We Need To Talk About Zimmerman

In reality, nobody alive but George Zimmerman knows exactly what happened the night that Trayvon Martin was shot. In all the speculation, nobody is talking about the real problem: guns.

At Louie's Bar in midtown Miami, about three and a half hours south of the Sanford, Florida courtroom, the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial caused very little storm. As MIA's Paper Planes, with its simulated rhythmic gunfire, played over the bar's sound system, CNN, on silent with subtitles, strove in vain to whip the patrons into a frenzy of something. Outrage, perhaps. Or sadness. Or maybe: excitement. Network news is entertainment, after all. It's a dog-and-pony show.

There have been protests in Sanford, outside the White House in Washington DC, and in Los Angeles, all calling for "justice for Trayvon", the black teenager shot and killed by Zimmerman last February. The Rev Al Sharpton is coordinating around 100 "Justice for Trayvon" marches for this Saturday.

But they all have the wrong word. What they want is something more than mere justice. People want revenge, restitution, closure, and not just for Trayvon, but for the thousands of black kids and young adults killed every year – in 2010 black people constituted 55 per cent of the victims of firearm homicide, according to a recent paper by the PEW Research Center, despite being just 13 percent of the population.

His parents want their son back. They did not get him back this week, and the man who shot him walked free. It is impossible to imagine how that felt for them. But justice, court justice, isn't the opposite of injustice. It is just a process.

After the shooting, campaigners sought their moment in court, and got it. But there simply wasn't enough evidence for a jury to find beyond all reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman had not been acting in self-defence. Witnesses on both sides gave contradictory and confusing testimony, muddying even the shreds of evidence available to the jury. So they did the only thing they could in all conscience do: acquit.

Under Florida's ludicrous Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman at first was not even charged. A young man lay dead, and Zimmerman had been acquitted without facing trial. But when the – absolutely righteous – outrage at that law, by local civil rights groups and, eventually, even President Obama, led rightfully to a trial, everyone seemed to take the message that it was their right to demand Zimmerman's eventual conviction, too. And it just was not to be.

But the problem is that, in reality, nobody alive but Zimmerman knows exactly what happened that night. He claims to have been acting in self-defence. To assume he is lying is perhaps almost as much an act of prejudice, though of a different sort, as to assume that Martin was attacking him. I am not speculating either way. I do not know. Neither do you. But the burden of proof was not with Zimmerman. He is presumed innocent until proven guilty; and there just wasn't the proof. All else is speculation.

Maybe the jury – on which it is true that no black person sat – acquitted George Zimmerman because they all felt that it is a white man's inalienable right to shoot a black kid. Maybe the system still remains racist to the core.

Maybe. But more likely, faced with the vast responsibility of coming to a decision in full view of the might of the American media, the jury came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to convict a man of murder, or even manslaughter, beyond reasonable doubt.

Of course America is a country still riven by racial tension. It would be stupid to pretend otherwise. Perhaps Zimmerman truly was, as many claim, a murderous racist. Perhaps, as his defence claims, he was a scared man under attack. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere inbetween, a man whose racial prejudices led him to read violence and malice into the hooded face of a young black man. But there just wasn't the proof.

The root cause, whether accident or self-defence or racism, is secondary. In the end, Trayvon Martin was killed because Zimmerman had a gun. He had a gun, and he had, as many do, an understanding given of long national experience that the law affords him impunity to use it.

President Obama gave a statement in response to the verdict. He said that people ought to honour Trayvon's memory by asking “if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence”. The answer is no. The administration's current efforts to impose even small measures of gun control are proving a Sisyphean task, because somehow after each tragic shooting, after a while, America fails to muster the outrage to overcome the gun lobby. Despite the public outcry around the trial, despite the thousands of other shootings this year, and last, and the thousands that there will be next year, few protesting the court's verdict seems to be calling for gun control. Just nebulous "justice".

And at the bar in Miami, the patrons shrugged into their beers. There was baseball on the other screens.


A poster about the verdict in midtown Miami. Photograph: Nicky Woolf

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood