Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

December 30, 2007

Playing Left Wing for the Sports Commentariat

Dave Zirin, author of 'Welcome to the Terrordome,' tells Gelf about his progressive perspective on the politics of sport.

Michael Gluckstadt

A kid today could get quite an education just from watching SportsCenter every morning. Medically, he could tell how long Jeremy Shockey's broken fibula will take to heal. Financially, he could explain the value of Alex Rodriguez's contract, including bonus clauses and adjustment for inflation. Legally, he could detail the various state and federal laws under which Michael Vick has been indicted. But what he couldn't tell you—what watching SportsCenter doesn't tell you—is the complex relationship that sports has with politics. For that, he'd have to read Dave Zirin.

Dave Zirin/Photo by Jared Rodriguez
"I want to connect with the millions of people in this country whose first and only thing they read in the morning is the sports page."

Dave Zirin/Photo by Jared Rodriguez

Zirin is a liberal of the outraged variety. Focusing a political lens on the overarching issues of sports, he exposes the exploitive and racist ways that major sports and media organizations bring the games to the people. Whether it's using city funds to pay for new stadiums or luring Dominican boys to baseball farms with the promise of riches, it seems, according to Zirin, that The Man is always finding new ways to profit at the expense of others. Zirin's latest book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, borrows its title from an equally conscientious Public Enemy song. The metaphor of the title extends to the Superdome during Katrina, and, beyond that, to the frightening ways that sports are being used to political ends before an oblivious public. While not everyone will agree with the contentious opinions found in Terrordome, published by the progressive Haymarket Books, they are nothing if not thought-provoking.

Gelf spoke with Zirin and found out that while he may be calmer in person than in print, he is no less outraged. Below, Zirin tells Gelf about the problems with the Mitchell Report, why his book doesn't have any sources, and Babe Ruth's history with performance-enhancing drugs—including booze. The following interview was conducted by telephone and has been edited for clarity. (You can hear Zirin and other sportswriters read from and talk about their works at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, January 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: In your book, long before the Mitchell Report was released, you wrote that it was a sham meant to serve the owners' and Major League Baseball's purposes. Are you surprised by what's come out of it?

Dave Zirin: I said that it was aimed at the players and continuing the same tired narrative about steroids and sports. I think that what's come out of it has been very interesting. It's been the absolute opposite of what Bud Selig intended. The report was produced with the figurehead of George Mitchell to keep Congress at bay. It was much less aimed at the fans and much more aimed at the players' union and at Congress, as if to say, "Hey, we're taking care of our own house; we don't need you to come in here and clean us up, and most of all we don't need you to touch our antitrust exemption." That's why they hired someone like Mitchell, who is an absolute platinum lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He is pure gold-plated goodness. What's happened, though, is that the Mitchell Report has broken out of its shackles like Frankenstein's monster, actually spurring more calls for Congressional hearings, not less. It's also created a framework for the next couple of years, where we will be seeing constant discussion of steroids and grievance procedures against people named in the report. I think this holds the potential to really turn off the casual fan from the sport.

GM: So baseball really shot itself in the foot here.

DZ: Oh, yeah. I don't think they meant to. They thought they were taking a shot right between Donald Fehr's eyes for the benefit of Congress, but they forgot that if there is one thing Congress loves, it's cameras.

GM: There is another important aspect of the report, namely, the outing of Roger Clemens as a steroid user. You've mentioned in the past that the circumstantial evidence surrounding Clemens was always just as suspicious as that surrounding Barry Bonds, but because of the race issue the press never demonized Clemens as they did Bonds. What do you think of the way Clemens is being covered now?

DZ: I think they're rushing to make up for the sins of the past now. Roger Clemens is the sizzle of the Mitchell Report. Without Clemens, this story attracts about 90 percent less interest. One of the reasons for that is that naming Clemens opens up the question of a double standard over the past 15 or so years in how he and Bonds have been covered by the press. The dominant narrative with regards to Roger Clemens has been that he is the hardest worker of any pitcher of his generation. The dominant narrative with regards to Bonds has been: This guy is a cheater, get him an asterisk. Yes, there were whispers about Clemens and steroids, but it wasn't the dominant narrative. With Bonds, there were whispers saying, "This is racist, there's a double standard, he's still the best hitter of his generation, steroids or not." But that was smacked down by the overwhelming barbaric yawk of, "This man is a cheater, this man is a cheater." The double standard has been exposed, and the way the media has been covering this story is all about Roger Clemens. Roger Clemens is the story of the Mitchell Report. There is nothing new in the Mitchell Report about Barry Bonds. Hell, there is nothing new about practically anybody in the Mitchell Report. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci said it very well when he said that the Mitchell Report shows it's better to be lucky than good. If they didn't get [alleged steroids suppliers] Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee to roll over, then there is nothing new in this report. It's a glorified clip job that you or I could've done spending an hour on the internet.

