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Game Over

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Posted on Jan 15, 2013

By Peter Richardson

(Page 2)

Zirin then segues to Taylor Branch’s 2011 Atlantic cover story, “The Shame of College Sports,” which argued that the NCAA’s existence is predicated on two cynical hoaxes: amateurism and the student-athlete. College football and basketball programs make enormous amounts of money for almost everyone but those athletes, many of whom are only nominally students. The players aren’t slaves, Branch noted, but the major programs have the “unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” Zirin concurs, adding a zinger of his own:

As one author noted, “To provide recompense would be to degrade [them] toward a spiral of barbarism. [In the current system] they are cared for and governed in a way that allows them to be supervised instead of being thrown to the wolves.” 

Apologies. That last quote wasn’t from a defender of the current scholarship system but from George Fitzhugh, the nineteenth-century Virginia writer whose defense of slavery, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters, argued the moral benefits of well-supervised bonded labor.

To stop the madness, Zirin argues, college athletes must take direct action. 

It would require them to walk to midcourt before the Final Four, or midfield during the national championship game, ripping off their assorted brands and logos, and state in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the field.

But once again, a better solution may already exist. Extending baseball’s farm club system to football and basketball would eliminate several systemic problems targeted in “Game Over.” Baseball prospects have always had two choices: sign with professional organizations out of high school or play in college. Both are viable paths to the major leagues, and one offers the benefits of college without making a mockery of it. Recruiting scandals are almost unknown in college baseball, and developing farm club systems for football and basketball might temper the concentrations of money and power in college programs. The Penn State scandal shows that virtually everyone on that campus was willing to turn a blind eye, even when children were being raped on site, to preserve the football program and the money it generated. Giving student-athletes “a piece of the pie” is unlikely to solve that problem.   

book cover


Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down

By Dave Zirin


The New Press, 240 pages


Buy the book

Like its precursors, “Game Over” addresses sexism, racism and homophobia in the sports world, and no one is better than Zirin at flagging the key examples. But skeptics may not be convinced by his historical account of masculinity in sports. “The robber barons,” Zirin claims, “understandably feared that their own pampered, privileged children would be completely unprepared to navigate the violent world they helped to create.” As a result, “Elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown launched intercollegiate football, which came to resemble something out of Braveheart, with students literally dying on the field.” Zirin then cuts to the moral of the story:

The heart of the founding of modern athletics was economic elites sending their children to die in Ivy League football games merely because they were terrified that they wouldn’t be tough enough to lead conquests abroad and industrial brutality at home. And failure to do so made you a “sissy.”

Zirin covers this ground in “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” but there he omits the claim about “the heart of the founding of modern athletics.” As that book shows, professional sports were alive and well in 19th century America, and they had almost nothing to do with robber barons or the Ivy League. As tempting as it is to blame economic elites for our social ills, readers might expect Zirin (and others of the Zinn school) to argue that Cy Young, Jim Thorpe, Jack Johnson and others with humble backgrounds were among the real founders of modern athletics. 

Zirin also probes “Linsanity,” the 2012 media phenomenon that began when Jeremy Lin, the Chinese-American point guard for the New York Knicks, averaged 22.7 points and 8.5 assists while leading the Knicks on a 9-3 run. In doing so, Lin set the NBA record for most points in his first five games as a starter. Zirin finds that record meaningful, despite the fact that Lin had already played dozens of games as a backup guard for the Knicks and the Golden State Warriors before that. Lin’s productivity as a starter diminished even before he suffered a season-ending injury, and he finished the year with respectable but not earthshaking numbers. The Knicks lost in the first round of the playoffs, and Lin accepted a rich offer from the Houston Rockets, where his performance to date has been average at best. 

“Game Over” was drafted while Linsanity was still piping hot, and though Zirin hedges his bets on Lin’s future, he is certainly correct that Lin’s Asian ancestry was a key part of the media uproar. He also acknowledges that Linsanity’s setting was important: New York City is home to the nation’s major media corporations as well as a mediocre NBA franchise. But Zirin moves quickly over that essential point. If Lin had posted similar numbers during a 12-game run with the Warriors, his would have been a local story. That discrepancy suggests a larger problem with American media, but not one that interests Zirin. The racial angle is more compelling, and he nails it. But as a sportswriter, he seems to oversell Lin’s talent and as a media critic, he buries the lead.

That I can quibble with Zirin’s analysis is already a victory for his approach. Indeed, my cavils are possible only because he framed the arguments in the first place. What other American journalist is writing about the revolutionary role of Egyptian soccer hooligans? Who else is remotely interested in the hidden costs of the Olympics and World Cup, especially for workers and activists in host countries? Whether or not you accept his arguments, Zirin consistently calls our attention to the social context and significance of sports, and “Game Over” keeps that streak alive.

Peter Richardson is the author of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” (2009) and “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams” (2005).


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