Resistance Radio: David Zirin on Sports and Politics

Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s March 2, 2014 Resistance Radio interview with David Zirin. Zirin writes about the politics of sports for The Nation and many other magazines and newspapers. He is the author or co-author of six books, including What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, and Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.

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Derrick Jensen: How did you find your niche?

Dave Zirin: I grew up a very serious, intense, over-enthused sports fan in New York City in the 1980s. It was a pretty high octane sports time and not just because all of the players were doing cocaine. I didn’t think about politics a great deal during my upbringing, but that changed deal in the 1990s as I was coming of age. I made a real effort to try to find a way to justify or rectify the fact that I wanted to be someone who devoted his life to fighting for social change and I wanted to maintain my sports fandom.

Dave Zirin

The more I looked at sports, the more difficult it was to do. The more you actually look beneath the surface, beneath the adrenaline packed plays, the more you see the rampant nationalism, the insane sexism, the homophobia. If you believe in social justice, sports does not seem like the friendliest place to be. But that perspective really changed for me in 1996 when a basketball player named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took the position of not coming out for the national anthem before games. Today if that happened it would be a huge story for 24 hours and then we would go on to something else. But in 1996 this was a huge sports story, big profiles about it, and Rauf was eventually drummed out of the league. I’ll never forget one of the talking heads on ESPN saying that Rauf must see himself in the tradition of activist athletes like Muhammed Ali or Billie Jean King.

I was a huge sports fan and I was not aware that there was this alternative tradition in sports of people who tried to use this hyper-exulted, brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to actually say something about the world. And the more I investigated that the more I started to be fascinated by the fact that so much of this history was hidden from people like myself who were more mainstream sports fans. The second thing that fascinated me was I was seeing parallels to today. I was seeing all the things that a lot of the athletes, then, were talking about—that these struggles were ongoing. That’s really what inspired me to write about it, and it’s definitely not always easy—to put it mildly—because it’s not the friendliest of communities for these kinds of ideas. But, at the same time, the only reason I have a career is that there are a lot of Derrick Jensens out there. People who maybe like sports but hate the practice of viewership because it is so steeped in a right-wing draw and there’s an under-served audience of people who love sports but really don’t like what they’ve become and appreciate a kind of alternative analysis.

DJ: I’ve been a sports fan forever. But, it breaks my heart that they are considered so apolitical. Of course, nothing is apolitical. If something pretends to be apolitical, that supports the status quo.

Derrick Jensen

The Florida State Seminoles and the BCS bowl championship brings together so much of the sexism, the racism against indigenous peoples, and the corporate welfare that characterize so much of the big-money sports.

DZ: Sure, and don’t forget that Jameis Winston, the star quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner of Florida State, had just been cleared of accusations of rape. I’m not going to comment on his innocence or lack thereof. But the investigation itself stunk to high heaven, in terms of how much the local Tallahassee police actually were looking into it. The mentalities that Florida State fans showed towards the young woman for daring to come forward and say that she was sexually assaulted really was a head-spinner. I was getting these really creepy emails from people in Florida State who were, first of all, naming her and encouraging me to out her, which is a journalistic practice I disagree with profoundly. Secondly, they were saying “you should know the real story about her”—what I believe is called “slut-shaming”—talking about her sexual past, and who knows if any of that was true or not? They were actively courting a sports writer, and I wasn’t the only one. There’s a scary culture around sports.

DJ: You mentioned in a recent article that one of the lessons to learn from that whole incident that it’s better to be him than Trayvon Martin in Florida.

DZ: I wrote a piece about that because this country has an unbelievably horrific history of black men accused of rape, particularly in the American South. We can remember Malcolm X’s phrase, “The American South begins at the Canadian border.” But we all know that was a feature of Jim Crow—“hang first, ask questions later,” and famous cases like Emmit Till, a black kid killed for supposedly whistling at a white woman, and the Scottsboro Boys.

