Jay-Z Takes The Stage At MLB World Series

In this installment of the Barbershop host Michel Martin talks all sports news with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, editor and founder of the MuslimGuy.com Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and sports writer for The Nation Dave Zirin. They discuss the World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies and Jay-Z's performance at Game 2 last night. They also discuss the fallout behind the homophobic slur tweeted by football star Larry Johnson.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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 freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre and sportswriter for The Nation, Dave Zirin. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Attorney; Editor): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): How's it going, Jimi?

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sportswriter, The Nation): What's up?

Mr. IZRAEL: Hey, Dave-Z, first time in. Welcome, bro, welcome.

Mr. ZIRIN: I need a shape-up.

Mr. IFTIKHAR You're going to get one.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, man. The World Series has been a duel of pitchers so far, as New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies tie it up one game apiece.

MARTIN: That's right, Jimi. Yankees beat the Phillies by a score of three to one yesterday. Game three takes place Saturday in Philadelphia. We have a little thing going on here. There's a little hateration(ph) happening.

You may know our director, Rob Sachs(ph) is from Philadelphia. We're trying to keep it positive. That's all I'll say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's all I've got to say, right here.

Mr. ZIRIN: I'm from New York City.

MARTIN: Thank you, Brooklyn in the house.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, born in Brooklyn.

MARTIN: That's what I'm saying.

Mr. ZIRIN: And I'm a huge Mets fan.

MARTIN: Thank you, right here, right here, right here.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, that means maybe you can feel me on this. I am genetically incapable of rooting for the Phillies.

MARTIN: That's what I'm saying.

Mr. TORRE: Really?

Mr. ZIRIN: So I'm all about the Yankees, absolutely.

MARTIN: That's what I'm saying. That's what I'm saying.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh hell no.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, maybe you better call your boy A-Rod because he's been slipping zero hits in two games. Zero for eight, bro. What's going to happen? Can the Yankees pull this out if A-Rod keeps slipping, Dave?

Mr. ZIRIN: Of course they can. My God, this is a murderer's row of a line-up, Mark Teshera, Hideki Matsui. This team is bad from top to bottom, and you know what? They're going to go into Philadelphia and just stomp it. You see it, you see the writing on the wall here.

I don't like Phillies' starting pitcher. Brad Lidge, for goodness sakes, seems like he's a blown save away from having to be committed somewhere. The Yankees are going to be just fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Really? Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, you know, I'm a Yankee fan from birth, and the reason they Yankees are going to win this World Series is Mariano Rivera. I mean, the offense is great. Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of the game, the greatest post-season player of any position in the history of the game, and he's not going to let this one slip away. And I'm sorry, you know, I'm sorry for the Mets fans, I'm sorry for the Phillies fans. I embrace all the hate that the Yankees garner, but you know what? This team is too good.

Mr. ZIRIN: I don't need your sorry. The Mets had swine flu this year. Wait until next year. They'll be just fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I like this man. I like this man.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train.

MARTIN: Arsalan's trying to be cordial.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean, I'm a Chicago White Sox fan, so unlike Dave, I'm incapable of liking the Yankees. So I am going to root for anyone but the Yankees. The Dick Cheneys could be playing the Yankees, and I'd have to think about it real hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: The Taliban is playing the Yankees.

Mr. ZIRIN: The Gitmo Cheneys.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Listen, you know, from a sort of detached-sports-junkie perspective; let's not forget, any time you go into the opposing team's home field and win a game, you have stolen home-field advantage now. Now - so if Philly can, you know, hold serve at home, let's not forget that, you know, these are the world champs. Now they have home-field advantage, and you know, to be honest, I think that it was quite ribrunculous(ph) that they were able to go in, Game one, into Yankee Stadium and win. Let's not forget that, right?

MARTIN: A momentary lapse.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, whatever's clever, Trevor, on that. Listen…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Say it, David.

Mr. ZIRIN: What's cool to me, what's cool to me is that not only did A.J. Burnett shut it down last night, A.J. Burnett said yeah, my inspiration was Cliff Lee the night before. So in a weird way, we can thank the Phillies for A.J.'s victory. A.J. and Cliff Lee, what do they have in common? Both over 30 years old, both pitching in their first World Series game. We saw Cliff Lee light it out in game one, and A.J. just said, you know what? I knew then I could do it too, so thank you Phillies. It's because of you we got a split.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. Like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: Just like that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Bro.

