Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Rus Bradburd, co-director of “Basketball in the Barrio” in El Paso, Texas.
Bradburd: There is this long history in El Paso of sports being used as an agent for social change and I got very interested in the history of the area, but also in a greater role for sports than television and huge contracts for the coaches and sellout crowds.
Boss: Let’s talk a little bit about another aspect of El Paso. It’s a military town; Fort Bliss is there. I imagine a large presence. There’s the expanding militarization of the border. Would you say there was an awareness that you’ve had of the militarization all around them?
Bradburd: Well, to me I’m acutely aware of it. Now are the six, seven, eight, nine year olds aware of it? I don’t think so, but I think that what affects them is (lost) money for school dollars and that kind of thing. It’s no great secret that the majority of our taxes go to the military. In El Paso, the military is kind of front and center although maybe not so much in El Segundo Barrio. But what I’m trying to teach kids is a non-violent response to conflict and working things out; the tradition of non-violence, particularly in the sports movement. And it’s difficult to do when the federal government’s response often seems to be a violent response first and foremost. I mean how do I tell a kid not to hit another kid when that’s exactly what our foreign policy is? It’s touchy and it’s hard, but to me, non-violence is the way and it’s the way forward, but it’s something that constantly needs to be brainwashed into kids; this idea that what you’re seeing on television and what you’re seeing in the media, the violent response that seems to be appropriate in every other aspect, is not appropriate for us. I think we all do what we can. Are we changing the world with “Basketball in the Barrio”? I don’t know that and I don’t know what kids take away from it, but I’m just trying to do my little part.
Boss: Well when you consider some of the components of their environment and what you say exists in the larger world, how do you teach kids not to hit, not to bully, not to be violent? How do you connect them to the whole idea of peace and tolerance?
Bradburd: I know for me personally a lot of it starts with Muhammad Ali. He’s a big figure at the camp. That’s one of the posters that the kid can take away is a Muhammad Ali poster. He was the most famous athlete in the world, maybe the most famous athlete in the history of the world with the possible exception of Michael Jordan. And he gave up his heavyweight boxing title because he refused induction into the United States military. It cost him millions of dollars at the prime of his career, but he stood up for principle. Admittedly that kind of unselfishness is rare, but it’s not unheard of. Sports has often been at the forefront of social change and so when we do “Basketball in the Barrio”, it’s focused on people like Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Billie Jean King and even onto Jason Collins and athletes like that who have used sports as this platform to talk about changing the world for the better. I think it’s exactly what Don Haskins did in 1966 (when he became the first to start 5 African-Americans in an NCAA basketball game) except that Don Haskins wasn’t interested in politics. He didn’t see what he had done as a political act. I don’t think he understood what the repercussions would be and the blowback or even the changes that he was about to bring about. I’m more interested in the politics I think than Don Haskins ever was and probably more outspoken about the repercussions of the place of sports in the world and that kind of thing, but in essence what we’re doing is we’re putting these great athletes front and center that had been at the forefront of social change and again, it’s men like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente.
And Carol, it’s more than just a non-violent message. We’ve got musicians and dancers and storytellers and artists who are all coming in to work with the kids. In fact, the line by the great El Paso poet Bobby Byrd is that it’s really a scam and that if the kids wanted to sue and get their dollar back, they could do it because there’s actually not much basketball in “Basketball in the Barrio” or not enough to keep any basketball fan happy.
Boss: Well, it serves as a foundation.
Bradburd: “Foundation” is a nice way to think of it. I think of it sort of as a lure. I’m aware that it’s false advertising, but there it is. We start and end with basketball each day, so we’re there for six hours and we do two hours of basketball.
Boss: Why are you working with just elementary school kids? Why not middle school or high school kids too?
Bradburd: Well, I’ve had this talk. I’m friends with the people who run an organization called “Peace Players.” And with Peace Players, what they do is hugely important work. They get Catholics and Protestants teenagers in Belfast to play on basketball on the same team. They’ve done the same thing in Jerusalem with Palestinian kids and Israeli kids. They’ve done it at other troubled spots in the globe and they don’t use young kids. To my ear, to my limited view of the world, I just think that sometimes by the time a kid is a teenager, it’s too late. They’ve heard from their parents that “Mexicans are ruining the world” or “black people are dangerous” or that “all white people are …” that kind of thing. I think that if you’re going to get to kids, I think that you have to do it early. I think they have to be inoculated early. One of the things that I believe is that younger is better and that we can reach kids at a younger age.
