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Interview by Paul Jones
Dave Zirin is not your average sportswriter. He’s tight with Howard Zinn and Chuck D. He likes Barry Bonds. He thinks pro sports teams are intellectual property. He’s profiled a pacifist, anti-capitalist UFC fighter and interviewed Pat Tillman’s mother.
Zirin spoke recently with The BEAST’s Paul Jones. So, grab your nachos and beer hat and do your best to keep up, paging through Das Kapital with your ludicrously oversized novelty foam hand.
My colleagues, who are political junkies, don’t really regard sports as worth their time, yet games clearly play a role in politics. Do you think most Americans fail to make the connection between sports and politics because Jews aren’t very athletic?
We can deny sports is political, just as we can deny gravity when we’re falling out of an airplane. Every day there are stories that show the intersection of sports and politics, and every day if you hear people complaining about the absence of resources in their communities, about a sense of where their tax dollars are going—even a sense about how their president manipulates information—all of this is connected throughout the world of sports. That’s kind of the reason I have this book coming out: A People’s History of Sports in the United States. It’s meant to chart the history of the way sports and politics have always intersected. This isn’t some new phenomenon…
It would probably be easier to get my BEAST comrades interested in sports if they started selling cannabis next to the beer at games…
Well, that could be helpful…They do in some stadiums, you just have to know where to look.
But your peers at [The BEAST]—serious, left-leaning muckrakers, that we need so many more of in this country: I feel like that’s the very group that is most dismissive of sports. And that’s one of the reasons why sports has, in a lot of ways, become a refuge for passivity and rightwing politics. We don’t see it enough as contested space—the very people who could be in there, slugging it out and fighting for a better politics of sports. In this country, you can have a much more honest discussion about things like racism or sexism or corporate greed on sports radio than you can on general political talk radio. Sports has become the last national salon, where a lot of people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities really do come together to hash things out.
Have you heard about McCain’s recent appearance in Pennsylvania, where he claimed that, to placate his captors while a POW, instead of betraying his fellow soldiers, he gave the Vietnamese the names of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive linemen? In his book, though, he had written that it was the Green Bay Packers offensive line. Do you think he really forgot, or is he just embarrassed to admit he’s so old, he gave them names from the Decatur Staleys?
I’m much more inclined to think that it’s pandering, but what makes it so funny is that, as fans on Steelers message boards have been pointing out: the Steelers defensive line—the great line which had people like L.C. Greenwood and “Mean” Joe Green, the Steel Curtain—didn’t come into play until long after McCain was back home. Actually, at the time he was a POW, the Steelers were the laughingstock doormat of the NFL. Even the most diehard Steeler fans have said they had to look it up, to know who was playing defensive line then.
Do you think McCain, like the similarly decaying Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons,” is old enough to have “watched Gentleman Jim Corbett fight an Eskimo-fella, bare-knuckled, for 113 rounds"?
[Laughs.] I don’t think he’s that old, but…he had a quote just the other day where he talked about, “I’m learning to get online.” Am I the only one who thinks that’s fucking frightening?
Well, given his ignorance of football, do you think there’s any chance he’ll undo Teddy Roosevelt’s historic reforms, outlaw the forward pass and usher in a return to the flying wedge?
He’s recently said in an interview that Teddy Roosevelt was his model as…a leader. And if that means John McCain is going to inaugurate a new era of muscular Christianity, and walking tall and carrying a big stick…that’s something I think we can all collectively do without. We have had a notorious jock-sniffer in the White House for the last eight years…
I read a post on Deadspin.com that described Bush throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. The author, Will Leitch, explained how a visiting dignitary or celebrity in that position might pop into the broadcast booth and stay for, maybe, half an inning. But Leitch was disturbed to see that Bush stayed for three halves—like he had nothing else to do…
That just gets a little uncomfortable after a while. Look, he was a cheerleader in college. He’s always been more comfortable snapping towels at people than actually trying to figure out policy or understand the world. I argue all the time that being a big sports fan does not, in fact, make you retarded. And he, unfortunately, is a counterexample.
What about the Obama campaign toying with the idea of sponsoring BAM Racing’s car in the NASCAR race at Pocono? The campaign now says they never reached a deal. How would that have resonated, especially in the wake of former NASCAR official Mauricia Grant’s lawsuit?
Not great! The Mauricia grant lawsuit—where she’s suing for $225 million, for just a shocking array of racial and sexual harassment—it’s hard to imagine the Obama campaign just sliding smoothly into that kind of environment. Then again, Obama seems to be setting a land speed record for tacking to the right…
Is baseball ruining steroids?