Of course, there are so many other times where lynchings took place against black men who were accused of rape. It says a lot about 21st century America that here’s Jameis Winston, accused of rape, and because he’s a football star, the old boy network in Tallahassee rushes to defend him. Tallahassee is not southern Florida—it’s not where my mom grew up, which was with Cubans and Jews. Tallahassee is the old south, and its defense of Winston says something about football culture in the south, and the bizarre effect it has on race and racism there.

Image Credit: Michael Nelson/Epa/REX/Shutterstock (7935715k)

Trayvon Martin was not an athletic star. He was just a kid trying to get home during halftime of the NBA all-star game and you saw the way his death was dealt with in the south and in the power structure, particularly among the police. I’m talking the difference between the sheriff where Trayvon Martin was killed, his not wanting to do anything about that, and the situation in Tallahassee where the local police force are actually telling the woman you don’t want to mess with this player on the Seminoles because that’s serious business right there.

DJ: We can also see the same dynamic in place in Steubenville.

DZ: Maryville, as well. Torrington, Connecticut. The number of cases involving sexual assault by athletes—the only reason we can reference them right now is because of social media and the work of groups like Anonymous who’ve tried to bring them to light. This is ongoing. Is something inherent in jock culture that produces rape culture? And if there is, then how do we combat it?

One of the most hopeful interviews about this subject that I did was with a woman named Katie Hnida. She was a field goal kicker, the first woman to ever score a point in a Division 1 NCAA football game. Katie Hnida’s story is rather horrific. She was going to play for the Colorado Buffaloes—big time NCAA football. She was raped by her teammates, quit the team, and went through every horror story you can imagine for a young woman who accuses someone of rape—let alone football players of rape. She played for New Mexico after that, so she didn’t give up football despite what had happened. And she had an incredibly positive experience on the New Mexico football team. I had a long interview with her where we compared and contrasted those experiences, so we could really try to get at what it is about football in particular, but jock culture in general, that produces rape culture? Can it be isolated? And, frankly, can it be destroyed?

Katie Hnida, an American football player who became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A game, college football’s highest level, as as placekicker for the University of New Mexico Lobos on August 30, 2003.

DJ: What were your and her conclusions?

DZ: That jock culture left unattended becomes rape culture. You have to have people in positions of authority. Partly because of the mentality of football. It’s not grass roots, it’s very militaristic, very top-down, and it’s the people at the top that usually determine what the locker room culture is going to be. That means coaches, head coaches, athletic directors. At the pro ranks it means general managers and team presidents. They create the locker room culture, and unless you have people in authority actively intervening to make it something less toxic, then this is the fruit it will bear.

DJ: That reminds me of some of the stuff I’ve read about the relationship of military culture to rape culture.

A military is going to be at risk for being a high rape culture anyway, but there are some militaries that have had zero tolerance policies for sexual assault that have had much lower rates of rape amongst the soldiers.

DZ: A genetic cousin of rape culture is bullying culture, which we saw in the Miami Dolphins locker room this year with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Incognito bullied his teammate Martin to the point that Martin left the team. Incognito was suspended, and it imposed this discussion on the NFL of how you define “manliness.” Is Richie Incognito the real man because he’s the guy who’s going to beat up anybody who doesn’t do it his way? Or is Martin not the real man, but the real adult because he’s saying, “Wait a minute this isn’t a school yard, this is a workplace, this is a union workplace, and I’m going to stand up for my rights and actually blow the whistle on this thing?” Who do you actually respect more in that context? It’s a question a lot of NFL players had to confront.

What’s the connection between what we were just talking about with rape culture? The main one is that none of that nonsense in the Miami Dolphins locker room would have happened without the tacit, implicit, or explicit okay of the head coaches themselves. They’re the people who create the culture in the locker room. And that culture’s either productive or helpful, or not. A lot of NFL coaches talked about how they dealt with bully culture. There was a real variance. Some coaches had real philosophies about how to actively intervene in bully culture. Wouldn’t it be great if coaches could talk as openly and as publicly about how they deal or don’t deal with rape culture? They’re very similar dynamics. Groupthink, testosterone, a kind of mob mentality, not wanting to be the person who is singled out—all of these things are similar ingredients in both cultures.

