Sports and Social Justice With David Zirin

On the Olympics, Mark Cuban’s fondness of Ayn Rand, and Howard Zinn’s love of the Boston Red Sox

David Zirin
David Zirin (by Jared Rodriguez courtesy of Edge of Sports)

David Zirin collects accolades like baseball cards. He was named one of the UTNE Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World," he’s been awarded Press Action's Sportswriter of the Year twice, and often graces television screens as a guest analyst on various CNN, ESPN, and MSNBC programs. However, Zirin is much more than a sports journalist.

A disciple of Howard Zinn, Zirin’s work focuses on the social and political consequences of sports, from the women’s baseball leagues in the 1940s, to Muhammad Ali; the housing of hurricane victims in sports arenas, to scrutinizing Tiger Woods using Ka Hsaw Wa’s open letter to the golfer which discussed victims of forced labor, rape, and torture on Chevron's pipeline. Zirin noted, “Chevron is underwriting a dictatorship but Tiger Woods apparently sees them as upstanding corporate partners." Zirin has a surgical approach in his vivisection of the sporting world. His words and ideas float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee. In a series devoted to reviewing his books, Zirin chatted with The Score about the Olympics, Mark Cuban’s fondness of Ayn Rand, and remembers Zinn’s love of the Boston Red Sox.

Austin Chronicle: You’re an outspoken critic of the Olympic Games. When Chicago lost the 2016 games to Rio de Janeiro you wrote this was something of a blessing in disguise for the Windy City. Could you please elaborate and give examples from recent games?

David Zirin: To greater or lesser degrees, the Olympics bring gentrification, graft, and a suppression of civil liberties wherever they nest. Even without the Olympic Games, Chicago has been ground zero in the past decade for the destruction of public housing, political corruption raised to an art form, and police brutality scandals. Beijing was a horror show in this regard.

But it extends beyond China's autocracy. The evidence is overwhelming. People may remember the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where "Nadia Comaneci stole our hearts." It was more than hearts that were stolen. The people of Montreal are still paying for the Majesty of the Summer Games three decades later, even though at the time one official said "Olympics cause deficits as often as men have babies."

But for those with shorter memories, one need only look to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, which gutted the Greek economy. In 1997 when Athens "won" the games, city leaders and the International Olympic Committee estimated a cost of $1.3 billion. When the actual detailed planning was done, the price jumped to $5.3 billion. By the time the Games were over, Greece had spent some $14.2 billion, pushing the country's budget deficit to record levels.

The graft and corruption may reach Enronian levels, but far worse is the fact that the Olympics carry the promise of repression for a city's most vulnerable residents. It's a familiar script, replayed every four years, with only the accents changing. Political leaders start by saying that a city must be made "presentable for an International audience." Then the police and security forces take their green light and round up "undesirables" with extreme prejudice.

In Mexico City in 1968, this expressed itself most brutally when hundreds of Mexican students occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. To this day the Mexican Government has only admitted to 30 killings, but Amnesty International put the number at 500.

In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous "Olympic Gang Sweeps." As Mike Davis has written, it took the reinstatement of the 1916 Anti-Syndicalism act, a law aimed at the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World, to make these Stalin-esque jailings a reality. The 1916 bill forbid hand signals and modes of dress that implied IWW membership. The LA politicos of the '80s modernized the bill to include high-fives, and bandanas making the case that Blood and Crip Joe Hills were overrunning the city. It was in the Gates sweeps that the seeds for the LA Rebellion of 1992, as well as the debut music video by a group called N.W.A were formed.

The Atlanta games in 1996 were no different. These games were supposed to demonstrate what President Clinton called "The New South," but the New South ended up looking a lot like the old one, as African-American occupied public housing was razed to the ground to make way for Olympic facilities.

Repression followed the Olympic Rings to Greece in 2004. As Democracy Now reported, city authorities "round[ed] up homeless people, drug addicts, and the mentally ill, requiring that psychiatric hospitals lock them up. Also affected by Athens Olympic clean-up are refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom are being targeted for detention and deportation in the days leading up to the games."

AC: This interview is in conjunction with reviewing three of your books What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States; Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports; and People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play. You also have your website Edge of Sports, and you blog for The Huffington Post, and write for The Nation. If I were to teach a class on your work where should I start, where should I stop, and what about the in-between?

DZ: Depends on the class I guess. I would start with the People's History book and walk people chronologically through how sports and politics have intersected. Then Terrordome, which deals with a lot of the modern hopes and horrors in sports.

AC: This June your book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love will be published. We have two vivacious owners in Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones here in the Lone Star State. Should I expect to be reading about one or both of these men when I review your book?

DZ: Well, they both certainly come up because they're never boring. If you are entertaining as opposed to shadowy and nefarious, it goes a long way when we're talking about owners. But the public dollars that went to the Jerry Dome is unconscionable. Cuban is an interesting guy: an Ayn Rand populist, who supports some very dynamic left-wing films and documentaries while simultaneously preaching the gospel of Atlas Shrugged. I wrote about him here.

AC: With an attentive eye on the arts, politics, and civic engagement, Austin is jokingly called the “Paris of the Red States." For these reasons your late friend Howard Zinn was held in high regard in this city well before his mention in the film Good Will Hunting. You’ve written elegantly of your relationship with Zinn in the past. Could you share a story of a memorable time with him?

DZ: How often do you ever call the death of an 87-year-old man a shock? But Howard's motor seemed like it would never stop so his death was stunning and upsetting. Many of us are still reeling. My favorite sports memory was when I spoke on a panel with Howard and former Yankee pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton. Neither of these incredible people had ever met before but both had admired each other from afar for damn near 40 years! Being able to facilitate a meeting between them before our panel and seeing them charm each other is something I'll never forget. The other story is when Howard and I did an onstage interview in Madison, Wis., on May 2 2009. I asked him, "As a paragon of social justice, how can you be a Red Sox fan?"

He answered, "Because the general manager of the Red Sox, a guy named Theo Epstein, invited me to sit in his box at a Red Sox game because he had read A People’s History of the United States. How many general managers of baseball teams have read anything? So, how can I stop being a Red Sox fan? Besides, they do win. A lot."

You can follow David Zirin on his website Edge of Sports. Read Timothy Braun’s review of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” here.

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