An interview with Dave Zirin

In 1975, New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte wrote SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, a piercing critique of the commercial and win-at-all-costs elements that Lipsyte felt had enveloped –- and sullied -- sports. Following in Lipsyte's footsteps comes Dave Zirin's Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books). Much as Lipsyte analyzed the myriad problems inherent within Jock Culture, Zirin takes SportsWorld to task about everything from its hypocritical stance on steroids to the mythification of former NFL safety Pat Tillman.

Washington, D.C.-based Zirin is a contributor to Slam Magazine and The Nation. This is his second book; a third, the People's History of Sports, is due in 2008 from the New Press. He's just signed with Simon & Schuster to write yet another book, about what it means to be a sports fan in the 21st Century. You can check out his work at his website.

This week, the vehemently progressive and provocative Zirin will be in SoCal to promote Terrordome at two locations: at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla on Fri., July 13 (7 p.m.) and at IMIX Books in Eagle Rock on Sat., July 14 (2 p.m.).

I interrupted Zirin's summer vacation on the East Coast to interview him about current topics within the sports Terrordome.

LA Observed: What writers and/or books have most influenced your work?

Dave Zirin: A lot of book-length sportswriting accomplishes the impossible: they make sports boring. Many sports in sociology texts and historical looks at sports in the 1960s or 1970s can be deathly to read. The sports books that I've come to love are political autobiographies. To me, the holy trinity of these are Jim Bouton's Ball Four; Bill Russell's Up for Glory (as well as his Second Wind, which was co-written by Taylor Branch); and Dave Meggysey's Out of Their League, a searing book about what it was like to be a left-wing football player in the 1960s. Another book I love is Nike Is a Goddess [edited by Lissa Smith], about what it means to be a woman athlete in the United States. These are all books that have done a lot to help shape my understanding of sports in society.

When it comes to sports columnists, it's a big mix for me. I wept the day Ralph Wiley died. He was a hero of mine growing up. At his best, I thought he was the most brilliant sports columnist I ever read. I really dig Sally Jenkins with the Washington Post, the only person to stand up to the stadium madness in Washington, D.C. And, I really like Scoop Jackson of ESPN.com because he's different.

We live in a new time right now. I find I read a couple of sports blogs –- like Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber –- more than I read a lot of the big-name columnists. I love Slam Magazine online –- I think it's the best basketball blog out there. I like Draft Express; for NBA junkies, it's fantastic. And, when it comes to the intersection of sports and politics, which is what I write about, the Starting Five is fantastic. They do tremendous work.

LAO: You write that contemporary SportsWorld has become "suffocated by corporate greed, commercialism, and military cheerleading." How did we get here?

DZ: When my father used to go to Brooklyn Dodgers game in the '40s, there was a sign that read something like, "Hit This Sign, Win a Free Suit." Commercialism is nothing new in sports, of course, but I think that things have taken a sharp turn over the last decade or so. In the last ten years, we've seen roughly $15 billion go toward the building of stadiums, of cities basically footing the bill for billionaires to have these $350 million sports theme parks. I think it's morally objectionable. Like a majority of the people in this country, I think it's a ridiculous misuse of taxpayer funds. What this has done is completely shifted the economics of sports, to having a primary revenue stream come from the public funding of stadiums. Public subsidies have become a prime pump of sports –- and with that has come the selling of everything in the stadium that isn't nailed down. The name of the football stadium in Baltimore, where I go to watch the Ravens, seems to have changed with every boom and bust in the dot-com market. The drive for the almighty dollar: that impulse has increased in sports, and it's been my experience that a lot of people are getting fed up with this.

In post 9/11 America, we've seen the growth of partnerships between Major League Baseball and the NFL and The Pentagon for these things called "Military Appreciation Nights." They're trying to goose recruitment numbers and to goose the ideology of the war in Iraq -– that the military is in Iraq fighting for our freedom and for our right to sit and watch baseball games. It's pure propaganda, and it's something that more and more people are wising up to.

LAO: The "Terrordome" in the book title refers to both the Louisiana SuperDome in post-Katrina New Orleans and the song by Public Enemy. Do you view sports as a "Terrordome"?

DZ: I do. I don’t think sports is sports anymore. It's become the athletic industrial complex, a huge octopus with a million legs that affects our lives whether we're sports fans or not. I don't think we have the luxury anymore of saying, "Well, I don't agree with the sports industry, so I'm gonna turn off my TV," the way a vegetarian might say, "I don't support the meat industry, so I'm not gonna eat a McRib." I don't think we have that luxury because sports affects our lives, whether we want it to or not, so it's important for everyone to be aware. People need to be aware of the political messages that are pumped through our play, and people need to be aware of the concrete way sports manifests itself in our lives.

