When thinking of the history of sports, the fan and non-fan alike usually think in terms of things like the home run records of Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Barry Bonds; the multiple comeback victories of boxer Muhammad Ali; and the the legacy of football coaches Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant. War, economics and racism rarely enter this thought process, primarily because those who write the histories either don’t think about these phenomena and their potential relevance or because they don’t think sports should be sullied with these more earthly matters.
Fortunately, sportswriter and activist Dave Zirin has written a book that could change this situation. Sports, argues Zirin in his soon to be released A People’s History of Sports in the United States, does not stand outside of politics and its history. Indeed, it is often where the political conflicts of the day are most dramatically played out. And, conversely, it is often the wars resulting from these political conflicts that precipitate the spread of certain games. For example, baseball was popularized during the civil war as soldiers played it during lulls in the fighting and its popularity in the Caribbean and Japan can be traced to US servicemen teaching the conquered locals the game.
Of course, when the history of anything in the United States is discussed, the topic of race and racism will be present. Sports is not only no different, it is arguably the greatest element of that history. From the story of the boxer Jack Johnson, a black man who beat white men with regularity and without regret (and incurred the wrath of the legal system for his efforts), to the heroic pose of 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, sports in the US is in large part the story of black men and women overcoming athletic competitors and societal racism. Most of us are familiar with the tale of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the previously all-white Major Leagues. We know about Branch Rickey choosing him not only for his athletic abilities but also because of his inner fortitude. It was a fortitude that enabled him to keep quiet in the face of racist players, fans and towns. What we don’t hear so much about is the anger he could barely contain and the fact that what he went through during his Major League career might very well have caused his death at 53. There are may stories similar to Robinson’s in US sports. Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph is an inspiration to many girls nowadays, but her road to Olympic glory was not easy. Besides overcoming polio, she had to overcome the racist institutions of the US south and the prejudices of Olympic officials.
Appropriately, a good deal of the history Zirin relates occurred during the 1960s. This decade saw sports in the United States begin to take on the role it plays in today’s culture. In other words, the 1960s saw the rise of sports as a multibillion dollar entertainment venue. Those years were also the most contentious US historical period since the period before, during and immediately after the Civil War. Like the Civil War, the primary reason for the fissures split open in the 1960s was the racist treatment of African-Americans. The conflagration of sports’ rise to the top of the entertainment heap and the struggle for black liberation and equal rights created a situation where sports figures became political figures as well. Perhaps none is as well-known as Muhammad Ali. Naturally, Zirin spends a few pages on the boxer and freedom fighter’s story. After all, Ali’s story is not only about sport. It is also about racism, dignity, the nature of imperial war, and the struggle of colonized peoples against their oppressor.
Speaking of the latter, there is no sports photo I can think of that represents that struggle better than the photo of the aforementioned stand by US Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their fists raised in defiance and pride. I still recall watching that moment on television back in 1968. My adolescent mind felt a combination of shock and awe. Shock that these men were actually defying the racist powers of Avery Brundage’s International Olympic Committee and awe in the face of their certainty and strength. After seeing that awards ceremony, I knew that I had to do more than just be against racism and the war in Vietnam. I had to do something about it. Zirin’s telling of the circumstances and planning that went into the movement which convinced Smith and Carlos to take the stand in such a way does justice to the men, the history and the action itself.
Writing a history is a complex endeavor. One debates what to include and what to leave out while simultaneously attempting to write something that will reach the largest possible audience. The people’s history is no different. Naturally, there is an acceptance by the author and the reader that any history titled a people’s history is not pretending to be objective like so many standard histories. All history is, after all, partisan. Zirin has composed a wonderfully written, well-researched, and very readable story of US sport and its meaning to the oppressed and those who fight with them against the rulers. Like any sports book, there are stories of glory and prowess. Unlike the standard sports tale, however, these tales of glory are not only about individual struggles but also about the struggles of those individuals on the court and track; in the ball park and in the ring and their meaning to the people from whence the athletes come. A People’s History of Sports in the United States is about the playing field and its role in the struggle for freedom and equal rights. It is about the rulers attempts to keep sport safely in the realm of nationalism and the status quo and the struggle of some athletes to make their efforts much more than that. Zirin makes it clear that it is a also a history that continues to be written.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org