What happens at our camp Carol is that often times the kids who have been through the program come back for the next few years. They had a good time and they come back and we put them to work as coaches. I’ve come to believe that all great traditions in human history are handed down from person to person. I don’t think that you can learn the violin from the internet. I don’t think that you can learn how to write from reading a book. I don’t think you can learn about spiritual awakening from YouTube. I think it happens from person to person and I think in this case what I’m doing is I’m handing the kids what Rocky Galarza taught. What I watched Rocky Galarza give me and other kids is this idea that I’m special because of who I am in El Segundo Barrio.
Boss: I want to ask you something about yourself. You were a college basketball player. You were a coach with many winning seasons. Did you see contradictions between your beliefs and the actions and the tactics and the behaviors of players and other coaches perhaps in other sports where it was “win at any cost”, “show no mercy for the opponent”, “us versus them”, those kinds of things?
Bradburd: You know Carol I think I’ll answer that by talking about Chicago where I grew up. Gun violence is so out of control and prevalent there. One of our players from New Mexico State, Shawn Harrington, played in the mid-90s, but he dove on top of his daughter in February and saved her life, but took a bullet in the back in a mistaken identity shooting on the streets of Chicago and he’s in a wheelchair now for the rest of his life.
I was, of course, examining the place of sports in society a long time before this happened with Shawn Harrington, but I think frankly that sports does a lot of damage in the inner cities in some ways. Let me see if I can explain why I think that. Let’s say if New Mexico State takes a player out of Chicago and gives him a scholarship, that’s great for that kid. He gets a scholarship, he gets his school paid for, we hope he gets a degree of course, sometimes players don’t, but often times they do, but what is this system that we’re encouraging that we’ve left behind in Chicago?
In my experience, thousands and thousands of kids play basketball and three or four of them get a scholarship and of the three or four that get a scholarship, a very small percentage goes on to the NBA or Europe to make a living.
What I see happening in Chicago is yes, it’s good that basketball can be a diversion and if there was no basketball, would the violence be worse? I don’t know that, but I think it’s also a mirage and I think the danger of the mirage is not just within the black community, but it’s also within middle class and upper class communities who get this idea that sports is going to be this ticket out of the ghetto. The truth is, it’s so few people that are going to be able to reap the rewards of sports and the rest of them are left with nothing.
Now the reason I know this Carol is I was one of those kids. Not that I was from the West Side of Chicago, the roughest area in the country, but I played all the time, practiced my dribbling all the time and got nothing out of it financially. There was no reward at the end of it. No one worked harder than I did and I had very little to show for it afterwards except for a good work ethic. But with me, fortunately I had a father who could help pay for my college, I had a solid middle class upbringing. I had been to the Unitarian Church as a kid, those kinds of things.
But I think what was left behind for most kids is that basketball ends at the end of high school or at the end of grade school. And there’s this underbelly of kids in Chicago, in our urban centers who have played hours and hours of basketball and have nothing to show for it other than they weren’t shooting people during that time they were playing basketball.
So in my view, it’s sort of this pyramid scheme where there’s this great money at the top for Tim Hardaway or Michael Jordan, but most of the kids get nothing out it. If some of that time and energy was channeled into education or library work or those kinds of things … I just think we’re misguided in many ways and the lure of the money and the lure of the television glamour keeps kids playing basketball in a way that I have come to believe is unhealthy and overemphasized.
No one is ever cheered for solving X in their algebra class. They don’t get a standing ovation for writing a good poem in their English class, but they’re revered as heroes by the administration and by the media for being able to put a round ball in a round hoop. I understand that it’s out of perspective, but kids don’t understand that.
