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Dave Zirin on "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports"

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Zirin discusses how sports have become an "athletic-industrial complex," Pat Tillman, Hurricane Katrina, the legacy of Roberto Clemente, Mumia Abu-Jamal and his new book "Welcome to the Terrordome."

For our last segment today, we turn to Dave Zirin. He has been called the best young sportswriter in the United States and is the country’s foremost critic on sports" intersection with politics. He writes the weekly column "Edge of Sports" at edgeofsports.com and is a regular contributor to The Nation and Slam magazine.

His books include "What’s My Name, Fool?" and "The Muhammad Ali Handbook." He has just come out with a new book — "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" with a foreword by the rap artist Chuck D of Public Enemy.

  • Dave Zirin, writes the weekly column called 'Edge of Sports' He is a regular contributor to the Nation magazine and author of a number of books, his latest is "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For our last segment today, we turn to Dave Zirin. He’s been called the best young sportswriter in the United States, is the country’s foremost critic on sports’ intersection with politics. He writes the weekly column "Edge of Sports" at edgeofsports.com. He’s a regular contributor to The Nation and Slam magazine. His books include What is my Name, Fool? and The Mohammed Ali Handbook.. He has just come out with a new one, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports It’s got a forward by the rap artist Chuck D of Public Enemy. Dave Zirin joins us from Washington DC. Welcome Dave.

DAVID ZIRIN: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you call it Welcome to the Terrordome?

DAVID ZIRIN: Wow, I mean I called it Welcome to the Terrordome because I was sitting there with the rest of the country in 2005 seeing the most gruesome possible collision of sports and politics, seeing 20 to 30,000 of New Orleans’ poorest residents herded into the Louisiana Superdome, in conditions that I thoughtJesse Jackson quite correctly likened to the hull of a slave ship, and seeing a New Orleans that did not have enough money for emergency shelter, that did not have enough money to even keep the levees upright, but did have enough money over the course of three decades to keep running the largest domed structure in the Western Hemisphere was something beyond compare. And when you consider that the folks herded into the Superdome never could have afforded a ticket, it just occurred to me that sports really is not sports anymore. It’s become an athletic industrial complex, that whether we love or hate sports, negatively impacts all of our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night Anderson Cooper did an exposé on CNN about 100 unclaimed bodies, unidentified bodies, that are being held at a warehouse in New Orleans, just down the street from the Superdome.

DAVID ZIRIN: Unbelievable. I mean, these are stories that I think would shame a B-movie horror film director. I mean also, when you consider that the Superdome, when it was built in the mid-70s, they tore out one of the famous New Orleans above-ground cemeteries to build it. They tore down one of the vestiges of Louis Armstrong’s old neighborhoods to build it. And the promise was that we would see a new New Orleans, a new New Orleans business district that would rise all boats. What we are seeing, to paraphrase Chris Rock, is that trickle-down economics does not always trickle down.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to David Zirin, whose new book is called Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports

DAVID ZIRIN: I’m sorry Amy. Just hearing Adam Kokesh before me, it was just so difficult not to think about Pat Tillman as well, another horrible collision of sports and politics. I mean somebody who, I think, had he lived — the former NFL player who became an army ranger, left millions of dollars on the table with the NFL — it’s hard not to think that if he had lived, he might not have joined Adam’s organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War. And instead he became just a horrible figure of PR in death in a way he would never have agreed to in life.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dave, you wrote extensively about Pat Tillman. You talked to his mother. There was recently hearings in Washington, DC, where his family spoke, his brother spoke, his mother spoke. Now that case is being investigated, that his family was lied to after he was killed in Afghanistan. Tell us more.

DAVID ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean the case just stinks to high heaven. Even like a B-grade Mickey Spillane detective would see all the holes in this case. I mean the fact the Pat Tillman kept an assiduous journal over the course of his life that was burned at the point of his death. The fact that they burned his uniform on the basis that it was — they called it a biochemical hazard. There is just so much that does not pass the smell test of this case. Usually incidents of friendly fire are incidents that involve a lot of chaos and confusion. Yet the stories were down soon enough that Pat Tillman’s own brother Kevin, who was part of his platoon, was told right away that Pat Tillman died facing enemy fire and not in fact had died in an incident of friendly fire. And the fact that the stories were worked out right away so that people were ready to lie over his dead body, that his family was ready to be lied to over his dead body at his own funeral, that George W. Bush was going to exploit his death and speak over the Jumbotron at the Cardinal Stadium. It is just such a horrible story all around. And the Tillmans deserve all of our support, respect and solidarity for having the courage to say, "Wait a minute. We’re not going to let you turn Pat Tillman into an army of one. We’re actually going to tell you who he really was, somebody who was developing opposition to the war in Iraq, and we are not going to let you take his memory to support this war."

