In Soviet Carolina, college football plays you
In light of the passing of the Soviet Union's last leader, here are several stories about folks from North Carolina who kept crossing paths with communist regimes.
Mikhail Gorbachev died last week at age 91. While you may know him as a pitch man for Pizza Hut, the former Soviet leader is better known for presiding over the unraveling of the U.S.S.R., and had a profound effect on the modern world. In large part, the Cold War ended because of him.
So, what direct connection does Mikhail Gorbachev have to North Carolina, you ask? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A search of all sorts of archives came up empty.1 The best I can do is a scene from the most recent season of Stranger Things. In it, a call is placed from California to the Gorbachev-ruled U.S.S.R. in 1986, but is disguised to make it seems like it’s coming from the Duffer Brothers’ hometown of Durham.
However! That doesn’t mean North Carolina doesn’t have a strong connection to Cold War nostalgia from the Gorbachev era. So in that vein, here are three parables (and one question) that’ll put you firmly back in the days of communist paranoia. Remember, you can’t spell Mecklenburg without K.G.B.
Glasnost, but for College Football
I cannot tell you why this is, but I really love names that sound like they were over-Americanized for characters in old action movies. For example, Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Belgian, portrayed a guy (a real guy!) named Frank Dux in Bloodsport. Keanu Reeves played an Ohio State quarterback turned surf gang-infiltrating FBI agent named Johnny Utah in Point Break. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career is littered with names that don’t seem to match up with his luxuriously Austrian accent. Ben Richards! John Matrix! Douglas Quaid! Detective John Kimble!
So imagine the extreme joy I felt when I recently discovered that the man who created Raycom Sports is named… Rick Ray. Really! Rick Ray! Rolls right off the tongue, Rick Ray does. If you didn’t already know, Raycom Sports was founded in Charlotte in 1979. Ray had been working for WCCB-TV in town, and thought that there was an unquenchable thirst for college basketball games on television. When WCCB disagreed, Rick Ray resigned, formed Raycom, and ended up creating a network that put ACC basketball on local stations across the south. Every March, people in North Carolina love to re-tell the same cliched story about how their schoolteachers would wheel out a cart with a tube television strapped on top so they could watch the ACC basketball tournament right there in the classroom. That story is not possible without Raycom Sports and a set of rabbit ears.
Anyhow, Raycom became a huge company that produced hundreds of sporting events a year, and it eventually merged with another beloved southern regional sports producer, Jefferson-Pilot. Raycom Sports is still around, still based in Charlotte, and still producing a lot of ACC sports for ESPN. But the days of Raycom Sports itself creating syndicated local broadcasts of ACC basketball and football ended in 2019.
I digress. You came here for the Soviet stuff. Remember how I told you that Raycom Sports produced a lot more than ACC sports? Well, back in 1989, they attempted to stage and televise a college football game in the Soviet Union. If it seems like a fraught, ridiculous idea, well then, you have no idea how fraught and ridiculous it would become.
In the 1980s, glasnost was a new Soviet policy of open discussion of political and social issues. It was paired up with perestroika, the Russian term for the opening of their political and economic systems. Both were initiatives of Gorbachev’s to revive a stagnant superpower, which led to all sorts of intriguing opportunities. One of them was a college football game. It was to be called the Glasnost Bowl, be played in Moscow, would open the 1989 football season, and was predicted to be one of the highest-rated games of all time. USC would play Illinois. That’s how you know this was a long time ago: The Illini were good!
To make it happen, Rick Ray and his wife and co-owner Dee visited Moscow in 1988, and came with a letter endorsing the idea written by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Still, though, the Soviets were hedging, so Raycom had to give the Russians some fake kompromat. Via Slate:
Ken Haines, then the vice president of Raycom and now the president and CEO, believed their phone calls were being tapped in Moscow. So on a call between him, Ray, and Dee, they feigned like they were getting the short end of the negotiations and said they hoped the Soviets wouldn’t accept. This bit of attempted reverse psychology seemed to have worked. “We got it signed in like half an hour,” Haines said.
After they signed the deal, the Raycom folks realized that the Russians had no idea how college football was played. At one point, according to the Chicago Tribune, the Soviets asked the Americans how many players were typically killed in each game:
They asked [then Illinois head coach John] Mackovic how many ambulances he would need for the game. He told them Illinois always had one on hand as a precaution.
“They said, ‘Well, you’ll need to take away the dead.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re not counting on anyone dying.’ They thought the game was vicious like that, that we killed off players. They assured us a hospital was close by.”
The teams would have been responsible for bringing literally everything they needed. They were also tasked with finding a welder to create goalposts, since that sort of thing didn’t actually exist in the Soviet Union.
You know what doomed the Glasnost Bowl? Hotels. Something like 3,000 Americans booked trips to Moscow for the game, but Raycom couldn’t find enough rooms for them. Plus, the rooms had bugs; cockroaches and, you know, listening devices. There was also a dispute between Raycom and a guy they’d hired to help put the game on. Two months before it was to be played, Rick Ray held a press conference in Charlotte to announce that the game was off. The USC-Illinois game itself was played in Los Angeles. A few months later, some high school football teams played in Moscow instead.
The actual Soviet Union didn’t last too much longer, although communism itself stuck around for another then-Charlottean to try and make some in-roads. In 1995, Ric Flair traveled to North Korea for a wrestling match that was promoted, in part, by WCW, which was a competitor to the WWE at the time. Flair’s match itself broke an attendance record, with 190,000ish people in attendance, but the North Koreans used the trip to make some anti-American propaganda (leaflets featuring a bloody Flair were dropped on Seoul!), the official communist news agency just made up a quote from Flair that praised the regime, and the event itself barely even made a blip in the United States. Flair himself put it this way: “I don’t have any fond memory of that trip whatsoever.”
Note to self, don’t hold sporting events in crumbling communist nations, unless you’re really into self-owns.
When Hugo Visited Hickory
Speaking of self-owns, what happens when you invite a prominent communist leader to your small town to take in things like barbecue and capitalism? Nothing! Nothing at all. And yet, the congressman who successfully invited Hugo Chávez to, of all places, HICKORY had such high hopes:
As I wrote back in 2020, Chávez stayed in town for two days and left with a Hickory Crawdads hat, but alas, did not leave with a mission to install pure capitalism in Venezuela.
I know a lot of modern AM talk radio comes with a healthy slick of doomsday vibes, but literally one station in Charlotte was prepared to keep broadcasting in case of nuclear annihilation. About a decade ago, I got a tour of WBT’s transmitter site off of Nations Ford Road. The chief engineer at the time, Jerry Dowd, took me down into an old concrete bunker, complete with equipment that would have allowed his station to stay on the air and put out important information throughout the ensuing nuclear winter. The tour was interesting, but Jerry REALLY ate up the camera time we gave him:
This, somehow, is not the only Cold War-era underground bunker in the Charlotte area. Another one, near Stanfield in Stanly County, was controlled by AT&T. Because even after mutually assured disaster, you’ll need to make that phone call:
And now, a request.
Hey! If you made it this far, maybe you can help me. For a long time, I’ve been looking into a story connected to Ronald Reagan’s visit to Charlotte in 1984. This came a year before Gorbachev took over. In fact, Reagan didn’t even mention Russia at all!
But! I’m interested in talking to people who were there on that day: October 8, 1984, in the parking lot of a hotel near the SouthPark Mall. If you were at the rally, or helped plan it, or worked it, or otherwise know anything about what it was like, I’d love to talk to you.