Eduardo Galeano & Dave Zirin (on FIFA)

In a frankly celebratory column at The Nation, its resident sports-and-social-justice scribe Dave Zirin wrote, in his usual blunt and acerbic style, of the arrests of the FIFA 14. The Federation Internationale de Football Association has long been accused of the most egregious forms of authoritarianism and corruption, and its slogan, “For the Good of the Game”, feels like satire in the wake of this sudden yet seemingly inevitable clampdown. (Having described FIFA’s leadership as “cartoonishly evil”, the satirist John Oliver nods his head vigourously.) Zirin is not waving pom-poms for the United States Justice Department — he’d be among those who also see a satiric tint in the name of that organization — but he has been calling for action on sporting corruption of many kinds for years. He wrote the book on Brazilian activism against global giga-events that you may have heard of.

Another writer to know better, who knew better than you and me about many things. Including the wearing of blue berets. (Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

Another writer to know better, who knew better than you and me about many things. Including the wearing of blue berets. (Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

Fittingly, Zirin invokes the late great Uruguayan journalist and histori-contrarian Eduardo Galeano. His Memory of Fire series of books on the colonization of South and Central America is a landmark of “people’s history”, and before that came the monumental Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. For many, though, his football opus Soccer in Sun and Shadow was his greatest literary gift. It’s among the most important and eloquent books on any sport, ever. Early in Zirin’s column, he quotes Galeano,

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When is Enough Enough?

Some great things land in my Inbox. Here are a couple of recent examples, and links that can get you more where they came from…

I’d never heard of Gary Tyler until recently. I’d never heard of Jocks for Justice, either, but there is a group of mainly ex-athletes – only Etan Thomas, a forward for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, is an active jock activist – who are standing up for what appears to be one of the great miscarriages of justice in American history. Gary Tyler, in 1974, was riding a bus with other black students to a newly desegregated high school in Louisiana. When the bus was attacked by a white mob, one white teen ended up shot to death. Tyler remains on death row in the notorious Angola prison for being, as a New York Times writer has recently uncovered, simply “the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Amnesty International has flagged the case. Human rights and judicial reform activists are on the bit, too, as are Tommie Smith and John Carlos (the “Black Power” saluters from the Mexico City Olympics of 1968) and other sports notables. Dave Zirin, a writer whose beat is the social and political edge of sports, tells the whole story, with appropriate outrage, here.  It’s a quick but worthwhile read.

Another writer, no less passionate but more measured in his approach, is the noted American environmental crusader Bill McKibben. He’s not just a tree-hugger, although he loves the forests and trails. He’s one of the world’s most thoughtful contributors to the big discussions of how we should live, how we can remain in harmony with our highest human values and with the rest of creation. I first read McKibben in a short article in Utne magazine on how to survive (and more) the all-out consumer assault that our “holy season” has become. It was called “The $100 Christmas”. I had somehow missed his first book, The End of Nature, which was nearly 20 years ahead of its time. It was perhaps the first widely read discussion of the drastic effect on global ecology and climate that has been caused by our industrial excess. I heard McKibben recently at an Ottawa conference of the Sierra Club of Canada. He was thoughtful, he was extremely sobering, yet somehow he managed to be encouraging at the same time. And what a graceful writer!

If you have some time to read great writing that will change (or at least stimulate) your mind, try McKibben’s piece in the spring ’07 edition of Mother Jones magazine. It’s called “Reversal of Fortune”, and it begins this way: “For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both…” In other words, the human quest to achieve or acquire more – more food, more invention, more control over our circumstances – has generally served to make life better. But as McKibben notes here, and in his new book Enough, we have hit the stage in human civilization where the desire and attainment of MORE of everything has stopped being beneficial and has become the source of many of our most threatening problems. It’s intelligent but superbly readable, and it won’t leave you in despair. There are things we can do to make our lives BETTER. (If you’d like to read more about this – and this is a case where ‘more’ and ‘better’ still DO roost on the same branch – please click here for more McKibben. Always a good thing.)


Basketball’s Forgotten Pioneer (Dave Zirin)

[As I mentioned At First Glance, this is an excerpt from an article by Dave Zirin. I wasn’t able to link to it directly.]