GM: Looking back at the coverage of Clemens and Bonds in light of what's now known is almost like looking back at the press's coverage of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There is an absolutely glaring omission there that should have the press and public wondering why they didn't see this before.

DZ: It really is something, especially now that reporters are bothering to do the same kind of investigations with Clemens that they had always done with Bonds. I think Bonds's career actually has a lot more statistical integrity than Clemens's. Bonds was hitting 30 home runs a year in his early 20s. Like with Henry Aaron, who never hit 50 home runs in one season, Bonds's second highest total after that one year of 73 was 49. There is a degree of continuity in Bonds's career. The thing that is incongruous is the fact that his slugging percentage shot up late in his career in a way it hadn't for anyone else in baseball history. But with Clemens, this is someone who was 8-6 in the 1998 season before going 12-0 the rest of the way. That coincides with when the Mitchell Report claims MacNamee starting shooting him up with steroids. It is pretty jarring to think that statistics like that weren't enough of a circumstantial red flag for reporters to start wondering what was going on. Frankly, as some others have been saying, this is a small vindication for Dan Duquette. Duquette was a very smart, young general manager with a sterling reputation who assembled about half of the 2004 Red Sox team. He had said famously that Clemens was in the twilight of his career before he went on to win another four Cy Young awards. That's kind of been tattooed on Duquette's resume as something demonstrably stupid, but maybe it turns out he could've been right. I mean, who knows what he's doing now?

"I don't know if I am comfortable with steroids being legalized, but I am comfortable with them being decriminalized and regulated."
GM: Actually, I believe he's the director of the freshly-launched Israel Baseball League.

DZ: You're kidding me. You should try to find him there, ask him if he feels vindicated.

GM: I'll see if I can look him up.
You threw out the word "integrity" beforehand. Obviously, we're going to be re-examining a lot of the records from the last few years in light of revelations of steroid use, but there's something unsettling to me about this mistaken idea of the damaged integrity of the game and a pristine national pastime. How do you…

DZ: Nah, that's all a load of horseshit. If you put an asterisk next to the numbers of everyone in the Hall of Fame whose records might have a pungent odor, it would be a pretty ugly monument. The question that fans have to ask themselves is, "Do we really want to know how the hot dogs are made?" For most of baseball's existence, fans didn't know what was going into the hot dog. Mainstream papers didn't cover the ban on players with dark skin, they didn't cover the use of greenies running rampant in the locker room, they didn't cover preferential treatment for star players—they didn't cover any of that stuff. Now, in this age of the internet, everything gets covered. That's been a big engine for the steroid story. The 24-hour ESPN-style coverage and the blogosphere are driving this story. I think that's great, because the media needs to present us with truth. But now fans are being asked this question, "How much do you actually care about this?" And the fans are responding with a large, "We don't. We expect the sport to police itself and we expect to enjoy the games. That's the social contract here. We're not in charge of drug testing, you are. Take care of your business and let us enjoy the games." But the problem here is if the issue of steroids goes before Congress, then there is the potential to turn off a huge swath of casual fans.

GM: Do you think the solution is to legalize and regulate steroid use?

DZ: Not to sound like a politician, but there's a difference between legalization and decriminalization. I don't know if I am comfortable with steroids being legalized, but I am comfortable with them being decriminalized and regulated. Players and owners need to understand that when it comes to steroids, there is a difference between use and abuse. If you use them under the auspices of a doctor, they can be regulated so that they're not harmful to you later in life. If they're abused, your body will be a wreck by middle age. What's really important is to focus on the primary goal. If that's protecting the health of the players, then without question they should be regulated and decriminalized. If we're stuck on eliminating every last anabolic drop, then they need to do something better than criminalization, because we know that all that's going to do is spur research and development into masking agents, etc. The technology will outpace the ability to police it. What they need to do instead is come up with other, creative ways to get steroids out of the sport. Some people have suggested things like incentive clauses in contracts for not taking steroids, along with more rigorous testing. What I've suggested—and would actually work—would be to cut the season to 140 games. Then there would be much fewer nagging injuries and much less reason to take them for healing purposes.

