The B/R Interview: Dave Zirin
To start the series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Zirin, a writer who has never shied away from exploring the relationships between sports and politics. Zirin, Press Action’s 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the year, has been called “The best young sportswriter in America,” by Robert Lipsyte, author and former New York Times sports columnist.
Zirin’s weekly column is featured on his website edgeofsports.com, and his Edge of Sports radio show airs at 12 noon (EST) on Saturdays, XM Satellite Channel 167. His books include Welcome to the Terrordome, Muhammad Ali Handbook, and What’s My Name, Fool!. In addition, Zirin is a columnist for Nation Magazine, SLAM Magazine, the Progressive, SI.com, and an op-ed writer for the Los Angeles Times. He has also appeared on such television programs as CNBC’s The Big Idea with Donny Deutch, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and C-SPAN’s BookTV. Just recently he was featured on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered.
In his newest book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press), Zirin explores the role sport has played in relation to politics, race, pop culture, and society throughout the history of the United States. Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, said of the book, “Finally, the long-awaited prequel to all the sports books you’ve ever read. Put this first in the line of sports books on your shelf. It will help make sense of all the others.”
Part of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History series, Zirin has been able to effectively demonstrate how influential sports in the United States have been with respect to civil rights, gender equality, and corporate America. This is a must read for any sports fan with an interest in politics, and a book that I wish I had had in high school while I struggled to stay focused in my US History classes.
MT: Hi Dave, thanks for chatting with me today.
MT: I came across your new book, actually my Mom told me about your new book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, after she heard you on National Public Radio (NPR). So naturally, as I always heed the advice of my Mother, I picked up your book and as I began reading I couldn’t help but wish this book had been around when I was in high school, enrolled in American History 101. Your book, through examining the roles sports have played in society, is able to engage the reader on some of the major issues and political events throughout American History. It is really a great read.
DZ: [couple laughs], Thank you very much.
MT: Okay, we’ll come back to the book, but to get things started would you mind going into your background a bit for our readers and how you got into sports writing.
DZ: Sure, I was born and raised in New York City, grew up just an absolute insane sports fan with very little interest in history or politics, but that really did change for me as I went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The thing that made me start thinking about the intersection between politics and sports was the controversy that surrounded Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nuggets player who refused to participate in the National Anthem before games. I heard several commentators compare him to people like Tommie Smith, John Carlos, or Muhammad Ali, saying [Abdul-] Rauf was following in the tradition of these other sports radicals. And that really opened my mind up because I had no idea, even being such a big sports fan, that there was a tradition of these sports radicals; that there were these political athletes and that any tradition between politics and sports even existed. At that point, the seed was planted in my head, which was about 12 years ago, for this book. And I really wanted to find a book that chartered that tradition, but it didn’t exist.
MT: So you were still in college then?
DZ: Yeah, the book didn’t exist that chartered that tradition of politics and sports and so at the time I thought, “Gee wouldn’t it be great if there was a book like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, that talked about sports.” So then I started thinking about the book.
MT: So then you actually hooked up with Zinn because this is part of his New Press A People’s History Series?
DZ: Yeah, its part of his series. Howard Zinn is a big sports fan, and he somehow got a hold of my first book, What’s My Name, Fool!, and offered to do an event with me in Boston, and then that’s how we got to know each other. I mean Howard Zinn has always been such a hero of mine, and every time I talk about my book, I always make the point to quote Howard Zinn who once said that, He doesn’t study history to relive the past, but He does it so that he can change the future. And that’s really why I wrote this book because I think if people want sports to be different, want sports to be more fulfilling, more interesting for the fans, or for the athlete for that matter then I think by learning the history it gives people a sense, a bit of a road map, in which to look forward to change sports.
MT: And I think that’s what has made your writing resonate so strongly with readers as your book chronicles many issues throughout history that are still being seen in sports and society today.
Going along with that, you devote major sections of your book to three of the biggest figures in the history of United States sports in terms of their impact on society: Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan. And your take on each of them is really how they were able to use, or avoid using as in MJ’s case, their athletic platforms to influence politics and society. Can you speak to how you portrayed each of these men in the book?
