Black Athletes Juggle Fame, Social Responsibility

Dave Zirin and Tony Cox explore the strange terrain where sports and politics meet, from Iraq war protests to Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam. Zirin is the author of a new book on sports and politics, Welcome To The Terrordome.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NPR News. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

What does the war in Iraq have to do with football? How is grassroots Latino politics working to influence baseball? What do red state sensibilities have to do with the game of basketball? These are some of the questions sportswriter Dave Zirin tackles in his latest musings on modern American athletics. His new book hits the stands today. It's called "Welcome to the Terrordome." Dave Zirin, welcome to you.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Author, "Welcome to the Terrordome"): Great to be here, thank you.

COX: So your book is subtitled "The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports". Explain how those three ideas shape the thrust of the book.

Mr. ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, starting with the pain and the politics, this is a book for people like myself - people who love sports but hate what sports have become - people who love the games but see that at this point, it's really become more than a game. Sports has become this massive corporate enterprise that reflects and projects some, I think, I really harmful ideas towards society like greed, militarism, the gouging of communities. I mean, sports has really ceased to be sports. It's become what I call the terrordome.

COX: So does - clear this up for me if you can. When was sports not that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, sports has always certainly reflected the ideas in our society to a great degree. But I really do believe that in the last 30 years, we've seen an explosion in sports. We've seen an explosion in what I call the athletic industrial complex with the growth of 24-hour sports networks, with the growth of 24-hour radio channels, and particularly with the growth of the spread of publicly funded stadiums in cities around the country. I just think it's grown so far beyond - I mean, it's always been maybe a baby octopus, but now it's become an all-encompassing squid.

COX: Well, you know, there are a lot of elements to talk about with regard to sports and the intersection of politics. Let's talk about this one, first, though. Where are the leaders - the athletes as leaders - who put themselves on the line for a cause? We know about Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe and Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - where are guys like that now?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, I would argue that we're starting to see - and this is the promise of sports in the title - we're starting to see a new generation of athletes beginning - keep in mind, beginning - to pick up that mantle from the Alis, the Jim Browns and the Arthur Ashes. I mean, these are folks like Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards who's an anti-war poet and an anti-death penalty activist - Adam Morrison of the Charlotte Bobcats, who's fighting for national health care - Adonal Foyle, who believes in campaign finance reform -even an NFL player named Scott Fujita, who is trying to speak about civil liberties in the United States and relaying his own experiences being the grandson of a Japanese-American who was interned during World War II.

See, I think what we're seeing is because - you know, we have the war in Iraq, which has now lasted longer than World War II - because of hurricane Katrina, it's becoming harder and harder for professional athletes to live in figurative and literal gated communities. They're coming more in contact with the world, and this means we're starting to see the beginning of a new generation of jocks for justice.

COX: You know, you mentioned football, and you mentioned the war.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

COX: And we know that football is now America's game, and that means it's fodder for politics. You write a lot about Pat Tillman, the late professional football player who died in Iraq. We know now how the truth about his death was kept from the public. But for you, Dave, this is a story about how the NFL itself was a willing participant - I believe you say - in the march to the war. What do you mean, exactly?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, from the very beginning, the NFL has always had very close ties with the Pentagon. I mean, these Blue Angels that fly over NFL games before the game start, it's not like the NFL rents those out by the hour. There's always been a tight connection between professional sports and the business of war.

And when Pat Tillman put - kept $3 million on the table and signed up for the Army Rangers, this was something that just had people salivating in the Pentagon and in the NFL corridors. The problem was, at that time, was that Pat Tillman - and I write about this - was not willing to play their game. He refused to be in recruitment posters. He refused to be on commercials signaling Pat Tillman, an Army of One. He literally dropped out of sight. And then when he died, though, he became something in death he never would've wanted to be in life, and that was a tool for public relations.

And as I write in the book, if you actually look at Pat Tillman's thoughts, you know, in terms of speaking with his parents and speaking with his friends, you see that he - like a lot of Americans - was somebody who was very gung ho about the war on terror early on. He joined as a visceral reaction to the tragedies of September 11th. But as the years went on, he began to see the Iraq war, as he put it to a friend, quote unquote, "illegal," and he began to have serious doubts about the conflict itself, which makes how he was used immediately after his death all the more monstrous.

COX: Well, you know, perhaps, Dave, there is no other sporting event more closely tied to the vicissitudes of politics than the international Olympic Games, from where they are - on the issues of from where they are held to which countries agree to compete. And with China hosting next year, the politicking is already underway over...

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh yes.

COX: ...issues like China's role in Sudan, for example. How do you see that?

Mr. ZIRIN: Wow. I see - with what's going to be happening in China in 2008 - a continuation of what is a continual history in the Olympic Games. And there's -I have a whole chapter in the book about the Olympics. And that said, everywhere the Olympic goes - whether it's a country that we might identify as more autocratic or dictatorial like China, or Western nations like Atlanta in 1996 or Los Angeles in 1984, certainly Athens, this past year in 2004 - you see a stepping up of two things.

You see the stepping up of gouging of communities on the taxpayer dime, people kicked out of low-income housing, etc., to make the way for things that are oh so useful like, you know, like a luge facility - that's for the winter games -or - we all need luge in our lives. And - but you also see the stepping up of state repression. And I think certainly, in China, of course, in a normal week, it's very difficult to stand up and state your beliefs in China.

I have tremendous fears about what's going to happen in the lead up to the Olympics. And from early reports, a lot of that has already begun - the rounding up of dissidents, the crushing of incipient movements to keep people from getting kicked off their lands to make their way for facilities. I mean, this happened in Greece, and this will happen in China. But the fear is that in China, it'll be of a particularly brutal nature.

COX: Before I move on to the subject of racism in sports, I just want to - as an aside - say you talked about how cities are sort of victimized by hosting the Olympics. But in Los Angeles in '84, the city actually turned out pretty well financially, didn't it?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. Yeah, the city in Los Angeles in 1984 was the first city to turn a profit on the Olympic games since Los Angeles in 1932. And - but the thing about 1984 in Los Angeles was that yes, it did well financially, but that was also the site of Darryl Gates - who was then the head of the Los Angeles Police Department - the notorious gang sweeps, where they revitalized - and I talked about this in the book - they revitalized old anti-union laws from the turn of the century for the purpose of arresting young, black males on street corners for the crime of doing the wrong handshakes or wearing the wrong clothes.

And this was the birth of, really, the infamous gang sweeps in Los Angeles, which planted the seeds of the LA Rebellion in 1992. So even though LA was able to do good business in 1984, it came at a tremendous cost to the people in South Central and Eastern Los Angeles.

COX: Our time is short. Let's bring it to a close with this topic: race and sports. Don Imus aside, for the moment. It's getting more and more difficult to know what is racist in sports and what's not.

Mr. ZIRIN: Right.

COX: Take Barry Bonds, for example. Some say racism is there because of baseball's reluctance to embrace him, but it seems more complicated than that. What does it say about race relations to you, in about a minute or so?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, one of the things that says that on sports radio, you get some of the most honest discussions in this country about race and racism - as frightening as that sounds. Because people call in, they defend Barry Bonds. People call in and say they hate Barry Bonds. One side says it's racist. The other side says it's not racist. And in the middle of that, you get a view, a sneak - a little view, about how divided, I think, in many respects, we still are in this country on the issue of race or racism. And in a weird, ironic twist, it's presented in the form of Barry Bonds.

COX: Yet, with all of that, all the things that we have discussed so far and even the scary title of your book about the terrordome, you do have hope, right?

Mr. ZIRIN: Absolutely. And that's the promise of the title, and my hope is in coaches in small communities who are trying to use sports to teach values of cooperation and healthy competition. It's in athletes who are using their hyper-exalted-brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to actually say something about the world they live in. And frankly, it's in radio shows like this who are opening themselves up to ideas that sports, it is more than just a game. And it's good if we're all aware of that.

COX: We'll take the compliment. Dave Zirin runs the gamut between sports and politics in his book "Welcome to the Terrordome." He joined us from Washington, D.C., where he lives. David, thanks a great deal.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, my privilege.

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