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A Conversation With Dave Zirin

We've joked about being politically agnostic in these parts before, but that's not actually true. Like any breathing human, we have all kinds of political thoughts; we just don't think they belong on a sports site. Sports are one of the few realms that, if you try hard enough, can be separated from politics. Life and politics are complicated; sports are not. That's one of the reasons we love them.

Dave Zirin does not take this perspective. Zirin, columnist for The Nation and op-ed contributor to the Los Angeles Times, has been a longtime progressive voice in the world of sports, railing against racism, extreme capitalism and all the things the sports world does to screw you. His new book, Welcome To The Terrordome, is a provocative and compelling look at what he perceives as the real world of sports, one that is helplessly corrupt and muddled.


Sometimes we agree with Mr. Zirin, and sometimes we don't, but he's constantly fascinating. But is he right? Not just in terms of the issues, but in terms of whether or not the average sports fan even wants to deal with this stuff. After the jump, we discuss Zirin's book, the role of sports in people's lives and whether or not it's OK to hug a political opposite just because he roots for the same team you do.


As you know, we try not to get too much into politics here. This is not because we don't have any inherent political views — for example, we are desperately trying to get LaRouche back into the race — but because it seems like sports is one of the few things on earth in which politics, if you're careful, can actually be omitted from the discussion. We know politics is involved in everything, and that sports is about money, and that when you peek behind the curtain of sports, you'll find all kinds of ugly things. We're fully aware. But isn't there something to be said for ignoring that? Sports are, more than anything else, black and white: If our team wins, we are happy, and if they lose, we are sad. Isn't that a rare, beautiful thing? Nothing else in life is like that. Being a sports fan is an irrational act; we're all rooting for ugly corporations that are out to screw us. If we think about that every time we watch a game ... jeez, that's not very fun, is it?

I'll put my love of sports up against the freakiest, most anti-social, troglodytic Deadspin contributor (the ones I read first) I can think about the Mets giving up on Kevin Mitchell for Kevin McReynolds and start to cry. Right now. As I'm typing this. I love Kevin Mitchell so much, kittens avoid my sidewalk. (Too soon for an animal cruelty joke? Never.)

But it's precisely because I love sports that I feel there is a crying need to have some sort of political framework for understanding both the games we watch and the political messages pumped through our play (salute the flag, pay $8 for a beer, support your local enormo-dome/billion dollar welfare hotel).


I think if we as a fans can develop this framework then we could separate what we love about sports from what we hate about sports and demand it to change.

Think about how much space on Deadspin - by utter necessity! - is dedicated not to the "irrational act" of loving sports, or to scores and feats of derring-do, but to the sludge and detritus that clings to sports like so many maggots.


The very success of Deadspin shows how the anger of alienated sports fans is bursting-at-the-seams. So many people I meet fit that description: those who love sports but hate what they have become. Now if we could only take all that steam - all the disgust and anger people feel toward the 21st century athletic industrial complex - and direct it away from the typical easy targets: ("spoiled" athletes, the WNBA, soccer, Mr. Popularity Barry Bonds) and toward those - as you so aptly put it - screwing us over - then we can both fight to reclaim sports and demand a relationship with our games that isn't so numbingly abusive.

First off, we feel obliged to point out that any "success" Deadspin has is due to penis jokes and the sporadic Erin Andrews post. Frankly, Dave, we assumed you knew this.


We understand your overarching point — that we, as consumers, need to rise up against our corporate masters (or something like that) — and we agree that sometimes players are churned up and spit out by the system. But you have to see how the average fan, regardless of the financial underpinning of sports, pulling their hair out when they're paying 50 bucks for a seat while Gary Sheffield bitches about how he's being treated horribly while pulling down $15 million a year. If we're talking fan empowerment, don't we have to take that into account? Isn't that frustration and rage at least slightly justified?

And you're obviously a political liberal (or you're absolutely horrible at getting your point across, and that's clearly not the case). But one of the things we love about sports is that we can run into a random person at a bar and start talking to them about sports, even if they have the exact opposite philosophical stance of us. When Rick Ankiel homered at Busch in his first game, we were hugging everyone in sight. The odds are excellent — we were in St. Louis, after all — that one of those people we hugged believes in things that we find ridiculous, or even abhorrent. The Cardinals are probably the only thing we agree on. But in that brief moment, that was all that mattered, and we were immediately bonded. What else bonds people immediately like that? That is to say: Do you have really conservative sports fan friends? Do you think they're corrupt? Do you think they're purposely trying to pull wool over people's eyes? (And by "wool," we mean "fleece," because fleece feels good, particularly against our bare chest.)


Oh, and even though Stephon Marbury sells cheap shoes and speaks out on social issues (when he's not clearly doped up on local New York television) ... you don't really like that guy, do you?

OK, serious question now: Why does LeBron James have an obligation to speak out against Sudanese warlords? The guy is a commercial marketing machine and an amazing basketball player; should he be blasted for not taking a stance on the China Olympics? Why is that his job? Isn't his job just to sell shoes and put up triple doubles? Sure, it would be nice to have a bunch of Cassius Clays, taking a stance for The People, but is there something wrong with someone who doesn't? To us, the only real athlete with much to say is Charles Barkley, but you can't like him much: He sounds like Jason Whitlock.


I consider this to be a serious dialogue so please save the penis jokes for your basement dwelling bloggers, jeans roughly encircling their ankles. And besides it would offend my Uncle Lou who in fact has five penises. His pants fit like a glove.


We all know the seductive siren song of sports: the idea that a nation zig zagged by divisions, it can bring us together. And while I don't share your Cardinals fetish, my cockles were also warmed by the sight of Rick Ankiel hitting three run bombs instead of becoming an American Taliban.

