Dave Zirin: A Sportswriter with Real Punch

The last time I saw Dave Zirin, his patience was being tested. At a reading to promote his previous book, What’s My Name Fool?, he was confronted by the dogged specter of a four-year-old girl, who insisted on singing and twirling around in front of the podium as he struggled on with his talk. Unrestrained by her mother — who apparently felt that a) the serious discussion of sports and society would provide ample entertainment for her young one, or b) if not, the rest of the world would happily grin and bear her child’s distracting exhibition — the little girl could have been forgivable cause for Zirin to call for security. Instead, he bore an enthusiastic smile, fielding questions and pausing periodically to try to placate the bored toddler who threatened to upstage him.

As this odd scene developed, I was struck by the ways in which it neatly paralleled Zirin’s work as a sports writer in today’s media. As one of the most vocal members of a paltry minority who seek to attend to the social context of sports in our time, Zirin’s voice is continually drowned out by the childish twirling and babbling of mainstream writers and commentators, who would treat sports as a mere series of games, rather than exert any effort in thinking seriously about them. This is not to deny that sports, ultimately, are in essence extra-curricular exercises. However, as Zirin notes in his latest release, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, “we 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.” As such, attention must be paid, and Zirin is a good choice for the job.

His latest book is part of a series of publications that take their thematic cue from Howard Zinn’s original, A People’s History of the United States. Other books have focused on a variety subjects, such as the American Civil War, the US Supreme Court, and the Vietnam War. When it comes to the topic of sports, however, few writers are as able to take up the challenge asserted by Zinn’s foundational text like Zirin. Long a proponent of considering the social filters through which we understand sports, Zirin has championed the role of the marginalized in athletic endeavors — in columns, books, and commentary — in much the same way that Zinn has championed the voiceless of American history in his own work.

The result of Zirin’s addition to this series is an important, if somewhat formulaic, document of the oft-neglected sociology of American sports history. As one reads through his discussions of the various historical eras of American sports (divvied into predictable chapters that range from colonial times up through modern day), a frustrating contrast emerges: between the thoughtfulness of Zirin’s perceptive contextualizing, and the insipid, cliché-ridden drivel that constitutes the majority of today’s mainstream, “boo-yah” sports reporting. (For countless examples of the latter, simply browse through the commentary offered up by ESPN, Fox Sports, or Sports Illustrated columnists. A random search while writing this produced a story by Rick Reilly about four golfers who foiled a robbery suspect that was wearing underwear on his head.)

That’s not to say that Zirin’s book is breaking entirely new ground. Parts of A People’s History of Sports, admittedly, are forced to revisit well-worn case studies such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King. The importance of these and other athletes as icons of progress with respect to ideas of race, religion, and gender have all already occasioned numerous books of their own. However, Zirin can be forgiven for revisiting the familiar, because, in the same work, he brings to light an equal number of athletes whose stories and struggles have been lamentably overlooked.

For instance, Zirin relates the saga of Moses Fleetwood Walker, the black son of an Ohio doctor who, in 1887, played professional baseball in the face of threatened mob violence. At one point, Walker was forced to brandish a pistol in order to defend himself against an angry crowd of bigots. He was promptly arrested for doing so, but steadfastly returned to the lineup the next day after being released. Another figure Zirin sketches is Lester “Red” Rodney, the sportswriter for the communist paper Daily Worker who, from 1936-1958, championed the cause of racial integration in sports in columns that, rather than berate readers for following sports as a distraction from their social reality, sought to use sports as an arena to further the progressive cause for social justice. In a more recent turn, Zirin details the conscience of Marco Lokar, an Italian point guard for Seton Hall, who refused to wear an American flag on his uniform during the first Persian Gulf War — and suffered (along with his pregnant wife) death threats as a result.

The point of these individual renderings for Zirin is to illustrate the ways in which sports have been both a venue for resistance, an opportunity for progress, and a vehicle for personal idealism. Though to many, sports is merely an excuse to sell pick-ups and lite beer, Zirin’s history underscores their significance to those disenfranchised Americans who saw athletics as a means to stake a claim to national subjectivity. The 1982 Gay Olympics in San Francisco is just one of many historically unheralded examples that Zirin includes in this study which, nevertheless, drives home the continuing significance of sports as an aspect of culture that is intimately connected with the roiling social currents of the day.

Perhaps the most compelling, of the many compelling discussions Zirin includes in the book, involves his reading of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” — the now-iconic victory of the US Olympic hockey team over the favored Soviet Union. “The victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinals,” writes Zirin “was particularly wrapped in Cold War regalia.” He then goes on to connect the ascendancy of Reagan with the anti-’60s and ’70s backlash that rolled back workers’ rights and gave rise to a new wealthy elite in the ensuing decade. Other, lesser, writers would remember the same historic victory for announcer Al Michaels’ call: “Do you believe in miracles?!” Worse still, many would, and have, come to see the improbable victory as symbolic of a national ethos of the underdog (despite its globally unsurpassed military budget) overcoming an “evil empire”.

But such a reading as Zirin’s underscores his importance and dire relevance to the field of sports journalism. For A People’s History of Sports is a book that actually says something about remarkable athletes that actually had something to say. Modern sports fans may find such a scenario hard to believe, given the vast and unmitigated wasteland that is today’s sports’ intellectual climate. Athletes — for fear of offending potential sponsors or of being castigated by fans and the media – speak now purely in clichés, communicating increasingly through quips that are as predictable as they are meaningless. By some unknown osmosis, this vapidity has come to infect the journalists themselves, who in turn become preoccupied with crafting meaningless catch-phrases, painfully pointless columns, or schmaltzy and unrevealing human interest stories that would look to pass off melodramatic fluff as “real life” insight.

Now, more than ever, sports journalism is in need of writers like Zirin. As sports writing undergoes a slow, but steady, de-evolution (shorter, dumber sentences giving way to bigger, splashier, more gratuitous graphics), it would seem that fewer and fewer are capable of saying anything smart or meaningful at all about the games that so many of us watch and play. A People’s History of Sports in the United States, then, is a significant accomplishment by a writer who seems capable of moving beyond the knee-jerk lauding of tough players or the castigation of spoiled wide receivers. And it’s a good thing, too. Zirin’s voice is one sorely needed in helping us to fully appreciate a multibillion dollar part of our culture that few seem to have a mind, or inclination, to do.