LAO: Gary Sheffield recently was quoted in GQ Magazine as saying that, part of the reason for the Latino surge in Major League Baseball is that "[It's about] being able to tell [Latino players] what to do — being able to control them." Do you agree or disagree with Sheffield?

DZ: I defend Gary Sheffield's right to try to make sense of that fact that the demographics in baseball have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. And, I strongly disagree with folks like ESPN.com's Jeff Pearlman, who wrote a column entitled "Sheffield Is One Dangerous Moron." I don't think you write people off because you don't like the fact that they have opinions.

What Sheffield said that was absolutely right -– and there's no reason he should be called a "dangerous moron" for saying it -– is, of course there's been a huge demographic shift in baseball. But the reason for that, I would argue, is not because baseball owners think that Latino players are more controllable or, as Sheffield put it, "more docile" than African-American players. It's because it's entirely more cost effective. Just like it's more cost effective to make a car in Mexico than the United States, it's more cost effective to develop talent in a place like the Dominican Republic than it is in the United States. The owners call it, "The Republic of Baseball." The owners see it as, as one person put it, the largest AAU league in the world. It's a country with a smaller population than that of New York City, yet it supplies something like 30 percent of the minor league baseball players in the US. It's not because they're more docile. It's because you can sign players for as little than $2,000.

After Sheffield said what he said, he had a teammate, Carlos Guillen, stick up for him. Guillen acknowledged that there is truth to the fact that a lot of players from the Dominican Republic and from Latin American are more quiet and not making waves, in part because they're scared of being sent back home. So, that's not untrue.

But what Sheffield said that I disagree with is that Latin American and Caribbean players have recently been standing up and being heard on questions of social justice. It would've been better if Sheffield had said something like, "I hope people take lessons from folks like Carlos Delgado, the Alomar brothers, or Felipe and Moises Alou, and realize that there are people who will stand up and speak out."

LAO: Ten years from now, where do you think the demographics will be for Major League Baseball?

DZ: This goes to the question of trends, and it's always hard to chart trends. I mean, if this was 1979, I probably would've invested in disco music. But if we're going by today's trends, we're gonna see a sport that becomes more Asian and more Latino, with the white numbers stable. The white numbers might even go up because there's a greater tendency for teams in the Moneyball era to draft college players as opposed to high school players. College teams are overwhelming white; very few scholarships go to African-American players.

That's really the problem: Major League Baseball, as well as colleges and universities, do very little to invest and develop African-American talent. I write in the book about the degree of disrepair that urban baseball leagues are in now compared to a generation ago. People have responded by saying, "They don't have leagues in the Dominican Republic and people still play." That's true, so we know this is not just about poverty. But it's also true that, in the Dominican Republic, kids are dropping out of school at ten years-old to play baseball four hours a day. It's an entirely difficult calculus: it's about getting off the island.

LAO: Do you think MLB will eventually retire uniform number 21, in honor of Roberto Clemente?

DZ: I think that they will because it becomes a question of, will the game be forward-looking and realize his importance. This is now a Latino and white sport. The African-American numbers are dwindling. And, when people look at Roberto Clemente –- specifically, when players of Caribbean descent look at Roberto Clemente –- they see somebody who was the first player to ever cross over without crossing over. He was the first Latino superstar, the first Latino to make the Hall of Fame, but he was also somebody who never checked his culture at the door. Early in his career, they wanted him to go by "Bob Clemente," and he refused. You now have advocacy groups fighting to get Clemente's number retired. I think it's something that we will most likely see happen. If not that, a secondary honor of some kind.

LAO: You write about how globalizations forces have influenced the sport of soccer: how do you think David Beckham will fare with the Galaxy?

DZ: If Wayne Gretzky could bring hockey to the United States and L.A., then we have to give David Beckham a kicking chance to bring soccer to the U.S. Six months ago, I argued that Gretzky could still play when he came to the Kings; with Beckham, the gas tank might be on empty. If he can't play, he's not going to capture anybody's imagination. But Beckham has just had a terrific run. I overstated his tank being empty. If he can still bring it, that'll be great.

The second thing is, we live in a much more celebrity-obsessed culture than when Gretzky played, with the websites and the blogs and people's endless thirst for celebrity hoo-hah. So, it doesn't hurt that David Beckham is part of [the title of] a popular movie, Bend It Like Beckham, and that his wife is one of those idiotic Spice Girls. Add the glitz and add the glamour and add the celebrity – and does Beckham have a shot to expand the market share for soccer? Of course.

You know, when you talk about liking soccer in the U.S., people act like you're taking French lessons at the local Muslim school. You might as well burn the flag in your backyard. The fact is, it's the most popular youth sport in the United States. Whether people want to admit it or not, soccer is a major sport in this country.