Mr. ZIRIN: Just like that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Apparently - you know what? I mean everybody here knows I'm, you know, I'm in Cleveland and Cleveland really saps the sports fan out of you. You know, so I don't have a dog in this game. But I'm a hip-hop fan, and you know what? Jay-Z with Alicia Keys performed before the game. They performed "Empire State of Building" - "Empire State of Mind." Sorry.

MARTIN: You know - remember, I think a lot of people were expecting them to be there Wednesday night, but it got pushed back due to the rainy weather and...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...I think there were some concern - I know, Jimi, you did not have this concern - that about some of the explicit language in the song. But he kept it family-friendly. You want to hear it?

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: For those of you who were still getting your popcorn?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Drop it.

MARTIN: Want to hear it? Here it is.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Drop that.

(Soundbite of song, "Empire State Of Mind")

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) Yeah. Yeah. Catch the X with OG at a Yankee game. Yeah, made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. You should know I bleed blue, but I'm not a Crip though, but I got the whole nation rocking like my clique though. Welcome to the melting pot, corners where they love to rock. Afrika Bambaataa, yeah, home of the hip hop, yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holler back, for foreigners it ain't fitted act like they forgot how to act. Eight million stories out here in the naked, city it's a pity half of y'all won't make it. Me, I got a plug special and I got it made. If Jeezy's...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm being pressured here. I'm being pressured here to play the Phillies song. I think maybe five seconds of that will do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It's - Philly has its own song for the series. Here's a collection of Philly artists who collaborated under the name Guerilladelphia for the Phillies fight song. Hmm. Oxymoron. Called "Unstoppable."

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Ouch.

MARTIN: Let's play a very short clip of that one.

(Soundbite of song, "Unstoppable")

GUERILLADELPHIA (Rappers): Rad lyrics. Strike it. The old dope they're player man. Struck him out. The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World champions of baseball. There's just no stopping us, the mere thought is just too far for us. All those start copying us but keep coming up short like(unintelligible). We bark and we bite. True. Light up the skyline of Philly tonight. And if you're feeling how I'm feeling let them hear you say, it's all Philly tonight. It's all Philly.

MARTIN: How '70s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I've got nothing but love for Philadelphia.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, my god.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. My mom's from Philadelphia so I have to give some love there. Only a little though.

Mr. IZRAEL: Remember when that Philly - he's trying to do that Philly soul thing. You know, I can't hate on him too bad. But homeboy cannot keep a major record - major label record deal, you know, I will say that. But you know, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys didn't perform by accident. Alicia Keys represented from Hell's Kitchen. And of course Sean Carter is a Brooklyn representative. A-Train, did you catch it?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I did, and Alicia Keys stole the show, man.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: The set of pipes on that lady, she fills the stadium. I mean...

Mr. TORRE: Hey now.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...Jay-Z's flow was good, but Alicia really, you know, really, really stole the show. And really quickly, on the Philly song, you know, it sounded like a Limp Biscuit remake with, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...when they're dropping lines about Webster Papadopoulos, you know, that you're not talking about the World Series anymore.

Mr. ZIRIN: Not really.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh!

Mr. ZIRIN: First...

MARTIN: Dave?

Mr. ZIRIN: Take it back to second, though, I just want to give props to the people in Cleveland. I love you guys and your LeBron James-based economy. That's well done...

Mr. IZRAEL: Ooh...

Mr. ZIRIN: But...

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, oh, yo. Well, yo...

Mr. ZIRIN: No. No. No. I'm just saying.

Mr. IZRAEL: Easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: The second thing, though, is I thought the Jay-Z thing was fascinating because I remember when I was growing up in early '90s, late '80s, hip-hop wasn't something that you just liked or didn't like. It was something you were either for against.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: It was practically a political position. Now, here you have Jay-Z, who's not only a rapper, but a mogul, and a part owner, for goodness sakes, of the New Jersey Nets, out there kicking off America's game. It really said something.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: We're a long way from the EPMD days of I've never seen any rappers living comfortably. That's for sure.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? You know what tripped me out? I'm wondering if they chose that particular song not just because it's kind of got that anthem feel, but it's got some really familiar samples in it. For instance, it's got the "Love on a Two-way Street" from the moments, and also from Black Moses it's got "Breakthrough." You know, who doesn't like Black Moses?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, I'm just glad the explicit language was scrubbed because God knows, Yankees fans have never heard a curse word...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So true.

