Dave Zirin. What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).
[We present two reviews of this book; they complement one another. The duplication was unplanned but appears fortuitous in view of the book’s unusual outreach potential, given its appeal at once to Left activists and to people otherwise uninterested in politics. — V.W.]
Sports play a huge role in US culture today, both among couch potatoes who watch endless contests and among millions of young people who play some form of organized sports and, just maybe, a pick-up game or two in the nabes with hopes of becoming a national star. Dave Zirin, a sports writer and columnist based in the Washington DC area, examines the exploitative nature of big-time sports, focusing particularly on the racism inherent in both media and fandom. He does this by examining the lives of famous athletes who have bucked the system (and of some who have knuckled under), looking at those who run big-time sports, and observing the connections between sports and blind patriotism. Much of the material is derived from personal interviews conducted by the author over the years.
The Introduction and first chapters take a historical tack. They look at how sports became a way for capital to train labor in good habits like team play and like gratitude to the owners who provided uniforms and equipment. He fails to note that industrial softball leagues also had the aim of keeping workers out of bars, places where around a pail of suds at the end of the workday they might discuss a different kind of teamwork—a union. He notes the seminal role of Lester “Red” Rodney, who, as sports writer for the Daily Worker (1934-58) wrote the first political sports page ever. Rodney scouted Jackie Robinson early on and, many claim, was largely responsible for Robinson’s rise to the major leagues.
Zirin notes the importance of the 1938 Louis-Schmeling heavyweight championship fight, which pitted the Black son of a sharecropper against the finest Hitler’s Master Race could produce (though perhaps not devoting enough space to Jesse Owens and his all-but-forgotten half dozen African-American Olympic teammates—including Jackie Robinson’s brother Mack, a medalist in the sprints). He then follows with chapters on Robinson and Muhammad Ali, both of whom placed the race issue squarely on the national agenda. In their own way, neither one would shut up nor compromise his principles when at work or at play. The book’s title comes from Ali’s line when he changed his name from Cassius Clay if people called him the latter or did not know what to say.
Most older people probably remember the famous photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the victory podium during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, black-gloved fists raised in protest during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Few know, however, as Zirin notes, that they stood barefoot to protest poverty and wore tight-fitting necklaces to symbolize the lynchings of their people. Also largely unnoticed is the fact that the silver medalist in the event, Australian Peter Norman, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights button in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. Among the many, many details that abound in the text is the report by Zirin that the only team that openly supported Smith and Carlos (who were summarily dismissed from the US team by US Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage, a known right-wing racist) was the heavyweight racing crew from Harvard, which wrote a public letter of support (reproduced in chapter 4).
Zirin includes a chapter on sexism and gay-bashing. He focuses on the athletic careers of Mia Hamm, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Katie Hnidis, and Esera Tuaolo. He notes that no active player in the Big Three professional men’s sports—baseball, football, or basketball—has come out of the closet. He theorizes that the risk of financial ruin and even physical harm for players who come overwhelmingly from poor to working-class backgrounds prevents this from happening. This section in general and, particularly in its treatment of gays and lesbians, lacks the same depth as the rest of the work.
Zirin astutely notes the post-World War II rise of sports as big business, helped immeasurably by the proliferation of television, which today includes several channels dedicated entirely to sports. Little mention is made, however, of the role of magazines, most of which shill for management or equipment makers. Moreover, sports have come to serve another purpose: that of deflecting harsh emotions and/or creating a false world in which people can hide rather than dealing with (or trying to change) reality. Anger at an umpire’s “wrong call,” or at one’s favorite team’s bad luck or failures, may in fact reduce tension generated by job pressures or by larger social issues such as racism. Sports violence thus helps curb individual wrath against capitalism. Zirin also argues tacitly that the ballpark or arena are places where people today can express racism or sexism without much fear of reaction.
Among the other themes that run through this book are that of unions in sports and the relationship of patriotism and big-time athletics. Although all major sports have unionized (which has helped most players economically), many athletes still toil at the mercy of the boss or owner. Boxing promoters, for example, brutally exploit those who work the undercards, and no system exists to help those hurt permanently by their time in the ring. The Joint Association of Boxing (JAB), founded by ex light heavyweight champ Eddie Mustafa, is an attempt to change that situation. Particularly since 9/11, openly visible patriotism has become an integral part of sporting events from Little League to professional levels. At the inaugural of the US Open in Queens, NY in late August, a huge flag covered the court and the announcers intoned, “Is there any doubt which open this is?” The fact that major league baseball enforces the singing of the US anthem even for games in Canada and “encourages” all ball players to participate—even ones from the Caribbean or some other foreign country—is indicative. Yet, despite such pressures, as happened during the Vietnam War (Ali being the most visible example), athletes are registering their protest against the Bush-Cheney foray into Iraq. Several big league ball players have done so (e.g. Carlos Delgado), as have the Etan Thomas of the NBA and Toni Smith of Manhattanville College, among hundreds of others.
Zirin does not miss the opportunity to flog team-owners and the media for their medieval attitudes and subservient ways. He cites example after example of right-wing, racist owners. He notes how ownership extorts communities by threatening to pull a team if a new stadium replete with luxury boxes does not get built, paid for with taxpayer dollars, of course. He consistently takes on the mainstream media in general and ESPN in particular, showing how they play the race card time after time. He contrasts treatment of Black and white athletes in the press—the former called aggressive or hostile, the latter moody. The author also notes the psychological toll on African-American athletes, many in their teens, playing before nearly all-white audiences, and people who come from class backgrounds quite different from theirs. Like “monkeys in the zoo” as one NBA player commented.
Zirin has some well-chosen words for those who have totally bought into the system, and he adds material on athletes who have straddled the issues. The section “Grilling George Foreman” and the pages on Michael Jordan form searing indictments of those who have embraced capitalist exploitation for the sake of personal gain. The fact that both Jackie Robinson and Ali in later life made peace with parts of the dominant system, however, should not detract from who they were or what they represented to communities of color and progressive forces in the US and around the world. The author also notes the price that many have paid for bucking the system, of which stripping Ali of his heavyweight title and banning him from boxing represents the most visible.
Much of this book reads as if it were written under a deadline for a sports column due in an hour. The author never misses using hyperbole, often to the detriment of his argument. Comparing Fenway Park to Bull Connor’s backyard is surely exaggerated. The issue of Latino ballplayers is also largely ignored. Zirin sees the sports world largely through a black-white prism. He is not wrong for the most part in what he says, but often there are more and other shades involved. The increasing Asian presence, at least in baseball, does not appear at all. His approach also demotes class factors (although he does bring them up sporadically) to a very distant second in understanding sports in the US today. Finally, the almost total lack of documentation—important given the number of quotes he cites or incidents he mentions—along with no bibliography nor index frustrate the reader who wants to know where to find out more, or just where and when that quote got published.
Any sports fan will enjoy reading this book. It is chock-a-block with details that will take one down memory lane, raise hackles as they did before, lead the reader to laugh and even cry. As Zirin says, in the final analysis sports are neither good nor bad. There is real beauty in seeing Henry Aaron swing, watching Bill Russell rebound, gasping at Pelé’s shot from midfield, or remembering Jim Brown galloping off tackle. Today’s athletes are no less talented and perhaps even more so, with advanced training techniques and better practice. It may be that the fans (as well as the players) have to begin to take sports back. Zirin sees a resistance building both among fans (most people I know smuggle food into the stadium rather than pay $5 for a frank) and participants. The trend is weak, but it is growing and hopefully will one day return sports to where they belong—with and for the people.
Reviewed by Hobart Spalding