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American Media Uses Sports to Send a Political Message in President Barack Obama’s Farewell: A Photo Essay

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The media has a unique power to shape our perceptions of the world, and even our perceptions of our own selves (Kellner, 2015). That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that American sports media giant ESPN should use the occasion of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs’ visit to the White House to send political messages. The baseball team’s trip to the White House on 16 January 2017 was, as ESPN noted, the final official event of Barack Obama’s presidency.

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Another Day, Another Jersey For Mr. Obama. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/18488717/president-obama-celebrates-world-series-champion-chicago-cubs

 

In a way, it is fitting that the holder of the world’s most powerful job should end his tenure by presiding over an event dedicated to sports since it shows the continual importance of sport to modern society. In President Obama’s words (the full event can be seen here): “Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we are. … Sports has a way of changing hearts in a way politics or business doesn’t”. Perhaps that is true, and President Obama showed how much he believed it to be true when he visited Cuba in the midst of a historic rapprochement. But if we take Mr. Obama’s words in another direction—and note that sport is itself a business and rarely separate from politics—then I am left wondering…can sport, if connected to both business and politics, truly change hearts in the manner that Mr. Obama believes?

From ESPN’s perspective, judging by their reporting on this event, sport is clearly seen as a tool in order to send a political message and is—therefore—not independent of either business or politics; in this respect the United States is no different from Turkey. Even Mr. Obama saw a chance to use the event to his benefit, astutely opening the event with the multilayered line “they said this day would never come”, which could refer either to the Cubs’ long-awaited championship, his presidency, or its imminent end.  His triple entendre, so to speak, is a tribute to Mr. Obama’s oratory skills that have enabled him to become a revered–even “saint” like–figure in America and the world, even if I believe history will view his presidency in a less than favorable light. Since I am a fan of jerseys, however, I will present you with a selection of Mr. Obama’s collection since it is pretty substantial. Mr. Obama’s collection just goes to show that sports and politics (as well as business) are rarely independent of one another, even if the outgoing President believes that they can be separate.

 

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November 2013: The NHL Champion Chicago Blackhawks Visit the White House. From USA Today: “the Chicago Blackhawks visited the White House for the traditional meeting with the president. As is customary, the team gave President Obama a customized jersey — this time, a road sweater with Obama’s name and the number 13, representing the year of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/11/blackhawks-jersey-obama

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A Little Bonus Coverage Of Sports And Politics In The US Media Here. The USA Today Noted That The Chicago Blackhawks Presented Mr. Obama With Three-Year Old Jersey (One Above). In Response, They Posted The Above Picture With the Caption: “At least it’s not as bad as the time the 1972 Miami Dolphins completely misspelled the president’s name.” Of Course, The 1972 Miami Dolphins Were Not Misspelling Mr. Obama’s Name, They Were Celebrating Their Undefeated 1972 Season; The Comment Represents A Small Shaming Of The Team For Not Presenting An “Obama” Jersey. Critical Readings Of The Media Are Necessary. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/11/blackhawks-jersey-obama

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April 2013: The University of Alabama (American) Football Team Visit the White House. From USA Today: “The University of Alabama Crimson Tide, college football champions for the third time in four years, presented the president with one more jersey — as well as a helmet and football — during a White House ceremony Monday, adding to an ever-expanding list of presidential gifts.” Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/04/15/obama-alabama-jersey-gifts-national-archives/2084645/

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April 2015. NFL Champion New England Patriots Visit The White House. Note The Political Tensions Inherent In This Comment By Mr. Obama: “‘I usually tell a bunch of jokes at these events, but with the Patriots in town, I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat,’ Obama quipped, referencing the Deflategate saga.” The main protagonist of the “deflategate” controversy was New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, a Prominent Republican Who Did Not Attend This Ceremony. Image And Quote Courtesy Of: https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/04/23/patriots-minus-tom-brady-set-for-white-house-visit/ozlYSf3PvGBiSPdsRF9lvJ/story.html

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Bonus! Just Because Its an Amusing Picture. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonherald.com/sports/patriots_nfl/the_blitz/2015/04/obama_jokes_about_deflategate_as_white_house_salutes_patriots

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May 2016. College Basketball Champions Villanova University Visit the White House. Mr. Obama Doesn’t Seem Too Pleased; Perhaps He Prefers Un-Framed Jerseys. From rollcall.com: Barack Obama showed his love of college basketball one last time as president by welcoming this year’s NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats to the White House.” Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.rollcall.com/news/hoh/villanova-basketball-fan-ncaa-obama-president
470461508.jpgApril 2015. Mr. President Doesn’t Look Too Pleased, Perhaps Because It Means He Will Need a Bigger Closet. College Basketball Champions Ohio State University Visit the White House. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.gettyimages.com/event/obama-welcomes-national-champion-ohio-state-university-buckeyes-to-white-house-549283835?#president-barack-obama-receives-a-team-jersey-as-he-hosts-the-ohio-picture-id470461360

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August 2010. The NFL Champion New Orleans Saints Visit The White House. Post Hurricane Katrina, President Obama Sends a Political Message. From CBS News: “’I’m a Bears fan, I’m not going to lie, but this was a big win for the country – not just New Orleans’ the president said. He noted that after Hurricane Katrina the Saints had to play an entire season on the road because their home stadium, the Superdome, was ruined in the storm”. Image And Quote Courtesy Of: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2010/08/09/obama-welcomes-saints-to-white-house/

Lebron-Heat-Obama-jersey-and-autographed-ball-e1359494230358.jpgJanuary 2013. The NBA Champion Miami Heat Visit the White House and Mr. Obama Is More Enthused Alongside Lebron James. Image Courtesy Of: http://thatsenuff.com/2013/01/29/mama-i-made-it-heat-visit-the-white-house/

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February 2016. NBA Champion Golden State Warriors Visit the White House. Interestingly, Mr. Obama Managed a Near Carbon Copy of His January 2013 Smile. Image Courtesy Of: http://abc7news.com/sports/warriors-honored-by-obama-at-the-white-house/1186562/

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October 2015. The FIFA Women’s World Cup Winning US Women’s National Soccer Team Visits the White House. Note the Amazing Design Of the Numbering, Hats Off To Nike. From npr.org: “This team taught all of America’s children that ‘playing like a girl’ means you’re a badass,” he [Mr. Obama] said. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/27/452260571/obama-to-u-s-womens-soccer-team-playing-like-a-girl-means-youre-a-badass

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For Those Interested in Mr. Obama’s Connection to Football, Please Check Out Sports Illustrated’s Article. It Includes This Amazing Image From 2009, when Brazilian President Lula Presented the American President With a Brazil Jersey. Judging By Mr. Obama’s Reaction, It Just Isn’t The Same as Receiving an American Jersey. Image courtesy of: http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/photo/2017/01/19/president-barack-obama-soccer-mls-usmnt-uswnt-world-cup

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One Final Bonus Comes From a Russian News Site. Russia-insider.com Managed To Dig Up This Piece. It Shows the Odd Connection Between Sports, Militarism, Nationalism, and Politics In the United States. Note Russia-insider’s Caption “A Big Fan Of Himself”. Image Courtesy Of: http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/obama-rails-against-putin-many-others-un-speech/ri10016

I’m Experiencing the Dystopia of an American Airport While American Olympic Athletes Distort Reality in Rio: What it Says About Wider U.S. Society’s Interactions With the World

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A few weeks ago I was returning from Turkey to the United States via Germany. I didn’t mind the eight-hour layover since it meant that I could drop into one of my favorite cities in the world, Munich, and have a relaxing summer stroll around the city. When I got to the border of the European Union I handed my passport and boarding pass to the police officer on duty. He took a look at the boarding pass and reminded me that I had a connecting flight in eight hours. I assured him that I was well aware of that, and that I was only going to take the train into the city for a few hours. He looked at the pages of my passport and just shrugged (probably thinking “this guy won’t miss his flight”); then he stamped me in and handed back the passport and boarding pass with a smile. And that was that. No elaborate questioning, just two people interacting.

I got a day ticket for 13.75 Euros and took the S1, getting off at Moosach. Since I am interested in seeing the famed Munich Olympiastadion, built for the 1972 Summer games, I head in the direction of the Olympic Park. The wide tree lined streets which feel like a mix between central and eastern Europe are peaceful and I take in my surroundings, my last tastes of Europe before returning to the United States. It is one of those times where the traveler thinks “what would my life have been like if I grew up here?”

The Olympic park is off the main street and when I finally enter it feels like a secret garden. The rolling hills and small pond make for an idyllic setting, one of those that could only be on the “old continent”. I hike up the tallest of the park’s hills and, at the top, am rewarded with a stunning view of urban Munich on the one side and natural Munich on the other. The day is calm and peaceful, August in Germany, and I feel as if my senses have been heightened by virtue of these few moments in this small pastoral greenery in the middle of Bavaria. I decide to grab an 11am beer at a beer garden—one of those things that would be impossible to do across the Atlantic—and think about my route to the center; after all no trip will be complete without a few jerseys.

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Beautiful Park, and the Beautiful Munich Olympiastadion. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Among the tourist hordes in central Munich I find a couple shirts from last season on deep discount—a Puma Borussia Dortmund shirt and Kappa Wolfsburg shirt. For lunch I head to one of the Turkish kebab places in the red light district by the Hauptbanhof; to my surprise the man behind the counter speaks Turkish to everyone in line except me (I am spoken to in German—guess I’m not Turkish looking enough). I eat my doner and watch a group of Turkish construction workers come in for their lunch, like the Mexican construction workers at the Mexican restaurants I would frequent in Texas. I can’t help but think how strange it is that societies get stratified like this, cheap labor from abroad creates a social hierarchy based on ethnicity—the economic system comes to define the ethnic group and create a new social reality where none existed before. Knowing its nothing I will change, I go back to my doner—the must-try snack of Germany that has overtaken the traditional German snack of bratwurst as the nation’s most popular fast food. Of course, the popularity of the street food itself shows how the imagined ethnic hierarchy can take on a mind of its own.

