about the largest known political donation in American history. Just a reminder, three weeks ago, the lever and ProPublica broke the story of that donation $1.6 billion, a secret donation, we broke the story of how that money was gifted to a trust. Run by Leonard Leo, the man arguably the most responsible for packing the Supreme Court with right wing extremists and overturning Roe v Wade. For those who haven't heard this story. Leonard Leo, one of the most influential people in all of American politics. He's the co chair of the Federalist Society. He was Donald Trump's top judicial adviser. He was directly responsible for the nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, as well as having played a role in the confirmations of Sam Alito and John Roberts. I mean, this truly is the man behind the curtain. But where does his new mountain of money come from? The donation came from a reclusive ultra conservative billionaire from Chicago that almost nobody has heard of a guy named Barry side. He was the owner of a very lucrative electronics company called trip light. You may have a trip light surge protector in your home through some very complex financial maneuvers. Side transferred ownership of his whole company trip light into a secretive nonprofit organization run by Leonard Leo, which then sold the company. This handed Leo a $1.6 billion political war chest while effectively allowing side to avoid up to $400 million in taxes that he might have had to pay had he not used that maneuver. This past week. The Levers Andrew Perez and ProPublica has Andy Kroll and Justin Elliott. That team that broke the original story published a big follow up story detailing Barry sides history as one of the most prolific conservative political donors in American history, a guy who's funded for instance, one of the big groups that has promoted climate denialism. We're now going to go to my conversation with Andrew Perez, and Andy Kroll to get the details on exactly who this big donor is. Hey, Andy. Hey, Andrew. Hey there. So you guys did some follow up reporting on the big story that was originally broken by the lever ProPublica. And the New York Times the story about the billionaire, the very reclusive billionaire who secretly transferred a $1.6 billion gift into the dark money group of Leonard Leo, the right wing operative who has been focused on taking over the court system, shifting it to the right now, there's some new reporting about this billionaire. The next piece that you published last week was about who this billionaire is and what else he has funded. So let's just start with that. What did we learn new about what this billionaire has also been funding alongside now, making this donation to this new right wing dark money group,

Andy Kroll 6:57
the biggest thing I would say we learned was Barry sides role in funding. The decades long effort to undermine cast doubt deny the increasingly overwhelming sights of climate change. Our new reporting included a revelation I would say that side has been the main funder I believe the direct quote from the former adviser sides to quote unquote, the major patron of an outfit called the Heartland Institute, which is based in the Midwest, the Heartland Institute is a longtime foe of mainstream climate science. Some listeners might remember the Heartland Institute for some of its more aggressive tactics, including paying for billboards that had the face of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber Honda, and likening the Unabomber to people who believe in climate science, people, scientists who are researching and publishing on climate science. And these are the kinds of tactics that the Heartland Institute is known for. They're just sort of badass to what they do. And we didn't know until this story from the letter of ProPublica, that Barry side, this ultra secretive billionaire has been funding really significantly funding the Heartland Institute for years, if not decades, at this point. And we also learned

David Sirota 8:33
about this relationship with some side and one of what's become one of the beating hearts of the conservative legal movement. Andrew, why don't you tell us about that?

Andrew Perez 8:49
Yeah. So, you know, we obtained emails that appear to confirm that that side was this anonymous donor who gave $20 million to George Mason University as part of a gift coordinated by Leonard Leo, to pay for the school to rename its law school after Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court Justice, you know, and you know, there's been some reporting on this for some time, but these emails, you know, kind of go further than what we'd seen before. And that, you know, the emails literally show the GMU law school dean thanking Syed for his generous support. And in specifically saying that they had received a made a lot of progress since the naming gift in explaining that it hit it inspired like another like $50 million donation down the road. You know, they kind of these emails indicate that side had a pretty, you know, breezy, ongoing relationship with GMU professors as well, specifically, Frank Buckley, who is known for writing, Donald Donald Trump Jr's Donald Trump Jr's convention speeches in 2016 and 2020. And he also had to delete his Buckley had to delete his Twitter account this year for, for calling Sonia Sotomayor the Supreme Court justice as a stupid Latina I believe was his phrase. Yeah, it's pretty pretty hideous stuff. And in this is the guy you know, these emails showing sides saying that the Buckley had to be had to keep being a public intellectual in the US just just two years earlier.

David Sirota 10:37
Now, some folks might be listening to this and thinking, look, there's been a lot of reporting about the cokes a lot of reporting about Peter Thiel, a lot of reporting about Bill Gates, I mean, George Soros, you name the billionaire, Barry side, there hasn't been much reporting at all, he just has not been on the radar. And he, in this story, you dive into how Syed has tried to keep himself off the radar. How obsessed it seems that he is with being anonymous. Just talk to us a little bit about that, and how that I guess distinguishes him from other billionaire funders of politics, right? I mean, there are these this kind of Mount Rushmore, billionaire funders of politics, who everyone knows and then there's Barry side who like nobody knows.

