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.
Who were your heroes growing up?
My heroes growing up were not political athletes, but they were people who kind of captured my imagination just through their wicked grace–it was like watching poetry to me. I grew up in New York City, so it was a very New York-centric lens that I viewed sports through. So to be able to watch New York Knick Bernard King–I mean, my jaw would be on the floor. You couldn’t get me away from the TV. The New York Mets of the mid-’80s, people like Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, I would watch those games. We didn’t have sports channels, so the screen would be all frazzled and I would watch the game and listen to the announcers through the messed-up screen. My mom thought I was insane, just sitting there in front of a frazzled TV for three hours. And in football, I was a Giants fan. [Hall of Fame linebacker] Lawrence Taylor was my guy, no question. It’s interesting looking back on it critically, because there are no women athletes on this list, and the sports that I looked to for my heroes were all very much of the mainstream sports. I think that’s a very positive development just in terms of how sports have changed–there is in some respects more diversity in the kind of sports that people have access to, and of course I think women have much more of a platform now than they did twenty years ago. Progress has been slow, but there certainly has been progress.
What inspired you to become a sportswriter?
Making the journey from just being a freaky sports fan to actually looking at athletes as people and the politics of athletes, two books really opened my eyes. One was Giant Steps by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which was the first time I ever knew anything about Islam, the first time I ever even knew what that word meant or what it was. The first time I ever learned about the ghetto riots in the 1960s was reading Giant Steps. It was the first time I ever learned about the ’68 Olympics, so all of these things that I take for granted as knowledge found their roots in reading that book. And as far as understanding the price that women pay for getting involved in sports, for me that came from reading Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. If Giant Steps is a good example of sports autobiography, then Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is as an excellent example of sports as investigative journalism. And reading both those books at an early age just left a tremendous impression on me.
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is about the physical, mental and sexual abuse that young girls go through in their quest to become world-class gymnasts. And it was just a real eye-opener for me. Because of Title IX and people like [tennis champions] Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, I equated sports with liberation when it came to women, and not as something that could actually serve to really be oppressive and exploitative. And just the idea that sports could be a venue for investigative journalism was something that I had never conceived of before.
I also have to mention the biography that made me interested in sports writing was Season on the Brink about [college basketball coach] Bobby Knight. What fascinated me about that was just the idea that it was a book about a deeply controversial figure, someone who could be an arch-reactionary, but also someone who graduated 98 percent of his players, someone who both hated the system and who rode that system to great heights. Someone who could be just unbelievably offensive and abrasive to people around him, but at different points be unbelievably loving to people around him. So being 11 years old, 12 years old and reading Season on the Brink was the first time I’d ever really tried to understand not just athletes or coaches but even individuals as being contradictory, and not just good or evil. All of these ideas: that human beings are flawed, that there are no such thing as pure heroes, that there’s a history of struggle and other religions than Judaism and Christianity, the oppression of women is something that can be all-encompassing in society–these are all very political ideas that were introduced to me through sports.
How do you think circumstances differ for athletes today as opposed to thirty or forty years ago?
The main difference between now and thirty years ago is of course the media. Athletes are more celebrities than they are athletes. And so with that comes a whole attendant set of pressures and financial concerns that are very different from a generation ago. Similarly, more professional athletes now come from backgrounds that are difficult [compared to] a generation ago. Consider the number of African-American athletes–I would argue the conditions for African-Americans, generally, have worsened over the last twenty-five years. Certainly there’s a larger African-American middle class, political class, of course, but if you talk about just raw statistics, in 1980, you had three black males in college for every one in prison; now there are more black men in prison than college. That’s not a step forward; that’s a step backward.
So you have more and more people coming to sports from working-class and poor backgrounds, and being expected at age 21 to be able to handle these pressures of celebrity. And this is really the root of the problem when it comes to the cultural dissonance between athletes and ticket-buying fans, many of whom come from a far more middle-class fan base, because working people can’t afford the tickets. I think trying to find bridges between cultural dissonance in sports, instead of exploiting that dissonance–which I think a lot of the media does–is going to be one of the great tasks. And very importantly, with this larger media platform, many more athletes, and this is just my concrete experience, are more self aware as media figures, and therefore they’re starting to think critically about using that platform to fight and talk about things that they care about. I mean [Houston Rockets guard] Tracy McGrady, who people seem to see as sort of a sleepy-eyed, underachieving basketball player who didn’t even go to college, made a film about Darfur, for goodness sakes! And there’s a self-awareness that because he’s Tracy McGrady, he can make some hay with this, when maybe someone else couldn’t.
