The Political Arena 

Lefty sportswriter Dave Zirin argues for sports as a force for social change.

What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States

Dave Zirin

(Haymarket Books)

In the partisan dung fight that is the culture war, the left too often smears bellowing sports fans with the same shovel it uses to bury shrieking war boosters. It's an easy elision--too easy, according to sportswriter Dave Zirin. In his first book, What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, a collection of columns previously published in outlets from Basketball.com and SportsFan magazine to the tiny Prince George's Post (where he's the news editor) and his Web site, edgeofsports.com, Zirin tackles the assumption that all jocks are mindless jingoists. Written with a gleeful ear, the book intertwines the history of the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements from the Depression to the present with biographies of sports figures who've leveraged their fame for political impact.

Though the sports arena is often used to stage morality plays shoring up the status quo--no other country in the world kicks off every game with the national anthem, Zirin says--he believes it once was a ring where the establishment was challenged and can be again.

Makes sense to me. When the Green Bay Packers take on the Dallas Cowboys, for example, I can't help but see a symbolic battle between good and evil. On one side there's the last real hometown team in the NFL, a crew of working stiffs whose stock is still owned mostly by locals and doesn't pay dividends; on the other, megarich Texas owner Jerry Jones and his Astroturf-chewing pawns.

Zirin engages the Packers legend in a section that mourns the untimely death of a Packer hero, defensive end Reggie White. For the 1996 season, White turned down a lucrative deal with Dallas to play for a franchise he admired and with guys he respected, like QB Brett Favre. Then he led the Packers to Super Bowl glory.

But Zirin also takes a close look at the moldy underside of the Reggie White myth. When White's mainly black evangelical church in Tennessee was burned to the ground in '96, the "Minister of Defense" took a bold stance against racist hate, speaking out forcefully against the white supremacist groups responsible. Then, empowered, he seized a chance to speak before the Wisconsin state legislature--and spewed racist, homophobic, Bible-thumping venom. Before dying last year at the age of 43, he'd become a spokesman for the Christian right.

Zirin doesn't vilify him. "I will miss Reggie White," he says. "I will miss seeing if there may have been another chapter in his life down the road, where he would have devoted body and soul to standing against the moneyed bigots of this country, instead of alongside them."

This hopeful, unjaded tone buoys most of the text. In his introduction Zirin politely takes down Noam Chomsky for his facile dismissal of sports as mere bread and circuses, declaring that "we need to look at sports for what they are, so we can take apart the disgusting, the beautiful, the ridiculous, and even the radical." Chapter one dives into history with a biography of 94-year-old Lester "Red" Rodney, who as sports editor of the communist Daily Worker during the 30s turned the party organ's sports page into a forum for investigative journalism that pushed to end the ban on black players in major league baseball.

Zirin goes on to reexamine the legend of Jackie Robinson, who was the first black player in the big leagues but was later shunned by the Nation of Islam as an establishment patsy. He argues that Muhammad Ali's antiwar stance during Vietnam was a force in turning the tide of public opinion against the war, and he interviews members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, most notably John Carlos, who with gold medalist Tommie Smith shocked the world by raising the black power salute on the victory stand.

These bios are dry by Zirin's standards, and some of his questions to the 60s icons are softballs. (To Carlos: "Many people say that athletes should just play and not be heard. What do you think about that?") But his interview with George Foreman--who spent his own turn on the '68 Olympic dais waving a little American flag--is more interesting. Unfortunately, when Foreman makes the astonishing statement that only black athletes who were "college guys" were approached by organizers of the ultimately unsuccessful African-American boycott of the games, Zirin does nothing to refute or corroborate the story--by, say, asking Carlos for his take, or asking Foreman what the hell he's talking about--and the resulting essay is the closest thing in the book to leftist boilerplate.

Still, Zirin's close attention to history sharpens the reader's appetite for more. Much of the rest of What's My Name, Fool? is dedicated to recent events, which are dissected by a driving, inspired voice that gets funnier as it gets angrier. "In the Shadow of Ali: Sports, War, and Resistance Today" highlights the antiwar activities of Danielle Green, a college basketball star once profiled in the Reader who lost her left hand in Iraq, as well as the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player turned army ranger who became a media hero after he was killed in Afghanistan--a PR coup so important to the military that the Pentagon suppressed the inconvenient fact that he had been felled by friendly fire. Throughout, Zirin hammers his point home: sports fans don't all buy into the jingoistic hoopla that often threatens to smother play-by-play coverage. In one of my favorite subchapters, "Are We Ready for Some Football?," Zirin gives peace-loving fans a name we can be proud of: "radical helmet-huggers."

In "Sports, Racism, and the Modern Athlete," Zirin contrasts the taunts and insults that dogged players of color in the 60s with subtler slams against contemporary players who are "too arrogant" or "too hip-hop"--in other words, "too black." He takes guilty pleasure in cheap (if accurate) shots, landing one on Rush Limbaugh, who got kicked off ESPN for saying that Eagles QB Donovan McNabb was "overrated" because the media was desperate to see a black quarterback do well, and then rejected the opportunity to explain himself on air. Snickers Zirin: "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 confines of right-wing talk radio."

By the third quarter, unfortunately, the book starts to drag. The historical background in the chapter on women in sports, for instance, would have hit harder had it been interwoven with the civil rights history laid out early on. And the inspiring final chapter on recent acts of rebellion would have been stronger had it wrapped up with some analysis rather than another Q & A. But I'm glad he got this stuff on the streets just as oil prices deliver a right hook to tailgaters' pocketbooks and our commander in chief's approval ratings are worse than the Milwaukee Brewers'. Zirin offers no miracle cure for the queasiness induced by starred-and-barred Super Bowl commercials, but he provides hope that if we tap into the legacy of rebels like Ali and Carlos and Billie Jean King we can "build a broader movement for social justice outside the arena" and turn our ball fields into staging grounds for the forces of sanity.

Dave Zirin

When: Thu 9/8, 7 PM

Where: 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th

Info: 773-684-1300, semcoop.com

When: Fri 9/9, 7:30 PM

Where: Left of Center Bookstore, 1043 W. Granville

Info: 773-338-1513, leftofcenterbookstore.com

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