When a private soccer league threatened to displace local pickup soccer groups, it sparked a larger discussion about fair allocation of recreation space in a gentrifying city.
Sports may no longer provide American athletes or spectators with an escape from politics. Our most popular athletic contests now double as venues for debates about race, gender rights, religion and class. In his newest book, “Game Over,” Dave Zirin argues that the hot-button issues of our time are now impossible to detach from our pastimes. We’ll explore how games became arenas for epic clashes over everything from the role of religion in the public square to the push for democracy in the Arab Spring.
- Dave Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, "The John Carlos Story" (Haymarket Books) and "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket Books)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Roughly, 100 million Americans will gather in front of their televisions on Sunday night for the mother of all American athletic events, the Super Bowl.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA great many of them will, no doubt, try to kick back, eat a little junk food and forget about the rest of the world for a few hours. But sports writer, Dave Zirin, says the days are long gone when we could count on our favorite games and pastimes to provide some respite from politics.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe argues that the athletic arena now simply doubles as a venue for debates where, about the values that make us who we are. Whether they're debates about religion in the public square, gender rights, immigration or war. So try as we might on Sunday to detach our politics from our sports and focus on the game between the Ravens and the 49ers, Zirin says we should face the reality that for the athletes, for the fans and even for people who pay little attention to sports, these are no longer merely games.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're living in the era of "Game Over." Dave Zirin is sports editor at "The Nation." He's the author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." Dave Zirin, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. DAVE ZIRINIt's great to be here, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure. Dave will be speaking tonight and signing copies of his book, "Game Over," at Busboys and Poets at 2021 14th Street Northwest in the District. That event begins at 6:30 pm. Later sportscaster, Howard Cosell used to like to say that the number one rule of the jock-acracy (sp?) was that sports and politics do not mix.
NNAMDIBut you say we've reached a point where it's impossible to detach our politics from our pastimes and that no where will that be any more apparent than at an event like this weekend, Super Bowl. When you tune into the game what will you see?
ZIRINWell, there's going to be so much that we see that has actually nothing to do with football, with the idea of throwing a ball, catching it, scoring a touchdown and winning a game and that is something that's been a fact for the last several years. And that's actually the reason why I wrote this book, is this increasing frustration with sports media that you have all these explosive issues coming out in the world of sports and yet the sports media as it currently exists, just not talking about them.
ZIRINIt's like if people were sent to cover the civil rights movement in the 1950s and came back with dispatches about the quality of Dr. King's grey suits. And by the way there were articles back then that did just that. I mean, it's not seeing what's happening before our very eyes and what we're seeing is a wide scale transformation in the world of sports where political issues are really, in no way shape or form, able to be segmented or set apart from the play.
ZIRINAnd you're going to see that front and center in the Super Bowl this week. I mean, there's a couple of issues that have come up with this Super Bowl that are going to be there for people and that people are going to see and that they're going to have to confront even if they just want to see a game.
NNAMDIBefore you say what those issues are allow me to tell people how to participate in this conversation. 800-433-8850 is our number, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you enjoy sports more when politics are out of the picture? Do you think it's possible to put politics out of the picture any longer? 800-433-8850 to talk with Dave Zirin. Now, let's talk about the issues you were talking about that we will see in the Super Bowl.
ZIRINAbsolutely. You know, Dr. King gave his life to slaying what he called the giant triplets of American life and that he described as militarism, racism and economic injustice. Those were the giant triplets that Dr. King said he would take on. Watch the Super Bowl this year and you will see the giant triplets on full display.
ZIRINMilitarism, there will be without question as there have been in recent years in the Super Bowl, an explosion of military, both sponsorship, war planes flying overhead before the games, live action shots of the 101st Airborne, watching...
NNAMDIWhy is that? Every sporting event I go to there is some militarism. Whether it's a basketball game at the college or pro level, football, why is that?
ZIRINWell, there are several reasons why that is. I mean, first of all, there's the direct financial reason. That the military directly sponsors these events because they see that the people who watch sports are the same people they want to try to get to sign up for the U.S. military.
ZIRINAnd it's a way to say, hey, if you like this sporting event, then you will just love the latest war that we've got going on in Afghanistan, in Iraq, what have you. So there's, one is directly connected to the other on a financial basis. The second reason that I think you see the connection is it works the other way too.
ZIRINIs that it's a way to dramatize the sporting event itself and you hear this all time. I mean, RG3 who the quarterback for our Washington football team, and I love RG3 but when he went down with his knee injury in the playoff game a few weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks, the first tweet that he sent out afterwards was against critics who said that he shouldn't have been out there playing with an already injured knee.
ZIRINAnd he said you don't know what it's like to be out there in war when the bullets are flying all around you or words to that effect. And this is RG3 who's from a military family and should really know that football and war have very little to do with each other, other than that one sponsors the other.
