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.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

January 18, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Destabilizer: Trump’s Escalating Threats Against Iran
John W. Whitehead
Silence Is Betrayal: Get Up, Stand Up, Speak Up for Your Rights
Andrew Day
Of “Shitholes” and Liberals
Dave Lindorff
Rep. Gabbard Speaks Truth to Power About the Real Reason Korea Has Nukes
Barbara G. Ellis
The Workplace War: Hatpins Might Be in Style Again for Women
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Sickness in May’s Britain
Ralph Nader
Twitter Rock Star Obama’s Silence Must Delight Trump
John G. Russell
#Loose Lips (Should) Sink … Presidencies … But Even If They Could, What Comes Next?
David Macaray
The “Mongrelization” of the White Race
Ramzy Baroud
In Words and Deeds: The Genesis of Israeli Violence
January 17, 2018
Seiji Yamada
Prevention is the Only Solution: a Hiroshima Native’s View of Nuclear Weapons
Chris Welzenbach
Force of Evil: Abraham Polonsky and Anti-Capitalist Noir
Thomas Klikauer
The Business of Bullshit
Howard Lisnoff
The Atomized and Siloed U.S. Left
Martha Rosenberg
How Big Pharma Infiltrated the Boston Museum of Science
George Wuerthner
The Collaboration Trap
David Swanson
Removing Trump Will Require New Activists
Michael McKinley
Australia and the Wars of the Alliance: United States Strategy
Binoy Kampmark
Macron in China
Cesar Chelala
The Distractor-in-Chief
Ted Rall
Why Trump is Right About Newspaper Libel Laws
Mary Serumaga
Corruption in Uganda: Minister Sam Kutesa and Company May Yet Survive Their Latest Scandal
January 16, 2018
Mark Schuller
What is a “Shithole Country” and Why is Trump So Obsessed With Haiti?
Paul Street
Notes From a “Shithole” Superpower
Louisa Willcox
Keeper of the Flame for Wilderness: Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Sinister Plan to Kill the Iranian “Nukes” Deal
Franklin Lamb
Kafkaesque Impediments to Challenging Iran’s Theocracy
Norman Solomon
Why Senator Cardin is a Fitting Opponent for Chelsea Manning
Fred Gardner
GI Coffeehouses Recalled: a Compliment From General Westmoreland
Brian Terrell
Solidarity from Central Cellblock to Guantanamo
Don Fitz
Bondage Scandal: Looking Beneath the Surface
Rob Seimetz
#Resist Co-opting “Shithole”
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Unique
January 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Democrats and the End(s) of Politics
Paul Tritschler
Killing Floor: the Business of Animal Slaughter
Mike Garrity
In Targeting the Lynx, the Trump Administration Defies Facts, Law, and Science Once Again
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Hong Kong Politics: a Never-Ending Farce
Uri Avnery
Bibi’s Son (Or Three Men in a Car)
Dave Lindorff
Yesterday’s ‘Shithole Countries’ Can Become Classy Places Donald, and Vice Versa
Jeff Mackler
Lesser Evil Politics in Alabama
Jonah Raskin
Typewriters Still Smoking? An Interview with Underground Press Maven John McMillan
Jose-Antonio Orosco
Trump’s Comments Recall a Racist Past in Immigration Policy
David Macaray
Everything Seems to Be Going South
Kathy Kelly
41 Hearts Beating in Guantanamo
Weekend Edition
January 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
George Burchett
Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War: How Errol Morris Vindicated My Father, Wilfred Burchett
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail