Author Dave Zirin talks about a sports moment that changed the world
"I don't think there's any place where the contradictions in American society are on such sharp display as in sports," Zirin told me. "Think back to African American boxing champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Neither made explicit political statements, but they had representative political power, representing power and pride in the context of racism and white supremacy. They weren't just entertainers but in fact their presence, the inspiration they provided, was a threat to the established order of things."
In sports today, there's no doubt that athletes, in particular African American athletes, play a similar role. NBA hall of famer Charles Barkley once objected — perhaps with his tongue somewhat in his cheek — to the idea that he was a role model. Zirin laughed at the mention of this, saying, "Yeah, and the sky isn't blue. You don't chose to be a role model, you are one. It's an objective thing. And if people are going to be role models, like it or not, then we all have to examine what they're modeling. If you believe that the fact that a player can dunk makes him a great person, that says one thing. If having a sense of purpose in politics is important, then that says something very different."
When Zirin and Carlos planned their book, both agreed that they weren't interested in producing a sports memoir. "We didn't want to say 'look at me, genuflect at my athletic greatness.' We wanted to say that not everyone can run at a world-class speed, but anyone can live a life dedicated to a sense of purpose."
That approach runs head-on into a mainstream media that has made a point of emphasizing how "today's pampered athletes," as the media often put it, want nothing more than a fat pay check. There's truth in this perspective — although it should be noted that both the NFL and NBA have experienced lockouts this year and that the same media outlets rarely describe the fabulously wealthy owners of professional franchises as pampered billionaires.
"I wrote an article," he explained, called "'NBA Players: Welcome to the 99%.' Despite their money and privilege, they found themselves in a position where they were facing arrogant billionaires asking for a bailout because they made a lot of bad business decisions as NBA owners. It's just like Wall Street bankers want American working people to cover all their bad bets. Will their proposed savings go back to fans? I don't think so, they'll just get a bigger slice of the pie."
Besides, Zirin pointed out that there's a lot more to the story that rarely reaches the public. Professional sports will publicly punish athletes who are caught crossing certain lines. But when it comes to speaking to the politics of injustice, the leagues try to deal with transgressions behind the scenes.
"There's a ton of corporate and financial pressure on these athletes," he says. "And these players talk to each other about guys like Craig Hodges [a guard on three Chicago Bulls championship teams], who in 1992 passed a note to Bush Sr. about Iraq War I when the Bulls visited the White House. He was drummed out of the league for that and these stories are passed down almost like scare stories. At the end of the day, we have to remember what Carlos and Smith did was in the context of global revolt and crisis. It was a symbol of the moment and a perfect merging of movements and moments. We can't forget that."
Although Zirin makes a point in his work to include athletes of all nationalities and sexual preferences, he has particular insights into the role African American athletes play in American culture.