When I say rape culture, when I say bully culture, it’s not that everybody who plays sports is a potential rapist or a potential bully. The question of culture is, to me, much more about turning the other way. So you see a potential rape at a party or you see a bullying situation and you don’t say anything. You’re silent in the face of that. That’s what it means by rape culture or bully culture.

Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem before an N.F.L. game.

DJ: And we can say, of course, the same thing about sports writers or writers in general when they attend to it or don’t attend to it.

DZ: That’s absolutely correct. That’s one of the things that’s been difficult at times. Anyone who works at a workplace, whether you’re a professor at a university, or a teacher at a public high school like my wife, or at a hotel like my cousin, wants to feel like they have colleagues. Everybody wants to feel like they have the system’s support for the work that they do. It is difficult to do, sometimes, this kind of writing and sports investigative journalism because there are people who would rather you just shut up. You’re the turd in the punch bowl. That’s sometimes difficult, but it’s not as difficult, obviously, as the people who are actually victimized by rape and bullying. I think it’s very minor compared to that. But this is about fighting cultures. It’s not some kind of level playing field where the people with the best ideas win out. It’s much more complicated than that.

DJ: I think everything you’re saying is really great. It reminds me of this study I saw where they had a bunch of people in a waiting room with two people who were in on the test. One would say something overtly racist or overtly sexist to the group. What they found was that the response of the group as a whole was not so dependent upon what the first person said as it was on the response of the other person in on the test who would say, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” Then, everyone would look on the statement more approvingly. But if the second person said, “Wow, that’s a terrible thing to say”—expressing disapproval—it gave the other people in the room courage.

I say this in terms of the mob mentality and also what you were saying about the coaches helping to create a culture. If the coach sees it and shuts it down, it’s not going to be reinforced.

DZ: I think that’s absolutely correct. I’ve played on a number of teams over the years and I’ve only had this experience once. The best case scenario would be if the players themselves determined the culture in the locker room. If you have real leadership among people, among good people who attempt to create an atmosphere of respect, you can actually create something that’s positive, there. That’s something that can exist independent of the coach. Unfortunately, though, because hierarchy is so set in sports, that’s a very difficult thing to create organically. In my situation, it only happened because we had all played together on previous teams and then a new coach came in and that new coach was sensitive and smart enough to let us dictate how things went. He would only step in when he felt things going astray. This was basketball, where teamwork and trust is very important. Those are lessons I’ve taken with me my entire life. Most importantly, it keeps me from being too cynical about sports and about sports writing because as bad as it gets, I know it could be better.

DJ: In the face of many of the insanities of this culture, it’s really important to have examples we can look to either in our own experience or in history of people who resisted and actually made a difference.

DZ: It’s so interesting that you say that, too, because the other historical pattern in America (and this is what’s so frustrating) is that when people speak out they’re absolutely vilified for it in the present. Yet decades down the line, the same people who are vilifying them are praising them. Or their children or grandchildren. It’s so much easier to look back in the past than it is in the present day.

I was doing a story recently about the upcoming Sochi Olympics where a lot of athletes may be speaking out on LGBT rights in Russia. One of the heads of the International Olympic Committee was actually praising Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their memorable moment in ’68. He was asked, “Well, what do you think about athletes doing that now?” and it was like a switch flipped. The cognitive dissonance to be able to do that, to me, is absolutely stunning—to be able to just jump so quickly, so abruptly, and so crudely. The intellectual crudeness to be able to go from “Wow, dissent is beautiful” to “Well, not dissent today” to “Politics: keep them out of the Olympics.” It’s unbelievable. And yet, that’s the rhetoric, that’s the discourse, that’s what we’re dealing with all the time.