Should someone who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds over a four-year NBA career make the Basketball Hall of Fame?….This is the story of…a movement to compel the NBA to do right by their own past.

Everybody knows Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947. Fewer will know the NFL was desegregated by Robinson’s UCLA teammate Kenny Washington and future Hollywood actor Woody Strode. The more serious sports fan will also will tell you that Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first African American to sign a contract with an NBA team and Earl Lloyd the first to actually get off the bench and log some playing time. More will know the immortal Bill Russell was the first black basketball head coach.

But I challenge even the most die-hard hoops junkie…to name the first black NCAA All American. I challenge you to name the first African American to make the U.S. Olympic team. I challenge you to name the first black man to play in the NBA All-Star game….The answer to all these questions is Don Barksdale….Today, Don Barksdale is sports history’s invisible man, a trailblazer who resides in shadows. Barksdale died in 1993 of throat cancer at the age of 69, and there is a push simmering to make sure the history he represents doesn’t die with him….

The charge to put Barksdale in Springfield is being led by…Doug Harris. Harris is the executive director of Athletes United for Peace, and…also directed a documentary on Barksdale called Bounce….

This history is one of struggle against the racial barriers of bigotry, but it’s also the history of a great player who refused to be defined exclusively by play. The Don Barksdale Story is not another tale of a playground legend who ended up wrecked on the rocks of what-might-have-been. When the NBA slammed its door in Barksdale’s face after his All American UCLA career, he switched gears toward his other passion and became the San Francisco Bay Area’s first African American disc jockey….Barksdale at age 25 desegregated the gold medal winning 1948 Olympic team, where he was coached by “The Baron” from Kentucky, Adolph Rupp. (Barksdale was so good, Rupp even gave him significant court time; 20 years before he started recruiting blacks for his own Wildcat teams.)

When Barksdale finally signed with the slowly desegregating NBA in 1951, the 28 year old made sure the cash was worth his time. He signed a two-year deal for $60,000 with the Bullets, a big money deal in its day.  Barksdale’s hoops career stalled after four years and one historic All-Star game….

This past February, the NBA higher ups decided yet again to not include Barksdale on their annual list of Hall of Fame inductees. They need to ask themselves the question: how seriously do they take their own past? Is the history of the game sacred, or just filler material for more highlight videos?

So the question gets repeated: Should someone who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds over a four-year NBA career make the Basketball Hall of Fame? If that person is Don Angelo Barksdale, you’re damn right they should.


[Dave Zirin is the author of The Muhammad Ali Handbook (MQ Publications) and Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing]

Sports Writing Worth Reading

Well, YES, he said immodestly, but I’m not talking about my own stuff here. Give me credit for some level of humility! (But it’s true,  there is a lot of good jock journalism in the box to your right.) I mean Dave Zirin, an American writer I read fairly regularly. He writes on the “Edge of Sports”, and insists on making the connection between athletics (especially the professional variety) and real life, unlikely as that may seem. He keeps hollering that social justice and the Great Big Sandbox are related to each other, that they MUST be.

Zirin is worth reading, even if you don’t normally open the sports section. For example, the article I got through subscribing to his service sent me an article that addresses the history of racial injustice in American sport, and suggests one small symbolic way to address it. (His web site is here. I’ll post an excerpt from the article in It’s All About Sports! right here.) If you are a sports fan, I defy you to answer the three trivia questions that he asks; I couldn’t. There were more barriers to be leaped over – still are – than the one with Jackie Robinson’s signature on it. I commend this to your interest, as Dave Zirin would say, in struggle and sport.

Oh Zizou, Zizou, wherefore art thou so SELFISH?

(A slightly revised version of this piece, printed after Zidane’s first public statement hinted not at racism but to insults to his mother and sister, appeared in The Ottawa Citzen on Friday, July 14, 2006.) 

The comparisons will be flying. Can you imagine Gretzky clobbering an opponent over the head in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals? Derek Jeter charging the mound to spike the pitcher in the deciding game of the World Series? Michael Jordan decking the guy guarding him with the championship about to be decided? No valid parallels exist in professional sport, to my knowledge, for the moment Zinedine Zidane chose to settle a personal score when there was so much at stake for the team he captained. It was a shocking thing, more for its incredibly bad timing than for the violence of the act itself (which was considerable).