GM: And a lot less revenue for baseball.

DZ: That's the thing. That's why this is pie-in-the-sky land. As long as we're there, if you lower the pay gap between major- and minor league players, there would be less pressure for minor leaguers to try to gain that extra edge to make it to the majors. Because that's the majority of people who take steroids—not superstars like Bonds and Clemens, but people hanging onto the margins of the game—even though the Mitchell Report didn't reflect that because it was a fraudulent PR exercise.

GM: You mention in Welcome to the Terrordome a funny anecdote about Babe Ruth injecting himself with sheep testosterone to enhance his performance. Where did you hear that from and what's the story there?

DZ: That's from one of those great Baseball Hall of Shame books. They go through the gluttony of Ruth's Caligula-like excesses. The thing about it is that it didn't help him, but actually made him violently ill. But just the idea that he used performance-enhancing drugs is interesting. The banned performance enhancer he used more than anything was alcohol, which was illegal in the 1920s.

"There's always been this idea that you toe the line, don't talk, and obey the coach. Do anything other than and you deviate from team goals. I take a very different view."
GM: Alcohol is a performance enhancer?

DZ: Depends on who you ask.

GM: Other than David Wells.

DZ: Well, being semi-serious, if it helped Babe Ruth to cope with his violent temper and depression or he used it as an anesthetic, then it was a performance enhancer. The point is that it was a banned substance. Ruth was a troubled guy and he drank. But as far as the sheep-testicle story goes, that just shows you that this has been happening for a while. Going back to the 19th century, there has been a long-standing scientific knowledge that injecting yourself with testosterone has some sort of healing properties. Steroids are just a synthetic, more manageable version of that.

GM: When I first read about that Ruth story, I wanted to see the source for it, but your book doesn't have a bibliography. Was that a conscious decision? Do you think listing sources would increase the credibility of some of your more contentious opinions?

DZ: Well, that story was a fact, but the opinions tend not to have sources, anyway, so they wouldn't be any less contentious if they had them. There are a lot of smaller-press sports books; it is pretty standard not to have a bibliography. My next book, A People's History of Sports in the United States: From Bull-Baiting to Barry Bonds, is going to have a mega-bibliography. In Terrordome's case, it was the publisher's decision to run it like that.

GM: In Terrordome, you decry the proliferation of so-called baseball farms in Latin America, specifically the Dominican Republic, for luring local kids with the promise of riches, then paying them less than their American counterparts or tossing them aside completely. But they do provide some benefit to the local populations, as well. Are you opposed to their existence in principle, or just the way that they're run?

DZ: I'm against the way that they're run. Baseball is a huge part of the culture of the Dominican Republic, and I'm not saying that they shouldn't have it at all because it's run in an exploitive way by Major League Baseball. But I think MLB has a moral and political obligation to do something more for the people who are drawn into these camps and dropping out of school. You're right that it does some good for the local population, but the lotto does something good for the local population in the United States, too. That doesn't mean that everybody wins the lottery. If you are going to have such a grand incentive for people to leave poverty in a country with such a high poverty rate, then you have an obligation to provide education or some kind of safety net for the 99 percent who don't make it to the big leagues.

GM: One of my favorite passages in the book is when you invoke Roberto Clemente, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as counterexamples to the claim that politics are a distraction from winning, specifically in regards to Carlos Delgado's decision to no longer protest the Iraq war by sitting during the singing of God Bless America. How does the idea that only muzzled athletes succeed get perpetuated?

DZ: It's been perpetuated as long as there have been sports. There's always been this idea that you toe the line, don't talk, and obey the coach. Do anything other than and you deviate from team goals. I take a very different view based on history. People who tend to talk and have opinions don't distract from team goals, they're just expressing their humanity. What makes teams win is having good players and good strategy, not a bunch of sheep. But this is so much a part of sports. I spoke at a prominent Division I school where it was mandatory for everyone from the athletic department to attend. I did my contentious opinion thing in front of 300 people, and when it was over and time for the Q & A, there were 300 people sitting on their hands. Everybody was scared to put their hand up and ask a question. They were scared to express anything that resembled an individual opinion.

"Ali had a total fearlessness and felt that if he had to be afraid of his own people, then none of this was worth anything. These are profoundly different times."
GM: But then there are the athletes who break that mold and express their views loudly. Who is the most important athlete of the 20th century in terms of speaking his mind and not being a sheep?

