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A League of Fans Special Feature

Dave Zirin is the leading sports activist/journalist in the country.  He regularly writes about the intersection of politics and sports.  Zirin was named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” and won the Sport in Society and Northeastern University School of Journalism’s 2011 “Excellence in Sports Journalism Award.”

Zirin grew up a huge sports fan.  Through the years, he became increasingly interested in the social justice history of sport and the link between politics and sports in our communities.  Those interests eventually became his career.  He is the author of numerous books, most recently The John Carlos Story.  He’s also the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, a foundational book for those looking to examine sport from a socio-cultural perspective.

Zirin was recently interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director.

Ken Reed:  How would you describe your career?  What do you call yourself?

Dave Zirin:  I like to think of myself as a sportswriter from an activist journalist tradition.

KR:  Who would you identify as your role models and mentors at this point in your career?

DZ:  Definitely Robert Lipsyte, a long-time sports columnist with the New York Times.  He has been very supportive.  Former NFL player, civil rights activist, and anti-war activist, Dave Meggyesy has been terrific.  I would also say Lester Rodney who helped take down the color barrier in Major League Baseball while a sports columnist for the Daily Worker.  And Dennis Brutus who used sports to help fight apartheid in South Africa.

They all helped develop a blueprint for how sports could be used to open peoples’ eyes to larger society ills.

KR:  You’ve written several books.  Which one do you think is the most important?

DZ:  That’s tough, but I would have to say Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love because it lays out the core of the problem.

KR:  What is your biggest frustration in doing what you do?

DZ:  That there aren’t more athletes who feel comfortable enough to speak out.

KR:  Speaking of activist athletes, you’ve written extensively about Muhammad Ali through the years.  You obviously admire Ali a great deal.  Could you talk a little bit about your admiration of Ali?

DZ:  Well, Ali was the most famous athlete of his day.  On top of that, he had his foot in both the black freedom struggle and the Vietnam war.  He helped shape those events.  He provides a great lesson.

Why don’t more athletes speak out?  Ali spoke out and was very successful.

KR:  What do you think is the biggest issue in sports today?

DZ:  I would say the lack of basic fairness in how college sports operate in this country.  Harry Edwards calls it one of the major civil rights issues of our time.  Division I college sports is big business.  Billions of dollars are generated, yet the people who give the blood and sweat to generate those dollars don’t see a dime of it.  It speaks to the deep problems and misplaced priorities we have in higher education in this country.

KR:  What’s the solution?

DZ:  There are flaws in all the proposed solutions.  If I had a magic wand, the NFL and NBA would have their own minor leagues and there wouldn’t be any athletic scholarships at the college level.  But that’s not very realistic at this point.

Nevertheless, all avenues, at all levels, need to be explored and pursued to make this corrupt moral system more just.  There are certainly things that could and should be done.  I think athletic scholarships should be four-year scholarships, not one-year.  Also, college athletes should receive stipends from the huge TV and shoe deals in college sports.  At the least, funds should be established for players to come back and continue their educations after they’ve explored their options in professional sports.

KR:  You’ve said in the past year that you’re done with the NCAA.  Could you elaborate on that a little?

DZ:  I’m a big believer that as critics of sports we should never forget what we love about sports.  At times, there is true joy, and other positive things, that we can get from sports.  I believe we need to separate the good and bad in sports and challenge what’s wrong.

However, when it comes to the NCAA, there are just too many problems in big-time college sports for me to write about any positives.  I can’t celebrate the fake amateurism of the NCAA.  It’s a culture of corruption and denial.  It’s also an addiction culture.  College presidents are addicted to the lure of big-time college sports.  They all dream of being the University of Texas.  But the reality is most athletic departments lose money.

KR:  What do you think will be the tipping point in college sports?

DZ:  When college athletes get more organized.  It’s a mistake to think that eventually there will be enough scandals in college sports for the system to collapse under its own weight.  I don’t see things changing without a positive counter and I think athletes getting organized will be that positive counter.  What the NCPA [National College Players Association] is doing in helping organize college athletes is very encouraging.

KR:  We spend a lot of time talking about the problems at the pro and big-time college levels.  How about the youth and high school levels, what are our challenges there?

DZ:  It’s the trickle-down of the professionalization of pro and college sports — all the way down to the youth level.   The cost of youth sports is getting out of reach for the average family.  There’s a new book by Mark Hyman about this subject called The Most Expensive Game in Town.  It’s a look at the economics of youth sports.

By high school, we’re sectioning kids off, we’re identifying “future pros” at an early age.  We have to get better at getting out the message that there’s a place in sports for everybody.  Not everyone can find a place in the pros but participating in sports is still valuable for all of us.

KR:  It seems that money – that is greed, or what I call PAAC, profit at all costs – inevitably taints the essence of sport, at every level.  What checks and balances do you think we need to have in order to prevent greed from warping sport at its best?

DZ:  Without some type of national authority like a sports commission it will be very difficult.  So, we’re left with isolated struggles, like fighting publicly-financed stadiums.  But we can learn from each other across the country.  There are common problems and common solutions.

KR:   The U.S. is considered a sports crazy country.  Yet, when you look at it deeper, we’re really a nation of sports fans, not participants.  What’s your take on the fact that by the time most young people finish sports – usually between 13 and 18 – they’re done with sports participation for life?

DZ:  Play is an elemental part of who we are as human beings.  The key is that we have to increase access to sports as much as possible so more of us can play, and continue playing.  As a society, we’ve separated those who play and those who don’t play.  Any sports movement worth its salt has to break down that division between those who play and those who don’t.

KR:  I talk to a lot of disenfranchised sports stakeholders – fans and participants at all levels.  They often feel powerless to change anything in the world of sports, to really make a difference.  What do you think the average fan or participant out there can do to make sports more fair and just?

DZ:  They have to stop letting the big honchos of sports set the agenda for the system.  We need to make our own demands regarding how sports can be.  I think there are three basic ways for people to get involved:  1)  Get involved with organizations that are working to make the sports experience better, like League of Fans and the Sports Fans Coalition; 2)  Get loud and vocal about the sports issues that bother you, locally and nationally; and 3) Pressure lawmakers to step in and be accountable.

We all have every legal, moral, and ethical right to be heard on these issues.

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