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Is Pre-Super Bowl Drama Fair Game?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, 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 and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. Joining us from Boston, former doctor, now health care consultant and a contributor to National Review magazine, Neil Minkoff. And, in New York City, Pablo Torre. He is a senior writer with ESPN.com.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

NEIL MINKOFF: What's going on?

PABLO TORRE: We're doing good.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, it's Super Bowl shop this week. What?

TORRE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Go - no, no. No go Ravens. You know I'm from Cleveland, right? So I've got to represent. I can't cheer for the Browns, but there's always next year, right? But some fans - you know, some fans are thinking twice about rooting for the San Francisco 49ers after quarterback Chris Culliver got caught up in a controversy. Michel, oh, man, we got a sports star caught up in a controversy.

MARTIN: I know, right?

IZRAEL: Clutch the pearls.

MARTIN: I know, I know. Clutch the pearls.

IZRAEL: We got...

MARTIN: How can we possibly imagine?

IZRAEL: We got some tape, though, right?

MARTIN: You know, we do. Culliver - just to sort of give you the back story, he was approached by radio personality Artie Lange. He's known as a regular guest for Howard Stern, commonly called a shock jock, although they hate that term. They prefer talk show personality, or something like that.


MARTIN: So then, anyway, Artie Lange asked Culliver about whether there were any gay players on the team, and this is what he said.


CHRIS CULLIVER: We don't got no gay people on the team. You know, they got up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. No.

ARTIE LANGE: Really? Is that true?

CULLIVER: Yeah, it's true.

LANGE: But they might be able to play well. I mean...



CULLIVER: No. You can't be - you can't be in the locker room. No.

LANGE: OK. So they'd have to stay - keep it a secret?

CULLIVER: Yeah. You got to come out 10 years later, after that.

MARTIN: So, Culliver later apologized for those comments and he said he was - through a spokesman. I'll just say that. And he said he was thrown off by being asked, quote, "real disrespectful," unquote, questions. For example, previously, Lange had asked him whether he would be hooking up with women or men before the game. So, anyway, that's his story.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Thanks, Michel. It's a bug-out to me, that I really feel like he was led into this line of questioning that was designed to make him look kind of silly. That's number one. And number two, I'm not sure if we should persecute him because he's ignorant. You know, let him - his opinion evolve, like our president's opinion had to evolve at some point.

You know, it bothers me that we bully people for their opinions not being PC enough in any given moment. And it always seems, especially with matters that involve homosexuality, that black men, black men are always bullied for not evolving fast enough, in their opinion. And that's just my opinion. It took me some time, for my opinion to evolve. I worked at a gay bar. I was a DJ. I worked in the gay bar for four years, and my opinion had to evolve. You know, everybody gets that right to be dumb, you know, at some point, to be ignorant at some point, and then have their opinion evolve. He doesn't need to be, you know, crucified for this.

Pablo, you've reported on this. What do you think?

MARTIN: Can I just clarify one thing, Pablo? That he also went on mic to apologize, too. I just thought I'd clarify.

TORRE: Yeah, he did. Right.


TORRE: Right. First off, Jimi, I would have loved to have gone to that bar. That sounds really...

IZRAEL: It was the bomb. It was the bomb. The best music in the city.

MARTIN: Us, too.

TORRE: I'm not even kidding. That sounds like it would be amazing.

IZRAEL: It was.

TORRE: So, I guess where I differ with you on this is that, you know - well, I guess what was problematic for me and disappointing for me, as somebody who sees anybody with that sort of opinion as being on the wrong side of history, the reason why I'm troubled by this is because he's from the San Francisco 49ers. He plays in the Bay Area. And the first time I heard this, I was just like, you've got to be kidding me.

IZRAEL: So he should pander, right?

TORRE: No. It's not he should pander. It's the matter of being not quite so insensitive. I mean, it's not like he was having a - again, it's Artie Lange. It's not sitting across the table from Charlie Rose. But it's not like this was a very tough IQ test, either. I mean, what I grant is that the guy doesn't get interviewed very much. He's a low-level backup. It's fine.

But what I am troubled by is this is the exact type of language which is really troublesome in the NFL and in sports, in particular. It's oftentimes not the guys who are beating their Bibles and going fire and brimstone on everybody. It's the guys who are joking about this very casually as if there's nothing wrong with it, as if you can be a normal person and really be that insensitive.

