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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.”

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StoryFeb 05, 2010Dave Zirin on Super Bowl Fever in New Orleans and the Militarization of Sport’s Biggest Spectacle
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, is a regular contributor to The Nation and Slam magazine. His books include What’s My Name, Fool?, the Muhammad Ali Handbook, and he’s just come out with a new one, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports. It’s got a foreword by the rap artist Chuck D of Public Enemy. Dave Zirin joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome, Dave.

DAVE ZIRIN: Great to be here, Amy.

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

DAVE 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 20,000 to 30,000 of New Orleans’ poorest residents herded into the Louisiana Superdome in conditions that I thought Jesse Jackson quite correctly likened to the hull of a slave ship. And seeing a New Orleans that didn’t have enough money for emergency shelter, that didn’t 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 just beyond compare. And when you consider that the folks herded in the Superdome never could have afforded a ticket, it just occurred to me that sports really isn’t 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 a hundred unclaimed bodies, unidentified bodies, that are being held at a warehouse in New Orleans just down the street from the Superdome.

DAVE 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 down 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. But what we’re seeing, to paraphrase Chris Rock, is that trickle-down economics doesn’t always trickle down.

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

DAVE ZIRIN: I got—oh, 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 just became just a horrible figure of PR in death in a way he never would have agreed to have been in life.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dave, you wrote extensively about Pat Tillman. You talked to his mother. There was recently hearings in Washington, D.C.—


AMY GOODMAN: —where his family spoke, his brother spoke, his mother spoke. Now that case being investigated, that his family was lied to after—


AMY GOODMAN: —he was killed in Afghanistan. Tell us more.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, yeah, I mean, the case just stinks to high heaven. And even like a B-grade Mickey Spillane detective would see all the holes in this case. I mean the fact that 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. I mean, there’s just so much that doesn’t 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 had 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 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 Cardinals Stadium. I mean, it’s 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’re 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.

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, Roberto Clemente, he was, of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates superstar of the '50s, 1950s and 1960s. He wasn't the first Latino player. He wasn’t 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’s interesting when you hear Barack Obama tell stories about handlers trying to get him to call himself Barry Obama. And I was thinking, that’s 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. And 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. And 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?

DAVE ZIRIN: NBA players right now have become the spittoon for every racial anxiety aslosh in the sports world. I mean, it’s quite shocking, 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. And 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. I mean, he’s 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. And I’m harshly critical of him of that because what he’s basically done is it sanctifies an idea, really, 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. And all that really 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.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely, I mean, 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. And 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. And Steinbrenner is quite explicit about why he’s doing this. He’s 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’re putting up chains to prevent—to actually impel people and compel people to stand in place. I mean, it’s 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?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, and that was a staggering experience. I mean, 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, you know, I mean, he—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’s an award-winning journalist and a brilliant writer. And 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’s one of the sharpest observers of culture and society who I’ve ever had the privilege to read. So, it was a no-brainer just to ask him questions about what he feels about the state of sports and the state of resistance through sports.

And 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 Muhammad 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 thank you for being with us, author of Welcome to the Terrordome.

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Dave Zirin on Super Bowl Fever in New Orleans and the Militarization of Sport’s Biggest Spectacle

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