[Laughs.] There’s a serious question there somewhere, because steroids have saved the lives of people with AIDS, saved the lives of people with horrible, debilitating injuries; improved the lives of people with terrible muscle palsies. And yet, steroids are called by Bud Selig “a terrible substance that must be eradicated.” So, if you’re talking about the demonization of something which in some ways has offered tremendous medical and scientific advantages to people who in previous centuries would have been either cast off or left for dead, then, yeah: baseball has given steroids a bad name.
With steroids, it’s a question not of use, but of abuse…They can be very dangerous and very harmful. And they could also upset the competitive balance of a sport...Part of the problem is…people are taking them in back alleys, people are getting injected in the team men’s room. And it’s not being overseen by a doctor, by someone who actually has some training…
When you talk about how some pitchers take steroids to heal faster from rotator cuff injuries—what’s wrong with that? Usually players are praised for doing whatever they can to get back on the field. They’re not making themselves better pitchers, they’re trying to get over injuries so they can go back and help their team. Is that cheating, or is that medical progress?
Is part of the problem that sports reporters don’t really understand the issue?
Of course! You listen to [sports radio’s] “Mike and the Mad Dog,” or “Mike & Mike in the Morning”…[and] you get this very distorted discussion where it’s like, “Oh, look at Mark McGwire. His career ended in his mid-thirties. That’s proof he took steroids.” Then it’s, “Rafael Palmeiro, he’s hitting homeruns into his mid-forties. That’s proof he took steroids.” So, you’re like, Wait, do they shorten your career or elongate your career? What do they do? That’s because this is not serious science. It’s not a serious discussion. I’m all for the players and the ownership deciding collectively that they don’t want it in their sport—that’s their business, if that’s how they want to regulate their sport…But the wholesale demonization—I’m not sure what that does for anybody.
Barry Bonds has become the mythic bête noire of American sport—or really maybe just the latest. What do you think his legacy will be?
Unfortunately, people are hammering to make sure his legacy is something that it really shouldn’t [be]. His 756th homerun with the asterisk on it was officially submitted and will be in [Baseball’s Hall of Fame at] Cooperstown. The fact he can’t get signed this year…He had a .480 on-base percentage last year. The fact that he’s a persona non grata in the sport, to me, is very shameful, because Barry Bonds is—without question and without argument—the best player I’ve ever seen.
Your second book, Welcome to the Terrordome, actually begins in New Orleans, with displaced Katrina victims herded into a succession of sports arenas, which you call the “March of Domes.” You point out it was likely the first time the city’s impoverished residents had actually seen the inside of the arenas their taxes helped build—$16 billion in public money has been spent on stadiums in the last decade. It was this grotesquely symbolic moment, when a nation’s inability to care for its neediest citizens (say, by providing real shelter or temporary housing) intersected vividly with these monuments to corporate welfare. This year’s Major League Baseball All-Star game is at Yankee Stadium—the stadium will be demolished after this season and the team will move into a new arena down the street that is mostly privately financed, but occupies former public parkland.
That’s right. With a lot of public tax breaks, too, make no mistake about it. The city will be paying through the nose for this…The tearing down of Yankee Stadium is like what Ralph Nader said: it’s like tearing down Carnegie Hall. And no one would ever tear down Carnegie Hall. And yet they’re tearing down Yankee Stadium…When city budgets and state budgets are so deeply strapped—that we would be giving money to subsidize stadiums for billionaires is just obscene. The majority of the people in this country agree with me; it’s something that really transcends political affiliation. It’s also something that’s across the board in terms of academic studies: this doesn’t work. It doesn’t bring in new revenue in the cities, it doesn’t fund school systems, it doesn’t fund libraries. All it funds are owners and the political cronies around them.
Given that billionaire owners are the beneficiaries of all this needless largesse, why is so much public resentment directed instead at athletes for the salaries they make?
That’s a terrific question. Mainly because they’re the public faces of the teams. Most owners really do stay behind close doors, with the exception of the Mark Cubans and the Jerry Joneses. They tend to try to stay more anonymous. It’s always hilarious—and it’s really only American sport that does this—when they present the trophy, the CEOs come out to take the trophy—
Those rank among the most awkward moments in television…
Definitely! [Like the owners of the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics,] they’re surrounded by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and you’re thinking: Who the hell are these guys? And they’re, like, “We did it!” And the crowd does this sort of collective, “Huh?” That’s a funny thing about US sports: In times of championships, it elevates the owner…It’s kind of like the reverse of British soccer where people know who the owners are and there’re efforts to hold them accountable for even things like if the teams go into debt. But when teams win championships, the players are front and center. It’s the reverse in American sports, where the owners are anonymous until they win the championship and it’s “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson has been hinting at moving the franchise for some time now and the team will play five games in Toronto over the next few seasons. A permanent relocation would be a devastating psychological blow to the already struggling city. Do owners—especially those in the NFL, where profits are virtually guaranteed through revenue sharing—have a responsibility to the communities in which they do business?