Andy Kroll 11:31
Yeah, if I were if I were going with the Mount Rushmore, Mount Rushmore metaphor, I would say that, in that case, Barry side would be the guy who would pay for the construction of that billionaire Mount Rushmore, so long as you did not put his face on it, or his name anywhere near it. We talk to a number of people who've known very side for years, if not decades, one of them is a conservative activist named Stephen bear, who is sort of popped up in interesting ways over the years curious ways over the years in conservative politics. Steve Bair met Barry side when Barry side was just beginning to become a very wealthy man when sides company trip light, which is this electronics manufacturer was taking off in the 1980s. Even back then, as Barry side was tiptoeing into the world of political donations, activism, nonprofit giving you name it. Barry side was adamant that his name, stay under the radar that he remained as anonymous as possible. We quote Steve Bair saying that he would come to the very side and say I want you to come to this event with William F. Buckley, or Robert Bork or some other conservative big name inside would reply, I will pay you to not have to go to your event. I will give you a donation just so that I don't have to go which of course is the opposite of a lot of high roller political donors, Democratic and Republican they want to be on the photo line. They want that picture with the principle that they can put up on their wall Sure, their friends 100% the opposite. For Barry side. We also quote from an email that Barry side himself wrote that we obtained through public records requests, where he describes his approach as anonymity paranoia. Direct quote, for Barry side, there is reason that people have not heard of him as compared to the cokes as compared to the escapes and the melons and Bradley's and the DeVos family. Those families have their own paranoia, and a lot of them including the cokes tried to stay under the radar. That Barry side was far more obsessed with staying anonymous remaining secret then even any of these other massive oligarch families

David Sirota 14:01
now the relationship between side and and Leonard Leo, we don't know a lot about it. We don't know how exactly how it started. We don't know how it developed. One thing that does seem clear is that Barry side seems motivated by a kind of Chicago School libertarian economic agenda. And Leonard Leo is the has been known as a focus more on on cultural conservatism. He's been reported to be a conservative Catholic is what he's always referred to and in media and so, in a sense, this kind of seems like kind of the metaphorical marriage of the Republican coalition in miniature or I guess maybe it's not so miniature. What's been billions of dollars point being a libertarian economic funder. Married up with politically married up with a cultural conservative leader. Andrew, I just talk a little bit about how powerful that alliance can be. Because if it all ends up focused on the Supreme Court, the Supreme or much of it does, the Supreme Court is focusing on both of those sets of issues, even though I think in the public consciousness, the public consciousness is that the Supreme Court only operates on sort of high profile, quote, unquote, social issues, when in fact, the court is actually operating just as much, if not more, on the economic issues that Barry side seems to care most about.

Andrew Perez 15:52
Yeah, no, I think that's exactly right. You know, I do think Leonard Leo is you know, obviously, like a hardline, conservative Catholic, in anti abortion activist. But I mean, his organizations have definitely also, you know, pushed down like a deregulatory agenda. You know, they're financing the Republican AG is the attorneys general, who are bringing so many of these cases before the court seeking to strip out, you know, environmental regulations, in addition to, you know, protections for abortion rights. But, you know, we it's our understanding through, you know, through some of these interviews, that that side, is not really concerned so much with social issues that he sees himself as a libertarian. But, you know, I think, I think the way it was described to us is that he's like, sort of, you know, believes in coalitional politics and, you know, basically knows, like, this is where the conservative movement is, right? It's not just the the economics, it's, it's very much the conservative on social issues, too. So. But you know, the other thing is, I mean, he's giving his money into one of the most successful, just, you know, objectively successful Republican political operatives we've seen in our lifetimes, like Leonard, Leo has built a staggering dark money network before. Well, God knows when Barry sides sort of giving him money. But before before this $1.6 billion donation.

David Sirota 17:23
So I guess the final question on all of these revelations is, to what end? Do these revelations matter? I understand that that's like a kind of an existential question about journalism and what, what we do, but I think I will ask you, Andy, as somebody who's reported on this, I mean, it's an extraordinary story in the sense of the size of the donation, the secrecy surrounding it. But I do feel like there will be people who will listen to this and say, Oh, well, well, what you're telling me is, is that a right wing billionaires behaving like a right wing billionaire? Tell me something. Tell me something that I don't already know, at least, in general, in the abstract, I mean, without asking you to speculate, just as a reporter, having dug out this story, what do you think the readers take away from this reporting? Should be could be what do you think it spotlights and illustrates, that we didn't previously know beyond the details of the specific donation?

