Book Review: “A People’s History of Sports in the United States”

Dave Zirin’s “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” traces the development of sport in America. It starts with Native American lacrosse and ends with professional athletes reacting to the violent and racially motivated attacks at Jena High School in Louisiana in 2006. Zirin’s goal is to dispel the myth that sports and politics/political activism have never and should never mix. Instead, Zirin argues, sport’s abilities to appeal to human emotion, preach to a captive audience and mobilize large forces makes it ideal for causing social change.

A History of Activism Breeds a Call to Action

Zirin presents numerous examples of those athletes and organizations who  have historically attempted to use their power to cause change in society and speak for those they felt had been oppressed or marginalized. The classic examples are boxer Muhammad Ali, who perpetually clashed with the powers-that-be, especially over the Vietnam War, and baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the MLB. But Zirin delves just as much into other politcally active athletes, such as women’s tennis pioneers Billie Jean King (who once beat the sexist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes”) and Martina Navratilova (who was vocal about her homosexuality and her demand for better AIDS awareness), track stars Jesse Owens (who won four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics), Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who raised black-gloved fists in support of their race’s struggle at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico), and Curt Flood (whose lawsuit eventually paved the way for free agency). Even those very familiar with the intersections of athletics and political protest will learn something new.

Zirin creates a compelling time-line of political activism in sport that is as entertaining as it is educational. This is a difficult book to put down, as Zirin successfully sets up the future even as he depicts the present. And both are grim. Zirin wastes no words in tearing down those who stood in the way of these political athletes, be they pro-establishment presidents like Ronald Reagan or Nazi-supporters like former International Olympic Committee president “Slavery” Avery Brundage. The frustration and hate these athletes felt as they fought (and often lost) against these bigots translates across the page. This book will make your blood boil, but you’ll find yourself unable to put it down, even as it makes you simultaneously angrier, sadder and maybe even guiltier.

Selective History

This book is not a work of journalism. The research and writing is top notch, but this book makes no claims to impartiality. Zirin has a strong opinion, and it comes through in his writing. And as much as his examples back up his point, there are some major moments in the history of sports and politics that Zirin overlooks. The most glaring example is the Miracle on Ice game, where a team of college students from the USA defeated the best of the USSR in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics’ hockey tournament. Zirin doesn’t leave this incident out, but he significantly downplays it. It gets just two short paragraphs, including a surprisingly unsubstantiated (his book is otherwise well-footnoted) claim about its result getting co-opted by the government, whereas a 1972 exhibition football game at the University of Washington gets four pages. Millions of people watched that hockey game, and the joy they felt in victory was palpable. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful anyone outside of Seattle was particularly impacted by a spring football game between the Huskies and some alumni.

Ali’s refusal to be drafted and Smith’s and Carlos’ “Black Power” salute are unquestionably two of the most politically important moments in sport’s history. But one can’t deny that the Miracle on Ice was also a critical moment in U.S. athletic history, and Zirin barely mentions it. In doing so, Zirin shows a bias. Had Zirin written a well-researched and convincing argument that, say, certain people saw the hockey match as an excuse for the government to justify political repression of the ultra-left, that would have been fine. Interesting, even. But in essentially ignoring the game, Zirin seems to be avoiding an event only because it doesn’t fit his argument. If he could ignore something this big, what else did he ignore? Is this “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” or “A People’s History of Those Sporting Events Which Make my Point in the United States?” The latter title doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Which “People” Are We Talking About?

The title of Zirin’s book is somewhat deceptive. “People” really translates to “Black people,” with women not showing up with any real force until the last few chapters (Title IX, Navratilova, the women’s soccer team that won the world cup, and the women’s basketball teams at UConn and Rutgers). Focusing on these two groups isn’t a bad choice, since there is a long and storied history of oppression with these two groups dwarfed perhaps only by the Native Americans.

But America is not only made up of women and African Americans. The only white male to get any real coverage is former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, whose death was exploited by the Bush administration to help justify the war until it was discovered that a) Tillman didn’t support the war, and b) was killed by his own troops. But this probably all right, since there’s a plethora of literature out there already about white men who have done great things.

Even further ignored in this polemic is the history of Asians in American sports. The only man of Asian descent in Zirin’s book is Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, whose grandfather was interned at an American internment camp for Japanese during World War II. But again  this is justifiable, since so far Asians have not achieved widespread penetration into American sports, with only a few high-profile Japanese baseball players making headlines.

But how do you write a book called “A People’s History of Sports” and leave out Latinos? Sure, Roberto Clemente gets a couple of pages. And yes, there’s a brief and again unsubstantiated assertion that Latino baseball players in part destabilized Black political power, especially in baseball. But when probably the majority of professional baseball’s superstars (discounting pitchers) are now Latino, it feels like they got short-changed in Zirin’s “history.” This is an ethnic group that has dealt with numerous social problems as well, often living in the same urban environments that African Americans suffer in. By leaving Latinos out, Zirin indirectly diminishes the reality of their plight in favor of African Americans’. And that is an act of racism as bad as anything Zirin might be railing against.

The Risk of Revisionist History

Is there value in re-examining history to find the voices of the oppressed and the silenced? Absolutely. But is it risky to replace the older form of history- flawed though it might be- with this revisionist strategy? Maybe so. Because the older form of history, written from the perspective of the “winners,” takes on a mythological component. Like myth, it is factually incorrect. But also like myth, it has been used as a means to teach newer generations about the world and their place in it. Whether these cultural values are flawed, they are essential to society.

Anthropologists and scholars of religion have often suggested that myths and mythologized history (sometimes also called the “master commemorative narrative”) are far more important to a society than a record of its actual events. Looking at other civilizations’ extant cultural productions (works of art, drama, literature, philosophical or polemic writing, etc.), there is far more of an influence of myth than of reality. Myth matters. And while understanding the “true” history of the United States has value, it might also have long-term negative consequences.

One of America’s problems is that it has never developed its own mythology (if we discount Native American mythologies… which pretty much every non-Native American has). Folk heroes like Johnny Appleseed and John Henry are children’s tales meant primarily to entertain, not to teach. And while superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man are certainly archetypal (and even mythological, in the case of DC’s pantheon), comics do not enjoy the widespread acceptance here that they have in Japan. America has no myths of its own, so we mythologize our own history.

Were writers like Zirin to argue that there’s a place in the educational system for both revisionist and mythologized history, there would perhaps be widespread acceptance of both. But the relationship between the two histories and those who teach them is purely antagonistic, similar to the Church of Scientology and the American Psychiatric Association. Revisionist historians would see the current system of history education torn down and replaced by their own. Such an act might make Americans more aware of the terrible price they’ve paid for the country they now inhabit. But it might also contribute to a nation becoming even more culturally vacuous than it already is. As for whether or not that’s worse than how things are now… only history will tell.

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