Our Best Stuff From the Week the Bengals Made the Super Bowl
Iran’s future, Joe Rogan, and Kevin McCarthy.
Happy Sun-Dey. Please forgive me for taking grammatical license. It’s not every decade the Cincinnati Bengals make the Super Bowl. Buildings around the city are lighting up in black and orange, fans are planning Super Bowl weddings, school districts are canceling school for the day after the game, and by (in)formal decree, we have to change all -day spellings to -dey in honor of the Bengals “Who Dey” rallying cry. (At least one district that has already called off told parents it would be a “Snow Dey.”)
As a transplant to Southwest Ohio, I’m not a lifelong Bengals fan. But as an Ohio native, I’m definitely familiar with frustration and heartbreak. And so watching the Bengals improbable journey through the playoffs (including two overtime wins on the road, both coming on field goals from a rookie kicker) has been a treat. We watched the AFC Championship with friends, nervously huddled around the television as the Bengals lined up for the field goal that would send them to the big game. Watching that ball go through the uprights and screaming and hugging everyone was almost as special as watching the last moments of the Cavs 2016 NBA championship or Ohio State’s victory in the first-ever College Football Playoff. (But there is, of course, one game to go.)
What we’re seeing in Cincinnati right now is a good example of how sports can bring people together, and even instill civic pride. Coach Zac Taylor has been awarding “game balls” to local businesses that serve Bengals fans. When our superintendent announced the day off for Monday, February 14, he asked families to consider donating to our local food bank in honor of quarterback Joe Burrow, who used his Heisman Trophy speech a few years ago to call attention to poverty in his native southeastern Ohio (and raised a ton of money in the process).
It’s a nice, heartwarming, feel-good story. And yet … On Tuesday, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed an explosive lawsuit against the NFL that exposes how all is not well within the league. Flores was fired by the Dolphins despite posting a winning record in two of his three seasons with the team. He alleges that one reason he was fired was because he refused to “tank” back in 2019, when ownership wanted to finish with the worst record and thus get the top pick in the 2020 draft (to pick, coincidentally enough, Joe Burrow).
As damning as that claim is, it’s not even the worst allegation in the lawsuit. About 20 years ago, the NFL implemented a rule requiring that teams interview at least one minority for any head coaching vacancy. However well-intentioned, the rule hasn’t worked as intended (right now there is only one black head coach in the league, with a few vacancies remaining as losing teams seek new coaches for next season) and has had one unintended consequence: the sham interview. Teams will bring in a minority candidate they have no intention of hiring to comply with the rule. The lawsuit details how Flores received a text from Patriots coach Bill Belichick congratulating him on getting an offer from the New York Giants. One problem: Flores hadn’t yet interviewed for the job. Belichick thought he was texting Brian Daboll, a white man who the Giants did announce as their head coach just days after Flores sat through what might go down as the most awkward job interview in history.
We write often at The Dispatch about the importance of institutions, and the consequences that come when those institutions fail us. Just look at our political parties. Look at the many ways our public health agencies have sent mixed messages or responded poorly to the challenges of the pandemic. Right now, our sporting institutions are failing us, too.
The NFL, like other sports leagues and big corporations, has spent much of the last two years promoting racial justice issues. End zones and player helmets are emblazoned with slogans, and the league’s website has a section about Black History Month. But those gestures pale in comparison to actual change, and the Flores lawsuit shows how far the league has to go on that front.
And it’s not just the NFL. The Winter Olympics kicked off this week in Beijing. Beijing, China, home to the Chinese Communist Party that is presently carrying out a genocide against its Uyghur Muslim majority, cracking down on freedom in Hong Kong and playing chicken in the airspace around Taiwan. The U.S. and other Western nations are conducting a “diplomatic boycott” by not sending government officials as is custom, but the games go on.
This puts athletes in an untenable position: Do they abandon their years of hard work and sacrifice—all the mornings they got up at 5 a.m. to train, all the injuries they overcame, all the “normal” things they missed out on—to make a principled stand? They shouldn’t have to. The International Olympic Committee should take the very simple step of not awarding its global showcase to brutal dictatorships.
On the one hand, sports don’t matter as much as politics. If we woke up tomorrow and there were no NFL or NBA or Olympic Games, the world would go on. But it would also be a little bleaker. Some people revel in a beautiful symphony or masterful acting performance. Others admire good books and relish fine cuisine. I appreciate all of those things, but also enjoy celebrating those with physical gifts and strategic minds. If we didn’t find joy in sports, there wouldn’t be a half-dozen ESPNs and broadcasters wouldn’t spend billions on television rights.