Mr. TORRE: You know what? I loved it. I mean I love Jay-Z. I'm basically all for anything that makes - I'm all for fight songs. I'm all for anything that makes these pro-monied sports a little bit more fan accessible like college sports. I mean it's not the same as a fight song, but, you know, I'll take what I can get in that regard.

Mr. ZIRIN: It's a fact life that baseball is the worst marketed game in the universe.

Mr. TORRE: That's true.

Mr. ZIRIN: And so for them to actually do something that, heaven for fend, is fan-friendly, I mean maybe it made Bud Selig give him the night shakes or something like that. They had to strap him down just to get Jay-Z out there, but it was very good for the game and very good for them to maybe try to have a fan base under 30.

Mr. TORRE: I agree.

MARTIN: Okay, but also just about the whole revenue sharing thing. I mean I know - this is a perpetual topic. It comes up. But then you look at just the -I know everybody hates the Yankees, because we're so dominant, but it's also a question of just the vast difference in the revenue that each team and...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...how each team is able to compete.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Absolutely. Right.

MARTIN: And it makes it really hard to...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: That's why you hate them.

MARTIN: Yeah. And so I guess I have to ask Dave, maybe you want to take that. It's this whole question of whether, is this whole question of inequities in the finances of each team ever going to be revisited.

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, it's very real. All four of the teams that were in the final four in Major League Baseball had salaries - team salaries - of over $100 million. And then you've got teams like Pittsburg, 40 million, Kansas City, 70 million. You do have small market teams that can compete. No question, like Minnesota Twins, for example. But they're the exception, not the rule. I think we have to see a salary floor in Major League Baseball, where teams have to spend a certain amount of money if they want to stay in the game. Or you kick them down to Triple-A, European soccer style.

MARTIN: Pablo, what do you think?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, I agree. I think the floor is actually, you know, the best solution here. I'm all for a ceiling. I'm all for a floor. I think the problem just as much as teams like the Yankees using their geographical advantage and the revenue that comes naturally to them by virtue of the city they play for, is the fact that you have teams like the Royals and the A's, whose owners, who are very rich men, just like the Steinbrenners, aren't willing to pay for the product that their fans deserve. And that's as, I think, offensive to a baseball fan who's really into this stuff as the rich teams getting richer.

MARTIN: Yeah, but how can - it just can't be geography - if you look at Pittsburg, for example.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: You know, you've got a huge football town, obviously, but it's a sports town, and the Pirates - well, we don't need to even talk about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Pablo Torre, and Dave Zirin.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel.

Okay. Let's talk a little NFL. NFL baller Larry Johnson catching heat for using a three-letter gay slur via Twitter. Oops. Now homeboy's suspended and his future with the Kansas City Chiefs, well, it's in jeopardy.

David, what do you think, man?

Mr. ZIRIN: Man, what I find very interesting is the absence of tolerance for homophobia in the NFL. First by his team, the Kansas City Chiefs, and by his father, Larry Johnson, Sr., who laid the smackdown on his own son and said we do not speak that way in my house, I did not teach him to speak that way, I am embarrassed. And I think that's very fascinating, because let's face it, I mean a locker room is not exactly a refuge of gay sensitivity in the NFL. And so, the fact that there's a statement about that, I think it speaks to a change of consciousness that's occurred in this country over the last 10 years.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. And I love it, bro. I'm glad he's being suspended. You know what? Because we do live in a free country and you can say what you want to say, but there needs to be consequences. You know what I'm saying? And these people are going to be role models and we're going to lift them up as role models, then they should have to, you know, then they should have to pay for whatever the ramification of their words are. You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Well, I'm just curious though. Arsalan, are there any free speech implications here? I mean the official grounds for suspension, as I understand, is conduct unbecoming of the team.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: So you can certainly understand that from a marketing perspective.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yes.

MARTIN: But this is not an official site for the team and his...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: I don't know. Is there a public and private dimension here? I mean the same issue came up with this police officer who made some comments to a Boston Globe columnist after the whole Henry Lewis Gates incident and he was suspended because they said, well, people can't trust you anymore. You're a police officer. You have to dispense justice. People can't trust you on the street. You're putting your other officers in jeopardy. But I don't know that the same issue applies for a football player. I'm just interested from your perspective.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It doesn't. I mean, well, first of all, you know, Larry Johnson is pretty much a has-been of a running back anyway. There's only one real Larry Johnson and his name is Grandma Ma. And so, you know, at the end of the day...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...you have a lot of these disgruntled players who now have this sort of instant communication, you know, an outlet like Twitter or Facebook and things like that and, you know, they go on rants and raves, things like that. You're absolutely right. It's an organizational thing. It's an NFL sort of - it doesn't have to deal so much with the First Amendment, free speech issues. I mean he has the right to be homophobic if he wants to be. But the Kansas City Chiefs also have the right, as his employer, not to tolerate that, especially when he's making those statements within the color of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: He has no grounds to appeal the suspension?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I don't think - I mean I don't think he will. I mean...