DJ: And, of course, this is not just in sports. We can say the same thing about John Brown. We can say the same thing about the Haymarket Martyrs. We can say the same thing with the suffragists.

DZ: That’s the truth. It’s usually one of two things—either you’re buried and forgotten or your political teeth are extracted and you’re smoothed down to become something else. We deal with it every year. There are articles about the “real” Martin Luther King by people on the left who try to remind everyone that King actually believed in things that are quite radical even today. Yesterday the Department of Defense was tweeting King quotes— I don’t even think they saw ghoulishness of this—“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” Is that how the Department of Defense justifies drone bombings overseas? “Yeah, we may be limiting people’s lives but, hey, that’s not really what matters.” Is there any self-consciousness that goes into that? I’m sure if Martin Luther King had been in charge of the Department of Defense, he would have turned it into the world’s most luxuriant day care center. It’s just outrageous.

In sports, though, it’s particularly difficult to get the true stories out. One reason for that is oftentimes the retired athletes themselves don’t necessarily have a vested interest in going back to their more controversial pasts. There’s no money in that. You want to be able to be on the speaker’s circuit. You want to be able to go to autograph shows.

Also, context is everything. It’s easier to be a rebel in 1968 when the fires are burning all around than in 2014, even if those fires are still there just as much as they were in 1968. They just operate in a different way.

DJ: Can we touch on the mascot issue?

DZ: Why would anyone who doesn’t live in Oklahoma even know there was such a thing as the Oklahoma Seminole Nation? When are we taught that in history class? When is the Oklahoma Seminole Nation asked for comment on anything? This is some of the invisibility of racism. Few people in our society are treated with such abject invisibility as Native Americans.

I did a talk at a college in Oregon and I was asked a question by a perfectly well-meaning liberal college student. We were talking about the Washington name change, the “R” word, and this student said to me, “Do you think the reason why there are still teams with Native American mascots is because there are no Native Americans left?”

I understood what he was trying to ask. It’s a demographic question. The reason you don’t have teams named after Latinos or African Americans is because you couldn’t. Native Americans make up 0.9% of the United States. There was a Native American young girl sitting right in front of him. She was 12 years old and she stood up in the meeting and looked at him and said, “There still are some of us left, you know.” You could have heard a pin drop.

It’s this casual racism and invisibility. White people in particular get so damn defensive where if you talk about racism in society it immediately becomes, “Oh, so what we’re all racists.” Because it’s a lot easier to do that than confronting racism itself. This is one of those classic cases. I’m not saying everyone who wears a Redskins cap or a Seminole jersey is a racist like they’re George Lincoln Rockwell 2.0. I am saying we need to do some reflecting about why there’s a team named after a racial slur, about why the Florida State Seminoles are allowed to go around with impunity and say they do this with the seal of approval from the Seminole Nation when the Florida Seminoles don’t even make up forty percent of the Seminoles nationally. That gets to some very interesting points about why the majority of Seminoles are in Oklahoma, and then you have to look seriously at this nation’s past, about the Indian Removal Act. It’s like pulling a string on a sweater. When people are watching sports or enjoying sports that’s the last thing they want to do.

DJ: I didn’t know this about their mascot. Can you mention about Osceola and make a connection to Mandela?

DZ: Absolutely. When Nelson Mandela died, quite correctly he was discussed with the most hushed possible tones—not just in the United States, but around the world. I think one of the reasons why was this person who endured 27 years behind bars emerged as the leader of his country. A remarkable thing. And he was a freedom fighter, of course, behind bars.

Osceola

Osceola was an unbelievable freedom fighter in the Seminole Wars. He fought the US Army to a standstill on multiple occasions. There was supposed to be a treaty with Osceola and when he went to the treaty, he was immediately arrested and thrown in jail. The United States was actually subject to international condemnation because of this. That’s how esteemed Osceola was. And he died in prison. I wrote in my article that Osceola was in many respects the American Mandela if Mandela had never gotten out of Robbin Island, or he is the American Steven Biko—the South African who never came out.

