Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Sports and Crime, 70s Style

The death of basketball player Bill Walton yesterday reminded me of how sports and crime can sometimes intersect, and in the oddest of ways. I remember being 12 years old when the heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the self-proclaimed radical leftist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. That was quite a news story, but then, brainwashed apparently, she took part in bank robberies the SLA committed. There have been a number of books and documentaries about the entire SLA and Hearst saga, not to mention Paul Schrader's excellent 1988 film, Patty Hearst, starring Natasha Richardson as Hearst. Walton got linked to the group because he was friends with writer and activist Jack Scott. Scott's primary focus as an activist was on sports; as a Sports Illustrated piece on him from the time explains, Scott "railed against payoffs and the 'quasi-militaristic manner' of 'racist, insensitive' coaches who rob sports of its best justification -- that it's fun to do'." Scott served for a time as athletic director at Oberlin College, where he tried to promote inclusion and hired three Black coaches, including Cass Jackson, who was the first Black football coach at a non-Black university. When the Oberlin administration changed, becoming more conservative, Scott left the school and began teaching at Berkeley, and it's at Berkely, in 1974, that he became friends with Bill Walton, then a star rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers. He became such good friends with Bill Walton that he and his partner Micki moved into Walton's home in Portland, Oregon. Politically, Walton was on the counter-cultural side of things himself then, having been arrested in 1972 on the UCLA campus for protesting the US military escalation in the Vietnam War. 

How do Walton and the Scotts tie in to Patty Hearst and the SLA? In 1974, when a huge police search was on for the SLA members and Hearst after some of their domestic terrorist activities, Jack Scott and his wife helped them for awhile in eluding capture. The FBI was pursuing the Scotts for exactly this, harboring members of the SLA. They were not living with Walton at this time, but because of his connection to them, he too became under the scrutiny of the FBI. In 1975, when in his second NBA basketball season, he held a press conference defending himself and also the Scotts and asking the world to "stand with us in the rejection of the United States government". He also called the FBI "the enemy". In the end, though he caused some outrage with his statements, Walton was never linked to the SLA or Patty Hearst in any way. As for Jack Scott, though he did later admit to having sheltered Patty Hearst, he never faced criminal charges, and he even wound up getting a $30,000 settlement in a libel suit he filed against Hearst for claims she made in her book, Every Secret Thing, falsely linking him to terrorist groups. Scott died of cancer at age 57 in 2000, survived by Micki, and Walton went on, despite an endless array of injuries, to win two NBA championships (one with Portland, one with the Boston Celtics).  Most of the SLA members either were killed by the police, in a massive 1975 shootout in Los Angeles, or wound up being convicted and going to prison.

I remember it all well from when I was a kid and how interesting it was, the sports/politics/crime web, and the many discussions and arguments about a star basketball player and his possible connections to a violent radical organization and a startling abduction. It all seems very Seventies now, in the distant past, but it's hardly the last time sports and activism and politics (and yes even sometimes crime) have been interconnected.


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