FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Man Who Politicized the Sports Pages (Again)

by RON JACOBS

If a journalist wants to paint crazy pictures of alliteration and description, then the place for them to write used to be in the sports section. Speculation and flights of poetic fancy were not only allowed but expected. That most iridescent of journalists, Hunter S. Thompson, began his fabled writing career reporting on sports. One of his earliest national pieces was an impressionistic, iconoclastic report on the most famous of horse races, The Kentucky Derby. As the reader knows, Thompson went on to write some of the best cultural criticism and political reportage of the 1960s and 1970s. In his later years his books and articles combined his twin passions of sports and politics into a series of incisive and funny collections of the decline of US civilization in the name of profit.1864.cover

Thompson has never been replaced. Most sports journalists nowadays use up their ink rewriting the words of management and ownership or attacking superstars they seem to build up just to knock down. Mock expressions of shock accompany reports of steroid use and pot possession, yet there is little analysis of how and why athletes might feel the need to use either type of drug. No matter what they write about, the writing itself is all too often nothing but a repetition of press releases, especially when compared to a master like Thompson.

But wait, there is a sportswriter out there whose writing is different than the norm. His writing includes political critique and verbal flights of circumlocution laced with humor and sarcasm that make your sides hurt. Considerably more radical than Thompson (especially in his later years) Dave Zirin takes the world of sports and rips it open for all to see. His latest book, titled Game Over: How Politics has Turned the Sports World Upside Down, examines the world of sports in the age of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and their opposite in the halls of power and capital. CLR James wrote about the meaning of cricket in the colonialist world of Trinidad; Curt Flood and Jackie Robinson, each in their own way, ripped away the mantle of racism in Major League Baseball; Jon Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists against the racism of Avery Brundage’s country club apartheid Olympics; Lester Rodney ripped away the white robe of racism in US sport. Dave Zirin carries this legacy into the twenty-first century, taking on those people and institutions that have crippled sports in the name of profit and power while championing those athletes and others who have used their name and position to make sports a force for change.

In his introductory remarks, Dave Zirin discusses the return of politics to the field of play. Once again, the basketball court, football field, baseball park and hockey rink have become forums where players dare to vocalize their opinions on issues of the time. Gay rights to labor rights; racism and war, Player are once again making their opinions public and using the forum their career provides to sway public opinion. Although Zirin concerns himself primarily with the US sports world, he covers international soccer and the Olympics, too. In fact, one of his most evocative pieces in this book is titled “Today’s World Cup and Olympics.” Perhaps the most unique chapter is the chapter discussing Egypt’s Ultras. For those who don’t know, Ultras are soccer fans found in almost every country where soccer is played who literally live and die for their team. In the case of the Egyptian Ultras, they involved themselves in the ongoing uprising in that nation and were crucial to Mubarak’s overthrow. In a very real way, these fans changed the course of their nation’s history.

Although he would probably never acknowledge it, Dave Zirin is a big part of the reason politics are back in sports. His commentary, lectures and other appearances have challenged athletes to speak out and sportswriters to respond to the political role sports play in the world. No longer can owners, managers and commissioners argue that sports and politics must and should be separated. The taboo has been trashed. The silence has been shattered. Who would have thought when his first columns were published in the small-time Maryland weekly The Prince George’s Post a little over a decade ago that he would become a regular on ESPN, sportswriter for The Nation, SLAM and the author of several books; that his words would be read in the corporate boardrooms of professional sports teams and attacked by shills? There was obviously a need for the type of writing that Zirin does and he does a remarkable job of filling that need.

One does not have to go too far back to a time when Michael Jordan’s hang time and George Steinbrenner’s Yankees were what people talked about in US sports; when no player dare speak out about issues of the day. The combination of a growing grassroots movement against imperial war, the economic policies of the “1%,” the ongoing struggle against racism, and the movement for LGBT equality have changed that. With Zirin helping to lead the charge, the world of sports will never be the same. That, my friends, is a good thing.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
Chris Odinet
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Rev. William Alberts
“Law and Order:” Code words for White Lives Matter Most
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Elliot Sperber
 Pseudo-Democracy, Reparations, and Actual Democracy
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Kathleen Wallace
Feel the About Turn
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail