The Ath­letic Is The Po­lit­i­cal In The Words Of Dave Zirin

Forward Magazine - - Section - By Philip Eil

One day last Oc­to­ber, Gregg Popovich, the long­time coach of the NBA’s San An­to­nio Spurs, made a phone call to Dave Zirin, sports edi­tor of the magazine The Na­tion. Pres­i­dent Trump — while em­broiled in a mini-scan­dal about his de­layed pu­bic re­sponse to the death of Amer­i­can troops dur­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions in the African coun­try of Niger — had re­cently made com­ments sug­gest­ing that pres­i­dents Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama had not al­ways called the fam­i­lies of ser­vice mem­bers who died in com­bat. And Popovich, who is both the long­est-tenured coach (with the same

team) in pro sports and a grad­u­ate of the United States Air Force Academy with five years of ac­tive-duty ex­pe­ri­ence, had some­thing to say. “Please just let me talk, and please make sure this is on the record,” he told Zirin.

The coach went on to de­scribe Trump’s pres­i­dency as one of “nev­erend­ing di­vi­sive­ness,” and he called the pres­i­dent him­self “a soul­less cow­ard who thinks that he can only be­come large by be­lit­tling oth­ers.”

“We have a patho­log­i­cal liar in the White House, un­fit in­tel­lec­tu­ally, emo­tion­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally to hold this of­fice, and the whole world knows it, es­pe­cially those around him every day,” he said, adding that the com­man­der in chief’s lat­est re­marks were

‘Zirin is, in a sense, the most im­por­tant sports­writer in Amer­ica right now.’

“a lie” and “as low as it gets.” Be­fore sign­ing off, he noted that the peo­ple who work with the pres­i­dent should be ashamed of them­selves. Then, a mo­ment later, he said “Bye, Dave,” and hung up.

Zirin soon pub­lished an ar­ti­cle on The Na­tion’s web­site quot­ing Popovich at length, — head­line: “‘A Soul­less Cow­ard’: Coach Gregg Popovich Re­sponds to Trump” — and from there the coach’s re­marks were picked up by CNN, The Wash­ing­ton Post, GQ, USA To­day, CBS Sports, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, and Ya­hoo, among other out­lets.

This kind of wall-to-wall cov­er­age is not nec­es­sar­ily an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence for Zirin, but sub­ject­wise, the Popovich piece was true to form. While much of the sports me­dia tip­toes around the

po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of the games we watch, Zirin has made a ca­reer of aim­ing straight at them. “He oc­cu­pies a sin­gu­lar space in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism,” The Na­tion’s edi­tor and pub­lisher, Ka­t­rina vanden Heu­vel, told me re­cently. And not long ago, in a phone call with the For­ward, the leg­endary sports writer Robert Lip­syte went even fur­ther. “He, in a sense, is the most im­por­tant sports writer in Amer­ica right now — in the same way that [ex­iled and out­spo­ken NFL quar­ter­back Colin] Kaeper­nick is the most im­por­tant ath­lete,” he said.

Zirin grew up in New York City as an “ab­so­lute sports freak” in a house­hold where the town’s leg­endary news­pa­pers (the Times, the Post, the Daily News) were fre­quently strewn across the kitchen table. He longed to em­u­late the names he saw in newsprint on the sports pages: Dick Young, Dave An­der­son, Peter and Ge­orge Vec­sey, Lip­syte.

But the fu­sion of pol­i­tics and sports didn’t take place fully un­til he was a stu­dent at Ma­calester Col­lege in the 1990s and he saw a pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball player make a pow­er­ful state­ment. Mah­moud Ab­dul-Rauf was a Mus­lim point guard for the Den­ver Nuggets who, dur­ing the 1996 sea­son, be­gan de­clin­ing to stand for the na­tional an­them be­cause to him, the Amer­i­can flag was a “sym­bol of op­pres­sion, of tyranny,” and, as he ex­plained, “My duty is to my cre­ator, not to na­tion­al­is­tic ide­ol­ogy.” (Rauf was sus­pended and fined by the league, un­til a com­pro­mise was reached whereby he would stand dur­ing the an­them but close his eyes and bow his head.)

Zirin saw this, and took note. About a year later, when read­ing Mike Mar­qusee’s book “Re­demp­tion Song: Muham­mad Ali and the Spirit of the Six­ties,” he had an­other “Aha!” mo­ment. The book was writ­ten with the pulse and en­ergy of good sports writ­ing, but it was also deeply po­lit­i­cal. Zirin’s pas­sions for sports and his­tory, which pre­vi­ously had ex­isted on par­al­lel tracks, had merged. He now knew the kind of writ­ing he wanted to do.

Zirin worked as a high school teacher af­ter col­lege, but his goal of be­com­ing a po­lit­i­cally minded sports colum­nist re­mained. He started writ­ing for small news­pa­pers and for the web, and, even­tu­ally, he found his way into the pages of The Na­tion. For an idea of the phi­los­o­phy he brings to the world of touch­downs, home runs, and slam­dunks, con­sider the pref­ace to his 2008 book, “A Peo­ple’s His­tory of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Pol­i­tics, Protest, Peo­ple, and Play,” in which he of­fers a ded­i­ca­tion “to all rebel ath­letes” and a salute to the “tra­di­tion of pro­gres­sive dis­senters in sports, peo­ple who have at­tempted to use the world of sports as a plat­form to ad­vance ideas of re­sis­tance.”

Most of all, he presents a force­ful re­buke to the no­tion that our play­ing fields are neu­tral spa­ces. “In an era where the build­ing of pub­licly funded sta­di­ums has be­come a sub­sti­tute for any­thing re­sem­bling an ur­ban pol­icy; in a time when lo­cal gov­ern­ments build these mon­u­ments to cor­po­rate greed on the tax­pay­ers’ dime, si­phon­ing off mil­lions of dol­lars into com­mer­cial en­ter­prise while schools, hos­pi­tals, and bridges de­cay, one can hardly say that sports ex­ists in a world sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics,” he wrote. “When the sports page — with its lurid tales of steroids, Michael Vick, referee gam­bling, and high-pro­file sex­ual-ha­rass­ment suits — no longer can be con­tained in the sports page, then clearly we need some kind of frame­work to take on and sep­a­rate what we love and hate about sports so we can chal­lenge it to change.”

His work over the years has fol­lowed up on this prom­ise. He has called Lance Arm­strong the “Tony So­prano of the Cy­cling World” af­ter the Tour de France win­ner ad­mit­ted to dop­ing; sug­gested that the NFL’s com­mis­sioner, Roger Good­ell, re­sign; dubbed the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins “the most racist brand in sports,” and has got­ten into a fiery ex­change in the Los An­ge­les Times with the pres­i­dent of Fire­stone Tires (a spon­sor of the 2008 Su­per Bowl half­time show) over the com­pany’s la­bor prac­tices in Liberia. More re­cently, in Novem­ber 2017, he be­gan an episode of his weekly pod­cast — which, in this case, was re­leased a day af­ter the NFL’s Veter­ans Day fes­tiv­i­ties — with a sound bite from for­mer Army Ranger and Veter­ans for Peace mem­ber Rory Fan­ning, who called the NFL’s pageantry, “Or­wellian pro­pa­ganda on a scale large enough to make any North Korean dic­ta­tor en­vi­ous,” and “a gross at­tempt to lure mil­i­taryage kids who watch the NFL into our un­end­ing, tril­lion-dol­lar wars.”

Be­fore the past few years, Zirin says ‘In an era where the build­ing of pub­licly funded sta­di­ums has be­come a sub­sti­tute for any­thing re­sem­bling an ur­ban pol­icy ... one can hardly say that sports ex­ists in a world sep­a­rate from pol­i­tics.’

he felt like he was one of the lone writ­ers draw­ing out the sub­texts of our na­tional pas­times. But not any­more. Now, in a mo­ment when Pres­i­dent Trump has called NFL play­ers who protest racial in­jus­tice and po­lice bru­tal­ity dur­ing the na­tional an­them “sons of bitches,” it feels like Zirin has been train­ing longer than any­one. And yes, he does feel vin­di­cated af­ter be­ing told for so long that he was wast­ing his time

That word “niche” — as in when peo­ple say, “Oh, it must be nice to have this tiny niche to your­self” — par­tic­u­larly irks him. And dur­ing a re­cent conversation at a cof­fee shop near his Wash­ing­ton, D.C., home, he pushed back. The sto­ries he writes have im­por­tance that crosses all kinds of bound­aries, he said. “Gov­ern­ment, cor­rup­tion, protest, race, class, gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, and then, oh, by the way, a lit­tle thing called ‘sports,’ which is the clos­est thing to a na­tional lan­guage that we have in this coun­try?” he said. “No, that’s not ‘niche’ writ­ing.”

