Dave Zirin '96 talks sports, bashes corporate ownership

By April DeJarlais

Dave Zirin ’96, nationally recognized sports commentator and writer, visited Macalester last Wednesday and Thursday for a talk on his latest book Bad Sports: How Sports Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.Using humor and his youthful experiences of being a sports fan in Brooklyn, New York, Zirin illustrated the path that American sports have traveled from being based in the public to reflecting a more corporate business model.

He began by criticizing Carl Pohlad, the deceased former owner of the Minnesota Twins, for using public funds (rather than private) for building the Twins’ new stadium Target Field. Pohlad, a multi-billionaire, advocated for the new stadium during the 1990s but never succeeded in securing taxpayer funds for the project before his death.

Zirin linked the 2008 Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis to the need for a restructuring of public priorities. The groundbreaking for Target Field was rescheduled in deference to the 13 deaths caused by the bridge collapse, but Zirin pushed to look at the larger picture of public funds being used for the $517 million ballpark while critical infrastructure is failing.

“If owners cared about the community, they would have paid for it [sports stadiums] by themselves,” Zirin said. “It might sound like I’m trying to demonize pro sports owners, and I am,” he added.

The central problem in modern professional sports, he argued, is that they are not “just sports” anymore – they are neoliberal politics. The “fans are at the bottom of the barrel” and likened to scenery or props in sports realm, whereas the real profit lies in corporate partners, public subsidies and cable deals.

Both Arizona Diamondbacks owner Earl “Ken” Kendrick and Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos provided significant funds for the Republican Party during the George W. Bush administration, Zirin said.

He cited the Green Bay Packers football team as an exception, calling it a “fan-owned” team where much of the money put into sports events goes back into the community. Such a system provides the public with a sense of ownership. But that example may simply be a “life raft in a sea of shit,” Zirin said.

His sports reformation plan includes the concept of team public ownership and the re-working of sport bylaws. In particular, he identified a football law stating that a non-profit organization cannot own a team.

In the realm of college athletics, professionalization (and therefore corporatization) has become more prevalent. The University of Oregon recently built a $47 million Nike-funded student athlete study center and Berkeley plans to renovate its California Memorial Stadium in the next several years at the cost of $321 million.

For Berkeley this comes at a time when tuition is rising and academic departments are being cut, Zirin said.

When asked about Macalester’s $45 million Leonard Center Zirin said he was “shocked” when he first saw it, but did not know enough about it to comment further.

Witnessing racially-influenced violence at a sports event his senior year of high school influenced him to come to Macalester, he said, and that his admissions counselor told him “you’ll get more people to a poetry reading than a football game.”

Despite his strong critique of profession sports, Zirin clarified that he “loves sports, and is just having a difficult time liking it.” He said he struggles between the appreciation for sports instilled him at a young age and contempt for where the institution is heading.

“We do have an obligation to give a damn.We need to turn on sports because it’s turning on us,” he said.