Andy Kroll 18:28
I think the best way to to answer that the most important thing that readers and listeners can take away is actually a point that I think answers the question that you just asked, Andrew, how does this alliance work between this, you know, reclusive, conservative, slash libertarian billionaire, who really doesn't seem to be that concerned with, quote, unquote, social issues, and this very social issue driven, activist and Leonard Leo, and I've been thinking about this a lot. I hope it's something that we can incorporate in future stories. There's a judicial philosophy that these two men clearly agree on, given what all the work that Leo has done, you know, the money very side has given and it's this notion of originalism textualism, that the US Constitution should be interpreted in the year 2022. As the framers absolutely intended it when they wrote it hundreds of years ago, and there should not be any notion of living rights. It's a living document. That is what connects these two and that is what this money is flowing into. Because it's one thing to say we've uncovered this donation here's who gave it here's who got it. Here's what one thinks. Here's what the other things but one's done with the others done. But of course everyone wants to know to what end. What does this money go to? toward what is it funding. And we can talk about groups, we can talk about elections, we can talk about, you know, policies, courts. But this judicial philosophy of originalism is the foundation for all of this, it is the water in which everyone in this world is swimming around it. And that philosophy gets applied to everything, not just economics, government regulation, the economy, the climate, but also marriage equality, basic fundamental social issues that we have in this country, racial inequality, you could go on and on and on. We got a taste of this in Clarence Thomas's recent opinion in this most recent session, where he kind of cracked open the door to revisiting, for instance, the Obergefell decision that made marriage equality, the law of the land. That chair judicial philosophy, I think, is what people need to understand that is what's really at stake in this story, something we're gonna keep reporting on. But the stakes here are huge. And now the money is huge. That's why this is such an unbelievably important story for right now, in going forward.

David Sirota 21:15
Andrew, just to follow on that thought, your your final thought on without giving away? What else we're going to be reporting on. But where do you expect to see as somebody who's covered money in politics for so long? Where do you expect to see a lot of this money now deployed? I don't mean specific races? I mean, what kinds of venues in the political arena? Do you expect to see this money deployed in?

Andrew Perez 21:45
Yeah, well, so we do. You know, if you look at the court system, we know, it's been being used to help place people on these courts. It's also, you know, helping fund their caseload like bringing, bringing, you know, cases before the Court, the Supreme Court and lower courts to designed to overturn established precedent, designed to limit regulations designed to challenge, you know, what, what many people might consider their fundamental, you know, constitutional rights. So that's one thing. You know, I think that, you know, now that this, this group, overturned, that the legal network effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, and constitutional protections for abortion rates, you know, I think, I think you should expect to see these groups funneling some money into, into abortion fights around the country. And, you know, I'll just give one example, just that we've, we've seen in some of our reporting already. So the, you know, there were these misleading text messages that went out in Kansas, involved, as part of this, you know, abortion ballot measure, the ballot measure was designed to strip Kansans have their have their constitutional protections for abortion, you know, that these text messages went out from this group called Catholic vote, which is, you know, has been funded in the past by the Leo network to some degree, you know, small amounts here and there, you know, would not be shocking to learn a few years down the road that, that his network is paying for all of that, it just, you know, it makes it makes too much sense. And I think that's the kind of stuff we're going to be seeing down the road.

David Sirota 23:28
Thanks to both of you for your reporting. And thank you, I should add, thank you for staying on the story. I think sometimes these stories they happen they pop once they go away. We are working. And I know I mean, we hit the lever you at ProPublica. Andy, we know that we're not going to let go of this story. We're going to try to report out as much as possible. And I want to thank you for for being willing to do that. Because look, we live in kind of a an attention deficit, media environment where things happen, and then they go away. This is something so big that it can't just go away. So thanks to you for your reporting and for staying on the story. Thanks to both you. Thanks. Thank you. We're gonna take a quick break, but we'll be right back with my interview with Dave Xyron about his new documentary about the politics of the NFL. Welcome back to lever time.

For our big interview today, I'm going to be speaking with political sports writer Dave Xyron. Dave is the sports editor for the nation. And he's made a career out of writing about the political influence of professional sports here in the United States. I spoke with Dave about his new documentary produced by the MEDIA EDUCATION FOUNDATION. It's a great movie. It's called behind the shield the power and politics of the NFL, which details how the NFL a multi billion dollar empire has become one of the most powerful political weapons in America. You may not be a sports fan, but if you care at all about politics, then you need to understand just how powerful professional football is in shaping everything from race relations to military policy.

Dave Zirin 25:11
To GM I turn on my TV was a big scandal. Superbowl season here only me see the biggest game of football come in on tonight. What's up, Dave? How you doing? Hey, it's great to be here. Not the first time we've spoken, but it's been too long.

David Sirota 25:33
Your doc makes it seem like you're super psyched about the start of NFL season. I mean, watching it really got me psyched for football season. I joke a joke. Yes. Yes.

Dave Zirin 25:43
conflicted feelings for sure. I mean, the NFL was a big part of my life growing up. It's a huge glue to my family in terms of let's get together on Sundays. I feel like you and

David Sirota 25:56
I were on the opposite sides. I was an Eagles fan. You were a Giants fan, I presume? Or were you a Jets fan?

Dave Zirin 26:01
Tragically, I was raised a Jets fan.

David Sirota 26:03
Oh my god. I mean, that's yeah,

Dave Zirin 26:06
I mean, worst years of my life. But currently, I live in the Maryland area. So through my wife, I've been drafted into being a Baltimore Ravens fan, which is a little more.

