A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Sports has built its economic model on the presumption of public funding and luxury boxes, pricing out the working class fan while taking their tax money. The economic crisis threatens both of these revenue streams [and] will hit sports like Brian Urlacher coming unblocked from the blind side.
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Dave Zirin is a sportswriter who sees everything in terms of politics -- or is he a political analyst with a penchant for sports? Either way, he's a rarity who makes sports and politics both more interesting and accessible. He finds sports stories that seethe with controversy, the ones that are tinged with politics, race, economics, class, and gender, and then he makes sense of them in terms of politics and broader social movements.
Zirin currently writes for his own web site, Edge of Sports, as well as for The Nation, SI.com, and various online sources. Increasingly, he is a guest commentator on MSNBC News and progressive radio programs. BuzzFlash readers have been following his commentaries since 2005.
Now Zirin's A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play is out, following on the heels of What's My Name Fool?, Muhammad Ali Handbook, and Welcome to the Terrordome. In this BuzzFlash report Zirin reflects on the historical significance of bicycles, the value of sports radio, the economic crash's impact on pro sports, and even on Obama's basketball buddies. His voice is unique, his insights both enlightening and entertaining.
[Also check out Zirin's latest column, covering political rioting at an Israeli/Turkish ball game this week: No Justice, No Play? Gaza Anger Overwhelms Hoops Contest.]
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BuzzFlash: Should political junkies read the sports pages? What's in it for them?
Dave Zirin: I think political junkies – who aren't sports fans - should at minimum skim the sports page. They might be surprised how many stories have political juice in them. This can then provide a bridge to talk with sports junkies that reject politics (a much greater group).
BuzzFlash: BuzzFlash's readers are quite attuned to progressive talk radio and are familiar with right-wing radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh. What's happening on sports talk radio programs?
Dave Zirin: Of course it depends on the show, but often times what you have here is a place of fiery debate. Granted, it's debate about whether X quarterback should be starting, or Y point guard should be released, but sports radio has become one of the last publicly sanctioned places where a person can cut loose and really rail about something.
Overwhelmingly, the voices are male, and the debate very sports-centric. But when the topics turn political (about racism, gender, steroids, stadium funding) it can be far more dynamic than anything in the segregated world of political talk.
BuzzFlash: Are professional sports in the US operated in the same way as professional sports in, say, Spain or Canada? Is the corporate model we see in the US replicated worldwide in soccer or Sumo wrestling?
Dave Zirin: There is no question that the corporate model of sports exists in every country, and that the US has spent considerable time and money trying to export its model. The model includes public funding of stadiums, emphasis on statistics, and emphasis on merchandise and "gear."
But there is one key aspect to US sports that has been more difficult than others: passivity. In other countries – from Europe to Africa, there is a much greater sense of ownership over the team. Owners are seen as caretakers. That is something we haven't seen in the states to this point.
BuzzFlash: What do you think of all the reporting about President-elect Barack Obama and his basketball buddies? Is it a good thing, or a sign of bias?
Dave Zirin: Obama himself has fed the story, saying, "I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history." And as someone who grew up in New York City playing hoops only slightly less than I breathed, I strongly relate to the passage in Obama's 1995 book Dreams From My Father, where he wrote, "I could play basketball, with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited ability. ... On the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn't be a disadvantage." For me as well, in a divided New York City, it was a place where walls felt like they could come down.
All of that being said, I'm far more concerned that one of the basketball buddies, former semi-pro player (and presumptive education secretary) Arne Duncan, has presided over a system in Chicago in love with test taking and courting charter schools.
BuzzFlash: How will the economic troubles America is now experiencing impact professional sports or the pro players? How will hard times affect recreational and college sports?
Dave Zirin: Sports has built its economic model on the presumption of public funding and luxury boxes, pricing out the working class fan while taking their tax money. The economic crisis threatens both of these revenue streams. You are seeing already, in the free agency season in baseball, in the difficultly selling out NFL playoff games, and in big layoffs at the NBA's corporate office, that this crisis will hit sports like Brian Urlacher coming unblocked from the blind side.
BuzzFlash: Are there enlightened, progressive owners in pro sports, and, if so, who are they? Could you tell our liberal/progressive readers which players you admire as people and would suggest they follow?
