Friday, January 11, 2008

Review: David Zirin, Welcome to the Terrordome

I grew up in a very sports oriented family. I played sports, my sister played sports, my father talked about sports, and we attended many sporting events. Sports were important, sports defined you. I was fortunate to grow up in Cincinnati in the 1970s and 1980s as I was able to see some of the greatest baseball players to ever play and, on occasion, some decent football. As my family is largely from Indiana, I also grew up watching some pretty good Hoosier basketball. As I grew older, and more politically aware, I also became to see how athletics was one way that people debate morality, ethics, and justice. It is also an industry that, in some ways, is a microcosm of the nation--for good and bad.

The first time I became aware of this was while attending a University of Michigan basketball game. I don't recall who they were playing, but I happened to notice that all the players on the court were black. I then panned around Crisler Arena and noticed that I couldn't find a single black face (not that their weren't any blacks there, I am sure there were, I just couldn't pick any out.) I thought--"I wonder if this is how the Romans felt." By then, I was already aware of racism in athletics. My first specific remembrance was while watching an Indiana basketball game and the announcers stated that the particular lineup on the court was the Hoosiers' "most athletic"--I looked at the players and couldn't understand the basis for that comment, until I realized that every black player on the team was on the court--and then I understood--he meant "most black." It was a sudden realization--an epiphany--I quickly began going through my catalog of adjectives typically associated with professional athletes--smart, a leader, hard-worker, a hustler vs. gifted, talented, athletic, instinctual---you don't need to be Al Sharpton to understand where I am going. In Welcome to the Terrordome, David Zirin explores the politics of race and culture that are part of the spectacle of athletics. Ranging from the Barry Bonds witch hunt to Hurricane Katrina, Zirin examines how sports reflects and shapes our society.

Although it is often difficult to think of professional athletes as "workers," Zirin reminds us that professional sports teams are class stratified organizations and are embedded in a class society. This is most obvious in the minor-league system in baseball. In a very insightful chapter, Zirin explores how Caribbean and Latin American poverty serves to feed baseball many of its aspiring stars, at bargain prices, until they reach the "big time." Also, how black Americans, many of whom who live in cities beleaguered by poverty and a lack of public resources drained by expansive stadium projects, are turning away from baseball due to its expense and lack of places to play. The incredible pay discrepancies and short career expectancies combine to create a win at all cost attitude in athletics, which has been a perfect breeding ground for performance enhancing drugs ranging from simple painkillers to steroids.

This isn't the only way that people with power exploit sports. The Pat Tillman incident is case and point--how an "all-American boy" and athlete came to be a poster boy for war. Of course, it is no mystery to any sports fan that team owners try to use fan loyalty as a political tool to gouge tax rebates out of the public to construct public stadiums for private purposes--classic welfare for the rich in the name of "supporting the team."

Zirin also reminds us that athletics, on occasion, can be a site of cultural progress and popular triumph. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act. Athletes like Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and others have used their status as stars to make political statements and raise public awareness about important issues. At times, fans have used sporting events to raise awareness of social justice. In fact, one of the first major protests that I helped to organize took place at a sporting event--it was an anti-sweatshop action at a Michigan football game.

Zirin reflects on why more athletes don't take stands. His interesting answer is a combination of apathy and fear. As with many people, even if you have a commitment to a particular cause or issue, it can be easier to keep it to yourself rather than deal with the ramifications of expressing your opinion. Although it may seem easier for wealthy professional athletes, since the industry is premised on image and marketing, becoming politically controversial can be risky--it certainly won't help your endorsements.

David Zirin is easily the most politically astute sports writer I have come across. Few writers are able to situate sports in the larger context of society as Zirin is, and for that, his work Welcome to the Terrordome is worth the read.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Such a nice eye-opening material! Loved it. It's a little hard to accept that our national sports industries are still full with racism! And the examples are every where in every different category, in viagra online stores I've seen it, in McDonald's I've seen it, in Golf, I've seen it...