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August 6, 2007

A Thought-Provoking Stretch: Barry Bonds, Michael Vick Victims of Racism?


Between Barry Bonds’s steroid-fueled home run record chase, Michael Vick’s indictment on dog fighting charges, the NBA referee gambling scandal and numerous other stories, sports has been making off-the-field news like never before. A provocative new book takes a look at many of sports’ off-the-field issues and comes to some very surprising conclusions.


Sportswriter Dave Zirin is the author of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which takes its title from the Public Enemy song of the same name (Chuck D himself contributes a forward.) In it, Zirin, a contributor to the Nation, International Socialist Review and his own website, gives his takes on politics, economics and race and how they interact with today’s sports world.


An heir to the socialist sports writers who looked at the game from a “socially conscious” point of view in the ‘40s and ‘50s (such as Lester Rodney, who blurbed the book), Zirin makes lots of interesting points that are not typically raised in the often homogenous sports pages of America. But throughout the book, the author overreaches in a big way, presenting an overly cynical and simplistic look at the modern-day intersections of politics and sports.


In Zirin’s view, owners, commissioners, governing bodies and national governments (of the U.S. and its allies, that is) can do no right, whereas athletes can do virtually no wrong. And on top of that, according to the author, every scandal and sports-related social problem of the past 30 years can be explained away by racism, and only racism.


Zirin’s arguments function to give a halo to athletes that is thoroughly undeserved, which result in his making excuses for all sorts of appalling behavior by players – from drug use to crime to on-field violence. To Zirin, every bad act by an athlete – from Bonds’s steroid use to Zidane’s head butt – must have had a hidden, justifying, race-related political subtext, as though Barry Bonds were some sort of Che Guevara figure, hitting home runs for the working people of the world.


In a piece published on Z magazine’s web site July 21, Zirin applied the same logic to the Vick dog fighting case. Sure, what Vick’s accused of is pretty bad, but hey, all of the criticism of him is motivated by pure racism by fans and media, and that’s the real story.


In fact, just about the only negative thing Zirin has to say about any athlete is that they’re not being politically active enough. Lance Armstrong, for instance, gets slammed because he once rode bikes with President Bush in Crawford, but failed to take a similar meeting with Cindy Sheehan. This despite the years of campaigning and large sums of money Armstrong has raised for cancer research.


I can see Zirin’s temptation to take the traditional leftist posture of defending labor against management, and taking the side of the less-rich against the more-rich. But in the case of sports, the “huddled masses” of the players’ ranks make millions upon millions of dollars to play a game. They also have the rights to free agency, as well as trade demands that are usually granted. All while being represented, in baseball’s case, by what is probably the strongest union in the United States. To compare them, as Zirin does, to “slaves” is nothing but absurd.


Zirin is right on about several things in the book, especially his correct slamming of the Olympics as a corrupt, graft-plagued scam that has left multiple cities in financial ruin. He also rightfully slams the government’s treatment of virtually every aspect of Pat Tillman’s death. It’s also hard to disagree with anything he has to say about Hurricane Katrina.


And yes, there is indeed still some racism in sports – at a time when many teams segregate themselves by race, and casual racist comments by fans are not quite rare. But it’s wrong for Zirin to downplay the progress sports leagues have made in recent years, especially the dramatic rise in hiring of black coaches in the NFL and NBA. Also, Boston and Philadelphia, the two cities most resistant to baseball’s integration, both held moving ceremonies this spring for Jackie Robinson Day.


Once again, in a time when every city is full of middle-aged white male sportswriters who spout the same conventional wisdom concerning just about everything, it’s refreshing to read takes on sports that are so radically different from the usual. It’s hard to agree with much of what Dave Zirin writes, but his book is fascinating and provocative nonetheless.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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