As one SLAM writer’s new book makes abundantly clear, sports and politics do mix, and more than ever.
by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports
I wrote a book that is about to come out called Game Over: How Politics Have Turned the Sports World Upside Down. This wasn’t a book I wanted to write; it was a book I felt like I had to write.
The message is constantly pounded into our heads, what Howard Cosell called “rule number one of the jockocracy”: the idea that sports and politics are not allowed to mix. Just ask Bob Costas, who spoke about “gun culture” in the United States for 90 entire seconds and reaped a whirlwind of criticism.
It’s easy to understand why there is such hostility to politics in sports. ESPN’s endless array of channels, 24-hour talk radio and fans’ seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world—and its profits—into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Then there’s the fact that many of us watch sports to forget about the real world, not to be reminded of it.
Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting—or gracing, depending on how you look at it—sports. The Golden Rule of separating sports and politics has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum, as a series of revolutions, occupations and protests have defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder. My book explores how and why this is taking place. As I hope to show, whether we see ourselves as sports fans or not, we all have a stake in understanding why the sports page is insufficient for understanding sports.
My inspiration for doing this book actually started with our beloved NBA.
On Cinco de Mayo in 2010, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns went where no American sports team had ever gone. Before their Playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, the squad took to the court wearing jerseys that read LOS SUNS. They were coming out as one against Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which critics said would codify racial profiling by criminalizing anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. This was the first time in US sports history that an entire team—from owner to general manager to players—had expressed any kind of unified political stance. This audacious move by the Suns was perhaps the most publicized of a low-frequency sea change in the world of sports.
The scene quickly shifted from hoops. There were the members of the Green Bay Packers who stood—and continue to stand—behind the workers of Wisconsin under attack by Governor Scott Walker.
Then there were the soccer players and clubs in the Middle East who played a leading role in the Arab Spring and, with unprecedented impact, are helping lead revolutions from their position.
Other political explosions have recently detonated inside the American world of sports. Labor lockouts in the NFL and NBA have brought a taste of the broader economic crisis that provoked the Occupy movement into this supposedly privileged space. We even saw growing numbers of NFL players—Pro-Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo, punter Chris Kluwe and New Orleans Saints Super Bowl hero Scott Fujita speaking out for LGBT rights. (They were later joined by Steve Nash, Michael Strahan, Sean Avery, Charles Barkley, Michael Irvin and other players willing to speak out on what was recently a taboo locker room subject.)
Our sports culture plays a powerful role in shaping this country’s collective ideas. It is where cultural meanings—our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but as individuals—play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with and resisted.
These are important questions, and they’re questions the guardians of sport would rather not get asked. This book will ask those questions. This book aims to make sense of all the noise that the boosters and shills in the athletic industrial complex are trying, and failing, to ignore. We are going to look at all the ways sports, politics, revolution and reaction have collided in recent years and try to understand if the political messages that flow through sports are, in fact, a canary in the coal mine for all of us. I hope to show that the stakes couldn’t be higher.