Sports | Political games

The Daily interviews sportswriter Dave Zirin about politics in sports

On September 21, QPIRG Concordia hosted a panel discussion called “The Politics of Sports” featuring speakers Meg Hewings, who writes the blog and discussed queer issues in sports, and Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and writer of the blog, which discusses socio-economic political issues in sports. The Daily interviewed Zirin a few days after the event.

The McGill Daily: As someone who looks at the politics in sports critically, what do you think is the role of sports media in covering these issues?

Dave Zirin: Unfortunately, far too much sports media has been reduced to basically either cheerleading for teams or exposing the various scandals of athletes. It’s stuff that could read better in Home and Garden or in Us Weekly, so it sort of flows back and forth from the banal to the salacious and this underserves sports in two ways. First of all, I am a big believer that sports is like art and it’s beautiful and that it can stand for some really lyrical writing and I think writing itself has become in some ways debased in sports writing. But, the bigger issue is that sports isn’t just sports anymore. We need to have sports writers who can understand the incredible impact that sports plays on our economy, on our culture, how we relate to one another – these are big issues that require real analysis and real debate and real discussion and my experience is that there is an audience of people that actually wants to have that discussion, and I think sports media underserves that audience pretty dramatically.

MD: Why do you think ESPN chooses not to cover important political issues?

DZ: Well, I mean, there are some shows on ESPN that do good work. Outside the Lines is a terrific show that airs everyday that attempts to look at this, HBO’s Real Sports does this, but I’m talking about more like the kind of print journalism that is really at the root of how the stories get dug out and developed over the course of weeks or the course of months like real examination of things and not stuff that’s pegged so sharply to the time constraints of television or the sound bites of television. There’s something that inherently constrains television’s ability to be an effective medium for the kind of investigative journalism that we need in sports right now. Like Outside the Lines, for example, is a terrific show; it’s also 25 minutes each day. It covers usually 2-3 topics for each show. I’m a guest on it a regular amount and I think they do good work. But we’re talking about trying to understand the way public funding of stadiums is reshaping our cities. We’re trying to understand the way sports effects how men and women relate to one another, how people gay and straight relate to one another, how people of different backgrounds, all the rest of it. It’s a dramatic microscope into understanding our world. I think that we need to figure out a way to develop independent journalists who are willing to do this work.

MD: You spoke on this a little bit the other night at the panel discussion, but why do you think there is a schism between leftist thought and sports?
DZ: I think that there is a thought among a lot of people on the left that sports is a distraction from things that are really important. It’s a view most associated with Noam Chomsky and often times sports is seen, because there is so much in sports that has nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, I mean, I’m from a town where people root for a team called the Redskins for goodness sake; people on the left who are understandably repulsed by all of that and say, “This is not for me.” They swear it off the way a vegetarian swears off a McRib. They say, “This is bad. This is not good. And it should be something that’s wholeheartedly rejected,” and I think that’s problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that that’s not all sports is – it’s not all reactionary refuse. There’s a lot of beauty in sports, there’s a lot of fun in sports, there’s a lot of joy in sports, which I don’t think the people on the left should reject. I also think there are a lot of political issues in sports that are very, very, shades of grey – that are very combative, very interesting, that people on the left should engage with. One of the examples is the possible funding of the Nordiques stadium. $145 million dollars. Do we really want the sports teams to control that debate? Do we really want the terms of the debate to be the people on the right say, “We want the Nordiques,” and the mainstream says, “We want the Nordiques,” and people on the left say, “No we don’t”? No, there are different ways to have this debate, like calling for partial public ownership of the Nordiques or not just socializing the debt, but also socializing and not privatizing the profits. These are the debates that people who see themselves as progressives should want to strive to engage with.

MD: You seem to hold Muhammad Ali in high esteem. Why are there no more Muhammad Ali’s – outspoken political sports figures – today?

