Dave Zirin, sports columnist for thenation.com, is the head of The Nation‘s new Sports Department. In addition to reporting on sports through numerous articles and radio broadcasts, he is the author of The Muhammad Ali Handbook; What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States; Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports; and most recently, the New Press book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, part of the Howard Zinn People’s History series. He is currently working on Bad Sports, an investigative look at sports owners.
You were recently hired to write for sportsillustrated.com. What’s that been like?
It’s certainly challenging, in that they have so many writers on the site who cover the big stories. For example, this week alone, you have the Super Bowl and you have the retirement of Bobby Knight. Both of those things I wrote about for thenation.com. I write about these things for my website, edgeofsports.com, but there’s not really room for that at Sports Illustrated because they’ve got half a dozen guys on each of those subjects. So one of the challenges is just finding my spot, my niche, and sometimes that niche is a very tough corner.
Traveling among sports circles, do you notice any political undercurrents that don’t reach mainstream awareness?
The number-one undercurrent in the sports world is the fact that all athletes, like all people, are political beings, but you would never know that based on mainstream sports coverage or interviews. Most athletes feel that when they sign that contract, they sign off their right to be political. But all of those ideas are there, they just exist below the surface. And why they aren’t expressed is really a combination of the mass media’s hostility towards political athletes if not impulse to ignore those stories, and the desire of athletes to not hamper their own marketability by offending any segment of the population with their political beliefs. One of the things I’ve run into personally are athletes who feel that they really aren’t going to get any support for it or solidarity outside of the sports world, so if they make an outrageous political statement they are really only giving fodder for sports radio heads to make fun of them the next day for thirty minutes. One athlete said to me, “I hate those guys; why would I want to make their job any easier?”
Have you ever inspired or influenced professional athletes to become more political after interviewing them?
Just by talking politics with them, I think it serves that purpose. Sometimes even talking to them about other athletes in their own sport gives them ideas. I let them know, “Well, you know this person’s against the war as well. This person is against the death penalty or the prison system as well.” I mean, they’re genuinely surprised. And these are people that they know from off-season promotional events, league functions… but the impulse to not talk politics runs so deep that even the athletes themselves are left somewhat unawares about their colleagues’ political affiliations.
Why do you think the world of sports makes an effective framework for examining politics?
The number-one reason that it’s such a good framework is that so many people in this country are alienated from politics. One of the welcome things about this election season is that it seems like so much of that alienation has been chipped away, and there does seem to be more interest this cycle. But in the most general sense, there is alienation from politics, and far more people follow the ins and outs of sports than politics. I think that’s less because people are politically disinterested–everybody cares about what’s happening with their healthcare, with the environment, with the quality of their kids’ schools–than they’re alienated from the process. They’re alienated from Washington, the people who claim to represent them but [who] only represent lobbyists and big business. They feel like “I have no power over this, so who cares?” And sports are something that people take really great interest in. So if we’re able to talk politics through a sports lens, we’re able to reach people and spread a message that politics is for everybody, and not just for the so-called experts.