The Shifting Landscape of Sports Media with Dave Zirin

Ben Carrington: Back in 2008, you wrote a piece for Contexts called “Calling Sports Sociology Off the Bench” and you talked about the important contribution that sports sociologists had made, but you also talked about your frustration, “that a variety of people in the field and I share that the work needs to be more relevant, more accessible, more public,” and you urged sports sociologists to get out of “the academic ghetto.” You quoted Pierre Bourdieu, who said that the sociology of sport is disdained by sociologists and despised by sports people. What was your motivation for writing that piece in 2008?

Dave Zirin: It’s crazy how much has changed in the last 8 years. I feel like I am not only talking about a different decade but a different era. So let’s take it back to 2008 for a second. At the time I was writing a lot about the intersection of sports and politics, about the ways in which athletes who tried to speak out were muffled by the athletic industrial complex, and the ways in which sports, which I will always believe is this remarkable lens for having comprehensive discussions about race, gender, sexuality, class, nationalism, war, basically any political issue, I really do think is made richer through trying to understand it through the lens of sports. My frustration was at how lonely I felt in doing this work, first of all, and there weren’t a lot of other sports writers doing it. There was a very small online culture of people doing this kind of writing, and the place where I found people who were actually interested in the work I was doing was people at universities who were invested in sports sociology, and so I was speaking at a lot of campuses. I’d written a couple of books at that point and was speaking at campuses and was being brought in for sport sociology seminars and classes and I met all of these terrific professors and researchers and adjuncts who were doing this really interesting work, but my frustration was pretty vast. Sometimes I was frustrated because their research about race, gender, sexuality, and sports was written in a kind of dense academic language that would be incomprehensible to people who hadn’t been through the academy. Sometimes I was frustrated with it because they sort of accepted that no one would be interested in what they had to say as a kind of de facto, self-fulfilling prophecy. They would say things like, “Have you ever seen Sports Center? Of course nobody cares about this. People just care about highlights.” And I would beseech them, “No there actually is an underserved audience out there of people who are interested in these bigger discussions.” And, you know, sometimes I’d be frustrated because I’d be speaking to someone who’d be going to a school that would be at the heart of discussions about the NCAA and profiteering and exploitation with these big campus media networks as well as athletic networks, and their work directly speaks to what’s happening in the heart of their campus. And yet there is no effort to make that work matter. Not even so much as a cold call to the campus radio station saying, “Hey, maybe I could be a guest and speak about what’s happening?” And so it was with all that in mind that I wrote this piece and it feels odd talking about it. It feels like I’m speaking about something far, further back than just 8 years ago. Because the climate has I think changed so decisively since then on so many fronts.

BC: In your piece back in 2008, you say that it would be very easy for some of these sport sociologists to engage with the local sports radio, the local college paper, to interest sport sociology students to intern in the athletics departments, to write book proposals for mainstream presses and not just for academic presses, and also to engage more with blogs. The other part of your analysis was also a critique of sports writing, and you said, “This may not be the golden age of sports writing, but it is a golden age for sports writers.” You identify some of the changes that actually have really become pronounced over the past 8 years, where individuals like Bill Simmons, or spaces like Deadspin and ViceSports have created a broader platform for critically engaged forms of sports writing, at the same time that the traditional sports media, especially the traditional sports news media, like newspapers have been declining. So could you speak a bit more about how you saw the scene in 2008 and how you see the sports writing field right now.

