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.

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.)