Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Berkeley's talking: Speaking out with Steve Kerr

When Berkeley talks / Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr
in conversation with UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is a vocal supporter for social activism as long as it comes from the heart. 

“In my mind, as long as the message is clear, I’m all for people speaking out against injustice no matter what form that takes,” said Kerr, during a recent Berkeley Talks lecture that my wife and I attended on the UC Berkeley campus. “If it’s nonviolent and leads to conversation, then I think that’s beautiful.” 

Golden Warriors head coach Steve Kerr comes from a
family of academics.
The 50-year-old Kerr, who comes from a family of academics, was the featured guest in a hour-long conversation with UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks at Zellerbach Hall last Wednesday. The Cal Performances event, which was very well attended and received by students and community, provided a lively forum for a far-reaching discussion that touched upon Kerr's leadership as coach of a world championship-caliber team, the role of sports in building community and identity, and Kerr’s own personal history and ties to the world of academia. The dialogue was engaging and the issues discussed were timely.

Kerr, who has a son and daughter attending UC Berkeley, addressed the subject of social activism and his openness for promoting conversation about it. I was particularly interested in hearing and learning about his thoughts on this matter:

"We talk about current events. We start practice (next) Tuesday. We will absolutely have this discussion (about Colin Kaepernick). We will defintely talk (next week) about the national anthem,” said Kerr.

(Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers football team, has been kneeling during the national anthem at his team’s games to protest racial injustice in America. Kaepernick, who is biracial and was adopted by white parents, he said he would not honor a song "nor show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.")

Steve Kerr / "People need to be more engaged and
active with what is happening around them."
Kerr added: "I'm not going to tell anyone what to do. Everybody gets to do whatever they want to do. But we need to know for each other if anyone is going to kneel or make a demonstration of any point or of any kind because, if so, it somewhat affects the guy next to you. Maybe good or maybe not, we don't know. It's something we have to talk about. I think it's great, I think the conversation is great. 

"People need to be more engaged and active with what is happening around them. I'm very proud, I think the NBA has been very progressive in terms of having these kinds of discussions and being at the forefront of the sports world when it comes to social activism."

I applaud Kerr for engaging his team to talk, whether it’s about basketball or social activism, and that he plans to support his team’s players in their views as long as their message on injustice is “clear.” Looking back, one of the best things that’s come out of the Colin Kaepernick issue is that it’s prompted people to talk about what our flag and national anthem means to us. That is a good thing.

"Let's protest in a non violent way, but it has to be powerful," said Kerr. "I've heard a lot of people say 'I agree with Kaepernick, but I would have done it a different way.' That's fair, but what is a different way? I don't know. What I do know is the only thing that really matters is that it's generating conversation in our country. ... Things do need to change.

“Nobody has to be right. Nobody has to be wrong,” said Kerr. “I would hope everyone would respect each other’s point of view. There are valid points of view on both sides.”

All photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Game, set, match = world peace, if for just 71 minutes

Tunisia's Malek Jaziri / 
Center of attention in a political hot-button issue.

In 2013, Tunisia's Malek Jaziri found himself the center of attention in a political hot-button issue no athlete ever wants to be in. The top Arab tennis player in the world was ordered by his country's governing tennis body, the Tunisia tennis federation, to withdraw from an ATP tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, rather than face a Jew, Israel's Amir Weintraub, who happened to his scheduled opponent.

In response to Jaziri's abrupt withdraw, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) banned Tunisia from Davis Cup competition for an entire year, in 2014.

The basic principle is that sports has nothing to do with politics. However, it should be noted that many Arab countries have for decades observed, to varying degrees, boycotts against Israeli athletes as a matter of protest over the situation of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"What a lot of people don't understand is that it's a difficult situation for the player no matter what," Reem Abulleil, a Dubai-based tennis journalist for Sport360.com, told the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg during a 2015 tennis podcast No Challenges Remaining. "There's always consequences, whether you like it or not."

Malek Jaziri was the top-seeded player at Istanbul.
Fast forward to this past week in Istanbul, Turkey, where Jaziri was the top-seeded player and Dudi Sela of Israel was the tournament's No. 2 seed in an ATP Challenger Tour tournament, tennis' version of the minor leagues. If the seeds held true – and they did – it would mean an Arab and a Jew would play for the championship of the American Express Istanbul Challenger. Mind you, most tennis fans throughout the world were focused on the semifinal round of the Davis Cup competition.

