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Barbershop: Russia Olympic Ban, NFL Hitting And More


Now we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we gather interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on our minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape up today are Kevin Blackistone. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and a frequent ESPN commentator. He's here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Kevin, welcome back.


MARTIN: Also with us, CNN writer AJ Willingham. She joins us from Atlanta, Ga. AJ, welcome back to you, as well.

AJ WILLINGHAM: Hey, there.

MARTIN: And finally, film director Bryan Fogel. His documentary, "Icarus," revealed the extent of Russia's state-run doping program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Bryan's with us from his home in Malibu, Calif. And he's back with us, as well. Bryan, thank you so much for joining us once again.

BRYAN FOGEL: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's start with this huge story in the world of international sports - the decision by the International Olympic Committee, or the IOC, earlier this week, to bar the Russian Olympic team from the upcoming Winter Games in South Korea. That means the Russian flag won't be seen at the opening ceremony, the anthem won't be played.

Russian athletes who do want to compete can do so by proving that they haven't been cheating by being cleared by an independent panel in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency. But even then, the athletes who do compete have to wear neutral uniforms. And the official record books will show that Russia did not win any medals in this upcoming Olympics. Now, this comes after the IOC finished its own investigation and concluded that Russia was guilty of executing an extensive state-run or state-backed doping program.

Now, Bryan, this is your subject. This is a subject of your film. And folks who want to hear, like, the whole story, Bryan was actually on this program earlier this summer where he talked about this in detail. But if you just briefly tell us, for those who didn't hear that conversation - and I do recommend it - how did they do it?

FOGEL: I got into this story as, essentially, wanting to prove that the anti-doping system in sport was a fraud. And that journey led me to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov who was running Russia's World Anti-Doping Agency laboratory at the time. And over about two and a half years of working with Dr. Rodchenkov, a chain of events happened that led him to flee Russia under duress and threat of his life.

He came to Los Angeles and, essentially, blew the whistle and told me and my film team, over seven month's time, the extent of what is this 40-year operation that cheated every single clean athlete on planet Earth, robbed thousands and thousands and thousands of Olympic medals under the hands of the Russian ministry to which Grigory was in charge of this program.

MARTIN: So let me hear from everybody on this. And, Bryan, I'll ask you to start. Now, some people are saying, wow, it's about time. Other people are saying, you know, who gave Russia the 2014 Sochi Olympics to begin with? It's - this has gone on for so long. You know, how is it possible that, you know, all of a sudden now, these particular athletes are going to pay the price for this? And, Bryan, I just want to hear your thoughts on this.

FOGEL: Well, I think that this is not a question of clean athletes or doped athletes or question of doping. This is a question of a criminal conspiracy to cheat an international sport. And what they did in the Sochi Games was literally break into these untamperable collection bottles and swap out the dirty steroid urine of Russian national team athletes and substitute it with clean urine of that same athlete.

So this isn't a - what we want to call a Lance Armstrong of it, meaning, hey, everybody's doing it; and if you can get away with it, then, you know, then is it really cheating because you're doing essentially what your other opponents might be doing? This is pure outright criminal fraud. And the Olympics finally said, we are not tolerating this and banned Russia because they sent a statement to the rest of the world that this sort of behavior is no longer acceptable. I don't think that it ever was acceptable.

BLACKISTONE: Kevin, what do you think about this?

BLACKISTONE: Well, first of all, let me congratulate Bryan on his film, the findings of which were actually cited by the IOC in making their decision. But it is farcical in a lot of ways, and it is very problematic. And the interesting thing to me about this is that, for one, we've been here before.

We made half a step in the last summer games because the Russian track and field athletes were banned. And the question then was, well, do we not think that the other Russian athletes in other sports were not also part of this state-run program? And, clearly, now we're arguing that they all are, and they're going to have to prove their innocence on their own.

MARTIN: AJ, what do you think?

WILLINGHAM: There are two things about this that really intrigue me, Michel. One of the first things is, of course, there are echoes of what's happening in the global-political climate. You have people all the way from the top down denying that this even is happening. You have Putin denying this is happening. You have a large section of the Russian populace not really believing this is happening. You have calls for, it's a conspiracy from the West against Russia to try and demean Russia's power, which is, of course, this rhetoric that we also see in the political sphere.

But the other thing that's really intriguing about it is that what else is coming in 2018? The World Cup is coming to Russia. And that is a huge sort of referendum, I think, not only on the IOC and just the Olympic sort of community in general, but FIFA. And what are they going to do about the fact that, you know, obviously, it's being hosted by Russia, and it features Russian players? And this really couldn't have come at a worse time for anybody involved.