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The Shirts Spread Out on the Counter at a Munich Airport Bar. Because…I wanted to. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Back at the airport I myself get stratified into another kind of imagined hierarchy, this one based not on ethnic background but on nationality. I take the long trek to gates H43 through H48 at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport. It feels like a Japanese death march, the long grey nondescript corridor leading to the special zone of the terminal where flights to the United States depart from. At the ID check kiosk I ask the man if there is anything beyond me—I do it every year, just hoping—praying—that it will change. But it never does. “Just a vending machine. And toilets. There is no restaurant or bar”. Since the disappointment on my face is noticeable, the gentleman levels with me: “I’ll give you the stamp—you have a while until boarding, it won’t board on time. Go back to one of the bars and when you come back just show your stamp and walk to the gate”. I thank him for being a human being and head to the convenience store for a Lowenbrau to pass the time. Its 3.25 Euros, and the lady accepts the 3.20 Euros I give her.

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Its a Lonely Walk to the End of the Line. Image Courtesy of the Author.

When I enter the boarding area at Gate H45 it feels like I have entered another world. Indeed, there is nothing to eat save for what one can scrounge from the vending machine with their left over Euros. My fellow Americans count their (Euro) pennies to perhaps purchase a small bag of potato chips as sustenance before boarding. There are not enough seats to accommodate all the passengers bound for a transatlantic flight so everyone stands around like refugees awaiting their departure to a new future. In the bathroom, the paper towel dispenser is broken and it is clear that the single rest room cannot possible satisfy the demand of four gates worth of passengers. I marvel at the chaos all around me that marks my trip to the United States, sequestered in a small corner of one of the world’s most modern airports. When I ask why we are sequestered as such, a Lufthansa employee tells me that it is for “security”. I can only nod, finding myself wishing I was back in the Olympic park taking in the fresh air of Munich instead.

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The Toilets Have Seen Better Days While We Stand Like Refugees. Images Courtesy of the Author.

After an eight-hour flight full of romantic comedies I find myself waiting in line for one hour at the Boston Logan International Airport. U.S. citizens are left in a hallway, being let inside to the main “processing area” in fifteen person groups. I marvel at the tight security—certainly the tightest I have seen on my journeys over the past summer. “These guys are crazy” mutters the gentleman in front of me, an Italian-American, and we begin talking. I find it amusing that entering countries in Europe rarely necessitates as much song and dance as entering the United States—my own country of residence and birthdoes. The man uses the word “dystopia” to describe the proceedings and I have to admit that its an apt description.

As the “cowboys” of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol “herd” me into the “processing area” where I wait to use one of the automated self processing passport scanners, I wonder how efficient this system is. While the process to enter the United States at airports is one of the most draconian I have ever experienced on my travels, the Mexican border is still porous and many Americans are up in arms when talk is made about increasing security on a border that has become so world famous that even people from as far as Africa are flocking to it. The man in front of me is as frustrated as I am when he mumbles “I don’t think they even catch anyone”. I have to agree—the police state mentality only exists in the world of airports, a realm that is dis-engaged from life on the ground outside. It’s a sort of nether region between the Orwelllian world and the real world. But it is also this emphasis on “security” that allows the United States to portray itself as an oasis of stability in a world rapidly becoming characterized by seemingly random outbursts of violence; it is a city on a hill while chaos swirls below. And that is where I now move into discussing this in the context of the sports world.


On 14 August 2016 four members of the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team accused Brazilian police of robbing them at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro when they were returning from a party. American Olympians Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen claimed that their taxi was stopped by people posing as police officers and that money and personal belongings were demanded from them. The state media organ of the United States, the New York Times, was quick to frame the story as one reflective of security concerns in the Brazilian city when they wrote that the robbery heightened “anxiety over violent crime in the host city of the Summer Games” in the article’s opening paragraph. It is not surprising that the New York Times was quick to denounce Brazil and play up its instability, but they may be regretting their decision now.

Four days later, on 18 August 2016, it emerged that the swimmers had actually fabricated the whole story. In fact, if it was just a mere fabrication it might not have been so bad; instead it was an outright lie trying to cover up the fact that the swimmers themselves had been the ones in the wrong. They allegedly urinated on the wall of a Shell gas station, then vandalized the bathroom in a drunken rage and refused to pay for the damages. Mr. Lochte himself then claimed that he mistook the gas station’s security guard for local police—something I might have believed had I been born yesterday.