People ask me why more athletes don’t speak out, and I always say, “Well, why don’t more people speak out? And why are we expecting things of athletes that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves?” So the more athletes who then do, in fact, speak out, the more athletes who buck that yoke that says “You are just here to shut up and play,” I actually do think that this can serve to inspire people to say “If that person can be an athlete activist, then maybe I can be a teacher activist or a construction worker activist or a student activist. I don’t just have to be a round peg in a round hole.”
What is one of the highlights of your career as a sports journalist?
To me, going into the Oakland Juvenile Detention Center and speaking to twenty to twenty-five young people about their thoughts about sports was one of the most moving experiences in my life. Alameda County, Oakland, has one of the highest youth homicide rates in the country. And afterwards, one of the organizers of the event said to me, “I hope you got a good look at those kids’ faces,” and I said, “Of course I did, why?” And he said, “About a third of them will be dead in the next five years.” And I was just like, Wow, that’s so wrong. That’s so wrong! But for the people who do this full time, that’s the reality in which they live.
And I thought they were amazing young people, just absolutely amazing. And I truly feel that the system is so set up to fail these kids. Concretely it’s set up to get them into the system with very few options of how to get out. And it was just so striking to me how smart the kids were. When I say that, I mean I’ve spoken at a lot of colleges, and they were as smart as kids at any college and as focused as kids at any college. There was so much focus, it was frankly a little weird. I asked the librarian afterwards about why they had so much focus, and she said, “Well, it’s because people don’t really come in and talk to them. And it’s not like they have TV and XBox and all that.” I went in there and started asking them questions, and she said, “Oftentimes when we have guests people come in and talk at them.” They couldn’t believe someone was asking them what they thought.
[The young people at the detention center] had a very political view of sports only because so many political things were going on when I was there, everything from the Michael Vick trial to the Barry Bonds steroid case. These are political issues: are they being scapegoated; if so, why? How do you balance issues of personal responsibility with institutional racism? What is cheating? They were both answering these questions and asking them at the same time.
What are some changes you’d like to see made in sports?
For one, billionaires should not be given $500 million presents from taxpayers. It’s bad economics, it’s bad urban planning and the only people it’s good for are the owners themselves and politicians who do photo-ops next to the stadium come election time. It’s bad; this is just so cancerous. The growth of the privately funded stadium has happened over the last three decades, and it’s no coincidence that this has happened alongside the advent of privatization and trickle-up economics–money from poor people into rich people’s pockets, the Reagan tax cuts, supply-side economics that have just become the orthodoxy of both parties, it seems like, even though rhetorically they say otherwise. It’s also no coincidence that this has been very harmful to working people across this country, so publicly funded stadiums is a big thing I would change.
I would also make sure that Title IX would be fully funded, so there could be real equal opportunity for women in sports–as far as we’ve come we still have a ways to go there, and not just in terms of playing but in terms of being athletic directors, positions of power, positions to really be able to shape sports on the university level. And college athletes being paid: to me this is just the biggest no-brainer in the world. I think every college athlete should get a stipend–it should be like their work-study. I knew people in college, they would sit at a desk in the English department and do their homework and get paid $10 an hour. That was their work-study. If you’re playing a sport, in theory you are giving something back to the university. You’re providing memories for people, entertainment, a sense of competition, a sense of a collective culture. I have no idea why that shouldn’t be someone’s work-study.
Now on top of that, in the real revenue-producing sports, they should get a piece of the pie. There’s something bizarre about the fact that if you’re a star college athlete at a big-time school, they will put your image on collector’s-edition Visa cards, so that you could then go buy things with that Visa card and get discounts on school merchandise, but then you don’t get a piece of that! Or that you can wear Nike shoes and run up and down the court, and the coach gets 300 grand in his pocket a year. And if you get injured, your scholarship is gone faster than you can say, “Oops!” This is a big problem, and it’s been one of the most difficult things to organize around because athletes are here and they’re gone, on the college level. So it does make it a very difficult issue.