David Sirota 26:16
Alright, so listen, the thesis of, of your doc or at least the thesis question begins with the question is football, political, you make it very clear in the film, that you do think football, specifically, the NFL is a political organization. I definitely agree. And the rest of the documentary explores that idea. I'm curious, just to start this discussion. What made you want to make this documentary with that focus at this particular moment in time? Well, I

Dave Zirin 26:50
read something that said, the top 100 television programs in 2021 of them 85 Were NFL games, and of the remaining 15. There were no other sports. And that just occurred to me like, you know, we talk about sports, almost like it's on an equal playing field like NFL NBA Major League Baseball. But the reality is quite different. I mean, over the last generation, you've seen all of these major sports, as I talked about in the film, see, their ratings get splintered. That doesn't mean they're less profitable, because oh my god, streaming services, networks. They all love sports, because it's like the last thing people will sit through commercials to actually watch. But the NFL is so hegemonic in this world and stands astride the entire sporting universe. So if you're someone like me, who writes about the intersection of sports and politics, I just thought to myself, Okay, we need to do a deep dive into the NFL. And the other thing that really clicked with me that made me want to do this is that I was really worn out on this idea that people like Colin Kaepernick, people like Michael Bennett, were introducing politics into the National Football League. And that became the discourse. Look, ya'll,

David Sirota 28:06
I'm laughing. I'm laughing. Not at Colin Kaepernick. But I'm laughing, I think along with you, with the idea that oh, only now that there's Kaepernick and Bennett in the light only now the NFL quote unquote, politicized. I mean, what a joke, right?

Dave Zirin 28:22
Absolutely. And they're bringing these ideas in is if the Kaepernick and the Michael Bennett's are sort of like the turd in the Punchbowl like, right, we were having so much fun, you know, NFL is family and all the rest of it. And then these political athletes had to go ruin the party. And I feel like that definitely left out a pretty salient fact. And that's that the NFL has been a political organization since day one. And the issue at the end of the day is that the NFL says sports and politics don't mix, when the reality is that it's sports and a certain kind of politics that aren't allowed to mix in the confines of the National Football League.

David Sirota 29:02
I think that is such a key point. I mean, that is such a key point. We're gonna get into exactly what that means. And I'm glad that we started off with this discussion mentioning kapernick. Because I think when people think NFL and politics, a lot of people think that we're just talking about Kaepernick, but you go way deeper on that. And before we get into some specifics of that, I just want to also preface this discussion by asking you, first and foremost, what do you think it is about football that has positioned itself as almost synonymous with Americana? What do you think it is about football that has made it such a towering giant above all other sports when it comes to being central in the American psyche?

Dave Zirin 29:50
Yeah, great question. Because if we go beyond the confines of the United States, you don't see NFL football as a popular or medium as a popular entertainment. So how is something so popular in this country? And how is it that the United States has been so successful over generations of exporting its cultural products all over the world, from film to music, to sports. And yet, here's this one sport so stubbornly huge in the United States gets so unable to make it across the pond on either side, and be successful anywhere else. I mean, it's fascinating. When you think about it in that regard, I mean, the degree to which we have been able to import our culture has been probably the most successful American export in history, just culture, and yet not this sport. So why is it so successful? In the United States? I mean, a lot of reasons for this. But first and foremost, I think it's because America because of its history of settler colonialism and settling the West and all the rest of it has this preoccupation with what it means to be a real man and manhood in a way that you don't necessarily see in other countries. And as I think that has everything to do with the history of western expansion, that it just kept graduating over the generations, too. Are you man enough to hold the land, whether it's against Native Americans, whether it's against escaped enslaved people, whether it's against, you know, the Russian hordes, who, you know, Red Dawn style are just waiting to parachute in and take over our elementary schools? Although that wasn't the Russians. I think that was the the Chinese I believe, read.

David Sirota 31:33
The newest one is the North Koreans. Yeah, right. Yeah,

Dave Zirin 31:36
I don't remember. I don't know. But but but it's that it's that idea that that it takes a certain kind of manhood, you know, like impervious to pain, or at least willing to suffer pain, and willing to inflict pain upon others, that's going to save a country that's just bathed in a degree of original sin. And that's how we keep our heads above water. And in the Once you've settled all the land, though, where is that sense of manhood really supposed to come from? Where is it supposed to be? So this preoccupation with manhood. So interestingly, it starts in the ruling classes of the United States. That's where football begins, which I think will surprise some people because it's become very gladiatorial, where the players are drawn, largely players who are who are black, are drawn from some of the poorest areas in the United States, for entertained for the purpose of entertaining the masses, you get when football starts. It's Yale, it's Harvard, it's Princeton. And people were dying on the field on a regular basis, because they hadn't quite figured out the rules yet. I mean, imagine that today. If say, a dozen kids from Harvard died during a football season,

David Sirota 32:45
when I saw that in your dock. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was like, hard to believe that's a regular headline of like, you know, kids die playing football and then Teddy Roosevelt, being worried that the football is going to be too feminized. If putting that in, quote, feminized, yeah, it's going to be become too weak. If anybody tries to essentially stop the stop the literal death of people on the field. It's incredible.

