What do civil rights have to do with pro football players? What does the economic recession have to do with the Olympics? Everything, says Dave Zirin, author of the new book Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down. The first sports editor in the history of The Nation, Zirin has spent over a decade writing about the intersection of sports and politics. He argues that political and social issues have permeated sports at all levels, from youth leagues to the big leagues—and that it’s time for sports to be recognized as both a driver and reflection of social change.
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The subtitle of your book is “How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.” How have politics changed sports, and has it been for the better or worse?
It’s very different than it was just five years ago. A lot of the sports writing community has missed this, and missed it wildly. The sports world we’re looking at in 2013 is just different than the sports world of 2008. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but there are three that I think have been most transformative—and there are positives and negatives that we can pull out of all three.
The first is the 2008 economic crisis, the biggest recession in 80 years in this country. It turned the economics of sports on its head—there have been four lockouts in different years [including the NFL referees], as owners in different sports have tried to restore profitability. There have been fewer public subsidies for stadiums, which were one of the pillars of sports profits for the last generation. There have been crises in every country where the Olympic or World Cup decided to land.
The second one is the growth the LGBT movement in this country. We’ve gone from 2008—where every candidate running for president talked about marriage equality as if it was a plague—to 2013, when you have Barack Obama mentioning “Stonewall” in his inauguration speech. And this has been reflected in the world of sports. This has a particularly potent impact because sports—particularly men’s sports—have been a way in which masculinity has been defined, and more specifically a kind of masculinity that doesn’t show vulnerability, doesn’t show pain, and equates any kind of sensitivity with weakness and with being gay. This goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, who popularized the term ‘sissy’ for people who didn’t play violent sports.
So now, to see people like Steve Nash, Michael Strahan, Brendan Ayanbadejo, Scott Fujita, actually speaking out for LGBT rights, it has a very powerful cultural effect. The Vancouver Canucks just did a public service announcement about transgender awareness, and in the NCAA, a man named Kye Allums played for the women’s basketball team of George Washington—the first openly transgender player in the NCAA. These are huge changes in how we understand that we are diverse, both racially and in terms of our sexuality and gender.
The third thing that’s exploded in the last five years is the issue of the NFL and concussions and the recognition that playing the most popular sport in the country is a legitimate health hazard. You have [former] NFL players killing themselves—there have been four suicides in the last year—and this is something that’s become too much for the NFL to ignore. On media day at the Super Bowl, all the players were being asked—and I ask this when I speak to NFL players, too—“Would you want your son playing football?” Some say yes, some say no, but they all think about it. These are huge changes in how we look at sports and violence.
The other day, Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said he doesn’t think the NFL will exist in 30 years due to these sorts of problems. What do you see happening?
I disagree with Bernard Pollard—I don’t think the game will be appreciably different than it is now. But I think it will be less popular, the same way that boxing is much less popular today. Fifty years ago, if you were the heavyweight champ, you were the most famous athlete in the United States. Now, I bet the overwhelming majority of sports fans couldn’t name who the champion is. It’s just not as popular.
So I think it’ll be less popular, and I also think that the talent pool is going to shrink as more parents keep their kids out of playing. You’ll see the NFL invest millions of dollars in urban infrastructure and youth football leagues, and it’s going to be the poorest kids playing football as a ticket out of poverty. This year, the four best young quarterbacks—Andrew Luck, RGIII, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick—all four of them excelled at multiple sports and came from stable, middle-class homes. Those are exactly the kind of players who won’t be playing football in 30 years.