DZ: Yeah, right now, it’s not just about sports writing of course, it’s about media in general. I think you can say that it’s never been a better time to be a sports writer and it’s never been a worse time to be a sports writer, and you can say both of those with utter sincerity and have it be true. But to speak very directly to the article, in 2008, one of the things I was saying was that this space would have to be created in a way that would have to be for lack of a better term, would have to be entrepreneurial both by sports sociologists and by people who had dreams of writing sports media. Like they would have to go to their own blogs, they would have to write their own articles, they would have to write their own op-eds. They would have to basically use the untapped terrain of the internet to create their own space. I do feel a lot of people in the last 8 years have done that and because we live in a capitalist society, it was recognized that this was actually very profitable, and because it was pretty obvious to me at the time that there was an underserved audience. There were people who wanted more than highlights, there were people who wanted to have a critical engagement with sports, who wanted to separate what they loved about sports from what they hated about sports so they wouldn’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater as it were and not feel guilty for liking sports, but it can be something like film or dance, a cultural commodity that you can critically engage with and see both it’s beauty and it’s destructive side. And because media forces have risen that have seen this as profitable, you have seen things like what you mentioned, I think Grantland was definitely a product of that and I think this new ESPN site The Undefeated was a product of that. I mean they have an article up as we’re talking right now about why did Lebron James stop speaking about Tamir Rice. Why did he start and then stop? I mean that’s a hell of a thing for ESPN to do an article about, why isn’t this athlete speaking more about a child who was gunned down by police in his hometown, and that’s on the freakin’ home page of ESPN.com. That’s them recognizing that it’s a different sports world out there. There are other sites like Vocativ that is doing really interesting work, and there’s I think all the ways in which 30 For 30 is a documentary series that’s tried to take on a more political lens through sports. I think a lot of the sports writing that you’ve seen over the last couple of years at ESPNW has tried to be a reflection of what sports sociologists have been doing around gender and sexuality for years. And you even see studies by sports sociologists reflected on these websites, which you weren’t seeing in 2008. I want to be really really clear about something. Like hyper-clear. I am not in any way arguing that I wrote this thing in 2008 and these media barons read it and said, “Ahh, here’s an opportunity,” as if I was writing down the recipe for a better mousetrap or something and they took advantage of that and said, “Now it’s time to make some money,” and I’m the equivalent of Mr. McDonald who came up with the hamburger and Ray Kroc stole it. The point is that this audience out there was underserved and because you know we do live in a market society, it was going to get served somehow, that’s one thing. And the second thing is that there were things that had yet to occur in 2008 that you knew were out there as sentiments, but have just exploded in the last 8 years. Like in 2008 the idea of marriage equality, if you had said that, that was something that Republicans used to win elections. It was to demagogue against marriage equality and LGBT rights. That was the reality in 2008. I know a very politically active person who has roots on your campus, she’s not there any more but, I’ll never forget this is a person who has been politically active for decades and after Texas by a 3-1 margin voted to outlaw gay marriage, she told me she was leaving politics forever. What that sentiment was in 2008, the phrase Black Lives Matter would not have meant anything to anyone. The phrase Slutwalk would not have meant anything to anyone in 2008. It is just a very different landscape right now than in 2008. Sports I would argue is very much reflecting that landscape but also sports has played a role in shaping that landscape as well over the last 8 years. I think that has created a very different kind of power dynamic in sports media. I am getting this quote wrong a little bit but the quote to me that is so emblematic of how things have changed in the last 8 years was an article that Howard Bryant did about NBA players and black lives matter about a year and a half ago. This is what he effectively said and I am paraphrasing a little bit, “If a young black kid had been gunned down by police and Michael Jordan had said something, it would have shocked us.” Now, if a young black kid is gunned down by police and Lebron James says nothing, that’s what shocks us. So saying nothing is the surprise as opposed to saying something. And of course the other thing that’s changed in the last 8 years is just the way in which Twitter and other forms of social media have made less mysterious what athletes actually think about things, because athletes, I don’t want to shock any body, but a lot of pro athletes aren’t great with impulse control, so if something happens, they’re commenting on it, and so, that creates more space for other folks to comment on it as well.

BC: And just thinking back to this time period of 2008 when you wrote that piece to 2016, obviously that coincides with Barack Obama, his win in 2008 through two presidential terms that’s the broader context. Looking at The Undefeated, the page you mentioned, if you go to The Undefeated right now it has a quote from Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated,” and it’s tag line is “Not Conventional, Never Boring. The Undefeated is the premiere platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports, and culture. We enlighten and entertain with innovative storytelling, original reporting and provocative commentary.”

DZ: They left out though, “and underwritten by our business relationships with the National Football League and the NCAA.”

BC: In 2008, we were bemoaning that the mediascape appeared not to be offering the types of platforms for critically engaging with race, sports, politics, sexuality. Sports sociologists were still “on the bench” as you put it. And now we leap forward to 2016 and Maya Angelou is being coopted and commodified in order to kind of produce this discourse of a critically informed sports commentary, which we all want and many of us have been arguing for. But it’s been done in part of the service of capital. So how do we begin to make sure that the interventions that many of us would want to see into the sports world aren’t so conditioned and coopted that they actually end up reproducing some of the very problematic forms of power and inequality that we are trying to work against.