Dave Zirin 33:11
Yeah. And that's Teddy Roosevelt plays a critical role. People don't know this in the formation of the NCAA, because Teddy Roosevelt felt like the only way we're going to save football, which you saw is absolutely essential to preserving American manhood was to codify some rules, and have some forms of protection. So they can keep having this game, at the Ivy League schools at the upper echelons at Army, for example, at the Native American coat forced boarding schools that occur that that existed, you know, football was seen as a way through violence, to birth people into a kind of Americana and a kind of leadership. That was essential Teddy Roosevelt thought for enacting this idea of the 20th century being the American century. And for others, this was obvious at the time, because people were saying this quite explicitly, this sport is to make the 20th century, the American Century, because it will make us tough enough to do it. So that's not exactly an open hand to say, I don't know, Japan to say you should love this game, too. You know what I'm saying? So it was so rooted in this idea of Americana. And so it's you did it, um, so rooted in this idea, the very game itself in in, I refer to it as an adolescence idea of what war is, you know, very exciting, you gain six inches at a time or you lose six inches at a time. You know, it's it's all about the mindset of, of rapid fire violence, you know, and that's, I think, an adolescent idea of what war is, instead of when you talk to people, it's periods of extended boredom, followed by periods of extended terror, which is not exactly what football is, but that's why the army and excuse me, the armed forces have always been so attracted to football as a point of recruitment. because it's saying, Hey, if you're attracted to this, then boy do we have a job for you.

David Sirota 35:05
Well, and you expertly document the martial language around football. It's kind of incredible. Listen to this clip from the documentary, where George Carlin is sort of making fun of this. This is the comedian George Carlin.

George Carlin 35:22
In football the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his area of assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy. In spite of the Blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun with short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

Dave Zirin 35:49
Basket a quick question, David, because you and I have a very similar kind of like, cultural background slash upbringing. Did you grow up listening to like beat up George Carlin tapes?

David Sirota 35:59
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Summer Camp. Oh, for sure. Oh, him and and, and to be frank, Andrew Dice Clay, it was George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay, which I know Andrew Dice Clay is not not exactly. He wouldn't be the one that I wouldn't want my kid listening to. I didn't want my kid my kid today listening to George Carlin. But I think Carlin completely nails it there. And what it kind of brings up to me and watching your documentary about both the masculine the hyper masculinity or particular version of masculinity that football promotes, and the martial language. It reminds me of that concept that Tom Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, talked about the single combat warrior, the single combat warrior not to get too far afield here used to be this idea that two armies with lineup, and instead of the armies fighting each other, they would have sort of one or two of their best fighters go fight one or two of the other side's best fighters. It's sort of war in miniature. The idea is, instead of having a massacre of everybody massacring each other, the the sort of societies would root for their single combat warriors. And I feel like football, especially the NFL has become kind of a modern version of the single combat warriors, we every major city has their single combat warriors that goes and fights the other city. And that's and look to be clear, that's better than war. Right? That's, that's better than then straight up violence between different cities or states and the like. So I guess the the question I want to start going into here is the hypermasculinity, the martial nature of football, and we'll get more into into more detail about the specific relationship between the military and the NFL. But I guess the top line question is, well, okay, let's stipulate that all that's true, as people are watching football right now, this is the first week of the football season. What's so bad about that? Like, what's Why is that a problem?

Dave Zirin 38:00
Well, first of all, let me just say that you nailed it with Tom Wolfe. I mean, Bonfire of the Vanities is basically about how Sherman McCoy at the end of the book delivers himself into being a better person, a real man, through the act of one on one physical violence, instead of being this rich schmuck living on Park Avenue, like goes from a schmuck to somebody, you should actually they want that wolf wants the reader to admire because he puts up his fists and very interestingly punches out a black protest leader is trying to railroad him. So there's Tom Wolf, in a nutshell, um, I think what what's the problematic part of all the martial nature of football is that it does more than just make people feel a kind of identification with the armed forces. It makes people feel in identification with war. And this country has been in a permanent state of war. Since September 11 2001. And football played a role in back then, as I talked about in the film, in really laying down the field and saying, This is going to be the new reality of this country, and we all need to get behind it. And I given the incredible social cost of war, given the incredible social cost of billions and billions of dollars that come completely wasted through the military industrial complex, if people have a problem with that. And I think a lot of people do have a problem with that, that love NFL football, then we need to be able to make the critique that the NFL lays the groundwork for a lot of this as this incredibly strong cultural product with direct ties to the US military. It makes people excited about the idea of combat, it makes people excited about the idea of victory. It makes people excited about this idea of the red, white and blue. And that's I think why when Colin Kaepernick took that knee, the entire NFL world just completely lost their shit. It was a lot more than Oh, he's disrespecting the anthem. And it was also I think a lot more than, Oh, he's he's criticizing the police. And we can't have any criticism of the police in our society. It was also that he was directly challenging. This idea of forced Americana, like to take a knee during the anthem is to say that there's a gap between this what this country promises and what it delivers. And to do that, in the context of this patriotic spectacle. I mean, that's like pulling the string on the sweater of the entire NFL business model. And I think that led to the big freakout as much as anything else.

