In his presentation (“Game Over: The Collision of Sports and Politics in the U.S.”) at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, Dave Zirin, who writes about the politics of sports for The Nation magazine, referenced another historian, Howard Zinn, who said: “I study history not because I want to learn more about the past, but because I want to change the future.”
Indeed, it has been Zirin’s mission to chronicle the history of racism and resistance through the lens of sport and to change perceptions along the way. He’s done that as author of eight books, as host of Sirius XM Radio’s weekly show “Edge of Sports Radio,” and as a contributor to many other radio programs and publications.
That said, although Zirin’s view of sports history is often provocative and sometimes distressing, he leavened his Ath presentation with plenty of humor. He said he wanted his talk to connect with hardcore sports fans, casual sports fans, and people who would rather “shave their head with a cheese grater” than hear someone talk about athletics.
“I grew up one of those die-hard sports fans in Brooklyn in the 1980s and ’90s,” he said. “I was a baseball player, the starting center on my high school basketball team — we sucked! We were the Fighting Quakers, which did not exactly strike fear in the hearts of our opponents.”
According to Zirin, his room was a shrine to the sports stars of the day — Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Lawrence Taylor — his heroes, referring to the New York Mets outfielder, Mets first baseman and New York Giants linebacker. “I didn’t know at the time that they all had serious cocaine problems,” he said. “Looking back, my room was, like, the Pablo Escobar All-Stars! It didn’t matter. I loved those guys and I never, ever thought about politics.”
That all changed for Zirin in 1996, when he learned about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, an NBA star who refused to stand while “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games. Abdul-Rauf said that to him, the flag was a symbol of tyranny and oppression, and that standing during the national anthem would conflict with his Islamic beliefs.
“I started doing some digging and learned that there was this whole alternative sports history that had either been buried or its political teeth had been torn out,” Zirin said. “It’s an amazing history of people, very brave athlete-activists, using sports as a kind of window to explain their world to the American public at large. What I started to see was that the history I thought I knew was actually much more complicated than the history as it actually was.”
For example, Zirin said that he thought the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, through his own individual force of will, had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. “What I didn’t know was that in the 1930s, there was a whole movement to integrate Major League Baseball that was led by the Communist Party in this country,” he said. “They saw integration in baseball as a political imperative.
“I found out that there was this guy named Lester Rodney, who was the sports editor of their newspaper, the Daily Worker,” Zirin continued. “He would use their sports page as a place to actually build movements to integrate the game in all sorts of fascinating and interesting ways, like when the Yankees would have open tryouts which, of course, were segregated. Rodney would organize black ballplayers to show up for the tryouts and dare the Yankees to not give them a chance.”
Zirin learned these stories by going to the source — Rodney — and interviewing him for hours. “He was 94 years old, sharp as a tack, living outside of Oakland,” Zirin said. “He asked me why I cared about all this stuff. I told him I think his stories represented an alternative history of how the game was truly integrated, that it was a collective mass effort, not the effort of one special human being. And I want to go around the country and tell his stories. Lester looked at me and said, ‘Ah, to be 80 again!’ ”
For his part, Jackie Robinson was a barnstorming speaker for civil rights, and, according to NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference records, was everyone’s first choice to be a speaker. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came in a distant second.
“If you look at the records, you see that Jackie Robinson was the most requested speaker in the South to rally the troops and keep the civil rights struggle going,” Zirin said. “That esteem was shared by Dr. King, who defended Jackie, saying he was a freedom rider before freedom rides; he was a sit-inner before sit-ins, and he deserves every right to speak his mind. Dr. King got it in a way that people to this day still don’t.”
Zirin also spoke about boxer Muhammad Ali’s courageous anti-war stance in the 1960s. “He was an incredibly hated and dangerous figure at the time,” Zirin said, “and he represents the absolute apex of what we’re talking about: Someone who had one foot in the black freedom struggle and the other foot in the anti-war movement at a time when both of those movements were in their absolute infancy.”
According to Zirin, both the white and black media hated Ali. “It was the power of Ali, the fact that he stood tall and resisted despite enormous pressure, even when they took away his heavyweight title in 1967 and held it for five years,” Zirin said. “It was one of the things that made him a legend and inspired people in a way that I think has been utterly written out of the history books.”
Zirin said that King even referenced Ali before he made his pivotal “Riverside Church Speech,” in which he came out against the war in Vietnam. When asked by reporters why he was coming out against the war and not just sticking to civil rights issues, King quoted Ali, who had said: “All these things are connected.”
“Even [the late South African President] Nelson Mandela, during his imprisonment, said that when Ali fought, it was like breaking down the wall of his prison and making him feel that much closer to freedom,” Zirin said.
Increasingly, in this modern era, athletes have been conferred with enormous power.
“Serena Williams — and I’ll defend this — is the Muhammad Ali of our time,” Zirin said. “She’s an utterly transcendent athlete who is using her platform to make a serious difference.”
Zirin explained that Williams, a highly decorated African-American professional tennis player, tied her return to the Indian Wells Tournament, which she and her sister Venus had boycotted for years, to a lottery system in which people paid for the chance to sit in her box.
“And all the money went to the Equal Justice Initiative, which is an organization that aims to fight mass incarceration,” Zirin said. “She combined her own personal redemption story with making sure accused people have lawyers and justice. And what’s so amazing about that is that it connects so strongly back to the story of Jackie Robinson, who always said he didn’t care that he had ‘made it.’ He wanted all his people to 'make it.’ ”
Zirin’s Athenaeum talk was co-sponsored by the Personal and Social Responsibility Initiative, CMS Athletics, and the Center for Writing and Public Discourse.