How Politics Has Changed Modern-Day Sports

Sportswriter Dave Zirin counts the ways that political issues have infiltrated sports at every level

President Barack Obama is presented with a team jersey by the Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a ceremony at the White House after Super Bowl XLV. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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You write that issues like this—the darker side of sports—often get overlooked in sports coverage. Why is this?

It goes back to the fact that many of the best reporters out there now work for outlets like the NFL Network,—they actually work for the league. With ESPN, you have a hegemonic broadcast partner with the leagues. In any other industry, this would be seen as a conflict of interest, but in sports, it’s not, because sports are seen as fun and games. But the problem is that for a lot of people, sports are the way they understand the world—they’re the closest thing we have to a common language in this country. When you couple that with the fact that the people who are supposed to be the “watchmen” of sports, the media, are in bed with the people they’re supposed to be covering, that’s how you get scandals like Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’O. With these scandals that you see, so much time is spent doing what Bob Lipsyte calls “godding up” athletes—turning them into gods. And then when the gods fail, reporters tear them down, piece-by-piece, as a way to make them look like outliers, or bad apples, and keep the sensibility and profitability of the sport afloat.

One of the trends you mention is that recently, athletes seem more willing to use their platform to advocate for their political beliefs. Why has this been happening?

Well, in the 1960s, athletes were at the forefront of the fight for social justice. And not just athletes, but the best athletes: Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe. But in the ’90s, as corporate control really solidified over sports, it was a desert of any sort of courage in sports. What you’re seeing today is that, because of broader crises in society, and because of social media, you’re seeing a turn away from what’s called the “Jordan era.” People are finding their voice.

You actually write about how, in the age of Twitter, this could actually be an asset for athletes, in terms of cultivating their “brand.”

It’s true. All the players’ public relations (PR) people, business managers, even team PR people, they want the players out in the community, they want them out there, they want people to root for the players as individuals. It gets tickets sales up and increases watchability. But when you do that, you also run the risk that you’ll unearth that somebody has certain ideas about the world that they’re going to share—and sometimes those ideas are, to many people, disgusting. Like when then-Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott talked about his “birther” theories about President Obama, or when Denard Span, an outfielder now with the Nationals, tweets that he’d been watching those Newtown conspiracy videos. To me personally, these are disgusting beliefs, but they’re important too. Athletes are entering the public debate about certain issues, so now let’s debate them.

For you personally—someone who seems to be constantly criticizing and pointing out the distressing aspects of modern sports—why did you get into sports writing in the first place?

Before I had any interest in politics, I loved sports, and I still have that love. I grew up in New York City in the 1980s, and my room was a shrine to the stars of that time—Daryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Keith Hernandez. I played basketball, I played baseball, I memorized the backs of baseball cards, I read sports books all the time, and I absolutely loved it all. I was at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, and I still have the ticket stub. So I’m a big believer that sports is like a fire—you can use it to cook a meal or burn down a house.

The reason why I write about it critically is that I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to sports. I want to save it from its hideous excesses, and the way it’s used by people in power for their political means. So when people say to me, “You’re trying to politicize sports,” I say, “Don’t you see that sports is already politicized?” I want sports to be apart from politics, but as long as it isn’t, we need to point that out.

Do you find it difficult to root for athletes or owners whose political beliefs you disagree with? And do you root more for a player if you agree with them?


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