Monday, May 21, 2012

Dave Zirin's "A People's History of Sports in the United States"

I know that things have been quiet here at The Notes Taken. The easiest way to summarize this state of affairs is to say: I have several pieces with deadlines that converge around June 1st, and I've been spending most of the time I dedicate to writing getting them in order. 

Not that I've been entirely absent from the blog-world. If you click on the link to the right, under "Friends, Comrades, Allies" for The Left Field Line, you'll discover there that I've been scribbling various thoughts about the San Francisco Giants and baseball. If I had to choose one worthwhile piece of writing from that blog, it would have to be "On the Van Halens and Spinal Taps of Baseball" (here)--probably because there's some snarky music-snobbery going on too.

Though many who would count themselves on the left in the humanities have acclimated to using all sorts of subversive and not-so-subversive-enjoy-your-symptom type cultural resources in academic settings, sports are still a marginal point of reference. I loved baseball as a kid, but by the time I started reading beat poetry and smoking cigarettes in my teenage years, I had largely come to associate sports--especially football--with conformism, patriotism, sexism, and homophobia. And those who live, breathe, and/or bloviate about sports still spew this garbage in some of the most ridiculous circumstances (since I'll be discussing Dave Zirin below, here's a link to an article he wrote on Tony Bruno's racist slur aimed at then SF Giants pitcher Ramon Ramirez).

But as I've come to appreciate in the last few years, sports have also been a vehicle for anti-war (think Vietnam), anti-racist (various types of integration, and anti-sexist (think Title IX) politics that stem from athletes themselves, especially those from marginalized and dis-empowered groups in society. Dave Zirin's A People's History of Sports in the United States (New Press, 2008) is a testament to the many athletes who have spoken out against injustices in the world of sports and the world at large (It might be less surprising that such a book is included in the "People's History" series if I mention that Howard Zinn was a long-time fan of the Boston Red Sox).

Zirin is to be commended for taking on such a broad project that is ultimately aimed at a general audience. Sport includes all kinds of activities, from professional baseball, basketball, or football, to college athletics to recreational games. To narrow the scope, Zirin orients A People's History around two themes. First, he discusses key episodes in the ways that athletes intervene in political culture. He includes, for instance, how Muhammad Ali's stance against the Vietnam war contributed to anti-war sentiment in general. Or, how the Gay Olympics (beginning in 1982) challenged stereotypes and prejudices about homophobia, competition, athleticism, and machismo. Zirin's own expertise is the converging history of race and its relation to sports (although he does not extensively discuss, after the first chapter, the place or exclusion of indigenous Americans, although I'm sure he does elsewhere...), he makes sure to highlight, in most chapters, the struggles of women and often African-American women. This diversity is reflective of the variety of activities, for many people, included under the term sports (I might also note that he does not spend much time on sports and ableism; the list of omissions could probably be extended--such are the pitfalls of such a wide-ranging and evolving topic). 

Zirin has published numerous books on such episodes. In A People's History, Zirin organizes the material around a second theme, which we could say is the professionalization and commodification of sports, the ways in which sports activities have become a multi-billion dollar industry. Even if one does not associate sports with cultural backlash, the big three--baseball, basketball, and football--often present a spectacle of overpaid and spoiled athletes with little concern for the ways that the owners fleece the fans. In other works, Zirin advances a convincing case that this viewpoint implicitly accepts the standpoint of sports' management, as an ideological leverage against players, and more importantly, players' unions (see here, and this piece doesn't even touch the way that the owners so often fleece the public by demanding publicly funded sports complexes). 

In A People's History, Zirin seeks to explain how we got here by showing that sports are imbricated in society at large; hence when society enters into a phase of intensifying social struggle, athletes will also (although it is interesting to note how often the sports-writing establishment consistently sides with the backlash). To summarize, from Zirin:
Driven by twenty-four-hour cable television and an expanding global audience, the 1980s saw a deluge of dollars flow into sports. But it's hard not to see sports in the 1980s following a pattern we have already seen in the 1920s and 1950s. In those decades, the sports explosion occurred against a backdrop of a nation weary from war, well heeled from economic recovery, and enjoying the spread of new leisure technologies: radio in the twenties and television in the fifties. The eighties held similar dynamics, with cable television being the techno-bauble of the decade. But while all three eras share similar terrains, the stronger thread is an environment feeding on political backlash (211).
In many ways, sports has not yet recovered from this political backlash, what I would say is the backlash of neoliberalism. New media technologies have made sports even more attractive for capital. Today, for instance, the same thing that makes, for instance, watching baseball fun--the suspense concerning the outcome, the wild and remarkable plays (good and bad)--makes it attractive for television advertising, since a game is best watched as it unfolds, unlike so much television which can be downloaded later. In the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for $2.15 billion (more than twice the price of the previous sale, that of the Chicago Cubs), the price is still dwarfed by the estimated value of television rights alone (this article puts the rights at $4 billion).

Nevertheless, beyond A People's History, Zirin has continued to chronicle the intersections of sports and politics; that athletes have drawn connections between their labor struggles (the NBA lockout, for instance, turned on the treatment and remuneration of role players) and the Occupy movement, or taken on issues of race and violence (here and here), may yet prove that sports could again be, as Zirin writes, a "motor for inclusion" and resistance.