Yeah. Absolutely. I’m a big believer that pro sports teams are intellectual property. They’re not just physical property. So, there’s an argument that the Buffalo Bills belong to the city of Buffalo as much or more than they belong to Ralph Wilson…And certainly if the team is taking tax dollars, there is a—not just a moral, or a spiritual or an ethereal, but a material—responsibility that it has to stay there.
That’s what made the recent move of the [NBA’s] Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City something that was just such a repellent slap in the face. Because it’s this idea that the city that had housed this team for 41 years somehow had less of a claim on it than these guys, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon—both of whom are to the right of Genghis Khan. They’re corporate raiders and the idea that these guys could show up from Oklahoma City, buy [the team], spend two years harassing and haranguing the [Washington] state legislature—which had just been through two ugly stadium battles—and then just book with the team…all while [NBA commissioner] David Stern doesn’t say a word that’s supportive of the city…is beneath contempt.
What political figure would you compare Stern to?
There’s no political equivalent to David Stern, because nobody’s as powerful as David Stern. This would be like if George W. Bush had 70, 80% approval and majorities in both houses—then, he’d be David Stern.
Our founder, Matt Taibbi, once opined on the death of his own sports tabloid—New York Sports Express—that the sporting press, unlike their political counterparts, is “unbelievably vicious and demanding in its interviews; it doesn't take no for an answer from anybody; it is utterly relentless in its quest to find out What Is Wrong…and, most pointedly, it has absolutely no respect for…authority figures.” Would we be better off having sports reporters cover politics? Would faulty Iraq intelligence be just like androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker?
Wow! I don’t say this too often, but I strongly disagree with Matt on that one. Because while he’s absolutely right that sports reporters are brilliant at going through the minutiae, they’re terrible at challenging power. I would argue they’re even worse than the people who write the front-page story.... If sports reporters were in charge of [reporting on Iraq], they wouldn’t have been asking tougher questions on weapons of mass destruction. Instead, their follow-up questions would have been like, “So, how did you choose to pick out that tie this morning that you’re wearing for today? Why did you choose to go with the blended thread, instead of the silk? Did you buy that yourself at Brooks Brothers or did somebody buy that for you? Did your posse buy that for you—are they all wearing the Hermes tie now?” In most cases, it’s not even like I blame the actual reporters themselves: it’s because the teams hold so many of the trump cards when it comes down to access, when it comes down to tickets and because of that, it breeds a level of caution.
Do you like any writers out there? Who should the highbrow sports fan seek out?
David Steele of the Baltimore Sun is fantastic. Scoop Jackson and Jemele Hill on ESPN[.com’s Page 2]. I like Harvey Araton for the New York Times a great deal, Thomas Boswell in D.C.—I don’t agree with Boswell at all on stadium construction—Richard Justice, Sally Jenkins.
Has Jemele Hill been reinstated, following her suspension for writing that “rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim”?
I just had Jemele Hill on my radio show. I thought what happened to her was disgusting…She was comparing Detroit fans who side with Boston in the playoffs as being the kind of people who would be sympathetic with Hitler. And you can argue that that’s not even funny—but if making an unfunny joke on [ESPN.com’s Page 2] gets you suspended, then Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly should be at Abu Ghraib. Bill Simmons, the next week, made a joke about the player drafted in the first round by the Washington Wizards—Javale McGee—being the son of a WNBA player; and then he writes, “There’s a joke I can’t write here about a turkey baster.” This is the question: What are the rules, then, that would get you suspended?
I remember reading a Simmons column a few years ago, in which he compared being a Yankee fan to joining al Qaeda!
Yeah, it’s the same joke. It’s the same joke…It pissed me off that people could call for her job. Here we are talking about that we want sports reporters to be a little more daring, a little more questioning, a little sharper, a little more incisive…the Jemele Hill thing has the effect of timidity. Particularly when more and more writers are being hired by ESPN. It will create a real culture of timidity.
