Sports writer and liberal political activist David Zirin addressed a sparsely populated New Library Auditorium Monday night, speaking about his quest to create a movement to take back sports from what he viewed as a right-wing agenda.
Promoting his book, “What’s My Name Fool?,” Zirin traced the history of the connection between politics and sports, and how that link has been, he claims, buried as part of the commercialization of the industry.
According to Zirin, sports put out a political message that most watchers disagree with. His goal, then, is to create a movement where the fans take back sports as an instrument for social change.
The inspiration for Zirin’s book is Muhammad Ali, who was not only heavyweight champion of the world, but also an unashamed member of the Nation of Islam movement. After Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay following his 1964 bout with Sonny Liston, Zirin said, he forced the world to confront his social agenda.
“He stepped outside that box and said, ‘I’m not going to be what you want me to be,'” Zirin said.
In the controversy that ensued, Zirin said, the way people talked about sports showed where they stood politically. Whether the heavyweight champion of the world was Ali or Clay showed where one stood on the Black Power movement and race in general.
But it was Ali that shone throughout the controversy, Zirin said. When Floyd Patterson in 1965 said that he was going to “return the (heavyweight) crown to America,” Ali toyed with him for 12 rounds, all the while taunting him, “What’s my name, fool?”
It was this “beautiful arrogance” of Ali, Zirin said, that made Ali such an inspiration to the civil rights movement in America.
But this connection between sports and politics largely goes ignored in America, Zirin said. His project with his book is to help write the counter sports history, one that brings this link back to prominence and changes the image of popular sports figures with activist roots that have been forgotten.
Zirin relied on his book for the historical examples that formed his talk that at times wavered between sports history lesson and politically charged stand-up comedy.
He criticized, for example, the image of Jackie Robinson as “quietly taking abuse” in his quest for desegregation in Major League Baseball. Instead, according to Zirin, Robinson was a barnstormer at National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meetings across the country. He was the most requested speaker by local chapters, beating out the second most popular speaker, a minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In addition, while the image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the “Black Power” raised fist salute at the Mexico City games in 1968 is now popularized and commercialized, Zirin criticized the popular history for not adding the fact that the two were banned from the Olympic Village and suspended from the U.S. Olympic team.
Zirin emphasized that these political sports figures are part of a “living history” that current athletes should take part of to take back sports from what he characterized as right-wing messages.
Zirin told the story of a “Military Appreciation Night” at a Washington Nationals game in which 30 individuals were sworn into the Marine Corps with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice watching over “like the emperor at the circus.” He said this incident showed sports as a front for a “disgusting” social agenda.
“(Sports history) is alive any time an athlete speaks out for principle,” Zirin said.