Paul M. Banks has an exclusive interview with Dave Zirin discussing the past, present and future social issues at the heart of sports
The legendary Howard Cossell once proudly said that rule number one of sports was, they are never to mix with politics. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Another sportswriter who agrees with me is Dave Zirin, author of four books and a column, “Edge of Sports,” which appears on Sports Illustrated’s website.
I sat down with Zirin for an exclusive conversation at “The Progressive” magazine’s 100th anniversary conference.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than when I meet someone who bought one of my books and says that they there were now able to connect with somebody politically that they just otherwise couldn’t. They say things like I love my Dad, but we just can’t talk politics, and then through sports they’re actually able to have a real political dialogue. They get started and it’s ‘let’s talk Muhammad Ali, let’s talk Title IX, let’s talk about will there ever be a gay male athlete in team sports?’ and then they’re able to engage on a political level. And that’s been really fun and interesting. It’s rewarding because we live in a society where a lot of people are alienated from politics, but they’re not alienated from sports,” he said.
We all know how mind-numbingly boring 99.999% of athlete/coaches interviews and press conferences can be. This is simply because the individuals are regurgitating the same agonizingly mundane and ridiculously repetitive clichés that the team’s PR department trained them to give as a response. This is all part of the “just shut up and play” mentality that teams expect at all levels of the organization. It’s also glorified and promoted by the evil empire of ESPN. Free thinkers are discouraged at best, ostracized at worst.
I asked Zirin why this is so.
“I think there are three reasons why that is. The first is that sports is an absolutely trillion dollar business, the likes of which it’s early founders and funders never could have envisioned a hundred years ago. And any time you have a business of such size and scope, there’s an effort to corporatize; make it as bland and broad-based as possible for the purpose of selling it to a global audience, just like the way they sell Michael Bay films overseas and they make hundreds of millions of dollars. The sheer size of it makes it hostile to anything that could possibly strangle the golden goose.
Secondly, the people that control sports, the owners as a group, are much farther to the right than the rest of society. Pro sports owners on their own gave more to McCain over Obama by a 6:1 margin, according to a study by politico.com. Remember what made Obama so powerful was his fundraising prowess and McCain had to take federal funds, so think about how out of step that is from the country as a whole. And owners control the messaging in sports.
But there’s something else too. This is the first society that ever viewed sports as some people watch and some people play. Every other society: feudal societies, hunter-gatherer societies, you would watch and you would play. This is long before sports became a commodity to be sold. But we have a society where some people are conditioned to be watchers and any time you have a situation like that, it breeds passivity,” Zirin articulated.
The three factors he described have without a doubt paved the way for “establishment politics” (messages of military, rank nationalism, jingoism) to make their presence felt in sports. Any time we rise for the singing of “God bless America,” The Star Spangled Banner or express excitement from an Air Force flyover we are making or responding to a deeply political statement. But we think of these things as just routine because they are commonplace at the stadium. More extremist examples would be Military Appreciation Night (so conveniently acronyms M.A.N.) at the Washington Nationals park. (although this isn’t much of an influential example because no one really seems to be aware that the Nats exist), This promotion, little more than an advertisement for the military-industrial complex, leads to Veterans Day ceremonies sponsored by leading defense contractor Boeing art Soldier Field.
Then the slippery slope starts to John Smoltz and his warning of “the socialist conspiracy to teach evolution to our children” and also Jerry Colangelo staging his “Faith and Family days” at the arena/ballpark, promoting his anti women’s rights propaganda to a captive audience.
Clearly, when it’s status quo or right-wing politics, indeed politics have their place in sports. (or so we’re told) When it’s resistance politics, or dissident politics on the other hand…then politics have no place in sports. (supposedly)Follow paulmbanks