As the Sunday final approached, despite the fear that the Tunisian tennis authorities may again intervene, the championship match between the 70th-ranked Jaziri and the 74th-ranked Sela went ahead – and without incident. Unlike three years ago, Jaziri's career has been on the upswing this year under the guidance of coach Dejan Petrovic. He's playing better and his visibility on the court has been enhanced by a new clothing endorsement with Hydrogen, an Italian athletic wear company. Earlier this year, the Tunisian achieved a career-best ranking of 53rd. Facing the possibility of further sanctions, perhaps it's safe to assume that the Tunisian tennis federation wised up to the possibility of harsher sanctions by the ITF if it ordered Jaziri off the court. Or, maybe, it has changed its stance on matters of allowing its athletes to compete against all comers without political interference.

Dudi Sela (left), umpire Adel Nour, and Malek Jaziri.
At 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Jaziri and Sela, friends off the court, posed for a pre-match photo with Adel Nour, an Egyptian chair umpire. And, the final was on. At the conclusion of their 71-minute match, won by Jaziri, 1-6, 6-1, 6-0, the Tunisian and the Israeli shook hands at the net with sincerity and without any outward appearance of awkwardness. (I must confess, I watched the match at home in the U.S. on my iPhone 6 using the free ATPWorldTour.com feed that was absent of any commentary.) 

The Center Court crowd applauded both players, and when Jaziri returned to the court, he waved and tapped his heart with his right hand. He seemed very genuine in his emotion and appreciative of the reception he received from the fans in attendance.

Malek Jaziri and Dudi Sela shook hands at the net.
The victory gave Jaziri his third ATP Challenger Tour of the season and sixth of his career. Importantly, he earned 90 ATP points, which boosted his ranking to No. 55, as he heads on to his next tournament in Metz, France, this week. The Istanbul champion's purse of $10,800, although modest, was most welcomed by Jaziri.

As the news spread across the Atlantic, a couple of prominent American tennis journalists expressed their sentiment via Twitter. "Forget Davis Cup," tweeted Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times. "This is the biggest thing happening in tennis today. Jaziri-Sela heading toward a third set." Then, after the match, Rothenberg tweeted again: "Game, set match: World Peace. Jaziri, a Tunisian pressured to withdraw against Israelis before, plays, beats Sela." 

Malek Jaziri posed with the championship trophy.
Also, TennisChannel host and commentator Brett Haber tweeted: "Pleased to see Jaziri play Sela in Istanbul final today. I choose to believe motivation was geopolitical progress & acceptance, not Pts & $."

Jaziri got to compete, the fans who attended witnessed a significant match, and the tournament organizers were not short-changed by an empty final. Most importantly, sport overruled decades of Arab-Israeli political differences. 

A source who has been in touch with Jaziri since his victory Sunday suggested to me that there are different people controlling sporting issues within Tunisia than three years ago, which may explain why Jaziri didn't meet any resistance in playing Sela. According to the source, Jaziri suggested that what happened to him in 2013 will not happen again.

For once, there would be no boycott. Instead, it was the players – not the politicians – who decided the outcome of the match.

Photos: Courtesy of Istanbul Challenger Facebook page, Malek Jaziri Facebook page, ATPWorldTour.com live match stream, and @tenisdunyasi via Twitter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On being selective: To have fewer, but better things

Organize + Tidying Up = Spark Joy
Whether it was a desire to have fewer things in our lives or merely say thank you and bid adieu to things that fail to "spark joy" – or that we no longer value – my wife and I both agreed that we needed less.

In recent years, our buying habits have changed. Rather than rush out to buy books, we've made better use of our local public library as a resource to check out books we've read about in The New York Times or garnered an interest in from seeing an author appear on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. And, our music purchases have shifted away from physical CDs to mp3s via iTunes, which we can play on our iPhones (and I still have a classic iPod I use at the gym). Plus, thanks to streaming movies and binge-watching TV series using Netflix, buying DVDs has become irrelevant. There's definitely an ease of portability that we are using to our advantage.

Now, our living room space is neither minimalist or lacking in abundance – just decluttered.

