Professional sports is intertwined with American socio-politics, including the historic movements for civil rights and to counter imperialist war. Dave Zirin’s recent book, What’s my Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States examines this history with a progressive’s eye on racism, sexism, and homophobia in sports, along with the profound connection between sports and patriotic nationalism.
As the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox have traded in on their popularity to become one of the more profitable franchises in sports, it is important to recognize the history of racism in Boston and the organiation itself. The Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, more than 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Zirin, and others, suggest that the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino,” is just punishment for this racist record.
The taint of racism is apparent in Boston even today, when radio call-in guests and hosts routinely batter the Sox’ superstar Dominican players with a racist tone: last winter on Boston’s most popular sports radio network, WEEI (the highest-rated in the country, they proudly proclaim on-air as they openly seek advertisers), the station aired a racist “comedy bit” on former Red Sox star pitcher Pedro Martinez, who opted to sign with the New York Mets for more money than the Sox were willing to offer.
The bit used an actor who portrayed a stereotyped Dominican, with a racist, phony accent, depicting a greedy, foolish Martinez.
Zirin points out another recent example: John Dennis, a WEEI host, commented on a photo of an escaped gorilla standing near a city bus stop. He said it was “probably a Metco gorilla waiting for a bus to take him to [the affluent white suburb] Lexington.” Metco is a program for inner city kids, mostly black students, to attend public schools in the suburbs.
Professional baseball, football, and to a lesser degree other sports, are also a consistent source of nationalistic propaganda during half-time shows and beyond, particularly at the Super Bowl, the most-watched program on television every year and a bonanza for advertising dollars for the broadcast media.
Since September 11, 2001, every baseball game has stopped for an obligatory singing of “God Bless America” in the middle of the seventh inning stretch: many nationally broadcast Yankee games have not cut away to commercial while tenor Ronan Tynan belts out a rousing if now-tired version that has boosted his popularity immensely.
Taken together with flyovers by military fighter jets and military flag-bearers, this amounts to pro-war propaganda for the consumption of sports fans. When these games are broadcast nationally, by media companies like Fox or Disney/ABC/ESPN, the companies are promoting war and patriotic nationalism to millions of fans watching TV. These dislays are perhaps a way of further selling their product as “truly American,” or buying favor with an administration whose business is war.
The NFL season opener last year between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts displayed so much military pomp, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking the players were about to run on to the field in fatigues and start shooting.
As Zirin puts it in the book’s introduction: “In many cities, the average Sunday NFL game contains more patriotic overkill than a USO show in Kuwait.” In fact, the all-sports nework ESPN (owned by Disney) broadcast its popular SportsCenter program for an entire “Salute to Our Troops Week,” from a military base in Kuwait during the summer of 2004.
War is the metaphor most often used in describing football, when quartebacks throw “bullet passes” and “bombs,” and linemen “battle in the trenches.”
Zirin cites many contemporary examples of athletes, like baseball player Carlos Delgado, who have spoken out and resisted the war in Iraq. The book also features fascinating, Studs Terkel-style interviews with past players who resisted the Vietnam War.
By far the most intriguing and inspiring American athlete to resist war and racism was Muhammad Ali. Ali’s resistance to the war in Vietnam, coupled with his Black Power politics via the Nation of Islam, was an explosive and central part of U.S. social upheaval in the 1960s. Ali’s refusal to obey the draft and fight in Vietnam in 1965 may have launched the antiwar movement to new heights, and resulted in a backlash that cost Ali his heavyweight boxing title and three years of being banned from the sport when he was at his athletic peak.
The book’s title What’s My Name Fool? is a phrase from Ali, as he famously taunted opponent Floyd Patterson, who refused to recognize his name change from Cassius Clay. Ali pummeled Patterson for nine rounds, at one point shouting: “Come on America! Come on white America … what’s my name? Is my name Clay? Whats my name, fool?”
Zirin mourns the passing of “The Greatest,” the brash, beautiful and politically radical Ali who slowly decayed with age and Parkinson’s Disease. Today’s Ali is a shadow of his radical self, a man who has in recent years succumbed to the will of others who want to use him as a symbol of all that he stood against in the 60s. Ali agreed to appear in a government-sponsored commercial aimed at selling the Afghan war to Muslims in 2002, and appeared at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games to light the ceremonial torch, 36 years after he threw away his gold medal in protest of segregation.
From the efforts of ballplayers to organize into labor unions, to the struggles of minorities and women to be treated fairly, Zirin makes clear in this gem of a book that the playing field is not any more even in sports than it is in our society as a whole. The fact that young black men and women can make millions of dollars as professional athletes is no compensation for the racism and sexism that endures in the United States.
The book offers hope, however, that change is possible, when brave individuals and collections of individuals risk everything to resist injustice.
Sports fans of all stripes should read this book. It’s an entertaining read, full of fascinating interviews and original insights on the meaning of sports in our society.
“What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States”
By Dave Zirin