For many sports fans, watching a game is a happy diversion from the regular stressors of life, a chance to revel in the mesmerizing spectacle of athletic achievement. In the last few years however, it has been difficult to watch any sport with this kind of cherubic naivete. Bitter labor strikes, billionaire owners continuing to get publicly financed stadiums, and the issue of paying college athletes serve as blunt reminders that there is always more going on than just the game itself, and have forced fans to start paying closer attention.
"I didn't light the match. I'm just the one saying, 'Hey look, your house is on fire.'"
Watching bloated NFL pre-game shows or a SportsCenter that spends a quarter of its air-time on Tim Tebow, it's easy to forget what's at stake. Dave Zirin is committed to educating fans on the complex political realities that intertwine the games they love.In his new book Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down, Zirin confronts the political underpinnings of sports, discussing topics as varied as gender inequality, labor strikes and the "Olympic industrial complex." In Game Over, Zirin makes the case that, "All the things happening in the greater society are reflected in the world of sports."
In the following interview, conducted via phone and edited for clarity, Zirin discusses why it's a great time to be a political sportswriter, what we can learn from Manti Te'o, and which athlete he'd love to talk to with nothing off the record.
Gelf Magazine: You had already written a book about the evils of owners in sports. What has happened recently that made you realize there was a broader narrative to discuss?Dave Zirin: The framing of the book is about crisis. 2008 saw the greatest crisis since the Great Depression, arguably worse since it was more global in character. And anytime you have a great crisis, the first thing you see is not revolt or struggle, but people in power trying to restore order, stability, and profitability. And the central tenet of the book is that all the things happening in the greater society are reflected in the world of sports. You see Roger Goodell saying we're not getting the same public subsidies we were getting before. And while the language may have been more flowery, the message was that the NFL needed to extract more money from the players, even though nobody ever paid to see Dan Snyder sit in a luxury box. With the Olympics and the World Cup, you have countries desperately trying to outbid each other with sweetheart deals, so they can bring more hard currency into the country and present themselves as global nations. And you're seeing more opposition to these mega events. I was in South Africa before the World Cup, and Vancouver and London before the Winter and Summer Olympics. You expect everyone there to be like, "All right, we're getting the Olympics!" but the sentiment actually was, "OK, this is just another way to screw us."
Gelf Magazine: You're on the board of sportsfans.org, an organization that works to empower fans on policy issues. With the ever-increasing reach of Twitter and Facebook, do you see the dawn of a new era of fan protests?
Dave Zirin: One thing I didn't do in the book (and was criticized for in an otherwise positive review from The New Republic), was put out a memo for fans how to fight back. I thought it would be obnoxious to create a blueprint for the conscientious sports fan. I hope the people reading the book are already looking at sports from a different lens. So much of sportswriting these days is puff pieces, which is how you get the Manti Te'o saga, or you have stories about advanced stats that go so deep you forget we're talking about sports and not advanced mathematics. With everything that I document in my book I thought we were really missing the forest for the trees. There have been these incredible events taking place, like the role that soccer fan clubs played in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Most of the time fan clubs are used for horrible sectarian warfare like in Serbia, not for progressive revolutions. No one is talking about the growth of the Olympic Industrial complex, even over the last few years. We're not looking at these things. We're not taking a big enough step back and asking "Why did the Miami Heat, the team everyone in the media painted as the ultimate selfish, glory boy team, take the lead in standing up for Trayvon Martin?" This shouldn't be challenging our perceptions of the individual players, but of the sports world more broadly. The house is on fire. And I didn't light the match, I'm just the one saying, "Hey look, your house is on fire."
As fans, it's imperative that we keep our eyes open, because organic movements are going to start to take place around stadium construction, mega-building events like the Olympics, and team responses to political issues. If our eye isn't on the political ball as to what the sports world is doing, as fans we're not going to be ready to try to take any of this on.
Gelf Magazine: Do you feel there are enough sports outlets taking on the tough issues?
Dave Zirin: I could give you a list of half a dozen writers who are doing terrific work on important issuesthat's not the problem. The problem is that it's still seen as a rebellious act to talk about sports in this way. And it's way too marginalized from the mainstream sports outlets that exist. We're not talking about media in the most propulsive sense. My argument is that all sports media should as its starting point look at the world, and how sports fit into that world. There's still a ferocious resistance to that, and it leaves us as sports fans very unequipped to deal with crisis. I'm not creating crisis or stirring the pot in any fictitious way. Objectively, they were attaching missile launchers to the roofs of houses in London, but you didn't hear about that in the Olympic coverage. Objectively, the Phoenix Suns became the first team ever to make a political statement as a team, and that's not talked about as a seismic event. The Egyptian soccer clubs organized street fighting, pyrotechnics, checkpoints, neighborhood safety, and did all of it through their training as soccer fan clubs. How is this not something worth broader examination beyond the occasional clip?
