Discussed here: What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the U.S. by Dave Zirin
When it comes to the sports world, my own love of a good game moves in two main directions — if you’ve been reading this column regularly, you’ll be well aware that auto racing, NASCAR in particular, happens to be one of these directions. I oftentimes ignore the jingoistic, status-quo enforcing nature of the flyovers, prayers, and national anthem that inevitably accompany the beginning of each race. Likewise the fact that the army and national guard both sponsor top cars in the premiere Nextel Cup series, making NASCAR the vanguard among pro sports for giving succor to the extreme nationalists’ agenda.
But it’s not by any means alone in this arena, as Dave Zirin of EdgeofSports.com points out continually in his weekly column on sports and activism (do remember, for instance, that ESPN’s SportsCenter was not so long ago temporarily broadcast from an army-constructed news desk in Kuwait). A number of Zirin’s columns were recently collected in What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the U.S., out now from Chicago’s Haymarket Books. Zirin’s got a keen eye for injustice and is a fount of knowledge of the history of sports activism. The first half of the book reads as an insider’s view, from a lengthy Q&A with the 1930s author of the Communist Daily Worker‘s sports column, Lester Rodney, to Rodney’s own involvement in the integration of baseball and the championing of Jackie Robinson as a working-class hero. This first half then takes us up through the 50s and into the 60s radicalization of many black athletes, Muhammad Ali (from whom the book’s title of course comes) playing a starring role. George Foreman, the later celebrity salesman of “diet” meat cookers, is interviewed re his part in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the same event at which U.S. team track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze winners in the 200-meter dash, raised their black-gloved fists as the “Star Spangled Banner” played as they accepted their awards, a symbolic defiance to a racially unjust America. George Foreman stood apart from these young activist athletes at that year’s Olympics — after winning the gold medal in boxing he waved a miniature American flag while receiving his award. While in his Q&A with Foreman Zirin doesn’t necessarily get all the way to the moral dilemma inherent in the former heavyweight champion’s stand apart from his fellow Olympians, the segment highlights the central question in the book: what responsibility do athletes and their fans have to their larger society, considering the money-driven nature of their professions?
The answer is certainly up for grabs, and Foreman — with his destitute origins, subsequent monetary success, and quiet nature when it comes to activist issues — illustrates its big contradictions starkly. Answering the question “If you had to do it all over, would you still wave the flag?” he says, “…I’d wave three flags! I feel that I had been rescued from the gutter by America. One day I was under the gutter, chased by police, thinking dogs were going to get to me. I laid there listening to the dogs in the gutter. The next day there I am standing on the Olympic platform and you hear the anthem. I was proud. Thanks to the Job Corps, I had a chance. I had three meals a day and a chance. LBJ started this war on poverty from 1964 and that’s why I would wave three flags….” Zirin later concludes, “In America, Foreman sees a terrific system because he made it out of the gutter. He believes that if he could do it, anyone can.” But, as Zirin points out, Foreman does not go the extra distance in his thinking to conclude that “a system that produces gutters needs to be restructured.” The hallmark of the progress-oriented thinker, of course. A progressive relief program helped pull Foreman out of poverty, but what about the fact that that program no longer exists and other tutoring and job-training programs have been slashed by the current administration. And never before in my lifetime has the stark inequality in our country been more evident, with the tens of thousands of New Orleans poor left behind in the flood due to a lack of resources, first and foremost. Zirin suggests George Foreman realized the key to success in our society, the ability to sell yourself; but, Zirin asks, what about those who choose not to be commodities?
