Why We Need To Know Our Radical Sports History
July 14, 2005
In High School, I was a 5' 10" inch center for the fearsome Friends Seminary Quakers in New York City. It wasn't pretty, but I lived for it and didn't care if the opposing center could spit on my head. I just loved sports. My walls were shrines to Magic Johnson, Lawrence Taylor, and Keith Hernandez. Every stat, every record, and every rule existed only to be memorized. Weekends were for playing ball until sunset.
But somewhere along the way, I got a life. 'Operation Desert Storm', and the L.A. Riots burned across my TV screen. As the world seemed to turn upside down, sports began to seem meaningless at best, and at worst, against any concept of social justice. This became jarringly clear during the 1991 Gulf War when I saw "my team's" mascot thrash a person in an Arab suit at half court while the jumbo-tron encouraged chants of U-S-A. Limping away from the arena, I concluded, that sports were part of the problem, and cheering blindly was like going to see 'Rambo' to admire the special effects while ignoring the Vietnamese villagers Stallone was stamping out like bugs.
Then in 1996, a basketball player named Mahmoud Abdul Rauf refused to stand for the National Anthem. Rauf believed the flag to be "a symbol of oppression and tyranny," and was willing to suffer the consequences. His courage was stunning, but even more shocking was the howling cries for his head. When Rauf was suspended, some news reports resembled lynch mobs. But others likened him to Muhammad Ali, whose title was stripped for being a draft resistor during the Viet Nam war. This was a history I barely knew. As Rauf began to buckle under the tremendous pressure of right wing bombast, it became clear that our side needed a history of the resistance in US pro sports. To aid this effort, I started writing a column called Edge of Sports, and just completed my first book "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States."
When some friends back home heard what I was writing, a Friar's Club Roast seemed to spontaneously generate. These guys seemed to magically morph into a gaggle of Henny Youngmans in baggy jeans. "Pro Sports and radical politics?" one budding Borscht Belter smirked. "That will make a helluva pamphlet!" Or "What's your next book, Dick Cheney's Diet Tips? John Ashcroft's Favorite Black History Moments?"
Everyone had a jibe. But my buddies are like Shaquille O'Neal's free throws: simply way off. The history of how social struggles have exploded onto the playing field is vibrant, thrilling and very real. More importantly, it's a tradition that arms us with the ability to challenge the dominant ideas in that swoosh adorned ivory tower . The problem is that its political teeth have been so thoroughly extracted that the most compelling parts of our history, the parts that have the most to show and teach us today, reside forgotten on the ESPN cutting room floor.
For example, we may know that baseball was segregated until 1947. But we don't know the story of Lester "Red" Rodney, the sports editor of the Communist Party's newspaper the Daily Worker. Rodney ran his 1930s sports page as an organizing center to fight for baseball's integration. This campaign garnered over a million signatures, collected at ballparks around the country. ["Red" Rodney is still with us at age 95, and interviewing him for this book was an experience I will never forget].
We may know that Jackie Robinson was the first player to integrate baseball. But we know him only as a kind of quiet suffering black saint, who did it "the right way," under the paternal eye of Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. We don't know him as the person who thought, "'To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.' I could throw down my bat, stride over to the dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all."
We may know that the great boxing champ Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Viet Nam. But we don't know he consciously stood with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, - the resistance - saying, "The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice freedom, and equality."
We may know about the famed Black Power Salute, of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. But we don't know that they wore beads to protest lynching, went without shoes to protest poverty, or that John Carlos wore his shirt open because as he said to me, "I was representing shift workers, blue-collar people, and the underdogs. The people whose contributions to society are so important, but don't get recognized."
We may know about Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome. But we don't know how intertwined that tennis match was with the fight for Title IX, one of the enduring victories of the women's liberation movement of which King was proudly a part. We also don't know that King was far more than a symbol. She also started a union for women's tennis players to fight for equal pay.
We need to know this history because it is a living history - which is precisely what makes it so threatening. As Carlos said to me, "So much is the same as it was in 1968. Look at Mississippi or Alabama. It hasn't changed from back in the day. Look at the city of Memphis and you still see blight up and down. You can still see the despair. It's alive"
He's right. But it's also alive anytime athletes today attempt to use their platform to speak on social issues or draw inspiration from struggles in the street. It's alive when NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash says, "The war in Iraq is based on oil," while wearing a t-shirt that reads "No War! Shoot For Peace." It's alive when then-Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado made clear that he wouldn't stand on the steps during the seventh inning stretch to God Bless America because the war in Iraq is "murder based on lies". It's alive every time when the NBA's Etan Thomas shows up at anti-death penalty events to read his slam poetry; poetry that calls out the racism of the system in utterly stark terms. And it's alive when the US Congress feared calling Barry Bonds to testify on steroids for concern that he would say to them what he has been saying to reporters, namely "Why is steroids cheating but making a shirt in Korea for 50 cents and selling it here for $150 isn't?"
Knowing this history positions us to support and embrace athletes who go out on a political limb, risking their careers for principle. This method allows us not only engage and embrace the Etan Thomases, Carlos Delgados, and other 21st century Athletic Rebels but also the fans that thrill to their exploits.
My friends believe that having a "some kind of theory" or analysis drains the life out of sports. The opposite is in fact the case. By confronting the messages pumped out through our play, we can dissect what we like, what we dislike, and begin to challenge sports - and our society - to change.
When warplanes fly overhead we can ask how many physical education classes are cut to pay for each Blue Angel.
When college athletes are pilloried for taking under-the-table payoffs, we can ask whose blood, sweat, and tears paid for the brand spanking new enormo-dome that grace their campuses.
When insanely sexist commercials trade on women's oppression for the high cause of selling beer, we can make clear that this has no place in sports.
When the announcers on Fox become as aghast as a Southern belle when a touchdown dancer gets raunchy, we can ask why a network that pays Bill O'Reilly millions and promotes shows like Who's Your Daddy? and The Littlest Groom has the right to be the purity police.
When our cities are soaked by sleazy stadium deals, we can stand up as sports fans and say, "Hey, we love baseball, but I'm not going to give a billionaire a $350 million present for the privilege of watching it."
By speaking out for the political soul of the sports we love, we do more than just build a fighting left that stands for social justice. We also begin to impose our own ideas on the world of sports - a counter morality to compete with the rank hypocrisy of the pro leagues. These are ideas that can embrace and cheer competition. That can appreciate the artistic talents of athletes and the strategy of coaches and players alike. That can thrill to seeing Barry Bonds swinging a bat, or Michael Vick shredding a defense, or Mia Hamm kicking a soccer ball. But unlike the mainstream sports jabber, it's a morality that recognizes male and female athletes - and all women - as human beings with minds as well as bodies.
It also needs to understand that the incentive of athletes to speak out for social justice lies not in their individual brilliance but in our ability to build a struggle outside the arena and in the streets. If we want more Muhammad Alis, more John Carlos', and more Billie Jean Kings - if we want to see a gay male athlete have the courage to risk his neck by coming out - then we need to build a broader movement for social justice outside the arena, so our "heroes" will also have people to look up to.
In that fight we need every drop of history, experience, and tradition we can get our hands on. As Tommie Smith himself said about his famed Black Power salute, "It's not something I can lay on my shelf and forget about. My heart and soul are still on that team, and I still believe in everything we were trying to fight for in 1968. [It] has not been resolved and will be part of our future."
Dave Zirin's new book "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States is now in stores.. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.