Dave Zirin on Community, Social Justice, and Reclaiming Sport

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Radical Sportswriter Dave Zirin
on Community, Social Justice,
and Reclaiming Sport
by Mickey Z.
Well beyond the well-coiffed personalities that inhabit ESPN, there are socially aware voices in the world of sports. Exhibit A:Dave Zirin. His writings about sports—and the politics of sports—can be enjoyed in venues ranging from corporate media outlets like the Washington Post to radical websites like Counterpunch.
On television you might catch Dave opening minds on ESPN's Outside the Lines or MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, or Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. He's been named one of UTNE Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World" and is the first ever sports editor in 150-year history of The Nation.
The Maryland-based Zirin has written several books, most recently, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, and I thought his perspective on some of the world's most popular games and personalities would make for an ideal Planet Green interview.
[For complete article features, please see source at Planet Green here.]

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My Conversation With Dave Zirin

Planet Green: Vonnegut once said: "We’ve got to get back to extended families. We need more people to talk to. I pretend to be interested in sports just to say ‘good morning’ to people." Do you believe in the unifying potential of sports?

Dave Zirin: Well, I'm definitely not for people pretending to be interested in sports but yes I do believe in the unifying potential of sports. I think that sports is like a hammer and you can use a hammer to beat someone over the head or build shelter. It's in the way that you use it. Sports has the power to be profoundly divisive or it can bring a community together. I'll never forget speaking with Malik Rahim, the terrific grass roots activist in New Orleans about the mood of the city after the Saints won the Super Bowl. I thought he would say that the Super Bowl win was diverting attention from the very pressing and frightening concerns in NOLA. Instead he spoke about the way people—black, brown, and white—were speaking with each other with an easy joy unlike anytime he had ever seen in all his decades in that remarkable city.

PG: Obviously, you're not anything close to "typical" when it comes to sportswriters. What can readers learn from your approach and your perspective on sports?

DZ: I don't know if I'm teaching anything novel. But I do believe fiercely that people who consider themselves progressives or radicals need to engage politically with the world of sports. It's the closest thing to a common language we have in this country. It also is an incredibly political space. Whether you are talking about the public financing of stadiums, or the way working class fans are priced out of the ballpark, or the fact that there doesn't seem to be a square inch of the sports world not branded with sponsorship, politics are everywhere. Also, we are seeing—more and more—athletes using this hyper-exalted, brought to you by Nike platform to speak out for issues related to social justice. And lastly, play and joy of play is something very elemental about just being human. We should proudly claim what we love about sports and discuss what we dislike about sports, and challenge it to change.

PG: How did you come to meld your sports fandom with your radical perspective?

DZ: I was inspired by history: by Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the way they used sports as a platform for dissent. I was also frustrated by the thought that neither the sports world nor the left seemed to take this history seriously. Also, I saw athletes speaking out—like Mahmoud Abdul Rauf—and just getting crushed by the sports media and ignored by the left. It needed to change.

PG: Is it more likely that your work can lead the ESPN crowd to examine their political convictions or inspire Planet Green readers to appreciate the complex world of sports? Would one please you more than the other?

DZ: Honestly, either way is great because we need both. We need sports fans to engage with the way politics is pumped through our play and we need Planet Green involved in the battle to reclaim sports.

PG: How can your book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, help us "reclaim sports"?

DZ: The question of sports and ownership is ripe. No, it’s over-ripe for political agitation. Actually, I would argue that we are looking at a perfect storm that says raising the issue of corporate greed, looting, in context of sports, has never been more appropriate. Even if you are not a sports fan, the financial gouging is very real often with very serious repercussions: 30 billion dollars spent on public financing of stadiums over the last generation. These kinds of priorities have life or death results. When the levees broke in 2005, the only place available was the New Orleans Superdome. When the bridge in Minnesota collapsed a couple years back, the new Twins stadium was to break ground that very week. When the DC metro went off the tracks, a billion dollar stadium had just opened its doors.

PG: So, obviously, the current economic situation plays a major role.

DZ: No one in the owner's box is delighting as our cities rot. This isn't about conspiracy. It's about logic. There are finite resources in a given city in the best of times, and these are dark days. They are made worse by the fact that during the economic boom of the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in the history of this country, stadiums became the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. The stadiums were presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight. But the FLIP SIDE OF THAT is a that we, the fan-citizen, have a real sense of ownership of these billion-dollar institutions. We not only have a psychological sense of ownership but also a real financial stake in these teams because of public financing. This is about sounding a call that owners who are abusive to their cities: who take and take and give nothing back, should be pushed to actually have to hand over a financial stake in their team. It's not like we haven't paid for the privilege.

PG: How can Planet Green readers connect with you and your work online?

DZ: I invite them to visit Edgeofsports.com. They can also get my column sent to them every week if they email me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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