DZ: Sure, in many ways, they are products of the period in which they emerged. And these people aren’t just these mechanical products of their period; they also played a role in shaping their period. Jackie Robinson emerged at a specific time and place, when there was a belief that, after the defeat of Fascist Germany in WWII, we would see the end of Jim Crow in this country and that racism would be something that would be made irrelevant to the past, and he reflected in a lot of ways those hopes. But then towards the end of his career he reflected a lot of the bitterness that those hopes were unfounded.
And for Muhammad Ali, if it wasn’t for the theater of the 1960s, he may not have gone down in history as Cassius Clay, a great boxer who brought the showmanship of professional wrestling into boxing. He was very much a product of his time and place.
MT: Your work on Muhammad Ali is extensive, with you prior books about him, and an interesting fact you clarify was how the name a person chose to use when referring to Ali demonstrated his or her stance on Civil Rights. By using his former name, Cassius Clay, a person was basically expressing their racist sentiments, where as using his converted Muslim name expressed a progressive attitude in support of the Civil Rights Movement.
DZ: Yeah, that’s where you stood; it’s who you rooted for. I mean sports was political theater in so many ways. And to take it to even another place with Michael Jordan, he was very much a product of the 80s and 90s, where you saw a real chopping down of politics in sports at the expense of trying to market it as a global franchise.
But I don’t want to make it seem like they were all just all plastic products of their time. There were athletes in Jackie Robinson’s time that didn’t have any of his courage, certainly there were athletes in Ali’s time that didn’t expand their social struggles, and there were athletes in Jordan’s time who actually did take a stand. So while all three were very evocative of their time and place, they also showed tremendous amounts of human agency or lack there of in Jordan’s case. Which is why we talk about them frankly, because they all do so sharply reflect these historical moments, they all teach us something about these moments in time.
MT: Your research ranges all the way back to the pre-19th Century perception of sports, to Native Americans playing lacrosse and the clarification of the true origins of baseball during the 19th Century, and continues up through the 20th Century. So it’s clear that you did your homework. Could you discuss how you broke down the time periods in history and how you went about your research and incorporated it into the writing process?
DZ: Well there’s something really interesting to me that, in a broad sense, you have these three very definable periods in American Sports. I think it’s interesting to see how they play off each other. Like the way that in the founding of this country, sports were seen, in the broad sense, as something that at best, as a pastime, and at worst, as a waste of time. It was a reflection of a society that was focused on moving westward and conquering the land, and sports were seen as a waste of time. And I wanted people to really get a sense of the fact that this hasn’t always been a sports-mad country; that there was a time when sports were actually seen as something evil.
Then you move forward into the 19th Century and you enter this period where a distinction begins to be made between good sports and bad sports. And then of course you have this third period today where it’s not about good sports and bad sports, it’s about sports as a global big business, an all-consuming big business.
What’s really gone on in this country is a remarkable journey as sports being seen as something actually bad, to something beneficial, to now really taking the place in the national light to the point which presidential candidates argue over who’s the better hockey-mom. I mean it’s kind of crazy in a way. I mean the economy is going to hell, and on the same day, a couple weeks ago, when the market just imploded, Bush greeted the Boston Celtics at the White House.
MT: Right, I remember that, and that actually relates to something I wanted to ask you about. With the current economic crisis that we are in, how are you seeing the relationship between politics and sports right now? And have you drawn any comparisons to The Great Depression’s impact on sports, which you talk about in your book?
DZ: Hmm, that’s a really good question. I think one of the things about today is that sports is going to have to radically reconstruct the economic model that it has been existing on for the last several decades if it wants to survive this economic crisis. I think that’s just fact.
During the Great Depression people could trade in milk bottles, my Father in the 1940s was one of these people, for a couple coins to go see a baseball game. So the idea of sports being this ready-made escape during very hard times was very real. But now there are some very different times here, and the economy of sports is a big business built on things like personalized seating licenses and publicly funded stadiums. And I don’t see how either of those things will survive this current period. Like I don’t see how people are, first of all, going to be able to afford season tickets, and I certainly don’t see how these municipalities who are running hundreds of millions of dollars in debt are going to be able to justify paying for these publicly funded stadiums.
