Dave Zirin interview

Fair ball and foul

Journalist Dave Zirin on the mendacious effects of publicly funded stadiums, corporate ownership and boring baseball


September 16, 2010

In the last year, pro sports have taken a hefty beating from the Left. It was hard to love the colonialist Olympics, painful to watch South African runner Caster Semenya’s gender identity interrogated by sports pundits, and to many World Cup watchers, vuvuzelas lost their charm pretty quickly. But if there’s one person who’s able to sift through the layers of spin that drown the artistry of great athletes in so much corporate paraphernalia, it’s Dave Zirin, a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated’s website and The Nation magazine, and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. The Mirror spoke to him on the phone from New York.

What makes owners such bad sports?

When we’re growing up, why would you call somebody a bad sport? You would do it when they wouldn’t play fair, when they would cheat, when they would look out for themselves instead of looking out for the collective fun we were supposed to have. I’m upset about owners because I love sports but I have deep concerns about what sports have become and the owners are the people that are accountable for that. Players play, fans watch, owners are the only people in the sports world who are specifically charged with looking out for the long-term interests of sports and they’ve failed spectacularly at that job. A ball game now takes an hour longer to play than it did when I was a kid. And that’s because of commercials. Kids aren’t even watching baseball anymore because it’s boring.

It’s not just about the over-commodification, the nine-dollar hotdogs, the corporate appeasement, the racism, sexism and homophobia that clings to sports like barnacles on a boat. The problem is that sports has become a neo-liberal Trojan horse in our communities, pushing through economic policies that otherwise we would reject. I travel a lot and I go to places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Detroit. What you see is great American cities that have been absolutely decimated by the rusting over of the manufacturing sector, high unemployment, high foreclosure rates. Yet, what’s there instead? Gleaming, publicly-funded stadiums and jobs in the service industry that pay a fraction of what a union job would pay.

Theres a lot of talk about investing a fortune to bring back the Quebec Nordiques. Is that a bad idea?

It would definitely be a mistake to oppose the return of the Nordiques. But people could insist that, since public money is financing the effort, the public should have a stake in the team. Look at the Green Bay Packers. They’re a non-profit, community-owned team and the NFL has a clause in its constitution saying that no other team can do this. Barcelona, the great soccer team, is a publicly owned team. In Europe the fans organize themselves in fan clubs so they have an independent voice. They look at owners as the caretakers for their team. We don’t just have a moral ownership because we love our team, we also have a financial claim on them because of the amount of public subsidies, the way that the debt of professional sports is socialized and profit is privatized. So people could insist on some kind of partnership in the Nordiques.

A lot of your work documents the importance of sports figures in the civil rights movement. Is there as much of a collusion between sports and politics today?

There was certainly more going on in the sixties because there was a lot going on in the streets in the sixties. But recently there have been huge struggles over LGBT rights and gay players in sports. And that’s opened up deeper questions about notions of masculinity and femininity that are totally constructed. Or the idea that being gay is somehow weak.

There was an incredible development this summer, which is that the most dynamic immigration rights protests have happened at ballparks. Seventeen different ballparks have seen protests against the Arizona Diamondbacks who have become the travelling roadshow of Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws. The thing that unites the protests is the attempt to move the 2011 All-Star game out of Arizona. Baseball is heavily dependent on Latino players and you’ve had about 30 players speak out about Arizona’s laws.

Then before the opening night game of the football season last Thursday between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, each side came onto the field raising the number one in the air. They did it to show that they were in solidarity with each other as a union fighting against the NFL owners. They got savaged in the press for it but I think people may respond very positively. It’s not about a strike: owners want to lock them out because they want them to take a 20% pay cut and play two more games. 28% of all American televisions were tuned in when that happened: that may have been the most widely viewed act of solidarity in the history of the United States.

Dave Zirin speaks at Concordias H-110 auditorium (1455 Maisonneuve W.) on Tuesday September 21 at 7 p.m. See qpirgconcordia.org for details.

Montreal Mirror September 16, 2010 (this is the unedited text) 


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