When Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel invited Dave Zirin in 2006 to become the magazine’s first sports editor in the publication’s then-141-year history, many readers scoffed. What a waste of valuable space! Sports were a diversion, people argued, banal escapism, not worth the time of a serious magazine. One reader denounced pro sports as the modern-day opiate of the masses.
Fast-forward 10 years to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who chooses to “take a knee” during the traditional pregame performance of the national anthem. After that protest, sports and politics seem irrevocably intertwined. What better venue for examining the gender, class, and racial inequities roiling society and the forces of resistance pushing back against traditional norms and mores? Athletic protests become front-page news. ESPN starts a vertical on race. The Washington Post now employs two writers assigned to sports and race. USA Today hires an editor on race and sports.
By 2021, it would be impossible for The Nation not to cover sports.
When Zirin started writing he was a lonely voice, one of very few journalists focusing on the rich intersection of sports, race, class, and gender. Kaepernick’s groundbreaking 2016 decision was the moment when Zirin’s monopoly was broken. The quarterback’s gesture triggered an awakening in sports and marked a sea change around the world. Taking a knee gave athlete-activists at all levels a powerful new lever to demonstrate public support for racial justice.
In his 12th and most important book yet, Zirin assembles a riveting collection of first-person stories from athletes who chose to emulate Kaepernick’s protest. Zirin’s efforts to highlight their experiences began at the outset of the pandemic, when he implored his large social media following to share stories of young athletes who took a knee. His DMs were soon flooded with students wanting to share the “why” behind their protests. Their stories are all different, which lends them power, yet Zirin makes clear the common thread: a profound intolerance for injustice.
A strong proponent of the Howard Zinn school of “people’s history,” Zirin gives voice to a disparate group of high school, college, and professional athletes who provoked vital conversations, many enduring their own backlash without the financial insulation Kaepernick enjoys. These young student-athletes with everything to lose form the heroic core of Zirin’s inspiring new book.