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Interview Thu Jul 12 2012

Interview: Dave Zirin on Politics, Sports & the Politics of Sports

dave_zirin.jpgDave Zirin is not your typical sportswriter. He is a regular contributor to The Nation, the host of the Sirius XM Radio show, Edge of Sports Radio, and has written six books and numerous articles about the intersection between sports and politics. I spoke with Zirin after a talk he gave at the Socialism 2012 conference about the levels of violence in pro sports. We discussed a range of topics including Howard Zinn, his new book, and his candid thoughts about sports team owners (and one prominent Chicago owner in particular).

When did you start thinking about politics and sports and the relationship between the two?

I was a sports-freak growing up in New York City. I played basketball, baseball. I only really started to think about politics and sports in 1991. It was during the first Gulf War and the halftime show at a game I was at at Madison Square Garden involved one of the mascots beating up somebody in an Arab costume. Everybody was chanting "USA! USA!" and my best friend in high school just happened to be Iranian. He was on the basketball team and he was strongly against this war that I didn't know or understand or even care about what was happening.

Seeing that at a game rocked my world a little bit, and had me thinking more about the politics of sports. It's been something I sort of nursed for years and paid attention when athletes spoke out politically.

Finally just came to... I was actually frustrated because there wasn't really a book that talked about the history of political athletes and protest athletes. So I started taking notes and that turned into the book I did called A People's History of Sports in The United States.

That was in conjunction with Howard Zinn?

Yes. It was part of the People's History series. Howard did the intro, and he was a good friend.

How did you first meet Howard Zinn?

I met Howard Zinn because... Howard, at the end of his life, was still as incredibly lucid and politically sharp as ever, but it was harder for him to actually stand in front of an audience for 40-45 minutes to give a speech. So a mutual friend of ours named Anthony Arnove, who did Voices of a People's History with Howard, had the idea that maybe I could interview Howard on stage, and that way he'd be able to sit and be able to do it.

And since I'd done already the People's History book -- which Howard was just really into and approved because he was a sports fan -- I was now officially then sort of like part of the People's History family. Anthony knew also that I was a radio host and had experience interviewing people. And we did it once and it went really well, so we just starting doing it in several places, where I would just interview Howard on stage. [I would] ask him very leading questions, and then he would go off for 10-15 minutes. And then I'd ask him another very leading question, he would go off for 10-15 minutes. I would say, like, "How did you develop a consciousness where you opposed war?" And he would just talk. And that's how we got to know each other.

And when he died, I gotta tell you, never in my entire life have I been shocked that someone who was in their late 80s died before. But with Howard I was shocked, because he was such an incredibly vibrant life force.

When you've been writing about sports and politics, are there common patterns or themes that you've noticed?

Yeah, the number one most common or pattern or theme is that it's always really events outside the athletic arena that spur political action inside. Anybody who's waiting for the athlete to lead us is going to be disappointed. But sports have such an incredible cultural platform in this country - so hyper-exalted, brought to you by Nike, etc. -- that it has a real power to then shape those struggles that are going on outside. So it's like sports are shaped by struggle, but then sports can then turn around and shape the struggle for the better. I would say that's the number one pattern that I've seen.

I was reading your website earlier. You had the one argument against the Thunder in the NBA Finals that sounded pretty interesting, because I don't know anyone who wanted to see the Heat win.

Yep, just me. I got a lot of hate for that one.

How did you come to that conclusion... the point you were making about that structure of team ownership? From the Seattle Supersonics to the Thunder -- what about that move did you find distinct in terms of the politics around sports ownership and the business of professional sports in comparison to how it usually works?

Well, because I think sports franchises are like public utilities. I mean, they're monuments in communities. Think about if someone decided to move the Chicago Bears, just because some suburb of Houston said, "We'll give you a $2 billion arena." I mean, that would be an obscenity to so many people in Chicago, like, "These are our Bears!"

Well, are they your Bears? Legally, they're not "your" Bears. But are they your Bears, like, in spirit? Are they your Bears psychologically? Are they your Bears in terms of your heart? And are they your Bears in terms of the amount of tax dollars and subsidies that went into rebuilding Solider Field? You better believe that [they're] your Bears.

So some of this is about redefining how we understand that word "ownership." Who owns a team? It's like saying who owns the Statue of Liberty? So people who are just sort of sanguine about this idea that, "Eh, Seattle, who cares? Now they're in Oklahoma City." To me, I was like, "No, bullshit!" If they win, it's going to embolden more owners to move. And I think that's destructive for sports and that's destructive for fans.

When you think of "Chicago politics" and you think of "Chicago sports" are there any overlaps in your mind or anything that strikes you?

Yeah, the biggest is how many public subsidies go into Chicago sports. It is like a public welfare cornucopia and [Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf is the biggest welfare queen in the United States. And I find it very ironic that one of Jerry Reinsdorf's great personal projects is standardized testing in the public schools. Because if you think about how much money his stadiums have taken out of the public school system in Chicago, and then he helps fund and underwrite the same standardized tests that are used to undermine public education because the scores are low, and that then promotes charter schools and the privatization of education... it's all just, at the same time, very ironic and also very suspicious.

