Cooper makes his home on death row at the notorious San Quentin
Penitentiary in California. Cooper awaits execution for a crime many
observers are convinced he did not commit. He was to be injected with
poison until his heart stopped on February 10th, 2004 but received a
stay after massive public pressure was brought to bear. The holes in
his murder conviction were that egregious, that shocking. As one
federal judge put it days before the execution, "When the stakes are
so high, when the evidence against Cooper is so weak, and when the
newly discovered evidence of the state's malfeasance and misfeasance
is so compelling, there is no reason to hurry and every reason to find
out the truth."
Here I interview Kevin Cooper about his love of sports. There are two
reasons why I wanted to hear Cooper's thoughts. The first quite simply
is that I oppose the death penalty. Kevin Cooper's case exemplifies
everything that makes my stomach turn about capital punishment: it's
racially biased. It punishes the innocent. And every last person is on
death row - innocent or not - because they couldn't afford the
representation that would have saved their lives. As the saying goes,
"Those without the capital get the punishment." When we actually read
and hear the voices of those on the row, it makes it that much harder
for executioners like Schwarzenegger to sell the idea that they are
somehow less than human and should be put down like dogs.
The second reason is that Kevin Cooper through his writings and public
statements has proven himself to be a sharp and thoughtful observer of
society. Often with writing, vantage point is everything. Cooper takes
his status as "Dead Man Walking" and refuses to let his mind die.
Spike Lee said, "If you want to learn about the world, start with the
sports page." Here we learn about the world of sports by talking with
a man who refuses to be defined by death.
DZ: How able are you to keep up with sports? Are there particular
teams or players that you follow?
I am able to keep up with sports by way of radio, TV, and newspapers.
I follow the Pittsburgh Steelers football team because Pittsburgh, PA.
is my hometown.
KC: What are your earliest sports memories? Are they positive?
All of my earliest sports memories are positive, and that's because
during the 60s when I was growing up the only positive Black people
who were seen in the media were sports stars. I looked up to black
athletes, and not just black athletes; my earliest memories are trying
to play baseball like Roberto Clemente.
DZ: How have you seen the world of sports change over the course of your
KC: The inclusion of women in just about all sports has changed the
world of sports in my lifetime, as has the fact that Black men are no
longer seen as "unintelligent" and therefore "unable" to be
quarterbacks, head coaches, baseball managers, or front office people
or any other job that requires them to think. AND that people have,
for the most part, stopped calling Blacks "natural athletes."
DZ: What are your earliest memories of some of the most political
athletes, like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Billie Jean King?
KC: Some of my earliest thoughts about Jackie Robinson changed after I
found out that he spoke out against Paul Robeson and others who were
doing their part in their own way to fight for Black people. Doing
their part in their own way just as he did in 1947 by not just going
in to play pro baseball but signing an agreement saying that he
wouldn't fight back or speak out when he was disrespected by white
ball players. He signed that pledge in order to do his part to help
Concerning Muhammad Ali: he's simply the best and the greatest, and my
thoughts and earliest memories of him have only gotten stronger after
all of these years. In fact, I honestly use him to help keep myself
strong and focused as I fight for my life and try to end the death
penalty here from this cage on death row. Billie Jean King is someone
I didn't really know about growing up, but I do know about her now.
Her contribution to women's equality in tennis is truly a great thing.
Because of her doing what she did back then, standing up for her
rights, women today in tennis get paid a hell of a lot more respect
than they did when she played. And of course they make more money,
DZ: Can sports be a site of resistance today, given how commercialized
the culture has become?
KC: If the athletes of today had the same mindset that people like Ali
had, or John Carlos and Timmy Smith had during the 1968 Olympics,
then, yes, today's athletes could make sports a site of resistance.
The only athlete that I know who is of the mindset of Ali, Carlos, and
Smith is Etan Thomas, though there may be others. Sometimes it seems
to me that today's athletes are too worried about getting paid for the
most part, and in getting that they're losing out on what's really
important. Especially since sports provides a platform for them to
make positive change that not many other professions do.
DZ: Why has sports, in your mind, become such a central part of the
Black experience in the United States?
KC: Throughout the history of America, white people have always loved
to be entertained by Black people, especially Black men. The masters
of certain slaves would put their slaves up against other slaves from
another plantation and they would fight, sometimes to the death. Just
as dogs or roosters did. This evolved into sports such as boxing and
wrestling. As new sports were invented, and more white people wanted
to be entertained, more Blacks were either forced to participate
against their will, or they joined in because they found some type of
respect if they were good at it. The master's prize fighter got good
food, access to women, and was respected and treated pretty good-That
is until he lost-