And, you know, maybe we have different barriers, different thresholds for PC-ness. But for me, it's that type of talk which is always - you know, that's how a stigma sort of festers. It's because it's very casual and it's off-the-cuff, and it doesn't seem like it's a big deal, until it is. And that's why we don't have these players coming out while they're active.

IZRAEL: A-Train.

MINKOFF: So can I jump in here for a second?

MARTIN: Well, Arsalan wants to jump in here, and we want to hear from you too, Neil. Of course. Of course.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I think I'm going to co-sign my man Pablo here. You know, I think that there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, you know, this is not somebody having a political opinion, you know, opposing gay marriage, which, again, every, you know, American has a right to believe. This is a person saying that a certain group of people would not be welcome in his locker room. So it's sort of a fill-in the blank thing. So instead of gay people, let's say Latinos are not welcome in our locker room or Jewish or Muslim people are not welcome in our locker room. I think, you know, the uproar would be pretty unanimous there. And so, you know, for many people in the LGBT community, you know, this is part of their civil rights movement in America today. This is not, you know, evolving an opinion Jimi, in terms of like a political position that you might have for or against gay marriage, let's say. But this is specifically saying that a certain group of people are not going to be welcome in our locker room, which, again, as Pablo mentioned, happens to be in San Francisco, which obviously has one of the more well-known LGBT communities in the country.

IZRAEL: Well, that's not his call. He doesn't get - he wouldn't welcome in his locker room, so what do you do in this situation, since he's ignorant, is you educate him. But you don't string him up because he's not ready, because his mind can't get around this idea.

MARTIN: But I think string him up is a little strong. I understand it's a figure of speech.

TORRE: Yeah, well, but...

MARTIN: Anyway, Neil, go ahead.

IZRAEL: It is a figure of speech.

MINKOFF: I just feel like we've done a 180 in some ways from when we talked about this a few months back when some kids did a war whoop at an Elizabeth Warren rally and we were a little less accepting of people that needed to get their mind around it, when they meant to be joking, they were led in a certain direction. So I'm not agreeing with what he said. I actually was about to do the same fill-in-the-blank analysis that we just heard. But, you know, I do think that at some point the bullying about PC stuff just gets in the way.

TORRE: Well, I think where I got to push back is...

IZRAEL: OK, Pablo. Go ahead.

TORRE: I mean this is pretty clearly transparent prejudice.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Absolutely.

TORRE: Like this isn't - I mean being PC is one thing but being completely insensitive and basically, you know, denigrating somebody on the basis of identity is a pretty - as I said - a pretty low bar to have to clear in terms of avoiding that. I mean I just feel like in sports in particular, I mean I think all of these athletes have a responsibility, given their platform. And honestly, Jimi, in terms of the pushback, I mean I'm not saying we should fire the guy, but I am saying that the marketplace of ideas as it is constituted at present should have vociferously rejected the attempted sale that he was trying to make.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, and by bullying, what do we mean? I mean is anybody saying you can't play? Is anybody saying you're cut from the team? Is anybody saying, I mean I don't know - what does that mean?

IZRAEL: Well, I mean what I'm saying is I guess I'm drawing comparisons to other black men in the media that have been called on the carpet for saying things that have been construed as - and have been outright homophobic. You know, we call for boycotts of other music. We call for them to be fired. Call for them, you know, to, you know, and for me what we should call for is a dialogue because they're clearly ignorant.

TORRE: Sure.

IZRAEL: They're clearly ignorant and we educate them. We don't want their jobs. We want them to be smarter. And...

IFTIKHAR: But, Jimi...

IZRAEL: Go ahead. Go ahead, A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: But I think in this case if it were a white player who had said those same remarks, I think that the outrage would be as unanimous as it is here. I think, again...


IFTIKHAR: You know, it goes into this whole narrative, you know, that we've talked about on the Barbershop about whether or not a professional sports athlete who is gay might actually come out. And I think that, you know, statements like this really do show the uber-macho nature that currently still exists and is pervasive in locker rooms around the country today.

MARTIN: I mean I don't know how this is different from the marketplace rejecting Rush Limbaugh as a color commentator for Monday Night Football...


MARTIN: ...because they felt a lot of the people who listen to him felt that his comments about...


MARTIN: ...Donovan McNabb, when he was with the Eagles, were racist. And they said, you know what? This is a sport with a lot of African-American representation.

IFTIKHAR: We don't need him.

MARTIN: We're not saying of the citizen you don't have a right to your comments. What we're saying is we don't want to listen to you doing color commentary on Monday Night Football.

