A new book shows athletes didn't used to be strangers to social
justice, but today's athletes seem totally unaware of it.
By Andy Kroll
October 3, 2008
Before this summer's Beijing Olympic Games, American superstarand
corporate posterboyMichael Phelps recieved praise from people
ranging from Chinese President Hu Jintao to the leaders of the
International Olympic Committee. The message was clear: Sports and
politics do not mix. Phelps and other athletes have yet to discover
the work of Dave Zirin, one of the sharpest sportswriters in the
trade who has made a career out of peeling back the slick,
corporate-sponsored facade of sports and exposing the political
currents that flow underneath. In his characteristically forthright
style, he argued in the book that "[w]e can pretend sports isn't
political just as well as we can pretend there is no such thing as
gravity if we fall out of an airplane."
Zirin's latest book, A People's History of Sports in the United
States, illustrates how, beginning with the Native Americans' early
lacrosse matches and ending with the multi-billion-dollar sporting
industries of the present, sports have, for better or worse,
continually influenced the direction of this country. But more than
offering an illuminating and necessary historical account, A People's
History of Sports is a present-day condemnation of 21st-century
professional sports and their athletes. By describing how past
athletes used their elevated positions as cultural icons and public
figures to combat injustices like racism, sexism, and homophobia,
Zirin reveals the endemic ignorance and indifference seen in an
overwhelming majority of today's pampered, overpaid, narcissistic
This apathy belies a rich history of athletes using sports as a
catalyst for political activism. An early example was the women's
suffrage movement of the mid- and late-19th century, led by Susan B.
Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Whatliterallyhelped mobilize
the growing movement for women's voting rights was the explosion in
popularity of bicycle riding, an early form of physical activity in
which women could participate. "Many a woman is riding to suffrage on
a bicycle," Cady Stanton once remarked. And Zirin makes the critical
connection when he writes that "Stanton and Anthony recognized that
women's right to physical play was essential and inextricable from
Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, Americans began to turn
their attention to the rampant racial discrimination afflicting the
United States. One way in which this terrible malady manifested
itself was professional baseball's color line, which kept black
baseball players out of the major leagues. It wasn't until April 15,
1947, when a 28-year-old black rookie named Jackie Robinson made his
first appearance for the Brooklyn Dodgers, that the color line was
broken. Although the civil rights movement was, at the time, in its
infancy, Robinson's appearance signaled an early, encouraging victory
in the struggle against racism.
Robinson was a military veteran and as politically conscious as a
ballplayer could be in the 1940s. He remained an unrelenting force
advocating for equal rights for the remainder of his life. It wasn't
only Robinson, however, who helped to break the color line. A decade
before Robinson donned a Dodgers uniform, sportswriter Lester "Red"
Rodney was using his groundbreaking, politically charged sports page
in the Communist Party's Daily Worker as a forum to discuss issues of
race, gender and class in sports. The first serious campaign calling
for the integration of Major League Baseball, Zirin explains,
appeared in the sports pages of Rodney's Worker. And not only did
Rodney call for an end to the color line, he went one step further by
"taking the fight to integrate baseball off the sports page and
turning it into an activist campaign."
Breaking the color line was a small but nonetheless important victory
in the early stages of what would become the largest political
uprising in American history: the civil rights movement. And in the
struggle of Carmichael, King, and Malcolm X, the intersections of
sports and politics are clearest and most prevalent. No other period
in U.S. history featured as many prominent athletes or iconic
moments, and not surprisingly the sports and athletes of the civil
rights movement form the centerpiece of Zirin's book.
The driving force of political thought in the sports world at the
time was the brash, opinionated, fast-talking champion of the boxing
world, Muhammad Ali. Formerly known by what he called a "slave" name,
Cassius Clay, Ali knew how best to stir up controversy and, in the
process, made equally many enemies as friends. He allied with black
militant Malcolm X, joined Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and
loudly criticized the United States' war in Vietnam. He became such a
visible and contentious figure that his boxing matches, Zirin writes,
"became incredible political dramas of the black revolution versus
the people who opposed it."
