If the term fan evolved from the word fanatic, then David Zirin is the ultimate personification of the sports fan. Zirin is distinguished, however, from the stereotype – and reality – of the beer-swilling, big-bellied, couch-riding passive observer by his application of left-wing analysis to all things athletic. In fact, he’s made political analysis of professional sports his life’s work, and is writing the record to prove it, with books like What’s My Name, Fool?, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, and Welcome to the Terrordome.
When I first read Dave Zirin a few years ago, I assumed he was the only person on the planet analyzing sports from a political perspective. I found out otherwise when I went to hear him speak Saturday at a four-day Socialist extravaganza held in downtown Oakland. Turns out not only are there other sports lovers with a political analysis, but they overflowed the room, and, judging from hisses, boos, and cheers at key moments, most are far better informed than I.
Wearing a bright orange “Los Suns” t-shirt, Zirin opened and closed his talk by praising that basketball team’s Cinco de Mayo demonstration against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, when they took to the court wearing the shirt. It was, as Zirin emphasized, an extraordinary event; political statements on the part of professional athletes are about as common as edible Gulf Coast oysters. The Suns’ action was effective: it spawned demonstrations against the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team everywhere they’ve played this season – the biggest one being at their game against the Giants in San Francisco.
I hadn’t known about the SF demo – nor did I know that my beloved Joe Torre damned the protests out of his belief that sports are apolitical; or that Tony LaRussa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and known for major dog rescue operations in the East Bay, vociferously supports Arizona’s law. As Zirin said, “He likes animals, not people.” I can relate. Apparently, however, a lot goes on that I know nothing about; I aim to rectify the situation, beginning with visiting Zirin’s website regularly.
I’ve always thought that the sports world’s official line that they’re all apolitical fun and games is patently false, and I suspect the owners and fat cats know it. First of all, everything is political. And secondly, just because nobody talks about the beliefs underlying their behavior, policies, and actions doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated by a set of principles: Left-wing Studies 101, kids: That’s Politics!
I can, however, understand some hesitancy about protesting D’Backs’ games: after all, their state’s draconian laws aren’t the players’ fault, so why persecute them? But the goal of these protests isn’t team persecution, it’s to persuade Major League Baseball, and its namby-pamby leader, Commissioner Bud Selig, to relocate the 2011 All-Star game slated to be held in Arizona. Selig, true to form, says he won’t change it, but I suspect that if more players and managers, like White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, threaten not to attend, and if he fears demonstrations disrupting the event, Selig might be pressured to cave in.
Zirin’s talk was followed by the usual Q&A, which among socialists is taken as license to vent. Zirin seemed to anticipate no real questions coming his way: after his dynamic, frequently funny talk, he sat down and let the audience rip. After five or so indecipherable monologues from every corner of the room, Daryl and I stood – we’d taken front row seats, no less – and quietly sidled our way to the back doors.
Did I mention that Dave Zirin is not only smart, funny, and charismatic, but also adorable as hell? He may be a quarter century younger than me, but I swear we made eye contact two or three times. He must’ve seen in me a kindred spirit; I only hope he forgave my hasty escape.