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, Welcome to the Terrordome, you take on many issues. Among them, well the first chapter, for example, is "Relearning Roberto Clemente". Explain.

DAVID ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, Roberto Clemente, he was of course the Pittsburgh Pirates superstar of the 50’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. He was not the first Latino player, he was not even the first dark-skinned Latino player, but he was the first Latino superstar, the first person to cross over without in fact crossing over. You know, it is interesting when you hear Barack Obama tell stories about handlers, trying to get him to call himself Barry Obama. And I was thinking, that is what Roberto Clemente went through 30 years ago. Like he had people telling him, "Call yourself Bob Clemente, or Bobby Clemente." But he refused to do that. But the thing that makes Roberto Clemente important for today was that he was a person who believed very much in the question of social justice and social democracy. He was also somebody who was greatly influenced by the Black freedom struggle in this country by having to play in a segregated minor league system very drenched in the worst crimes of Jim Crow. In today’s day, when you have this immigration debate percolating around the country, and so many divisions in this country, particularly among communities of color, the memory of Roberto Clemente, a person who counted among his heroes Martin Luther King Jr, a person who stood in solidarity with his African-American teammates, is a memory that I think serves us well today.

AMY GOODMAN: The NBA and the two souls of hip-hop?

DAVID ZIRIN: NBA players right now have become the spittoon for every racial anxiety, a slosh in the sports world. I mean it’s quite interesting, if you think about it, the way the league itself has created its own kind of mini hotbox of hysteria, where NBA players, based on what they dress, what they do, whether they jump up to their feet during a game, is all subject to all kinds of hand-wringing. I think a lot of this is due to David Stern trying to figure out, "Gee, how do I market a majority African-American league to a majority white fan base, yet at the same time keep the league’s cultural cachet and cultural capital of urban cool? Unfortunately, as I write in the book, I think David Stern has made every step, an incorrect one. He is like King Midas in reverse. Everything he touches on this question of building bridges between players who come from largely poor African-American backgrounds and a largely corporate and white, ticket-buying fan base has been incorrect, it’s turned to garbage. I’m harshly critical of him of that because what he has basically done is it sanctifies an idea of racial profiling; of saying that based on how a player dresses, it says something about their character. Based on the kind of music they listen to or the friends they walk around with, it says something about who they are. All that does is build up racial animus and it uses sports as yet just another stick to divide us instead of bringing us together.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about how people in power exploit sports, exploit the games.

DAVID ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. Because we talked early on in this segment about the way it’s exploited in terms of corporate greed, but it’s also exploited ideologically as well, to suit their own ends. We talked about probably the most gruesome aspect of that, which is the situation of Pat Tillman. But it also reaches almost comical heights. Like I read an article recently about how George Steinbrenner, the owner, the infamous owner of the New York Yankees, was having his stadium security string up chains in the lower bleachers during the seventh inning stretch, where the Yankees play a second national anthem, they play God Bless America, to actually prevent people from leaving their seats, from going to the bathroom, from even sitting down. In other words, during the seventh inning stretch, you’re not in fact allowed to stretch. You can only stand up and pay fealty to the flag. Steinbrenner is quite explicit about why he is doing this. He is doing this because he supports Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wants to support the troops in the field in Iraq. And at the end of the day though, it’s like, all right, so we’re going to stand up and sing a song about freedom, yet you are putting up chains to prevent–to actually impel people and compel people to stand in place. I mean it is a bizarre head-scratcher that makes you wonder who in fact these games are serving.

AMY GOODMAN: You did a sports interview, Dave Zirin, with Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in Pennsylvania for more than a quarter century now?

DAVID ZIRIN: Yeah, and that was a staggering experience. It started when I just received a letter in the mail from Mumia Abu-Jamal, just saying he enjoyed my first book, What’s my Name, Fool? and we started a correspondence, which, I mean–we forget about Mumia sometimes. He’s become such a symbol of the anti-death penalty movement, a symbol of the anti-racist movement, that we forget that he is an award-winning journalist and a brilliant writer. The letters we sent back and forth, just about sports and society, revealed someone who, while he is definitely, I wouldn’t call him an avid sports fan, he is one of the sharpest observers of culture and society who I’ve ever had the privilege to read. So it was a no-brainer to ask him questions about what he feels about the state of sports, and the state of resistance through sports. His stories were amazing because it revealed somebody who, growing up as a very young freedom fighter, growing up in this country, a very young member of the Black Panther Party, I believe he joined when he was 13 years old, somebody who always saw sports as a distraction from the broader social movements, yet at the same time would always have time to talk about Mohammad Ali’s latest fight, would always have the time to talk about people like Roberto Clemente, would always have an understanding that folks like Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, when they would in fact stand up for freedom, that actually would make his job easier as somebody organizing in the streets of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, I want to thank you for being with us, author of Welcome to the Terrodome.

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