Sunday, August 07, 2005
1 Book, Ten Minutes
In addition to becoming a profitable form of mass entertainment, pro sports have become an effective means for the political and financial elite to package their values and ideas. This is why sports in this country reflect a distinctly US project, rooted in aspirations for greatness as well as conquest and oppression. The US is unique in playing the national anthem before every game (and, since 9/11, playing "God Bless America" during baseball's seventh inning stretch--even for all-American teams like the Toronto Blue Jays). We are unique in employing scantily clad women to tell us when to "cheer." We are unique in calling the winners of our domestic leagues "world champions."
In many cities, your average Sunday NFL game contains more patriotic overkill than a USO show in Kuwait. First there's a military drum line to midfield. Then a standing sing-along to "I'm Proud to Be an American (Where At Least I know I'm Free)" by Lee Greenwood. And then comes the "Star Spangled Banner." You are certainly "free" to not stand, as long as you know that the guy behind you will feel "free" to pour beer on your head.
Many throughout the US are repelled by pro sports today for a laundry list of reasons. People who otherwise enjoy competitive play performed at its highest levels don't want to be party to the cutthroat competition at its core. Many are also put off by the insane salaries of the games' top players, others by the back room dealings that produce publicly funded stadiums at taxpayer expense. Then there is the abuse of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, which some feel have taken long-hallowed baseball records and reduced them to rubbish. When you pile on the way racism and sexism are frequently used to sell sports, it can all seem about as appealing as a Sunday in the park with George Steinbrenner.
The above is from What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, pages 19 - 20. (And due to a lack of time, we're cheating with excerpt and pulling from The Nation's excerpt of the book which can be found here. Translation, the above is an excerpt of an excerpt.) Participating in this book discussion are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Ty, Jim, Ava, Jess and C.I. who is also of The Common Ills along with Mike of Mikey Likes It!, Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix and Betty of Thomas Friedman is a Great Man.
Jim: Set us up, Mike.
Mike: Okay, I learned about this book from Democracy Now! and we've got an excerpt from that.
AMY GOODMAN: That, a clip from When We Were Kings, Muhammad Ali. You talk about Muhammad Ali being at that time extremely political, outspoken, yet today young people might not know that at all, though Muhammad Ali is the most famous name in the world.
DAVID ZIRIN: Yes, I mean, today, Muhammad Ali's image is used to sell everything from Sprite to Microsoft with the benefit of computer C.G.I. And there's no question that what's happened to Muhammad Ali, you know, is not dissimilar to what's happened to people like Malcolm X, who is now on a postage stamp, or Martin Luther King, whose image you can now get on a commemorative cup when you go into McDonald's on his birthday, in that Muhammad Ali's political teeth have largely been extracted.
And that's something that, with this book, I want to hope to return to the arena, is like the context of Ali's politics, because the tradition of Ali and that tradition of resistance is something that's, I think, very important for people to know. I mean, Ali was just named the number two most important athlete in history in ESPN's Top 100 Athletes of All Time. But when you saw their tribute to him, I mean, you would have left wondering, "Okay, well, what's so special about this guy?" And that’s why it's so important to return to the arena, as we understand sports, that dynamic relationship between struggles on the streets, how it affected athletes, but then also how athletes then, in turn, affected those struggles.
Mike: This books tells stories that need to be told about the intersection of politics and sports and it's not just like the brave stories that we should know to honor the people like Ali, but it's also the stories of people who actively worked and work to keep others down. I'm a sports fan but I think the book would be a good read for everyone, sports fans and non-sports fans.
Betty: Well I ran track and played basketball in high school, so maybe I'm a "jock," but I really enjoyed it. The most shocking thing to me was finding out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a legend, can't get a job coaching in the NBA.
Dona: I think my favorite section was on Rush Limbaugh being dumped by ESPN. Now that alone makes for a good read for me, happy ending and all, but Zirin quotes Pat Robertson making similar comments about Morgan Freeman. I had no idea that occurred, I don't watch The 700 Club. I'd agree with Mike that you don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy the book because I'm not a sports fan. I don't pretend to know how a game is played, outside of scrabble and jacks, and I was able to follow and enjoy the book.
Cedric: I enjoyed the discussions that were historical. He really set up the responses to racism and how the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson. Later in the book, when he's speaking of a gay athlete in baseball, football or basketball, he notes that people will question a Esera Tuaolo about why he didn't come out and be a first but the reality is Robinson didn't just have a few people cheering him on, he was preceeded by other individuals as well as a mass movement that was there to offer support. The same argument that comes up with Ali. When the press goes after Ali for speaking out, this is in the sixties, Ali can count on the fact that people are aware of the racism and, like Zirin points out, Ali didn't back down. Bullies don't like it when you stand up to them and that was a point Mike was making this week at his site.
Mike: Right, how we let the right slam our own and then instead of defending Jane Fonda or Howard Zinn or who ever, we end up trying to draw a line between them and ourselves so that we'll look reasonable in the eyes of the right wing. And then we complain about how the right keeps shifting the line. Look, football, okay, when the other side advances, if you don't hold, they're grabbing ground. And if we're not playing defense, if we're just waving them through to look reasonable, they're not grabbing ground, we're giving it to them.