MT: Now in reading your book it is clear that an incredible amount of research went into producing this book. Could you talk about how you went about your research and how it translated to the actual writing process?
DZ: Well I went about it really with a loose idea of the themes that I wanted to hit, and then it was about trying to find the books that either backs those themes up or that tear them apart. And I tried to do a combination of things by going to some of the history books of sports I really respected like Elliot Gorn’s and Warren Goldstein’s book A Brief History of American Sports, which is terrific, to try and go after some real sources. If you look at the bibliography at the end of the book you’ll see it’s a combination of history books but also a lot of newspapers, a lot of out of print papers, and other direct sources which are invaluable. One of the things with these books that I try and do is use the less known sports press’, such as the African-American and radical papers, which were almost like a Greek chorus during different times in history. I think these sports writers were really the historians who were recording the struggles in real time and were able to provide various perspectives on time period.
MT: Your book also mentions Grantland Rice, who you say was really the first ever sports writer. What other writers did you follow initially, growing up, and as you were starting your career?
DZ: Well for me one of the people was Robert Lipsyte who covered Muhammad Ali for the New York Times, and also Ralph Wiley and Frank Deford. So a lot of the long form Sports Illustrated writers back when they used to do the really long articles. And I think that was really an art that I respected a great deal; someone who could write a 10,000 word article about a specific athlete or a specific moment. Growing up with the old Sports Illustrated, it was really just a gold mine, looking back I don’t think any of us really knew what they were doing, and now that it’s gone I think people realize what we had.
MT: What advice could you give to our members at Bleacher Report, many of whom have goals to be professional sports writers?
DZ: Well, I like passing along the advice that was given to me, which has really served me well. This is more directed towards the newer writers than those who have been doing it a while, but the best advice I ever got, in two words, was “Writers’ write.” And the point of that is to say that it’s very easy for writers to get caught in what they call “analysis paralysis” where you get so caught up in not knowing what to write about that you end up writing nothing. And that can be very harmful for a writer. Being a writer is like being an athlete, it’s a muscle that you have to constantly exercise and hone it or it will get flabby and weak. It’s very important to know that it’s a process, it’s an actual process that every writer has to go through to develop a voice that you can distinguish as your own. I’ve never heard of a writer that was able to establish a unique voice from the second they picked up a pen or opened their laptop. I mean it takes time to develop it. Even if you’re writing about something that you think is crazy or stupid, that’s okay, because the point is the writing not the subject. The writing is actually more important than the subject, particularly for young writers.
MT: That is great; I think that’s terrific advice, which speaks to the fact that it’s not always necessarily what you’re saying, but how you say it.
And last question, what does the C.R.E.A.M. title mean?
DZ: Oh yeah, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” that’s a Wu-Tang Clan song from the mid-90s, I guess I’m kind of dating myself there.
MT: [Laughs] No, not at all, I know Wu-Tang and I think the same can be said for many of our writers, though some of the younger ones may be unfamiliar with them. What’s going on with them? Reunion tour?
DZ: I don’t know man, I mean a couple of them are dead now, I guess I just look old talking about the Wu-Tang Clan. [Laughs]
MT: [Laughs] No way, that wasn’t too long ago, I’m sure there’s still some Wu-Wear in circulation…
Well Dave, it’s been great chatting with you and learning about your new book A People’s History of Sports in the United States and I look forward to listening in to your XM satellite radio show “Edge of Sports” which airs at 12 noon (EST) on Saturdays, Channel 167 as well as reading your weekly column on your website at edgeofsports.com. Thank you Dave.
DZ: Thanks Max.
Guess what B/R Members….
Dave Zirin has joined B/R! You can find links to his weekly column as well as other content on his member page. If you have any questions or comments about his new book or his writing, become his fan and ask him!
Hope you enjoyed the interview and stay tuned for next week’s B/R Interview with Jeff Pearlman, ESPN.com’s Page 2 writer and author of the new book Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty…
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