MARTIN: So let me turn a corner now. And I want to bring up another topic that involves sports and, you know, possibly politics. This week, there were several hard hits that were very hard to watch in the NFL. First, the New England Patriots' tight end, Rob Gronkowski, give a nasty helmet hit to a player who was lying face down on the ground who was defenseless.

Then, on Monday night's game, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers' linebacker, Ryan Shazier, made a legal tackle and injured his back. Immediately after the hit, it appeared that he couldn't move his legs. He was taken to the hospital. Apparently, he's either had or is going to have surgery to stabilize his spine. But that was a very hard thing to watch. And then two players who were involved in these hits - the Bengals' safety, George Iloka, was fined, and the Steelers' receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, was suspended for a game.

So, AJ, I want to start with you on this one. You know, is this the right response? I mean, people are still talking about that. In fact, I read one column from a columnist in Pittsburgh - said, you know, the reason I'm - you know, forget Colin Kaepernick; the reason I'm not watching football is I don't want to watch somebody die. And so do you feel that the league is responding appropriately? And what do you think about what just happened last week?

WILLINGHAM: I think, first of all, it's important to establish that this is the absolute worst of football. You know, a lot of players - there have been a couple Steelers players who have come to Smith-Schuster's defense and said, you know, this - you know, what are you expecting from this sport? You know, be a man and sort of just go in there. And there's no doubt that this was an AFC grudge match - that this was a particularly sort of difficult, you know, very heated game. But it's just - it's absolutely unacceptable. And I think the league has an opportunity here to create better sort of rules to deal with this.

Look at college football. A lot of people are calling for the NFL to look to college football and say they have a targeting rule that - you know, it's not perfect. Of course, it's not perfect. Sometimes it's enforced unduly. But the targeting rule would - for instance, Smith-Schuster and Iloka would both be punished under that targeting rule. They would be taken out of the game and suspended the first half of the next game.

And so I think that the NFL needs to look at putting in place more consistent rules so that you don't have things like this happening where, for instance, Iloka was suspended, and then he wasn't. He was fined, which was bringing that punishment down. And so now you have these Steelers coming in and speaking out against that. And it's just really inconsistent. And I think the more consistency that the league can get with it, the better we can deal with this overall problem.

MARTIN: Kevin, what about - what do you think? I mean, is this a flare up of some kind? Or is there a bigger problem here that needs to be addressed? I mean, for example...


MARTIN: ...Just to AJ's point, Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' quarterback, was asked about the game after the Monday game. And he said, well, that's just AFC football. I don't know whether he saw what everybody else saw or...


MARTIN: ...What He. Was defending his player but...

BLACKISTONE: You know, he's expressing the masculinity that's in the game. You know, I'll say a couple things. One thing that's kind of disingenuous on the media's part is we hype these games as great grudge matches. And we bring up what's happened in the past between these particular teams. And then we have this shock and awe after something horrible happens.

You know, I went back to look at the statistics over the last few years in terms of penalties for unnecessary roughness, personal fouls and ejections. And, actually, they've been down over the last three years, which is a good sign, which means that some of the rules and some of the emphasis on not having egregious violence in the game may be getting through. And so I think that these particular incidents were more anomalies than anything else. But we all see them, and we all focus on them.

The thing that I thought that was really bad was the Gronkowski play because that was - after a play is over, one player is in a vulnerable position and not expecting to be hit. And he gets hit in maybe the most vulnerable spot on the body, which is the back of his head, the back of his neck. The other plays happen within the context of the game. And so I don't think that they should necessarily be penalized as heavily as Gronkowski. In fact, I - you know, the more and more I thought about it, Gronkowski should have received an even heavier penalty.

MARTIN: Bryan, before we let you go, do - I know this isn't particularly your expertise. I know that you're into cycling and other stuff, but do you have any final thoughts about this? I don't know if you're a football fan, but do you have any thoughts about this?

FOGEL: You know, I am a football fan. And I think that, you know, it's all part of the greater sporting thing, which is, you know, sport is essentially gladiator games, and it's war without the weapons. And so, you know, we can't have it both ways. I mean, we want these guys to go out there and essentially beat each other up and prove that, you know, New England is stronger than Denver, et cetera. And that is also the risk of sports.

MARTIN: Well, that was Bryan Fogel. He directed the documentary "Icarus" that exposed Russia's state-sponsored doping program. He was with us from Malibu, Calif. Also with us, sportswriter and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone with us from our studios here in Washington, D.C., and CNN writer AJ Willingham with us from Atlanta. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.


WILLINGHAM: Thank you.

FOGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.