Putting the Politics Back into Sport

Review of Dave Zirin’s Not Just a Game (2010)

When you visit Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports website, it won’t take you long to realize that he’s not your average sportswriter.  Three of his last four columns deal with the support lent by the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers to working Wisconsinites currently struggling to beat back Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to rob them of collective bargaining rights.  The fourth features an interview with DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association (the players’ union), in which Smith cites the recent struggles in the Middle East as inspiration for the players as they face an impending lockout.  For those who sympathize with critic Umberto Eco’s characterization of the endless clichés and banal debate that normally pass for sports journalism as the “glorification of waste,” Zirin is a refreshing voice of both reason and radicalism.  Like no one else within the sports-media complex, he has, in his own words, “made a career out of trying to understand that murky place where sports and politics collide.”

Format: DVD/62 minutes
Publisher: Media Education Foundation
Subtitles: English

Needless to say, I was eager to see Not Just a Game, the new documentary in which Zirin, in collaboration with the Media Education Foundation, shows why arguing that sport is apolitical is like arguing that Hosni Mubarak deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.  The film does not disappoint, and it successfully takes on the “de-politicized, sanitized, and hyper-commercialized sports world” by tackling four main themes: the militarization of sport, struggles for gender equality by female athletes, struggles for racial justice by athletes of color, and the commodification of sport.

Using footage of Air Force fly-bys and on-the-field military enlistment ceremonies that are now standard fare at sporting events in the U.S., the film begins by illustrating how sports media construct a seemingly natural connection between the hyper-masculinity of elite athletes and the ‘warrior ethos’ that undergirds the culture of the American military.  Zirin argues convincingly that by uncritically building this link, coverage of American sports promotes a sanitized version of ‘war’.  For example, by constructing a direct analogy between ‘combat’ on the gridiron and combat on the battlefield while only showing the details of the former, the media’s presentation of American football encourages spectators to ignore the horrific realities of what is happening in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a case in point, Zirin documents how sports journalists, after aping the military’s concocted story about the ‘heroic’ death of NFL-star-turned-Army-Ranger, Pat Tilman, simply ignored revelations about the fact that he actually died from a friendly fire incident, and that, by the time of his death in Afghanistan, he had developed strong anti-war sentiments.  Of course, acknowledging these inconvenient details might have called into question the legitimacy of dressing up Fox’s football commentators in army fatigues as they broadcast from military bases in Afghanistan.

The documentary does its best work in the next section, in which it goes beyond a celebration of the same old liberal integration narratives that describe individual athletes overcoming prejudice through hard work, determination, and faith in American ‘democracy’.  Importantly, the film’s success in this regard does not depend exclusively on its discussion of relatively well-documented cases of resistance in sports like Muhammad Ali’s defiance of the draft or the iconic Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.  While Zirin does provide commentary on these classic examples of radical protest in sport, it is his insistence on highlighting the unrecognized radicalism of athletes whose image is so often tied to the sanitized textbook narrative of liberal inclusion that makes the film so powerful.

Instead of a Billie Jean King who simply gave a shot in the arm to Second Wave feminism by beating Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Zirin reminds us that she was also the president of the first ever women’s sports union and an athlete whose working-class background was a driving force behind her tireless struggle for pay equity in professional sports.  And rather than the early Jackie Robinson, who lent his image to anti-communist propaganda and touted the health of American ‘democracy’, Zirin hones in on the later Robinson, who joined forces with Martin Luther King in the 1960s to combat the ‘triple evils’ of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.  After showing the film to students in a course I teach on the politics of sports media, I asked how many of them knew before watching the movie that Billie Jean King was a union organizer, or that by the 1968 presidential election Robinson was speaking out against African-Americans using success in realm of sports as a substitute for more systematic social change.  Not a hand in the room went up.

The documentary closes with a meditation by Zirin on how the increasing commercialization of sport has been central to the growing reticence on the part of superstar athletes to speak out on political issues.  In this regard, the rise of Michael Jordan marked a sharp departure from the example of competitors like Ali, as athletes began to heed the call of sponsors more than that of their conscience.  As Zirin explains, we have “Ali on the one side, showing how greatness in the ring doesn’t require sacrificing greatness outside of it.”  And we have “Jordan, on the other, ushering in a new age of corporate rule that loves to glorify the image of rebellion while stripping it of its substance.”

If the film has one weakness, it’s that it passes over a more substantive discussion of team owners and league administrators who have gone to great lengths to counteract the radical legacy of social justice struggles in sport, and who have often used their teams and arenas as vehicles for reactionary political projects (including Christian ‘faith days’ at the ballpark and invitations to Sarah Palin to warm up the crowd at hockey games).  Perhaps it would be difficult to find enough footage to support such a discussion in a film like this, especially considering the reputation of many of the more notorious owners for living a behind-the-scenes shadow existence that shields them from public scrutiny (Zirin deals deftly with this issue in print in his most recent book).  Nevertheless, I think that a film set on raising our consciousness as to the political relevance of sport has to engage more directly with the draconian economic and social projects underwritten by owners and league management.

To be clear, everyone—sports fans and non-fans alike—should see this movie.  That said, it will be especially useful for those who teach courses on the history and politics of sport in the U.S.  My sense is that teachers and scholars have been caught up in an endless repetition of the same three examples—Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and the Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics—whenever they want to prove Zirin’s point that sports and politics do mix.  Certainly, these are important stories, and Not Just a Game gives them the attention they deserve.  But the documentary does one better by demolishing the sanitized narratives of athletes like Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson, and Pat Tilman—athletes who, unlike Ali and Brown, rarely get discussed outside the context of vapid references to ‘tolerance’, ‘colorblindness’, or ‘service to country’.   Hopefully, the movie will cause some discomfort for those who, like many of my students, want desperately to believe that the sports they hold so dear are just a game.

Sean Dinces is a jaded sports fan and graduate student in Providence, Rhode Island, where he does research on the relationship between professional sport and the politics of neoliberalism. He can be contacted at: sdinces@gmail.com. Read other articles by Sean.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 23rd, 2011 at 8:42am #

    as far as i had been able to observe, sports people promote supremacism. personal and/or religious supremacism-infallibity is root of all evil. tnx

  2. hayate said on February 23rd, 2011 at 9:03pm #

    “Zirin is a refreshing voice of both reason and radicalism.”

    Unfortunately he relayed the zionist anti-Iran propaganda about the mossad/cia “green” “color revolution” against Iran and a lot of his pieces are simply gossip. IE: it’s the wrong politics. This is not radical, it’s not even genuinely progressive. It’s reactionary, dishonest and just plain herd instinct at play. The guy found himself a niche talking about sports from a “liberal” pov. Most sports commentators are reactionary rubbish on the same level of gossip columnists, art/entertainment critics and and hate radio talk show hosts, the fact that one is a bit more classy and less repugnant doesn’t make him a radical, it just means he isn’t some neanderthal throwback like the majority of the herd.

  3. Deadbeat said on February 23rd, 2011 at 9:34pm #

    I would have to agree with hayate assessment of Zirin and the author of this review rather than soft-sell Jackie Robertson should speak to how Robinson was used to target the Socialist-Leftist African American Paul Robson. Robinson may have changed by 1968 but the real damage was done in the 1950’s by Robinson as a tool of McCarthyism.