sports columnist for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His latest book is Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. He is featured in the new documentary, Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports, based on his bestselling book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States.
Professional football is back in action after the resolution of a labor standoff that brought the National Football League to a halt for 18 weeks. The NFL players’ union has voted to unanimously approve an agreement with team owners that makes several changes to promote player health and safety, including limiting of on-field practice time and contact, and increasing the number of off-days for players. Players will also have the opportunity to maintain their healthcare plan for life. These changes came about after a greater awareness of the toll football takes on players’ bodies, one of many issues tackled in "Not Just a Game," a new documentary featuring Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine. Zirin talks about the film, the NFL deal, and the ongoing lockout threatening to derail the NBA’s upcoming season. "The owners in these leagues are getting less public subsidies than they thought they would get, because of the economic crisis in 2008 and the trillion-dollar bailouts of the banks," Zirin says. "They’re saying, 'We need to restore profitability and get more salary back from players, because we're getting less tax dollars than we thought we would get. And we will lock the doors and end the games, unless we get more money back.’ And that makes it, to me, a much more broader political and social issue, like, oh, we don’t even get our sports now, because Goldman Sachs needed a bailout?" [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Professional football is back in action. Training season is set to begin today, after the resolution of a labor standoff that brought the National Football League to a halt for 18 weeks.
On Monday, members of the NFL Players Association voted unanimously to approve an agreement with team owners that will shape the league’s financial framework for the next decade. Under the deal, players will receive 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of NFL Ventures revenue, and 40 percent of local club revenue.
The agreement leaves out a provision sought by owners to expand the 16-game regular season to 18 games. It also makes several changes to promote player health and safety, including the limiting of on-field practice time and contact, and increasing the number of off-days for players. Players will also have the opportunity to remain in their healthcare plan for life.
These changes came about after a greater awareness of the toll football takes on players’ bodies, one of the many issues tackled in a new documentary featuring sportswriter Dave Zirin called Not Just a Game. This is an excerpt of the film.
DAVE ZIRIN: In the militarized spectacle of football, especially, there seems to be no room for the statistical fact that this sport takes a terrible toll on the human body.
JOHN L. WILLIAMS: I have had one, two, three right ankle, one, two, three, four, five, six right knee surgery, and a hernia surgery.
ABC NEWS: Six out of 10 former players say they have suffered at least one concussion while playing.
DAVE ZIRIN: The average NFL career is three-and-a-half years, and the average player will die 20 years sooner than the rest of the population. Twenty years. I’ve had players tell me that to play professional football is to skip middle age. I’ve been to retirement dinners and have seen guys who aren’t much older than me walking with canes.
CURT MARSH: It probably wasn’t worth the kind of pain I’m in now. But would I do it again? Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the new documentary, Not Just a Game, featuring Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, film based on his bestselling book People’s History of Sports in the United States, placing American sports at the center of some of the major political debates and struggles of our time. We’re joined by Dave Zirin in studio. You may know him as the host of the Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His latest book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Start off by talking about the NFL lockout and the agreement that has been reached.
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s been a very grim summer across the media and political landscape, Amy. And in the middle of all of this, we have a clear-cut labor victory—and not just a labor victory, but a victory that’s on the highest possible media platform. I mean, we’re talking about full-scale, 24/7 coverage of a labor battle in the United States at a time where most labor battles aren’t covered at all. And yes, it just happens to be football. But to have a victory in the age of austerity is remarkable.
I want to read a quote by a player named Troy Polamalu. This is what he said, and it just gives you an idea about how radicalizing this was. Troy Polamalu, All-Pro for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he said, "I think what the players are fighting for is something bigger. The fact is it’s people fighting against big business. The big business argument is 'I got the money and I got the power, and therefore I can tell you what to do.' That’s life everywhere. I think this is a time when the football players are standing up and saying, 'No, no, no, the people have the power.'" I mean, this is a guy who is best known for doing Head & Shoulders commercials, and now he sounds like Big Bill Haywood. I mean, it says something that most people, when they know about what they know about labor, will hear that Troy Polamalu quote much more than they’ll know about some of the struggles that very few media organizations, like Democracy Now!, actually cover.
AMY GOODMAN: How significant is the agreement? What came out of it? Who do you think actually came out on top?