We used the occasion of a remodeling project to "declutter" our living room, following in the success of the decluttering superstar Marie Kondo, who has written a couple of best-sellers on the subject, including The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, we assessed four bookcases-worth of books as well as several hundred CDs and DVDs. Following Kondo's guideline, we "dumped" the contents of both collections – first our books and later our CDs and DVDs – in the middle of the living room floor and decided what could stay and what needed to go among our material excess of living.

Following Kondo's guidelines, it forced us to ask ourselves whether each object was achieving a purpose. Did it spark joy in our lives? I'm happy to report that things went much smoother than I anticipated. There were no tug-of-wars or endless debates about what to keep or what to let go. By the end of our back-to-back sessions, we had earmarked 55 books to donate to the Friends of the Oakland Public Library store and close to 100 CDs and DVDs to sell for credit at our favorite record store in Berkeley.

It's taken time, but we have become more selective about what we buy and own – following a trend of having fewer, but perhaps better, things. We no longer feel the need to rush out the first day an author publishes a new book or a music artist releases a new album to purchase it. Now, our trips to our favorite bookseller or record store are fewer but more meaningful.

If I've learned anything from this exercise, it's this: Having fewer things of a higher quality – things which we can adore and enjoy – is a decluttering philosophy unto itself.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Taking a stand: On one knee with Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick (center) kneeled during the playing of the national
anthem before the San Francisco 49ers' preseason game at San Diego.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick broke no NFL rules for refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem before each of his team's recent pre-season games. While pro football players are encouraged to stand, they are not required. 

In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Kaepernick said: "When there's significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."

During the 49ers' final pre-season game last Thursday at San Diego, Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reed were observed side by side on one knee during the national anthem. The quarterback said he chose to kneel rather than sit "to show more respect for the men and women for fight for the country."

Kaepernick's actions have been criticized by many as being disrespectful to the United States. "Once again, I'm not anti-American," Kaepernick said last Thursday. "I love America. I love people. That's why I am doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from."

Recently, Kaepernick sat down for a lengthy, 18-minute interview with reporters that allowed the embattled athlete a chance to explain his thinking on the matter, which has been the subject of much discussion in both the news and sports sections of major newspapers across the country, on cable news channels, as well as countless hours devoted to the topic on sports talk radio.


Kaepernick will start the 2016 season as his team's second-string quarterback, which he would have been regardless of his recent political activism. He is recovering from an extensive injury which sidelined him for much of last season. If he loses his job and is cut by the 49ers, it will be because of his playing merits not his personal decision to not stand during the national anthem. He has publicly said that the reason for sitting (or in the case of last week taking a knee) through the anthem is a show of protest against racial inequality. 

According to Kaepernick, who is biracial and was adopted by white parents, he said he would not honor a song "nor show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."

Last week, former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an insightful opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post in which he suggested that insulting Kaepernick says more about our patriotism than his. He suggests we should let athletes love their country in their own ways.

"The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the 'most patriotic' label," wrote Abdul-Jabbar. "Patriotism isn't just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It's supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution's insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty."

On Sunday, U.S. international soccer star and Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem before her team's match against the Chicago Red Stars in a show of solidarity for Kaepernick. Afterwards, she said her action "was very intentional," and said she plans to continue kneeling before the anthem for the rest of the season.

Rapinoe told American Soccer Now that her gesture was a "little nod to Kaepernick and everything he's standing for now.

"I think it's actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn't. We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this county."

Further, Rapinoe said: "Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. (The gesture) was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation about it.

"It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful."

Having the President's back is something that's really powerful, too. 

On Monday, speaking at a news conference in Hangzhou, China, where he's attending a meeting of Group of 20 countries, President Obama said the 49ers quarterback was "exercising his constitutional right" by refusing to stand during the national anthem. He cited a long history of sports figures who have made political statements. 

"I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about," said President Obama. "And if nothing else, what he's done is he's generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.

"There are a lot of ways you can do it. As a general matter, when it comes to the flag and the national anthem and the meaning that that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us – that is a tough thing for them to get past to then hear what his deeper concerns are."

I support Colin Kaepernick's right to protest. I respect a person's ability to act according to their conscience. Looking back, Rosa Parks sat down on a public bus to protest discrimination, and Gandhi walked across India in protest of discrimination. So, why not Kaepernick sitting down during the national anthem in protest of discrimination? After all, when did a non-violent, non-disruptive, non-coercive personal protest against injustice in the United States suddenly become un-American?

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.