LAO: The Black Sea resort of Sochi just won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, after Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged $13 billion to build new facilities. Do you have any advice for the good citizens of Sochi?

DZ: Be afraid, be very afraid. Or, invest in a bunker. There's little worse that could happen to a working- or middle-class person than the Olympics coming to town. If you're in the construction business, then the Olympics are quite the bonanza. But it's not a sustained bonanza because you're building things like a luge park, which won't have much use once the Olympics are over. That's the problem.

When the Olympics come to town, they always do a big crime crackdown to make the city safe for an international audience. People are removed from their homes under idiotic fair-use laws. You’re gonna hear a lot about that as the Olympics come to Beijing in 2008. They're already estimating that millions of people are going to lose their homes for the purpose of the Olympics. When that's talked about, I hope we surrender the jingo-ism and don't say, "Oh, this is a problem because it's China." In China, this might be amplified or exponentially worse because of the history of human-rights abuses there, but this is the story anywhere the Olympics go.

LAO: There's been talk of a boycott of the Beijing Games because of China's support of Sudan. Do you support a boycott?

DZ: No way, no how, under the current terms of the discussion do I support a boycott. The main reason I don’t support a boycott is: athletes train their whole lives for this moment, and they should have the right to that moment. The second reason why I don't support a boycott is: we've seen that politically minded athletes have the ability to use the sports stage to make a far more powerful statement than staying at home ever would. I think athletes should have the political freedom to be able to make those statements.

It's all about who's calling for the boycott and on what basis. To give an example: President Jimmy Carter called for the boycott in 1980 of the Moscow Games [after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan]. All Carter did was ruin the careers of athletes who had trained their whole lives for that moment. It accomplished nothing else.

LAO: What has Major League Baseball -– and sports in general -– gotten wrong about steroid use in sports?

DZ: Everything. I think Bud Selig is like King Midas in reverse: everything he touches turns to crap, and this is the defining example of his tenure. Selig and Major League Baseball have mishandled this every step of the way. Baseball's move from completely ignoring steroid use to total criminalization has also hurt. All that does is drive steroid use underground and create a black market, back-alley industry, which can be much more medically harmful.

The thing that none of the parties – whether it's the ownership or the union -– has understood about steroids is why they're so popular among players. Players take steroids because of the onerous 162-game season, with all kinds of wear and tear. Players take everything from steroids to greenies and amphetamines, which have been popular in Major League locker-rooms for several generations, for the purpose of staying alert and being able to stay with the program.

The second thing is the insane gap in the salary structure between the folks who make the Major Leagues and the folks who play in the minor leagues. A lot of players feel that a hair's breadth separates players from these two leagues. But when it comes to your bank account, it's the difference between making $1,000 a month and $100,000 a month. So, people are willing to do whatever it takes to keep up with the Joneses in the locker next to them.

If Major League Baseball doesn't address either of these two issues -- the length of the season and the gap in salaries between the Majors and the minors – you're gonna keep seeing players attempt to gain any advantage that they can. It's what built into the DNA of the athletes.

What nobody talks about is the other culprit: the federal deregulation of the supplements industry. It's no coincidence that you see a steroid boom in the 1990s, after the de-regulation happened in 1994. We've all been hurt by this.

LAO: You can't talk about steroids in baseball without talking about Barry Bonds: why has he become the whipping boy for steroids in baseball?

DZ: Because he has never played the media game, the media hates him. That's a huge part of it. As one writer put it, he took an heirloom from his father [Bobby Bonds] –- a serious mistrust of the media –- and they responded by proving right his every fear.

Another reason why is, frankly, his talent. Baseball is a game that treasures statistics and lists. Who's the best this? Who's the best that? Barry Bonds has forced people to think, in the last couple of years, is he the best player ever? Is he the best home-run hitter who ever played the game? The self-professed coronators of the baseball intelligentsia are loath to put this mantle on to someone that they would deem a cheater.

But, really, what is cheating? Barry Bonds may have taken steroids –- even though he never failed a test –- but he did so in the context of everyone in baseball taking steroids. He still performed better than everybody else. Did steroids help his eyes?

Sports Illustrated recently did a story and named their all-time baseball team. They didn't have Barry Bonds on the team, which is to me laughable. Yet, half the players on the team were people who played before 1947 –- they never had to play against anybody with pigment darker than a light shade of beige.

LAO: You write that the NBA's dress code is "morally repellent" and that its adoption of an age limit sends a racist message. How did the NBA get away with the dress code and the age limit?