Police in Rio didn’t believe it either and charged Mr. Lochte with filing a false robbery report, and the swimmer was forced to admit that he “over-exaggerated” parts of the story which, I imagine, is the politically correct way of saying “I lied through my teeth”. On 19 August 2016 Mr. Lochte wrote on his Instagram (the post-modern form of apologizing, in which the most crucial part—looking the one you offended in the eye while asking forgiveness—is impossible): “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.” For some reason, his defense hinges on his being in “a foreign country with a language barrier”; in Mr. Lochte’s mind this simple fact exonerates him for vandalizing someone else’s property. In all honesty it is an embarrassing defense, but one that cannot be separated from the situation perpetuated, in part, by the United States itself.

Take this small excerpt from ABC News’ 30 August 2016 story as an example:

“I think it’s everyone blowing this way out of proportion. I think that’s what happened,” Lochte, 32, said today on “Good Morning America” when asked whether he embarrassed the United States with his actions in Rio de Janeiro.

“Like I said, I did lie about that one part,” Lochte said of his claim that a gun was held to his head at a Rio gas station. “I take full responsibility. I’m human. I made a mistake. A very big mistake.”

Here Mr. Lochte is still downplaying his actions when he says it was “blown out of proportion”, and when he does admit lying it is only about “that one part”, the gravity of the situation—that there is a larger lie that is insulting to another country—is missed. Even when admitting responsibility, it is only on an individual level. “I take full responsibility”. ”I’m human”. “I made a mistake”. Of course, this focus on the individual can be traced back to the American ideals of individualism and “freedom”. But don’t think that Brazilians aren’t, rightly I may add, a bit perturbed. In a 18 August 2016 New York Times story Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, tells the truth in no uncertain terms: “[The episode] has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it”. Although Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, said that “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil . . . This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality,” I do not believe it. I’m not convinced that it could happen with individuals of any other nationality.

And this is where I return to the immigration line at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit many interesting international (and domestic) destinations around the globe, something that I owe my parents a huge thank you for encouraging no matter the destination. Therefore, I have been able to see that all is not what it may seem. Of course the United States is a safe, stable, country. Of course in the United States things run fairly smoothly and with (comparably) minor disruptions when compared to some other places in the world. But—and this is important—that does not mean the United States is without its flaws, and it does not mean that other countries do not have their positive sides as well. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can commit a crime in a foreign country—like vandalism—and expect not to be held accountable for it. Like the golden rule in life, doing unto others as you would want done unto you, there is the golden rule of travel: Do not do in foreign country what you would not do in your own country and expect to not face the consequences.

Too often in the United States we hear about “how bad it is over there”. “There” can be anywhere. It can be Mexico when we hear about the drug cartels. It can be the UK when we hear about the Brexit. It can be Africa when we hear about Ebola. It can be Greece when we hear about the financial crisis. It was Turkey when my neighbor, having heard the news about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told me “I heard its really bad there”. Unfortunately, the judging that is implicit in such comments comes without any real knowledge of the situation. Just like the reporting done by the state media organ The New York Times, which rushed to emphasize security concerns in Brazil following the first reports of the swimmers’ “robbery” so as to frame the swimmers as innocent victims, U.S. newspapers are often all-too-quick to frame events taking place in foreign countries. (Note the use of the term “state media”—you might hear it mentioned in many publications in the United States, but never in reference to domestic media. This is an example of that framing). And, given that just 35% percent (a generous figure) of Americans have passports, many Americans are unable to visit places to see the truth for themselves. Although the number of passports in circulation is increasing, I tend to believe this is more due to the increased global interconnectedness of the world that necessitates a passport—if only for one trip—that then stays in circulation albeit unused. I even have friends who have passports but have never used them.

It is this combination—the desire to portray the United States as somehow above the fray of the world and the population’s relative ignorance of international affairs—that creates a dystopian reality at airports. It is also one that, unfortunately, sometimes results in people acting out and confirming the image of the “ugly American” abroad that is already present in people’s minds. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the whole incident is that Mr. Lochte really didn’t face any repercussions for his actions. Instead, he was handed a role on the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. Only in America can you embarrass yourself, your team-mates, and your country and…be given a role on TV in the end. Life—and the American Dream—go on.

Euro 2016’s Poor Quality Puma Kits: “I Hope Puma Doesn’t Produce Condoms”

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These humorous words belong to Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri complaining about Puma’s Switzerland kit; an unprecedented four shirts were ripped during the Swiss side’s draw with France. Puma claim that the error stems from a batch of material where “yarns had been damaged during the production process, leading to a weakening in the final garment.” Later, it came out that the damaged shirts had actually been made for Puma in Turkey by the Istanbul based company Milteks. The company’s president Kemal Bilgingüllüoğlu said it was possible that the shirts were exposed to extreme heat when the name and number sets were applied by heat press. Mr. Bilgingüllüoğlu said he had no knowledge of where the name and number sets were applied. Seeing as how nine of the twenty-four teams participating in Euro 2016 had their shirts made by Milteks, such an error is alarming and raises other questions about industrial production in Turkey.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/554521/Puma__Yirtilan_formalar_Turkiye_de_uretildi_.html

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Image Courtesy Of: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/20/football/shaquiri-switzerland-football-shirts-puma-condoms/

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to promote Turkey as a rising power in the world, as well as a sound destination for foreign investment. Even though some commentators question whether Turkey’s rise may be coming to an end, the country is still a destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Despite such figures, however, inflation remains dangerously high and industrial output is down. These trends–coupled with growing instability in the region—should be of concern to Turkish politicians.

I have written about the extreme capitalism enveloping Turkey, characterized by large construction projects throughout the country. But construction alone cannot provide long-term economic development; production must also increase. Unfortunately, Turkey does not produce large-scale industrial goods for export. And now, as Euro 2016 has shown, the country cannot even produce a polyester football shirt. A simple football shirt may not seem like an economic bell-weather in most cases, but in this instance it does provide an interesting example through which to begin thinking about the future of the Turkish economy.

24 Hours in Munich BONUS: Bayern Munich 2014-15 Home Shirt AND Germany World Cup 2014 Home Shirt

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I have one night in Munich to live it up. What happens in Munich stays in Munich, like Vegas. I’m riding an emotional high as I arrive to spend the night for my layover between my flight from Izmir and my flight on to Boston, sipping a Smirnoff Ice outside the Flughafen branch of the Bayern Munich shop. I soon realize that the only similarities between Munich and Vegas exist on the small “strip” leading from the Hauptbanhof to my hotel. Strillerstrasse is lined with Turkish kebab shops, casinos, strips clubs, and . . . women in Niqabs. A group meanders past a “Girls Girls Girls” advertisement, the neon from the sign reflecting off of their modest black garb. In Munich, in this spot where Vegas and Mecca have come together, it makes me feel like—just maybe—this world will come together too before it tears itself apart.

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I’m thinking it’s like a bad joke as I head up the dark stairs of the Hotel Daheim to my third floor room, the floorboards creaking with each step. As I throw my bags onto the surprisingly clean bed I reason that it’s just for one night, just a place to park my things, and myself, and I head out to explore (but not before closing the window, which opens to a fire escape accessible to all the other rooms).

With the mix of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish voices around me on the streets it feels like Istanbul…or so I lull myself into thinking, before seeing the Atlantic City club advertising Table Dancing specials for tonight. I laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and head towards Marianplatz and Munich’s picturesque center.

On the way I find a four-story sporting goods store where I partake in the solemn act that all tourists upon visiting Munich must experience: purchasing a Bayern Munich football shirt. Last year’s design has been discounted to 39 Euros from 80; an amazing deal considering that this year’s shirt isn’t much to write home about and costs 85 Euro—insult to injury! I also add Germany’s 2014 World Cup shirt to my collection for 25 Euros. When asked which match I want printed on the shirt I immediately give a knee-jerk reaction: The final against Argentina. Then I wake up. That’s cliché. “Do you have the USA match?” I ask, remembering the game I watched in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Joachim Low had his team take it easy on his countryman Jurgen Klinsmann. We are, after all, living in an international world and life is international.

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Shirts in hand I head to Marianplatz, which, under construction, has lost some of its grandeur. I continue on to the river instead, past an amazingly attractive Mini Cooper Polizei cruiser. And who says the Germans don’t get on with the British? Oh…wait…Mini is owned by BMW.

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Yes, I’m thinking the world could slowly be melding into one homogenous entity…before the strangely beautiful yet wholly mechanical “DEE-DOO-DEE-DOO-DEE-DOO” siren of an ambulance cuts through Munich’s serenity and I, watching the view over the Isar with the siren’s soundtrack in my mind, feel as if I’ve stepped into a Lego town. No, the world still has its differences. Here, drinking a mug of Munich’s famous beer in public and watching the sunbathers catch the last rays of a summer day, I could only be in “Europe”. The Europe of American backpacker’s dreams, the Europe of month long summer vacations designed to break the monotony of Suburban America.

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The next day, aboard my homeward-bound Lufthansa flight, I’m reading the papers and am again convinced that world is not completely homogenized by way of globalization…yet. According to my free copy of USA Today—two steps above or below a tabloid, depending on your point of view—9 CEOs in America are paid 800 times more than their workers. The dark side of the story is telling: “the average CEO is paid 216 times more than workers now,” compared to the “20 times more [they were paid] on average in the 1950s, according to a 2013 analysis by Bloomberg BusinessWeek.” Roger Cohen’s piece in the International New York Times (the successor to the famous International Herald Tribune that defined my childhood) “Incurable American Excess”, also rang true for me:

“To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.”

“What We Learned from German Prisons” by Nicholas Turner and Jeremy Travis taught me that “While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours [the United States] — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours [the United States].” The ability to be able to compare the United States and Germany first-hand allowed me to uniquely view the points that these journalists were making. But make no mistake; it is our differences—in the United States and in Europe—that make us stronger. Globalization need not make all cultures the same, indeed such rampant homogenization is not the solution for a more utopian society. After all, Germany is not the United States and bad people—unfortunately—do exist, no matter how much we attempt to homogenize and sanitize our views of society.

We learned this once again on August 22, 2015 when a group of three American soldiers vacationing in Europe foiled an attempted terrorist attack on a train in France. My hats off to the three brave young men who took matters into their own hands…and an extra shout out to Alek Skarlatos, who appears in an FC Bayern Munchen shirt—the same shirt I found on my one day jaunt around Munich. Perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same. All we can do, as individuals curious about the world around us, is get out and see the differences before they’re gone. After all, you never know what homogenizing force—constructive or destructive—will come along next.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/world/europe/americans-recount-gunmans-attack-on-train-to-france.html

Qatar’s Mercenaries Bring a Whole New Meaning to “International” Football: Qatar Home Shirt 2014-2015

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Qatar has become somewhat of a target ever since securing the right to host the 2022 Word Cup and the bull’s-eye on the team—and country’s—collective backs has only grown larger since the FIFA scandal exploded at the end of May. A friend of mine recently gave me a Qatari national team shirt as a gift so I thought it would be prudent to present my thoughts on the Arab nation’s footballing practices along with the shirt.

The shirt itself is a standard Nike design, similar to the Turkish and American national team shirts. The only unique feature of this shirt is the Qatari flag on the inside of the collar and the badge; the Arabic script makes an otherwise basic shirt visually interesting as well as reminding the viewer of the 1994 Adidas World Cup Ball. I wonder if Nike paid attention to that?

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.soccer.com/channels/worldcup-ball-collection/

Regardless, Nike tries to outfit the best in world football and Qatar are seen by many as a rising star—even if the football played on the pitch often leaves much to be desired. In a recent friendly in Crewe, England—one under-reported by world media—Qatar played to a draw with Northern Ireland in front of a little over 3,000 fans, enduring many jeers in the process. Personally, I understand the jeers but not for the traditional reasons. For me the issue is that Qatar’s football federation has pursued a policy of “employing”, for lack of a better word, mercenaries; half of the team were neither born nor raised in Qatar. Most of the players are of African origin, born in either Africa or France, yet they represent Qatar in international football. To understand what this means it is helpful to look at the bigger picture, where politics inevitably comes into play.

Qatar has been harboring ambitions to be a regional power in the Middle East for a long time, looking to capitalize on the regional fissures exposed by the Arab Spring. One route by which Qatar has tried to gain influence is through sport, specifically football, which Professor James Dorsey has written about extensively. Ever since the colonial days of the last century Africa has been a place empire builders have looked to exploit as a resource-rich periphery; then the search was for raw materials to support industry, now the search is for impoverished youths with athletic ability that have become the commodity in what some have termed “the new slave trade”. Qatar has mirrored the Europeans and, through a sports academy called Aspire, the country has been gobbling up young African talent. The “brawn drain” is not just limited to football and the rich Gulf state has also bought Africans to represent them in international track and field competitions.

What is worrisome is that Qatar’s search for mercenaries goes outside of the sporting realm: it extends to the political realm as well. The large labor force Qatar has imported from South Asia in order to support the country’s industrialization—and World Cup related construction projects—have been called mercenaries, although “mercenary” seems to be a kind word; they could be more accurately termed construction fodder as their high rates of death and injury are consistently ignored by the state. Although the Qatari business magazine cited above claims that “Qatar’s expatriates don’t carry swords; but hammers and briefcases.” the truth is that they also carry guns. It is estimated that Qatar has provided over 3 billion USD to rebels in Syria and, as one rebel officer in Syria interviewed by the Financial Times says, “Qatar has a lot of money and buys everything with money, and it can put its fingerprints on it.”

It should be noted that lately Qatar’s mercenary schemes have backfired with the FIFA scandal threatening the Qatari World Cup—the worker’s high death rates provide a convenient humanitarian excuse for its cancellation—and with the Syrian conflict becoming intractable despite Qatar’s unwavering support of the opposition. We can only hope that in footballing terms Qatar’s mockery of international football fails as well. Of course the subject of what “nationality” truly means in a footballing sense is tricky (in fact some pundits hate international football) and ESPN’s Gab Marcotti wrote a thought provoking piece about it in the context of dual nationals. But Aldo Simoncini, the goalkeeper for San Marino (one of European football’s minnows and a country that has no real hope of scoring a goal—let alone winning—every time they step on the pitch) offers a healthy interpretation. The man who has conceded over 120 goals while representing his country was asked in an interesting interview how it feels to play with no real hope of victory or even a respectable outcome. His reply? “Nobody pays us to play: We do it patriotically and Europe understands this.”

For me Mr. Simoncini’s spirit is the spirit of international football. It is a privilege—not a right—to represent one’s country in any form, and knowing that is what provides strong results in football and in life. There are some things money can’t buy; its something that Qatar is learning the hard way both on and off the pitch.

