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Play Ball: Do Fans Have Amnesia Over Steroid Scandal?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. But in Washington, D.C., I have Dave Zirin, sports editor at the progressive magazine The Nation, Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University, and what do you know, NPR editor Ammad Omar sticking around. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Hey, fellas.

PAUL BUTLER: What's up?


IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop. How we doin'?

BUTLER: All right.


IZRAEL: Wow. OK. Well, you know what, Ammad, you know, we can't go much further without mentioning that the Detroit Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox last night in game five of the playoffs. You mad, bro? You doing OK?

OMAR: You're starting just like that, huh?

IZRAEL: Just like that, bro. This is the Barbershop. That's how we get down.

OMAR: Yeah. No, me and sports are not having a good relationship right now. I saw Michigan lose to Penn State about seven times on Saturday in one game, and now this. I think I might take up knitting or something. I hear it's good for the circulation.

MARTIN: It is good for the circulation. Yoga.

OMAR: So that's - although, I'm still kind of sucked in 'cause the Tigers they got Max Scherzer, who's probably going to win the Cy Young this year, and Justin Verlander, who won it last year, for the last two games. So they got a shot. If not, knitting.

ZIRIN: And starting pitching makes geniuses of every manager. That's I think the story of these playoffs. I mean, you look at John Farrell, manager of the Red Sox. Last year, he's a bum managing Toronto. This year he's on Boston. He's got good starting pitching, all of a sudden he's a genius. Don Mattingly looked like he was going to be fired half way through the year. People are criticizing him in this Cardinal series, now he's got Zack Greinke - just won. He's got Clayton Kershaw coming up. And so all of a sudden he's going to look a lot smarter, too. It's all about the pitching, fellas.

IZRAEL: Dave Zirin, while you've got the mic, it seems like the whole summer steroid debacle is old news now. Has baseball made a comeback in your opinion?

ZIRIN: No, baseball hasn't made a comeback. Baseball will need a time machine to make a comeback, that's part of the problem. But I do think that the steroid issue is always going to be cyclical. The next scandal takes place, that's going to be the topic here on barbershops all across the country. Alex Rodriguez is going to be in, quote-unquote, trial for is baseball life, in the weeks ahead, we'll be talking about it then. It's one of those things, it flares up, it goes down. It flares up, it goes down. It's like a terrible disease you don't want to mention.

IZRAEL: OK. Yeah, I mean, is there a good disease you do want to mention?

ZIRIN: No, that's a good one.

IZRAEL: All right. All right, hike. Let's kick it over to the football field. Paul Butler - PB - Prince Paul.

BUTLER: What's up?

IZRAEL: Most of the buzz about Washington's team this season is about whether the name needs to be retired, even President Obama recently weighed, but many people weren't happy when NBC's sports commentator - sports commentator Bob Costas gave his two cents during halftime last Sunday. Drop that clip.


BOB COSTAS: Think for a moment about the term Redskins. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, Redskins can't possibly honor a heritage or a noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It's an insult, a slur no matter how benign the present-day intent.

IZRAEL: Thank you for that. You know what? Dave Zirin, my whole thing is, look, now Bob Costas, that's my dude. He's a professional commentator, so he can say what he wants anytime he wants. But this hasn't been his cause, and he looks like a bandwagon hopper. He looks like he's doing what the kids are calling nowadays concern trolling. You know, he's just mentioning something so that people will come over to his fire and hear what he has to say about it. This has not been his topic of discussion, not really been his cause. But if it was his cause, he'd be a powerful voice. You know, you wrote a piece applauding his comments. Tell us why.

ZIRIN: Absolutely. Well, first of all, it's not like Bob Costas took the mic and opined on Syria or the government shutdown. I mean, the Washington football team was playing at that moment and this has been a story of the season. I mean, when you have some of the most famous writers in America - sportswriters - Peter King, Christine Brennan, who's a former beat writer for the Washington football team - all of a sudden saying they're not going to say the name anymore. When you have Oneida Nation coming out, when you have conservative politicians, like Tom Cole from Oklahoma, one of two Native American congresspeople, when you have Charles Krauthammer, for goodness sakes, saying that the name should change, then this is an issue that speaks to what's happening in the NFL right now, and it's also a much broader issue. And I think Bob Costas has more than earned the right to opine.

MARTIN: Do you care about Jimi's point about jumping on the bandwagon a little late...


MARTIN: ...Kind of aspect of it?

ZIRIN: I think that's a beautiful thing.

MARTIN: Really?

ZIRIN: I think that that shows that the movement is working. That's how you know a movement is working when people say hey, this train is moving, I better jump on board.

