Confederacy of Dunces

After the Knicks announced last week that the team would move its playoff training camp from Charleston, South Carolina, to honor the NAACP-led boycott of that state—which continues to fly the odious Confederate battle flag atop its capitol—the Daily News said it had discovered “that nearly all of the players wanted to continue going to South Carolina but feared that the black community would criticize the decision.” Still, if true, that less-than-stellar motive at least produced a laudable action—which is more than can be said for the Charlotte Hornets and Eddie Jones.

It turns out that the Hornets, as well as the [North] Carolina Panthers, also hold training camps in South Carolina—indeed, the Hornets hold daily practices just across the Carolina state line in Fort Mill, S.C.—and neither team has any plans to change that. So on Saturday, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP voted unanimously to put pressure on the two teams. In response, Hornets executive vice president Sam Russo, echoing a Panthers spokesperson, said this weekend that “we haven’t talked about it here.” But the most pathetic comments came from Hornets players, “none of whom,” reported the Raleigh News-Observer, “went so far as to say the team should move elsewhere.” All-star starter Jones was almost aggressively disengaged: “We don’t have any impact,” he said of athletes. “Michael Jordan can come out and say they need to do something about it, but nothing will happen. They’re going to still debate, debate, debate until maybe a couple years; maybe a year or so from now they’ll change.”

Actually, the South Carolina tourism industry has already sent a busload of worried officials to Columbia to plead for the removal of the flag, reporting that the state had so far lost $7 million in revenues, with figures as diverse as Bill T. Jones, the American Bar Association, and tens of thousands of bikers due for an annual rally on Memorial Day planning to honor the boycott. Call us old school, but we can’t help indulging in a bit of nostalgia for sports stars with a modicum of a social conscience. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Jockbeat last week, “There has to be some sensitivity to our experience here in America, and the boycott is a good way of bringing attention to it. If you want to effect change, then that’s the way to do it. Make the economic boycott of South Carolina effective and maybe people will start listening.”

Arena League Labor Woes

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a pro sports league canceling games because its players won’t unionize. That’s just what happened last week, when the Arena Football League announced that it was capitalizing on its new Kurt Warner-fed publicity by calling off its entire 2000 season, which had been due to begin in April. You couldn’t ask for worse timing, but “remember, you’re talking about the sports industry,” notes sports business consultant David Carter.

The dispute began in early February, when the Arena Football League Players Association (AFLPA), a players’ group working with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, announced that it was filing an antitrust suit against the 13-year-old AFL, charging substandard salaries, lack of year-round medical benefits, and the growing practice (common to other such “emerging leagues” as the WNBA and Major League Soccer) of having the league sign players, then assign their contracts to individual teams, thus avoiding even the pretense of an open market for players. By way of reply, AFL honchos turned around and eighty-sixed the 14-game season.

As the coup de grâce, the AFL blamed the impasse on the UFCW, which they claimed had interfered with owner-endorsed efforts by Chicago-based Teamsters Local 781 to unionize the players. “It’s completely fabricated. It’s just a delay move,” responds the UFCW’s Jill Cashen. “The league is not supposed to be involved in trying to get anyone into a union,” adds AFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler. “That’s illegal.” AFL spokesman David Cooper insists that a majority of AFL players have signed union cards with the Teamsters. No one at Local 781 returned Jockbeat’s phone calls.

Kessler says he plans to seek an injunction against the season cancellation “as soon as we can put it together.” Meanwhile, the AFL’s 18 teams are in limbo, not knowing whether there’s a season to prepare for or not. At the New Jersey Red Dogs office on Monday, a recorded message was still offering “season tickets on sale now!” A team spokesman said officials were still meeting to decide what to do for ticket holders in the event the season is kaput.

In the Garden of Good and Evil

Jockbeat headed for last Friday’s Knicks-Suns game at the Garden filled with rage over the Diallo verdicts. Sure that there would be a visceral tension in the arena during the game, and feeling something between concern and anticipation over the possibility there would be a repeat of the April 30, 1992, Lakers-Blazers contest—when p.a. announcers warned the Forum crowd to avoid riot areas on their way home from the game—we were disappointed to find . . . nothing; no sense whatsoever that anything had happened at all. Even from our perch in the blue seats—far from the silk-stocking-district suits near courtside—the only sign that something big and disturbing had occurred was the crude joke cracked by some bridge-and-tunnel asshole a row in front of us.

After the game, we asked a couple of Knicks players about the acquittals and found the same level of social awareness they displayed with the Confederate battle flag issue. Chris Childs said, “I don’t have any words to describe what happened because it wasn’t right. I didn’t see a police report, so I don’t know what actually occurred, but if what was told to us is accurate, the cops are very, very lucky. If this was California, there would have been a riot. People are going to be on edge for a while. That’s only natural when race is involved, and this is an especially touchy situation in New York, where you had the other incident with [Abner Louima]. But I don’t believe in responding ignorantly and compounding the problem.” Fair enough. But we were hoping for a more emotional response. We would be disappointed. Looking around the locker room, we noticed Kurt Thomas was the only one left. We asked him about it and he trotted out that cop code-word for the situation: “tragedy.” Ugh. He finished up on a more-or-less even note: “It bothers me that an unarmed person was killed and that he was shot 19 times. It’s sad. Very sad.”

Contributors: Andrew Hsiao, John D. Thomas, Neil Demause, Ramona Debs Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman

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