Macalester grad Dave Zirin explores politics of sports

New York City native and Macalester College graduate Dave Zirin has covered the political side of sports for over a decade. His newest book, A People's History of Sports in the United States examines the role athletes have had in protesting war, in public financing of stadiums, and racial issues in everything from track and field to baseball. Zirin was in town last week to speak at Macalester and promote his book, and gave a quick interview about the book and his background.

CP: What got you started on the path to sports writing? You were a history major at Macalester.

Dave Zirin: I grew up an absolutely colossal sports fan and didn't care about politics. My house wasn't terribly political. In 1991, I was in high school and a teammate of mine actually cut out of basketball practice to protest the first Iraq War. He was one of my best friends—still is—and I said to him, "Where are your priorities?" I was pissed. But he went anyway and was assaulted by a police officer, and that pissed me off even more. It rocked me. Not long after that, I went to a college game at Madison Square Garden and at halftime there was a guy in an Arab costume getting beat up by the team's mascot while the Jumbotron got everyone to chant "USA!" I literally swore off sports. The way sports was being used to push racism and nationalism, and what happened to my friend changed me completely. I finished out the season playing basketball, but I was done watching sports, done relating to it. It was easy to do this at Macalester, since it isn't exactly a sports Mecca. I got much more into politics.

Then in 1996, the Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided not to stand for the National Anthem. On ESPN they reported that "Abdul-Rauf must see himself in the tradition of Muhammad Ali and Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the activist athletes." They reported this very derisively. But I was stunned. "Tradition?" I didn't know there was a tradition of the activist athlete. For all of my 'sports knowledge' growing up, it was all statistics, all superficial, juvenile biographies. I wanted to find a book about the activist athlete and found there wasn't one.

CP: Do you think athletes are more involved now than in the past? Zirin: Obviously less now than they were forty years ago, in the 1960s. Of course, back then, engaged athletes had the advantage of knowing that they had a receptive audience and that politics were pulsing in the campuses and on the streets. But you're starting to see a change. Athletes don't live on Planet Jock. They're part of the real world. The real world thinks the country's heading in the wrong direction. These athletes knew people affected by Katrina. They make tons of money but their families don't make any money. They live in the real world and the real world's pretty fucked up.

CP: We have two publicly financed stadiums—the new Target Field and TCF Stadium—and the Vikings are trying to get one built themselves.

Zirin: When public money is used for private teams, it's welfare for the rich. In Minnesota this is particularly acute, particularly obscene. Here you've got this bridge collapsing and thirteen people die. This happens the same week as a groundbreaking for a public stadium for the wealthiest owner in Major League Baseball. It is an obscenity that in Minnesota we have a governor who paid so much more time, care, and attention to a stadium that got rammed through over the objections of voters, and yet he paints himself as a fiscal conservative. And why is he a fiscal conservative. Because he denied money to fix the damn bridges. That is absolutely sick.

CP: Do you think there's any weight to the notion that without a new, publicly financed, stadium, the Vikings might move? Say, to Toronto or Los Angeles?

Zirin: Well, there's only a chance of that if the people of Toronto and L.A. don't wise up. But I don't see how any team moves in this recession. You might get some sad moves like Buffalo Bills playing some games in Toronto. But that has more to do with the decaying economy of Buffalo than Toronto.

Ultimately, the fans have to take some sort of ownership of the sport themselves. Whenever I see fan movements, I think these are positive developments. You don't have to just take it. I would say that the only reason I have an audience for this book is that there are a lot of people who love sports but hate what they've become. The Vikings gunning for a stadium is a perfect example. There's a very deep-rooted relationship between American fans and American sports. But at this point it's an abusive relationship. If you're in an abusive relationship, you've got to fight to change it. It's what you've got to do.

-- Interview by Peter Schilling

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