Perhaps best known for his Edge of Sportscolumn and radio show, Dave Zirin is the award-winning antithesis of the mainstream sportswriter. A contributor to journals ranging from Sports Illustrated to The Progressive and The Nation, he is the author of the Muhammad Ali Handbook, What's My Name, Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States and Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.
His new volume, A People's History of Sports in the United States, was published last month as part of historian Howard Zinn's People's History series for New Press. In 320 pages, Zirin places sports in the socio-political and cultural contexts where they belong, tracing the most courageous and ignominious sports episodes in U.S. history -- calling out villains who disguised themselves as sports heroes, while rescuing from obscurity many athletes whose moral courage merited glory but too often came at the cost of public condemnation, and analyzing trends such as the rise of what Zirin describes as "muscular Christianity."
At the Wisconsin Book Festival, Zirin is scheduled to discuss A People's History of Sports in the United States during an appearance with Madison poet Matthew Guenette at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall. In anticipation of his appearance here, Zirin called time-out to participate in a wide-ranging email interview in which he addresses the ideals and shortcomings of his beat, identifies a handful of sports journalists who have risen above the profession to distinguish themselves, outlines his vision for sports in the 21st century and nominates five athletes to the inaugural induction class for the Dave Zirin Sports Hall of Fame.
The Daily Page: Who do you envision as the audience for A People's History of Sports in the United States? Who do you think will read it? And who should read it?
Zirin: I hope it can bring together sports fans who are resistant to politics as well as political lovers who can't stand sports. The goal of the book is to try and bring these two worlds together. It would be great to see that represented in the audience.
To whom or what do you ascribe your capacity for critical thinking?
I appreciate the complement -- assuming it is a complement. I credit my big sister for never agreeing with me about anything when we were growing up.
How do you reconcile your moral outrage with your determination to continue holding sports to account?
I don't think they need to be reconciled. I think that sports have a moral obligation to fans, community, and consumers. But it's an abusive relationship at best.
To what degree are fans and sports journalists culpable for what's wrong with sports?
I don't see fans as culpable. They are the victims in this process. As far as sports journalists, the absence of critical journalism given the injustices in sport is astounding. There are some great ones -- Sally Jenkins, Sal Paolantonio and Scoop Jackson come to mind -- but the majority have failed the public trust.
How and where do you find joy and exhilaration in sports?
I think sports at their best are like art. It's the actual play where the joy and exhilaration are found: the rediscovering of what is possible. That's why we all return to sports even if the relationship is abusive.
What is your earliest personal memory of sports?
My father telling me stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers. The fact that the Dodgers were ripped from Brooklyn always, I suppose, made me suspicious of the Sports World.
At what point did you start to see sports the way you view them now? Was your shift in perspective a process, or did something trigger it?
Yes something triggered it. There was a moment when I felt like I could never consume sports in the same way again, and then another, more than a decade ago, when I realized I wanted to write A People's History of Sports… but you will have to come to the talk to find out what! (It's part of my presentation.)
During your research for the book, which episodes or aspects of the history did you find most surprising -- and in what ways did they surprise you?
The history of the Negro Leagues (baseball) was a bracing one. Before writing the book, I assumed that the Negro Leagues were a regrettable part of the nation's segregated past. The truth is more complicated. The Negro Leagues were the largest, most broad-based African American-run business in the United States, employing black accountants, bookkeepers, equipment managers, etc. It forged a connection with the black community that was real. The evisceration of the Negro Leagues was a painful moment in many people's history.
To what degree have sports in the U.S. served as an opiate for the masses?
I don't think they are an "opiate" at all. Opiate implies that people watch -- or play -- for total nihilistic and useless escape. But sports are something far richer than that. They are part of the human experience, something beautiful that should be treasured and reclaimed, not scorned.
Sports fans and historians are notorious enthusiasts for minutiae. How nervous did this make you during the fact-checking process?
Extremely. I've already gotten some flack about differences in opinion as to the origins of baseball. But the endnotes are endless and I definitely need to get my fact checker a case of booze as a thank you.
How would you summarize your personal sporting ideals? In a perfect world, what purpose should sports serve?
Fun, exercise, escape and a breakdown between spectator and participant. I would also want to end this professionalization of youth sports. It's a scandal.
Who or what accounts for your refusal to pull punches?
I don't see the point of being a writer in any field that pulls punches. Why write then?
Which sports do you enjoy as a recreational or competitive participant?
Basketball definitely. A little bit of soccer.
Applying standards of conscience as well as athletic achievement, whom would you identify as our three greatest contemporary athletes, and why should we cheer them?
I think Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, Jeff Monson from the world of Ultimate Fighting, and Sheryl Swoopes from the WNBA. They don't check who they are and proudly have minds, not merely bodies.
Who would you pick as history's most exemplary sports journalists, and why should fans go back and read them?
Ralph Wiley, Shirley Povich, Grantland Rice, Sam Lacy, Robert Lipsyte. They should be read because they never artificially segregated the sports world from the real world.
When you scan the contemporary domestic sports landscape, what would you identify as the most prominent vestiges of muscular Christianity?
American football, without question.
How would you recommend your Wisconsin Book Festival audience prepare itself to get the most out of your appearance here?
Please pick up and read the book in advance. Also watch a sporting event on tape, and fast-forward through all the commercials.
Who would you short-list to the inaugural induction class for the Dave Zirin Sports Hall of Fame?
Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova.
Which aspects of researching and writing People's History did you find most frustrating? And which were the most satisfying?
Most frustrating was trying to figure out how to tell the history in under 100,000 words. Most satisfying was learning the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker and integrating it into the text (you gotta read it to find out).
You end the book on an ambivalent note with a slight tilt toward the hopeful. What is your vision for the history of 21st-century sports in the U.S.?
I hope it's a history of athletes realizing how much cultural capital they possess, and fans realizing that they are not powerless consumers but have the capacity to challenge sports to change.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends and neighbors, and why would you recommend it?
I think I would highly recommend Waiting Until the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of the Black Power Movement, by Peniel Joseph. It's vivid and breaks new ground.