Yet, before Florida State games, you have someone dressed up like Osceola—usually a white person in war paint—who rides out on a horse. Osceola never actually rode a horse because he fought in the swamps. You see this constant miseducation as everyone cheers for Osceola. And, the thing about it that’s hardest to stomach is that Osceola was the replacement of Florida State’s first mascot, who was a step-and-fetch-it Native American character who went by the name of Sammy Seminole. That really was his name. In a weird way, though, Sammy Seminole is more honest for what this is, which is minstrelsy, than Osceola who is an amazing historical figure.

Can you imagine worldwide condemnation if South Africa had someone dressed up like Steven Biko or dressed up like Nelson Mandela to dance around a stadium to psyche people up before a game? You would never see that in a million years. You see that in this country, frankly, because that’s the price of colonialism, depopulation, genocide, Indian Removal. This is what you get.

DJ: Can we do a two-minute version of “sports are just fun and games?” No, actually, they’re big business, with massive corporate welfare.

DZ: There’s no getting around that. This has been a real change in the economics of sports over the last 30 years—the mass infusion of corporate welfare in sports and stadiums really operating like a neoliberal Trojan horse where cities are re-organized on neoliberal grounds.

You and I can go on a magical mystery tour through the former industrial Midwest—Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit. What all these places have in common is new publicly funded stadiums for basketball, baseball, and football. At the same time the erosion of union jobs, and the jobs that are created are service industry jobs. It’s not just the question of public tax money going into these stadiums, it’s the question of the return on the investment, and what jobs are actually created. Unfortunately, far too much of public stadium funding is a magical alchemy that turns tax dollars into private property.

DJ: It’d be like if I wanted to start a business and then I went to the taxpayers to the get funding to build my factory.

DZ: It’s a hell of a scam. Often, it’s a popular thing to get a new stadium, although much less so according to polls over the last fifteen years, as they have clearly and dramatically not returned on their investment, like what happened in Seattle where the beloved Supersonics basketball team was ruthlessly ripped from the city. I think you see the price much more deeply in a place like New Orleans where the levees broke and the only place suitable for shelter was the Superdome, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, when many of the people huddled in there could not have afforded to buy a ticket to actually see a game.

DJ: I read a study back in the early ‘90s about the “multiplier effect” when a new stadium is built. Could you comment on that?

DZ: That’s a classic line about stadium funding. If you literally dumped a billion dollars from a plane, and people just picked it up and spent it, it would have a better economic multiplier effect than the building of stadiums. That in itself exposes these things for what they are.

This is the truth, Derrick, I used to go on radio shows and debate people about public stadium funding and you can’t debate it anymore, because there’s so much data that it’s a terrific waste of money. It’s like debating whether or not the sky is green. No one wants to take that position on it, either. In the context of the new normal of perpetual crisis, in which we find cities starved by gentrification and privatization, the giving of public money isn’t through referendums or public votes, but in paying off the right politicians for their stadiums.

DJ: What’s the take home message of all this? What would you like for sports fans and people who want social change to see? I’m think about the basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the guy you said influenced you back in the 90s, who played for the Denver Nuggets. It seems to me that his courage helped give you courage. I think that’s part of how social change takes place. One person stands up, and you stand up and hold his hand. Now the hope is that someone else will stand up and hold your hand, until we don’t have to have these discussions any more.

DZ: I think that’s great. I would also say that for a lot of these athletes the best thing we can do in the media is to be an ally. That’s like being an offensive lineman—you want to clear space so their voice can be heard. If people are saying your name too much, you might be doing something wrong.

DJ: This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. Thank you so much.

DZ: Thank you, Derrick.

One thought on “Resistance Radio: David Zirin on Sports and Politics”

  1. Great interview and this makes a lot of sense to me, also as someone who is a sports fan but has a lot of uneasy feelings about what sports actually is about in this country, well this country being Canada where I live and grew up but still relevant here to some degree. Thanks for making this available.

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