One day last October, Gregg Popovich, the longtime coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, made a phone call to Dave Zirin, sports editor of the magazine The Nation. President Trump — while embroiled in a mini-scandal about his delayed public response to the death of American troops during combat operations in the African country of Niger — had recently made comments suggesting that presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had not always called the families of service members who died in combat. And Popovich, who is both the longest-tenured coach (with the same team) in pro sports and a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with five years of active-duty experience, had something to say. “Please just let me talk, and please make sure this is on the record,” he told Zirin.
The coach went on to describe Trump’s presidency as one of “never-ending divisiveness,” and he called the president himself “a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others.”
“We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day,” he said, adding that the commander in chief’s latest remarks were “a lie” and “as low as it gets.” Before signing off, he noted that the people who work with the president should be ashamed of themselves. Then, a moment later, he said “Bye, Dave,” and hung up.
Zirin soon published an article on The Nation’s website quoting Popovich at length, — headline: “‘A Soulless Coward’: Coach Gregg Popovich Responds to Trump” — and from there the coach’s remarks were picked up by CNN, The Washington Post, GQ, USA Today, CBS Sports, The Huffington Post, and Yahoo, among other outlets.
This kind of wall-to-wall coverage is not necessarily an everyday occurrence for Zirin, but subjectwise, the Popovich piece was true to form. While much of the sports media tiptoes around the political implications of the games we watch, Zirin has made a career of aiming straight at them. “He occupies a singular space in American journalism,” The Nation’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, told me recently. And not long ago, in a phone call with the Forward, the legendary sports writer Robert Lipsyte went even further. “He, in a sense, is the most important sports writer in America right now — in the same way that exiled and outspoken NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the most important athlete,” he said.
Zirin grew up in New York City as an “absolute sports freak” in a household where the town’s legendary newspapers (the Times, the Post, the Daily News) were frequently strewn across the kitchen table. He longed to emulate the names he saw in newsprint on the sports pages: Dick Young, Dave Anderson, Peter and George Vecsey, Lipsyte.
But the fusion of politics and sports didn’t take place fully until he was a student at Macalester College in the 1990s and he saw a professional basketball player make a powerful statement. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a Muslim point guard for the Denver Nuggets who, during the 1996 season, began declining to stand for the national anthem because to him, the American flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny,” and, as he explained, “My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.” (Rauf was suspended and fined by the league, until a compromise was reached whereby he would stand during the anthem but close his eyes and bow his head.)
Zirin saw this, and took note. About a year later, when reading Mike Marqusee’s book “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties,” he had another “Aha!” moment. The book was written with the pulse and energy of good sports writing, but it was also deeply political. Zirin’s passions for sports and history, which previously had existed on parallel tracks, had merged. He now knew the kind of writing he wanted to do.
Zirin worked as a high school teacher after college, but his goal of becoming a politically minded sports columnist remained. He started writing for small newspapers and for the web, and, eventually, he found his way into the pages of The Nation. For an idea of the philosophy he brings to the world of touchdowns, home runs, and slam-dunks, consider the preface to his 2008 book, “A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play,” in which he offers a dedication “to all rebel athletes” and a salute to the “tradition of progressive dissenters in sports, people who have attempted to use the world of sports as a platform to advance ideas of resistance.”
Most of all, he presents a forceful rebuke to the notion that our playing fields are neutral spaces. “In an era where the building of publicly funded stadiums has become a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy; in a time when local governments build these monuments to corporate greed on the taxpayers’ dime, siphoning off millions of dollars into commercial enterprise while schools, hospitals, and bridges decay, one can hardly say that sports exists in a world separate from politics,” he wrote. “When the sports page — with its lurid tales of steroids, Michael Vick, referee gambling, and high-profile sexual-harassment suits — no longer can be contained in the sports page, then clearly we need some kind of framework to take on and separate what we love and hate about sports so we can challenge it to change.”
