Not Just a Game

Power, Politics & American Sports

by Cynthia Fuchs

27 January 2011

Dave Zirin points out, "Everywhere we look, there seems to be a strange contradiction of this No Politics rule, prominent in powerful displays of nationalism and patriotism and military might that seem nothing if not political."

That Murky Place

cover art

Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports

Director: Jeremy Earp
Cast: Dave Zirin

(Media Education Foundation)
Maysles Cinema: 25 Jan 2011

We have a thing going on now, people discriminating against homosexuality in this country. I love the homosexuality people. God bless the gay people. They are great people.
Charles Barkley

I’ve known Jay [Cutler] for a few years now and know what kind of competitor he is. I thought it was disrespectful, some of the stuff said about him.
Aaron Rodgers

I just love the freedom and the flesh and blood of my people moreso than I love the money.
—Muhammad Ali

Not Just a Game opens with assertions by two very different athletes—Jesse Owens and Pete Sampras—that sports have nothing to do with politics. “And yet,” observes the tireless and most wonderful Dave Zirin, “Everywhere we look, there seems to be a strange contradiction of this No Politics rule, prominent in powerful displays of nationalism and patriotism and military might that seem nothing if not political.” The film shows Ben Roethlisberger gazing up at Air Force jets, a noisy collaboration of the military and the NFL that illustrates the point and then some.

Throughout Not Just a Game—which screened at Maysles Cinema this week and is available on DVD—Zirin makes the point that despite claims to the contrary, sports and politics do mix. The film is didactic (it’s a teaching tool, certainly), explicitly considering “that murky place where sports and politics collide.” Here Zirin finds sports to be a means to shape worldviews so that they seem “natural.” Such cultural persuasion is easy to see in an overt “form of propaganda,” such as the 1991 basketball game that Zirin cites as his own intellectual turning point, when the Knicks mascot “started to beat up a guy who was wearing this Arab costume. And the Jumbotron was whipping the crowd into a frenzy getting everybody to chant, ‘USA, USA, USA, USA!’” Zirin recalls this scene as “sick,” an especially effective “political spectacle” that helped churn up patriotic feelings, encouraging basketball fans to support the first Gulf War.

Other examples abound of course, grand exhibitions that collapse athletic contests onto plainly political (nationalistic, militaristic) causes. The film illustrates the argument Zirin has been making for years, in books like Welcome to the Terrordome and A People’s History of Sports, TV and radio appearances as well as his own radio show, and his weekly column Edge of Sports, now repurposed at The Huffington Post, Z-Net, and The Nation.

On one hand, that argument means to counter the “natural” appearance of sports today. On another hand, it seems obvious: the “sports-media complex” creates and promulgates cultural values, like, for instance, the ideal body is masculine and white and straight. Even when that notion is contradicted in some way—say, when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 or when black athletes demonstrate phenomenal skills—the narrative adjusts to accommodate exceptional individuals and still, to maintain organizational conventions (say, white male coaches, owners, and managers). More often, the narrative remains undisturbed: keep in mind that in 2011, there is not one currently active athlete in the NBA, MLB or NFL who is out. Not one.

As Zirin points out, the sports media industry colludes in perpetuating this frankly archaic story of the athletic ideal. Since the institution of Title IX in 1972, the number of women participating in sports has increased from one in 35 to one in three, and yet, women’s sports make up just single-digit percentages of coverage by magazines and on television. Or consider that when ESPN recently listed prominent “villains” in sports, these were predominantly black (unsurprisingly, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, with the unindicted Roethlisberger an also-ran).

Imagine how different the world at large (not just in sports) would look today, Zirin suggests, if Major League Baseball has integrated not just one player, Jackie Robinson, in 1947, but whole team structures already in place in the Negro Leagues, including coaches and administrators. Though traditional accounts remember Robinson as the exceptional athlete who withstood racism in baseball, in the cities where he played, and on his own team, Not Just a Game includes details usually omitted, like Robinson’s decisions to support the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr., to speak out at rallies and on TV, to campaign for Hubert Humphrey. “He wanted to shift the terms of the discussion away from individual achievement to structural barriers to individual achievement,” says Zirin, in ways that anticipated someone like Muhammad Ali.

Ali is the film’s model for an athlete taking conscious political action, and Zirin has been recovering that particular history since his first book, What’s My Name, Fool? Whether denouncing the Vietnam War (and being sentenced to five years in prison in 1967, for evading the draft) or supporting Malcolm X and joining the Nation of Islam, Ali was “willing to sacrifice everything to stand up for what [he believed] in.” This makes him absolutely different from athletes more interested in riches, like Michael Jordan and LeBron, who avoid taking public stands on anything but Nike’s greatness.

Corporations like Nike and Gatorade are part of “sports-media complex” that makes millionaires of some and billionaires of fewer, and leaves fans to function as consumers only. In the U.S., the damage done to teams, sports, and to increasingly disenfranchised devotees extends beyond commercial products to professional sports ownership per se. (See: the NFL owners currently seeking to expand the season to 18 games even as the ludicrous man-up expectations of the game/industry continue to endanger players.)

While the Green Bay Packers are an exemplary—and singular—case of public ownership, the standard organization is class-based. Zirin notes in his recent book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love, that professional sports owners—Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, the Steinbrenners, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling—are increasingly funding stadiums and arenas with public funds, then making private profits at taxpayers’ expense. “We need to insist that by taking our money,” he writes,

They are entering into an unspoken agreement not just with various mayors, governors, or political lackeys eager to lick some sweet salt off the rim, but also the citizens themselves… f our dollars are to be used, we must have some say in the way teams are operated.

Against such a backdrop of banal and moneyed interests, Not Just a Game offers the inspiration of those athletes who have opted to resist orthodoxy, to support individual and community rights, to challenge rules that do damage. Like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, Martina Navratilova, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, John Amaechi, and Scott Fujita have made visible the collision of sports and politics.

Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports


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