But it diminishes that joy when you peek behind the curtain and see the kind of ugliness we saw this week in the NFL and in Beijing. I’m normally an Olympics junkie, but I haven’t yet tuned in. As soon as I send this newsletter, I’m running out to see if there are possibly any Bengals jerseys for sale in the 513 because the kids have spirit week coming up. But I’ll cringe a little when I hand over my credit card for those officially licensed products knowing that the NFL gets its cut. We shouldn’t just revel in the joy we take from sports without demanding that the institutions behind them do better.
Thanks for reading. Now here’s our best stuff.
As dissatisfaction with the ruling regime has grown in recent years, even as protests have been put down with violence, some demonstrators have taken to shouting “Pahlavi! Pahlavi!” They are referring to Reza Pahlavi, son of the shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was overthrown in 1979. In a thorough and detailed profile of Pahlavi, Charlotte reports that Pahlavi has become a leading voice in the diaspora opposition. He has called for nonviolent resistance from Iranians and also assistance from the West, saying “the people will not be able to overthrow [the regime] without foreign assistance.” But does Pahlavi want to restore a monarchy to Iran and lead his homeland? Not so fast. Pahlavi now views his role as providing guidance should the Iranian people transition from dictatorship to some form of secular, representative government. “It would be premature for us to reach a conclusion today,” he told Charlotte. “On the other hand, we should encourage all sorts of healthy debates so people this time—as opposed to 42 years ago, when they had no clue what it is they were going to end up with—have a clear understanding and idea of the options available.” A quick blurb can’t do justice to this piece, so please read the whole thing.
If anyone is going to have a nuanced take on the Joe Rogan controversy, it’s David French. David dives into the kerfuffle over artists removing their music from Spotify over their opposition to the platform hosting Rogan’s podcast, starting out by identifying three types of discourse: cancel culture, conditioning culture, and conversation culture. We all know cancel culture by now, right? Conditioning culture, he points out, ““is characterized by the use of whatever platform a person has to inflict some form of negative consequence on speakers who engage in speech they despise.” Joe Rogan, after all, is too big to be canceled, so the hostility directed toward him is an example of conditioning culture. Both are toxic, David argues. So how about “conversation culture”? That’s what we need more of: “I’ve spoken to enough Joe Rogan fans to know that’s exactly why they like him,” David writes. “He tries to converse. And converse he does. He brings an eclectic mix of guests on his show and simply sits and talks with them, often for three hours at a time. You read that correctly. He hosts three-hour conversations, and he has 11 million listeners. People are hungry for something different. They’re starving for an alternative to the furious discourse online. Rogan’s giving them what they want and need.”
We’ve written more than a few times (and just last week, actually) about the challenge Kevin McCarthy faces in propping up a tent that includes Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in one corner and vociferous defenders of the former president in another. And thanks to reporting from Audrey, we know now that McCarthy is speaking with his checkbook. One of his PACs, Take Back the House 2022, “raised a combined $823,000 last year for five of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.” Those five are David Valadao, Peter Meijer, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Fred Upton, and John Katko (who has since announced he won’t run for reelection). Why would McCarthy risk Trump’s wrath? “He wants to be speaker of the House. While boosting incumbents Trump is trying to defeat could complicate McCarthy’s relationship with the former president, helping them get reelected makes it all the more likely they’ll support him to lead the House GOP in the next Congress.”
And now for the best of the rest:
Remember when Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics? History is kind of repeating itself this year as Beijing hosts the 2022 Games. But, Danielle Pletka writes, “at least at that moment Hitler was only planning the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews; he didn’t have active concentration camps as the Communist Party of China does in Xinjiang.”
Chris Stirewalt takes a break from politics this week, instead writing a lovely tribute to friendship. He writes about what he learned from his father’s friendship with a man named Lou and what he learned from them.
Does the Constitution have 27 or 28 Amendments? It’s not a trick question, and Sarah explains why the answer is so complicated.
Claims by Donald Trump and his followers that the 2020 election was stolen are, of course, unfounded, but they’ve prompted calls for “election police.” Harvest reports on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for “the creation of a law enforcement unit with the sole purpose of hunting down voter fraud and other election-related crimes.”
Charlotte was on fire this week. In addition to her piece detailed above, she filed a piece on preparations being made for a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia and how Russia is painting the West as the aggressor.
On the pods: Steve and David talked to Sen. Rob Portman about Russia and Ukraine, and also the Electoral Count Act, on The Dispatch Podcast. On Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah break down Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL. And Jonah interviews historian Hal Brands about whether we’re in a new Cold War with China and Russia on The Remnant.