His work over the years has followed up on this promise. He has called Lance Armstrong the “Tony Soprano of the Cycling World” after the Tour de France winner admitted to doping; suggested that the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, resign; dubbed the Washington Redskins “the most racist brand in sports,” and has gotten into a fiery exchange in the Los Angeles Times with the president of Firestone Tires (a sponsor of the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show) over the company’s labor practices in Liberia. More recently, in November 2017, he began an episode of his weekly podcast — which, in this case, was released a day after the NFL’s Veterans Day festivities — with a sound bite from former Army Ranger and Veterans for Peace member Rory Fanning, who called the NFL’s pageantry, “Orwellian propaganda on a scale large enough to make any North Korean dictator envious,” and “a gross attempt to lure military-age kids who watch the NFL into our unending, trillion-dollar wars.”
Before the past few years, Zirin says he felt like he was one of the lone writers drawing out the subtexts of our national pastimes. But not anymore. Now, in a moment when President Trump has called NFL players who protest racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem “sons of bitches,” it feels like Zirin has been training longer than anyone. And yes, he does feel vindicated after being told for so long that he was wasting his time
That word “niche” — as in when people say, “Oh, it must be nice to have this tiny niche to yourself” — particularly irks him. And during a recent conversation at a coffee shop near his Washington, D.C., home, he pushed back. The stories he writes have importance that crosses all kinds of boundaries, he said. “Government, corruption, protest, race, class, gender, sexuality, and then, oh, by the way, a little thing called ‘sports,’ which is the closest thing to a national language that we have in this country?” he said. “No, that’s not ‘niche’ writing.”
Zirin is the author of eight books, including “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love” and a biography of John Carlos, one of the track-and-field athletes who famously thrust his fist into the air in a Black Power salute during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. And this year, Zirin is scheduled to publish two more. In April, he will publish “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,” which he co-wrote with Michael Bennett, the politically outspoken defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks. The following month, he’ll chronicle the life of another politically charged football legend with the book “Jim Brown: Last Man Standing.” In addition, he publishes at least three posts a week, records a podcast, appears once on Pacifica Radio, appears frequently on television and holds speaking events around the country.
As Zirin becomes evermore recognizable, he joins a rich tradition of Jewish sportswriters and commentators that includes Howard Cosell, Tony Kornheiser and Al Michaels. When I asked him about his Judaism, he told me that, more than anything, his sense of being Jewish is “a commitment to questioning what I’m told is true.” And he’s quick to point out that this includes, and perhaps applies especially to, the State of Israel, which has provided a rich strain of Zirin’s work over the years. His June 2016 column, “Andrew Cuomo Would Have Blacklisted Muhammad Ali,” which lambasted the New York governor’s remarks — “If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you…. If you sanction Israel, New York will sanction you” — was included in the anthology “The Best American Sports Writing 2017.”
Just as he’s unlikely to shy away from volatile topics, he hasn’t shied away from stepping, so to speak, off the sidelines and onto the playing field himself. Two months before his Popovich column, not only did he attend a rally in support of Colin Kaepernick, who had not been signed by an NFL team since making the taking-a-knee protest, but Zirin also spoke at the podium. “This is bigger than Colin Kaepernick,” he said. “It’s happening because there is a white supremacist wing of the White House… And they are trying to silence voices of resistance. So when we stand up for Kaepernick, we’re standing up for ourselves.”
During our interview, I said that some journalists might raise an eyebrow at the fact that he was speaking at a rally. Zirin said that it depends on the situation. If it’s a rally that he is explicitly supposed to cover and he’s asked to speak, he will decline. But if he’s asked to speak, he has no problem. The historian Howard Zinn spoke at rallies too, he pointed out. And he said, “I see there being a long tradition of activist journalists, of people who are part of a struggle, not merely observing it.”
What does Zirin say to people who want to just relax and enjoy the game? He says he’s sympathetic; after all, he, too, is a rabid sports fan. But he says the things he’s writing about — the way nationalism, or, militarism, or racism, or sexism, or homophobia is actually embedded — are there whether he writes about them or not. The only question is whether people want to ignore them or face them.
“Don’t treat us like arsonists because we’re pointing out that the building is being engulfed in flames,” he said.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, R.I.