DZ: People think I really care whether a millionaire is forced to wear a tie or not. I don't care about that. What I care about is the rhetoric that surrounds the dress code and the age limit. And, this is where we get to the issue of sports' important role in society. Sports is the business of perceptions, sports is the business of creating cultural signifiers for people to follow. Through the dress code, NBA commissioner David Stern made very clear that his concern was that the league was becoming too gangster and too hip-hop. He said that he wanted the players to look like ticket-buying fans.

There's something about that that's disgusting. To me, it's not about whether someone who makes $5 million dollars a year wears tweed. It becomes the sanctifying of racial profiling. This idea that you can determine somebody's character based on how they dress. That someone is a gangster because they wear jeans instead of slacks. Or, that somebody who is too "hip-hop" is worthy of derision. For a league that has so shamelessly marketed and exploited hip-hop over the course of David Stern's tenure, there's something about that that I find deeply hypocritical and morally repellent.

I call David Stern and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell –- and, to a lesser degree, Bud Selig -– "commissioner Kiplings," after Rudyard Kipling. They act like their white man's burden is to civilize the black players. The thing about Stern that is so maddeningly is that he's created this law and order mentality in the NBA that's actually starting to hurt the game. You're talking to a huge Phoenix Suns fan, so to see the Suns get bounced in the manner they did in the playoffs was a crime. The idea that Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for jumping to their feet [after Steve Nash was hip-checked by Robert Horry]? It's ridiculous, but that's the law and order mentality that David Stern has foisted onto the game, because he's so freaked out about his hop-hop league and his largely white, upscale fan base. All this does is create a deeper level of animosity between players and fans.

LAO: You cite several athletes –- like Etan Thomas and John Amaechi –- who in their own way have taken political stands. Yet, it seems like most athletes would rather cash checks than make a political statement. Why do most contemporary athletes seem to shrink from taking a political stand?

DZ: Most athletes don't take political stands because we're not living in a time where you have mass political movements, like the 1960s. If you had those movements, you would see more of that reflected in the world of sports. Sports is part of our society, and it reflects our society.

That said, there's other pressures on athletes. Most tend to come from poor and working-class backgrounds. Most athletes I've talked to know the cautionary tales of people like Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who found themselves drummed out of the NBA for daring to have something political to say. Most athletes are more than aware that they have a limited shelf life. Their careers could end at any moment. So, they need to preserve and protect that period between age 20 and 30 and to make as much money as humanly possible.

I talked to one player who is against the war in Iraq in a private way. I said, "Hey, you should speak out about that." He said, "Why should I speak out about that, just to give those a-holes from sports radio two hours of material to talk about? Why would I want to make their lives any easier?"

What's promising is that we're starting to see, for the first time in a generation, a small number of athletes begin to use their hyper-exalted, brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to stand up for social change. It's not surprising to me that we're starting to see this now: we've got this deeply unpopular war, we've had an American city flattened by a hurricane. It's small, but I think one of the promising things about sports is that it can be contested space. If athletes, sportswriters, and fans begin to contest for that ideological space, then I think we can see some real fireworks and the promise to get out of the Terrordome.

LAO: In his recent book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote that today's black athletes have been relegated to the "periphery of true power" in sports. What steps do you suggest black athletes take to free themselves from the system?

DZ: I thought Rhoden's book was provocative and an exciting read. I loved it. But in the book he's like a physician who unearths a brilliant diagnosis but is still wrestling with the cure. Rhoden wants to see more African-Americans, particularly African-American athletes, become part of the ownership class in sports so that they directly benefit from the sports industry instead of being –- as he puts it -- the minstrels of the industry. The problem in that is with folks like [Charlotte Bobcats owner] Bob Johnson, the only African-American owner in major sports, and Rhoden's own queasiness about Johnson's lack of desire to do anything with his money and his position. It doesn't matter what color your skin is; once you're in that ownership group, it becomes your primary interest to get publically funded stadiums, to push for the dress code to put fans at ease. As soon as you're doing that, you're in opposition to the way that sports – the athletic industrial complex – negatively impacts our lives. To me, this is not a path out of the Terrordome.

LAO: Speaking about the promise of sports that you refer to in the title of the book, what – or who – gives you hope about sports these days?

DZ: I'm very hopeful about this young crop of NBA players – like Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas -- who I could see taking political stands. Someone like LaMarcus Aldridge, who's done work for Seeds of Peace, the Israeli-Palestine conflict group. These are people who were in junior high when 9/11 happened. A lot of their consciousness has been shaped in this hyper-patriotic, but also hyper-alienating climate, where President Bush can talk about bringing freedom overseas while New Orleans is destroyed. This is something that folks have grown up with, and it's shaped their ideas about the world. It's created a lot of alienation, but it's also created a real chance to see change.

July 11, 2007 9:19 AM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor
 

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