ZIRINAnd yet, it becomes a part of the language because it's a way to dramatize the event. I mean, think about quarterbacks are called field generals throwing bullets and bombs down the field encroaching on enemy space and this is a very historic part of U.S. sports. I mean, you could go back to Teddy Roosevelt, like the language of war and the language of sports, walking arm in arm. But in our hyper commercialized 21st century era it's just so much more in your face.
NNAMDISo that's one of the triplets, militarism.
ZIRINMilitarism's a big one. Another one, racism, big one. I mean, the NFL this year just had a horrible embarrassment. There were eight head coaching opportunities open, all eight filled by white coaches. This despite the fact of the much praised Rooney Rule as it's called, which asks that NFL owners and NFL general managers to actually interview African American head coaches for these jobs.
ZIRINYet they went 0 for 8 in showcasing any kind of diversity. There's now the lowest number of African American head coaches that we've seen in over a decade.
NNAMDIThat's compared with what percentage of African American players in the league?
ZIRIN70 percent players are African American. We're now talking about less than nine percent of head coaches are African American. And one of the reasons why that is, is that there's been a rush to hire offensive coordinators as head coaches. It's seen as a very offensive sport at this point and of the 32 offensive coordinators in the National Football League, 31 are white.
ZIRINAnd if people don't think that that's connected to issues of race and racism then they don't understand the history of the National Football League. There was a time where you had to be white to be a quarterback in the National Football League because it was thought that only...
NNAMDIIt required a certain level of intelligence.
ZIRINExactly, exactly. Randal Cunningham, when he was a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s, he was asked that at his first press conference, "Do you feel like you're intelligent enough to be a quarterback in the National Football League?" And you, and yet since that time in the '80s there are, of course, more African American quarterbacks now, yet the play calling duties have moved from being the province of the quarterback to the province of the offensive coordinator with very few exceptions, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady.
ZIRINOther than that, if you're the quarterback you're not necessarily calling the plays, the offensive coordinator is calling the plays and you look at there and it's this highly racialized as ever, as I said, 31 out of 32 African American. The only African American offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens, Jim Caldwell who was actually hired mid season. So it was 0 for 32 by about the halfway point of this past year.
NNAMDIAnd he's going to the Super Bowl.
NNAMDIThird of the triplets?
ZIRINThird of the triplets is economic exploitation. Now, this is something that the NFL is loath to talk about but they have players in the National Football League because there are people in this country who feel like that this is their only way out of poverty.
ZIRINAnd this is going to become more and more acute as we see more and more suburban parents keeping their children from playing youth football because of the new statistics that we see about head injuries, concussions and the way it can really, if you're playing football under the age of 14 you could be, tackle football, you could talk about it's stunting the rest of your life.
ZIRINThe intellectual development that you will experience for the next 30, 40 years of your life could be stunted just by playing Pop Warner football. That's the medical data, that's not my opinion. And this received a lot of news over the weekend when President Obama was interviewed by "The New Republic" and he said that if he had a son he doesn't know that he would let him play football.
NNAMDISo he'd have to think twice.
ZIRINHe'd have to think twice and I could speak for my family as well. I have a four year old son. My father-in-law was invited to the Dallas Cowboys camp but played college football and he always said that his grandson would play football and we always sort of smiled and went along with it. In the last year my wife has put, you know, put the foot down and said to her dad, no that's not happening.
ZIRINAnd I'm, of course, yes I'm with her because I'm smart. But it's something as you see that it's going to drive the economic status of the players who actually play in the National Football League more and more impoverished state. And of course, the people who play football, the average career is only three and a half years. Their life expectancy is, by some studies, less than the typical American male.
NNAMDIBut you know, every time you say the average football player only plays three and a half years it's, it flies by because people tend to focus on the superstars, the ones who, like Ray Lewis played for 12 years or more...
NNAMDI...not realizing that there are a very small minority of the people who play professional football.
ZIRINExactly. So much praise for Ray Lewis, 17 years in the league. That's more than any middle linebacker has ever played in the history of the league. Yet, it doesn't make nearly as good a copy to talk about the players who get in there, they play for a year, two years, they get injured terribly and then we never see them again. So that's part of it too.
ZIRINA couple of people want to comment on this already. Here's Jeff, in Washington D.C. Jeff, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JEFFThank you, good afternoon. I'm concentrating mainly on the first prong, militarism. That is something that's been going on ever since the NFL has managed to market itself into being the most preferred American sport, you know, since the 1970s. Owners have seized upon that particular imaginary and they've marketed directly their teams and indirectly their sports to reflect that sentiment.
JEFFI'm going to have to drop a name here. If you look at Dallas and the way Dallas was marketed in the mid to late '70s with the posters as America's team with, you know, that very open appeal towards what was seen as a traditional America with those traditional values. That was partly the owner expressing himself but also that was very canny marketing for the sake of profit. And that's been going on across, in pro football, for about 40 years and you see it reflected in other sports, not quite to the same extent.
