LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
A new book outlines the uneasy confluence of sports and politics. It's easy to remember famous athletes during the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War making their views known. Sometimes, those views isolated them from fans. But sometimes, what athletes said led to real change. But for the past 10 or 20 years now, it's difficult to think of many athletes talking about anything other than gym shoes and soda. Some say those endorsement deals make sports stars gun shy about speaking their minds.
Dave Zirin's book is called "Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down." And Zirin thinks he's seen evidence recently that taking a public stand is coming back into vogue for sports figures.
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, there's been a big change in the world of sports since roughly 2008. And one of those changes is athletes becoming more sophisticated with tools like social media and going beyond the sports media that they largely do not trust to speak to fans directly about the issues that they care about. The other issue is that since 2008, there's been a lot of crisis, both in this country and around the world. And as one athlete says - and I quote him in the book - he says, "Look, it's not like athletes have our own CNN channel that we watch. We're part of this world too. And when we see things, we want to respond to it."
SULLIVAN: Why 2008 now?
ZIRIN: There are a couple of things that happened in 2008. The first was the election of Barack Obama. I mean, you had players like Kevin Garnett with political slogans written on his sneakers, LeBron James wearing Barack Obama T-shirts. I remember Carmelo Anthony said he was going to score 42 points in honor of the 42nd president. He only scored 28, which might have been his Woodrow Wilson tribute. But still, he wanted to be political. And that, in and of itself, was breaching a wall to do that.
The other thing that happened in 2008, of course, was the economic crisis. I mean, there have been four lockouts in sports in just the last year. And all of that is linked to the fact that the leagues themselves felt like that they were going to not get the kind of public subsidies that they'd been used to in years past, tax dollars.
SULLIVAN: So you're saying that made the players more politically active in their own right.
ZIRIN: Because they were locked out and because they were then forced to actually speak to the public about why they should side with them and not see these labor battles as just, as so many people say, billionaires versus millionaires.
SULLIVAN: Right. So what are the risks for athletes...
ZIRIN: Ooh. See, that's the flipside of it.
SULLIVAN: ...doing that - doing this now?
ZIRIN: There are significant risks, not the least of which is that a typical athletic playing career is very short. In the NFL, it's three and a half years. And in baseball and in the NBA, it's really not much longer. It's five years, seven years. So you're talking about a very limited window where athletes can earn the majority of money that they're going to make over the course of their entire lives.
SULLIVAN: So you've got players that are trying to walk this fine line between making a name for themselves, getting out there in front of the public and supporting a belief that they feel passionate about...
SULLIVAN: ...but at the same time not overdoing it...
ZIRIN: If you go too far, it's trouble. Sports has become a trillion-dollar global entity by projecting athletes, really, who are as bland and apolitical as possible so they don't offend anybody in the audience. I mean, Michael Jordan famously said Republicans buy sneakers too when asked if he would stand up against his hometown senator Jesse Helms in 1990. And that's been kind of like this anthemic phrase: Republicans buy sneakers, too, as a way to say to athletes: Don't step out of line.
It becomes something that actually is very dangerous, whether for keeping their job in the league, whether for keeping sponsors, and you do run that risk of finding yourself, all of a sudden, out of a job.
SULLIVAN: What's an example of an athlete that went too far?
ZIRIN: Well, the athletes who - a lot of people talk about even to this day is there was a player named Craig Hodges in 1992, and there was a player named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996. And Craig Hodges - won a world championship with the Chicago Bulls and at the White House handed a letter against the Persian Gulf War directly to George HW Bush - found himself off the team.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996 made the private decision that he wasn't going to come out for the National Anthem before games because he disagreed just morally with the idea of paying tribute to the American flag before games that became a huge uproar in Denver. He found himself drummed out of the league as soon as his contract was done in the prime of his career. His last year in the league, he led the NBA in points per minute, he was gone. And...
SULLIVAN: This was all happening in the '90s.
ZIRIN: In the '90s. Now, you fast-forward...
SULLIVAN: What about now?
ZIRIN: ...to today, there's a player named Rashard Mendenhall, still plays in the National Football League, lost all of his endorsement contracts when he was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was just - he just left the Steelers and signed with the Cardinals. And he put out tweets that he wasn't going to join the celebratory atmosphere when bin Laden was assassinated. And that's obviously something that the overwhelming majority of Americans would say: No, we are going to cheer. This is a moment to celebrate. And yet, for Rashard Mendenhall, it was not.
And he lost his endorsements. He was called out by his owner. They were just done. And he was somebody who was becoming a star at that point.
SULLIVAN: I'm talking to sportswriter Dave Zirin. His new book is called "Game Over: How Politics Has Turned The Sports World Upside Down." Dave, you really went to town on the NCAA in this book...
SULLIVAN: ...and the notion of student athletes. In fact, you keep putting student athletes in quotation marks.
ZIRIN: Mm-hmm. The main reason I did that was after speaking to a former All-American NCAA basketball player from the University of Maryland by the name of Laron Profit. And Laron said to me, the word student athlete is so ridiculous because we're really athlete students, because the second we walk on to campus, it's made very clear to us where our priorities should lie.
And after - as soon as he said that to me, I said, you know, I'm never using the phrase student athlete again. And then after researching it, that's not a word that came out of, say, the pen of Grantland Rice 100 years ago - the great sportswriter - as a poetical phrase for somebody on campus. It was actually a legal designation put forward by the NCAA so they wouldn't have to pay workers compensation to a crippled football player.
Because a college football player actually sued the NCAA, saying, I deserve some sort of compensation. My body has been destroyed by playing football. And their response was: Well, no, you don't get workers' compensation because you're not a worker. You're a student athlete. So they actually concocted this designation. And they generate, really, billions of dollars.
I mean, the NCAA tournament is an $11 billion deal all by itself. Coaches make millions, and the players don't see a thing. And it's only - this is one of those things where I really do believe that the center will not hold because coaches keep getting paid more and more. Players, more and more, are seeing the NCAA as really this amoral tool of enforcement, like something that has no real moral weight.
SULLIVAN: Do you think that this is one of these political beliefs that we're going to see some of the players start standing up for?
ZIRIN: Definitely. And you have seen this in the past at different times. I mean, you saw 20 years ago the great University of Michigan Fab Five team. They all came out on the court wearing black T-shirts instead of their jerseys to protest that the jerseys were the top-selling jersey in the country - with their names on it - but they weren't seeing any money for it.
A few years ago, as Taylor Branch reported in The Atlantic, there was a move by players to actually strike before the final four, unless they got some money for that. It's very difficult for college athletes to do this, though, because this is one of those things that people don't know when they say: Wait a minute, these guys get a free full four-year ride to college. And it costs a fortune. They should be happy to get that.
The scholarships are only reviewed on an annual basis. They don't get four years. They get one year. And when you're renewed year to year, it doesn't exactly breed an atmosphere of, hey, I'm going to speak out for my rights.
SULLIVAN: I would imagine.
SULLIVAN: That's sportswriter Dave Zirin from The Nation. His new book is called "Game Over: How Politics Has Turned The Sports World Upside Down." Dave, thanks so much for coming in.
ZIRIN: My privilege. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.