Power, Forward

Dave Zirin on 'What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States'

Power, Forward

Sports radio is a nightmarish realm; yet, it's one of my go-to options late at night when I can't sleep. Braying right-wing hosts who quash dissenting opinions and points of view with ugly abandon; call-in drunks whose slurring stupidity seeps from the speakers like poison; and a complete disregard for actual discussion of, say, sports, in favor of the latest and lamest media-contrived controversy: My own little lullaby. It's maddening, really, destructive, and it's billed as an exchange of ideas about one of this country's biggest industries, accessible to every one of us with a phone or a computer.

I sleep poorly on these nights. It's my own problem. I suppose I should stick with the smooth jazz and the rain recordings. Or maybe find some Dave Zirin recordings.

Zirin has a radio voice. It's strong, assertive, articulate, and everything he says sounds in tandem with his tone. He's wry, occasionally bombastic, up for an argument. And, as it turns out, Dave Zirin does do radio. He's the regular sports commentator for the ill-fated Air America and XM's On the Real with Chuck D and Gia'na Garel.

But sports radio is not Zirin's thing, which is ironic, since Zirin's thing is the exchange of ideas about one of this country's biggest industries accessible to every one of us. His column, "Edge of Sports," appears in The Prince George's Post, where he recently left the post of news editor, and, more to the point, it's online, at www.edgeofsports.com. He is considered a radical – the site's tag is "What's LEFT of Sports" – a writer as much Noam Chomsky as Red Smith, and his work has appeared in the likes of The Source, The Nation, The International Socialist Review, SLAM, and CounterPunch. He will soon contribute A People's History of Sports to Howard Zinn's People's History series, while collaborating with Cabin Creek Films on a "sports and social movements" documentary.

The book that brings Zirin to Austin next week, What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books, $15, paper), goes from Lester Rodney to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to the 1968 Olympics to Marvin Miller and Curt Flood to Dave Meggyesy to Title IX to Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to Ricky Williams and all points in between. It's a collection of columns, interviews, and essays. I will let CounterPunch co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair do the talking here, but know that my praise would echo his: "Too often writers on the Left take a priggish attitude toward sports, huffing that an examination of the political economy of baseball or boxing is beneath serious commentary. It's a self-defeating posture. ... Zirin doesn't get bogged down in heavy theorizing. He writes with compassion, humor, and a saber-like sharpness that deftly shreds owners and mainstream sportswriters alike."

I recently spoke with Zirin – he'll be at BookPeople on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7pm; the Carver Library on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 7pm; and UT's CMA Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 17, 7:30pm – about the book and about the business. We talked about Terrell Owens and steroids, too, but those are conversations better left to my sports radio dreams.

Austin Chronicle: It's fun reconciling the guy who wrote of Diana Taurasi as "Pete Maravich with a ponytail, with a release on her shot so fast it looks like she's setting a volleyball," which is just fine sportswriting, with the guy who makes measured, incisive asides about Dick Cheney or whomever, whose political aptitude is just as interesting and informed. Which comes first for you?

Dave Zirin: I guess the starting point is that I don't see it as counterposed, and, so, because of that, it flows together for me. Naturally, it's how I write. I think that all writing in some way shape or form is political, but a love of sports transcends politics. Sports in its purest form; its purest form is how Vince Young runs and passes with the football, how Diana Taurasi shoots, how Serena Williams serves. These things are an art, which exists above the realm of politics. What we do is project our political views on these beautiful acts of art. ... Some of my least favorite writers politically are some of the best writers about actual sporting events, and some sports writers who I think have the best politics do a disservice sometimes to the games that they cover, and then once in a blue moon you get somebody like the late Ralph Wiley, who's able to do both. ... [ESPN columnist and former SLAM editor] Scoop Jackson. I think he's able to write about the art of sports, but also able to speak about politics through that art in a very dynamic fashion.

AC: A lot of people seem to find him pretty annoying.

DZ: I don't agree with everything that Scoop writes or does, but what I agree with is the way he tries to convey political ideas through what he sees. There's a lot of things I disagree with. I think he's insanely soft on, like, sneaker companies, for example, even to the point of being a cheerleader for them. I think he's incredibly soft on [Michael] Jordan, who, I think, while being a brilliant player, is a corrosive social force in our society.

AC: You don't seem to be that harsh on him in the book.