NNAMDIThat's the process that's been taking place, Dave Zirin?
ZIRINNo, that's absolutely true as far as the acceleration in the 1970s as part of the politics of backlash against the 1960s was the NFL being put forward as a counter to that with the Dallas Cowboys, the so-called America's team being a part of that. the one thing that I would add to tie it back to our previous discussion is that there actually is one place where the NFL and the Armed Forces have a great deal of legitimate interests in common and that's the issue of TBI or traumatic brain injury.
ZIRINThe U.S. Army and the NFL have actually joined forces with pooling tens of millions of dollars to share research about the effects of traumatic brain injury because they have found that the effects of playing in the NFL are very similar to the effects of suffering a nearby IED blast or a concussive grenade and so there is a real similarity as much we scoff at the idea of comparing the NFL to actually fighting in a war. Some of the aftereffects are in fact quite similar.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jeff. If the Super Bowl isn't about football or if it is about football it's also about big money ads. It's my understanding that you've got your eyes peeled for a particular ad by a company called Soda Stream. Why?
ZIRINYes. That was part two -- we're talking about three things. First we've got Dr. King and his three triplets that are reflected in the NFL, then we have Soda Stream and then we also need to talk about LGBT rights in the Super Bowl. But let's go with Soda Stream for a second. There will be a Super Bowl ad for a company called Soda Stream. It bills itself as being very eco friendly because what it does is it allows you to take water and carbonate it in your home.
ZIRINThe problem is that Soda Stream is a factory that -- in a business that exists on an illegal settlement in the West Bank. It's an Israeli company that has a history of labor violations, that is actually a part of a free trade zone in the West Bank that's been illegally settled by the Israeli government. Now there are people who would call the very existence of Soda Stream a human rights violation. There have been regular protests right here in D.C. led by Jewish voices for peace at the Columbia Heights Mall where Soda Stream is sold. And these protests are not going to stop any time soon.
ZIRINAnd a lot of us reflects SodaStream as seen as a symbol of the way -- of a human rights violation, an illegal factory is able to be mainstreamed and marketed in a way that actually looks eco friendly, that actually tries to appeal to people with liberal sensitivities and liberal sympathies like...
NNAMDIWell, there's going to be protests against that ad, including Code Pink protesting against it. It's my understanding that there's also likely to be a protest against the protest.
ZIRINYes. And there have been protests against the protest because folks on the other side of this question, they see the West Bank as being, of course, you know, critical to Israel's security concerns and therefore any ability to settle the West Bank, whether it's settle it militarily or economically creates a buffer zone.
ZIRINThe counterargument to that, which is a counterargument that I certainly stand with, is that it's not their land to do that with. And it violates every possible semblance of UN decree and resolution about what makes up Palestinian land. But the bigger issue for this discussion is that there is no cultural real estate more prized in American life than an ad in the Super Bowl.
ZIRINAnd so to have this company have an ad during the Super Bowl, I mean, really is crossing into new territory and new ground. And in some respects it's a positive because it allows people to see that, hey this actually does exist. Like it's an opportunity to say there are companies that exist on illegal settlements that force people off land to be able to build and market. And now that reality -- people are going to be confronted with that fact during the Super Bowl.
NNAMDIYou mentioned LGBT issues, before we get off of the Super Bowl and take a break.
ZIRINOh, I've got to mention that because, is America ready for the big gay Super Bowl. Because on one side, you have Brendon Ayanbadejo who's a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. He has said explicitly that he is going to use the Super Bowl as a way to speak out for LGBT rights, marriage rights, anti-bullying. He's been in contact with all sorts of people who've been involved in this issue and said, how do we do this? So he's ready to do that.
ZIRINOn the other side, the San Francisco 49ers are the first NFL team to actually do one of the it-gets-better ads against anti-LGBT bullying. So it's an issue that is going to be front and center during the Super Bowl. And Brendon Ayanbadejo, he joins actually a significant list of NFL players. And the NFL of course if such a sort of hamlet of this kind of, you know, toxic masculinity, you know. And to have it be also a platform for LGBT rights is really quite remarkable.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Dave Zirin. He has a new book out. It's called "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can shoot us an email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." A major athletic contest like the Super Bowl is usually pitched as an economic boost to the whole city, just as something like the World Cup is being pitched as a rallying point for Brazilian 2014. But you say underneath the surface in Brazil is a bigger story about the displacement of more than a million families who live in low income neighborhoods. What's happening there in your eyes?
ZIRINI was in Brazil for several weeks in September and toured all of the famous favelas on the hills in Rio. And it really is remarkable what's going on there. It's like the Olympics and the World Cup, both of which are coming to Brazil, both of which are going to have locations in Rio, have been operating as like a neoliberal Trojan horse showing up to the country with this idea of celebration and we're going to celebrate the country. And it's going to be a global brand and a global city and a destination city.
ZIRINWhen in reality, beneath the surface, what you're seeing is mass displacement taking place in Rio right now. You're seeing the creation of all kinds of bus lines and clearings as a way to get people to leave. And what's so interesting about Rio is that -- you know, in this country if you're rich you live on the hill and if you're poor you live on the bottom of the hill, like say Beverly Hills for example. It's the reverse in Rio where if you're poor you live on the hill.
ZIRINAnd there was economic stagnation in Brazil for 30 years so now that there is growth and these events are coming, and there is such rampant real estate speculation that takes place in Brazil, there is a push to get people off of the hills and to begin to develop and construct on the hills. And what that means is that you have these communities. And a tragedy is that people translate favela as meaning slum.
ZIRINShanty towns, exactly. These are communities that people -- you don't want to of course glorify a sense of poverty but these are communities that people have built up by themselves over the course of decades, generations of people living there. And I've got to tell you, like, I was in Rio, like Ipanema, a fancy neighborhood at the bottom of the hill. And there there's a Starbucks with an armed guard in the front, so you can get your Starbucks without fear of being shot and killed. Or you go up into the favelas where people leave their doors unlocked and they actually care for stray dogs and cats.
ZIRINSo it's a very incredible, bizarre world, funhouse mirror as far as what is or what isn't in progress. And the Olympics and World Cup allow them to get away with development projects that they otherwise wouldn't be able to get away with.
NNAMDIWell, the current president of Brazil who people would argue has a lot of progressive credentials, so to speak, the government there makes the argument that they are in fact resettling these residents and spending millions of dollars in order to resettle them from what they would describe shanty towns into better locations. What say you?
ZIRINYes. The places where they are being resettled -- and they are spending millions of dollars, but they're spending millions of dollars to develop where they used to live, and then being sent to places that are like these austere antiseptic government projects. Now much -- for families living in areas, not just bigger than this room we're in here right now, this little radio studio that we're in. And you contrast that to the favelas that I saw where people on their own -- I mean, it's a very DIY, do-it-yourself culture where people are on their own building stories upon stories on their own houses.
ZIRINAnd Brazil traditionally has had some of the most stringent squatter's right laws in the world. So people have taken over these areas and built them up and built them up for their families. And they have a sense of pride and a sense of community. And the government is gutting that in the name of progress.
NNAMDIOn to Tony in Baltimore, Md. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYYeah, I just wanted to make a comment about the nature of the national pastime. I lived in Europe, in Asia actually for many years. You know, as a culture we celebrate the Super Bowl and we all sit down with our beer and snack food. And it just seems to be not healthy.
NNAMDIAs opposed to what?
TONYWell, you look at, like, Europe, Germany where votes marching. I mean, everybody now on the weekend. You know, this nation, we drive everywhere, we sit down everywhere, it is what we are. The national pastime is something that we all watch. Very few of us actually play, and I'm sure there's a lot of soccer moms who will call in and say how their kids play soccer and stuff like this.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up because there are other cultures in which the fans of those sports do definitely not stay home. So, Tony, thank you very much for bringing that up because it's fitting that we're talking today, nearly two years after massive protests toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. During the past week Egypt's new President Mohammed Morsi was forced to declare a state of emergency in three cities after protests engulfed the country, some of which erupted in response to the death sentence as recently handed down to a group of soccer fans involved in a riot last year. This is a place where people in general go to watch their teams play.
NNAMDIYou write that the culture of these fans known as Ultras or Ultras is essential to understanding what's really taking place in Egypt and how the political revolution began two years ago to begin with.
ZIRINExactly. I mean, fandom inherently reflects the country where those fans take place. And so you can tell a lot about a country by looking at how people ingest and follow sports. So the caller is right, that in this country it can be an incredibly passive relationship between sport and fan. In Egypt historically is very different. And that's the starting point is Hosni Mubarak. He was dictator for 30 years. If you protested against Hosni Mubarak, you could find yourself locked up with the key thrown away. But what Hosni Mubarak did allow, which is very common among autocracies throughout the world, is he allowed much more organizing, chanting and even street violence when it involved sports.
ZIRINSo if you were going to go out in the street and chant, you know, we want food, you're going to find your heads cracked in by the police. But if you're going to go out there and just be an ultra fan club and fight other teams or even fight the police, the rule in the Mubarak political system was, let them blow off their steam. Now when the revolution happens the soccer clubs, the Ultras, found themselves as being the people who had the most experience in how to do things like set up checkpoints, keep an area safe, keep an area secure, keep out the police.
ZIRINSo the fan clubs found -- and I have a whole chapter on his in the book -- they found themselves in the position of actually defending the interests of the revolution. Now when the Port Said massacre took place, this horrible thing that took place where dozens of people died in the soccer match, which led to everything that's happening there right now, the starting point of the Ultras was, this is a fault of the police. This is something that the government let take place as a way to declare a state of emergency and delay the victory and the fruits of the revolution.
