Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 2, 2008

Iron. Lion. Zirin.

Progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin takes on traditional sports histories in his new book.

Michael Gluckstadt

If anyone ever doubted the influence of politics in sports, the Olympic Games in Beijing offered an international-grandstanding, dissension-crushing, 51-gold-medal-winning proof that sports are often used as a tool by powerful people and countries.

"Most sports histories read like Lies My Gym Teacher Told Me: Tall Tales of Individual Heroism or Outright Fictions about How the Games We Love Were Founded."—Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin knew that already, and has for some time. On the forefront of progressive sportswriting, Zirin frequently writes about the underlying conflicts in the sports arena. His new book, A People's History of Sports in the United States, mines the entire history of American sports—from Native American lacrosse to BMX—and digs up gems about some of our most well-known and shamefully obscure athletes. Did you know, for example, that without the assistance of Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson could've spent the 1947 season in an Army prison outfit instead of a Dodger's uniform? Or had you heard of Dave Meggyesy, the Cardinals linebacker who protested the Vietnam War?

Zirin's book—published by the not-for-profit New Press—is part of Howard Zinn's influential People's History series, which profiles important moments and movements in our nation's history from the bottom up, focusing on the achievements not of traditional "Great Men," but of the lesser-known figures who spurred dramatic change.

At his last Varsity Letters appearance, an outraged Zirin ranted against the wrongs constantly being perpetuated in today's sports world—publicly financed stadiums, irresponsible Latin American baseball farms, Jason Whitlock. In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, a more-sober but equally incisive Zirin, 34, discusses what NBC omitted from its Olympics coverage, the problem with most sports histories, and writing on the issue of race. You can hear Zirin, along with ESPN's Buster Olney and author Harvey Frommer, read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, September 4th, in New York's Lower East Side. He will also be appearing the night before at the Brecht Forum in conversation with sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, an event co-sponsored by Gelf.

Gelf Magazine: You're the expert on the intersection of sports and politics, an area epitomized by the Olympic Games. Do you think the Games are a modernizing force in China, or a chance for China to put on a nice face to the world while continuing to support and inflict human-rights violations? Or is it both?

Dave Zirin: I think the Games will actually retard the reform process in China because the Chinese Communist Party was just fellated by the most powerful nations and leaders on earth, all of whom are in a mad rush to do business in the fastest growing economy on earth.

GM: What do you think of how NBC covered the Games? Did the network do a fair job addressing real concerns?

DZ: From NBC's coverage we learned that China is remarkably beautiful, Michael Phelps can really swim, and Usain Bolt is truly quite fast. Oh, and there are pandas there—some of whom died in the Sichuan earthquake. We can't forget about the pandas.
There were far too many questions that didn't get asked by NBC reporters:
•They chose not to seek out the nearly two million people evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic facilities.
•They chose not to report on the Chinese citizens who tried to register to enter the cordoned-off "protest zones," only to find themselves in police custody.
•They chose not to report on the foreign nationals who, as of this writing, are still being held in Chinese prisons for daring to protest.
•They chose not to ask why George W. Bush was the first US president to attend the Olympics on foreign soil, and why the State Department last March took China off its list of nations that commit human-rights violations.
•They chose not to ask whether it was a conflict of interest for General Electric to both own NBC and to be one of the primary sponsors of the Games as well as the supplier of much of the Games' electronic security apparatus, including 300,000 closed-circuit cameras.
•They chose not to ask and re-ask the question of why the Games were in Beijing in the first place, considering that Jacques Rogge and Beijing organizing committee head Liu Qi both promised that the Olympics would come alongside significant improvements in human rights.
They chose to treat the Games like an infomercial.

GM: I love the image on your book's front cover—a shot of Muhammad Ali's punching fist with the word "sports" in big letters. Is this book a shot at the traditional narratives in sports history?

DZ: No question. Most sports histories read like Lies My Gym Teacher Told Me: Tall Tales of Individual Heroism or Outright Fictions about How the Games We Love Were Founded. I mean, Abner Doubleday didn't even know what the hell a baseball was. This book is meant to be like an Ali jab to the grill of everything you thought you knew about sports. I wanted that Ali photo in particular on the cover because he's not in boxing attire. Just a man throwing punches.

GM: You focus on issues of racism and class struggle, through a socialist lens. Do you worry that focusing exclusively on the more-radical issues will turn off mainstream readers—the very people who would benefit most from reading this book?

DZ: I honestly don't see it as a "socialist lens." Radicals did a great deal to shape our country's history. They are also the people most often, and most brazenly, written out of that history. So by writing a "hidden history of sports," I'm also trying to write about the way radical politics shaped sports—like the Communist press that fought for the integration of baseball in the 1930s.

GM: The last time we spoke, we discussed the lack of a bibliography in your previous book. This one has an incredibly exhaustive one. With such a vast topic, how did you go about researching the project?

DZ: I worked on it for five years. That helped. Hey, if I had it my way, there would be no bibliographies, no footnotes, nothing. I hate that shit. But my editors were very firm on the point that with all the bullets I was firing in this one, I better back it up.