DZ: On Jordan?

AC: Yeah. Are you?

DZ: Well, I've got that one essay, "Michael Jordan Inc." I'd have to look at the piece. I think I'm pretty tough on him, actually.

AC: I love that Allen Iverson quote about him: "My heroes don't wear suits."

DZ: In some ways, it's a very soothsaying quote, because it foretells some of this NBA dress code stuff. [NBA Commissioner David] Stern desperately wants players today to look like Michael Jordan did off the court, but that raises the question ... look at somebody who's certainly a hero of mine, Etan Thomas. Everything Etan wears is against the dress code. But who would I rather have speaking to my child, for example, in her public school class? I'd rather have Etan seven days a week and twice on Sunday, because he reflects the values of community work, community organizing, and caring and fighting for a better world. Michael Jordan reflects the values of Michael Jordan Incorporated, and I find one set of those values corrosive, and the other set of those values is deeply enlightening and engaging. Now, who would I rather pay to see play? I mean, if you have to ask the question, you know the answer.

AC: You've written about how [former Denver Nugget] Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's refusal to stand for the national anthem in 1996 pretty much led to your career as a radical sportswriter and to this book. Can you describe where you were at that point, your state of mind?

DZ: Between the ages of 0 and 18, I was just a psychotic sports fan. I thought I knew it all. I played every sport. I had everybody – speaking of corrosive [laughs] – I had Lawrence Taylor, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, four people who have all enjoyed the Bolivian marching powder in their day, adorning the walls in my room. I mean, these guys were just my idols, and I still have major soft spots for all those folk. ... That was my life. When I was 18 years old, I really swore off sports for quite a few years, for a good four years, mainly because I went to a basketball game during the first Gulf war, and they had the mascot beat up somebody in an Arab costume for the thrill of the audience while they got everybody to chant USA. It led me to think that there was something very wrong, not just with this country, but also something very wrong with sports, as if sports were somehow part of the problem, not part of the solution. I wanted to swear off sports like a vegetarian swears off a big plate of mutton. So, I actually have this whole kind of weird blank period in the early to mid-Nineties where I don't really know that much about what happened. [laughs] It's almost like a blackout period. And then it really was in 1996, and just learning about Rauf, the stand that he was taking, but also learning about the history at that point. All of sudden, I got angry, almost, because it reconnected me with how much I loved sports. I was mad at myself that I'd willingly given up something that I think is a beautiful part of the human experience. I was really just like, "What the hell's the matter with me? Why am I willingly giving up sports? I love basketball. I love football. ... Why should I have to, just because there's shitty politics as a part of it?" So, instead of giving it up, what I wanted to do was figure out a way to separate what's beautiful from what's disgusting, so we can love what's beautiful and then have a critique of what we disagree with and treat sports as the political entity that it is, just like any sphere of culture is political.

I was just on a radio show where somebody called in and said, "Well, why are you trying to make sports political?" My response was "I'm not making anything political anymore than I'm making gravity political when you fall out of an airplane." It's an objective fact that sports is political. The national anthem is a political song. All the trappings of sports are political. Using sexism to sell beer is a political act. Calling your national champion a world champion is a political decision. The question is, are we going to actually engage in a political argument with those other ideas, or are we just gonna say, "Oh, no, no, no: Leave it alone – it's sports."

AC: What kind of feedback do you get as a columnist? I can't imagine that this kind of analysis is all that welcome in some circles, but I would also think that many times you're preaching to the choir, like other leftist writers.

DZ: That's the beautiful thing about sports. I just got 20 – I'm not kidding around: I got 20, two-oh – angry e-mails in a day from University of Alabama fans because of something I wrote in 2003. I got all these over the weekend.

AC: About the column that's in the book?