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, I think the players did, and I think they did it in remarkable fashion. And they did it with something that I think is as old a sentiment as the labor movement itself, and that’s solidarity is the only way to win. They stayed together. And under the leadership of the NFLPA president, a gentleman by the name of DeMaurice Smith, they made an argument that said, "If you lock us out, you’re not just locking out players, you’re locking out every stadium worker, you’re locking out waiters and waitresses who pick up an extra shift at the restaurant by the stadium."
And let’s face it. We have been sold a bill of goods in this country that says that stadium construction is a substitute for anything resembling urban policy or urban development. And you had owners shutting down the game. And this is a game where, of the 32 billion-dollar stadiums in this country, 31 have received public money. And so, I think what you saw this time, unlike previous sports labor struggles in decades past, is you saw the public actually siding with the players. And the owners were not expecting that. And that made it not just a victory for the players themselves, but it made it a broader social and political victory, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the lawsuit around concussions? Who’s brought it, and who it’s brought against?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, 75 former players have brought a class action lawsuit against the NFL around the issue of concussions. And it includes former All-Pros like Mark Duper of the Miami Dolphins, so it’s a group of prominent players. And they’re doing this outside the auspices of the union. They’re doing it as players themselves. And they’re charging that the NFL has known for decades about the effect of concussions, the effect of brain bruises, on the long-term health of players, and suppressed that information.
It is worth saying that they have a lot of facts on their side. As recently as two years ago, the head doctor for the NFL told Congress that there is no scientific connection between playing football and getting concussions. And a member of Congress remarked at the time, "You sound a lot like the tobacco industry arguing that there’s no connection between cigarettes and lung cancer." And it’s only been in the last year that the NFL has done things like put posters up in locker rooms that say, "If you have dizziness, if you’re having trouble communicating with others, you may be suffering from a concussion. Please visit an appropriate medical physician." That’s only been in the last year. And when you think about a sport where people have been suffering from this for the last 40 years—heck, the former president of the NFL Players Association, John Mackey, just died, and he had been suffering from front temporal dementia for 30 years. So they have known about this. And this lawsuit really does have the potential to attack and cripple the National Football League.
AMY GOODMAN: The football players have made their deal, but the NBA is still out, the basketball players.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, this is going to be out for some time, and it’s going to be a much more difficult knot to square than the National Football League, because the main issue in the NBA is that they are arguing that 23 of the 30 teams lost money last year. There’s been a counter-argument of an analysis done by Forbes Magazine that says that that number is grossly inflated, and they’re actually cooking the books Enron-style to make it look like more teams are losing money than they are.
But the fact of the matter is that the NBA situation is very similar to the NFL situation, and it’s very similar, for example, to the fights around state workers in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, because what it comes down to is that the owners in these leagues are getting less public subsidies than they thought they would get, because of the economic crisis in 2008 and the trillion-dollar bailouts of the banks. And they’ve said this publicly. They’re saying, "We need to restore profitability and get more salary back from players, because we’re getting less tax dollars than we thought we would get. And we will lock the doors and end the games, unless we get more money back." And that makes it, to me, a much more broader political and social issue, like, oh, we don’t even get our sports now, because Goldman Sachs needed a bailout? That’s not good.
AMY GOODMAN: Lastly, the Women’s World Cup, Japan versus the U.S.
DAVE ZIRIN: Remarkable. You know, people talk about sometimes that sports and politics don’t mix or shouldn’t mix. And that’s, of course, the main theme of the documentary, which is that, well, you know what? They mix whether we want them to or not.
The women of Japan, in their locker rooms, were passing around pictures of victims of the Japanese earthquake and the nuclear spill and looking at them and communing about the victims in Japan. And they came together on the idea of like, look, this isn’t going to stop the health effects of the nuclear disaster, or this isn’t going to repair the country after the earthquake, but maybe we could give people a lift by doing something that we’ve never done before, and that’s beat the United States in the World Cup final. You know, these two teams had played 24 times before, and Japan had never won. And they win the first time ever, and it’s in the final. And I think it’s something absolutely worth celebrating, a brilliant victory by the women of Japan.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Dave Zirin, for being with us. Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation. It’s Not Just a Game is his new documentary with the Media Education Foundation. Also does Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His latest book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.