During the Boston Celtics’ championship season of 2007-08, coach Doc Rivers instilled in his team the tribal concept of “Ubuntu.” It’s a philosophy of community — “I am what I am because of what we all are” — that translates neatly to the world of sports.
Yet the same idea was used in a very different way when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, writes author Dave Zirin. When community organizers protested the high costs of stadium-building and the increased powers of the police during the event, they were shouted down, told they were “violating the spirit of ubuntu.”
Zirin, a dedicated contrarian, sports editor for the Nation, and author of several books on our obsession with games (including “A People’s History of Sports in the United States”), has built a reputation as a muckraker who sees political footballs everywhere in our most beloved national pastimes.
In “Game Over,” Zirin turns his focus to several recent events to rebut the notion that sports are, or should be, devoid of political and other social concerns and that being a sports fan must represent “a withdrawal from, or even the very negation of, political consciousness.” We’re taught that the Herculean efforts of athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali helped bring us to a “postracial, postpolitical” society. He cites a 2011 study that found an overwhelming majority of Americans believe professional sports are “one of the least racist sectors in our society today.”
“This is, of course, wrong,” he writes in his blunt, polemical style, citing the booing of musician Carlos Santana when he spoke out at Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game and the deluge of racist comments after a Game 7 goal by the Washington Capitals’ Joel Ward, who is black, knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs last year.
In chapters that read more like a series of essays than a cohesive whole, the author examines, among other things, the increasing politicization of our professional athletes, from the Phoenix Suns’ protest against Arizona’s anti-immigrant initiatives to the Miami Heat’s show of solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was killed while walking through a Florida neighborhood wearing a hooded sweatshirt. More than ever before, pro athletes have spoken publicly against war and in support of issues such as workers’ unions and LGBT rights.
But if well-paid athletes are increasingly emboldened to speak out on hot-button issues, sports institutions, Zirin argues, often try to adopt the head-in-the-sand attitude more common decades ago but still clear and present today. In “Game Over,” he looks at the Penn State abuse scandal and finds a campus that conferred a disturbing godlike power on the late football coach Joe Paterno. And he fumes over professional franchise owners who strong-arm local governments into tax hikes to fund “$1 billion real estate leviathan[s] where we cannot even afford to take our families.”
If much of this is ground Zirin has covered elsewhere, he would probably note that’s because these issues have not gone away. Yes, star athletes now earn exorbitant salaries — the NBA’s 2011 lockout was routinely dismissed as a clash between “millionaires and billionaires.” But athletes are a unique type of worker, Zirin points out: They “fulfill a dual role in production as both workers and product. They are the shoemaker and the shoe.” In the inherently conservative world of sports, it’s encouraging that increasingly athletes are learning to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
James Sullivan, the author of four books, including “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry,” can be reached at email@example.com.