Dave Zirin Writes from the Busy Intersection of Sports and Politics

Dave Zirin.Dave Zirin. (Photo: Joe Mabel / Wikimedia)In this wide-ranging interview, Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and author of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down discusses violence, mental health, jock culture, rape culture and hero worship in sports, its economics and its real heroes.

“Sports has become such a big business that the line between journalism and being a broadcast partner for all intents and purposes has been obliterated.” – Sportswriter and Author Dave Zirin on Rag Radio

Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and author of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down, writes from that lively and socially significant intersection where sports meets politics.

Zirin, who has been called “the best sportswriter in the United States,” by noted sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, spoke on the politics of sports at the Belo Center for New Media on the University of Texas campus in Austin on Monday, April 1, 2013, at an event sponsored by the Texas Program in Sports and Media, and he also appeared on the syndicated Austin-based Rag Radio.

In an hour-long interview, Dave Zirin told the Rag Radio audience that the nature of sports journalism has changed dramatically in recent years. “Unfortunately,” he said, “sports has become such a big business that the line between journalism and being a broadcast partner for all intents and purposes has been obliterated.”

“I don’t think Hunter S. Thompson (who started out as a sportswriter) could have imagined a situation where the best journalists would work for places like the NBA.com, NFL.com, MLB.com.”

Sports journalists need to be watchdogs, he said, because professional sports organizations represent “very powerful multi-billion dollar interests with tentacles in every aspect of our society.”

According to Ben Carrington, a cultural sociologist at the University of Texas who introduced Zirin at the event on the UT campus, Dave Zirin’s influence on mainstream sports reporting has become so extensive that “he’s actually changed the sports landscape.” And UT journalism professor Mary Bock told us that Zirin has not only shown “how money has changed the game,” but that he has emphasized the role of human relationships in contemporary sports with his “observations about gender, class, and race.”

Zirin, who regularly writes about the politics of sports for The Nation and hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM, was described by The Washington Post as “the conscience of American sports writing.” (“They didn’t mean it as a compliment,” Zirin suggests with a chuckle.) And the UTNE Reader, which included him in it’s grouping of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” called Dave Zirin “the thinking fan’s sportswriter, using our various fields of battle as a sociological lens.”

Journalist and author Ron Jacobs called Zirin “the man who politicized the sports pages,” writing at The Rag Blog that “Dave Zirin takes 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.”

And New York Magazine’s Will Leitch observed that “Dave Zirin, as the years go by, sounds less and less like a politically slanted leftist rabble-rouser and more like the only sumbitch who understands what the hell’s going on.”

Sports and the economic crisis of 2008

In discussing his new book, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down, on Rag Radio, Zirin acknowledged that “politics have always been a part of sports,” but said that the world of professional sports changed dramatically after the economic crisis of 2008. The owners started “freaking out about the loss of public subsidies, which they had gotten used to over the last 20 years.” So, according to Zirin, they started “trying to figure out a way to restore profitability.”

And, as a result, “we almost lost the whole hockey season this year, we lost part of the NBA season last year, we almost lost the NFL season last year and the first quarter of the NFL season this year. And there were scabs – so-called ‘replacement referees’ who made the game unsafe – and sometimes unwatchable.”

According to Zirin, the folks who run professional sports have shared a “unified corporate strategy to lock out labor,” adding, “There’s one law firm now – Proskauer Rose – that’s representing all four of the major sports leagues.”

“When owners lock out players,” he pointed out, “they’re also locking out everybody that works in the parking lot, who works in the stadium, all the waiters and waitresses picking up an extra shift at the restaurants. And when you think that it’s our billions of dollars that go into building these stadiums, they’re not just locking out the players. They’re locking out all of us.”

When people ask Dave Zirin who his favorite sports owners are, “I always say, the Green Bay Packers. They’re the best 200,000 owners in sports. That’s a fan-owned team. And the difference is profound in terms of the relationship between the team and the community; it’s the difference between a nonprofit that puts money back into the community and a sponge that sucks money and resources out of the community.”

Football as war zone

About violence in professional football, Zirin told the Rag Radio audience that “trying to curb head injuries in the NFL is basically like trying to make a safe cigarette.” “It’s such a dangerous, violent game that your next play can always be your last.”

But Zirin believes there are things that the owners could do, “like maybe having certified medical concussion experts on every single sideline in the NFL.” “One player said to me, ‘You’ll know the NFL is serious when they propose reforms that actually cost them money.’ ” And he believes that “players should have the most extreme possible union protections, given how dangerous the work actually is.”

“What makes football different from every other sport, including so-called ‘violent’ sports like hockey,” Zirin says, “is that one could imagine a thrilling game of hockey without the checks, without the fights, without the violence. You can’t really separate football from the violence.”

According to Zirin, “The very word ‘sissy,’ which is of course a derogatory word meaning that somebody might be gay, was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt to describe young men of privilege who would not play football. The roots of it are in ideas about war and conquest.” He added, “The first football games were on the Ivy League campuses of this country, as a way to prepare the young men to ‘toughen up.’ ”

Dave Zirin is also very critical of the hypocritical way major league baseball has handled the steroids issue. “It was either a situation of malign neglect or malignant intent,” he says. With “owners happily looking the other way to make sure that the homeruns would keep getting hit, the fans would keep coming to the park and the game would keep growing.”

And he faults the baseball writers who are keeping deserving players like former Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell – “anybody who has a whiff of rumor about them” – out of the Hall of Fame. “It is guilt by association, guilt by rumor and guilt by innuendo,” he said, and smacks of Joe McCarthy.