Dave Zirin: The most enlightened owners are the people of Green Bay who own shares of their team. No one else really comes close, although Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks has done some things that are certainly admirable. When his player Josh Howard received a barrage of racist hate email, Cuban posted them on his website including the email addresses of those who sent in the messages. That was appreciated far and wide.
As far as athletes, I have had the good fortune to work with Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, an athlete with a serious social conscience. Jeff Monson from the world of ultimate fighting, Scott Fujita, of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, Sheryl Swoopes, the basketball player who came out of the closet two years back … and many others. Check edgeofsports.com for updates on athletes who come out of the political closet.
BuzzFlash: It seems like many kids today hope to become either professional athletes, some day, or film makers. What advice do you have for kids who love sports?
Dave Zirin: To write. Writing, like sports, requires training. Take advantage of the web, start a blog and write until you feel like you have found your voice. Then write some more.
BuzzFlash: The first chapter of A People’s History of Sports in the United States reviews the history of sports up to the end of the 19th century. Was the advent of bicycles, coinciding with the first wave of feminism in the U.S., something that freed women from the delicate and passive Victorian expectations just as the advent of the pill in the 20th century brought another kind of freedom to women?
Dave Zirin: Yes. In 1895, nineteen years before women won the right to vote, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, "Many a woman is riding to the suffrage on a bike." Susan B. Anthony as well spoke about the bicycle being a historic development for women's rights. A bicycle provided access to movement and exercise while allowing women to discard the hoop skirts and corsets. Exercise was something simply denied to women which meant strength and physical health was denied as well. This is what made the bicycle so powerful as a symbol and as an actual tool.
BuzzFlash: Did President George W. Bush have a good or bad or no impact on sports? Do you see him ever serving as baseball commissioner some day?
Dave Zirin: No impact, really. And I wouldn't hire him to be the commissioner of miniature golf. The man, if he has proven nothing else, is King Midas in reverse. Whatever he touches turns to dung.
BuzzFlash: You often chronicle the racist side of sports, but in the final chapter of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, you quote Jim Brown 's assessment that the worst discrimination now is based on rich versus poor. Do you think he's right about that?
Dave Zirin: I think that there is a relationship between poverty and racism that needs to be both examined and challenged. We still need independent movements that fight racism while building struggles for economic justice. I think Jim Brown would agree with that. He is just trying to make the point that wealthy athletes of color can isolate themselves from the most pernicious effects of racism because of the size of their bank accounts.
BuzzFlash: Sporting events and rabid sports fans seem aligned with nationalist currents. Why is the national anthem played at every game or tournament, and why do fighter jets do flyovers at Super Bowl games?
Dave Zirin: This is something that dates back to the founding of USA sports in the latter half of the 19th century. Ideas about manifest destiny and the exceptional nature of the United States were very tied to how the owners and operators of American sports marketed and sold their product. We live with that to this day.
I would argue that it's not healthy and should be challenged. This isn't about "supporting the troops" but supporting a foreign policy that many fans would otherwise oppose.
BuzzFlash: Could you give us an example of a positive story where sports and politics intersect for the good?
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. This happened throughout the past year. Mohamed Aboutreika, the soccer player, trying to raise awareness about Gaza; the way athletes embraced this past election season, seeing players walk the long lines of people waiting on line to vote, shedding the rule that sports and politics don't mix; athletes speaking out about China in advance of the Olympics. This is important, groundbreaking stuff. It stretches our ideas of "acceptable discourse" and who in fact has ownership of "politics."
BuzzFlash: What's the relationship of the little guy to sports? Wouldn't Americans be better off playing rather than watching their favorite games? How did spectator sports overtake actual game-playing by the masses?
Dave Zirin: This is something very unique in the sporting culture of this country over the last century: the iron wall between spectator and participant, between those who get to play and those who get to watch. It would be great to have time to play and watch. It would be great to have spectator sports be affordable. But leisure time like affordable sports, aren't things we will just be handed. They will have to be fought for.
BuzzFlash interview by Christine Bowman.
A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play by Dave Zirin. Available from the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace. Part of the "People's History Series" edited by Howard Zinn.