Howard Cosell called it rule number one of the jockocracy—the idea that sports and politics don’t mix. Playing the game, and playing it well, is all that matters. And yet the closer you look, the more it becomes apparent that it’s not sports and politics that “don’t mix.” It’s sports and a certain kind of politics—the politics of protest and resistance. Athletes who speak out on issues of social justice invariably pay a price. It’s a problem that powerful commercial interests control the language of sports, not just because it shuts out alternative perspectives but because sports culture shapes other cultural attitudes, norms and power arrangements. Politics runs rampant throughout the sports world, a broad arena in which struggles for racial justice, gender equality and economic fairness are played out.
With stakes this high, we couldn’t sit back and watch as the sports world becomes increasingly dominated by politics from right field. Consequently, we decided to enlist Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin’s help in planning a special sports issue, only the second in The Nation’s 146-year history, and not coincidentally at a time when two of the country’s major leagues were locking out their employees in fierce labor battles. The following articles and essays will, we hope, address the central areas in which sports culture intersects with the pursuit of social and economic justice. But the world of sports doesn’t just demand our attention; it also fires our imagination. The distinguished group of writers, thinkers and advocates who pay tribute to their favorite sports heroes in these pages express a feeling many of us share: pure love of the game. —The Editors