Sports and Resistance in the USA

In 1960, at the tender age of 18, Cassius Clay tossed his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. He had just been denied service at a restaurant in Louisville when he tried to order a hamburger only weeks after winning boxing gold in Athens.

The rest of the story has become a classic, as Clay, now Muhammad Ali, goes on to win 56 of 61 fights with 37 knockouts and, along the way, becomes an iconic political figure that defined an era of racial struggle.

Now, in a time of sometimes crass hyper-commercialization, we've found a sports writer unwilling to ignore the issues of race and class that have always been inextricably tied up with sports. Dave Zirin, author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States," is a sports fan with a political conscience who won't let us forget the intersections between his twin passions as he explores sports unions, anti-war athletes, the controversially-named Redskins, Jackie Robinson and desegregation with wit and an inexhaustible stockpile of knowledge.

Dave sat down with Campus Progress to talk about the Canadian progressive politics of NBA star Steve Nash, building stadiums on the public dime, athletes becoming "thingified" and being a fan.

You've described the NCAA as a "sweatshop for indentured servitude." Why are you so concerned about college athletes getting paid?

I know it's so controversial right now - "oh you can't pay college athletes, you'd ruin their amateur status" and all the rest of it. Fifty years ago all college athletes received a stipend, so this is not some kind of new radical idea. I went to a Division III college and I had a good friend who was up at the crack of dawn every day and would come home every day and collapse in a heap just to be on a Division III swim team. If you're good enough to play a college sport you're contributing to the life and culture of that particular campus and therefore deserve to be treated like anyone who's doing any kind of work study, and should get some kind of a stipend. When it comes to revenue-producing sports like baseball, basketball, football -- where the college actively profits off of what you do -- I think you're entitled to a piece of that. Anything other than that is, frankly, rank extortion of the worst sort.

By not paying college athletes, do you feel there are certain portions of the population that are disproportionately affected?

Absolutely, without question. Working class African-Americans, Latinos, and communities of color disproportionately make up the ranks of these teams. If you look at any school, the percentages in terms of racial diversity of the sports team versus the campus as a whole are stacked in opposite directions. Growing up in NYC in the '80s, I thought that Georgetown University was a predominantly black college from watching basketball because their coach was African-American and almost the whole team was African-American. When I found out what Georgetown actually was my jaw hit the floor.

Still, on a lot of big sports school campuses, athletes get other perks thrown their way, particularly when they are being recruited. Over the last few years we've seen a number of news stories about athletes being recruited and treated like kings, plied with promises of easy academics, sexual bait and so on.

I think that's a very important thing you're raising. That is a reality today. The competition and profits for big-time college sports is so intense and the athletes can't be paid for it. Colleges can't compete with each other by paying the players, so it's all under-the-table stuff -- payments, women, drugs, whatever. It's sort of a moral sewer. I'm not trying to talk like Pat Robertson here, but when I hear that the University of Colorado had a special slush fund that involved escort services and a liquor store I just think, "That's disgusting. Why does something like that exist?" The answer is because there can't be an honest and fair exchange of labor.

How would you respond to those who point out that college athletes are being paid to some extent with free ride athletic scholarships?

I would remind you that people said in slave days: "they're getting room and shelter." It's completely apples and oranges. Yeah, they're contributing to the economic wellbeing of the school. But they are revenue producers for the school of the first order, and many of them are doing a hell of a lot more to fill the coffers of the school than a typical tenured professor, for example.

What about shoe contracts for basketball coaches? In the Final Four it's a billion dollar industry. The players can't choose what basketball shoes they wear. When I was in school, choosing your kicks was a personal thing. But college athletes can't choose because the coach has a contract with Nike, Adidas, or Reebok. The pay is usually mid-six figures for a big time school. You're running up and down the court wearing an advertisement and you don't see a dime of it.

You're a big proponent of Title IX legislation. How have you seen Title IX benefit female students? Are you happy with the progress that has been made?

I am disappointed in the way Title IX played itself out in the same way I'm disappointed in the lack of access women have in this country to abortion clinics, for example. If Title IX is overturned just as if Roe v. Wade was overturned, it would be such a hellacious defeat for women and women's rights. People need to recognize that Title IX is something we need to be actively defending right now. It is something George W. Bush is for overturning, something John Roberts is for overturning as well.

And it's important that people realize what an incredibly positive effect Title IX has had for millions of women in this country. One out of every three women in middle school, junior high, or high school plays some form of sport. Before Title IX was passed, that number was one out of 35. Girls that play sports, study after study shows, are less likely to have eating disorders, less likely to be in abusive relationships, less likely to have serious problems with drugs and alcohol in their high school years.

In your book you talk about the possibility about building a "movement of sports fans." What would that look like?