The special courage of Royce White

Zirin discussed the story of Houston Rockets rookie Royce White who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder and has been “battling with the Rockets over how they would deal with his mental health.” As Zirin wrote in February, “For months, the 21-year-old has been sitting out the season in protest: a rebel with a cause.” White “has made it clear amidst an avalanche of criticism that his mental health is more important than his contract or career,” Zirin wrote, and he “has become a crusader for change, calling out the NBA for disregarding mental illness and treating him like a ‘commodity.’ “

Zirin said on Rag Radio that Royce White “has developed quite the radical consciousness. Just by standing up and just by the abuse he’s taken” as a result of his stance. In an interview with ESPN, White even made the claim “that the majority of players in the NBA are mentally ill,” but that they self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.

In fact, as Royce White sees it, one reason that mental illness is so widespread in American society “is that 2 percent of the population controls all the money. And that 98 percent of the population’s stressed out of their minds just trying to get by.”

“This is pretty intense,” Zirin suggests, “for a 21-year-old.”

“Mental health issues are nearly taboo to talk about in the world of sports,” Zirin says. It’s only “in recent years that players have begun to come out of this particular closet.”

Sexism, homophobia and rape culture

Zirin says that more women are actively involved in sports today than ever before, but that there’s “less and less visibility. There’s less coverage of women’s sports now then there was 10 years ago. And less coverage 10 years ago than there was 20 years ago.”

He talks about a major study out of the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota that asked the question, “Does sex – and I think we can more appropriately say, sexism – sell women’s sports? Are people more likely to watch women’s sports when women athletes dress up in certain ways?”

“They did this massive research project on this issue, interviewing tens of thousands of people, and what they came up with was that sexism actually hurts women’s sports. It makes people less likely to consume women’s sports.”

Zirin points out that “the male locker room” has always been “kind of a hamlet of homophobia.” But he thinks that’s changing. Zirin says that the LGBT movement has had a major impact on the sports world, and he believes that there are gay athletes in pro sports who are on the verge of coming out publicly.

In an article about the recent rape trial involving football players at Steubenville High School in Ohio, Zirin points to what he calls “the bond between jock culture and rape culture.”

He tells the Rag Radio audience: “I think that there is a connection. I think that men’s sports, with its combination of hero worship, of an emphasis on team and of men looking out for each other, and oftentimes looking at women as the spoils of being an athlete, can create a culture where women are seen as objects and where women can be seen as something to be taken.”

According to Zirin, “When you have a town like Steubenville, which is a town of 18,000 people yet the stadium holds 10,000, when you have a school that’s been refurbished . . . and everybody walks around and says, ‘that’s because of Big Red football that we got this money,’ and these kids walk around and adults kiss their butts, I think that’s a recipe for disaster.”

The problem, he says, is hero worship. And, as with the scandal at Penn State, “When a football team becomes the emotional, the economic, the cultural and the social center of a community, the priorities spin out of whack dramatically.”

The worst thing about Stuebenville, Zirin said, was that “there were 50 people who saw what was happening – boys and girls – and they all chose to do nothing.” But, he believes, “with the active intervention of coaches, of adults, that you can actually affect and change rape culture.”

When asked if college athletes should be paid, his response was, “Absolutely! Not even a question. They’re unpaid campus employees at this point. And if people say, ‘where’s the money going to come from?,’ just look at how much a typical head coach makes. Look how much (University of Texas football coach) Mack Brown makes ($5,266,667 as of February 2012). And look how much his assistant coaches make.”

(Speaking at the University of Texas, Zirin suggested that head coaches be paid the same salaries as tenured professors and assistant coaches the same as adjunct professors.)

“We’re at a point where the center will not hold” in college sports, he told Rag Radio listeners. “Because there’s no moral authority on the side of the NCAA. And the players get it, but they’re scared to do anything because their scholarships are renewed on an annual basis.”

Can the gladiator change Rome?

There are a lot of positive things happening in sports today, Zirin says, and many courageous athletes. “I love the fact that LeBron James and the Miami Heat actually took a stand when Trayvon Martin was murdered by Robert Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch leader. They all posed with their hoods on.”

And “the actions of the Phoenix Suns a couple years back . . . in protest of the horrific immigration laws in the state of Arizona, wearing jerseys that said Los Suns.” And, “I think we have to look globally,” he said. “There are a lot of players in European soccer in particular who are starting to stand up and be heard.”

In the ’60s, Zirin acknowledges, there were a number of highly visible activist athletes, like Billie Jean King, John Carlos, Arthur Ashe and Muhammed Ali. But, he suggests, “the only reason we remember Muhammed Ali is because the 1960s were happening outside the boxing ring. And without that context of social struggle, you’re not going to have the athletes who can rise up and meet the moment.”

One athlete Zirin especially admires is Houston Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster, who is “incredibly literate and erudite.” Zirin begins his latest book with a quote from Foster: “I heard Jim Brown once say the gladiator can’t change Rome. I love Jim Brown. But I disagree. I’ll die trying, my brother.”

Dave Zirin, who is The Nation’s first sports writer in its 150 years of existence, is also a columnist for SLAM Magazine and The Progressive and his articles frequently appear at The Rag Blog. He is a regular guest on MSNBC, CNN, ESPN, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, NPR’s All Things Considered, and many other major media outlets. His earlier books include the NAACP Image Award-nominated The John Carlos Story, Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, and A People’s History of Sports in the United States, part of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” Series.

Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program produced at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM, an all-volunteer cooperatively-owned and -operated community radio station in Austin, Texas. The show, which features in-depth interviews about progressive politics and alternative culture, is produced in coordination with The Rag Blog and the New Journalism Project, a Texas nonprofit corporation promoting independent activist media.