It happens at a lot of levels. I think if you pick up the Albuquerque Journal or the USA Today, there’s eight full color pages in the USA Today, 10 or 12 pages in The Albuquerque Journal on sports. It might be twice a week that there’s an article about global warming or violence in Chicago or those kinds of things, so I think it happens on a lot of levels. It’s not just that kids are screwed up, or the teachers are screwed up, or that the parents are screwed up, or the media is screwed up, but I think the entire place of sports in our society is upside down.
Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Len Elmore, attorney, former collegiate and pro basketball star.
Elmore: Absolutely sports is a terrific vehicle for promoting unity and understanding whether it’s bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, or sometimes diametrically opposed social and political positions, to have them focus on one particular goal and that’s playing as a team and winning, and having that be first and foremost in their minds. It certainly breaks down an awful lot of barriers.
A great example would be an organization that I was a part of for a while, a charitable organization called “Peace Players” that utilized sports as a way to bring together children in these controversial, many times strife-torn areas.
I’ll never forget hearing the story about two basketball teams in Israel and in Palestine which were mixed teams, both Palestinian kids and Israeli kids playing on the same team against each other. At one point a Palestinian kid knocked down an Israeli young man and a scuffle ensued and running to the aid of the Israeli young man was a Palestinian young man on his team. I thought that spoke volumes to the importance of team effort, to the importance of sharing, to the importance of focusing on a common goal.
Ingles: And Len, how do you reconcile that unifying, even peacemaking part of the sports world with the heated rivalries and fierce competition and deeply partisan fan passion side of the scene?
Elmore: I understand from a motivational standpoint that the game has always got to be “us versus them” whether it’s team sports or on an individual basis because that’s how you motivate yourself to go after whatever that goal might be. But on a macro level, certainly that’s what you have to do. On a micro level, you still understand that in order to reach that, particularly in team sports, you have to look within and that requires the chemistry, if you will, the comradery, the cooperation of individual teammates. And also respecting that the other side has to follow those same values and that’s what gives you respect for your opponent; that they’ve gone through and they’ve had to do the things that you’ve had to do in order to reach a point where you two are competing. And so while the competition within the lines has to be fierce, when it’s all said and done, when the whistle blows, when the horn sounds, that’s when the handshakes come out to demonstrate the mutual respect.
Ingles: In 2014 when the murder of African-American teen Michael Brown by a white police office in Ferguson, Missouri set of demonstrations, you kind of called out black athletes for not entering the conversation in a column that you wrote for USA Today. Tell me about your thoughts and emotions in the days leading up to you actually offering that column and writing that column. What were you feeling and thinking leading up to that point as you watched things unfold?
Elmore: Well, it was reminiscent of those days of which I spoke when I talked about the Muhammad Ali situations and athletes having a voice and having some impact in the particular situation. It wasn’t about taking a side, but it was about stepping forward and giving a viewpoint, stepping forward and relating, as I had done when I played professionally, to young people. And relating ideas, relating history and trying to give them a sounding board.
To me there were two (Ferguson area) high schools that were highlighted in a couple of stories that were predominantly black football teams and it took the football coach to really go back in history and give these young people kind of a primer on the Civil Rights struggle and why the situation in Ferguson was so similar.
There’s a professional football team and baseball team in that area and from what I understand, not one athlete came to visit and to talk to these kids and I thought that it was so important for these athletes upon whom these kids look up to for them to come forward and at least become a sounding board and at least give their viewpoint and allow the kids to be able to see exactly what has gone on in the past and what continues going on and have it come from people that they admire.
Ingles: Len, let’s name some of these things; why do you think we haven’t seen much of pro athletes engaging in the public social or political discourse in the modern era. What’s holding them back?
Elmore: Well sadly I think the thing that holds back most athletes is that purposeful isolation, whether it’s initiated by themselves or by their handlers, to stay out of the public eye on some of these issues because it might affect their marketing and sponsorship capabilities. It might affect their following on social media adversely.
The other thing might be the fact that a lot of these young athletes today themselves aren’t educated as to the “struggle”, if you will, and to the issues that are going to affect young people of color today and overall affecting young people.
You wish that these young folks would harken back to the days prior to them becoming professional athletes and becoming very well off from a resource standpoint, but I think sometimes amnesia sets in after you’ve made it and it makes it more difficult for people to speak out. That reticence a lot of times comes from ignorance as well as that isolation. That fear that they’ll be called out and certainly singled out and it might hurt their marketability. I think that’s obviously wrong and probably wouldn’t happen, but that fear still exists.
Ingles: Do you know of or suspect that any pro contracts or endorsement contracts restrict player’s speech in anyway, that they sign off on not being vocal in a certain way?
Elmore: I would doubt it simply because again, you’re legislating against someone’s ability to speak freely. Now certainly there’s a morals clause so you can’t embarrass the club, you can’t embarrass the league and certainly you don’t want to embarrass yourself. We’re talking about radical things there, but normally stepping forward from a reasonable standpoint and taking a reasonable position, I don’t think that there’s anything in anybody’s contract that would prevent them from doing that.
Ingles: Now charity work is pretty common among athletes in the modern era, some have even set up foundations, but you’re really talking about something a bit different, aren’t you.
Elmore: Yeah, I mean look, the foundations are good, particularly when they’re effective and when they’re focused. Many times they’ll actually set up foundations, merely for tax purposes, merely to hire and to be able to place family members and friends on salary, but the reality of it is that we’re talking about nothing that’s wholly organized per say, but we’re talking about, again, viewpoints and the ability of visible people to take a stand and to stand for something.
Now the other side of it is if the athletes aren’t going to do it themselves and it has an adverse impact on their images, the handlers of the images have to step up. The caretakers are unions and to me, I was very surprised that not only the NFLPA nor the NBAPA which are the unions of football and basketball respectively, that none of them spoke out as the voice of these particular athletes. And once again, they are supposed to be the teachers and caretakers of images and at some point in time I think that they have a duty to be able to lead their people in a manner that’s going to allow them to seem to be productive and contributing members of society. Not merely entertainers who take and not give.
Ingles: Len, humor me with this hypothetical. I imagine attorneys like to use it but judges don’t allow it often. Somehow let’s say you were still competing in the NBA, enjoying a star level like today’s great players. What would you want to say right now? How would you use the platform?
Len: Well, the one area beyond what we’ve discussed with regard to Ferguson and some of the other issues, the one area I think is highly important for young athletes and prominent athletes to speak out about is the gang violence that’s going on in our big cities and urban areas, particularly in Chicago and other areas. We’ve got to be able to stem the tide of young people, not only utilizing violence, but certainly killing each other. And I think it’s important because so many of the athletes have come from communities that are similar and have had experiences in that regard of lost friends or loved ones. I think it’s so important because these people, these athletes, are respected by the gang bangers, if you will. It’s an amazing relationship, but nevertheless to be able to speak out about that. And you’re not going to change the hardcore, but those young people who are looking for something to join, looking for something to be a part of, I think it’s so important for an alternative to be presented. And if presented by someone that they look up to, it will certainly have a positive impact.
Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Doug Harris, executive director of “Athletes United for Peace."
Harris: Athletes United for Peace was the brainchild of Dr. Phil Shinnick who was an Olympic long-jumper world record holder for some time and he put this organization together in protest of the Olympic boycotts in the early 1980s when the USSR didn’t participate in the Olympics here in Los Angeles and likewise for (the U.S. boycotting) the Olympics that were held in Moscow.
What Phil did was he gathered a big number of Olympic athletes together and tried to make a statement that by no means should any type of political activity get in the way of people continuing their efforts in sports and so that was kind of birth of Athletes United for Peace.
Boss: And the focus of activities once it was formed?
Harris: The main focus of the activities was basically improving relationships between the United States and the Soviet Block countries. At the time we were going through the nuclear arms race. Dr. Phil Shinnick and a lot of the early founders and members of Athletes United for Peace put together activities and different people-to-people exchanges and brought people together - all around the purpose of making people aware that if we continue this nuclear arms race, we could blow the world up three or four times over. So that’s kind of how everything started.
Boss: When you became executive director in the early ‘90s, the focus changed to domestic peace issues. Why that decision on your part?
Harris: Well when I was handed the leadership of Athletes United for Peace, at the time I was a recreation director in the Bay Area working with young people day in and day out and experiencing all the problems in the inner city communities.
There was a big emphasis on things that could be done to create a more peaceful community in different parts of the East Bay. Drugs, gang violence, these are some serious issues. That was more of a focus I guess when I first started off working with young people and so that’s kind of the reason why I changed the focus (of AUP).
Boss: Well what’s a program for example that you initiated to address these needs?
Harris: The first program that I actually initiated, developed and implemented, was a program that we did with the City of Berkley which was called “Late Night Basketball.” And it was modeled after the national Midnight Basketball programs that were taking place all over the country.
We teamed up with the City of Berkley and what this program did is it brought together a lot of teenagers and young adults on Friday evenings year-round that would ordinarily be involved in anti-social behavior, violence, just a lot of trouble. And we offered them a safe haven; a place where they could come, participate in a sport that the majority of them love which is basketball.
A big part of that program was to provide guidance counseling for these young men and women to help steer them in more positive directions whether it be providing them with the appropriate referrals to go back to get their GEDs, to getting them enrolled in junior college, to getting them involved in job training programs.
And then a short time later, we got a lot of these participants involved with our media division.
Boss: So this program lasted a long time, right?
Harris: Oh yeah, yeah it did. It did for about 18 years.
Boss: And did you see changes happening as a result of that?
Harris: Yes. It just brings me a lot of joy when I’m walking around in the East Bay and I see all of these people that were a part of that program and that they have grown up to be fine young men and have families. It’s the greatest job in the world when somebody comes up to you to tell you how much the program meant and helped them.
Boss: Let me ask you this; just doing it, would that be equivalent to – some people might be saying “deprogramming,” and what I mean is deprogramming some of their learned behaviors about disliking opponents for example.
Harris: No, no and I understand clearly what you mean and it’s the whole concept of sports going in the wrong direction.
A lot of times in today’s society we see the real ugly and bitter side of sports where a lot of parents get overly involved with the Little League baseball coach and team and get upset about their sons’ playing time - just a whole variety of issues around sports. And one of the things that we always work to do is provide a positive experience for participants of our program.
You’ve got to understand; the programs that we implement and develop are primarily for young adults, so we’re not really talking about the younger elementary age youth or middle school youth. We primarily were dealing with high school and college age athletes and so there’s kind of like a different focus. But we really try to deemphasize “win at all costs” philosophy and kind of concentrate more on the having fun - the fellowship of sports.
Boss: Doug Harris, what is the most powerful and impactful example of Athletes United for Peace applying its mission that has made a difference and has given young people perhaps valuable lessons in creating peace.
Harris: It takes me back to 1999 when we were asked by the United Nations in the Hague Appeal for Peace to actually put together the sports program component at the World Peace Conference. It was the 100th anniversary of the World Peace Conference. We were honored to coordinate the conferences’ youth program and sports component and so we had an opportunity to take a delegation of ten young men from the East Bay to the World Peace Conference. We put together the good will exhibition basketball series as a sports component to the World Peace Conference. And then we also conducted a public forum which we called “Peace in Our Cities” with participation from young people from Sierra Leone, Columbia and New York and our delegation from the Bay Area. It was just a wonderful opportunity. All of those ten young men that took part in that, it had an everlasting impact on their lives and also mine.
Boss: Doug Harris, can you give us your take on the evolution of sports in our society? What are the good trends and what do you think are the harmful trends and the role sports plays in our lives?
Harris: Well I think sports are one of the most enjoyable parts of everyone’s life, whether it be recreationally or whether it be competitive sports.
I think sports are the activities that bring people closer together. It’s an enjoyable experience in most cases.
However it could be a very tragic and horrible experience for people that are forced to be involved with it. You have a lot of young people whose parents forced them to play sports, parents that maybe didn’t reach the pinnacle of what they wanted to be as an athlete and they try to relive that through their kids. It’s really horrible.
But sports are like a double-edged sword; there are a lot of very good and positive things about it, but then there is also some of the more gloomy and negative sides of sports. So you kind of have to weigh it out.
But I must say, in my life, my 53 years of life, sports have absolutely been phenomenal and a big part of my life and I’m going to continue to enjoy it and participate in it.