DZ: Yeah, about racist hiring practices at Alabama and comparing it with the Civil Rights period and George Wallace. That's the thing about sports. Let's say I spent all my time writing about the Green party. Then, you're absolutely right, the people who would be looking and doing Google searches on the Green party would be people who'd be interested in that. The people who are interested in things like Alabama football or Allen Iverson are going to have all kinds of political views. So, a lot of times, people who go to my Web site totally disagree with me. I gotta say it was really funny to get these 20 e-mails, actually, because 10 of them were blasting me for being a condescending Northerner who doesn't understand that the South has changed tremendously since the days of the 1960s and I don't know what I'm talking about. That there's a new South. And the other half were calling me, like, a dirty motherfucking Jew. [laughs] What I did was take all the ones that were brutally racist and anti-Semitic, and I sent them to all the people who were yelling at me about how the South was now Disneyland for all peoples. But the only e-mail that got under my skin, which pissed me off, was someone who wrote that "Yeah, it's easy to write about the South, but you don't have the guts to write about the North and what happens in the North." And that's utter horseshit. I have that piece on Barry Bonds and Boston; I write about goings-on everywhere from Minnesota to Northen California, extensively. I guess I agree with the Malcolm X quote that the American South starts at the Canadian border.

Power, Forward

AC: I don't think I've heard that one.

DZ: It's a good one.

AC: What about the response – both during and upon reading your interviews – of your subjects, particularly people like Lee Evans and John Carlos?

DZ: They love it. That's, I think, one of the really rewarding things about this whole journey. This whole generation of folks who are now in their fifties and sixties who were the center of the athletic revolts of the 1960s. What do you think their No. 1 sort of idea is about people in our generation?

AC: Um ...

DZ: We don't give a shit, and that we have no respect for history. That's their belief. It would be one thing if you had tons of people breaking down their door, you know, for their political views and why they did what they did, and then it's like, "Ugh, who the hell is this? There's a white boy asking me about this stuff." But they just love the fact that there's some kind of political friction with the younger generations, and that I'm bringing their stories to younger generations, too.

AC: Is it harder to find good, solid examples of resistance in modern-day sports? I get the sense that in writing the book, you had to scrape a bit toward the end, after covering the rich post-war history so well. Are we seeing less dissent because of the big money and unprecedented comfort?

DZ: My overarching view of the current situation is that there are athletes who are speaking out and who are trying to have their voices heard far more than we would ever know from watching SportsCenter. Their stories, because of the lack of broader social movements, don't get amplified. Ali was Ali because he was Ali in the 1960s. If he'd been Ali in the Forties, no one would have cared. It had to do with doing it in a time and place in a set of conditions, rising to the occasion instead of stooping to them. So, there are athletes who are speaking out, but it's not being heard, I think, because of the entrenched nature of corporate sports media and also the lack of mass social movements. And the other issue is that these athletes who do speak out, they're very disparate. They do it as individuals. There's no kind of joint organization like Athletes for Social Justice, where they can meet and commonly discuss what it is they care about. The closest thing we have are the sports unions, which are more political bodies than people think in terms of ideas that are discussed. But, the problem with it is, these are very cloistered societies. You don't have cameras in on these union meetings hearing what players have to say. Nor should there be: I'm not arguing there should be. There's an absence of a public voice, though, coming out of these institutions. And I think it's important to ask, when people ask me why aren't more athletes speaking out, why aren't more people speaking out? I don't think we can separate athletes from the rest of society. The critique we have of athletes should be one that we level on this country as a whole. Sixty percent of this country now thinks the war was a mistake. OK, so there are 290 million people in this country. Sixty percent of 290 million is, what, roughly 180 million? Well, there should be 180 million people marching on Washington.

AC: Right, yeah, to a certain extent, but there are people speaking out, and the mainstream media hasn't paid all that much attention. Unless you're Cindy Sheehan, there hasn't been the same forum for most people as there is for pro athletes.

DZ: I certainly agree. I think someone once said, and I think it's very true, mainstream media robs us of our history, but it also robs us of our present. There's a lot going on that we don't hear about that would be very inspiring if we did know it was taking place. There's no question that there is also a sector of athletes who feel in their gut a certain way about the world but don't speak out –

AC: You think it's 60%?

DZ: – because they are concerned about risking their hyper-exalted position. They're also concerned about risking their contract and their paycheck. And athletes know the history of other athletes who've been punished for speaking out. People like Craig Hodges of the Bulls or Rauf. My experience has been that they're very conscious of their own history, and of athletes who've paid a price for speaking out.

AC: That's refreshing. At times, I don't get that sense. The anonymous quote you have – "10 percent of Alex Rodriguez's check should go to the family of Curt Flood" – hints at it, but, otherwise, modern athletes seem to lack perspective and sense of history. I mean, even your putting guys like Rasheed Wallace and Barry Bonds in the same breath, or in this case, book, with –

DZ: Ali and the like ...

