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Field of Schemes—How Politics Infected Sports

DAVE ZIRIN recently referred to Robert Lipsyte as “my personal sports writing Yoda.” Lipsyte is the writer who in 1975, after several years on The New York Times sports desk, published SportsWorld—at the time, a bracing exposé of athletic exploitation and corruption. Lipsyte proved himself an unafraid myth-buster: it may sound silly to today’s far more jaded sports fan, but pointing out that the ultimate underdog team—the “Amazin’ Mets” of 1969—actually turned healthy profits, for example, was like revealing the Tooth Fairy’s true identity.

Zirin’s latest book, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down, is a more explicitly left-wing, twenty-first century incarnation of the Lipsyte project. It hovers over the wide world of sports, galloping liberally from the players to owners, from economic inequality to gender inequality. While the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, Zirin’s central argument is that politics, having dominated sports during Lipsyte’s day, “has returned with a vengeance” following “the apolitical 1990s.” And he insists that “the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

The timing is ripe for this argument. We now know the scientific link between routine football plays and permanent brain damage. In the past 18 months, the owners of three different leagues locked out members of four different unions (National Football League players, National Basketball Association players, NFL referees, National Hockey League players). Penn State coaches and administrators protected an alleged child rapist. Sports fans are more likely than ever to understand that their ultimate escapist fantasy isn’t really all that escapist. As a result of this, there are no sandbags keeping real-life things, most of all politics, from flooding in to the fan’s previously myopic worldview.

To his credit, Zirin—The Nation’s sports columnist—has assigned himself a mission that goes beyond merely making this point. He aims to prove that sports’ prominence with the apolitical masses makes them an essential medium for political messages. He begins his book with the Miami Heat, led by superstar LeBron James, showing solidarity with Trayvon Martin by wearing hoodies. This and countless other events, Zirin writes, demonstrate “that sports is never just a spectacle—that it has a potential to tap into sentiments for social change.”

Yet as Zirin persuasively argues in an excellent chapter on the damage the Olympics or World Cup Finals inflict on host cities such as Johannesburg, London, and Rio, sports just as often stunt political progress. Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Games, is, in Zirin’s telling, “yet another neoliberal Trojan horse, attempting to push through an agenda the populace would despise were it not wrapped in the trappings of sport.” Elsewhere, he seconds historian Taylor Branch’s observation that college athletics reeks of the “whiff of the plantation.” In these instances and more, his effective polemics demonstrate how sports, rather than subverting centuries-old stereotypes and social roles, frequently confirm them.

Zirin ultimately wants our consciousness raised by sports in two ways. He wants those brave, Jackie Robinson-esque protests to convey larger points about society, and he wants those retrograde aspects of sports to highlight the retrograde aspects of society. But his book, while frequently impressive, does not make it clear how both things are supposed to happen: how the average fan is simultaneously to receive LeBron’s message about Trayvon in earnest and view mostly minority college basketball and football players competing for inadequate scholarships with skeptical sophistication. Maybe the solution is for everyone to read his book?

Well, actually, most sports fans should read his book, and for that exact reason, but more conscientious ones can probably skip it. Perhaps because Zirin has borrowed liberally from his columns, his book caroms from subject to subject with the unpredictability of a punted football. He is persuasive that franchise owners hold cities hostage for public funds (the Miami Marlins are just one sorry example); that Egypt’s soccer fanatics created a template for social organization in the Mubarak-era security state; and that sports are still not a good place for gays and lesbians, or for women, either. Each chapter reads like a very solid book proposal, and as a whole, the book reads like several very solid book proposals. I nearly always agreed with Zirin, but was frustrated that his disparate pieces lack a single argument about sports’ relationship to politics.

A more coherent book might have been called Occupying Sports. It would expand on the first chapter—“Occupy the Sports World”—and parts of another—“Zombie Teams and Zombie Owners”—and would investigate how the Occupy movement illuminated the extent to which athletes struggle with management. Whether or not professional athletes fall into the 1 percent in terms of social standing (in terms of wealth, most do not), their relationship with management squarely places them in the 99 percent. Besides, Zirin notes, it is not only players who are hurt by labor strife initiated by super-greedy owners: it is arena workers, and tens of thousands of other low-wage laborers. The 2011 NFL labor struggle, Zirin convincingly concludes, “was really workers, in an age of austerity, beating back the bosses and showing that solidarity is the only way to win.”

Solidarity might have been the leitmotif for this book. Zirin describes how the Phoenix Suns took a classy stand against Arizona’s hateful immigration policies (among other things, they identified themselves as “Los Suns”), while the Major League Baseball Players Association vocally opposed Arizona’s infamous show-me-your-papers SB 1070 law. “There is no record of the union’s putting out a similar statement on any political issue in its history,” Zirin writes. “We saw how sports can become an electric platform for social justice. Athletes’ actions and statements can humanize an issue and reach untold numbers who skip the front page and go directly to the sports section.”

Zirin has much good advice for professional athletes, but precious little for the fans. He calls for college basketball players to refuse to compete until they are promised more than crumbs, but he does not say whether it is okay to watch the Final Four until they do. Can one be a responsible, ethical sports fan? Or is such a thing a contradiction in terms?

The fact that Zirin takes a pass on this question is especially unfortunate, because it is here that he could one-up Lipsyte. Lipsyte always insisted, very believably, that he never really much liked sports. The result is that, for all Lipsyte’s insight, there is always a bit of a credibility problem with him. By contrast, winking at his fellow fans is a fundamental part of Zirin’s M.O., as in: “The NBA is the only major sport in which a person of African descent sits in a team’s owner’s box (although, since we’re talking about the Charlotte Bobcats, we should probably put the word ‘team’ in quotes).” If Zirin posited serious arguments for how to be a better sports fan, with the good humor and the strong liberal values evident throughout his book, we would have to take them seriously.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow @marcatracy.