IZRAEL: Well, the difference to my mind is that Rush is, Rush is a, he's employed to be in front of a mic. This gentleman was not employed to be in front of a mic. He's employed to carry a ball. What do we want from him?

MARTIN: I feel you.

IZRAEL: Do we want them to be Charlie Rose?


IZRAEL: I mean what do we want from him? I mean come on.

MARTIN: That would be entertaining. That would be entertaining.

IFTIKHAR: But Jimi, this isn't that hard, man. This is not that hard.

MARTIN: I think we got this. I understand where everybody's coming from. This is very interesting. This is very entertaining. Thank you. Very civil too.

IZRAEL: Well, thank you.

TORRE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, National Review contributing writer Neil Minkoff, and sportswriter Pablo Torre.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: All right, Michel. Thank you. Let's switch teams here. No. No. Not like that. Ravens linebacker...


IZRAEL: ...Ray Lewis...

MARTIN: So low. So low.


IZRAEL: Ray Lewis, he may have been happy to have the spotlight on somebody else this week. You know, he's set to retire after the Super Bowl, and folks have been saying he's one of the greatest players ever. Except this week, the story hasn't been about his greatness, haven't been that positive it all. Sports Illustrated reported that he's been using an unusual banned substance. Pablo, what's that about?

MARTIN: He's still clutching his pearls, Pablo.


TORRE: You mean, you guys - you guys are not familiar with deer antler spray?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Wait. Wait. I thought that was the active - I thought that was the active ingredient in Old English cologne

I mean, I didn't think that was illegal.

TORRE: Yeah. I'm sure Neil used to prescribe this all the time back in the day.

MINKOFF: I wouldn't prescribe it because it's dangerous.

TORRE: I mean, maybe Neil can...

MARTIN: Well, explain briefly what it is. I want to hear. Tell me.

TORRE: From the sports perspective, what we've learned is that deer antler spray contains IGF-1, which is allegedly effective, in some cases, in healing cartilage and tendon injuries. But it's also banned by the NFL because it has performance-enhancing - alleged - qualities, potentially. The SI story was sort of talking about how - I think the largest take-away from the story is number one, that maybe it's a PED-type substance that he used in trying to recover faster.

But at the same time, it also is really dubious. And the guys who sold it, allegedly, to Ray Lewis are guys - I mean, it was a former male stripper who sells the stuff out of a van; and his office is in the back of a fitness center. It's just kind of the lengths athletes go to for these sorts of cures, and for any edge possible. And Ray Lewis, obviously, is at the center of this for a lot of reasons.

MARTIN: I'm dying to hear what Neil has to say about this. I know you're not practicing anymore but...

MINKOFF: No. But I mean...

MARTIN: But this whole question of - you know, some people think the whole idea that this is dangerous, when you're talking about football, is so ridiculous that why are we even talking about this? Football is inherently dangerous, so why are we making a big deal out of that? And what's your perspective on this?

MINKOFF: Well, I mean, look, the fact is that we only know what hormones are because scientists in Europe, in the 1500s, responded to rooster extract. I mean, that's how we discovered hormones. There is tremendous cross-reactivity across all types of animals. And the deer lose their antlers; they re-grow them. The chemicals that re-grow those antlers every year are very powerful growth factors that are incredibly similar to IGF-1, which is like insulin or human growth hormone.

And that the issue is that if they're being used - now, I grant that God only knows what was really in the back of the van. But if they really are using the deer antler extract and muscles are growing and some of the muscles that could be growing would be, oh, the heart and the diaphragm, and if those start to get too big to work properly, you have some real problems.

MARTIN: You know what? I'm so disgusted right now. I must, I know I'm being a girl about it, but I'm so disgusted now I don't even want - I can't even...

MINKOFF: Really? Because I'm drinking a pint of reindeer blood just to get that strength.

IZRAEL: I totally love the visual - like, some skivvy guy selling dope out of a van, you know, I totally love that visual.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

Let Arsalan in on this.

IZRAEL: Let A-Train with this. Go ahead, man.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, when it comes to, you know, the whole discussion about the legacy of Ray Lewis, you know, many people are reminded about what happened 13 years ago, in January of 2000, when Ray Lewis was initially charged with two counts of murder but making deals with prosecutors he later pled guilty to one charge, misdemeanor, of obstruction of justice in relation to the stabbing deaths of two people outside of an Atlanta nightclub after the 2000 Super Bowl. And...

