Dangerous Sport: What Texas Won’t Let Kenneth Foster Read

By DAVE ZIRIN

Who knew sports history could strike fear in the most fearsome prison
system in the United States? But what other explanation could there be for the fact that the history of “America’s Pastime” is being denied to Texas Death Row prisoner Kenneth Foster Jr.?

Kenneth’s case has garnered international attention because both prosecution and defense agree that he was 80 feet away from the murder of Michael LaHood. Earlier in the evening, he had been driving the man who pulled the trigger, Maurecio Brown. In Texas, that’s enough to land him on Death Row.

Foster and I began to exchange letters on sports and politics after he read my book Welcome to the Terrordome.

“I have never had the opportunity to view sports in this way,” he wrote. “And as I went through these revelations I began to have epiphanies about the way sports have a similar existence in prison. The similarities shook me …. Facing execution, the only thing that I began to get obsessive about was how to get heard and be free, and as the saying goes — you can’t serve 2 gods. Sports, as you know, becomes a way of life. You monitor it, you almost come to breathe it. Sports becomes a way of life in prison, because it becomes a way of survival. For men that don’t have family or friends to help them financially…it becomes a way to occupy your time. That’s another sad story in itself, but it’s the root to many men’s obsession with sports.”

It didn’t matter whether he was on Death Row or Park Avenue — I felt smarter having read his words. But even more satisfying was the thought that thinking about sports took his mind — for a moment — away from his imminent death, the 11-year-old daughter he will never touch again and the words he will never write.

I thought that sending him my first book, What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., would be a good follow-up — but here is where the Texas Department of Corrections got its briefs in a bunch. A form titled “Texas Dept of Criminal Justice, Publication review/denial notification” issued to Kenneth on Aug. 9 says that What’s My Name Fool? was banned from the row: “It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

It specifically said that Pages 44 and 55 met this criteria.

After lifting my jaw off the ground, I went to read those dangerous pages. On Page 44, the radioactive quote in question was from that seditious revolutionary Jackie Robinson — you know, the guy whose number is retired by all of Major League Baseball. I quoted Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, when he wrote about suffering racism early in his rookie season:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But
it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I
thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with
the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could
throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of  and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

On Page 55, the offensive passage was about Jack Johnson’s defeat of the “Great White Hope,” Jim Jeffries. It read: “Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked Jeffries out with ease. After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country — in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back. This reaction to a boxing match was one of the most widespread racial uprisings in the U.S.
until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Let’s forget about the fact that there is something bizarre — almost
comical — about Texas prison authorities believing that a sports history could lead to “the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.” Let’s forget that they are denying a man reading material in his last hours.

There is something repugnant about the fact that they think a book — any book — would be the source of resistance, rather than the reality that 159 people have been executed since Gov. Rick Perry took office in 2001, or the fact that the people on Death Row have no civil rights, no access to radio, television or even arts and crafts.

It reminds me of the words of Carl Oglesby of the 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society: “It isn’t the rebels who cause the troubles of the world, it’s the troubles that cause the rebels.”

The officials’ fear that ideas — even the ideas of sports history — could
cause a crisis in the Texas prisons reveals only how aware the Lone Star jailers are of how inhumanely they treat their prisoners.

There was a time in Texas when it was illegal to teach slaves to read. The fear was that ideas could turn anger often directed inward into action against those with their boots on black necks. It is perhaps the most fitting possible tribute to Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson that their stories still strike fear into the hearts of those wearing the boots.

[Kenneth Foster is due to be executed on August 30th.  Visit
http://www.freekenneth.com  for more information.  PLEASE KEEP CALLING GOVERNOR PERRY! In Austin, call 512.463.1782. From outside Austin, call 800.252.9600. Fax: 512.463.1849. E-mail: send message from website: http://www.governor.state.tx.us/contact.  Contact Dave Zirin at edgeofsports@gmail.com]

11 Responses to “Dangerous Sport: What Texas Won’t Let Kenneth Foster Read”

  1. Thanks for sharing Mizzo.

    Sun, after I found this site, my visits to other sports sites has dwindled to zero. Over the years, I’ve cultivated the ability to read between the lines with the MSM. This type of reporting (while not entirely absent with ESPN and others) is commonplace here and reflects an authentic view of our world.