MARTIN: Interesting. Paul, what do you think?

IZRAEL: You know what?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: I liked it the first time it happened, when it happened in Cleveland with the Cleveland Indians, who are still - not for nothing - the Cleveland Indians. Paul Butler.

BUTLER: I mean, even just to say the name, you make a political statement. What if they called D.C.'s hockey team, the Capitals, the Washington White Boys, and every weekend the sports anchor would be how the White Boys do today? The White Boys are going to kick some butt tonight. Everyone would see that as really strange. Just because we're used to thinking of Native Americans as mascots, that doesn't make it right.

MARTIN: You know, it is interesting when people do draw the analogy to what would give offense. They generally don't draw analogies that involve white people or groups that are traditionally considered white Europeans. You know what I mean? They generally use other minority groups and I'm curious about why that is, you know.

BUTLER: Well, even Costa said, well, you know, what if it were blacks or Asians or Latinos? He didn't say whites. Again, we just think of those other people as the others.

ZIRIN: That's exactly right, Paul, and that's because I think perspectives on race and racism in this country, it always privileges the white perspective, except when Native Americans talk about this. Like, there was a team in the Dakotas and in protest of Native American mascotting, they named their club team the Fighting Whities. And they were threatened with being kicked out of their league for calling themselves the Fighting Whities, and that just tells you something about how sensitive that Caucasians can be.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ammad.

OMAR: People do, in defense of the Redskins name, bring up the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That's kind of their...

BUTLER: Well...

OMAR: ...One, you know - their one thing they bring up and say hey, this is not offensive.

ZIRIN: The thing about the Irish...

MARTIN: That's interesting. What about that, Dave?

ZIRIN: Oh, sure. I mean, the thing about the Fighting Irish, though, is that you have decades of an Irish-American power structure at Notre Dame. One would think that if it was offensive, they would have said something. There's no record whatsoever of any sort of Native American power structure in the Washington football team.

MARTIN: I have never heard anybody else object to the name the Fighting Irish, but - I've never heard anybody object to the name Fighting Irish. Maybe people...

ZIRIN: People raise it rhetorically in the debate all the time.

MARTIN: But it does seem - and I note that the owner of the Washington team said that there are Native Americans who do agree - who don't find it offensive. But I just - you know, I question that. I mean, I find that when you have people who are willing to - as the Oneida Indian Nation has done - put, you know, some resources behind making their case to the public. And what also strikes me is just how viciously people attack them...

ZIRIN: Oh, it's amazing.

MARTIN: ...For advancing their argument. I mean, what they have done is, they've gone to games. They've stood in protest. They've said, I'd like you to listen to my perspective on this. They've never engaged in violence. They've never, like, thrown blood on anybody or done anything of that - you see my point?

ZIRIN: Right.

MARTIN: They've merely asked people to listen to their point of view. And for that, people have viciously attacked them. And I just find that - I don't know. I don't know what that says. But clearly, this is going to - clearly, this is going to continue, right.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, sports editor Dave Zirin, law professor Paul Butler, TELL ME MORE editor Ammad Omar. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Racism as nostalgia, welcome to America everyone.


IZRAEL: Well, Saturday Night Live - Saturday Night Live, they're still on? Really? They recently announced new cast members, and again, for the sixth season in a row, they don't have any black female comedians, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, not only that but the six new cast members are all Caucasian or European-American...

IZRAEL: (Gasping) My God.

MARTIN: ...Or white if you want to say. I mean, there just isn't a lot of diversity in this cast now. And Kenan Thompson, one of the two current black cast members - both males - said in an interview it's because the show can't, quote, find ones that are ready. And I think this is really interesting, though, that Jay Pharoah, his colleague, did say that he felt that the show needed to pay more attention to diversity, but somehow his comments aren't getting this kind of attention. I did want to - since Jimi alluded to the fact that perhaps everyone is not watching this program anymore, I will just give you a short clip of Thompson in the SNL skit "The Ol' Barbershop."


KENAN THOMPSON: Do you remember Darryl Dawkins' hair?

JAY PHAROAH: Oh, yes. I swear the Lord. I swear the Lord. I swear...

THOMPSON: Man, that boy had a 'fro so high, a bird could fly into it and come out two weeks later with another bird and a dozen eggs.

A dozen eggs.

IZRAEL: Oh, Lord.


IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. You know, in the past, Kenan has played black women on the show. This year, he says no more drag. God bless you, brother. But about black comediennes, you know, I think - I think he made a point worth making - and don't taze me, bro - but what I hear...