Memorial Day 2015: Boom Towns, Re-Building Towns, and Ghost Towns BONUS: Austin Aztex Home Shirt 2010

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The Boom Town

Driving into Austin at 10 pm on a Monday night you see lights, lots of lights. They could almost stun you, the driver, who was all but lulled to sleep for over 150 miles on the smooth pitch-black roadway from Houston. But the speed limit was raised from 70 to 75. So that is a plus. In between the neon signs advertising Target, HEB, Super 8 Motel, and Fiesta you head down I-35 as the lights of downtown Austin almost overpower the highway, the cranes that dot the horizon distract you and take your eyes off the road for a few seconds. The small town has become a metropolis overnight, or so it seems.

Austin, Texas, America (as 98.1 KVET says) is indeed America’s fastest growing city—it experienced 12 percent growth from 2010-2013. They say 110 people are moving to Austin every day. But that migration isn’t necessarily positive, as a 2014 Austin American Stateman article explains. Many smaller homes are being demolished to make way for high-end luxury condos, the kind of gentrification—exacerbating the wage gap—that has made people around the United States and the world disgruntled. On the surface, it all makes sense:

“For the sellers, many of whom raised their families in the homes, the demand for lots in their neighborhoods offers an opportunity to cash out at a price that can exceed the value of their property. For the buyers, it’s a chance to live in a central area, near shopping, dining and entertainment, while avoiding the headaches that can come with an older home.”

But some residents quoted in the article beg to differ. Mark Rogers, who holds a PhD in art history from UT Austin and has lived in east Austin for 30 years, says that “It’s kind of like losing memory through the loss of structures…That’s what architecture does – it connects you to your memories and your experiences, and when you have so much change that a whole neighborhood and eventually a city changes, we kind of have collective Alzheimer’s.” Resident Mary Standifer adds “there is a sense that people are gutting the neighborhood, not blending with it or becoming part of it. You want people to move here because they want to join in your neighborhood, not because they want to reinvent it.” Austin developer Ed Wendel went so far as to warn “We are hollowing the middle class out of Austin.” Just like industrial football has pushed the original fans away from the game, so too has gentrification pushed the original residents out of a formerly sleepy city in central Texas that is now home to a Formula One race.

The next morning you wake up road wary and want breakfast tacos. The same 85 cent breakfast tacos you ate so often as a student in a stiflingly hot room, under the sign that read

“The heat you feel / waiting for your meal

is a small price / so maybe think twice

The cost to keep you cool / would be passed on to you

so please refrain / to complain / about no air conditioning”

You want those tacos that filled you up for three dollars and change. But the Tamale House—the one you had discovered long before it was featured in the New York Times— no longer exists. It closed after the owner’s death, may he rest in peace. The neighborhood isn’t even the same anymore. The seedy old service station down the road has become a shiny new In-N-Out Burger, advertising jobs for 10.25 an hour and attracting clientele among Austin’s newest residents from California.

But that isn’t all that’s gone from Austin. A cursory look around will tell you that. The great Omlettry building with its mural is slated for destruction. Fran’s Hamburgers, which you once tasted out of pure curiosity, is gone only to make way for that mass-produced (yet “local”) taco chain Torchy’s. Austin Eater has a long list of other Austin dining institutions that are being cleared out in order to make way for shiny new restaurants; even one former Tex-Mex place is becoming (again) luxury apartments. You can only suppose that rents are getting harder to afford…or maybe it is just greed, a desire to “cash-out” while the getting is good.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://austin.eater.com/2015/5/18/8621885/the-omelettry-s-iconic-burnet-building-will-be-demolished-next-week

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Image Courtesy Of: http://austin.eater.com/2015/1/22/7871571/check-out-the-destruction-of-old-fran-s-hamburgers

So that is the boom-town of Austin, Texas, America. You leave more than a little disappointed. You’ve spent three years of your life here but it feels as if those that moved here last week feel more at home in the city than you do. But you comfort yourself with a visit to the old House Park and the old Austin Aztex jersey you own—the one that moved to Orlando and became MLS’ Orlando City FC. Who knows how much longer House Park will house a team, given the recent flooding…then again, cities can recover from floods.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/Crysta_Lee/status/603064428251086848/photo/1

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The Re-Building Town

You walk down Tulane Avenue, the terminus (or beginning, depending on how you look at it) of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61. Looking around tells you that New Orleans is a seedy place. Young men staggering around in wife beaters on the second floor balconies of cheap motels stop to stare at you, the newcomer who is so conspicuously out of place. You look away, focusing on the cracks of the uneven sidewalks trying not to fall on your face. One intersection reminds you of an eastern European city, the lush green park in the median dominated by the statue of a hero from a bygone era—in this case it is Jefferson Davis.