ZIRINSo this latest court decision, which calls for the execution of 21 people but doesn't hold any of the security people to account, has led to this kind of violent outbreak because -- and this is not something you're getting in the U.S. press but because there is a broad sense of saying that this is really a cover up. That this is a tactic, not just to divide and conquer people, but also a tactic to declare more states of emergency so there can be even further delay of any sort of real political and democratic reform.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about the roles that the Ultras displayed during the Egyptian revolution itself, because under normal circumstances these are people in different camps with very intense rivalries. How did they happen to, so to speak, come together?
ZIRINWell, it didn't happen by accident and it didn't happen easily. I quote people in the chapter that I have about Egypt and the revolution saying things like, yeah I'll fight against Mubarak but it'll be a cold day in hell before I ever link arms with the fans of Zamalek, you know. So for a lot of cases when they would secure Tahrir Square you would have, like, the Alawi fans on one side and the Zamalek fans on the other -- the fan clubs because they couldn't even be near each other. They couldn't even say their names without spitting. I mean, the dislike was so intense.
ZIRINNow if that sounds bizarre to people, try to imagine Red Socks and Yankee fans linking arm in arm and you could see that this wouldn't exactly -- or for here, Ravens and Steelers fans, it's hard to imagine. But just the shear process of organizing and fighting broke down those barriers between them. I mean, when it comes to a point where Mubarak, for example, was calling upon members of his armed guard to ride into Tahrir Square with horses beating people over the head brandishing swords, at that point you tend to care a little less that someone roots for Zamalek and you're willing to link arms and do something.
NNAMDIHere's Normein (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Normein, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORMEINI just wanted to make the point, if it wasn't for the Ultras and the unions, those are the two who really turned the tide in Tahrir and made it really the revolution that we talk about today. And they continue -- many of the people who died in Port Said were revolutionaries in that square.
ZIRINThat's right. That's exactly correct. And that's what's -- I'm so glad you said that because that's what's not being reported in the press here with the current riots. It makes it seem like something chaotic as opposed to something that for people has a real political logic to it. And if I could say one more thing about the call, the relationship there is very important because without the unions, particularly without the strikes that took place towards the end of Mubarak's reign, he doesn't get pushed out like he did. But without the Ultras maybe Tahrir Square doesn't even happen. Maybe it gets crushed so early in its infancy that there's not even time for the unions to really grab that baton and run with it.
NNAMDINormein, thank you very much for your call. And because Dave Zirin is very versatile, I'm going to swing back to the NFL here for a second with Charles in Washington, D.C. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESYes, it's a very interesting discussion you have here, gentlemen. One thing that I always seem to be -- the NFL seems to be very hypocritical is the health of its players. They say they want to protect the players' (word?) but yet they still have -- the only thing that (unintelligible) happen like three or four days after (unintelligible) game with both teams, what have you (unintelligible) . And then they argue for more regular season games. I (unintelligible) how the NFL to really say they're for the health of the players when they do all this, you know, type of stuff.
ZIRINWell, let's be very straight up, Charles. I think that the commission Roger Goodell is a profound hypocrite. And I think that what he has been proposing in terms of the health and safety measures for players has been public relations, a way to have a queasy public feel that something is being done while actually doing nothing. And you want to hear just like the basic proof of that is that the owners are not proposing anything that will actually cost them money.
ZIRINEverything that they're proposing to make things safer are about taking money out of the players' pockets, fining them for excessive hits and things of that nature, while at the same time they're still pushing for an 18-game season. That would of course make the season longer. They're still not putting independent medical professional on the sideline, which is just absolutely unbelievable to me that you don't have independent medical professionals on the sideline.
NNAMDIThe medical professional on the sideline work for the team.
ZIRIN...work for the team and this is how you get ridiculous situations like Dr. James Andrews, the famed orthopedist for Washington's football team. I mean, we often saw what happened with RG3. The day before their big game against the Seahawks, James Andrews says, well I didn't clear him to play. And then of course he actually gets hurt and then it's a big scandal. And the day after James Andrews says, well I think people misinterpreted what I said. And it's like there's no trust there.
ZIRINAnd I've talked to a lot of players about this and there really isn't that kind of trust. And let alone like psychiatric professionals. I mean, this has been a big issue, of course, because of the number of suicides in the National Football League in the last year. And yet you do not have psychotherapists, psychiatrists who are independent of the team. And I've talked to players about this and no one feels like any meeting with the team counselor is in any way confidential. And when you have people, you know, from poor backgrounds and they don't have guaranteed contracts, this is not a recipe for player safety.
NNAMDICharles, thank you very much for your call. Along the same line, Ron in Gaithersburg, Md. Ron, your turn.
RONYeah, Kojo, thank you for taking my call. This is a great show and I have to kind of piggyback on the last caller but expand it a little bit. In that I look at football as a regular business and a football field as like a factory floor. And if on a regular factory 10 to 15 percent of your workers would get seriously injured every single time you opened the door for normal business, OSHA would shut you down. How does the NFL get around these basic OSHA rules?
