Sportswriter Zirin (Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports, 2007, etc.) looks through the eyes of the left at the political forces shaping the history of American sports.
Americans who care little about sports probably know something about track stars Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe and Wilma Rudolph; baseball players Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente; football greats Paul Robeson, Jim Brown and Pat Tillman; basketballers Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson; tennis giants Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova; boxing champions Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali; and soccer standout Mia Hamm. We know these biographies precisely because of the political stands each has taken on behalf of racial, sexual, economic or religious fair play. Even a casual sports fan knows something about the story of baseball’s Negro Leagues, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, or the all-black, 1966 Texas Western NCAA basketball champions, largely because of their still-reverberating social implications. Zirin’s purpose, then, is somewhat of a mystery. Can there be anyone besides the ghost of Grantland Rice and possibly the Chinese Olympic Committee who believe sports can be severed from politics? Chronologically, with serial entries of seemingly arbitrary length, Zirin covers all this, as well as many other, genuinely obscure tales that serve his unrelenting, Howard Zinnian take on sports history. The cast of villains includes capitalism, patriotism, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and executive Al Campanis, Olympic czar Avery Brundage, Don Imus, longtime Redskins owner George Preston Marshall and, of course, George W. Bush. Zirin’s selection of rebel athletes is worthy, but he does them no honor by comparing them to his political heroes—the Rosenbergs, the Jena Six—for whom he has unreserved admiration.
A smug, wearisome catalogue.