Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Man Who Would Reclaim Sports

by DAVE ZIRIN

It was 1976, and the Summer Olympics in Montreal had improbably become ground zero in the struggle against apartheid. Several dozen African nations threatened to boycott if the International Olympic Committee dared allow South Africa to be a part of the games. Montreal’s athletic jamboree was in jeopardy and the cause of all the tumult, according to Sports Illustrated, was a diminutive South African poet the magazine called “the Dark Genius of Dissent.” His name was Dennis Brutus. Brutus organized entire blocks of the world around a simple question: how can the Olympics say they stand for “brotherhood” and fair play if apartheid nations could join the festivities? It worked. The “Dark Genius” shamed the shameless and changed international sports forever. Over the course of decades, as a dissident, refugee, and political prisoner, Brutus advanced this simple athletic argument. The organizations he founded, the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 and its successor, the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee, (SANROC) used it to hammer critical nails in apartheid’s coffin.

For Brutus, this work in the sports world was merely an extension of a lifetime organizing for racial and economic justice. His death on December 26th after a long bout with cancer has created an incalculable void. Not merely because he was beloved as the “singing voice of the South African Liberation Movement”; not merely because Brutus held a reservoir of political lessons; but because he remained a tireless agitator for justice. Days before the recent international climate talks in Copenhagen, the ailing Brutus called the proceedings a sham, saying, “We are in serious difficulty all over the planet. We are going to say to the world: There’s too much of profit, too much of greed, too much of suffering by the poor. … The people of the planet must be in action.”

He also never stopped holding up the dreamy ideals of sport against reality’s harsh light. Up until the final days of his life, while the leaders of South Africa celebrated the coming arrival of the 2010 World Cup, Brutus was in the streets, protesting the demolition of low income housing to make way for soccer’s international party. In December 2007, he publicly rejected induction in the South African Sports Hall of Fame, saying to 1,000 onlookers:

Being inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honor under most circumstances. In my case the honor is for helping rid South African sport of racism, making it open to all. So I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honored, or to join a hall of fame alongside those who flourished under racist sport. Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities. Moreover, this hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators defended, supported and legitimized apartheid. There are indeed some famous South Africans who still belong in a sports hall of infamy. They still think they are sports heroes, without understanding and making amends for the context in which they became so heroic, namely a crime against humanity. So, case closed. It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time-indeed long past time-for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.

I had the privilege to interview Brutus extensively three years ago about why he came to see sports as an arena to fight for justice. His answer was, I have come to learn, typical Dennis Brutus: refusing to be anything less than blunt and provocative. I asked him whether he agreed with me that sports could still be a lever to change the world. Instead of cheerleading the notion, he said to me,

My own sense is that sports has less capacity now to change society then it had before.  For instance, the degree that sports has become commercialized.  The degree that your loyalty is no longer to a club like it used to be because guys are bought and sold like so many slaves….The other thing that really scares me is the way that sport is used to divert people’s attention.  Critical political issues in their own lives.  Their living conditions.  The Romans used to say this is the way to run an empire.  Give them bread give them circuses.  Now they don’t even give you bread and the circuses are lousy…

But amidst his critiques, Brutus was never a pessimist, only a “critical optimist.” How else to explain that in his next breath, he also said to me,

We must however realize that the power and reach of sports is undeniable…It’s kind of a megaphone.  People will hear [political athletes] because their voices are amplified.  Not always in a very informed way.  Of course when there are exceptions, it can produce magic: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for instance or Muhammad Ali. So it does help and they do have that megaphone: but allimportant is content. All-important is politics. That is decisive.”

There are ways to honor Dennis Brutus and his memory. Read aloud his poetry at the first opportunity. Keep his words alive to “produce magic” for a new generation. Keep fighting for a global justice. And keep fighting to reclaim sports. As people are criminalized in Vancouver to make way for the 2010 Olympics, as the poor are dispossessed in the name of the 2010 World Cup, we should proudly claim Dennis’s well-worn place at the march, never allowing those in power the comfort of indifference. As Dennis said to me when I asked him how he could stay so active into his 80s, “This is no time for laurels. This is no time for rest.”

Note: I highly recommend Dennis’s brilliant collection, Poetry and
Protest.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

 

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail