By Peter Richardson
“Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down”
A book by Dave Zirin
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.
To see long excerpts from “Game Over” at Google Books, click here.
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.
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.
Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down
By Dave Zirin
The New Press, 240 pages
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).