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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

How Dave Zirin ’96 created his niche: political sports journalism

Dave Zirin ’96 visited Macalester on Tuesday to discuss his newest area of interest: sports futurism. Photo courtesy of Zirin.

 In the 28 years since he graduated Macalester, Dave Zirin ’96 has become the first-ever sports editor for the political news magazine The Nation, produced multiple feature-length documentaries and co-written books with Olympic athlete and civil rights activist John Carlos and NFL Pro-Bowler Michael Bennett. 

Zirin has spent his career investigating the convergence between sports and politics. On Tuesday, Feb. 27, Zirin returned to Macalester to give a lecture on his newest area of interest within this convergence: sports futurism. 

“Sports futurism is about the power of the imaginary — your imaginary,” Zirin said. “It’s about envisioning what sports could look like if liberated from the problems that plague our world. Above all, it’s about hope.” 

Zirin got the idea for sports futurism from a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The museum had an exhibit on Afrofuturism, a concept that scholar Mark Dery introduced in the early 90s to describe methods of envisioning a liberated future for Black people. 

Zirin says that the key concept he wants to take from Afrofuturism is that the current state of the world is not necessarily the way the world must be. Through sports futurism, Zirin wants to imagine a culture where sporting competition is the only kind of competition. 

“[It’s about a] society where people can compete to score touchdowns, not to put food on the table, compete to score home runs, not to get healthcare, to be able to play soccer in the field without fear of being bombed,” Zirin said.

The concept of sports futurism is part of the niche that Zirin occupies as a political sports journalist. Political sports journalism did not exist when Zirin attended Macalester, but two classes got Zirin thinking about the topic.

It started with a class called “The Black Athlete Since 1945.” Zirin didn’t get into the class because Professor Emeritus of History Mahmoud El-Kati, who taught the class, was so popular. But Zirin’s roommate, David Ashton ’96, got in.

“I read all of Dave’s books and even sat in on the class, even though I got no credit for it whatsoever, and even though I wasn’t doing great in my other classes,” Zirin said. “The way Professor El-Kati brought together sports and politics to explain the fight against racism post-World War II absolutely blew my mind. I thought I knew a lot about sports but realized that I really only knew half the story.”

Zirin did make it onto the class roster for the other course that changed his perspective. Professor Emeritus of English Robert Warde offered a class called “Autobiographical Writing,” and suddenly, Zirin began to connect sports and politics to writing.

“I found myself writing stories about my own life — which was, of course, the class — but it was all related to sports,” Zirin said. “Things I’d seen, things I’d experienced, things I’d learned from sitting in on Professor El-Kati’s class. And as I was learning all this, something amazing happened in the NBA.”

On March 12, 1996, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul Rauf decided not to stand for the national anthem before an NBA game to protest US foreign policy abroad and racism at home. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for a game and fined him over $30,000. Zirin took note.

“That living demonstration of how sports and politics could come together made me realize that the history I’d been learning from [Emeritus] Peter Rachleff and Mahmoud El-Kati actually had tremendous relevance to the present,” Zirin said. “And that, combined with Robert Warde’s class, was what did it for me. This is what I wanted to do.”

Still, Zirin was far from political sports journalism. While at Macalester, he wrote political op-eds for The Mac Weekly but never anything sports-related. Post-graduation, he slowly progressed towards writing about sports and politics.

“I didn’t have a lot of models of people who were doing that kind of writing, which made it hard at first,” Zirin said. “I was able to get onto some jobs in my twenties working on newspapers — small newspapers — in the DC-Maryland area. And with every job, all I asked was, ‘May I have a little space in the sports section to write about sports and politics?’”

The newspapers obliged, and Zirin went to work with the real estate they granted him. Because of the diminutive size of the audience for the publications he was writing for, Zirin’s columns didn’t have many readers, but that changed once his brother-in-law started distributing his column online.

“I found myself building a base of readers across the country,” Zirin said. “Haymarket Books got wind of it and said, ‘Hey, you know, we want to take your columns, expand on them, and put a book together.’”

After Zirin’s first book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” sold well, he began to get more opportunities. He started to write more books and continued to write columns, until one of his columns caught the eye of New York Times sports writer Robert Lipsyte.

The publisher and editor of The Nation magazine at the time, Katrina vanden Heuvel, knew Lipsyte and had approached him about becoming the first sports writer for her magazine. Lipsyte said he was too old for the position, instead pointing her to Zirin.

“I say very proudly, I’m the first sports writer ever hired by The Nation,” Zirin said. “I’m proud of it because I think sports belong in political magazines … and not having [sports] in spaces like The Nation, to me, constitutes a degree of prejudice against the importance of sports. I think sports is a very important lens for understanding our political life, and it’s a very important entry point for people who love sports but hate politics.” 

Soon, Zirin became the sports editor at The Nation, cementing the role of sports at the politically-focused magazine. The position has led to many more opportunities for Zirin, including his podcast and blog “The Edge of Sports,” and documentaries like “Behind the Shield.” Zirin thinks these platforms allow him to demonstrate to his audience that despite what they might think, sports and politics do not exist on parallel tracks. 

“Howard Cosell, the great sportscaster, said that rule number one of the jock autocracy was that sports and politics should never mix,” Zirin said. “At the same time, we see politics all over sports.

“Whether it has to do with billion-dollar land deals to create new stadiums, whether it has to do with hyper patriotism, hyper militarism, the war planes flying overhead before football games, all of these actions are, in fact, political. [Like] keeping transgender kids from taking the sports field. That’s a political act, of course, and a pernicious one at that.”

These acts — and the reactions to them — define for Zirin what it means to be a political sports journalist.

“The first thing I try to do is establish for the reader that it’s not sports and politics that they don’t want to mix,” Zirin said. “It’s sports and a certain kind of politics they don’t want to mix, and those certain kinds of politics are resistance politics. Being a political sports writer is teasing out the political messages in sports and also providing a platform for the words of athletes who are trying to use their hyper-exalted ‘brought to you by Nike’ perch to say something about the world.” 


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