MARTIN: I'm not defending the comment.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But I'm just asking on a matter of principle, is your private conduct and private speech - it's not private in the sense that it was on a Twitter...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...on Twitter, but it was not in the course of his work, you know?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean the same could then be said if he went on a radio show and uttered the same sort of slur, you know, that I wasn't actually, you know, on the football field. I was, you know, outside of the scope of my employment. I don't think that that's going to have a, you know, convincing effect on anybody.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. ZIRIN: In this media environment, where there's 1,440 minutes a day of sports coverage, there's no such thing as private space for athletes anymore. That's why David Stern has a policy that says if you're caught on camera not in full dress code, that might be grounds for a discussion with him or a suspension.

MARTIN: But that's during the season.

Mr. ZIRIN: Right. It's during the season, but it's also - to me, the dress code in the NBA should be what you're wearing on the court, not what you're wearing off the court.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

Mr. ZIRIN: But they're trying to control the image beyond what happens in the field of play. And part of it is a recognition of the marketing reality that most of what's discussed on sports radio actually is not what happens on the field.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. Pablo, what do you think?

Mr. TORRE: You know, I think - I think that's right. I think it's - I would love to have seen, you know, as much as the response from the Chiefs was good and harsh as well as from Larry Johnson's dad, I would love to have seen a statement from, you know, the commissioner's office that was really harsh, that came down on this, that you know, basically laid down the law and sort of set a precedence as far as not tolerating homophobia of any kind.

I think we have made progress, but the NFL, you know, as Dave alluded to, go to any locker room, spend time in any clubhouse in virtually any sport, and you'll hear this stuff all the time out of everyone's mouths. And insofar as, you know, the norms of the NFL become the norms of high school players, become the norms of Pop Warner players - I would've love to have seen the NFL take a stand that was really hardline in not allowing speech like that, just because, you know, they are - you know, as far as homophobia in this country, the NFL and sports generally does - you have to admit - lag behind, you know, most everything.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. And...

MARTIN: But he stands to lose like some $600,000.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's not cheap. That's not nothing.

Mr. IZRAEL: That's not free speech.

MARTIN: That's not free speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hey, before we go, before we go, we only have a minute left. Jimi, do you want to do quick picks for NBA 2008-2009 season? Got - well, sorry, 2009 season got underway this week - quick picks? Arsalan?

Mr. IZRAEL: You know who I like? I like LBJ and the Big Cuyahoga, the Cleveland Cavaliers going to go to the big show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Please believe it.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Now...

Mr. IZRAEL: Please believe it.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: This is Arsalan. I picked the winners last year on Barbershop, the year before that on Barbershop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I'm going back. And now that Kevin Garnett is back, I'm going back to my Boston Celtics - Paul, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Pierce. Kevin there - Mama, there goes that girl-man Garnett, and Ray, my mama calls me Jesus Shuttlesworth Allen, with Rasheed Wallace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: They're going to win it in seven games over Kobe, Artest, and Pau Gasol.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

Mr. TORRE: Wow.

MARTIN: No opinions here. Dave, quick.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I like the Lakers and the Celtics. It's not who I want, but who I think are going to get there with Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett being the grumpiest duo you've ever seen on a court, shaking their stick at the little kid say flibbdi flu, and taking the Celtics all the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: I'm going to go...

MARTIN: I didn't understand anything he just said, Pablo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, I'm going to go Cavs over Lakers. LeBron gets his title and then comes to New York next year...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, he ain't going nowhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: Not with the big mid-life crisis playing center.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to figure out what Dave said. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for theroot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and he joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from Dallas. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com. Dave Zirin is a sportswriter for The Nation, the author of "A People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protests, People and Play." They are both here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. ZIRIN: Thank you.

Mr. TORRE: Thank you.

MR. IZRAEL: Yup, yup, yup.

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