NNAMDIOSHA being the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Dave Zirin?
ZIRINSigned into law by Richard Nixon, putting that out there because we had mass social movements at that time that pushed him to do so. They get around it because they have antitrust exemptions. That's why owning a pro sports team, whether it's the NFL, Major League Baseball or what have you, is really like having a license to print money. You don't have to open your books and you get to evade all kinds of rules that otherwise you would have to follow.
ZIRINSo they have antitrust protections against OSHA, but ideally OSHA would be right now in the middle of a serious investigation over, for example, what happened to RG3 at that game. Was it the coach, was it the medical staff, was it Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team that had that field in such horrific disrepair? I mean OSHA would be investigating this and they are not because they are not charged to. And that's a serious problem.
NNAMDIThanks for your call, Ron. This email we got from Woodbridge. "What will it take to break football's grip on our culture? I am a mom who will have to confront the Pop Warner issue with my son soon. I have some time to figure it out, but football does worry me. At this point, it's pretty easy to notice how savage a game professional football has become, but as a society, we're willing to watch these men do savage things to one another, drink our Miller beer and allow ourselves to be brainwashed by all the commercials. I'm convinced it will take nothing short of a player dying on the field for us to start to think differently. What are Dave's thoughts?"
ZIRINWell, first of all, the winds of history are at your back. So don't feel as embattled as you sound. More than one million less children are playing youth football than a year ago. That's about an 8 percent drop and that's a big deal. And it's hard to know, of course, what to attribute that to, but it would be hard not to see it as attributed to a lot of the news about head injuries that have come out.
ZIRINThe second thing is that I talked to Robert Cantu, who is considered the foremost expert on the issue of football and brain injuries and has worked for the NFL and is somebody who is very high up in power. He has put out there that he thinks tackle football should be banned for people under 14, strictly for neurological reasons. Not because it's his opinion that it's a moral or that it's bad for the social fabric of the country, but just straight up neurology. The same way you wouldn't let a 12-year-old drive a Sherman tank or let a 12-year-old drive a truck, you shouldn't let a 12-year-old play tackle football under the age of 14.
ZIRINAnd I really think that that's where things are headed for the future. And I think that terrifies the NFL because they look at a sport like boxing, which was once the most popular sport in the United States. And they say, there but for the grace of the almighty dollar go us.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dave Zirin. He is sports editor of The Nation and author of several books. The most recent book is "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." If you're on the phone we'll try to get to your call, but we first have to take this short break. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think sports have changed America's political culture or how politics have affected sports? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Dave Zirin. He has written several books. The most recent of which is titled, "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." He will be speaking tonight and signing copies of that book at Busboys and Poets at 2021 14th Street Northwest, in the District. That event begins at 6:30 p.m. You know, there might not be an athlete on Earth whose brand has suffered as much and fallen as far as Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who has now admitted that he cheated with performance enhancing drugs to come back from cancer and dominate his sport. What do you see when you look at Lance Armstrong through a more, I guess, social lens than through an athletic one?
ZIRINWell, a couple of things. First of all, he symbolizes one of the things that frustrates me so much about sports media and why I wrote this book, in that we seem to build up athletes and then tear them down. Build them up to unreasonable degrees and then take this great delight in tearing them down, with very little shades of gray in that process. It's like that line from the Batman movie, die a hero or live long enough to become a villain. I mean if Lance Armstrong had tragically passed away 10 years ago, for example, there's a very good chance that there would be buildings named after him here in Washington, D.C.
ZIRINAnd instead, now we get what's happening right now. So I think both are blown so out of proportion. Like how great he was. He was clearly not that great. How awful he was. Yeah, he was pretty awful, but it's not like he lied to get us into war in Iraq or anything or crash the financial system in 2008. And yet we speak about him as if he's our modern day Genghis Khan, Ted Bundy with a bicycle. Now, what he did, though, instead--I mean it is repellant what he did.
ZIRINHe's very different from say somebody like Barry Bonds, who we've discussed before, who was a player. And then you have a management structure above Barry Bonds that benefited from what he may or may not have ingested in his body. What Lance Armstrong was, was much more of an owner. That's how cycling works. He ran his cycling team. And there is a ton of evidence that he pressured people -- people have sworn to this under oath, that he bullied and pressured them to also use performance enhancing drugs.
ZIRINNow he has denied that, but he has admitted this to the healing glow of Oprah Winfrey. He admitted to her, in an interview that was a disaster…
NNAMDIHe went after people.
ZIRIN…that he went after people, that he bullied people, that he attacked people, that he sued people as a way to keep them quiet. He hurt the reputations of a lot of very good journalists who got caught up in the story. And I think this so emblematic of a sports culture that really is out of control. And one of the reasons is that there's no gatekeepers. There's no fact checkers. There's nobody actually looking to see who these athletes are, what they stand for, what they don't stand for and assessing them as actual what they are, which is ambassadors of ideas in our society.
