Dave Zirin: The ‘megaphone of sports’ is more global, powerful than ever

As the NFL staged its Opening Night Party in St. Paul Monday, protesters shut down streets downtown, calling on Super Bowl sponsors to support local schools and racial equity.

Donald Trump has made politics part of nearly every reporter’s beat. The president’s policy proposals and inflammatory public comments spark reaction and resistance that spill beyond the Beltway, outside the traditional spaces reserved for political debate.

Nowhere, perhaps, has the spillover been more apparent – or uncomfortable – than in the world of sports.

When Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the national anthem at a preseason game in 2016, the “take a knee” movement against police brutality in communities of color caught fire. TV networks squirmed over the impact on their ratings, shock jocks lit up sports radio with hot takes, and sports reporters started asking questions that went beyond X’s and O’s.

Dave Zirin has been asking those questions for a long time. A former student at Macalester College, he is the author of “A People’s History of Sports” and other books on how sports and progressive movements intersect. Zirin is at work on a book with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, and he writes and podcasts regularly at edgeofsports.com. He offered up his thoughts on what Minnesotans can expect during – and after – Super Bowl week in this interview, which has been edited (albeit lightly) for length (he had lots of good things to say).

UA: Teachers, low-wage workers and progressive groups here are using the Super Bowl spotlight to lift up their own campaigns, and some of their messages are obviously inspired by the way pro athletes have used their platform lately. This isn’t a new phenomenon in sports, but to what degree are we witnessing something historic?

Dave Zirin (photo credit: Jen Maler)

DZ: We’re certainly looking at a massive uptick in what is a historical continuum. Sports has always been this very powerful place. We’re taught that sports is this level playing field, this epitome of America, where anybody who’s good can make it. Yet the reality of sports is it’s a very unlevel playing field. It’s also one of the few places that if you come from a working-class or poor background, you have this immense cultural capital to tell your story – and to speak about what’s happening in the world.

I would argue that events like the Super Bowl become more and more these kind of global political events, almost like an economic Trojan horse in these communities. The spotlight is so bright. We’ve never been at a point where the megaphone of sports is more global and more powerful.

UA: What would you say to local activists looking to divert that spotlight into the streets?

DZ: I would say that they are doing the right kind of work. They are part of a tradition that’s really fired up recently in Olympic host cities, World Cup host countries and Super Bowl host cities, where people use the fact the world is watching this particular space to speak about everyday injustices in that space – and also how those injustices are aggravated by hosting these mega-events. People who are homeless find themselves under attack, sex workers find themselves under attack, union workers who might want to exercise their rights for the next week find themselves under attack. It’s not just about leveraging the spotlight, it’s about mounting a very real defense campaign against what these mega-events bring.

We’re talking about an increased police presence, the privatization of public space. We’re talking about the fact that the city is bending over backward to almost create a Potemkin village for the 1 percent that’s coming in. They seek to create this fake veneer of what the city actually is… And then as soon as those people leave and the media leaves, it all gets torn down. And when it all gets torn down, that’s also when it gets really dangerous for people because there’s this push to try to keep some of what’s been in there, whether you’re talking about stepped up police presence or closed-circuit TV cameras. I’ve been to so many Super Bowl host cities and Olympic or World Cup host cities, and that’s what they always say, that there becomes this mission creep…

UA: Twin Cities corporations spent $52 million to lure the Super Bowl to town, and the NFL won’t pay for much of anything this week as a result. What’s the local cost of this willingness to bend over backwards for the NFL and other pro sports leagues?

DZ: We have to suss through this. The actual cost, tragically, is not something that we’re going to be able to know until weeks, if not months, after the event itself. There should be an economic forensic exam, and the unions should take the lead on that. We can’t expect Democrats to do it for us… When they say they don’t have enough money for schools, for health care – this isn’t a question of having enough money, it’s about priorities.

UA: Are attitudes toward mega-events changing?

DZ: You are seeing changes. Cities are rejecting the Olympics, from Boston to Krakow. Cities have stood up to hosting these games because of the economic costs and political costs. Cities have started demanding concessions from the NFL and from local officials, like offsets so that every dollar that goes to the Super Bowl also goes to our schools, or goes to health care. Until that happens, we’re going to keep having this privatization of public wealth, which is really what the Super Bowl is once all the smoke and glitter clears.

UA: Going back to the player protests, how vital have players’ collective bargaining agreements been to this movement?

DZ: The collective bargaining agreement in the NFL has meant everything to these protests. While I would certainly argue that they have the First Amendment right to protest during the anthem, I really do think a lot of NFL players would have just been fired outright if it wasn’t for the fact that the CBA in the NFL has very specific language about whether players have to stand at attention. To compare and contrast, the NBA, which has much more political foment in it, has different language in their CBA that actually directs players to stand at attention. I think that’s one of the reasons you haven’t seen those kinds of protests in the National Basketball Association. They’re just not protected.

If the NFL had just started firing players left and right, they would have been at dire risk of invalidating the entire collective bargaining agreement. They would have given the union, which is already setting up in the next year for contract negotiations, an unfathomable amount of leverage …

As someone who’s interviewed a lot of these players, something that makes me really angry is that the players who are political also tend to be the players who are most community minded, bighearted and down to earth. There’s something so repellent to me that they’re the ones who are demonized by Trump and by certain members of the NFL ownership community. They’re the ones who really do represent the best – not just among NFL players, but among trade unionists in general.

UA: Trump’s use of the NFL – from tweeting about players who kneel to picking on the league at rallies – is remarkable. Why do you think it strikes such a chord with his supporters?

DZ: Like so much with Trump, while it strikes a chord with his base, it has not expanded his base. The polls I see show as many as three-fourths of people do not agree with how he has dealt with this issue. More people, after Trump got involved, were actually on the side of the players than before because he is so toxic.

But this is rank racism. There’s no other way to say it. These are players who are trying to start a conversation – not about the anthem or patriotism, but about racism and police violence. You think Donald Trump wants to have that conversation? Of course not. So he demonizes and attacks these players for being ‘ungrateful.’ One player said to me that ‘ungrateful’ is like Trump’s n-word, something he reserves for only black athletes. This is a very old script, and it resonates because you tap into envy. As if these ‘ungrateful’ athletes … haven’t worked their entire lives to make their way in the world.

UA: But you see backlash against this script?

DZ: Let’s talk about the No. 1 way we can tell that it didn’t work. When he called players SOB’s and used profanity before a rapturous crowd, where was he? He was in Huntsville, Alabama. What happened in Alabama? Somehow the Republicans lost a Senate race…

UA: Are you the guy no one wants to sit next to at the Super Bowl party?

DZ: No, people like sitting next to me. I always bring out the good food. I clean my house so I give people a nice place to sit. I usually spend the first 30 minutes of the Super Bowl in my own personal protest, live tweeting an episode of the “Facts of Life.” People on Twitter tend to go crazy. I lose a couple hundred followers, but I find it funny. I call it the Tootie Bowl.

UA: Who wins? Who are you rooting for?

DZ: I hate the New England Patriots because they always win and they’re arrogant and they’re obnoxious. But I’m sure you’ve heard people say that when the Patriots win it feels like Trump wins all over again. Slow your roll. They’re not Team Trump. Don’t take it that seriously please.

But I’m rooting for the Eagles, and I’ll pick the Eagles. I’ll never root for the Patriots. Ever.

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