Dave Zirin Presents Not Just a Game at 2640 Space March 29
Dave Zirin isn’t just another opinionated sports journalist and radio personality. The New York City native is the sports editor at The Nation, a magazine that takes its contemporary political discussion as seriously as the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma take the Red River Shootout Rivalry. And Zirin has spent his career talking about sports in the context of labor activism, racism, gender inequality, etc. In short, the same often hot topics that percolate through discussions of American culture and politics at large—everything except sports.
And Zirin wants to change that fact with the documentary Not Just a Game: Power, Politics and American Sports, directed by Jeremy Earp (War Made Easy) and co-written by Earp, Zirin, and Chris Boulton. The educational documentary argues that sports, despite claims by some athletes and its presentation as a mass-media entertainment spectacle, is inherently political, that athletes make choices that have political impact—whether it be as corporate spokesmen or, like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, when they actually speak their minds—and that these decisions affect not just sports and fans but the population at large.
City Paper caught up with Zirin by phone when he was in Los Angeles to present the film, and the conversation that ensued was a frank and engaging discussion not only about Not Just a Game’s arguments but the idea that athletes and fans should be encouraged to reclaim the sports they love, that sports already means more than just who wins and loses because it’s so seamlessly integrated into our daily cultural experience. He concludes this interview with a sincere plea: “If anybody who reads this disagrees with anything I say, please come to the screening and I promise you, we can talk this out as publicly or as privately as you want. But I would say that nowhere are the stakes for understanding the connection between sports and politics greater than in the city of Baltimore.”
City Paper: I haven’t seen the movie but I am familiar with your work, and judging from the two trailers I’ve seen, I get the impression Not Just a Game is taking somewhat of a wide-angle look at sports and politics, in that by talking about the ways those are entangled you can address racism, gender inequality, economics, social/cultural dynamics—in other words, the very subjects your journalism has explored over the past decade or so. Is that somewhat of an organizing idea to the movie, that the culture of sports and the politics of the country in which it takes place can’t be so cleanly separated?
Dave Zirin: I would say the No. 1 organizing idea of the film is that you can’t say that sports are a politics-free zone, even when sports are at their most normal. Professional sports in the United States is not an apolitical space, but what it does is normalize a set of politics that are always there that conditions us—the viewers, the fans—to see as normal. It’s normal to have military flyovers before the Super Bowl. That’s just normal. It’s normal to have military appreciation night where Marines get sworn in at home plate. It’s normal to have a second national anthem at the ballpark. It’s normal to have cheerleaders. It’s normal to have a football team called the Redskins. It’s normal for cities and municipalities to pay for stadiums out of taxpayer money.
All of these things are normal. This is the way sports is. And it’s the people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King—to bring it to Baltimore, we could say Brendon Ayanbadejo speaking out for marriage equality—these are the people who are abnormal because they’re using their sports platform to talk about politics.
I love sports—I’m a huge sports fan, I played sports—but sports is something that’s constantly used to pump out political ideas. Agree with them or disagree with those ideas, it’s not a value judgment on that. It’s more like, let’s step back and acknowledge the truth here. And the truth is that sports is always used for political ends and so, therefore, we should grant more space and more respect to athletes, to fans—hell, even the sportswriters, who try to say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Here’s what I have to think about the politics of sports.’
CP: Has this always been the case in America? Or has this intertwining of sports and politics been something that’s gradually evolved as sports became such a mass spectacle?
DZ: Well, the first baseball team to visit the White House was in the Johnson administration—the Andrew Johnson administration. So it’s always been there but, absolutely, it has grown and mutated over time to a profound degree. There was a time in this country when there was no national anthem before games, and there was a time when there was no team called the Redskins. These things have mutated over time and have become more entrenched in our culture to the point now where it would be seen as abnormal if President Obama didn’t invite, for example, the Green Bay Packers to the White House after the Super Bowl. That would be seen as abnormal.
It’s gotten to the point where people are saying not will Congress step in about the NFL lockout but when will Congress step in about the NFL lockout. It’s become much more entrenched over time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that people in politics will prostitute themselves for attention, and there are few ways to get more attention than to do a congressional hearing that’s simulcast on ESPN like the steroid hearings were. They are absolute whores for that sort of attention, and sports is a way to get that attention. That’s one basic reason—it’s a cheap media hit.
But there’s a bigger reason why it’s become so entrenched. It’s that sports and sports teams have really become a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. You don’t have to look much farther than Baltimore to make this argument, where you’ve seen the dilapidation of industrial jobs, union jobs, and the growth of work that revolves around the stadiums and sports teams. And that work tends to be non-union, it tends to pay very little, it tends to be geared around the service industry as opposed to an industrial economy. And this is what sports has brought our cities—it’s become our urban policy over the last generation and it makes things like these lockouts that the owners are imposing, in football and probably in basketball too, much broader social questions than just the question of whether or not there will be sports for fans. I mean sports, at this point, affects all of us—whether we see ourselves as fans or not.
