Volume 21, Number 10
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A People's History of Sports in the United States
By Dave Zirin; The New Press, 2008, 320 pp.
When French Situationist philosopher Guy Debord coined the term "society of the spectacle," he probably didn't have American sports in mind. Now a national obsession, organized sports have, no doubt, come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. But just what exactly have they come to and how did they get this place of importance in our society?
In A People's History of Sports in the United States Dave Zirin sounds the alarm for anyone concerned with the legacy of sports. An impressive collage of historic sources and scholarly perspectives worthy of any collegiate textbook, A People's History of Sports still manages to read as current and as smooth as the Sunday sports section.
From Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali fighting racism in and out of the boxing ring to Babe Didrikson and Billy Jean King exhibiting the strength of women in sports to Kenesaw Mountain Landis and David Stern abusing their powers as league commissioners, Zirin charts America's collective history as played out on our sports fields and reflected in our society.
While sports dominate our social consciousness, they were largely abhorred by Victorian society just over 100 years ago as "a working-class pastime that reflected the brutality of early industrial life," notes Zirin. As pre-superpower America entered the 20th century, reformers saw in sports the promise of a stabilizing force that might "deflect tensions from an oppressive social structure," explain Warren Goldstein and Elliot J. Gould, "and thereby secure social order."
These sentiments were shared by well-financed people like Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. Thousands of dollars in funding later, we see sports-promoting organizations like the YMCA and professional teams whose names, like the Green Bay Packers, still pay tribute to their factory beginnings.
By 1892, Yale professor, part- time coach, and "father of American football" Walter Camp had begun modeling the game of football on the factory system. "Finding a weak spot through which a play can be made, feeling out the line with experimental attempts, concealing the real strengths [until] everything is ripe for the big push, then letting drive where least expected, what is this," asked Camp, "an outline of football or business tactics?"
As the most successful sport in the United States a century later, it appears that football and business were closely connected from the beginning. Today's athletes are paid more money for their services than any in history. And much is expected of them. "[But] no athlete," Zirin notes, "has ever had more and done less than Michael Jeffrey Jordan."
"Forbes estimated ‘his Airness's' commercial value to corporate America in [the year] 2000 at $43.7 billion," observes Zirin. "Jordan has shrilled proudly for Nike, Coke, McDonald's, Hanes, Ball Park franks, and pretty much everything short of Be Like Mike menthol cigarettes." Former NFL running back and social activist Jim Brown scolds, "He's more interested in his image for his shoe deals than he is in helping his own people."
Indeed, in 1990, when North Carolina's notoriously racist republican senator, Jesse Helms, was being challenged by black democrat Harvey Gantt, Jordan refused to endorse Gantt, noting simply, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." This is sad commentary from the man who was named "athlete of the twentieth century" by both the New York Times and ESPN, in each case beating out Muhammad Ali. Yet, "while Ali shone so brightly for his acute social conscience," states Zirin, "Jordan shines as the ultimate salesperson."
If Jordan's actions, or lack thereof, seem a far cry from the political consciousness of Muhammad Ali a generation before, then perhaps U.S. society has followed a similar path. Not surprisingly, image plays its biggest role in women's sports, where female athletes must compete with the picture of women offered on Sports Illustrated's swimsuit cover. The figure of the female athlete has literally been diminishing over time. "In 1968...[the gold medalist for women's gymnastics] was 26 years old, stood 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 121 pounds," charts Joan Ryan. "Back then, gymnastics truly was a woman's sport." But in 1976 when Nadia Comaneci at age 14 received the first 10.0 in the history of the Olympic gymnastics, things changed quickly. And for the worse. "By the 1992 Olympics," Ryan notes, "the average US gymnast was ...a year younger, 6 inches shorter and 23 pounds lighter than her counterparts of 16 years before."
"This change in size came with an epidemic of eating disorders that afflicted all of women's athletics," observes Zirin, commenting on a 1986 study that found 74 percent of collegiate gymnasts "and a third of all women athletes practiced some form of bulimia or took laxative or diet pills."
Zirin wonders why these studies haven't had more of an impact on reform in the sports world, noting that this reality is "a perversion of what [the] Title IX [legislation] was supposed to bring: women comfortable and athletic in their own bodies."
Sometimes, as exhibited by the diminishing size of female gymnasts in the Olympics, an historical perspective will show astonishing change. Other times, as in the case of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, it will show no change at all. In 1919 Landis, a former judge, became baseball's first commissioner. League "owners wanted someone to exercise total control over the game," notes Zirin. "[And] Judge Landis certainly had earned his bones in the eyes of the ownership class." A year earlier Landis saw 100 members of the union of Industrial Workers of the World, including Big Bill Haywood, tried and convicted for their vocal opposition to WWI, a violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. "While Landis oversaw their harsh sentences and even deportations," cites Zirin, "most of his decisions were either reversed on appeal or nullified by presidential pardon."
"Landis's influence grew even more powerful toward the end of his reign [as commissioner]," writes Zirin. "He was a major obstacle to ending baseball's color line," which was not the first time Landis's racism had spilled into his professional work. In 1912 Landis presided over a case where a man was charged with taking his lover across state lines for "immoral purposes," a violation of the Mann Act. The female in question was a white woman named Lucille Cameron. The man charged with the crime was Jack Johnson, champion of the boxing world and the first black man to ever hold the title.
"When Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin," explains Zirin, "his victory created a serious crisis in the conventional wisdom about race." Famed author Jack London urged the world to search for "a great white hope" that would return the title to the white race. So Jim Jeffries, the unbeaten (he had previously refused to give Johnson a shot at the title) former heavyweight champ agreed to come out of retirement, announcing that he was "going into [the] fight with the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."
Apparently, he was wrong. Johnson knocked him out in front of 25,000 mostly white, disappointed boxing fans and pseudo-social Darwinists. Violence ensued. "There were race riots," Zirin recounts, "[mostly] white lynch mobs attacking blacks...in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, DC.
"This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that the United States...would see until the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
One of the more tumultuous years in U.S. history, 1968, saw both the death of Dr. King and the famous Black Power salute on the medal stand of the Olympics in Mexico, sports once again being the stage where social protest reflected social tensions. "Sports is about the most sacred, deeply rooted, most important values, sentiments, and structures in the society," contends Dr. Harry Edwards, sociologist, sports activist, and organizer of those 1968 Olympic protests. "And if you can get to sports...you're way up the road in terms of changing definitions of reality and the society as a whole."
Sports, as Zirin shows us, can be the site of resistance against "the hidden inequalities in our society that otherwise go unnoticed." It always has been. And it must continue to be. A People's History of Sports in the United States let's us reflect on our shared history of sporting resistance so that we can remember and honor those who came before, celebrate those whose dissent can be seen today, and encourage those whose stand is yet to come. Somewhere in there, amid all that is ugly and beautiful about sports in our society, maybe we can even enjoy watching a well-played game, too.
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