If you're at all familiar with Dave Zirin's workif you've read his books, leafed through The Nation's sports issue he guest-edited, heard him speak, hell, if you've read any of his three previous interviews in this very publicationyou already know what the man is going to say. It will be passionate, it will be thought-provoking, and it will be anything but the conventional sports conversation. There are certain issues where sports meets politics, let's call them Zirin points, where the mainstream media deigns not to tread. Issues like the unmitigated greed and corruption of sports owners, the lingering effects of racism in sports, and the hyper-regulation of free speech for athletesissues that as soon as you register them, you can't help but imagine, as I do, a solitary man in Washington, DC, foaming at the mouth at the daily outrages that are occurring in the sports world.
"What John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in '68 was the perfect marriage of movement and moment."
These Zirin points aren't limited to the modern sports erafar from it. Sports and political struggle have always been intertwined, and the connection has perhaps never been clearer than in the person of John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Zirin, who isn't as rabid in person, though just as righteous, recently collaborated with Carlos on a new book, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. In it, he reflects on a moment that, as he says, "forced people to confront their politics, even if they didn’t want to." Carlos and his teammate Tommie Smith's famed Black Power salute may have been an indelible moment, but the book illustrates a man who fought against injustice since he was a kid growing up in Harlem; a man committed to change and willing to endure great sacrifices to stand up for his beliefs.In the following interview, conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Zirin tells Gelf about about what people get wrong about John Carlos, the history and future of so-called "political athletes," and his plan to take down Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
Gelf Magazine: John Carlos's story is fascinating, but I'm not sure how many younger sports fans are familiar with it outside of the iconic photo. Why is this story not more resonant?
Dave Zirin: Honestly, I think it started getting lost in 1968. It's less about older and younger, and more about an entire historical whitewash about who John and Tommie were and what they represented. When I was doing the story with John, it occurred to me that this is also a story about media: how powerful media was in 1968, and how un-cynical people were about the media at this time. If the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times said something, it was taken as absolute truth. Since there was none of that cynicism (although I would call it a healthy skepticism) that exists today, that meant that their story was told for them by people who had an interest in burying them. By that I mean sportswriters who wanted access to the Olympics and Avery Brundage, or, on a more personal level, wanted to believe the idea that the "Black Power" agenda was the force behind all of this.Gelf Magazine: What were people's perceptions of John Carlos at the time?
Dave Zirin: I'll give you an example that didn't make the book. When John returned from the Mexico Olympics, his father, Earl, whom he was very close with all his life, was on his deathbed. Earl was holding up a copy of a New York Times story that was very critical of John. And he was looking at John as if to say, "What happened to you? What have you become? I know I raised you better than that." And John had to say, "Dad, the person they're talking about is not me." The article talked about John as having a violent, "burn, baby, burn" approach to the black-freedom struggle, which simply wasn't true.
Gelf Magazine: Did John Carlos ever get to tell his side of the story?
Dave Zirin: He had one willing publisher in the '70s, but he insisted on John's co-writer being white and on John not getting final say on the book. By this time he had felt so burned by the process and the media, that even though he was offered money and was in a dire financial straits, he turned it down. I'm very grateful to him for trusting me with his story, and that it has hit a nerve and gotten the kind of play that it has.Gelf Magazine: In the book, John Carlos comes off as a fearless individual from a young age, going so far as to defy his middle-school principal to improve the lunch menu. What was the most surprising thing you learned in speaking with him?
Dave Zirin: It has to be the degree to which he was monitored by the government. Even though he was vanished pretty quickly from the public eye, and the movement withered on the vines, the FBI still deemed it important to put a tail on him through much of the '70s. It was just this idea that Hoover and his minions made sure that he paid a personal price for what he did. It makes you think about motivation. At least intellectually, though I would disagree with it, you understand why they might tap the phones and intervene in political organizations they deemed threatening. But to go after John in the way they did seems to me to be an act of pure vindictiveness.
Gelf Magazine: John Carlos's salute and Muhammad Ali's Vietnam protest were seminal events that uncomfortably blurred the lines between politics and sports. What type of action today could have a similarly seismic effect?
Dave Zirin: It's a question that I've thought a lot about over the last few months and have discussed with John, so this answer comes from both of us. It's important to remember that what John and Tommie did in '68 was the perfect marriage of movement and moment. It wasn't just that they stood up, it was where they stood up. And it wasn't just standing at the Olympics, it was the demands they made, namely firing Avery Brundage, which couldn't have been more volcanic given Brundage's power at that time. So you have to think about something that would meld movement and moment together, and also really piss people off.
Two examples come to mind. One is before the start of the NCAA finals, if the captains of each team were to walk to center court, take off their shoes, and say, "We're not playing because the networks are making billions of dollars off of this, and we're not getting paid." If they did that, the boos would cascade. Another would be two players coming out as gay right before the start of a game, and announcing, "As a tribute to the great Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, we're going to kiss in front you and your children; we don't think this is dirty or terrible." You have to think about something that would make people boo, would interfere with fans' enjoyment of the game, and would resonate politically, for good or ill, with those watching at home.
Gelf Magazine: You've mentioned Etan Thomas and Scott Fujita as politically and intellectually attuned athletes. What are the characteristics of a player who you consider to be intellectually engaged?
Dave Zirin: Two critical components are a family history that connects players to movements in the past, and having a parent or teacher who forces them to read from an early age. Now more than ever, due to the polarization of youth sports, athletes get segmented and pulled apart from their peers, limiting even the most basic intellectual friction they could be having. The No. 1 thing that would change that is movements that force athletes to break through that wall. Arian Foster went down to Occupy Wall Street for no other reason than it was happening, and he felt like he wanted to see it for himself. That's the missing dynamic.
Gelf Magazine: How do you develop a formal structure to further educate players about the issues affecting their leagues (aside from player-rep emails, which I imagine don't get read)? Given the owners' express discouragement of athletic free speech (as you've written about), could this system ever succeed?
Dave Zirin: It would have to happen from inside-out, which means players networking with other players. Given how all-consuming being a pro athlete, it has to come from player's associations themselves. I've spoken at a couple events, and that is the only time I've ever seen players gathered together in a room, with notepads, taking notes and listening. Currently the structure exists, it's just about the players' associations making it their mission to educate players about their shared history, and the many sacrifices that were made so they can have the fame and money they have.
Dave Zirin: The only thing that could force him to sell is if he starts to lose money. The revenue-sharing system in the NFL, which I happen to agree with, ensures that that doesn't happen. What I would love to see is the emergence of a Redskins fan organization whose express goal is to buy back the team from Snyder, return it to the district and change the name. I could get a million signatures from disgruntled Skins fans in a week, but it's all about wresting power away from Snyder, and for that you'd need a structured organization with the financial means to do it.
As for McKenna, I and other DC sportswriters were very sorry to see him leave the Washington City Paper. He was an amazing presence, and an incredible example of how threatening the truth can be. We're a company town. Dan Snyder owns his own TV station, but he and his cronies were stupid enough to say explicitly they were pursuing this suit to bankrupt the paper, and demand a retraction and that McKenna be fired. Once they did that, it became a free-speech issue in the starkest sense.