DZ: It would have to be Muhammad Ali, because the substance of a lot of his opinions are still controversial today, giving them enduring weight. This was a prominent athlete who became a Muslim, rejected a war, and spoke out against racism. These are not just issues of the 1960s. Ali was amplified by the 1960s, and the era shaped him as much as he shaped it. That's what makes Ali transcendent.
It is interesting that if you made a Mount Rushmore of political athletes, most of them would be from individual sports. That speaks directly to the issue we mentioned earlier about how team sports attempt to muzzle athletes. Think about that Mount Rushmore. It would have to have Ali, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and some team athletes like Clemente and Kareem, and then you also have individual track-and-field athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It's very different from the team concept.

GM: Is there any room for an Ali-type athlete in the 21st century, and do you see any candidates?

DZ: Of course there's room for an Ali, because the problems are still there to be addressed. And even if boxing isn't what it once was, the megaphone of sports has never been louder. So if you combine a mass media with a social crisis then, yes, there's room for an Ali. But there are also countertrends that would prevent the rise of a new Ali. For one, the absence of social movements like there were in the 1960s, but more so than that, the fact that athletes are set apart from the population. Today there is a much more hostile relationship between athlete and fan. In the wake of Sean Taylor being killed, there was a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about players who arm themselves and answer the door holding a gun. Even though they live in gated communities with bodyguards, they're armed because they're so at odds with the fan. They feel under siege by a nation of enemies, be it the fans, the police, or the media. That's so different from Ali's time. He used to ride around Harlem with reporters in his car, walk around without bodyguards, and say things like, "There's a bullet out there with my name on it; that's between me and God." He had a total fearlessness and felt that if he had to be afraid of his own people, then none of this was worth anything. These are profoundly different times.

GM: Moving on, I've just spent some time living abroad, and I was struck by the intense passion that so many people around the world have for soccer that is so utterly lacking in the United States. Does it have any chance of taking off here?

DZ: It won't happen through Beckham, that's for sure. He is just not a good enough player to be the emissary, no matter how many Spice Girls he marries. It's really strange because soccer is by far the most popular youth sport in this country and the most popular girl's team sport. There is a material and a social basis for soccer to take off as a major sport. And in some kernels of the country, it already is one. You can have a friendly between two random countries like Spain and Portugal, and 50,000 people show up in LA to watch it. That wouldn't really happen anywhere else in the world. There is that growing interest in the sport, especially as this country becomes more multicultural from Latin America and Africa. But as far as breaking through to become a major sport with major sponsors, I think it's been hamstrung by decades of soccer being viewed as un-American.

GM: Alright, last question. There's an old joke about the short list of Jewish athletes and the encyclopedia of Jewish sports owners, managers, and writers. What was your upbringing like, and how did that affect the way you cover sports?

DZ: You're talking about the joke from Airplane, with the pamphlet of "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." Such a maligned group—I'd feel pretty pissed if I was one of the thousands of professional Jewish athletes in this country. They get a bum rap. People don't realize how few Jews there are in this country, statistically. I think because there are so many prominent Jews in entertainment, people think there are more of us than there are. If you did a proportional exercise on the number of Jewish athletes in the country compared to our numbers on the whole, I don't think we'd be doing so badly.
I grew up Jewish in New York City, more into playing sports than writing about them. My dad was from Brooklyn, so growing up there was a lot of talk about Sandy Koufax in my house, the way I imagine some houses talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. That's interesting about sports, the issue of perception. Sandy Koufax was no outspoken political activist. He was merely a great Jewish athlete who also took off the World Series to obey the High Holy days. That simple act, with the power of perception in sports, was enough to catapult him to being a real cultural hero.

GM: But on a personal level, what were the influences that made you want to be a sportswriter?

DZ: I had always been insanely obsessed with sports. There was a time in my life when I thought that sports were way too frivolous to be a serious life pursuit, but the more I learned about the way political issues amplify themselves through sports, particularly during times of war, it made me want to examine that. It made me want to connect with the millions of people in this country whose first and only thing they read in the morning is the sports page.

Related in Gelf

For a different take on Bond's, see Gelf's interview with his biographer, Jeff Pearlman

Related on the web

• Zirin's commentary for the Nation and for SI.com

• Zirin's official site, The Edge of Sports

Michael Gluckstadt

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







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on Oct 12, 09
joe

calling him a liberal is a bad case of mis labeling. He is a marxist-trotskyite affiliated with a group called international socialists.

- Sports
- posted on Jun 16, 10
Sam

Zirin is a dyed in the wool Negropheliac.


Article by Michael Gluckstadt

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

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