Flagrant fouls

Dave Zirin targets sports exploitation and cowardice with his politically charged new book

Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports
Release Date: 2007-07-11
Publishing House: Haymarket
Rated: NONE
Genre: Book/Periodical
Much like our culture at large, our contemporary sports media is inundated with self-promoters eager to prove how bold and rebellious they are. They drop gratuitous slang at every opportunity, fire off pop-culture references like Allen Iverson hoists three-pointers, and, to borrow a famous line from Jim Brown, talk loud and say nothing. That’s right, Jim Rome and Stephen A. Smith, step to the front of the class.

For all the bombastic volleys that these chest-thumpers direct at the sports establishment, they’re remarkably reticent (or clueless) when it comes to challenging fundamental assumptions about the machinery of sports. They’ll mock a drop-happy wide receiver or an erratic relief pitcher any day of the week, but how often do they consider whether the stadiums these underperformers play in were financed on the backs of working-class citizens who received nothing tangible in return?

These are the kinds of issues that stir Dave Zirin to write about sports. Without question, he appreciates sports as physical poetry, but he refuses to let that appreciation blind him to the ways that sports are used to manipulate and exploit their communities.

Exploitation and cowardice are the central themes behind Welcome to the Terrordome, Zirin’s third politically charged sports book. Zirin defined his approach with 2005’s What’s My Name, Fool?, a superb examination of the intersections between sports and politics over the last century. In that book, Zirin dissected seminal sports rebels such as journalist Lester Rodney, NFL player-activist Dave Meggyesy, and baseball union leader Marvin Miller. The potent examples offered by these courageous figures imbued that book with a sense of hope that we might again return to an era when political consciousness and athletics were not mutually exclusive.

In that context, Terrordome feels like a bitter shot of cold reality. Zirin begins by painting a harrowing picture of Hurricane Katrina victims trapped in a sweltering Superdome, noting that in a city with deep poverty and overwhelming safety issues, city leaders wasted taxpayer dollars on this monstrous, enclosed football edifice.

One of Zirin’s great gifts is that he sees beyond the superficialities of professional athletics, and he connects the dots between the Superdome, the callous treatment of Latino baseball players, the Bush administration’s appropriation of war casualty (and former football star) Pat Tillman, and the way the NBA uses hip-hop culture for marketing purposes but shies away from it whenever the sight of bling scares affluent white people.

He even manages to make much-maligned Barry Bonds a sympathetic, if not innocent, figure. Zirin accurately points out that branding Bonds a surly cheater does not necessarily make you a racist, but pretending that race is not a factor in the way Bonds is perceived certainly makes you naive.

Zirin doesn’t go out of his way to prove how clever he is, but when he takes firm aim at a target, his wit can be devastating. Ridiculing Lakers coach Phil Jackson over Jackson’s depiction of hip-hop garb as “gangster, thuggery stuff,” Zirin counters: “This is nothing but racism — particularly galling coming from Jackson, who spent the ’60s and ’70s dressed like a roadie for Country Joe & the Fish.”

On the subject of our clueless commander-in-chief, he writes: “`Bush` has always been a world-class jocksniffer, much more comfortable around athletes than reporters; the kind of guy in your junior-high locker room who could snap towels with the best of them.”

By the end of this book, Zirin convinces you that we’re all in the terrordome, and it’s the world-class jocksniffers who put us there.

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