Dave Zirin on Why Progressives Should Embrace Sports

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People with progressive politics shouldn’t reflexively shun sports, says sportswriter and Utne Reader visionary Dave Zirin.

He should know. Zirin is the rare sports journalist who dares to promote left-field politics. In his Edge of Sports columns, his XM Sirius radio show of the same name, his stories for The Nation, and numerous other outlets, he has championed Title IX for advancing women’s sports, taken on the corporatocracy that runs the big leagues, criticized big stadium subsidies from the public till, and addressed issues of race, gender, and sexuality like few other sports personalities.

I recently spoke with Zirin in a lively and enlightening conversation that covered the left’s sports-phobia, the value of the alternative press, and his physical resemblance (or lack thereof) to Muhammad Ali. Here it is:

You’ve staked out a unique niche, exploring the social, cultural, and political issues that swirl around sports. How did you come to define this turf, and what are you trying to accomplish?

“There’s this deeply mistaken idea in our culture that politics is just what people do on Capitol Hill, when in fact politics is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and in the games we play. And oftentimes, in our society, some of most honest discussions that we have–about racism, about sexism, about homophobia, about corporate power–happen on sports radio and in the world of sports. We can say that we wish this wasn’t so, but as the expression goes, you don’t have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane. I mean, it is what it is.

“But unfortunately, people who see themselves as progressives or on the left have completely ceded this very dynamic political space to the right wing. I know so many people on the left who on general principle shun sports. They say, oh, it’s too corporate, it’s too racist, it’s too sexist. And there may be truth in that–but sports is also part of the human experience: It’s physical expression, it’s beauty, and it’s been the site of some of the most electric struggles of the 20th century.

“I mean, there is no denying from a historical perspective that Muhammad Ali is the most famous draft resister in the history of the United States. There is no denying that Title IX is perhaps one of if not the most important reform of the women’s liberation movement. There is no denying that the earliest public LGBT people were people in the world of sports like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

“So this is very real–and yet we on the left are oftentimes very dismissive of it in a way that we shouldn’t be, because issues like everything from the name of the team in my hometown, the Washington Redskins, to whether or not teenage girls have access to play, to whether or not a gay athlete feels like he or she can come out of closet on a team, to whether or not taxpayer money goes to a new stadium–these are all issues which are dynamically political, and it’s about time we had our say.

“I did a book talk for my first book, What’s My Name, Fool!, which has this big picture of Muhammad Ali on the cover. And I did it at a very left wing, anarchist bookstore with tons of antiwar stuff everywhere. And I go into the bookstore to do the talk, and the manager of the store comes up to me and asks, ‘Can I help you?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I’m Dave Zirin.’ And they say, ‘What? But you’re white.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’m white, last I checked.’ And they say, ‘But your picture on the cover of the book . . .’ And I say, ‘No, that’s not me. That’s Muhammad Ali.’ ‘Ohhhhh!’ Later, in that same event, someone asked me–remember, the book is called What’s My Name, Fool!–why I decided to write about Mr. T.

“I raise this not to take a potshot at some well-meaning lefties, but at this bookstore there’s antiwar stuff everywhere, they’re selling Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky–and they don’t know the history of Muhammad Ali. This to me is an act of political masochism. We’re amputating one of the most dynamic parts of our own history as activists.

“That’s why I write what I write, and that’s why I do what I do. I also like traveling around and talking to people. There are so many people in this country who love sports but hate what sports have become. That’s an opening for us to actually have an honest discussion about reclaiming sports from those who would use it to pump messages of militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed. We can go out there with a strong message that says we want to take our sports back, and we would be surprised at the audience we would find.”

You’re in so many media, from TV to print to talk radio to your website. Where is the most exciting media territory in sports right now?

“Two areas, I’d say, and they’re very different areas. The first is sports radio, because it’s like walking into the lion’s den and just taking these ideas down. And the thing that’s interesting about sports radio is that our political media landscape is very segregated. You’ve got your Pacifica Radio and you’ve got your Fox News. But sports radio is a place where a lot of it comes together. Unfortunately, the commentators don’t really reflect the diversity of the listenership, but it is the only kind of place where I’ve been able to go on and get in really hardcore political arguments with the host and then get a whole diversity of calls from people calling in–who agree, disagree. It’s a great place to actually reach people and to actually test what I’m saying in practice. My argument is that there are tons of sports fans who don’t get touched by progressive politics who we can reach through sports. And when I get to do sports radio, it doesn’t always work, but it’s a chance to really put that into practice and test it.

“Also, when I had thought of writing about the politics of sports, every publisher turned me down except an independent press called Haymarket Books. They took a chance on it. And the only reason I get to do like ESPN and MSNBC is because an independent publisher took a chance that the ideas would have a hearing. It’s so critical. Magazines like the Utne Reader, book publishers like Haymarket–it’s so important that they survive and thrive and that we support them. Because otherwise, the bottleneck of ideas in our society becomes so narrow without the independent press. I really owe Haymarket just about everything, really, for just taking a chance on independent thought, which you don’t get in the mainstream media.”

So if there’s this great hunger in the sports world for intelligent discussion, do you think there are going to be more commentators like you, more people who are willing to shake things up?

“I hope so, because we need more. You’re definitely starting to see it on the Internet, and you’re definitely starting to see it on Internet radio as well, and I think we need more of it. I meet people all the time who are really good progressives, and they talk about being sports fans as if it’s their dirty little secret. They’re practically whispering it to me, like, ‘Hey, I’m a sports fan, too,’ as if they watch highlights at 3 a.m. in their closet or something.

“And I want to tell all the progressive sports fans, get out of the closet and into the streets, get out of the closet and onto the blogs, get out of the closet and onto the Web, because this is just space that’s there for us to claim. And the more of us that are out there pushing our ideas about what sports could be, the more opening there’s going to be for the very kind of shake-it-up mainstream sports journalism that I think we so desperately need. It’ll come from below, and I think we can do it.”

Image courtesy of Dave Zirin.

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