In What’s My Name, Fool?, you interviewed the jellied Croesus, George Foreman. Foreman was unapologetic about his patriotic flag-waving display at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico, which showed up John Carlos’s and Tommy Smith’s Black Power medal stand salute days earlier. George gushed that if he “had to do it all over, I’d wave three flags!” Do you think this is why Foreman has sold more indoor grills than Evander Holyfield?
Probably. George Foreman has always been somewhat of a genius…in standing for the United States of George Foreman. All his kids are named George! He’s great at publicizing himself. And, hey, those grills do some good grilling. The man puts out a good product! But, that moment in 1968…he really did stand on the wrong side of history. At a time when two of his Olympic teammates needed all the support and solidarity they could get, and even received it from…the Olympic crew team, which was all white and all from Harvard—they stood with Smith and Carlos. And George Foreman, who was one of the most prominent Olympians, did not.
In Terrordome, you’re very critical of the greedy, praetorian bureaucracy of the Olympics. Is this country, the games are, at best, largely ignored. There was a story, however, on the Australian Broadcasting Company recently about the Palestinian Olympic team—consisting of only two runners and two swimmers—which contained this quote: “Yet it's really only at major sporting events like the Olympics that something called Palestine actually exists.” Do you think the games still matter?
The Olympics do still matter. First of all, it’s recognizing this is a global sports world now. So any sporting event that has global ramifications matters. And this country is also very global…It’s [also] one of the few times you get access to other kinds of sports, other than the tunnel vision we usually have in this country…Particularly, the Olympics give an unprecedented spotlight on women athletes…
The other thing about…the Olympics…is they always become places where geopolitical concerns get played out in different ways…Obviously, this year with China, you’re getting the Super Bowl of geopolitical concerns crossed with sports.
Did you read Naomi Campbell’s piece for Rolling Stone about China?
Naomi Campbell? The model?
Yeah, uh…No! I’m sorry, Naomi Klein. She wrote that the Olympics are really a test case for China’s goal of a centralized, nationwide network of government surveillance. There are already 200,000 cameras installed in just the industrial city of Shenzhen. This year’s Olympics has been discussed a lot—certain implications—but I think it’s almost been underreported in a way…
Yeah, I just was actually talking about that: it has felt underreported in recent months, certainly since the torch carrying through San Francisco and all the drama there…The corporate backers of sports are doing a very delicate dance with these Olympics. On the one hand, they desperately all wanted it to be in China because of the profit-making potential in China—the size of its economy, the size of its population. But…if they give too much publicity to it, then it becomes way too obvious and way too loud how complicit they are in China’s crimes.
Do you think Americans will start taking sports seriously as a means of challenging the status quo, once multitudes are rounded up and imprisoned without due process, and subsequently killed in extrajudicial human hunts on primetime television—a la Schwarzenegger in The Running Man?
Or will they continue to just view games as a pleasant diversion?
That’s gonna depend on what happens outside the athletic field. If we have a politicized world, where people are challenging those very things you mentioned, then we’re gonna see it reflected in the world of sports. But, if there’s passivity on those fronts, you’re not gonna see sports, in a separate vacuum, become a politicized arena…
The image of Egyptian soccer star Mahmoud Aboutreika lifting his jersey during a scoring celebration to reveal a shirt that read “Sympathize With Gaza” probably went largely unnoticed in this country. Why don’t we see more expressions of resistance and solidarity with oppressed peoples from top American athletes? Here’s a blunt hypothetical: Would the Washington Wizards’ Etan Thomas be so outspoken—on race, politics, the prison-industrial complex, the Iraq War—if he enjoyed LeBron James’s success?
That is a terrific question. I think if Etan Thomas averaged 30 points and 15 rebounds a game, he might even be more outspoken, because he’d have more of an opportunity to be heard…This isn’t a question of fame, it’s a question of principle…There are two names every NBA player knows…Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf…role players who—because of their politics—believe they were run out of the game…That tells you if you’re an Etan Thomas, there’s actually a greater risk when you’re a role player than there is if you’re LeBron James. LeBron James could walk into China for these Olympics and call for an insurrection of the Chinese people against the Communist Party and Nike would applaud, “Wow, he’s so daring! Let’s do a commercial out of that.” He has utter invincibility. So, actually, fame in a lot of ways—that level of privilege—really does allow for a degree of insulation.
Granted, after you retire, you might not get a coaching job. Just ask Kareem.
Dave Zirin’s column, “Edge of Sports,” is available at his website, edgeofsports.com and at Sports Illustrated’s SI.com. His forthcoming book is A People’s History of Sports in the United States, part of a series edited by Howard Zinn. He now wisely ignores Paul Jones’s phone calls.
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