August 6, 2007
Stretch: Barry Bonds, Michael Vick Victims of Racism?
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.
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 EdgeofSports.com,
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.
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
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