    Well done.

  2. Dave–

    Nice work. The execrable state of the entire American justice system, and especially the penal codes is a subject that more journalists should be speaking about. Thanks for taking a stand. This line:

    “The officials’ fear that ideas — even the ideas of sports history — could
    cause a crisis in the Texas prisons reveals only how aware the Lone Star jailers are of how inhumanely they treat their prisoners.”

    Reminds me of something Mao wrote once:

    “We will win, because you fools think that words are like labels, to be properly or improperly pasted on things; but we Communists know that words are like little dynamite sticks in people’s minds, and we hold the fuse.”

    It’s terrifyingly ironic that in our rush to defeat Communism and Fascism, we became very much like Communists and Fascists ourselves.

  3. Pm – Did “we” ever actually rush to defeat Communists and Fascists. In other words, has it ever really been about “ideology”. I always that was the Ideology Propaganda of the US and UK masking military efforts to restrict Germany, Japan, Russia and China from access to energy and other natural resources. It seems to me that the US loves a dictator as much as anyone – take your pick from Africa to Latin America to Iraq. You could be right – but I don’t believe the separation was ever wider than the width of a hair.

  4. T3, I second your point above. The only ideology the US cares about is the ideology that favors us.

    But wait….YOU CAN’T DEFEND PEOPLE ON DEATH ROW. THEY’RE CRIMINALS, AND THEY DESERVE WHATEVER THEY GET!!!!!

  5. There was a stat out there sometime in the last couple of weeks that said what percentage of death row inmates had their sentences reversed on appeal. It was staggeringly high. Anybody see it? I can’t find the source.

  6. T3–

    Pardon my use of the royal “we” there. I meant to indicate those very persons who now would restrict the reading material of a man condemmned to die. Their ilk were running around decrying “Reds” and they, carrying the torch, are now running around decrying “Islamo-fascists,” and striking words from reports on the public record, and keeping prisoners from reading books. They don’t even realize that their behavior is much like those they purport to hate.

    I wholly agree that the U.S. likes their dictators as much as the next greedy imperial power. The fiasco in Chile with Allende and Pinochet should be enough to silence any protest to that point.

    As far as ideology, I think it’s been about whichever ideology encourages the maintenance of power by the ruling classes.c Usually, though, it boils down to a rabid nativism, bolstered by nationalism, and masquerading as patriotism. So in a sense, no, it hasn’t ever really been about an ideology, where “ideology” suggests an ethos, but instead about the perpetuation of hierarchical power structures.

    My overall point is one made by a man many called “subversive” and “dangerous” a long time ago: we’ve been bamboozled.

  7. I third that – we were in no rush to defeat Communism, anymore than we are in a rush to defeat “terrorism” right now.

    But back to this post – very powerful, thanks for sharing Mizzo. The lack of outrage with Texas’ proclivity for executions (they top the free world in executions) is stunning. Here’s a recent article on world execution rates:
    http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2864190.ece

  8. Pm – you should be Am-Pm at the same time, as in “All Day.” Nice follow up.

  9. You can act now on the Kenneth Foster story. I don’t typically send letters and such, but I wrote the parole board and Governor of Texas, after reading about the case of Foster.

    He’s innocent and he’s going to get executed because of some wack-ass Texas-style laws. Please read up and do something…
    http://freekenneth.com

  10. What do you expect from a state whose former governor (and our current president) had the gall to mock a woman on death row?

    In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, a number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker. “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them”, he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’” “What was her answer?” I wonder. “‘Please,’” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “‘don’t kill me.’” I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.

    From Tucker Carlson’s Talk interview.

  11. Please sign the petition as well, every little bit helps

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