MARTIN: Or sis.

IZRAEL: ...Or sis, excuse me. Excuse me, sis. But a lot of - seriously, but a lot of black humor isn't topical and brokers in the absurdity of our own shared experience. Also, black comedians aren't necessarily self-deprecating or willing always to make fun of other black women, not really since Kim Wayans in "Living Color" have we seen black women do characters on other black women. Of course, Maya Rudolph - not for nothing - she did her share of takes on, I believe, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and other characters...

ZIRIN: Beyonce.

IZRAEL: ...Beyonce - on SNL. So that's not a hard and fast rule. But I also think sketch comedy is its own - it's its own set of skills that not everybody has. So, you know, there might not be a lot of black comedians who are ready. PB - Paul Butler, what do you think?

BUTLER: Well, first of all, Kenan Thompson is not funny. So he has a lot of nerve talking about black women not being funny. You know, he's just a peon anyway. So we ought to be insulted by the fact that with this huge cast, SNL can't find one black woman who was worthy. It's just as ridiculous as other organizations that say, we'd like to have more qualified minorities but there are just none out there. That's always a big fat lie. So, Jimi, how would you even know what black women comedians are doing because they're just not getting the media space to do their thing?

ZIRIN: And can I just point out, too...

IZRAEL: I get out the house. I get out the house, bro. But it's like this also - I mean, so do you disagree that sketch comedy is its own really specific skill set, that not every comedian will have?

ZIRIN: Well...

BUTLER: Yeah, but I think there are a whole lot of black women out there. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Dave. Go ahead, Dave.

ZIRIN: No, just to - well, a couple points. First of all, people should look up who Issa Rae is. I-S-S-A Rae. She did the "Awkward Black Girl" series on YouTube. And that to me says something in it of itself that she had to go to YouTube to get her HBO deal 'cause the opportunities just are not there. So she went a different direction altogether. The second point I would make is that Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah are two interesting people, in that they come from very different experiences. Jay Pharoah comes from, like, the real standup tradition, so he actually knows African-American women who are funny 'cause he was on that same circuit. Kenan Thompson comes from the Nickelodeon trajectory - child star, Hollywood, the whole thing - to Saturday Night Live. So I think Kenan Thompson has a very blinkered experience as far as who's funny and who's not.

MARTIN: Ammad?

IZRAEL: Yeah, that's really...

OMAR: Right. When I first heard these comments, it kind of sounded like he was - Kenan was stuck between kind of a rock and a hard place. Someone's basically asking you if your boss, who made you famous, is a racist. You know, I can see how he could be like, oh, no, it's just, you know, they're not ready yet. But I do think that it kind of smacks of not being completely honest. Before I came here I was in Chicago. And Chicago kind of prides itself for sending people to Saturday Night Live. And a lot of these folks go through the Second City comedy group over there. In fact, last year, there were three new cast members on SNL, and they all came through Second City in Chicago.

And if you've ever been to Second City, it's up in Old Town, which is on the North Side. It's a very white neighborhood in a very segregated town, which is far, far away from some of the really happening black comedy scenes in Chicago, which are generally happening on the South Side - Bronzeville, places like that. And the other thing is, for Second City these days, since it's so famous, you actually have to pay them for the honor of joining their training courses. And then hopefully, eventually get promoted onto the main stage.


OMAR: So a lot of black comedians are doing a lot of great things in places like Chicago, but they're not doing it through Second City. And the SNL folks, if you can't find any talented black women, I suggest maybe hop on the bus or the Red Line, go down to Bronzeville, or even come out here to D.C. There are a lot of black women who are doing amazing things in comedy right here. So I don't buy it.

MARTIN: That's interesting. I didn't know you had to, like, pay them to work. That's the old intern phenomenon.

OMAR: It's the new hustle.

MARTIN: The new hustle.

ZIRIN: The new hustle.

MARTIN: Just by way of interest - if those are interested - in the 38 years that SNL has been on the air, the series has had only four black female cast members - Yvonne Hudson, Denitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne and Maya Rudolph, who is biracial and also is the daughter of the famous Minnie Riperton. I mean, I do note that I think it's also a question of who's in the writer's room and who's writing for these people, too.

BUTLER: Definitely.

MARTIN: Because I find that a lot of times their sketches are not about an inside-out perspective on what people of color think of themselves or about what other people think of people of color. And I think that's not a very appealing place for people to be. I mean, I do note that when Maya Rudolph went back to host the show, that her opening monologue was about how she had slept with everybody on the staff including all of the interns.


MARTIN: So I have to ask, you know, who wrote that?

