- A People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play
The People's History series under the general editorship of historian Howard Zinn seeks to provide a history of the United States focusing upon the struggles of working-class people, immigrants, racial minorities, and women, rather than viewing the American experience from the perspective of white ruling elites. Dave Zirin would appear to be an excellent candidate to address this perspective. Zirin is a sportswriter on the political left, somewhat in the tradition of Lester Rodney, writing a popular weekly online column and contributing to publications such as The Nation and International Socialist Review in addition to more mainstream newspapers. He is also the author of books on Muhammad Ali and the politics of contemporary sport, and he understands that sport is hardly the democratic meritocracy that many in the media would have us believe. Race, gender, class, and sexual orientation certainly matter in the sporting world, which is a reflection of the larger society.
But Zirin is not a professional historian, and his account is somewhat uneven. For example, the first chapter of thirty-one pages covers American history from the Colonial period to the beginning of the twentieth century. On the other hand, each decade of the twentieth century is discussed in a separate chapter with a final segment projecting Zirin's argument into a new century. In addition, his definition of sport is relatively narrow. Rather than the games that common people play, as the title suggests, Zirin concentrates his attention upon sport at the national level. He is drawn to the challenges made by courageous athletes to the sporting establishment at the university or professional levels. The flow of the book is also disrupted by Zirin's reliance upon long quotations, and there are some historical inaccuracies that distract from the narrative. For example, the Seneca Falls Conference was held in 1848 not 1840, and the Republican Presidential candidate in 1940s was not Alf Landon (who ran in 1936) but Wendell Willkie.
Despite these caveats, Zirin hits his stride in an insightful analysis of athletes willing to question the sporting establishment from the 1960s into the present. The historical context for the revolt of the black athlete in the 1960s and 1970s, epitomized by Muhammad Ali and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, is well developed. Writing of the Cassius Clay conversion to the Nation of Islam, Zirin observes, "Almost overnight, whether an individual called the Champ Ali or Clay indicated where that person stood on civil rights, [End Page 192] black power, and eventually the war in Vietnam" (p.139). Zirin also lauds the impact of Title IX upon women's sport despite the dire predictions of many male athletic directors.
Rather than symbolizing morning in America, Zirin perceives the 1980s and the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency as a period of reaction to the gains made in the 1960s and 1970s by women and racial minorities both in sport and the larger society. Zirin describes the Reagan agenda, which dominated American politics in the last two decades of the twentieth century, as "making the rich richer, attacking unions, promoting U.S. imperial powers, and abusing the most vulnerable in society" (p. 212). In the realm of sport, lucrative new revenue streams were found in cable television and municipal support for stadium and arena construction. The National Basketball Association (NBA) soared to popularity by marketing the sport's black stars with the developing urban hip-hop culture. Michael Jordan emerged as the corporate symbol and spokesman for the fusion of the business and sport worlds. But Zirin concludes that Jordan is not Muhammad Ali and that lost in the athletic embrace of corporate wealth was the freedom to speak out against social injustice.
Zirin, however, blames the willingness of athletes to risk their health by taking steroids upon sporting executives concerned primarily with the corporate bottom line...