Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's My Name, Fool?

I am not a sports fan, never have been. I enjoy seeing playoffs for things, especially if a team from my hometown is involved (although they always lose). I like the Olympics, particularly the figure skating. Sometimes I swim or ride my bike in the summer. That's about it.

What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin may seem like an odd choice of a book for me, then. I started reading reprints of Zirin's column at, primarily because visiting that website (even if you're a liberal too) is a lot like being shouted at, and I needed a break. I don't know how conservatives tune into things like Rush Limbaugh and the O'Reilly Factor. Don't they give you headaches? Anyhoo, his column seemed to go deeper, to acknowlege that the sports industry and the individual players within it are part of a larger society.

Zirin's book is about sports and politics. When I told this to my boyfriend, he gave a common response of sports fans: "There shouldn't be any politics in sports." Zirin addresses this point in his book, and counters with the bald fact that like it or not, they're there. His book opens with explosive chapters on Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, Muhammed Ali, and John Carlos and Tommy Smith's Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to show how sports played an integral role in the civil rights movement. In the Robinson chapters, he notes how some whites, in seeing him get booed and harassed by their fellow Caucasians, deliberately differentiated themselves, cheering for him and acting disgusted at the harassers, introducing the notion that overtly racist behavior is unacceptable.

He next travels to sports and labor, discussing the introduction of free agency into baseball, and contrasting it with the boxing union, which is only a few years old and up against an entire system designed to exploit the boxer. These chapters, on labor and racism, are the strongest points of the book. The chapter on gender, and the chapters dealing with modern resistance to racism and war, are much more diffuse and have an anecdotal feel to them.

There is a smattering of stories from college-level sports as well as professional. He covers some Big Stories: the death (and posthumous exploitation) of Pat Tillman, the steroid accusations against Barry Bonds (surprisingly, he believes Bonds and defends him), Kobe Bryant's rape trial, the brawl between Ron Artest and a fan. But you also find many lesser-known tales: former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, who went to Iraq and came back without her left hand; basketballer Adonal Foyle, who founded a campaign-finance reform organization called Democracy Matters while he was an undergraduate; the death of DC high school football player Devin Fowlkes, who might have survived the gunshot wound had the city not closed the nearby trauma center for lack of funds (although they had the money for a new sports stadium).

At some points, the book felt a little simplistic. Zirin makes his points with lots of force, which is a good thing -- no one wants to read a wimpy book. But sometimes he pushes too hard and overestimates the effects (positive and negative) of the actions or inactions of those he's profiling. But his writing is always engaging. He likes the colorful similie: "more racist than a Bob Jones University course syllabus;" "more technical fouls than a Dennis Rodman with Tourrette's syndrome;" "folded faster than a rib joint in Tel Aviv." Like all good color commentators, he's good at getting at the human side of the game, even when the human side is none too pretty to look at. I look forward to his next effort.