YourBlackPolitics: Black Men, Black Sports, Black in America

August 1, 2008

Interview with Award-Winning Sportswriter, Dave Zirin, by Tolu Olorunda.

Dave Zirin is an accomplished sports-writer and author. He has written several books including, “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States,” and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports,” and “The Muhammad Ali Handbook.” He is a frequent columnist for The Huffington Post, The Nation Magazine, SI.com, SLAM, and the Los Angeles Times. He also runs the weblog, “Edge Of Sports.” Zirin makes regular appearances on Sports-radio shows and political talk-shows, to further his gospel of outlining the chemically imbalanced relationship between Sports and Politics. Dave Zirin has been called “America’s Best Sports Writer” by Lee Ballinger of Rock & Rap Confidential. He was also described by Chuck D of Public Enemy, as a “rare breed.” Dave Zirin is alongside many other things, an activist and a staunch opposer to the death penalty. He has an upcoming book, entitled “A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play.” He is a brilliant, concise and gifted columnist, with a passion to recover the lost art of edifying sports coverage. I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with Dave on issues of race, class and tribalism, in the realm of professional Sports:

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Zirin; it is indeed an honor and a pleasure. Can you start by informing us of your literary background, and your journey toward becoming – as described – “America’s best Sportswriter”?
That’s very kind of you. Well, I’m a sportswriter by trade; I worked for a couple of very small-town newspapers in the state of Maryland, after a period as a public school teacher in Washington, DC. One of the newspapers I worked at is the only African American-owned Newspaper in Prince George’s County — which is a majority African American County; it was – and is still – called “Prince George’s Post.” My boss there gave me a lot of freedom to write the kind of sports column that I wanted to write, which was one that delved into issues of the politics of sports. So I owe that a great depth, because it allowed me to try to discover my voice, tone and how I wanted to communicated my ideas. And I wanted to communicate the ideas of political resistance through sports, as well as the idea that we could love sports, while still practicing the art of political resistance. And that was very encouraging, specifically because it was an African American-owned Newspaper that dealt with the issues in sports that affected the Black community. And that allowed me to explore a different layer of politics as well. And like many writers, I owe a debt to the internet, because I was able to then post the articles online and find the readership which I’m very grateful for; because otherwise, the sports writing racket is very difficult to break through, because there are very few jobs in the mainstream press who feature this kind of work.

Now, a lot of people first got in contact with your brilliance, wit and intelligence, after “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.” Can you speak on the significance of Muhammad Ali in the political as well as athletical stadium of this country and even the world at large?
Well, Muhammad Ali has of course been a premium inspiration to me, because I write about the coalition of sports and politics, and to me, there is no more bold and contradictory expression of that, than the heyday of Muhammad Ali. I mean in the 1960s, you had the heavyweight champion of the world, with one foot in the Black freedom struggle and one foot in the anti-war movement. He became the most famous athlete in the world, and the most famous draft-resister in the history of the United States; I mean, this is profound, and what I enjoy exploring is how people reacted to him at the time, because we’ve so sanctified Muhammad Ali in the years since — sort of the way we’ve made Dr. King a Saint. We’ve put people like Malcolm X and Paul Robeson on postage stamps, and what we do in that case, is extract their political teeth; and we forget what it is that made them so bold, so dangerous and even so hated back in the day. And Ali is somebody who of course is still alive, but he’s lost his voice, through Parkinson’s Disease, and I like exploring that period of the ’60s, because Ali was somebody who just, very brilliantly, walked with the rhythm of the different struggles; and this is why you have Ali as such a Giant in the ’60s, but much less of a political force in the ’70s and ’80s — because he really did rise and fall with the rhythm of the moment. But then again, that is something that is fascinating about Muhammad Ali; because he wasn’t just shaped by the 1960s, he also shaped that era. He was a “shaper.”
You’re most noted for decoding the science behind the intertwining of sports and politics in our culture. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I think it so important, and we might not like it, but it is just the fact that more people watch ESPN than C-SPAN. And more people listen to Sports-Radio than listen to NPR. And if we recognize this as a fact, then we have to ask ourselves this question: Are people just wasting their time by looking at sports, or is there something of value in sports, that’s worth relating to and understanding? I think there are two very important reasons why we shouldn’t be dismissive towards Sports fans. Firstly, because I think Sports is beautiful, Sports is Art and Sports is Human expression, and a lot of people are attracted to it for these kinds of very elemental reasons. But the second reason is that I think often times, you have some very dynamic, very interesting important political discussions in the world of sports, and I think sometimes, you have a more honest discussion about racism – when people are arguing about Barry Bonds, and if Michael Vick deserves a second chance – through these shadow-issues, than in regular political talk radio or political discussion. I also think we’re taught so much in this country that Politics is just what happens on Capitol Hill; yet Politics are in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the Sports we play.

You’ve written extensively on athletic activism: Going from Jackie Robinson, to Muhammad Ali, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, to early Michael Jordan, and many others. Can you speak more to that effect?
Well, I’m a big believer in the James Baldwin quote, where he once said that “America is the country devoted to the death of paradox,” — in that America often tries to put people in a little box. So, if you’re an athlete, that’s all you get to be; if you’re a teacher, that’s all you get to be; if you shovel ice-cream for a living, that’s all you get to do. And athletic activists are transgressing that, and they’re willing to say, ‘NO, I’m not just a body, I’m also a brain;’ ‘I’m not just an entertainer; I have something to say, and the right to say it.’ Far too many athletes feel like they’ve signed away their right to speak and to have political ideas — whenever they sign that contract.
You had an article earlier this year, in which you berated the inability of Tiger Woods to speak out eloquently against the racially-inflaming remarks of the Golf channel pundit who made the “lynching” remark. Do you think there are corporate forces that muffle the political voices of big-name athletes; and can you dissect that phenomenon — especially in light of the upcoming Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and reports of crackdowns on protests?