And that’s actually a huge support theme of the film. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sports fan, sports shapes how we see ourselves as women, as men, as people who are black, brown, or white. It shapes a whole host of cultural assumptions that far transcends the world of sports.
CP: How did you first start to notice and think seriously about the political context of sports in America? I ask because in watching the trailers for the film, it made me very aware that the narratives of athletes/sports that we typically get in sports televisual media actively avoid such discussions. What we usually get are the up-close and personal spotlights during the Olympics, the triumphs over adversity sagas of individual athletes, the banding together to do something as a team: These are kinda also the mythic stories of America itself. When you did first start to notice how politics and sports overlapped?
DZ: It hit me really hard in high school. I grew up a real sports geek in New York City—just obsessed with every team, every statistic, memorizing the backs of baseball cards. I played baseball and basketball in high school. And I remember the first Gulf War happened in 1991, I was still in high school. And one of my teammates was also one of my best friends. His family was from Iran. And he cut out of practice to go to an anti-war demonstration. And I remember even saying to him, like, “What the hell is wrong with your priorities? You should be at practice not at a demonstration.” And at the demonstration itself he was hit across the knee by a police officer with a nightstick or baton, and he was put in the hospital for that. And this was something that weighed very heavily on my mind. This was my friend. He was hurt.
And I went to a basketball game around this time, because back then you could actually go to a game at Madison Square Garden without getting a second mortgage on your house. Let me just say it’s changed dramatically, the sports landscape. It used to be the working class could afford tickets, but now it’s working-class people are paying for the stadiums but can’t afford tickets, so it’s quite the fun-house mirror.
But I went to the game and the halftime show involved one of the mascots beating somebody up who was wearing an Arab costume while the Jumbotron got everybody to chant, “U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!” And I’ll be honest with you, that might have been exactly the sort of thing that would have gone in one ear and out the other maybe even a week or two earlier. But the fact that my friend—I never even thought of my friend as being from the Middle East before. But not only seeing him as somebody from the Middle East but seeing him as somebody who got physically assaulted for his beliefs, for peaceful assembly, it just really shook me up. And I became really disgusted at a whole lots of sports at that moment, especially the whole Jumbotron aspect of it.
And that made me give up sports for several years, cold turkey. I was disgusted with myself, disgusted with sports, and that really changed for me in 1996 when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for the Denver Nuggets made the decision not to come out for the national anthem before games. And that was a story that actually made it off the sports page and onto the front page at the time. And I’ll never forget one of the talking heads saying about Rauf, “Well, he must see himself in the tradition of activist athletes like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith, or Billie Jean King.” And I remember seeing that and thinking to myself, What the hell is an activist athlete?
I thought of myself as this sports encyclopedia growing up, and I didn’t know any of that history at all. And I tried to learn it and was fascinated by it and came to draw a more sort of nuanced conclusion than I have to give up sports. I now believe very firmly that we shouldn’t reject sports—we should reclaim it. That sports is art, it’s exciting, it’s amazing, and it’s something that’s used to pump out politics that I think many fans would disagree with. And I think we need to enter the fray and to challenge what it is about sports that we don’t like.
CP: Why do think we try to keep them separate? What’s to be gained from insisting sports is an apolitical zone? Why is that the norm?
DZ: I think because over the last 20, 30 years as, obviously, the world economy has developed and the sheer pie for sports has become so incredibly vast, the overwhelming political ethos in sports is not so much something that is traditionally right or left but corporatism. And one of the fundamental rules or corporatism, whether it’s written by somebody who happens to be conservative or liberal, is that the best way to sell a product is to offend as few people as possible. So there’s this pressure to create the blank slate. And I talk about this in the film, the athlete who has best been able to project the blank slate historically has been Michael Jordan. Athletes sometimes now refer to themselves as the “Sons of Jordan”—not that they want to mimic his incredible athletic skills, but it’s the idea that they want to mimic his ability to be the ultimate blank corporate pitch man, with the ability to hide who they really are as a person and be able to move product, to adopt the veneer of rebellion while being stripped of its social content.
What’s interesting about owners, and I talk about this in my last book, Bad Sports, is the overwhelming majority of them are roughly to the right of Attila the Hun. And so it’s not that they’re not political people, but what they do is they practice their politics in shadows. And they’re able to reap unbelievable profits. Owning a sports team is like a license to print money, and they then use that money to bankroll the institutions of the far right. If you look at everything in Colorado Springs, [such as] Focus on the Family, [or] Family Research Council [and] the Media Research Center, it’s amazing how many pro sports owners have their fingerprints on these things.