GM: Tell me about The New Press and Howard Zinn's People's History series.

DZ: It's awesome. Howard Zinn is of course the author of perhaps the most influential history book ever written: A People's History of the United States. The premise was that we can get a clearer view of history from below instead of on high. Not through the eyes of "great men" but through the everyday battles of ordinary people fighting to do extraordinary things. There have been other books—A People's History of the Civil War, A People's History of the American Revolution—that have taken this approach. Sports is definitely a risky topic for the folks at the New Press, and I appreciate their faith. Now the challenge is letting people know that the book is out there, waiting to be read.

GM: Sports, despite its infinitesimal hero-to-also-ran ratio, seems particularly prone to focusing on the achievements of "Great Men." Do you think that could actually be changed? Should it?

DZ: Sure. We should gleefully tear down all idols—not to mention sports
history for dummies—for two reasons:
First, it will make us smarter about sports. Does it help to look at Brett Favre as a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback god, without looking at what would have happened if he had stayed in Atlanta? If he didn't have receivers like Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver? If Green Bay was a less-supportive environment for his freewheeling ways? So much more than the power of the individual goes into success in team sports.
Second, it's far more interesting to understand what social forces actually go into creating a great athlete. To think that Muhammad Ali came from the planet "Awesome" or that Jackie Robinson was created in a test tube somewhere is profoundly disempowering and stupefying.

GM: I noticed in the book—which runs chronologically—a discrepancy between the magnitude of events that occur earlier on and the more recent ones. C. Vivian Stringer is a far cry from Jackie Robinson, and Etan Thomas is no Ali. Do sports still carry the same political weight, or have all of the major battles already been fought?

DZ: Too true. But the argument at the end of the book is not to decry how apathetic things are today and the fact that the battles have already been fought. Or to negatively compare—for example—Etan to Ali (Etan, by the way, is a much better poet.) It's to show that any kind of positive sports/politics collision dried up in the 1990s. People like Coach Stringer and Etan represent the first stirrings of a revival.

GM: Where are the most important intersections of sports and politics—let's call them Zirin points—taking place today?

DZ: No doubt, movements in Vancouver, England, and Chicago to either minimize the damage the Olympics will do to their hometowns—or, in Chicago's case, to keep them out entirely. But the critical issue is pushing back on the professionalization of youth sports. If we're not careful, public-school athletic leagues are going to go the way of the dinosaur and kids' sports will resemble one big Nike camp while obese-prone gelatinous globs cheer from the sideline.

GM: I found it curious that the back of your book features a glowing quote from Sally Jenkins, yet your discussion of the early years of football glosses over the essential contributions of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which she profiles in The Real All Americans#151;a story right up your alley. Jenkins's book is relatively recent. Were you unaware of Carlisle's contributions at that point in your research, or did you not mention them for other reasons?

DZ: Jenkins's book is tremendous and I read it in time to include a section on it in the book. I didn't for two reasons. The book had a hard word limit, so by definition there had to be some tough choices made. And also, Jenkins really owns this history and I didn't want to do a two-page book report on her work. But for anyone who asks me, "What's an example of some kick-ass sports history?", Jenkins's book is on top of the list.

GM: Was there anything else you were sad to see end up on the cutting-room floor?

DZ: A ton. But that's why I'd love to do Volume II.

GM: If you were to write a sequel to this book, what would be its theme?

DZ: There are so many stories of athletes who were socially conscious that I had to leave out. I'd love to do a book of People's History of Sports in the US outtakes, or one that's more global, looking at the way sports have developed internationally. That would be very fun to research.

GM: In the introduction, you name a number of outstanding sportswriters as inspirations. I sometimes have a hard getting through the columns of writers like Scoop Jackson and Jemele Hill, whose sole focus seems to be race. Ralph Wiley covered the sensitive topic with nuance and grace, and also saw fit to cover other, subjects as well, but is there such a thing as being too singularly focused, no matter how important the issue?

DZ: It's interesting, and I've talked to Scoop about this. He actually doesn't write about race that much but sometimes perception trumps reality. In a backhanded way, it's really a tribute to the fact that when he does write about it, it leaves a mark. And, yes, in sportswriting there is such a thing as "being too singularly focused, no matter how important the issue." I think you have to be able to open your mind, not just to new ideas and alternative opinions, but to new stories, sports, and characters. That's what's so terrific about the tapestry of sports. Often infuriating, never boring.

GM: The aforementioned Zirin points where sports meet politics are really about the politicization of sports, as opposed to the other way around. What do you think of Obama's basketball game (or bowling score for that matter), and what it says about him?

DZ: Not a lot. But Ralph Nader has a wicked jump hook.

(Photograph of Zirin by Jared Rodriguez.)

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Sports
- posted on Jan 14, 09
David Meggyesy

DZ the best of the young crop of sportswriters in the country. Thanks God we have him producing the amount of work that he does. Sport is a mirror, a social/cultural reflection of the larger society. Dave's work continually connects the dots and makes clear that relationship. It is why his work is important because people can see clearly these larger social issues through the lens and reality of sport.

Good interview!

David Meggyesy

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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