The Meaning of the Sports Spectacle: A Review of Welcome to the Terrordome

Dave Zirin loves sports. He is also one of sports’ sharpest critics. And he’s pretty damn funny. His newest book Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket 2007) exhibits all of these traits. It is a critical and unrelenting look at the place sports has played and continues to play in these United States and around the world. Zirin borrows the title of course from Public Enemy, the premier political hiphop group of all time (with KRS One and BDP a close second) and he opens the book with a look back on the terrordome that was the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You remember the stories coming out of there about murders and rapes — stories that proved to be false. However, do you remember the origins of the Superdome in the destruction of a working class section of New Orleans — ethnic cleansing as urban renewal? In case you didn’t, Dave Zirin reminds you of the ugly role money and greed played in that construction project. He goes further, critiquing the continuing construction of sports stadiums with public monies while the nation’s educational and social services infrastructure disintegrates into nothingness.

Ans that’s just the beginning. Naturally, Zirin addresses racism in sports. Indeed, it is his contention that sports is where the US struggles with race are played out on a daily basis. To make his point, he discusses the manipulation of hiphop culture by the National Basketball Association (NBA) to gain new fans only for that to be followed by a nasty attack on the culture’s street roots. He also writes about the great baseball player Roberto Clemente’s antiracist attitudes and the globalized racism inherent in Major League Baseball’s (MLB) recruitment of Latin American and Caribbean players while the overall African-Americans presence in the sport continues to decline-not because of the rise of Latino players but because of MLB’s decision to go where the talent is cheaper and easy to manipulate. Then, of course, there’s Barry Bonds who is, according to some people the bogeyman of professional baseball because he may have used steroids. As Zirin points out, there are many other players not named Barry Bonds who have admitted using steroids and they don’t get half the grief Bonds does. To be fair, Barry isn’t by most accounts the most pleasant man, but that is no reason to treat him like the Boston Strangler. Zirin rightly argues that MLB and the team owners are as much (if not more) to blame for the steroid era in professional baseball as any player or group of players.

Whenever I think on the role of race in US sport, I go back to the opening pages of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece The Invisible Man. It is there that we find Ellison’s protagonist — a nameless African-American man — in a room filled with cigar smoke and fat white men drinking alcohol. The white men are there to be entertained. They tell the the narrator (Ellison’s invisible man) and a few other black youths to don blindfolds and boxing gloves. A naked white woman with a US flag painted on her body dances in the room. The youths than proceed to fight each other for the white men’s entertainment in what is termed a “battle royal.” In the final round the invisible man, loses to the victor. The white men then throw a bundle of coins on the floor and the youths scramble for the money, only to discover that there is an electric current running through the rug that shocks the youths over and over and that the coins are not gold, but brass tokens advertising a car dealer. In other words, they have no value, despite their prettiness, much like the fancy cars and shiny bling worn by many of today’s professional athletes.

Welcome to the Terrordome is a book that describes and analyzes the real world version of Ellison’s “battle royal.” Young men of color seem to dominate most professional sport at the major league level, yet the paying audience in most stadiums and coliseums is white and reasonably well off. The coins thrown at them are many, but they come with a downside. While it is not an electrical current, it is a demand that these athletes keep quiet and, in the NBA (and the Yankees), wear suits. It’s not that wearing a suit is a big deal , but the demand that these young men and women not speak their minds runs counter to the American illusion of free speech. The few that do speak out run the risk of not only ticking off their employer, but losing their job and ending up far away from the highlight reels.

Yet, there are those that do risk their current gig as ballplayers. It is these men and women that Zirin champions throughout his book. These are his heroes. Men and women who play games well but also stand for something more than good statistics and bling. He writes about people from the past like Roberto Clemente and Jim Bouton and current players like Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards and Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA’s Houston Comets. These and other like-minded athletes are anything but invisible.

The late Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said something to the effect that sports journalism is the only place in journalism where a writer could use techniques more familiar to fiction. Dave Zirin’s writing takes the essence of Thompson’s thoughts on sportswriting and succeeds dramatically. In addition, his humor and leftist politics only enhance the points about modern sports Zirin wants to make. My son, who is one of the biggest sports fans that I know, will get a copy of this book. So will a friend or two who tell me that they could care less about sports, since there’s a political struggle to be won. In the Hegelian framework, Zirin’s book is the perfect synthesis for all of them.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.