DZ: It’s always a very double-edged sword because on the one hand you read something what you just did about Maya Angelou, when you think about the ways in which The Undefeated is underwritten by these relationships with these hyper-exploitative products like the NFL and the NCAA and you wonder given ESPN’s history of shutting down people like Bill Simmons just how independent The Undefeated is actually going to be. What will happen when they want to write a story that’s hyper critical of these broadcast partners of ESPN? These are very legitimate questions worth asking and what does that do to the integrity of the writers involved? These are very legitimate questions and it’s not to insult anybody who’s running The Undefeated or writing for The Undefeated. ESPN has earned the right to have to be asked those questions due to many of their past behaviors and issues. So that’s your landscape, but at the same time there is this double-edged sword because what if there’s a kid out there who learns about Maya Angelou for the first time because of The Undefeated or learns about WEB DuBois through The Undefeated or starts looking critically at police brutality because of Lebron James and The Undefeated? The Undefeated will have a reach that’s far greater than even the most proactive sports sociologists or left-wing sports writer, and so I think that there has to be like a critical engagement not just with them but with all of these corporatized sports writing products that are trying to tap into the rebellion that’s out there while commodifying it at the same time. I mean, I think these are always political judgment calls. There is not a matrix that decides it. I also think that we have to use our brains. There’s a huge difference between Nike using the Beatles Revolution song or having an ad of John McEnroe and underneath, Rebel With a Cause while he’s wearing Nike shoes walking down the street. There’s a huge difference between that and the article on The Undefeated that takes the use of Native American mascots to task in a way that’s very helpful. Or another example, The Player’s Tribune, which is in so many respects a product of everything we’re talking about. It’s a media platform created by Derek Jeter, which is hilarious because Derek Jeter was the least quotable athlete for 20 years and now he’s heading up this website where athletes are going to tell truths directly to fans, and much of what’s put out on The Player’s Tribune is an exercise in brand management, and you have to recognize that for what it is. Like reading about NFL Draftee Carson Wentz and his own first-person ode to how tough he is and his own manliness is a complete waste of time. It’s diarrhea on a plate. But when that platform is also used by Deondre Levy of the Detroit Lions to do this remarkable essay about the importance of standing up to rape and rape culture and the importance of teaching young men consent—this is very powerful and it’s terrific. So we need to have our own highly developed sense of being able to separate what’s good from what’s bad, what’s helpful from what’s not helpful, what’s useful from what’s not useful – just like when you watch sports.

BC: As you speak I was reminded of the Black History Month Collection that Nike now produces every year, and one of the taglines that goes along with Nike’s Black History Month collection says, “Wear it with pride, Wear it with purpose. The Black History Month Collection honors and celebrates sport and beyond around the world while also providing financial support to Nike’s Ever Higher fund, which was created to bring mentorship, sports, and all of its benefits to African American youth.” I wonder if certain types of politics are more difficult to be spoken about.

DZ: I’ll throw another one at you. Israel and Palestine is another one firmly in that category. Israel and Palestine is an issue where sports is an utterly remarkable lens, an indispensable lens. You could have a whole conversation with someone about the Jerusalem soccer team or the Palestinian national soccer team or just sports in Gaza and how sports is used as a way for people to have a sense of hope in a very difficult circumstance. Or compare and contrast sports boycott movements of South Africa and Israel. Have a discussion like that and see how far you get on The Undefeated. See how far you get on a lot of these sites—it’s something I have certainly experienced, just by talking about that, and the issue of class, particularly on a global scale. People talk about poverty in sports all the time. There has always been a narrative about poverty in sports as long as it’s a Horatio Alger story about overcoming poverty. Since the days of 19th century boxers, the sports narrative has always been very neatly connected with the larger US narrative about there being a level playing field and if you just try hard enough you can make it. So all of that stuff is co-optable, but when you talk about it on a global scale and ask questions like how the hell can Nike speak about racial justice when it actively oppresses brown people in Southeast Asia and it pulls out of the worker’s consortium. How do they do it? And not only how do they do it but how do they sleep at night? It’s a pretty worthwhile question.

BC: My fear is that Phil Knight sleeps pretty well at night, he doesn’t toss and turn.

DZ: That’s the Simpsons’ line, “How do you sleep at night?” And the guy says, “On a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”

BC: Let’s talk about the work of Mike Marqusee, someone who passed away in 2015. You did a really lovely, touching piece in the Nation entitled “On the Death of the Irreplaceable Mike Marqusee,” and you say, “I divide my life not before and after I had kids or before and after I moved out of my mom’s house in New York City, but before and after I read Redemption Song: Muhammed Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties” in 1999. You go on to say that “Redemption Song revealed to me that sportswriting could be something different and even something dangerous.” So given your discussion on Palestine and Israel and the inability of people to make connections to the global contexts of capitalism, could you just speak briefly to why Mike Marqusee’s work is so important and also perhaps why sociologists who might not be familiar with his work should read Mike Marqusee.

DZ: People should read Mike if they want to understand the difference between what a rebellion in sports looks like if it’s commodified and what it looks like when it’s actually about real rebellion. It’s an act that actually threatens power. And Mike’s writing, whether he was writing about the hidden legacy of Muhammed Ali or the ways in which nationalism can distort sports, those are not discussions that people necessarily want to have. Or his discussions about Israel and Palestine. Mike like myself was born and raised Jewish. These are discussions we have the ability to have that our Arab sisters and brothers cannot have, so there is a greater responsibility on us to raise this issue for obvious reasons. When NBC introduces Benjamin Netanyahou as a leader of the Jews, quote unquote, if you are Jewish you better fucking say something. I just want to say it can seem like a very abstract kind of discussion – commodified rebellion versus real rebellion, The Undefeated brought to you by ESPN, versus people who actually are Undefeated. And you read Mike Marqusee, you get the sense of how to have a divining rod or Rosetta Stone to be able to understand the difference between the fake and the real, and it’s not so much that Mike has some grand theory, but it’s a method about how he approaches these different historical actors as well as sports in the present day. He’s so missed in that regard, because as this rebellion becomes more and more commodified, the need to have sports academics, sports writers, sports commentators call BS when appropriate is never more important.

