The Politics of Play

Dave Zirin is a self-proclaimed sports fanatic. He hosts a popular radio show, has authored numerous books, is a sought-after columnist, and often appears on networks like ESPN, MSNBC, and CNN. And he will not hesitate to tell you who his pick is for the playoffs. In any sport.

But wait, in 2009 UTNE Reader touted Zirin as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World.”

Author and columnist Dave Zirin

Yes, Zirin himself admits he’s a bit of an anomaly.

It was early on in his sports career when he gained what he calls a bittersweet “awareness of responsibility.” A friend from his high school basketball team skipped practice for an antiwar protest during the Desert Storm years. What a loser move, thought Zirin. What could be more important than practice? Turns out the teammate’s father was Iranian.

In the mid-’90s, he watched the highly publicized downfall of Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, whose recent conversion to Islam and subsequent allegiance to his faith cost him an athletic career. But was it Abdul-Rauf’s faith that was the problem? Or the intolerance around him?

That’s just one of the questions that began to bug Zirin. He became fascinated with the overarching idea of “normality” that the sports world seemed to define. Man up. Don’t throw like a girl. Go USA! No gays allowed. Aren’t women athletes cute? Especially in bikinis!

No, this was not the world of sports Zirin wanted to be a part of.

Zirin has a gentle and comfortable manner at the podium. His lecture, part of the current “Mixed Signals” exhibit at the Museum of Art, added yet another dimension to the thought-provoking collection of images. After introducing himself via a short segment of his documentary to the small crowd of staff, coaches, community members, and a smattering of students not in season and at practice at 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, he proceeded to chat amiably and articulately about his experiences in sports—from those eye-opening days as a young basketball player to his current platform as a well-regarded journalist.

“I realized, pretty quickly, that there’s not a lot written about the way sports and social politics interact,” he said. “And once I started digging into the past I knew, a lot of what I thought I knew was actually not right at all.” He discovered that Jackie Robinson, for instance, is far more politically complicated than history has recorded. “He wasn’t just an athletic pioneer on the baseball field; he was also the most requested speaker at NAACP events—more requested even than Martin Luther King Jr.” And Muhammad Ali, after being sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title, spent that entire year of 1968 touring up to four college campuses a week and rousing crowds with his antiwar philosophy.

Zirin went on to describe numerous examples of marginalized groups within the world of sports, but also to note how things are slowly beginning to shift. In 2009, NFL star linebacker Scott Fujita very publicly participated in the National Equality March, a rally in Washington for gay rights. Just this past year, demonstrations took place outside 20 major league baseball stadiums against the current plans to hold the 2011 All-Star game in Arizona, because of its contentious anti-immigrant laws. “27.7 percent of major league baseball players were born in Latin America,” said Zirin. “So it didn’t take long for the players to begin voicing their opinions beyond the field.” That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago, he added. The atmosphere wouldn’t have been a safe one for speaking out. The bottom line, according to Zirin, is that sports are becoming leverage for how to speak about nonsport issues.

“Sports and today’s athletes can provide an informed and critical lens onto issues of gender, race, and religion,” explained Zirin. “And reach people, finally, who might otherwise be shut out.”

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  1. For all those who were in practice or were otherwise unable to attend, Dave’s talk was videotaped and will soon be available via the museum’s website. Also, we purchased a copy of his documentary, Not Just A Game, which we will add to the library’s collection very shortly. He was certainly a very engaging and intelligent speaker. Thanks for the post, Blair.

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