No one demonstrated more powerfully the staggering influence athletes
could wield than Ali. His refusal to fight in Vietnama decision that
cost him the peak years of his boxing career"was a major boost to
the anti-war movement," wrote author Mike Marqusee. And Ali was even
more inspirational to black Americans. "One of the reasons the civil
rights movement went forward was that black people overcame their
fear," Bryant Gumbel once said. "And I honestly believe for many
people that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be
afraid. And being that way he gave other people courage."
Not that sports have always been used to fight oppression and war. As
Zirin points out, sports' most prominent spokesman at the birth of
the 20th century was Teddy Roosevelt, an imperialistic president who
connected a well-trained, athletic citizenry back to his first love:
a nation perpetually prepared for war. Several decades later, on the
eve of World War I, Woodrow Wilson, like Roosevelt, saw sports as the
ideal training ground for the battlefield. "Not until World War I,"
write authors Elliott J. Gorn and Warren Jay Goldstein, "were
athletic training and competition systematically adopted for troop
morale, hygiene, and physical readiness for war."
According to Zirin, the 1980s were equally significant as the 1960s
and '70sbut for all the wrong reasons. With the emergence of ESPN,
its gang of incessant bloviators and the spread of American sports
and their superstars throughout the world, money poured into
professional sports and into the pockets of athletes, owners, and
investors. Marquee college athletes, upon turning professional and
signing lucrative contracts and sponsorship deals, were made
multimillionaires overnight. But with this newfound wealth came the
realization that they had that much more to lose if they spoke out.
So instead they shut up and tuned out. Anti-intellectualism became
the status quo. And this pleased the sponsors and investors: With so
much money at stake, no shoe company, men's clothing line, or car
manufacturer wanted its brand associated with an athlete who might
offend consumers and hurt profits. (Had he competed in this new
market-driven sports world, Muhammad Ali probably couldn't have
landed a gig peddling Mentos.) Of the NBA's newly minted superstars,
Zirin writes that they "had more economic clout and cultural capital
than any athletes, particular African American athletes, in history.
But instead of using this platform to pick up the torch from the
athletes of yesteryear, narcissism became the obsession of choice."
And since the '80s, the money, TV time, and narcissism have only
increased. Most professional athletes could care lessthat is, if
they even know at allthat their sponsors' shoes and jerseys are made
in squalid conditions in third world countries. (His Airness Michael
Jordan sure didn't.) Few and far between are athletes who openly
speak their mindthough the few that do, like the NBA's Etan Thomas
or former Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, offer a glimmer of hope
that the socially conscious athlete isn't extinct.
The recent Beijing Olympics further illustrated this descent into
obliviousness. The most visible American heading into the Games,
Michael Phelps, had not a word regarding China's lack of human rights
and complicity in the Darfur genocide; yet he found plenty of time to
talk up his sponsor Speedo's new space-age swimsuit. Even worse was
Miami Heat and USA Basketball star Dwayne Wade. On the eve of the
Games, Wade said of China's human rights problems: "I'm not even into
it that much … I really don't know what's going on over there."
When ignorance prevails among elite athletes, sports can't be
catalyst for political debate. Many of the most important movements
from the past, those described in A People's History of Sports,
immeasurably benefitted from politically active athletes, coaches,
owners, and sportswriters and wouldn't have been as effective without
them. Had there been no Muhammad Ali, it's doubtful whether the civil
rights movement would've coalesced and grown in power and influence
to the same extent.
In 2008, it's economic injustice and inequality that pose the gravest
threats to those of all races and ethnicities. The richest 1 percent
of Americans own about a third of the United States' total wealth.
And as this plutocratic corporate class accumulates more wealth, the
middle class disappears and those in poverty grow in number and in
desperation. Unlike their underpaid predecessors, many of today's
professional athletes belong to that wealthy classthey're now part
of the problem. Thus these athletes have a greater obligation to help
lessen the chasm. And should just a few of our sporting superstarsa
Tiger Woods or a Jeff Gordon, an Abby Wambach, or a Lebron
Jamesfollow the example set by superstars before them, the political
flame that burned inside Ali, Robinson, Navratilova, and so many
others might help reignite social causes once again.
Andy Kroll is a senior at the University of Michigan and a former
editorial intern at The Nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.