ZIRINInstead, it's just you either God them up, as my friend Bob Lipsyte says, you God them up or you just tear them down.
NNAMDIOnto Travis, in Ocean City, Md. Travis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRAVISHi. This isn't related to Lance Armstrong. This is more harking back to the NFL players.
TRAVISI think these players should have known what they were getting into. I mean it is a violent sport. It's always been a violent sport. If you were a fighter in UFC and you went into the Octagon and, you know, in another violent arena, I just don't think you could walk out of there and say I didn't know this was going to happen to me. I didn't know that, you know, repeated blows to the head were, you know, going to have long-term effects. Similarly, in the winter X games in Aspen recently there have been a number of very vicious injuries, people in snowmobiles, skiing, etcetera and I feel like as an athlete you should understand…
NNAMDIIn other words, Dave Zirin, if you took all of the people in college football right now or the people in Pee Wee football, sat them down in a room, showed them every statistic there is about concussions. Showed them in the most graphic forms, the injuries that they can have, they would still be going after the brass ring, so to speak.
ZIRINYes and no. I mean, you get to this issue of informed consent, which is very important. And what I would say back to you Travis is actually I agree and I actually strongly disagree with a part of what you just said. I agree that there is certainly assumed risk when you play in the NFL. But you have to understand that what we're finding out about what head injuries produce, even when they wear these space age helmets. I mean we're talking about early on-set dementia. We're talking about early on-set Alzheimer's disease. We're talking about the inability to remember your loved ones and family.
ZIRINI mean these were things that, no, players did not know that was going to be a part of playing in the NFL.
NNAMDIThat's not going to happen to me, though.
ZIRINYeah, exactly. That's not going to happen to me. I'll be one of the lucky ones. And unfortunately, that's not the case. And every time I now interview an NFL player, I always ask them that question, like do you want your son playing in the National Football League? And I'll tell you something, some say yes, some say no, but they all think about it. Nobody is confident and says, absolutely. What a great life it gave me.
NNAMDIIn other words, change doesn't occur overnight.
ZIRINWell, you know, like James Reston once said, we're much better, as the media, covering revolution than evolution. And there is an evolution taking place in how even football players think of the game.
NNAMDITravis, thank you very much for your call. Another brand that's been run through the ringer in recent weeks has been Notre Dame Football. For much of the season they were the subject of heart-wrenching feature stories about how their star player Manti Te'o lost his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day in September and played through the pain. Except it turns out that the story about his girlfriend was a hoax, either perpetrated on or with him.
NNAMDIRegardless, you have expressed outrage that more important stories about the Notre Dame brand involving the University's response to rape cases have escaped scrutiny. Why is it that you feel that Notre Dame's brand has grown to be so powerful? How do you think this string of stories is likely to affect it in the future?
ZIRINWell, it's so powerful because it generates hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. And this is a small, private, Catholic university of 13,000. People don't realize how small it is. It's not some big state school, funding all kinds of departments or whatnot. What it is instead is the beating heartbeat of South Bend, Ind., which is another de-industrialized part of the Midwestern rust belt of the United States. Every home game at Notre Dame pumps $10 million into the local economy. And it's a company town.
ZIRINAnd what do you do when there's a company town? You protect the company. So Manti Te'o has been protected. Protected in the case of he perpetrated this hoax about this fake, dead woman, this horrible story. And he has been protected by the school. The athletic director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference where he cried, he actually shed tears and spoke about that the great tragedy of the Manti Te'o story is, as he put it, and I quote, "the most trusting young man I've ever known will never trust again."
ZIRINNow, if you'll excuse me, I’m getting nauseous. And they're much better at working with this situation of a fake dead girl than with an actual dead young woman, a woman named Lizzy Seeberg, who went to neighboring Saint Mary's College, who took her own life after accusing members of the Notre Dame Football team of sexual assault. She tried to go public with the charges. She was sent threatening text messages by the football team. She was a freshman from a whole family of Notre Dame graduates. And she took her own life.
ZIRINNow, there was no internal investigation into what happened to Lizzy Seeberg, like there was for Manti Te'o. There were no tears shed by Jack Swarbrick. Instead there were jokes made by the head football coach Brian Kelly. So this is a school, two years ago, way before the Manti Te'o stuff broke of course. I wrote an article saying that I thought Notre Dame Football should take a break. That the school would be better off if they just stopped playing football for awhile, that the moral compass was completely out of whack. I wrote this after Lizzy Seeberg took her own life.
ZIRINAnd another young man, Declan Sullivan, died when the coach sent him up onto a crane in a hurricane to film the team. And he was sending out tweets like, whoa, I might die up here. And then he dies.
ZIRINNo investigation and certainly no internal investigation. No real push by the University to find out what took place. So it's a school in serious need of reformation. And to me the Te'o story only really exposes the funhouse mirror of Fighting Irish Football.
