Inside The Inseparable Worlds Of Sports, Politics Sports writer Dave Zirin has a reputation for pointing out the places where the line between sports and politics blurs. His latest book, A People's History of Sports in the United States, goes even further. Zirin speaks with NPR's Tony Cox.
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Inside The Inseparable Worlds Of Sports, Politics

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Inside The Inseparable Worlds Of Sports, Politics

Inside The Inseparable Worlds Of Sports, Politics

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It is time again for a look at sports with our very own Tony Cox. Hey Tony, what have you got for us?

TONY COX: Well, Farai, like church and state, there's supposed to be a line drawn between sports and politics. Sports writer Dave Zirin has a reputation for pointing out the places where that line blurs, but his latest book goes even further. In his words, it attempts to resuscitate the political heart that beats in the sports world. The book is called "A People's History of Sports in the United States," and Dave Zirin is here now to tell us why sports cannot escape politics, even if it wanted to. Welcome to News & Notes, Dave.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Author, "A People's History of Sports in the United States"): Oh, great to be here. Thank you.

COX: Let's talk about this new book, "A People's History of Sports in the United States." Why'd you write it?

Mr. ZIRIN: Why did I write it? I wrote it because there is this accepted truth in the world of sports that I am trying to put to rest. And it's the truth that sports and politics cannot mix. I mean, just like you've got ESPN on one channel and CSPAN on another, just like you've got your sports page over here and your metro section over there, they try to tell us over and over again that politics and sports are separate space. Yet in the book I try to argue that you actually can't understand the history of sports in this country without understanding a political history in this country, and vice versa.

COX: I don't know who would argue necessarily that sports and politics don't mix, but sometimes the issue of individuals in sports and particular points of view in politics may not mix. There are many examples in the book that you use to follow your point about the mixing of sports and politics. What do you think are some of the more important ones?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, I think in a lot of ways you can't understand the history of women in this country without understanding the way women have fought to find space in the world of sports. I mean, in the 19th century there was all kinds of quack science that said if women involve themselves in sports in any way shape or form they'd be risking their ability to have children, they would be in danger of blurring their own sexuality, and even becoming men. I mean, there was all kinds of science that was official science that was used to try to keep them away from sports. And because of that in the suffragette movement the idea of having access to the physical, access to sports, was something that they fought for.

I mean, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great suffragette, said that when women finally get the right to vote it's going to be on the bicycle. And you see this throughout the 20th century as well, of course up to the early '70s. I talk about the Battle of the Sexes match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the fight for Title IX, which has created a whole new generation of women athletes. And what you see is that when it comes to the right of play, that's never been a given for women in this country. And sports, which is supposed to be this meritocracy where if you're good you get to play, there's always been this contested political space. Whether you're talking about women, people of color, immigrants, working people, gays and lesbians. So, it's really fascinating political space.

COX: Do you agree, Dave Zirin, that part of the problem that athletes have, today's athlete, is when they individually become involved in political issues? Backing a candidate, or backing a proposition, or some sort of legislation? Do you see that as a problem for them?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, I think it's a problem for the athlete because they have team owners, they have their coaches, they have their own personal entourage who tell them that they need to be quiet, that they've signed away their right to have opinions when they sign that contract. You know, I talk to a lot of players, particularly in the NBA because I write a column for Slam Magazine, and two players that all NBA players know, two historical players, are Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, two minor players from the 1990s, but two players who are thought to have been drummed out of the league when they expressed political views.

Craig Hodges against the first Gulf War in '91, Abdul-Rauf when he refused to come out for the National Anthem in '96. And there's something tragic about that. It's as if the stick is over their head that says if you dare have opinions beyond what sport drink someone should drink, or whether they should wear Adidas or Nike, then therefore they're somehow denied their right to be fully formed human beings.

COX: Now, we have just this week, Dave, another example of that involving a Dallas Mavericks basketball player by the name of Josh Howard, who was caught - presumable caught, I don't know what the exact circumstances were about him being on video...

Mr. ZIRIN: A cell phone camera.

COX: Right. Refusing to stand and recognize the National Anthem. Sports talk radio was blowing up with that this week. Is this another example of what you're talking about?

Mr. ZIRIN: Exactly what I'm talking about. First, I think I, or anybody, should have sympathy for Josh Howard. It was caught on a cell phone camera, it was at I believe a flag football event, like it was hardly some big official game, and what he said was he said no, I don't stand for the National Anthem, I'm black. And that, of course, you bring in the issues of race, and you bring in the issues of patriotism, and of course sports radio, the confederate confines of sports radio, as I call them, they absolutely blow up with controversy. Well, I would like to take a step back from it though, and say well, why can't we actually have a discussion about why is this the only country in the world that plays the National Anthem before sporting events? Why in Major League Baseball, for example, do many teams now do two national anthems? One before the game, and one during the seventh inning stretch? Why does patriotism have to be such an intertwined part of sports? And that's one of the issues I take up in the book.

COX: Now, patriotism and race are also as you mentioned issues that are intertwined with sports, but with regard to race, it goes back I'm thinking as far as sports has been around. Particularly in, and you talk about this in your book, with figures like Jack Johnson.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, let's go way before Jack Johnson, let's talk about slavery in this country because there's - it's incredibly interesting stories because when you - during slavery, sports were used in a lot of ways like religion as a way to try to keep people calm and pacified on a plantation. But also like religion, many slaves actually then incorporated sports into their lives as a means of escape, but also as a means of practicing tools of resistance, and also a way to build a sense of community obviously in a very dyspeptic situation. Now you mentioned Jack Johnson, and that to me was really a jumping off point in the 20th century about the way sports is often the space where for African-Americans racism was challenged in a very, very public field.

COX: Has the relationship in your view between sports and politics changed significantly today, and in what ways has it?

Mr. ZIRIN: I think it's profoundly changed, and I think more than ever this generation of athletes have been robbed of their history, robbed of the knowledge of activist athletes from years past. I think there's more pressure on athletes to be what sports managers call a global brand, this idea that you can be actually wiped clean of any controversial or political edges and be presented as an empty vessel, as a commercial figure, as a corporation with legs. And the shame about that is not because I worry about the soul of LeBron James, or the intellectual development of Kobe Bryant, it's nothing as trite as that, it's that I worry about the message it sends to millions and millions of young people is that what you want to aspire to is not having opinions about the world. I think the world is far too controversial, dangerous, and edgy a place. I think we all have an obligation to say that politics isn't just for the people with bad haircuts on Capitol Hill. Politics is something that we all need to embrace as part of being full human beings on this planet.

COX: Dave, thank you very much for coming on.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, my privilege, Tony. I love News & Notes.

COX: Dave Zirin's book is called "A People's History of Sports In The United States." He joined us from the studios of NPR in Washington, D.C.

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