MARTIN: In which the two people who were charged were acquitted.

IFTIKHAR: I'm getting to that point, Michel.


IFTIKHAR: You know, so this latest deer antler, you know, controversy, you know, in terms of the entire narrative of Ray Lewis' legacy, you know, is just the latest and sort of the cherry on top for many people. And, you know, I know a lot of people who are not rooting for the Ravens because of Ray Lewis.

TORRE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Well, I mean - I mean he - I mean whatever happened with his legal troubles, I mean that can't be the gist of his legacy. I mean why when you've done something and you've handled all the business behind him, why can't you just live the rest of your life? It's like, what is he, O.J.?

MINKOFF: I think that this gets at his legacy on the field.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Doc.

MINKOFF: That's the problem with the deer antler stuff, is that if he was using it and if it was the real deal actual antler supplement, then it brings into question his legacy on the field, and that's where I think the real tarnish comes.

MARTIN: You know, Pablo, you were saying, though, that you feel that people just have a different attitude about these substances...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...like it's really, people really care about this stuff in baseball and other sports less. Why is that?

TORRE: Yeah. You have a great point when you talked about - I mean these guys you're already violently hurling themselves at each other as fast as possible and they're all sort of going all out and it's obviously a very physical gladiatorial game. And that's the difference between the NFL and MLB. I think as much as we talk about the on-field legacy of Ray Lewis, which is a very valid discussion to have because of this news, I think there's a big difference in terms of how fans and how the public reacts. With baseball we think about hallowed records, you know, those magical numbers for home runs and so forth and we think of it as a game of skill. Whereas football, you know, I think people - it's sort of an open secret at this point that the NFL is rife with performance-enhancing drugs. I mean HGH on down - a lot of which isn't tested for and can't be tested for.


TORRE: And the question is do people really care? And I feel like a lot of people do not.


TORRE: Because it's such a physical game and that's sort of the point.

MARTIN: All right. One more point is that Ray Lewis says he's never failed a drug test. And I'll just leave it at that.

IFTIKHAR: Neither did Lance Armstrong.

MARTIN: I know.

MINKOFF: It's not particularly meaningful...

IZRAEL: Here we go. Here we go.

MARTIN: All right. Before we go, guys, quick. Hands on your hearts. Let's do it.


BEYONCE: (Singing) ...and the home of the brave, the brave.

MARTIN: That was, of course, Beyonce, who is star of the halftime show.

TORRE: I am crying.

MARTIN: Your crying. I know you are.

TORRE: I'm crying.

MARTIN: I know. We all are. Well, Jimi's not. But the star of the halftime show and that - she was being dissed for lip-synching the anthem at President Obama's Inauguration. And she was saying, yes, I can sing, thank you so much. Does that put a rest to it, Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: The only thing that could've topped it is if after singing the home of the brave you hear a loud thud from her dropping the microphone and walking off the stage.


IZRAEL: Yeah, like Eric B. and Rakim style...

IFTIKHAR: That's right.

IZRAEL: ...she drops the mic. You know, I don't know why you guys won't love her when she makes herself so easy to love. I mean, just let her be great, please?

MARTIN: I think they love her. I think there's a lot of love for Beyonce right here.

MINKOFF: I have just two points.

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

MINKOFF: One, Yo-Yo Ma was fake cello-ing...


MINKOFF: ...which I think is much worse than the last Inauguration. And I'm a guy. Beyonce can do whatever Beyonce wants and I'm going to have a high level of tolerance for it.



MARTIN: OK. Pablo?

IZRAEL: Amen, brother.


TORRE: We do not deserve Beyonce.


TORRE: And at that - my sports media colleagues yesterday basically, you know, verified as much. It was like they're interviewing the Queen of England, like nobody wanted to step on her toes. And opening with that song was maybe the most magisterial beginning to a press conference in the history of press conferences.

MARTIN: OK. I think that settles it.


TORRE: I'm not going to be the guy to defame Beyonce.

MARTIN: All right. That settles it. All right. Pablo Torre, senior writer for ESPN.com. With us from our NPR studios in New York. Neil Minkoff, he's a former doctor turned health care consultant, a contributor to the National Review, with us from Boston. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Jimi Izrael, writer and culture critic and adjunct professor at Cuyahoga Community College. Thank you all so much.


TORRE: Thank you.

MINKOFF: Good weekend.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more on Monday.


BEYONCE: (Singing) ...and the home of the brave, the brave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.