It was clear that the Italians were harassing Zidane physically; but when in his starry career has this not been the case? It was obvious that Materazzi said something vile, something that froze the French captain in mid-stride and brought down the blinding beams of rage; but what taunts hadn’t this child of a poor Algerian immigrant family already heard? And yes, there had been a remarkable Buffon save on what looked like France’s Cup-winner from that same powerful forehead. The rock-hard Cannavaro’s elbow smash, possibly inadvertent, to Zidane’s shoulder? Sure, that happened. Frustrating and brutal things often occur in the context of championship sport, and the mark of the champion is fortitude under the most severe of trials. There is nothing to conclude except that Zinedine Zidane, in the greatest pressure situation of his athletic life, abandoned teammates and national honour in a fit of anger. It was a bizarre act by a sporting idol, one of the most selfish acts we have ever seen from a great and graceful athlete.

Unless it wasn’t. Unless our tendency to attribute heroic character to a man with athletic gifts hasn’t tripped us up again. And maybe, just maybe, unless we have once again assumed that what happens in a World Cup final match is more important than life itself (or racism, or other forms of inhumanity). French athletic supporter that I am (at least during World Cup), I know what my first outraged question was after the head-butt: What could possibly be more important right then than winning the Cup? I was furious with this man I don’t know, whose career I’ve followed about every fourth year. And I guess, too, I wanted to believe in that persistent myth, reincarnated again with Zidane: the superb sportsman as ambassador of good, as role model to the world, as spokesman and exemplar for the most humane of causes.

But I remember the words of a prominent American basketball coach, who told me, “I’ve never known a great player who wasn’t a bit of a jerk.” Good genetics aside, how does someone like Zidane graduate from the ferocious street football games of his impoverished youth to become a star? By never backing away from insults and challenges. By inspiring fear in opponents. By being a hard, hard man. By sporting an ego bigger than all the barriers he faced.

Countering my shocked disbelief was my soccer-savvy friend, who nodded quietly and said, “Do you remember him stomping on the Saudi in ’98? (I didn’t.) Do you remember his head-butt with Juventus? (Um, no.) He’s been red-carded many times.” Zinedine Zidane has to win, and he has to win right now. Amateur psychologists like me might mutter sagely about self-absorption, about “the inability to delay gratification” that is the hallmark of all sorts of immaturity. And this would be true.

But there is more to be heard of this. There are some who would seek to excuse Zidane, or at least to diminish our self-righteous horror (“I would never do such a thing!”). One of the most extreme apologist voices is the American Dave Zirin (“Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey”) (, who frames the incident as Zidane’s way of standing against racism and Islamophobia, as an assertion that some things are just BIGGER than sport. And I agree that many things are more important than winning the big game. Included in that list, though, are dignity and self-control, the needs of your companions and the art of the long view. Zinedine Zidane’s scorecard is not yet complete. I still want to believe that nice guys can finish first in all the most important contests, but it would appear that neither the French star nor his Italian antagonist would qualify.

NBC Takes an Olympian Hit

I promise. This is my last Olympic post. (I think I promise.) Dave Zirin, that counterculture sports columnist, fell into my Inbox again. (You can get it here.) He reminds me of the blurb that Howard Cosell once wrote for one of my favourite books on sport: Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story by Dave Wolf. It came out in the 1970s, and for some reason Humble Howard’s assessment lives on in my head though Foul disappeared from my shelves decades ago: “Puts to rout forever the propagated notion that sports is a sacred cow and the only milk it emits is pure.”

Zirin is in a fever to do the same thing. I must say that I didn’t watch any of NBC’s Olympic telecast – when you can get the CBC (as some lucky Americans can), why bother? – but I’ve seen their act before. So I enjoyed what Zirin had to say about his own national network’s approach, full of junk sports and jingoism. Here are some excerpts (the entire article can be seen here.)