AC: That seems to be a bit of a strech.

DZ: I don't put the Wallace and Bonds stuff in the "Stir of Echoes" section, because that's really reserved for the people who I think are in the tradition of Ali. I mean, with those guys – you could put Iverson in this category, as well – it's more, like, trying to look at some cracks in the athletic-industrial complex and looking at athletes, who, you know, as disappointing as they may be on a lot of levels, are attempting to speak up and speak out. There's a lot of pressure on athletes to fit a kind of corporate mold, where they say we'll play one game at a time, and, good lord willing, we'll play one game at a time. Blah, blah, blah. It's not so much that I want to celebrate athletes who break that, but I want to amplify it. In the NBA, to speak out against David Stern, that's like criticizing Vito Corleone at the San Genaro parade in Little Italy. [Wallace is] taking a risk.

AC: Not that war and race issues are by any means resolved, but what do you see as the next big resistance movement in sports?

DZ: This is a debate I got into with [Daily Worker columnist] Lester Rodney, 94-year-old Lester Rodney. Because Lester – I was just with him out on the West Coast – Lester's argument is that, in his day, it was smashing the color line in Major League Baseball. And there's no similar grand narrative today, no grand cause. And I disagreed with him – with, of course, all respect, because I've got nothing but respect for Lester – because, first of all, it's Lester's genius that he saw that as a big fight and a grand narrative. Not everybody did, by any stretch. You don't see any critiques in the mainstream press in the 1930s against the color line. You saw it in the black press and you saw it in the radical press, and they deserve credit for seeing a fight that other people who had their blinders on didn't see. So, you have to look at it from that same perspective today. I think that the two big struggles in front of us ... one is the battle to save Title IX from being overturned, the rights of women. Title IX most generally is about all education, equal funding. But, of course, it's most closely associated and most controversial with regards to sports. Title IX is something that's improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women around the country, and it's something that both Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts believe to be unconstitutional. So, this could be a major battle on the horizon that could enlist women from all walks of life. The right to athletic freedom, basically. And another big fight in front of us, I think, is the right of college athletes to get a piece of the pie –

AC: Not to treat you like a candidate for something, but what would be a realistic system proposal there?

DZ: I would argue that college athletics on every level – divisions I, II, III, the NAIA – are a tremendous commitment for the student athletes who do them. I went to a Division III school, and a buddy of mine was a diver. He'd be up at 5am every day and getting back at dusk, practicing, class, and training. Their participation should be seen as work-study, and they should get some sort of stipend just for playing the sport on the principle that they're adding something to the basic environment of the school. My buddy, it was kind of a joke, because he's giving his heart and soul to being on the diving team, and then for four hours a week he was making 10 bucks an hour sitting in the history department pretending to work. It's kind of a joke, like, what the fuck? He should be getting paid for what he's actually doing to help the school. He's not helping the school by sitting there and doing his homework. I think every athlete, by taking the time out of their life to give something back to the school, um, should get a stipend. Athletes, like, at UT, for example, where sports are a big business and a revenue-producing business, should get a cut commensurate with the revenue that their sports produce, particularly with regards to corporate sponsorship, and particularly with regards to sneaker money. And how that should be worked out should be something that's collectively bargained with athletes and their representatives, as well. But the current system makes me way too uncomfortable.

AC: Well, who would be their representatives, though? Seems like a lot of people could be left out in the cold.

DZ: I think that would be for them to work out. That's kinda where my blueprint reaches its end. It could be players who are on the teams. If they get union representatives, most unions have their own bargainers. I'm not saying this wouldn't be difficult – the transitory nature of college athletics makes it very difficult – but, at the same time, I really do think that in this country we fought a civil war to do away with arrangements that currently exist in Division I sports.

AC: Some people can't watch sports without gambling on them –

DZ: – quarter of a billion a year industry –

AC: – and I'm wondering if you can enjoy sports without a running analysis going through your brain, what with all of the ads, banners, corporate logos, fights –

DZ: I enjoy sports now more than I did when I was 12 years old. I'm a bit of a homer. I've lived in D.C. for nine years, so I'm a huge Washington Wizards fan. I'm a big University of Maryland Terps basketball fan. Even though I'll fight to the death to change their name, I'm a Washington Redskins fan. I like tapping into the city I'm in. end story

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