You said the Chicago Bears started as the "Decatur Staleys" that were one the first football teams, and a lot of the first professional teams...

Came out of factories.

Could you expand on that?

Sure. Football already existed to a profound degree throughout the NCAA. I mean, it was a very new creation -- the NCAA. In the 1920's, it became very common for factories to have sports clubs. Football being one of them. And this arose in the 1920s out of the economic expansion, the expansion of leisure time in the United States. The '20s were a boom period. And also, it was a reaction to the social upheaval both of World War I and what was called the "Red Summer" of 1919.

It was used to -- they were very explicit about this -- used to bind people to their workplace. Particularly in the Midwest, that's where a lot of these teams begin -- as being formally first a part of the factory, and then sponsored by the factory. And then they would be paid for [by] the industry. And then they would pay for the team to go around.

Why do you think the Ford family owns the Detroit Lions? This doesn't just happen. It's a function of the intersection of capital and sports.

A lot of African-Americans from poor communities -- seemingly their only option for getting out of their neighborhoods is, like somebody said in an audience comment after your speech, "professional sports or the penitentiary." I was wondering what you thought of Derrick Rose's Adidas deal including his very own shoe that has a shout-out to his neighborhood, Engelwood?

I'd say good for Derrick Rose. [laughs] I'd love to have more athletes talk about the conditions in which these shoes are made. That would be very nice. The shoe industry and the sneaker industry and Nike have made billions of dollars by adopting a very hip, urban veneer to their shoes and selling them to suburban kids, and very little social responsibility -- either for the communities that created the very music and rhythm that informs the game, as well as in Southeast Asia. People can do a Google search of "Nike" and "child labor" and just be prepared to be assaulted by what they find.

To what extent do you think the infrastructure of professional sports could exist without advertising or branding or sponsorship?

Uh, that would be tough. But I do think that professional sports could exist without owners. I mean, look at the Green Bay Packers -- owners are superfluous. You could have fan-owned teams that elect a board of directors and seek out sponsors on their own. Green Bay Packers do a fantastic job of that. And just given the amount of public money that goes into stadiums, there's no reason for us to have pro-sports owners. They have become redundant.

Your talk at the Socialism 2012 conference was on the extent of violence within sports. Why did you choose to focus on that, and why do you believe that topic is worth further discussion?

I was very conflicted about what to talk about. The conference organizers were kind enough to say to me, "We want you to speak here, figure out what you want to talk about."
It all just became very clear to me after Junior Seau took his own life that we needed to talk about this. I didn't think I had all the answers, but I knew from my previous experience at this conference that the discussion would be productive. And from a selfish perspective, I knew I'd be smarter when the discussion ended and people would bring their own ideas to it. I was -- to put it mildly -- not disappointed.

One of the undercurrents of your speech was that if more people knew about the extent of head injuries, and concussions, and health factors from playing football, that it would probably become less and less popular. If not, there would be more and more push for safeguards in sports and giving the health and support benefits that athletes need. As you were talking about that, I was thinking about how much nostalgia goes into sports, how you see all these highlight reels, and Hall of Fame, and a sports media constantly comparing statistics. To what extent do you think that the sports media perpetuates the conditions that lead people to be unaware of the health risks?

[Whistles] I think you have a problem where the people with the most access to the inside of teams and how they work are also usually broadcast partners with the leagues themselves, and that creates a conflict of interest, not unlike having a doctor who works for the team and not for the players. And in some ways, it's even worse, because at least a doctor takes a Hippocratic Oath. While it's more just hypocrisy when it comes to the media members.

What I would like to see is more attention being paid to what athletes go through on off-days so fans actually have a full accounting of what it is that people actually go through to play these sports. I mean, the same way you've seen boxing popularity drop over the last 20 years. I'm about people being informed. People knowing everything. And the NFL does a brilliant job of masking the kind of violence people face. And I think it's the role of the media to expose that.

Where would you like to see professional sports and the culture around professional sports go in the near future?

If I could see anything else, one, I'd like to see college athletes get paid, so the system's not so ruthlessly exploitative -- including scholarships being guaranteed for all four years and not renewed on a year-by-year basis.

I'd like to see much more attention paid to the health of the player. I'd like to see less professionalization of youth sports. Less pressure on kids when they do play sports. And I would also like to see breaking down the barrier between those who participate and those who watch.

Could you tell me about your newest book?

The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed The World is the story of the 1968 Olympian, who, along with Tommie Smith, raised his black glove fist on the medal stand after the 200 meter race.

How did writing the book take place?

We just did hours and hours and hours of interviews and he's very, very, very much the storyteller. So then it was about getting the documentation of all the things that he said and then turning it into a coherent narrative.

And what's so great about the story -- and this is all credit to John times a million -- that it's not like a typical sports autobiography. Which is usually, "Look how talented I am, don't you wish you were me?"

It's much more like, "I've led a committed life for social justice," and that's something anybody can do, if they have the principles to do it.

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