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The hidden history of resistance in sports
Sports and struggle

October 14, 2005 | Page 8

ASHLEY SMITH reviews the recently published What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States--a radical guide to sports and politics by socialist Dave Zirin.

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FOR EVERYONE who cheered Ali's stinging jab and right cross to U.S. imperialism's chin, for everyone who loved basketball player Etan Thomas's speech denouncing the Bush administration at the September 24 antiwar demonstration, for everyone who shudders at the stupidities of the sports industry and yet still enjoys playing and watching sports, Dave Zirin's What's My Name, Fool? is the book for you.

It's a knockout!

Zirin fills a giant void in sports journalism and radical politics. What's My Name, Fool? is a brilliant retort to ESPN Sports Center's grating humor and mindless endorsement of establishment politics. It's also a long-needed corrective for much of the left's puritanical rejection of sports.

What Zirin shows is how sports, like other realms of culture, embodies the contradictions of capitalism--both the agony of oppression and the thrill of resistance. It's true that our bosses run sports like a big business for profit, and use it to promote all sorts of reactionary notions, from nationalism and sexism to the Horatio-Alger myth that if you work hard you will get ahead. Yet sports is also an arena of struggle, where movements of the oppressed and exploited can and have challenged our rulers and their ideas.

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ZIRIN RECOUNTS this hidden history of resistance--against racism, sexism and homophobia, and for union rights.

He begins with the story of sports writer Lester Rodney, who--as a writer for the Communist Party's Daily Worker newspaper--during the 1930s and 1940s helped initiate and chronicle the Black fight to integrate baseball.

Zirin tells the riveting story of this anti-racist movement through to its culmination with Jackie Robinson, who in the 1940s and 1950s braved vile racism to win over his white teammates and opponents, smash the color line in baseball, and even inspire the civil rights movement itself.

Later, Muhammad Ali brought the growing Black rebellion and the emerging antiwar movement into boxing ring, the historic squared circle of racism.

A shadow of himself today, Ali during the 1960s became a symbol of Black pride and a spokesperson, after his refusal to fight in Vietnam, for resistance against the draft and the war in Vietnam. As Zirin writes, "There was the Black revolution on the one hand, draft resistance and the antiwar struggle on the other, and the heavyweight champ with one foot planted in each."

Zirin shows how this surging movement produced the defiant stand of Black athletes at the 1968 Olympics, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists in a Black power salute against U.S. racism and imperialism. In one of the book's most moving interviews, John Carlos tells contemporary athletes, "You got to step up to a society when it's letting all its people down."

What's My Name, Fool? tells the story of the struggle to organize baseball and football, through interviews with key pioneers of sports unions--like Dave Megessey, who not only organized antiwar activism within the NFL, but also helped build the NFL Players Association into a fighting union that, despite weaknesses, could teach the rest of the union movement a thing or two about militancy.

Zirin also shows how the 1960s women's movement won Title IX, the legal guarantee of equal opportunity for women's sports in educational institutions. Tennis legend Billie Jean King came out this struggle. She famously trounced sexist Bobby Riggs in a 1973 matach, and led a fight to win equal pay for women tennis players. This movement enabled one of the first openly lesbian players, Martina Navratilova, to be out and proud--as well kick almost everyone's butt with the best tennis game of her generation.

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THE FIRST half of Zirin's book brims over with stories of such resistance, especially coming out of the 1960s. The second half reprints his hilarious columns that we have all come to know and love at the Edge of Sports Web site.

Far from avoiding controversies, Zirin ploughs right into them: our rulers' cheap use of sports to drum up support for their wars on Afghanistan and Iraq; their hypocritical panic about steroids as they irradiate countries like Iraq with depleted uranium weaponry; the just demand that college athletes be freed from the university plantation and get paid in full for their labor; the outrageous media blackout of the retirement of one the world's great soccer players, Mia Hamm; and a stirring defense of Barry Bonds, the greatest baseball player of all time, against all detractors.

My favorite pieces are the ones that celebrate today's rebel athletes who are beginning to pick up the banner of Ali, Billie Jean and John Carlos: Etan Thomas, with his stand against the death penalty and the occupation of Iraq; and baseball player Carlos Delgado, who has long opposed the U.S. bombing in Vieques and refused to stand during the national anthem after the Iraq War started.

Zirin also writes about less famous heroes, like Toni Smith, who, as captain for her Mahattanville College basketball team, refused to salute the flag before games--instead, turning her back to demonstrate her opposition to the war in Iraq.

In these stories, we can begin to answer the question everyone asks--where are today's Ali's? With a renewed movement that can give confidence to such rebel-minded athletes, we will see new figures risk their careers and voice resistance against the mounting injustices of our world.

Zirin and today's radicalizing athletes are part of our movement, part of our fight for a better world--in which, as Zirin concludes, "Sports would become part of building integrated whole people. Fun, yes, but also respectful, balanced and available to all, both to participate in and enjoy. In such a world, I might even be able to dunk--and that is a world worth fighting for."

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