Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dave Zirin: What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.

Book Review from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dave Zirin: What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.  Haymarket Books, US$15.00.

What a refreshing change to read a book about sport that isn't a vapid (auto)biography of some 'star' or a jingoistic celebration of the triumph of some national team! Zirin accepts that sport can be used to stop workers from worrying about things that really matter, but also sees how the passion invested in sport can turn it into a site of resistance, an arena where some of the dominant ideas of society can be challenged. While this is something of an exaggeration, his book is still well worth a read.

Zirin traces various kinds of resistance within American sports, concentrating to begin with on opposition to racism. Professional baseball was segregated for decades; not until 1946, when Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, did a black American play in a Major League team. Robinson was subjected to horrendous barracking and threats from opposing players and fans, but his ability eventually got him accepted. His criticism of Paul Robeson and his support for the Republican Party show him as a complex individual who was seen by many later black radicals as a 'white man's Negro', but Zirin argues that Robinson's contribution to opposing racism should be respected.

Of course, integrating baseball did not put an end to racism. While still known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali went into a Kentucky restaurant with his 1960 Olympic boxing gold medal around his neck and was refused service. Zirin examines Ali's career, from reviled and persecuted athlete to his current status as 'a harmless, helpful icon'. The book's title comes from what Ali yelled at ex-champion Floyd Patterson, who fought him as a 'patriotic duty' (Patterson was a Catholic in contrast to Ali as a Black Muslim). He was drafted into the army, and his response was 'I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong', at a time when there was little opposition to the US war in Vietnam. As with Robinson, Ali became a 'safe', almost establishment figure, but his earlier legacy is the one that many remember.

If Ali's remark about the Vietcong is famous, probably the best-known image of this period is from the 1968 Olympics, when medal-winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the rostrum when the US anthem was played. As Zirin notes, they also wore no shoes (to protest against black poverty) and wore beads (to protest against lynching). They were stripped of their medals and sent home. Zirin interviews Carlos, who for some years had problems earning a living (his wife committed suicide in 1977).

Clearly it took some courage for these individuals (and many others less well known) to stand up for their beliefs, especially in the face of the general conformity of American society. The same goes for those who support better treatment for gay and female athletes. Zirin reminds us that people can be bigoted in one way but not another: American footballer Reggie White spoke up against white supremacist groups and worked to help drug addicts and ex-convicts, yet he was appallingly homophobic, equating gays with child molesters.

And what of class? This gets relatively little look-in. Unsurprisingly, most owners of professional clubs are extremely wealthy, including George W Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Professional sport is the tenth largest industry in the US. Aside from a few megabuck-earners, most athletes earn relatively little, and have a shorter life expectancy than average. Baseball players have a strong union, which helped to increase wages and has a reputation for not backing down.

Zirin ends with the reflection that sport could be more cooperative, without the cash incentive and the will to win at all costs, with far less distance between an average person and a star. But, as he says, 'This would require a completely different world.' While his book doesn't elaborate on this alternative, it should at least make you think a bit more about the role of sport under capitalism.
Paul Bennett