Posted on Jan 15, 2013
“Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down”
For a decade now, Dave Zirin has been working the fertile media ground between sports and progressive politics. That toil has produced sheaves of articles at The Nation and elsewhere, a weekly program on SiriusXM, countless radio and television appearances, and five books culled largely from his articles and published by leftist presses. Zirin’s newest volume, “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down,” returns to his favorite topics: race, gender, unions, the corporatization and corruption of sports, and athletes willing to speak out on any of the above.
Weirdly, Zirin has almost no direct competition. More and more outlets provide scores and highlights, and there’s no shortage of hard information, trivia and hyperbolic man-shows for serious and casual fans alike. But sports journalism, with a few notable exceptions, remains narrow and predictable. One reason for its timidity isn’t peculiar to the sports world but is especially apparent there. Writers who criticize local teams risk losing access to the sources they rely on for their livelihoods. Beat writers who cover the White House, Wall Street and the Pentagon face similar risks, but the stakes are lower in sports, and perhaps for this reason, the power relations are cruder. To put it plainly, most writers flack for the teams they cover, and no one really cares. ESPN analysts are less beholden to specific franchises, but the network’s image and outlook are unapologetically corporate. Like Matt Taibbi and Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone, Zirin is a kind of designated iconoclast. From his perch at The Nation, he can criticize the sports establishment without fear of devastating reprisal.
You don’t read Zirin for his deathless prose; he’s a fine phrasemaker and an effective speaker, but he writes like he’s trying to beat the rush out of Dodger Stadium. Nor is his analysis always unassailable. What makes his work important, even indispensable, is his selection and emphasis. Simply by raising the issues he does, Zirin makes a unique contribution to our understanding of American popular culture. A sports lover who uses that gigantic canvas to make important social statements, Zirin speaks to and for fans who long ago tuned out the cliché parade on radio and television.
Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down
By Dave Zirin
The New Press, 240 pages
Zirin combines his sports expertise with a developed sense of radical history. The title of his 2008 book, “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” echoes Howard Zinn’s classic, and Zirin recently co-wrote a memoir of John Carlos, the Olympic sprinter who famously raised his gloved fist on the victory stand in Mexico City. As his memoir makes clear, Carlos faced decades of adversity and personal loss arising from his 1968 gesture, and Zirin begins “Game Over,” which he dedicates to Carlos, with a reference to that chaotic year, “when political struggle was part of the oxygen of the sports world.” The phrase illustrates Zirin’s prose challenges even as it pinpoints his favorite period in sports activism. But “Game Over” is mostly a snapshot of sports and society from 2010 to 2012. The Occupy movement looms large, as does the Arab Spring, World Cup, Jeremy Lin mania and Penn State child rape scandal. All are grist for Zirin’s mill, but they also reveal the beauty of his formula. American athletics, at least in its current institutional forms, can be counted on to produce a steady stream of fresh outrage. The way we organize and market sports in this country amounts to the Dave Zirin Full Employment Act.
Zirin is especially strong on ownership issues, where the stench is ripest. “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love” (2010) is his most cohesive book to date, and he adds a meaningful coda in “Game Over.” Along with recounting the fates of the Dodgers and Mets franchises, which serve as Exhibits A and B in “The People vs. The 1 Percent,” he includes a quote from Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner: “I just spent a billion dollars on a stadium, and I didn’t plan on not playing football in it.” In fact, the voters of Arlington, Texas, approved a $325 million bond—and raised taxes on sales, hotel occupancy and car rentals—to help finance the stadium. (Public officials in nearby Dallas said they couldn’t justify asking voters to fund the project.) That Jones cast himself as the stadium’s sole patron typifies the arrogance of many team owners, whose conflations of public and private interests routinely disfigure the former to benefit the latter.
In his opening chapter, “Occupying Sports,” Zirin reminds us that the best remedy for bad ownership has existed for almost a century. The Green Bay Packers, one of the most storied franchises in American sports history, are also the only major league operation owned by local residents. That arrangement protects the city of Green Bay, Wis., home to barely 104,000 souls, from one of the most pernicious practices in professional sports today. After lobbying City A to build a stadium with public money, owners routinely threaten to move their teams to Cities B or C to secure the largest and safest returns for themselves. The community-owned Packers are living proof that we have a sensible alternative to sports neoliberalism. In “Game Over,” Zirin shrewdly links that alternative to the recent conflict in the Packers’ home state over the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. Quoting players and fans, he argues that the union movement and Packer spirit are cut from the same cloth.
Turning to college sports, Zirin reviews the Penn State scandal, a morality tale about a football program with a university attached to it. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who built that program, quietly alerted the school’s athletic director that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had raped a young boy in the locker room shower. No immediate legal action ensued, but Sandusky was eventually convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse over a 15-year period. That Paterno, the key figure in the university community if not the region, should have done more is the consensus view outside State College, Pa. Indeed, Paterno himself said so. Yet his firing sparked a campus riot by thousands of supporters, who, according to The New York Times, “stormed the downtown area to display their anger and frustration, chanting the former coach’s name, tearing down light poles and overturning a television news van parked along College Avenue.” Zirin’s twist is to contrast that riot with a protest the same day in Berkeley, Calif., where police battered students rallying against sharp tuition increases. For him, the Berkeley demonstrators were “a credit to their school,” whereas the Penn State rioters were “dregs and Droogs; young men of entitlement who rage for the machine.” Zirin faults both Nike boss Phil Knight, who defended Paterno, and the NCAA’s decision to fine Penn State $60 million, despite the fact that the program had violated no NCAA bylaws.
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