Thus goes the fourth big section of What’s My Name, ending the largest overall and most successfully told arc of history here. What follows is a rather hodge-podge selection of columns. Not to say they’re not interesting on their own. There’s the story of Reggie White, the defensive tackle whose hometown church was torched by “southern justice” white supremacists. White came full-on at the societal and bureaucratic legacies in the South that allowed this sort of thing to go on, but then a few years afterward he was shilling for the Christian right against homosexuals. There’s the very recent story of NBA power forward Etan Thomas, whose involvement in the D.C. poetry slam scene and opposition to the war in Iraq has put him at odds with the moneyed culture of the nation’s premiere basketball league. Zirin’s prose is at once intellectually incisive and belly-laugh hilarious. About Rush Limbaugh declining to respond to his critics on ESPN after the media firestorm over his Donovan McNabb comments (Rush suggested the media were too kind to McNabb because he was a “black quarterback”), Zirin writes, “I don’t want to say Rush is a coward, but he would sooner sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in a pink thong than debate outside the friendly confederate confines of right-wing talk radio.” And again, toward the bottom of the page, there’s the pesky churchman Pat Robinson clouding things up for his congregants, decrying media preference for minorities.
The second of my favorite sporting avenues happens to be college football, and with this institution Zirin holds absolutely no quarter: “…the NCAA, a.k.a. plantation masters of unpaid athletes, will slam down their mint juleps and challenge you to a duel if you imply that they are anything but pure.” To illustrate the priorities of universities with big football programs, Zirin points out that most of them don’t even graduate half of their players. All it would take to change the situation is the NFL funding a stateside minor league; but with free farm teams already set up, and with the money rolling in for both the networks and the universities, where’s the incentive? Players should stand up and shout. And though there’s electricity and boundless beauty in a truly great football game, I’ll watch the glorious (heh…) Georgia Bulldogs this year through a new lens.
As for my first love, Zirin makes no mention of the gladiators of NASCAR in the pages of What’s My Name; but his column has talked about it over the years. Reading an August USA Today story about Bill Lester, an African-American driver in the Craftsman Truck Series, essentially a minor league to NASCAR’s premiere Nextel Cup series, I was at first heartened to hear that the 44-year-old former HP executive may be taking a turn in the premiere series. Currently, the series does not have a single active black driver (no women, either). But as I read on I realized that NASCAR’s past has seen scores of different black drivers, particularly in the 60s and 70s, and I was reminded of another of Zirin’s points, the declining numbers of black athletes in Major League Baseball. Both auto racing and baseball require money to play in youth, and Zirin argues in a recent column (“Fade to Black,” not in the book) that the decline in numbers simply underscores, again, the extreme inequity between the races in this country compounded over thirty years by the policies of mostly Republican “small government” tax cuts for the rich and cuts to aid programs. Zirin writes, “As longtime Major Leaguer Royce Clayton said, ‘Many black families can’t afford for their children to play the sport, which requires the purchase of gloves, balls, bats and other equipment as well as money to maintain playing fields.’ A low-priced set of baseball gear — a bat, a ball, some spiked shoes, glove – costs about $75, while a $20 basketball or football can serve 10 or more players. Then there is city upkeep of fields and leagues. In Washington DC, where I live, the public baseball diamonds are nobody’s idea of a Field of Dreams. More likely, it’s swamped in broken glass and neglect, with kitten-sized rats waddling around the bases, always heading for home. Baseball’s owners could have stepped in at any point in the last 30 years, as budget cuts slashed our cities, and made modest private investments in youth programs and upkeep. But they didn’t because MLB was growing fat on the influx of ‘cost effective’ players from Latin America. Major League Baseball has spent the last two decades setting up ‘baseball factories’ across the Caribbean where they can sign players as young as 16 for as little as $10,000.” In a society whose economic system and government seem to encourage the solidifying of stratified levels, whose poorest denizens can’t even afford a baseball glove anymore, how the hell are they going to buy a car to practice on? As the top ten percent of our society increases its stranglehold on the majority of our country’s resources, financial and otherwise, what’s the socially conscious sports fan to do? I’d say, as I believe Zirin would, keep the contradictions always in your face, at the front of your thinking.
The man’s a refreshing voice in sports journalism. If nothing else, pay attention to his column. You can email him to get it in your email weekly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.EdgeofSports.com.