BC: I just want to circle back finally to a distinction that you made. It was between sports sociologists and sports academics. It was really striking to me in reading your 2008 piece that when I went through and looked at the people who you interviewed or quoted, none of them were actually sociologists. It does seem like sociology has not actually engaged with sports and it’s still very marginalized within the mainstream of the discipline. There is the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and there’s an annual conference. I did some number crunching and 70% of the people who publish in the main sociology of sport journals do not work in departments of sociology.

DZ: This is where, Ben, you would know much better than me, but I think it does suffer for the fact that at different schools it’s under different departments. I’m working with this physical trainer right now and he read one of my books at the University of Maryland because he had to take a sport sociology class as part of his degree in physical therapy. So who are we talking to on campus, too? You can have the theory that John Carlos always said to me, you just have to reach one person. That’s all fine and good but obviously it makes a difference if you are teaching history if you’re talking to people who have a passion for history, you have a much greater chance of reaching people who take what you teach them and bring it out into the world and fight for it to be heard. And you’re going to get much less of that if we’re talking to people whose passion is for, you know making sure my joints still work. Which is very worthwhile, but it’s very different from the kind of issues we’re talking about.

BC: If we’re looking at the landscape today, I’m struck by the extent to which there are academics who have managed to navigate the border, to make a difference: Jules Boykoff and his work on the Olympics, Katrina Karkazis and Bruce Kidd who have done some really good work on hyperandrogenism and sex testing in athletics, Mary Jo Kane’s work on feminism and the sports media, the impact she’s had.

DZ: Ben, I think the work that you’ve done at the Leviathan that is the University of Texas is really important and that’s part of this argument. It’s one thing if you’re at a Division III school trying to teach this and it’s like you do the best you can, but if you’re at a place that’s at the fulcrum of these discussions, you really do have a responsibility to try to get your research and your ideas as part of the debate. And I think you’ve done a very admirable job of that at what is in a lot of respects Ground Zero of the discussions about the injustices of college sports and that’s the University of Texas. And I also wanted to say for the purposes of this article that the gathering that you’ve done to coincide with South by Southwest, I’m hoping that becomes even bigger and that there’s a call out to everybody who does sports sociology to see that as a point of attraction to make their way to Austin. If nothing else, you’ll feed them well.

[Watch the 2016 Identity and Global Sport forum at University of Texas, moderated by Ben Carrington. Dave Zirin was a discussant in 2015. Watch that one here.]

BC: You were calling sport sociologists to get off the bench 8 years ago. What is the Dave “Popovich” Zirin strategy moving forward?

DZ: The first thing is don’t listen to me. I think the most important thing is that this discussion has expanded dramatically because of both movements in the streets, more outspoken athletes, social media, and the new generation of sports thinkers who are doing this work. I would say though that what we need is to have a kind of collective Bullshit detector between the people trying to commodify this kind of work and people who are actually interested in furthering social justice, not just outside of sport but social justice in the sports world as well.

BC: This is a great place to end and just to thank you for giving your time to talk to Contexts. I would definitely say—and I don’t say this with any hyperbole—I think you really do carry the mantle of Mike Marqusee forward. Whether it’s in the Nation or the Guardian or MSNBC, you were on Fox once, or your own work through Edge of Sports.

DZ: It’s so crazy! The Fox Sports thing is so nuts, Ben. It has been so interesting to me that since I was there they decided to go really hard in a right-wing direction. Like we want to be the people who tell Black athletes to shut the fuck up, we want to be the people who think that this transgender bathroom thing or women crying rape on campus that that’s all bullshit. So they are trying to appeal to a political audience too, just the way that The Undefeated is trying to appeal to a political audience. They are competing for market share. I appreciate the kind stuff that you’re saying about me, but my biggest hope is that we can enjoy sports for what it is. And also the thing that scares me about Fox is what you’re going to see it do and already seeing it do is things like politicize science, so if we’re trying to have a serious discussion about the brain and football, it’s not going to be, “What does the data say,” the discussion is going to be, “Oh, these ’tards they’re trying to wussify America.” People have to realize that’s like Pandora opening the box, it’s going to release a lot of ugliness, not just things that we need.

BC: Hopefully if sociologists can engage with sports as both a subject and an object, we can push back. Thank you for your time, Dave.