David Sirota 40:39
Well, let's talk about the specific relationship between the NFL and the military, because I think some people may hear this and say, well, listen, you know, sports commentators using martial language to describe, you know, the field generals and you know, going down, you know, the two sides, that's one thing, and the violence of the game itself is sort of inherent to it. And, and that's not, I'm making the devil's advocate here. That's, that's not really the NFL is fault, right? It's just, that's just part of the game. But what you document is actually a very specific relationship between the NFL as an entity, we're not just talking about the sport of football, we're talking about the NFL, as a multibillion dollar entity, its relationship, a very deliberate relationship with the Pentagon. So beyond the abstract the you know, football promotes sort of violence in martial sort of martial, triumphalism that there's an actual specific economic and cultural relationship between the NFL and the Department of Defense. Just talk a little bit about that. What do you think people don't know and need to know? Sure. I

Dave Zirin 41:49
mean, first of all, I think people need to know that this relationship between the US military and the National Football League goes back decades upon decades. And it was critical for the implementation culturally and the justifications for the Vietnam War. And we talked about this in the film, there was even a player Dave magazine, who quit the NFL precisely because he felt like it pushed people towards acceptance of the war in Vietnam, in a way that he found to be completely immoral. So I just want

David Sirota 42:19
to pause right there. And just to overlay this with the context of what we started with, the idea of the NFL isn't a political organization, Colin Kaepernick only recently politicized the NFL, this history that you tell about the Pentagon's relationship with the NFL. This is proof, to my mind that the NFL has always been a very political weapon, for instance, in this case, on behalf of the political messages of pro war, kind of pro militarism, messages that granted we as a culture, oftentimes don't think of as quote unquote, political but are highly political. So how did it go from from the Vietnam War into the modern day? How did that relationship flourish?

Dave Zirin 43:04
Well, it flourished particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States was still suffering from the Vietnam syndrome. And being in the military was seen not as a badge of honor, but a badge of being a tool of empire. I mean, we went a long time without an active war in this country. During that period, though, you see the US military using the NFL as a point of recruitment during a time when recruitment numbers were very low. So there's a financial relationship, dating back to Vietnam with this idea of the of the armed forces, the military industrial complex, thinking about their recruiting numbers and seeing the NFL as a vehicle to make them better. In 1991, that's when you really see the US get over the Vietnam syndrome. I'm sure people will listen to your pod are familiar with the history, the Gulf War. Now how is the Gulf War really signaled into this country about how we were supposed to get behind it and how we were supposed to see it and view it culturally? Well, that's the 1991 Super Bowl. You know, that's Whitney Houston. That's the most famous singing of the national anthem in history, with war planes flying overhead, as I show with a halftime show that was centered around the children of soldiers who were overseas, a message from George HW and Barbara Bush, this whole idea that we needed a united country for the purposes of military violence in the Gulf. And at that point, I mean, it was almost like Pandora's box was was opened, and it was hyped up to a huge degree throughout the 90s. This Military Connection, I mean, it was seen as happenstance, it was seen as of course, patriotism, militarism, that's just a part of NFL football. So it was like a almost like a mission creep throughout the 90s. Or if you will, the, the little animal that's the boiling in the water, you know, whatever, you know, you know And when they just turn up the heat slowly and it slowly dies and doesn't realize it's being burned to death. When 911 happens, the flame goes up. And this country doesn't care if anybody feels like you're being burned, they were like, we're going all the way with this. We're in a state of permanent war people remember Dick Cheney's words about listing the number of countries the US was going to have to invade and occupy. That's what they're trying to get everybody's head around at that point. And that's when the National Football League saw that it could actually profit more from its relationship with the Pentagon by doing these things that a lot of people think the NFL does out of the goodness of their heart, like these events, they call salute to service, I'm sure people have seen the things where they bring the soldier home to meet the family on the his family or her family on the 50 yard line, in the middle of that halftime of the game, and everybody cheers, and the family doesn't even know that their loved one is coming home. I mean, they turn it up to 11, to wring emotions out of you for the military. And then it was found out, you know, through an investigation that was really led by the offices of the late John McCain, that the United States, military, even though we have a homeless vet problem in this country was paying millions of dollars to the National Football League. What was so wild about that is when I first read that story

David Sirota 46:21
is an incredible story. I mean, this is an incredible part of your documentary. I thought I had it