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Underneath the I-10 underpass is an above ground cemetery, one that survived the horrors of Katrina when the flood waters came through. Across the street is an abandoned University of New Orleans building, graffiti covering those areas a person can reach. Soon the seediness gives way to debauchery. Blonde girls taking part in bachelorette parties sport t-shirts reading “that’s what she said” while drinking grenades, young men on the prowl wearing identical button downs are drinking Bud Lights, while older couples take in the scene while sipping cocktails. It seems as if everyone from 20 to 60 is strolling down Bourbon Street in an alcohol-fueled haze. Its on the parallel side streets of the iconic French quarter where you really get a feel for this unique American city that feels more like Europe, the French architecture and overhanging balconies provide you with endless stimulation as long as you don’t step in the puddles of vomit when distracted. Its only ten o’clock but the night is just getting started.

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It is nice to get out of the touristic quarters and spend some time in other areas of the city. You visit the Southern Art Museum and take in some “culture” all the while ignoring the two girls who stumble up the stairs with drinks in hand. Classy is all that you can think. After that you head to the Louisiana Superdome, the massive American football stadium that housed survivors during Katrina. The roads that were flooded then have since been rebuilt, leaving no traces of the destruction. Walking along the historic tram line (which also reminds you of eastern Europe) on Saint Charles Avenue you head towards Tulane University, the wide green boulevard tells you that this is a more affluent side of the city. Its seediness remains where empty Budweiser bottles lie in the gutter but its nothing you can’t get over. The kind owners of the Blind Pelican even offer you a signed shirt, there you learn that New Orleans is back among the fifty largest U.S. cities for the first time since hurricane Katrina. So it is possible for cities to come back from the worst of disasters. It doesn’t surprise you; the city has a unique charm to it despite everything.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/hurricane-katrina-superdome/

 

The Ghost Town

Just off I-40 near Hickory North Carolina exists a peculiar site on the side of a two lane back road—a small village that has become a ghost town. Henry River Mill Village was once a small textile village before the mill closed, now it is up for sale for over 1 million dollars. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, you think, and indeed everything is cyclical. The boom comes, the bust comes, and then the rebuilding comes. If Austin is at the height of its cycle and New Orleans is trying to come around, then the crumbling houses of Henry River Mill Village are at the bottom of their cycle, burst by the industrial revolution, but they might cost someone a pretty penny someday. You can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of a ghost town being resuscitated by Hollywood but then again, this is America. Everything can happen. Your mind spins as you walk along between the shattered houses, but you can’t feel the shattered dreams in this atmosphere. It is the golden hour just before sunset on a late Spring day and the chirping of birds is all you hear, dotted by the occasional sounds of a passing car. You want to lie down on the grass and take it all in. But you don’t. You need to keep moving. You head back to your car parked in front of the abandoned company store that advertises pastries from another time.

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All These Roads That Lead to Nowhere in Particular

You’ve been driving for 12 days and over 4000 miles. You only have about 500 left and you want to go for a walk. You need to stretch those legs. Ahead of you, on pavement dotted by sprouts of grass, you read “This way to Hell”. You snicker, even if you are sure that someone, somewhere, thinks Hell is in Pennsylvania. “Death Ahead. Turn Back”. “Yeah, ok,” you think, looking at a lone cross sticking in the grass as if for guidance. The birds are chirping, the sun beats down, and there is no one in sight. There are no cars to hear. On either side of you trees reach to the heavens along the highway to Hell. Besides the birds, all you can hear is your Nikes beating against the crumbling pavement. You walk the (dotted) line like Johnny Cash. Its like a death march, one and half miles in a straight line under the sun. You shouldn’t have worn a dark blue shirt. But you did. Then you see what you wanted to see. No, it is not the “Hail Satan” poking through the bushes. It is the wide black expanse cut into the mountainside, Rays Hill Tunnel, where scenes from the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s great novel The Road was filmed.

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Some portions, like the tunnel operator’s room, feel like they are straight out of a horror film. Other portions, like the walls, are dotted with graffiti. Some are eulogies to lost love, most are so vulgur they make you almost ashamed to be reading them. But you do, as you feel the cool moist air of the tunnel fall all around you. But you can’t relax here. The feeling is too odd, too uncomfortable, too chilling. That feeling might be called reality: The reality that nothing is permanent, not nature (this was, after all, an unspoiled mountain side before the Pennsylvania turnpike) and not any man made structure (nature is slowly reclaiming what was taken from it, busting through the concrete). So while we build cities by destroying what we built as in Austin or build cities in the wake of nature’s wrath as in New Orleans it is important to recognize that none of it is permanent. We are all temporary in the histories of our cities, of our countries, and of our world.

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Before the Graffiti:

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Images Courtesy of: http://www.briantroutman.com/highways/abandonedpaturnpike/

 

So, on Memorial Day Weekend, I urge readers in the United States to celebrate the beginning of summer and remember the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the United States of America so that we may live in this country, an ever-changing country full of all kinds of cities and towns. To readers outside of the U.S., I urge you to celebrate the beginning of summer and get out and explore lesser-known parts of your countries–you never know what might be out there.

Happy Memorial Day and Have a Great Summer!

 

NOTE: All Images Property of the Author (thisisfootballislife.wordpress.com) Unless Otherwise Stated.

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