“Politics don’t belong in sports” is an oft-heard mantra. The fact is, the two are such a large part of American society they cannot help but be intertwined.
Look at the focus on Pat Tillman when he left the NFL to join the Army and when he was killed in Afghanistan (although the Pentagon hid the fact it was by that oxymoron, “friendly fire”). Look at Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling hitting the campaign trail for George Bush immediately after his heroics in last fall’s World Series.
Dave Zirin’s What’s My Name, Fool? explores this mixture from the left side of the political spectrum. The title comes from the subject of one of the book’s longer pieces and a man who exemplifies athletes speaking out—Muhammad Ali. Ali generated plenty of controversy when he unabashedly announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay. Floyd Patterson said his title fight with Ali was “a crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims.” As Ali pummeled Patterson, he shouted: “What’s my name? Is my name Clay? What’s my name, fool?” The reaction was even more hostile when Ali later said his beliefs precluded him from being inducting in the US military. Yet Ali maintained his stand despite a criminal trial and losing his title. Zirin not only explores these aspects of Ali’s story, but how the adoration of him today tends to gloss over those elements of his career and life.
Ali’s tale is part of Zirin at his best. Another is the story of John Carlos and Tommy Smith’s raised, gloved fists at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Zirin examines the discussion of a proposed boycott of the Olympics, the act of expression itself and how George Foreman waving a small American flag after winning the gold medal was seen as a response to the protest. He then interviews Lee Evans, one of the leaders of the boycott movement, Carlos and Foreman, letting their own words demonstrate the contrasts.
Yet What’s My Name, Fool? does not focus only on public political acts by sports figures. It explores the full spectrum of sports from a quintessential American left standpoint. In looking at the development of unions in sports, Zirin ponders why fans despise the salaries earned by professional athletes yet hardly blink at the billions of dollars owners suck out of fan and public purses. He looks at racism and sexism in sports, questioning the lack of African-American and female coaches in the ranks of Division I colleges and why Kareem Abdul Jabbar isn’t coaching in the NBA. He defends Barry Bonds as a class athlete and Ricky Williams’s decision (now apparently changed) to leave the NFL on his own terms. He even takes the view that owners share much of the blame for the steroid “hysteria” in baseball today.
The book consists largely of Zirin’s previously published “Edge of Sports” weekly column in the Prince George’s Post newspaper. Yet Zirin also includes interviews and introductions to tie them together. While you may not agree with Zirin, his prose is uninhibited and unabashed. He never leaves any doubt where he stands and his perspective is one all too rarely heard in modern sports writing.
In terms of both viewpoint and analysis, this book is to sports journalism what Air America Radio is to the broadcast spectrum. It looks at a multi-billion dollar industry in a societal and political context, making us realize that in American society sports have become more than just a game.