Dave Zirin plays film at UMass

By Tom Barnes

Courtesy This.org

As a sportswriter, commentator and host of his own radio show, Dave Zirin is at the forefront of politicizing sports and has written numerous books on the subject.

Produced with the Media Education Foundation, Zirin screened his film “Not Just a Game,” which highlights the hypocrisy of assuming sports as a politically neutral zone, and gives evidence to the hidden political side of sports, on Tuesday evening at the University.

When the weather didn’t cooperate and his flight was canceled, Zirin was forced to cancel his afternoon discussion but managed to make the screening to field questions and talk about the film. Zirin spoke at the Student Union Ballroom as part of the Feinburg Family Distinguished Lecture Series.

“Sports are political whether we want them to be or not,” Zirin said in an interview, discussing the trends of consumerism, nationalism and militarism embedded within the sports world. “Not Just a Game” argues the presence of military pressures in sports are a form of propaganda, naturalizing ideologies and beliefs about how we see ourselves, each other and our country.

Driven by his love for the incredible dramas inherent in sports, Zirin started as a sports columnist in a small-town newspaper where his editor encouraged him to combine his other interest of politics in his writing. For Zirin, “It’s never easier than to write about politics and sports,” and when his brother-in-law published his sports article online, Zirin was approached by the publisher Haymarket Books.

The film outlines the inverses to the assumption that sports should be a-political, with athletes like Muhammad Ali standing up for the Civil Rights Movement and protesting the war in Vietnam. Other athletes include Billy Jean King and her struggle against sexism and homophobia, and Jackie Robinson’s breaking into the white-dominated major league baseball. The examples shown in the film illustrate the relationship between sports and the political world, and the interplay and reflections between them.

Zirin spoke of his recent trip to Wisconsin in support of the labor protests taking place there and the six Green Bay Packers that have shown their support for the movement. Locally, the Red Sox’s new first baseman Adrian Gonzalez refused to participate in the All-Star game because it is being held in Arizona, the state home to Orwellian security checks and racial profiling against Latinos.

“There’s an obligation to understand politics and pressures on athletes,” Zirin said. He examined the mix of sports and culture, including the role of commercial sponsors promoting rebellion and edginess while stripping it of any substance. He discussed his beliefs on Lebron James’s conflicted identity, desiring to be both the richest athlete and another Muhammad Ali.

Outlining some of the resistance to politics and sports, the film discussed the reinforcement of militarism and masculinity in sports leagues. The film gave examples of grand displays of military strength and superiority being the norm at stadiums and naturalizing ideas about nationalism and imperialism. The controversy around Pat Tillman’s death was examined, where his death was misrepresented by the FOX and the Pentagon. One viewer in the back of the audience uttered loud expletives during mention of Pat Tillman, and then exited the room before he could be reached for comment.

According to the film, sports are used to define masculinity and those that don’t fit into the “jockocracy,” and the film also illustrated resistance to women and homosexuality in the sports world. Only 1.6 percent of sports aired on television are women’s sports, demonstrating the struggle for equal representation across genders is ongoing even after such advances as Title IX.

“It took people willing to break the rules to change them,” said Zirin about the contributions of athletes to changes in the sports and political worlds, including the impacts of black athletes showing society as a whole that they couldn’t be stifled. Another example the film gave of athletes using  their spotlight to inspire social change was of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in their famous black power salute on the podium at the Mexico City Olympic Games.

Presently, sports are considered by many to be free from any political themes, and Zirin explains that despite these conceptions, corporations use sports as a medium to move product and the government utilizes sports to instill nationalism and militarism. Possibly afraid to lose sponsors or risk banishment from the league, athletes could be afraid to speak out for what they believe in.

Zirin argues that “we ruin sports by ripping them out of their political and cultural context,” and encourages everyone to speak out in the face of injustice.

Examples of sports changing the political landscape have risen in Egypt in the days leading up the protests, according to Zirin. Though meetings to discuss the government were illegal in Egypt, a crucible for revolution occurred in the country’s soccer clubs. Considered to be a safe outlet for aggressive impulses and able to be redirected away from the government, the soccer clubs provided a meeting place for political discourse to occur and served as a brewery for ideas on rebellion. Several days into the rebellion, the government closed the soccer clubs. Emphasizing the relationship between sports and politics, Zirin pointed out the examples of the Packers siding with the labor protestors along with the Egyptian soccer clubs.

Zirin found working with the University and the Feinburg Family Distinguished Lecture Series to be “amazing, Umass has done a terrific job,” and is “grateful for UMass to approach someone off the beaten path and grateful for the professionalism and intellectual curiosity.”

To find out more about Dave Zirin and his combination of sports writing and politicization, check out his blog at Edgeofsports.com

Thomas Barnes can be reached at [email protected]