But all of that presupposes that sports is apolitical space. And if it was, I would have no problem bear hugging George Will the next time Torii Hunter climbs the wall in center. But it aint. And wishing it is won't make it so. You can choose to believe sports isn't political. But as the saying goes, you don't have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane.


To put more meat on it, it's a little hard to just passively love the Yankees when they put up chains to keep people in place during the second national anthem/7th inning stretch. It's difficult to just smile and rejoice in a Washington Nationals game when they are having Military Appreciation Night (MAN - I kid thee not) at the park. It's difficult to go to a Braves game and be confronted with a Faith Day at the Park, and have someone from Focus on the Family distribute literature about how you can cure your gay son. It's difficult to cheer my beloved Minnesota Twins when I know their owner Carl "The 3 Billion Dollar Man" Pohlad is breaking ground on a largely taxpayer-funded 500 million dollar stadium, while bridges collapse beneath the cars of my friends.

That doesn't mean I am any less a fan of the Twins, but it means I want sports - all sports - to change the terms of their relationship with us simple fans.


To paraphrase Bill "Spaceman" Lee, people like me are in fact the real sports traditionalists. We want sports to be a la carte: free from politics, free from the eye rolling patriotic blather, free from the endless festival of sexism. But as long as it is contested political space, then we have a right to raise our voices about the parts of sport that make us physically ill.

And to that point, let's talk LeBron. I could care less if knows the Sudan from Shinola. Whether or not he chooses to use his hyper-exalted platform to do something other than sell us crap is his own business. But if he is going to say in interviews that his goal in life is to be "a global icon like Muhammad Ali," then I think people have every right to remind him that Ali is a global icon because he sacrificed millions of dollars, his health and his freedom because he believed in something bigger than himself. I'm not saying LeBron has to walk to a microphone and say "I aint got no quarrel with them Iraqis." But he could listen up when Stephon says to him, "I'd rather own than be owned."


And lastly, please don't put Sir Charles and Mr. Whitlock in the same sentence. One of them is endlessly entertaining and always interesting. The other is Jason Whitlock.

All fair points, though I not sure it makes us some crazed warmonger to not see all that much wrong with a Military Appreciation Night. And we agree: Fans should step up more than they do, considering how often they're taken advantage of. In fact, it's pretty much required.


But isn't that really the problem? The reason people bend over and take it from leagues and franchises and network is that we're the worst consumers in capitalism. What was the Simpsons joke from when Mark McGwire was on? "Do you want to know the horrible truth, or do you want to see me hit some dingers?" We're very easily distracted; we were FURIOUS when MLB was going to extort its way to putting its games only on DirectTV — like the Big Ten Network is doing now, though we're the only ones who care — but the minute the put the games on, I said, "Sweet! Here's 150 bucks! Go Cards!" I know that we SHOULD fight ... but in the end, we just want to enjoy the games. In a way, we don't want to think about how the sausage is made.

We're not saying it's right — at all — but we are saying that might be why it's difficult to get movements off the ground. But your book seems to be doing well. Is it just the left-wing folks who show up to your readings, or are you getting the good meathead fans we all know and love?


Oh, yeah, and if Etan Thomas is so full of social justice, why is he constantly getting in fights with Brendan Haywood? We're not even gonna bring up the poem about Abe Pollin's prostate.


Let's work our way backward like A-Rod's hairline.

First, regarding Etan, Etan Thomas is a guy who wants to use his athletic platform to affect change. The man just returned from Africa where he was working with HIV infected children alongside Ron Artest. [Wow. That was a sentence I never thought I'd write.] He's also a kick ass slam poet - people who've seen him in person give him serious respect. I emceed an event where the Godfather of slam poetry Amiri Baraka showed him love. That would be like someone you idolize praising Deadspin (Who would that even be? Joaquin Andujar? Neil Lomax? Len Sakata?) (Ed. Note: We think you know the answer to this question.)


But just because he's into peace love and understanding doesn't mean he's the one to fuck with either. One time he got into it with Maurice Taylor, and after the game Taylor said to the press, "I can't believe he got so mad. I thought he was a poet!" Brendan was talking through his agent about playing time. Etan confronted Brendan about it, and it sparked from there. It is what it is.

As for the book tour, it's been all the way live. On some spots, I've done mini-panels with folk like Chuck D from Public Enemy or William Rhoden or the Mayor of DC hip hop Head-roc, but mostly it's been solo. We've hit 25 cities, and the folks turning out aren't coffeehouse lefties. They are largely people who at one time in their lives loved sports but are now repelled by the whole spectacle. I try to argue - as we've said - that disliking the way sports is packaged doesn't mean people stop being involved. Sports are awesome, and we should never willingly give them up. It's like giving up on joy.


You're absolutely right mobilizing fans is difficult, but it ain't impossible. Remember when baseball fans lost their minds when the Opies running the sport wanted to put the Spider-Man 2 logo on second base? Remember when people lost their minds when Limbaugh when after McNabb. Hell, remember when a lot of sports fans stood with Coach Stringer and the women of Rutgers after Imus got youtubed off the air. (Tim Russert is still mending his broken heart.)

And lastly, Military Appreciation Night is vile because its purpose is not to "appreciate the military." I feel like we do that everyday considering the $500 billion defense budget. It exists because recruitment numbers fell through the floor alongside support for the war in Iraq. If they want to call it; Iraq Enduring Occupation Appreciation Night, that's fine, but I don't like the shuck and jive. Not for these ticket prices. Makes me mighty ornery.


I guess it all comes back to Homer, when he said, "Please, please kids! Stop fighting. Maybe Lisa's right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers."

(You can buy Welcome To The Terrordome on

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