Dave Zirin 46:25
backwards, though. I was like, Oh, wow, yeah, of course, the NFL would pay the armed forces to do these things. Because it makes the NFL look great to be associated with this. That's not surprising that the NFL pays them, then I was like, wait a minute, what, what what the military is paying the NFL, right? The military is paying billionaire owners, billionaire owners, millions more dollars? For the purposes really. So you have to ask yourself, then well, why is the Pentagon choosing to pay this amount of money? You know, even though they surely must have been somewhere in that offices. In the offices, you said, wow, if this is found out publicly, this is probably a bad look for us that either didn't occur to them, or they it occurred to them. And they said, You know what? It's worth it. So why did they think it was worth it? That has everything to do with recruitment numbers in the post 911 era, because if you remember, they actually were going down after 911, then people have this idea of everybody signing up to fight. That's actually not what took place in that because everyone was like, Whoa, you know, they're talking about sending me there to Fallujah to get blown up by an IED for the purposes of what oil No, thank you. And so the the NFL then becomes an important lever, a lever, pardon the expression or lever for for the, for the Pentagon to be able to reach a new and younger audience. Now part of what the Pentagon was paying for was something that we hadn't seen before. Other than Super Bowls, and that's the players coming out for the anthem as well used to be the players would be in the locker room, unless you had a particular hard ass coach who wanted everybody to come out to the sidelines. But but there was no rule about coming out. There was no culture that said, everybody has to come out. That changed. And it didn't change right after 911. It changed in 2008. Because of this deal that they had with the Pentagon, you know, it wasn't just randomly, oh, 2008 two great year, no, that's when they got the ink on the contract, the billionaires were gonna get millions more. And part of that was getting the players out as props. And I think it's a correct argument, that without the 911 political hysteria, and players coming out for the amp being forced to come out for the anthem, you don't have Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, not just because he was forced to be out there anyway. But because he and a lot of players that I've spoken to saw it as a nakedly political show. And a lot of them thought, well, if this is going to be a political show, anyway, where we're supposed to show our deepest respect for the United States, when the United States does not act in the interests of my community, then I'm going to use this space to say something there was a logic to it by a lot of players that this is the space where we're going to be heard. So

David Sirota 49:13
there's a through line throughout your documentary about the NFL, at one in one set of ways being a highly political weapon. And in another set of ways crushing dissent, or just basic political speech of of those whose speech it doesn't want. across so many different issues. We were just talking about the military, the Pentagon, military relationship dependent, assuming the Pentagon NFL relationship, and how the NFL is used to promote militarism, to conflate patriotism with militarism. The situation around Pat Tillman And and how that was. That's the death of Pat Tillman, how that was essentially covered up or at least pushed to the side. And Tillman's views on war were pushed to the side. There's Kaepernick who was essentially thrown out of a job, and then collusion to not allow him to, to get a job because of his protest. There was Dave MAGAZI, there was the the CTE brain damage situation where players were trying to speak out about the physical consequences on their brains of the game and how unsafe the game had been, and the NFL not acknowledging it. So across all of these different issues that you go over in, in the in the documentary, The NFL is, is both being a political weapon, and trying to shut down those who are speaking out, even among its own players. I guess my question is, where do you think we are in all of that, because the documentary towards the end, there's a slightly hopeful note, the those who have spoken out even as they've gotten kind of crushed down, they have moved the needle some so where are we now when it comes to the NFL, at once being a political weapon and also trying to shut down anybody who's pushing forward a message they don't want to hear?

Dave Zirin 51:22
Well, we're at a very interesting pivot point, which is why I'm glad the darkness coming out right now. Because on the one hand, the wine is out of the bottle and doors boxes, open athletes realize on a mass scale, that they have a platform that they can use it and if you're a 22 year old athlete, keep this in mind. You're 16 When Colin Kaepernick took that knee, it's already been six years. So you grew up in high school, seeing Colin Kaepernick as a hero as someone who sacrifice for you so as as much as the NFL has tried to use Colin Kaepernick as a ghost story, to scare young players from speaking out. This is a very difficult situation for the NFL, the NFL has realized that they have a politicized player corps of black players who are tired of taking shit. And when you have an ownership set that is entirely white, and you have a player set that 70% Black, and when you have a three and a half year average career, I mean, that's a recipe for players starting to try to understand power race, capitalism, in a way previous generations of players did not and one of the reasons why previous generations of players did not on this mass scale. One reason is the backlash against Kaepernick and the other players in 2016 2017. One reason is the way Trump so relentlessly attacked NFL players. But one reason too are the protests after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, which had a politicizing effect all across US society as it should have. I mean, there were the largest set of demonstrations in the history of the United States, they hit all 50 states. And that's when the players made their own sort of commercial, if you will, their own public service announcement, where the best players in the game people like Patrick mahomes of Kansas City, said that the NFL had simply not done enough to address the issues that were important to their players. So now Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the league, who he had a quote Tom Wolfe, again, if this is a Tom Wolfe original phrase, he's a total flat catcher. If that's his job is to be a flat catcher. And that means he's got to take everybody's shit and act as a human meat shield in front of the 3031 billionaires behind him. And these 31 billionaires they give to right wingers at at a nine to one margin. And Roger Goodell is there to say, Well, wait a minute, actually, the NFL is not just this engine of reactionary politics, the NFL is family. The NFL is for everybody. We're making it safer. The players love it here. And yet at the same time, now you have the best player players who can't be colluded against like you're not going to collude against Pat Patrick mahomes are saying you haven't done a good enough job. And Roger Goodell had to actually get up there and say, Yeah, black lives matter. He had to put end racism in the endzone. But now we're in this interesting period of backlash. I mean, we see it, of course, the critical race theory and everything that the right wing is trying to gin up, which they're completely doing because it's the aftermath of the 2020 protests. This is their backlash. And it's interesting that at this point, you're now seeing the end racism taken off the endzone they're dialing back the political messages they're trying to be to react to what they think the political tea leaves are. Yet they're playing a very dangerous game because these politicized players haven't gone anywhere. There are now a social justice committee. things that are very controlled by the NFL, but at least it's an outlet for players to try to express their politics in a way the previous generation of players weren't even considering. And so I think what we're looking at right now is a period of sort of rumbling quietude. But you're also going to see these players step up when the situation demands it. One last