Sports can be deeply political when used as a way to set priorities for urban municipalities, set budget priorities. It's used as a way to recruit for the military, and to sell the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's used for the way it portrays women, and gays and lesbians; it's a very political medium. Fans need to argue for things that we believe in. One of those things is arguing against the public funding of stadiums. Over the last ten years $119 billion has been spent on the building and upkeep of taxpayer-funded stadiums in this country. Or when talented African-Americans and people of color who are assistant coaches are passed over for coaching jobs, we can raise that, especially when you look at the not-so-talented white coaches getting recycled through the league.

Speaking of selling the war, in your book you write about a particular SportsCenter broadcast from Kuwait that got you riled up.

SportsCenter made a set that looked like a bunker with sandbags and all that shit and broadcast from Kuwait. They also did that on the anniversary of September 11th, which is kind of disgusting. They're doing what Bush and Cheney couldn't do and that's create a concrete connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Unless you're going to do a week of SportsCenter in the middle of an anti-war demonstration it's complete and utter propagandistic horseshit. They even did special reports like "look how quickly an ice cream cone melts in the Iraqi desert!" Well what the hell is that? An ice cream cone will melt hella fast in Arizona! Why do that in Iraq if not just to show the "savage terrain" that our boys are living in, like some kind of White Man's Burden thing. It shows how Bush has sold this war: this is a failed state, people can't rule themselves, and so on.

What about now? Support for Bush and the war has never been lower. Has that been reflected in sports at all?

This year, as opinion has shifted against the war, you had a very interesting development with what musical talent was invited to perform. Before the start of the NFL season this year, the Rolling Stones played the kickoff concert. And they had just put out a pretty hardcore anti-war song. I think in years past, the NFL would have bumped them, immediately. I mean for goodness sakes, they even had Kanye West perform. I think that shows that the NFL is in the business first and foremost of making money. It may have been good business to highlight more pro-war artists like Toby Keith and Clint Black a year ago, but this year it doesn't mean jack shit. This year it's not going to sell.

You take strong issue with the common left argument that popular sports is pure escapism or the circus part of "bread and circuses," distracting Americans from the issues that actually confront them. Could you single out a few sports moments that you think are particularly politically significant?

Well, there are tons of moments, but there are a few that create the arc of the book. Jackie Robinson and the Civil Rights Movement, Muhammad Ali and the Black freedom struggle, Billie Jean King and the women's rights movement, and Martina Navritolova and the birth of a modern gay rights movement in this country. I think each of those four cases is a case where the athletes themselves are almost inextricable from thinking about the struggle itself. There's an effort in this country to perpetually take struggles and develop a collective amnesia about them and forget that these fights ever really occurred. With sports heroes like these involved, it becomes part of the pop cultural firmament which makes it much tougher to erase.

All of these are powerful examples, but they are not particularly recent. Can you think of any more recent successful examples of the intersection of sports and politics?

There's some very powerful examples - the problem is the absence of a mass movement like there existed in the 1960s. Without that, the words of athletes who choose to step down from their pedestal and be rebels is much less amplified. They get swallowed up much more quickly in the absence of masses of people who are there to hear it. That being said, I think the work of some people like Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards who just spoke at the big anti-war protest or Carlos Delgado from Major League baseball who doesn't stand up for the National Anthem and does all kinds of work for Puerto Rican rights and Vieques… these are important examples.

What teams do you root for?

In basketball, I'm a pretty shameless homer so I root for the Washington Wizards because I live here. And I also like the Phoenix Suns because of Steve Nash [this year's NBA MVP] because he's taken action against the war. I actually do that. If there are players who are political and have progressive politics, I find it much more fun to root for them and much more interesting. It's like the people who rooted for Ali in the '60s and may have hated boxing otherwise. When Stephen Nash throws a brilliant pass, I'm like "yeah, there are those social democratic Canadian principles at work!" You can't help but do that. I think we're just better off in the most general sense when we see athletes for their minds as much as their bodies. I think there's a deeply de-humanizing process that's part of the tradeoff for the countless joys, perks, and money from being a pro athlete in this country. You become, as Martin Luther King said, "thingified."

Do you root for baseball?

I do, but it's a little tough because as I said I'm a shameless homer, and the new team is the Washington Nationals, but I fought really hard to keep the stadium from being built on the public dime. It's a $600 million project and my wife teaches in DC public schools and I know what the resources look like for schools. It's sort of hard for me to root for them without seeing the political ramifications of getting a team in this city. I was born and raised in New York City and was raised a Mets fan so that's where my sympathies generally lie.

So for students interested in both sports and politics, where would you tell them to get started with getting engaged?

One, find out if the apparel in the school store is made by ten-year-old girls in Southeast Asia or Latin America for 50 cents an hour, and then challenge your school, which most assuredly has liberal intentions, and establish a code of conduct. Fight against sweatshops. The second thing is to start raising the issue of stipends for athletes on campus, whether they're men or women, play water polo or basketball. People who build the general community of their school should be rewarded for that because the time they put in is absolutely brutal and should be recognized.

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