October 2008

Craig Fehrman


A People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play by Dave Zirin

Last month, Gilbert Arenas, an NBA All-Star, wrote the following on his blog: "Since I've been in the NBA I've been in the upper class so I've been a Republican. If you have any type of money, you're a Republican, period." This comment is surprising, not only for its transparency, its motives turned inside-out, but also for its author. Arenas is an athlete, a figure expected, politically, at least, to be seen and not heard.

This separation of sports and state drives Dave Zirin. Zirin's defining characteristic as a sportswriter is not his incisive observation (that would be Ben Cramer) or his pyrotechnic style (the late David Foster Wallace). Instead, it's his politics. In A People's History of Sports in the United States, Zirin aims for "a history that critically examines the political forces as well as the political power at work in the world of sports." There's an obvious ideological motivation here -- letting the silent speak, and in their own words.

Zirin has found the perfect outlet for this goal. In 1980, Howard Zinn published the wildly popular A People's History of the United States; you know a franchise has staying power when someone writes A People's History of Beadle County, South Dakota. In fact, Zinn now edits a series for the New Press based on his original approach, and, while the people of Beadle County must make their own way, Zirin's book is the latest entry in that series.

Like its namesake, A People's History of Sports includes fascinating and overlooked episodes. Rat-baiting in nineteenth-century New York; the bicycle's impact on the suffrage movement; baseball in World War II internment camps: Zirin devotes a page or two to these and many other captivating anecdotes.

But Zirin seldom reaches for anything beyond the anecdotal. The problem that plagues surveys, of English literature as much as American sports, is how to create a narrative. Zirin gets around this by ignoring it. "Welcome to Hell," Zirin's chapter on sports in the 1980s, links the country's post-war mindset to similar ones in the 1920s and 1950s, but this is an exception. The book does not offer enough synthesis or big-picturing, with the results feeling light on analysis and heavy on summary.

The summaries are also problematic. Zirin said in an interview that he researched this book for five years, but I wish he'd spent more of that time on the writing. Again and again, Zirin quilts together long blocks of primary text without any framing or narrative. These sources are often illuminating, like the "Founding Statement" of Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Olympic Project for Human Rights. But some pages feature only a sentence or two by Zirin; at one point, he quotes another author for four straight pages. Even when he supplies a burst of narrative, Zirin relies too heavily on other secondary sources. His footnotes march in lock-step with Zinn or other recent reportage (for example, Jeremy Schaap's Triumph and William Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves). I hate to use undergrad terms like primary and secondary, but in many cases that's exactly how this feels.

The back-cover blurbs for A People's History of Sports call it a book "we need." But who is this "we," and what do they "need"? I agree with Zirin that too many sportswriters neglect the political side of sports. But if athletes tend to be quietist, they also tend to be conservative. Zirin could have explored this trend without supporting it, but he brings up Republicans only to mock them -- we get George Will and his bow-tie, but not Gilbert Arenas and his wealth. By ignoring this, Zirin has written what amounts to a history of the modern Evangelical movement by quoting only Democrats.

Of course, Zirin can write (and Zinn can edit) whatever kind of book they want, but these choices, I think, will limit their audience. It's a paper-thin line, between staying true and selling out, and while Zirin's earlier sportswriting tightly focuses on progressive causes, he blew a chance here to write cultural history with a wider scope. A People's History of Sports can, at best, claim a very narrow appeal -- to lefties and to sports junkies, and most of all to the small space where those groups overlap in the Cosmic Venn Diagram. But this book won't expand that space.

A People's History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin
New Press
ISBN: 1595581006
320 Pages