I think you asked a very interesting question. I think for most athletes, there is certainly a corporate muzzle, a muzzle of the media and a muzzle of team-ownership. But when an athlete transgresses and speaks their mind, there’s always the ability to be as bland and homogenized as can be — so that muzzle does exist. But with respect to Tiger Woods, he’s part of a very select group of athletes, who actually have power within the corporations that sponsor them, and if he wanted to say something against what Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel said, or concerning any injustice in the world, his corporate sponsors like Nike would be lining up to applaud him, and that’s because of the powers he has, and there are very few athletes with that individual power. And with Tiger Woods, he often uses the language and symbolism of the Civil Rights movement in his ads, and if he does that, people have a right to demand responsibility from him, to step up to the plate and be part of that tradition.

How do you perceive the WNBA, and do you value it as a sincere and substantive attempt at athleticism?
I certainly do, and I always tell people that the WNBA can’t be judged by the same standards of the NBA; it’s a different kind of sport that’s run a different way. It is played much differently than in the NBA, and people who are more interested in the heart of team-basketball will find that the WNBA is equal to the NBA, but still remains a different kind of game. I do think it’s a sincere effort to reach a very under-reached demographic: Women sports fans. And through the WNBA, men can go to the games with their daughters now. I also think it has become a whipping post for many Sport writers who choose not to engage with it, because it’s such an easy target.

Did you watch the brawl last week, and what is your assessment of the remediations that followed?

Well, people got hurt in the brawl, and what it tells us more than anything, is that the games are very intense.

Dr. Boyce Watkins; Syracuse University Professor and NCAA Watchdog, as aggressively tackled the motion of the non-payment of athletes in the NCAA games — especially during the March Madness season. He believes that the NCAA is obligated to pay the players – or at least the parents – if they are willing to pay the coaches and the administration. What is your assessment of that philosophy, and do you share similar sentiments?
I do share that sentiment, because the players are producing wealth, and coaches get 6-figure contracts just for wearing the shoes, and the players run up-and-down the court like little billboards and some schools even put star players on special VISA cards — where you can use the card to get discounts on school merchandise. It’s an exploitative type of situation, and I also think that when players don’t get that fair share, something dynamically bad comes out of it: They go into the gutter. And that’s where you see players being offered money under the table, offered women and offered drugs. And part of that happens because it is an illegal economy. And it also has an eerie echo to slavery and the plantation — with the privileged slave being involved in sporting events, and offered women who we’re treated like objects. But in reality, they were still slaves.
Can you explain the “The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports,” as highlighted in your highly-informative book, “Welcome To the Terrordome”?
Well, the “The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” – to me – is all rooted in what framed the book; and that was Hurricane Katrina. Because in Hurricane Katrina, you saw the Pain of Sports — as the only place the dispossessed residents were able to find shelter was in a publicly funded Dome. So money had been going for 30 years into the Louisiana Superdome, while there was no Emergency Shelter and no money for Emergency Evacuation; and so it speaks to the horrible priority that existed more broadly in that system over the last 30 years. It also speaks to the Politics of Sports, and you need to have a sort-of political approach to Sports, to see the interweaving of Hurricane Katrina, The Superdome and the aftermath. But there was also the Promise of Sports, with several professional athletes who made some statements that were far better than anything coming out of Capitol Hill, and among the best of athletes, you still see a kind of instinctive solidarity — which is very valuable and important. And it is that solidarity and platform which athletes have that I think they need to use.

Your next book, “A People’s History of Sports in the US” is due out in just a couple of months. Pls. give us an in-depth look as to what is covered and debated in it?

Yes; its part of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” theory, and it attempts to tell the history of sports in this country, from below — especially as it was shaped by political factors. So, it’s a way of understanding the creation of baseball, by first understanding the Civil War. It’s a way of understanding Jackie Robinson, by understanding African-American frustration after World War II. It’s a way of trying to understand Title 9, by understanding the Women’s Movement and Billy Jean King. So, it tries to look at the incredible dance that’s always existed between Sports and Politics, and exposes the hilarious lie, that Sports and Politics, somehow, don’t mix.
How can activists generate – or contribute to – the struggle for more courageous display of athletic activism?
That is a terrific question. I think that there are battles in our future. There are going to be battles about the public funding of stadiums, and whether college athletes should be paid, and whether Women will have equal access to Sports, and battles as to the role patriotism plays in Sports. So, it’s going to be very important for people to have a working understanding of the way Sports and Politics interact, and we can use the platform of Sports to speak on some of these issues, and reach a broader audience.
Lastly, just last week, a report came out that revealed how you and a few other anti-death activists were spied upon by the Maryland State Police. What is the next step in your fight to combat this ‘second coming’ of COINTELPRO?
We’re going on offense — to use a sports term. What they did is opposed across the political spectrum in Maryland, and people realize that when you’re doing something that is legal and constitutionally protected, they have no right to spy on you. They have no right to spy on you, set infiltrators or take your name down. It was an absolutely, utter, disgusting breach of police power, and we’re going to organize against it, and we wouldn’t be slowed-down one bit in organizing against the death penalty. And like they say about Civil Rights; either you use them or you lose them, and we’re prepared to use our constitutional rights.

Thanks for speaking with us, Dave Zirin.

 

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