Ty: I enjoyed the various sections noting how black atheletes are portrayed. How cornrows and tats are a big deal and cause all this fuss. How the NBA is getting "too rap." And how these sort of attacks are historical ones. The way the Texas Western Miners were portrayed by the press and how their 1966 victory was downplayed.
Jim: To me, the best part of the book was noting how media plays into it. From the sports radio personalities to ESPN going to Kuwait to broadcast. I like sports so I found it compelling but I was interested in how it would play out to non sports readers. Dona said she didn't have a problem and she was up until two in the morning one night finishing the book.
Ava: Well, I'll watch basketball but I wouldn't call myself a sports nut and I would recommend the book. I want to note something from page 65:
An incredible groundswell of support built up for Ali. That is why, despite the harrassment and the media attacks and the taps on his phones, he stood firm. At one press conference later that year, he was expected to fully recant. Instead, Ali stood up and said, "Keep asking me, no matter how long, On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song, I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong." By now it was 1967 and, in another huge step for the antiwar movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the war. At the press conference where he first proclaimed his opposition, King said, "Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all -- Black and Brown and poor -- victims of the same system of oppression." Ali and King, to the anger of the NOI, struck up a private friendship that we know about now thanks to the good historians at the FBI.
Ava: I think that was my favorite part of the book, Ali's standing firm. But I was speaking to a guy in a class about this book, he hadn't read it, and talking about Ali's opposition to the war and the guy said, "No, you're wrong. It was just Jane Fonda that protested." In the excerpt at the top of this piece, Zirin notes that in the televised 'histories,' Ali's politics never get mentioned. It's amazing how many people today do not realize how great the opposition to Vietnam was.
C.I.: Revisionism. They've lived under it. When you and Jess did the thing on Cass Elliot's new CD collection there were two e-mailers, one a "concerned blogger," who felt the need to weigh in that it was frivilous to mention Cass. He knew her weight, he knew she sang. He has no idea that she was against the war. "Let's play nice" with the fright wing has allowed this psuedo-theory that we could have "won" if only our hands hadn't been tied -- e.g. if we'd dropped the atomic bomb or some other nonsense. The realites of the war faded, to the point that we're in the current invasion/occupation, and as so many try to be so damn "moderate" and so damn "reasoned" we're left largely with a dialogue that bickers over "fine tuning" and doesn't address the actual realities. With Vietnam, and other periods, Zirin paints a portrait of the individuals involved in larger struggles. Jess wanted to speak on that, so I'll shut up.
Jess: Well, I'll note that the book also includes interviews. And the interview that stood out to me, on that period, was probably David Meggyesy's. He played for the St. Louis Cardinales from 1963 to 1969. He talks about one of the events that "politicized" him was when, the weekend after JFK was assassinated, they were forced to play to "bring everyone together." Here he is, page 117, speaking about Vietnam:
Eventually, more than half the country was against the war. On the evening news, every night people were seeing battle scenes, scenes with American and Vietnamese people being killed and bombed, of kids burning with napalm. There were body counts and increasing American casualities. And the American people were just appalled. There was absolutely no reason to be in Vietnam. Why do you think we have seen nothing during this Iraq war about what is really happening on the ground? We are dropping one-ton bombs on people in Iraq, and we see the bombs launched but not the level of destruction or the bodies. We say we precision bomb this, or bomb that, yet we, the citizen who are paying for these bombs and vast military, don't see how many people were killed. We don't see and aren't allowed to see the destruction and bodies in the street. The political establishment and the military have santized every war since Vietnam. They learned their lesson, and the media is kept away from what is happening. We the people need to start connecting the dots and asking why are we occupying this country? And we need to connect the dots more than that. Why, in the most fabulously weathly country in the world, do we not have a national health care system and universal basic health care for everyone? Most folks don't connect those dots. In the 1960s, we were doing that.
Jim: There's also a great, must read section on stadiums built on tax payer monies. C.I. wanted to talk about a section.
C.I.: I know we're pressed for time so instead, I'll just read a section from the book because it will be more powerful than any attempt I could make to sum it up. From page 144:
"Coach, you know how you were always on me about working on my right hand dribble. Well, I'm going to start." With this line, delivered amid laughter and tears, former Notre Dame basketball standout, southpaw Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, told the horrifying news to her ex-Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw: a grenade had blown off her left hand when she was -- as Army MP Green -- patrolling a Baghdad police station.
Like late NFL safety turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, Green could easily be used as a symbol of patriotic resolve and sacrifice. She would fit neatly into that potent place where athletics meets war and produce pro-military demagoguery. Yet unlike Tillman, who cannot speak for himself, D-Smooth has foiled attempts to exploit her experience for pro-war purposes by speaking out against what she sees, from firsthand experience, as an unjust war. "They just don't want us there. I personally don't think we should have gone into Iraq. Not the way things have turned out. A lot more people are going to get hurt, and for what?"
Mike: And the book is filled with incredible moments that just tear at you. So buy the book, check it out at your library, but read it.