Zirin is the au­thor of eight books, in­clud­ing “Bad Sports: How Own­ers Are Ru­in­ing the Games We Love” and a biog­ra­phy of John Car­los, one of the track-and-field ath­letes who fa­mously thrust his fist into the air in a Black Power salute dur­ing a medal cer­e­mony at the 1968 Sum­mer Olympics in Mex­ico City. And this year, Zirin is sched­uled to pub­lish two more. In April, he will pub­lish “Things That Make White Peo­ple Un­com­fort­able,” which he cowrote with Michael Ben­nett, the po­lit­i­cally out­spo­ken de­fen­sive end for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks. The fol­low­ing month, he’ll chron­i­cle the life of an­other po­lit­i­cally charged foot­ball leg­end with the book “Jim Brown: Last Man Stand­ing.” In ad­di­tion, he pub­lishes at least three posts a week, records a pod­cast, ap­pears once on Paci­fica Ra­dio, ap­pears fre­quently on tele­vi­sion and holds speak­ing events around the coun­try.

As Zirin be­comes ever­more rec­og­niz­able, he joins a rich tra­di­tion of Jewish sports­writers and com­men­ta­tors that in­cludes Howard Cosell, Tony Korn­heiser and Al Michaels. When I asked him about his Ju­daism, he told me that, more than any­thing, his sense of be­ing Jewish is “a com­mit­ment to ques­tion­ing what I’m told is true.” And he’s quick to point out that this in­cludes, and per­haps ap­plies es­pe­cially to, the State of Is­rael, which has pro­vided a rich strain of Zirin’s work over the years. His June 2016 col­umn, “An­drew Cuomo Would Have Black­listed Muham­mad Ali,” which lam­basted the New York gover­nor’s re­marks — “If you boy­cott against Is­rael, New York will boy­cott you.... If you sanc­tion Is­rael, New York will sanc­tion you” — was in­cluded in the an­thol­ogy “The Best Amer­i­can Sports Writ­ing 2017.”

Just as he’s un­likely to shy away from volatile top­ics, he hasn’t shied away from step­ping, so to speak, off the side­lines and onto the play­ing field him­self. Two months be­fore his Popovich col­umn, not only did he at­tend a rally in sup­port of Colin Kaeper­nick, who had not been signed by an NFL team since mak­ing the tak­ing-a-knee protest, but Zirin also spoke at the podium. “This is big­ger than Colin Kaeper­nick,” he said. “It’s hap­pen­ing be­cause there is a white su­prem­a­cist wing of the White House... And they are try­ing to si­lence voices of re­sis­tance. So when we stand up for Kaeper­nick, we’re stand­ing up for our­selves.”

Dur­ing our in­ter­view, I said that some jour­nal­ists might raise an eye­brow at the fact that he was speak­ing at a rally. Zirin said that it de­pends on the sit­u­a­tion. If it’s a rally that he is ex­plic­itly sup­posed to cover and he’s asked to speak, he will de­cline. But if he’s asked to speak, he has no prob­lem. The his­to­rian Howard Zinn spoke at ral­lies too, he pointed out. And he said, “I see there be­ing a long tra­di­tion of ac­tivist jour­nal­ists, of peo­ple who are part of a strug­gle, not merely ob­serv­ing it.”

What does Zirin say to peo­ple who want to just re­lax and en­joy the game? He says he’s sym­pa­thetic; af­ter all, he, too, is a ra­bid sports fan. But he says the things he’s writ­ing about — the way na­tion­al­ism, or, mil­i­tarism, or racism, or sex­ism, or ho­mo­pho­bia is ac­tu­ally em­bed­ded — are there whether he writes about them or not. The only ques­tion is whether peo­ple want to ig­nore them or face them.

“Don’t treat us like ar­son­ists be­cause we’re point­ing out that the build­ing is be­ing en­gulfed in flames,” he said.

GETTY IM­AGES

50 YEARS OF RE­SIS­TANCE: From left to right: Gregg Popovich; Colin Kaeper­nick and team­mates take a knee; 1968 U.S. Olympic ath­letes raise the Black Power fist.

GETTY IM­AGES

BEATEN TO THE PUNCH: Zirin may be the most sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can Jewish sports jour­nal­ist since Howard Cosell (seen with Ernie Ter­rell and Muham­mad Ali).

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