The Winter Olympics have been to NBC what icebergs were to the Titanic. With the exception of the prime-time figure skating competition Tuesday, ratings have been subterranean….[W]hy? The answers speak to everything that’s wrong with the arrogance of television networks and the hypocrisy and jingoism at the heart of the games….

Moldy Nationalism: It’s amazing. Baseball fans cheer for the DR’s Pedro Martinez, basketball heads scream for Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, and the sporting world has never been more of a global village, but NBC still treats the games as if it were 1980 and the United States were taking on the Eastern Bloc….Please, NBC. Rocky has retired and Ivan Drago has left the building.

Treating Us Like We Are Idiots (or Tape Delays): In the age of real-time video on the Internet, showing the games on ten-hour tape delay is as anachronistic as shoulder pads and piano-key ties…but for NBC to [do live coverage] would mean losing precious advertising dollars. So viewers lose the very essence of what separates sports from pro wrestling: suspense and surprise at unanticipated outcomes.

Manufactured Sports: Is your water cooler abuzz with news of the skeleton finals? What about the half-pipe? The slalom? No? Then congratulations, you don’t work in an insane asylum. Most of the sports highlighted by NBC seem to have been dreamed up in corporate boardrooms to sell Mountain Dew and manufacture medals for US athletes…. This is not to say that there isn’t art or beauty in the practice of these sports. But to feel them marketed to us like an X-treme Tupperware party just became tiresome….

There have been compelling acts of athletic derring-do and personal turmoil during these games. If only the NeoCon Bellowing Corporation [ed. note: Yikes!!] would have had the imagination and the backbone to fully and fairly cover what was happening, these Winter Olympics would not have been such a staggering waste of time and talent.

 Dave brings it strong. I particularly liked his description of the marketing of an “X-treme Tupperware party”. Slick. But hey, Professor Zee, you should try to get the dear ol’ CBC on your satellite dish. Trust me. You’ll feel better.

The Athletic is Political

I wonder if you’ve heard of Dave Zirin. I hadn’t until a couple of months ago, though I pay absurd levels of attention to life in the lucrative sandbox of professional sport. This guy is on fire. Apparently, he’s written on pro basketball for quite a while — I guess Slam is a bit too hiphophappenin’ for me — but what I’ve come across is his weekly email column “The Edge of Sports”, in which he writes on marginalized issues beyond the scores and the winning streaks and the all-star teams: racism, social justice, athletic fame and influence, the meaning of these gladiatorial entertainments. (He loves the games and many of the athletes, the more contrarian and individualistic the better.)

He’s written a book – it awaits me on my bedside table – called What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. For those of you with good memories and long-ago birthdates, you might recognize the title as Muhammad Ali’s early insistence on having his abandonment of his “slave name” respected. Zirin is sometimes a bit strident for my taste, but he’s definitely every radical activist’s favourite sportswriter. He has the Michael Jordans of the world in his sights; MJ’s famous “Hey, Republicans buy shoes, too!” as his reason to avoid political involvement is a target of considerable contempt.

Dave Zirini has been powerfully angry on the Tookie Williams execution, wistful about Carlos Delgado’s on-again, off-again protest of the war in Iraq, and insistent about applying the simple standards of the common good to the uncommon world of big-money athletics. Today, his rant on the cosmetics of a Super Bowl hosted by Detroit, by most accounts a smoking hulk of a city, is RIGHT ON. He picks on the way in which sports have come to embody and emphasize one of the greatest obstacles to justice that we face. He zooms in on the extremes of wealth and poverty, as they are seen amid the glitz of the biggest single sporting event in the world. The Super Bowl has long been an example of gleeful and sometimes cringe-worthy excess, and here’s another take. Zirin quotes some sports writers, especially the great Mitch Albom (yes, he’s also the guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, a wonderful book, and The Seven People You Meet in Heaven, which I’m not so sure about, but he’s probably the best sports columnist in North America), who are also not afraid to bite the hand the feeds them. And aware enough. And outraged enough. Leonard Cohen wrote it this way: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, and the rich get rich / That’s how it goes…”

Dave Zirin’s column is called “Detroit: Super Bowl City on the Brink” and it can be found here.  And yes, I will be watching the SB. It’s research. I’m a Man of the People. (And Troy Polamalu rocks.)