NNAMDIOnto Doug, in Silver Spring, Md. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGHi, Dave. It's Doug, your old neighbor.
ZIRINHey, how you doing, Doug?
DOUGHey, pretty good, man. I'm going to shift it all away from football and I'm going to ask you what did you think of the whole incident with the lockout with hockey this year? I mean, we lose half a season and, you know, the Caps aren't doing so hot right now. And, I mean, they got their first win the other night. Hopefully, another one is coming up soon.
NNAMDIWhat Doug is referring to is the fact that pro hockey players are now back on the ice after a lockout washed out the first several months of the season. A lot of people make these labor disagreements in professional sports out to be fights between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners. How do you feel, Dave Zirin?
ZIRINWell, I feel that this is a function of the broader economic crisis in our society, is that owners have chosen, because they can't get public subsidies anymore, to extract wealth from players. So you have every single pro sports league now, for the first time, is represented by the same law firm called Proskauer Rose, New York City. And that's why there have been four lockouts in the last year. Interestingly, Proskauer Rose used to have a partner at their law firm named Gary Bettman, currently the commissioner of the NHL. They once had another partner at their law firm named David Stern, commissioner of the NBA.
ZIRINSo this is much more in common with a typical attack on labor unions and a lockout strategy than anything resembling billionaires versus millionaires. And as we've discussed, I mean, when your playing career is so short and also when communities now are dependent, in terms of their service industry, about the businesses that exist around a stadium--like I talked to a bartender who works right by the Verizon Center. And he was breaking it down for me as to how much money he was losing because the Caps weren't playing. And it was stunning. Like his life is in economic crisis because of this lockout.
ZIRINAnd it makes you realize, like, how irresponsible the owners were being in this particular lockout. It was an absolutely ridiculous display of hubris and greed. And frankly, as a fan I have to tell you the Caps are paying a terrible price because they have a new coach, a new system and no training camp to figure out what they're doing on the ice.
NNAMDIDoug, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Chris, in Rockville, Md. Chris, you're on the air with Dave Zirin. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYeah, thanks for taking my call. You've said so many right things that it's hard to comment on everything. I think the RG3 thing was really very irresponsible by both management. And (word?) is a really good leader. He should have taken himself out of the game and said I'm about to jeopardize us winning this game, take me out, Coach, you know. And it's money. I mean it's like the drug trade. There wouldn't be any narcotics if there weren't consumers paying billions of dollars. You know, if the government produced everything and said, here, you want some coke? It's 25 cents down at your CVS drugstore, there wouldn't be any romance.
CHRISBut, you know, I mean, football -- I played football, got a dislocated shoulder twice. It's kind of a stupid game. It'll jeopardize your ability to do anything in later life, but we all love to watch it and it is exciting and the athletes are tremendous. And a great long run is exciting to watch and a win in the last minute is exciting, but if you wanted to discourage kids from playing football, maybe the best way would be to get the girls in high school to stop idolizing the football players and start favoring the baseball players, the tennis players, the swimmers, the soccer players and all the other sports. That would probably make the job of a parent a heck of a lot easier.
NNAMDIA lot of that has to do with the prominence of the sport itself. Right, Dave?
ZIRINYeah, that's certainly very true. The prominence of the sport back in the home, as well. I'll tell you, after this past weekend my four-year-old son came up to me and he said, "Daddy, I don't --" my son, he can, like, cook. He's four and he can make eggs. And he came up to me and he said, "Daddy, I don't want to be a chef anymore. I want to be a Raven." And, honestly, it depressed the hell out of me. Because I know that I'm somewhat culpable in him saying that.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. Here is Karen in Washington, D.C. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHello, how are you? I've sort of been multi-tasking. I'm listening to your show. I'm a parent that has a son that plays football and I, too, have very mixed emotions about him playing the sport. And I'm a mental health professional, so I also follow the health issues and the neuroscience and it scares me.
ZIRINHow old is your son, can I ask?
ZIRINOkay. Go ahead.
KARENBut, Dave, here's what I wanted to say…
NNAMDIYou've only got about a minute left, Karen.
KARENYou pushed my buttons a little bit when you discussed Notre Dame Football. And I'm a graduate and I definitely don't think that the school walks on water. I think that mistakes have been made. And the three things that you mentioned, the Manti Te'o thing, the Declan Sullivan tragedy--because, above all, it was a tragedy and the Lizzy Seeberg case, I think it troubles me to see people painting the school with such a broad brush.
NNAMDIWell, we only have…
KARENAnd especially the Lizzy Seeberg case.
NNAMDIWell, we don't have time to go into that because we only have 27 seconds left.
ZIRINI will take your point though, under advisement and say that I absolutely agree that there are good people at South Bend trying to do the right thing and do the right kinds of investigative work, but there needs to be much more of it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Karen. Dave Zirin, always a pleasure. His latest book is called "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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