David Sirota 55:22
quick question for you, there will be people who are hearing this, who may say, I'm not into sports, I don't care about sports, I'm into politics, there will be other people who will be listening to this, who will say, I'm into sports, and I just want the athletes to shut up and play. So I will want you to respond to both of those the people who say, I'm only into politics, I don't care about sports. Why does this matter? And the folks who would say, I just want the athletes to shut up and play. I don't care about any of this. I mean,

Dave Zirin 55:53
first and foremost, a person that I believe you're somewhat familiar, David, a guy by the name of Ralph Nader, has this amazing quote that I've used a million times where he says, You better turn on the politics or politics are going to turn on you. And it's so apt. And now you look at the NFL, and how politicized it is, I would say to the people who are political and hate sports, you better turn on and understand the National Football League, or the politics of the National Football League are going to turn on you, it is so powerful cultural force that if you care about politics, you should care about the messages that are pumped through the play. That's the first and so if you're a political person, you actually have a political deficit. If you don't understand the politics of the NFL, it's that powerful. Second thing, the people who want the athletes to just shut up and play, need to understand that when you say that you're actually denying the humanity of the athletes, you know, these are human beings, they're not just robots for our entertainment. And if they're good enough to watch play, then you should be willing to hear what they have to say when the uniform is off. Otherwise, what you are is just a passive participants in gladiatorial ism. Because you're just denying the humanity of the people, you watch. The other thing I would say to the people who just want them to shut up and play is please keep in mind that not everybody is going to be shutting up, namely, the people in the owners box, they are going to keep talking through their money. And they're gonna keep talking to the institutions that they support. So what you're also saying is that you want to shut up the voices of people who come from poor backgrounds who are disproportionately black and brown, while allowing the people in the owners boxes to have free reign. So as long as they are going to use the NFL as basically political money laundering, particularly when they get public money for stadiums, then you also gotta care about what the players say, as a voice of resistance

David Sirota 57:53
days iron is the sports editor of the nation. His new documentary is called behind the shield the power and politics of the NFL. You can find him online on Twitter, Dave, what's your Twitter handle? Just so people know?

Dave Zirin 58:05
Yeah, it's at edge of sports, and you follow at edge of sports, I'm going to be putting out trailers, I'm going to be putting out websites, it's going to be very easy to access the film,

David Sirota 58:15
Dave Xyron, thank you so much for all of your work on all of the things you cover at the intersection of sports and politics. And thank you for making this documentary. I truly, I was blown away by this. And I'm so happy that you made it. Congratulations. And we're hopeful that it gets a huge audience.

Dave Zirin 58:32
Thank you. And thank you, David for helping convince my inlaws to look up.

David Sirota 58:38
Thanks, man. I appreciate it. That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get lever time premium, get to hear our bonus segment, my conversation with former Jeremy Corbyn spokesman, James Schneider, about the death of Queen Elizabeth, and what it means for the future of the English monarchy, a monarchy that seems somewhat ridiculous, but it's also kind of scary.

James Schneider 59:01
Now as long as there's no mass opposition to that which they've staged, managed it quite effectively from their point of view, you know, practically for a person in the UK. It doesn't practically alter anything. Will your bills still rise? Astronomically? Yes. Will your pay is still full in real terms? Yes.

David Sirota 59:21
And please be sure to like, subscribe and write a review for lever time on your favorite podcast app. One last favor to ask. If you liked this podcast and our reporting. Please tell your friends and family about the letter and the work we're doing forward our emails to them, encourage them to subscribe. The only way independent media grows is by word of mouth. So we need all the help we can get to continue doing the work that we're doing. Until next time, I'm David Sirota, keep rocking the boat

Transcribed by https://otter.ai