DZ: Well, there are a couple of ways to answer that. The first is that you can’t understand Muhammad Ali without understanding that he came of age athletically and came of age politically in the 1960s. He was remarkably shaped by his time, so we can’t segment Ali out of [his] era…. It’s historically irresponsible and it puts an undue burden on athletes today to ask them to be anti-war and anti-racist leaders at a time without mass anti-war or anti-racist movements. We need those movements today, but Ali had the benefit of being influenced by those movements and then he then in turn influenced those movements as well. That being said, I would argue that while there may not be Ali’s today, there are far more athletes that speak out against politics that are very under-discussed. The fact that an entire team of the Phoenix Suns came out against Arizona and the anti-immigrant legislation and wore Los Suns jerseys on Cinco de Mayo during the playoffs – that is a historic moment. That’s never happened in the history of sports. So there may not be Ali, but there are a lot of things percolating right now, which draw our interest.

MD: Why do you think publicly-funded stadiums continue to be built across North America when it has been proven to be a bad idea over and over again in the past?

DZ: Yeah, it has proven to be a bad idea, but they are getting less subsidies now than they were getting ten years ago because of the preponderance of data that has come in. That’s the reason being given by NFL owners why they want to see a massive wage cut, like as much as 20 per cent wage cut of NFL players in the next CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). The number one public reason that owners are giving is “we are getting less stadium subsidies and the cost of upkeep on these stadiums that we’re paying for privately are coming out of our profits and should come out of your profits, too.” So there is a little bit less of that. The second thing is that you’re right – they are still getting built in some areas and that’s because I think first of all, owners lie. We know that for a fact, owners lie. Look down at the recent leaked documents from Major League Baseball and that’s proof positive. It’s right there – people can see it. They lie about how much profit they make, they threaten to move their teams, and then they extort our towns and municipalities. That’s why they keep getting publicly-funded stadiums even if it’s less than it was because the logic of the data makes it far more difficult for them to get whatever they want.

MD: The other night at the panel discussion, you spoke of the current business model of a lot of sports teams that inflate ticket and concessions prices. Do you think this business practice is alienating major portions of their fan base and do you think this is sustainable for the long-term health of professional sports teams?

DZ: We’re in a period where the fan is being alienated, but it’s not reflecting itself in the bottom line – the dollars – because fans aren’t as crucial [to] whether or not a team makes profit as they used to be. This used to be a kind of intrinsic mechanism or failsafe for sports where, if an owner didn’t put forward a good product or look like they were attempting to do so, their team would lose money and it would be a disaster. But now what we’re dealing with is that owning a sports team is like having a license to print money because of stadium construction, but also because of sweetheart cable deals and because of luxury boxes, and personal seat licenses. My concern is owners are maxing out short-term profit at the expense of long-term health of their sport. That’s the key kind of point there that we’ve got to make when we talk about this. This isn’t just about criticizing owners; it’s about making sure there’s an attractive sports venue that I can pass on to my kids. Right now it’s becoming a little bit noxious.

MD: You are one of the few journalists that cover sports politically and you bring to light a lot of important issues. Do you think that these opinions will ever become mainstream or do you think it will always be kind of a minority fringe opinion in the media’s coverage of sports?
DZ: I don’t consider it a minority fringe opinion. There have been protests in seventeen different ballparks protesting against Arizona’s laws. That’s not a fringe opinion. The majority of the United States now opposes public funding for stadiums. That’s not a fringe opinion. Sure, it is certainly a minority in media coverage, but at the same time when I was in town, I was on the CBC, on the rotation on ESPN, my latest book that came out was with a bigger publisher. That’s not to be braggadocious at all. It’s not me – I don’t care about that part of it. What I care is that they wouldn’t be coming for these ideas unless they thought that I had an audience and that’s what I feel like is there. I think the audience is underserved, but at a point it’s going to take the fans themselves to be active and demanding this stuff. There’s an organization called the Sports Fan Coalition, I think everybody should join it. I think the more active we are, and the more visible we are – and we are big, but we are not visible – the more visible we are, the more likely it is that editors will respond to the kind of writing that we do.