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Dave Zirin: typical Mac grad, atypical sportswriter

By David Hertz

Dave Zirin is an unusual sports writer, and he tells unusual stories about his subjects. They are stories of athletes in politics; Jackie Robinson, the most requested speaker in local NAACP organizations, ahead of even Martin Luther King Jr.; Tiger Woods, the marketing symbol for Nike.Less concerned with the box scores than the social significance of the games, his mission, as he sees it, is “to absolutely drive a stake through the heart of the myth that sports and politics have nothing to do with each other.”

Zirin, who graduated from Macalester in 1996, came to Weyerhauser Chapel Tuesday, Oc. 14, to promote his 2008 book, “A People’s History of Sports.” According to Zirin, he set out to write a political history of sports in America showing how sports has been a cover for racism, sexism and homophobia. In his career as a commentator on sports in politics, he has published several books, including “What’s My Name, Fool?” and “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and written in “The Nation” and his weekly blog, “The Edge of Sports,” according to event sponsor and Associate Professor and Chair of the HMCS department Leola Johnson.

At the event, Zirin spoke and took questions on his book, his blog, and his views on topics ranging from Tiger Wood’s relationship with Nike to how aspiring writers could break into the business.

Johnson has used Zirin’s writing in teaching her Critical Studies of Sports in the Media course for years. Her class two years ago read “What’s My Name, Fool?,” a collection of interviews with athletes who were political “troublemakers,” while her current class is reading “A People’s History of Sports.”

His alternative interpretations of sports jolted some of her students.

“Two years ago when we had our first-year course one of the things that was on [his blog] that I think shocked my first-year class was a defense of Barry Bonds,” Johnson said.

Zirin was noted for his accusations that sports writers attacking Bonds for steroid use were racist, and for defending steroid use as a way to possibly decrease sports injuries.

Former Critical Studies of Sports students met at a reception before the speech.

“I was just shocked. I found it ridiculous at first,” said Alyssa Leone ’10, about reading Zirin’s writing for the first time.

“Do you still think it’s ridiculous?” Johnson asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

Mainstream sports writers have strongly criticized Zirin as well. Professional basketball player Etan Thomas complained about coaches telling the U.S. Olympic basketball team that they were playing for U.S. soldiers in Iraq in motivational talks. Zirin wrote Thomas’ story, but fellow sports writer Tom Knott disagreed that the tactic was inappropriate or political. After a heated argument in the press, Knott approached Zirin to ask him why he took the issue so seriously.

“‘Look, you write lefty sports, I write more traditional sports – we’re both whores, we just walk different sides of the street,'” Zirin recalled Knott saying.

A mocking humor permeated Zirin’s comments throughout the talk. He argued that while athletes faced “incredible pressure . not to be political,” politicians exploited sports to prove their American credentials.

“He’s not much of a bowler, but basketball is something that Barack does. John McCain probably plays shuffleboard,” he noted, sarcastically.

Tuesday marked Zirin’s third visit to Macalester College in three years, according to Johnson. He previously came two years ago to promote “What’s My Name, Fool?” and as a guest speaker for Johnson’s Critical Studies of Sports in the Media class.

October 24, 2008

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