There is an old argument in some left/progressive circles that sports are just another tool to keep us distracted from working for real change and that any time spent either playing or watching sports is a waste of time. Dave Zirin smashes that notion with his newest book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States: From Bull-Baiting to Barry Bonds… 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play.
What Zirin demonstrates in this book in that sports and politics have always been intertwined and that athletes have always been activists. People may be aware of the political stances that Muhammad Ali took during the Vietnam War, but Zirin illuminates a long tradition of sports activism starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
Baseball is the first sport that Zirin puts under his microscope. He talks about the origins of the game but frames it within the larger social context. When baseball became an official sport just after the Civil War, it had a familiar structure of owners and players. However, by the end of the nineteenth century when the country was confronted with a growing radical labor movement, Zirin points out that a guy by the name of Billy Voltz formed the first baseball players union, the national Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. The union’s slogan was “Fire the boss!” So popular was the players union that they started their own league. The players union league resonated with so many people that players in the owners league jumped ship and joined the more egalitarian league.
When the political and economic elites of the country cracked down on the more radical elements in the labor movement, it impacted sports. Zirin points out that as a way to suppress the more radical elements in baseball, the league’s owners decided to create their own baseball commissioner, a guy by the name of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Judge Landis was chosen because he demonstrated his loyalty to the ownership class by presiding over the legal actions against labor organizer Big Bill Haywood and about one hundred other Wobblies who were violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
In addition to class being a major catalyst in sports activism, race also played a significant role in radicalizing many athletes.
In the first part of the 20th century, African-Americans were denied the opportunity to play in the leagues of most of the professional sports. With the suppressed players league, the baseball owners decided that Blacks should not be allowed to participate in America’s pastime. Blacks were forced to form their own league known as the Negro League. However, some sports allowed Blacks to participate, particularly boxing. In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champ, a feat that sent white supremacists through the roof. Concerned that Johnson’s status threatened their notion of white superiority, they coaxed a former white heavyweight champion out of retirement to challenge Johnson. The fight was billed as a contest against the races and all throughout the fight fans yelled “All Coons Look Alike to Me” or “Kill the nigger” and not one single Black person was in attendance. Johnson destroyed his white opponent and it set off a series of white riots throughout the country, sometimes resulting in the lynching of Blacks.
Throughout the book, Zirin offers insight and analysis of how sports was used as a catalyst for change not only in the area of class and race, but gender and sexual orientation. A People’s History of Sports in the United States investigates the courage of athletes like Martina Navratilova, Paul Robeson, Curt Flood, Jim Browm, Billy Jean King, the Rutgers Women’s basketball team, Curt Flood, Craig Hodges and the dozens of athletes who participated in the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) in the late 1960s.
The OPHR was immortalized by track and field stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos who raised their Black Power fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. What most people do not know is that in addition to raising their fists, Carlos and Smith were also barefoot to symbolize poverty and wore beads around their necks to draw attention to the legacy of lynching in the US. However, the OPHR was not just about making symbolic gestures, they had a set of demands that hundreds of athletes signed on to. The demands included the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, removing Avery Brundage (the Nazi sympathizer) as head of the US Olympic Committee, not allowing South Africa and Rhodesia to participate in the Olympics, a boycott the New York Athletic Club because of its discriminatory practices, and a call to hire more black coaches.
A People’s History of Sports in the United States is rich with these kinds of stories–stories that show how the courage of people to stand against injustice no matter how it is manifests itself. Dave Zirin has contributed a wonderful book that continues the tradition of historical work that began with Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States. Zirin’s book is a welcomed text for those wanting to discover more of the radical history of this country that those in power would rather we not know.