Gelf Magazine: Do you see viability in a website/magazine/cable channel exclusively devoted to politics and sports?
Dave Zirin: I think a regular TV presence, sure. That's always the dream, to get your ideas heard and to stay true to what you believe in, and that's what I want to do. I want to get these ideas out there and help promote writers who also want to look at sports in this way, as it connects to society. And I want to be a counterweight to the Manti Te'oization of sports journalism.
I was on MSNBC a year ago, and they were so excited about Tebow going to New York. They thought it was going to be a big success, and I said I didn't think so for two reasons. First, when you're a quarterback it really helps to be able to throw, and second, this guy fronts for Focus on the Family, and now he's in New York City. Even Jets fans aren't big fans of the agenda Tim Tebow represents. The right wing blogs went nuts with it. Subsequently, I was asked to go on a horrible sports talk show, which I won't name for the purposes of not giving them any free pub. The hosts asked what was wrong with me, talked about what an amazing person Tim Tebow is, and basically went on a really homophobic rant. I told them I wasn't defaming Tebow; these were factual assertions. Tim Tebow did a Super Bowl Commercial for Focus on the Family and this is what he stands for. Through being resistant to look at Tim Tebow politically, the interview actually unearthed a whole different set of politics, which are totally prejudicial and bigoted and toxic. But somehow that's ok, that's acceptable.
Gelf Magazine: How do you feel about the job announcers are doing addressing pertinent political issues?
Dave Zirin: Listen to some of the NFL announcers during a broadcast. When it comes to explaining a cover 2 or how to stop the pistol, they're all over it and are diagramming plays out in detail. But when something happens like a helmet-to-helmet hit, they forego any responsibility as to why that would be a penalty. People like Troy Aikman, whose brain was turned to scrambled eggs as a result of playing football, often say the game now (with stricter rules about hitting) is not even football. I'll never forget a game Joe Buck and Troy Aikman did. A ticky tack penalty was called and Buck said, "That wouldn't have happened in your day," and Aikman wholeheartedly agreed. It's unbelievable.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think we might see a progressive commissioner in the near future who will directly address some of the thornier problems like concussions or steroids?
Dave Zirin: Fay Vincent was a big turning point. Since him, the idea of commissioner as an arbiter between players and owners has been non-existent. It is a bygone dead era that's not coming back. And they will be judged for it. A million fewer kids are playing youth football, NFL attendance is down, and ratings are down. Americans love brutality without feeling the repercussions. With players killing themselves, it's a lot harder to put a lid on that.
Gelf Magazine: The Manti Te'o saga has cast a shadow on sports reporting and the deficiencies that arise when the "feel good narrative" presents itself. What should we be taking away from this story?
Dave Zirin: As long as there are sports fans, there will be a demand for people with access. As long as teams control access, sportswriters must display fealty. Deadspin breaking the Manti Te'o story is historic, and needs to be recognized as such, because they broke this story with no connections to the major power players. The great lie coming out of this is, "Pay ESPN. Pay SI. They didn't have time to fact check because they had to compete with the bloggers." We shouldn't be making excuses for organizations with money and resources not doing their job. One of the benefits of doing political sports writing now is that athletes don't live in captivity. They have a huge array of speaking platforms to choose from, and all of them have opinions on issues, despite reprimands from coaches and owners to keep those opinions to themselves.
Gelf Magazine: What about Twitter restrictions?
Dave Zirin: More and more teams are doing this. But one thing about players becoming entertainers and cultural figures is they are talking to multiple people about what they're doing. When an athlete is building a brand, that involves agents and PR people, who often act as counterweights to teams, telling them to go out and say what they think on TV or on the radio. Players can look at Chris Kluwe as an example. Here's a punter who gained national exposure through what he's said and written off the field. If athletes see politics as a way to gain a wider audience, they're going to continue to use it.
Gelf Magazine: Mike Wilbon said earlier this year that sportswriting is in decline. Agree or disagree?
Dave Zirin: That sounds a lot like Wilbon justifying his own retreat. He was once considered a great columnist, now he doesn't write at all. I think the death of the blue bear columnist is actually a good thing. We have so many writers taking interesting angles on issues and using multimedia to tell powerful stories, so I strongly disagree.
Gelf Magazine: Pick one current athlete and one retired athlete you would like to have two hours to interview, nothing off the record.
Dave Zirin: For a current athlete, I'm going with Carmelo Anthony. I found his insistence to talk about Trayvon Martin long after it left the media cycle fascinating. I'd love to know what was behind that. I have a feeling there's a story there that relates to his youth in Baltimore.
As for a retired athlete, I'd pick Martina Navratilova. Politically, she's very interesting. She's discussed things like Obama's kill list, and of course is an outspoken LGBT activist. She seems like she has serious political principles, and would be a great person to talk to.