But the corporatism is the overriding ethos, and that’s why so many owners really rebelled when Rush Limbaugh tried to own a team a little over a year ago when he tried to buy the St. Louis Rams. Because Limbaugh is seen almost as this gauche, daffy clown—they don’t want someone in their fraternity who’s that loud and out front with their politics.
CP: Is this sort of normalization of the politics and sports divide a distinctly American phenomenon?
DZ: Well it’s interesting, because it always depends on a relationship between the corporate structure of the leagues and whether or not there’s struggle in the streets, which then, for lack of a better word, inspires the athletes to be political as well. I would argue that the corporatist goal is the goal globally in big-time sports, whether you’re talking about the English Premier League in soccer, or if you’re talking about international cricket, or whether you’re talking the Olympic sports, or whether you’re talking about sports in the U.S. The goal is always the corporatist blank-slate product. But it’s much harder to keep a lid on it when you have, for example, something like a revolution in Egypt and the soccer clubs become a voice of the revolution, because in the autocracy it was one of the few places people could gather and speak out.
The United States, I would argue, has written the blueprint for things like the English Premier League and has been the great projector of this as the way to run your sports leagues. It’s just hard to keep a lid on it in periods of social unrest. And you see that in the United States as well with people like Brendon Ayanbadejo. I love the statement he made, it’s very admirable, about fighting for marriage equality, and it’s not the first time he’s spoken out about it. And doing it as someone in the world of professional football is especially daring. And he doesn’t do that if you don’t have 200,000 people marching in the streets in the fall of 2009 at the National Equality March—that was when Ayanbadejo first made his comments about marriage equality. Him and Scott Fujita, who was then with the New Orleans Saints. He doesn’t do that if you don’t have people organizing and fighting for this on a daily basis. So there’s a relationship there.
CP: Do you feel the political climate in sports changing?
DZ: I think it’s changing a lot, and I would argue that things in sports now are profoundly more political than they were in the mid-1990s. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. One reason does have to do with the very real struggles that are going on on the ground. With the protests in Wisconsin, you saw several members of the Green Bay Packers, including their defensive captain, Charles Woodson, speak out in support. I was at a nurses rally in Washington, D.C., there was a one-day nurses strike, and former NFL player Nolan Harrison, who works for the NFL Players Association, spoke at that rally and frankly brought the house down. He was amazing.
And some of that has to do with the much broader economic crisis that we’re seeing, which has given a green light for the heads of sports leagues to try to push huge concessionary contracts with the players. And that has a radicalizing effect on players, it really does. If people want to scoff about that, I advise them to come to the film screening and let’s talk about it in the Q&A. I have a lot to say about that, having spent a lot of time with a lot of the sports unions, with a lot of the players. And people should discard their stereotypes about their politics and their so-called isolation from politics. Its more vibrant than you think.
But another reason that shouldn’t be discounted is, honestly, social media. It’s Facebook and Twitter. You got to remember, for the most of sports history in this country, a couple of columnists had incredible sway in every city about how athletes were perceived. And now not only can athletes get around the filters and speak directly to fans, but you also have a million different sports columnists out there on the internet. And chances are, someone’s going to say something that takes the other side.
Let me give an example. I’ve gotten to know over the last year former NBA player Olden Polynice. He’s Haitian. And in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton wouldn’t let HIV+ refugees into the United States after promising that he would, Olden Polynice made an in-season hunger strike. That’s crazy if you think about it. He did this in-season hunger strike, and I went back to LexisNexis and looked up archived stories, and not only was it barely written about, but when it was written about he was crushed by columnists for being so selfish, for hurting the team, for mixing politics and sports. I would be willing to venture that if a player today did something similar, there would be an internet support page. He would be able to talk about it every day on Facebook—we take that so for granted now. He would be able to have a public diary, what it was like to play without food. And there was no ability to do that in the early ’90s.
CP: And that’s not that long ago.
DZ: And Olden Polynice had a long career, so he just retired. There’s a ton of players in the NBA who played with Olden Polynice. So in the living memory of NBA players there was no ability to communicate directly with fans. And now it’s all over the place.
And what’s interesting about that is, you know, Twitter can be an impulsive act sometimes. Oftentimes, athletes, they are under a lot of pressure to not speak out. That hasn’t changed. But there are more opportunities for more athletes to say, “Fuck it”—and put some shit out there. And I think it has a real effect on consciousness when they do.
I can understand when people say, “Well, why should we care what athletes have to say? Why should we privilege what they say over a teacher or a firefighter?” And I would certainly agree with that. But I think we have gone so far in the other direction where athletes are told to basically be robots with legs and just shut up and play. And that dehumanizes athletes. And in a weird way it has the effect of dehumanizing us as fans, because we have the expectation that our heroes are going to be blank-faced dumb jocks. Or at least affect that pose when, in fact, many of them—I would say the majority of them—don’t fit that description at all.