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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Paulo Freire (on political “neutrality”)

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire (1921-1997), from his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was a Brazilian educator, philosopher and community activist, and this quote skewers any possibility of sincere people maintaining an “oh, well, nothing I can do about…” attitude — about wealth and poverty, about “developed” and developing nations, about racial or class or religious prejudices — and thinking that this is somehow an even-handed approach. It favours the privileged, those established at the top of the hill, which seems rather obvious when we think about it. Most of us don’t. Look at me — I’ve been quoting Freire and thinking around the edges of commentaries about this highly influential work, and yet have never actually read the book. For shame! jeered the crowd.

Jacob Riis (on perseverance and “pounding the rock”)

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

I had never heard of Jacob Riis (1849-1914) before my attention to all things San Antonio Spurs reached new heights during their NBA Finals series with the Miami Heat. (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, tired of the “typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels”, has long had Riis’s stonecutter quote displayed in the Spurs’ dressing room. I was puzzled when a microphone picked up “Coach Pop” imploring his team during a timeout to “keep pounding the rock!” This could have been basketball jargon for “keep dribbling the ball”, which was a strange thing for such a team-oriented coach to say. Now, suddenly millions of NBA fans know of Jacob Riis and his love for basketball  tireless dedication to social justice.)

Riis was a journalist, a muck-raker, an activist and a noted practitioner of the brand-new art of photography. Born in Denmark, he was a relentless advocate for immigrant rights and decent living conditions in New York. It was in the context of his activism on behalf of the “poor, huddled masses” that he made the above statement. The Spurs use it because they believe in the process of team-building, slowly and steadily. I think of it when trying to teach English, build community, educate for justice, find my mislaid abdominals and write and write. (What’s your rock?)