BUTLER: Right.

MARTIN: And who wrote that?

IZRAEL: She didn't.

MARTIN: Did she write that?

ZIRIN: And also, only one Asian woman has ever hosted the show...

MARTIN: That's right.

ZIRIN: ...Lucy Liu. One Asian man, Jackie Chan. So we're not exactly talking about a flourishing multiculturalism at Saturday Night Live.

MARTIN: All right, I'm going to ask you this, Dave since you just happen to have the mic. Why do we care? 'Cause I can imagine where some people are listening to this conversation and they're saying, you know what, I have more important things to worry about than who's on a comedy show. So what?

ZIRIN: Oh, I think we care 'cause our culture reflects our society. And it tells - it sends messages about who gets in and who gets out and who actually gets to express what's happening in our world.


BUTLER: And we care because diversity works. It makes organizations better to let - Saturday Night Live is not funny anymore.


BUTLER: Maybe if they got black women, they'd be funny.

MARTIN: OK. Well, other people - Latino women, too. I want to hear some of them. And Asian women, too - other people, too. Ammad?

ZIRIN: Just funnier people.

OMAR: Yeah, I mean, I'm with you.


OMAR: I don't remember the last time I, like, sat down and had to watch Saturday Night Live. I think it was during the Al Gore lockbox deal. And, you know, it's just not must-watch television anymore. They might as try to switch things up.

MARTIN: I do watch it.

ZIRIN: I think they show it in Guantanamo now as an instrument to make people talk.

MARTIN: No, I do watch it. I do watch it because I do think that a lot of their sort of - I think, you know, I think you would've missed something if you didn't see Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin and some of the work that they do during...

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Campaign years is very interesting.

ZIRIN: Exactly.

OMAR: You catch that on YouTube for the 10 minutes.

ZIRIN: Jay Pharoah dropping the mic after - as Obama, after one of the Romney debates. That was pretty classic actually.

MARTIN: OK. Well, one more casting controversy. The hugely popular romance novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" - they're all acting like they have no idea what I'm talking about, like - it's being made into a movie. The actor Charlie Hunnam who was set to play the leading role of Christian Grey bailed on the film. So, Paul Butler, I understand you have a few ideas about who should play the role, and I appreciate you stepping up because all of my other brothers out here are acting like, I have no idea what you're talking about. "Fifty Shades of Grey," what's that?

OMAR: What kind of Barbershop is this?

BUTLER: So Christian Grey should be played by Kanye West. He's charismatic and brooding and I would imagine a little freaky in bed.


BUTLER: You know, if it has to be an actor, I'd say Idris Elba. I'd just like to see a brother in the role. We can be action heroes or slaves trying to escape - how about more romantic leads.


MARTIN: Is that romance? Is that romance what that's about? I'm just wondering. OK. Jimi, you have any thoughts about this? You're our film guy.

IZRAEL: Well, I want one of my brown brothers to be Christian Grey. I'm thinking about Danny Trejo as Christian Grey because nobody, nobody does sadism like Machete.

ZIRIN: What about Louis CK?

OMAR: There you go.

ZIRIN: I mean, just go a completely different direction.

OMAR: I know nothing about this book. I will full disclosure. But I know there's some sort of freakiness involved, and if you guys want a brown person, I think I got to go with Dennis Rodman. He's got some of the...

ZIRIN: Oh, good gracious.

OMAR: ...Freaky involved, and then you got the coveted North Korea market, you know.

MARTIN: Did you weigh in on this or are you just trying to pretend you're not here?

ZIRIN: I thought Louis CK.

MARTIN: Louis CK was you? OK.

ZIRIN: Louis CK would be nice. And also, you know, just a shout out to Charlie Hunnam who plays Jax Teller on "Sons of Anarchy," one of my favorite shows. I can't imagine Jax Teller playing Christian Grey or Grey Christian or whatever this guy's name is. But I don't know. How about Woody Allen?


ZIRIN: We'll do Jewish Grey.

MARTIN: All right. I'll put it on the record, I've never read one of these books and I do not intend to. And I will say this - I'll quote a friend of mine who's a pastor - I don't think we'll be marching over this one. All right, Jimi Izrael's a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Dave Zirin's a sports editor for The Nation and host of SiriusXM Radio's Edge of Sports Radio. Ammad Omar is our editor here at TELL ME MORE. Paul Butler's a law professor at Georgetown University. They were all here in our Washington, D.C. studios, except for Jimi. Thank you all so much.

ZIRIN: Bye-bye.

OMAR: Thank you.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE for NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tune in for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.