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Will Obama Presidency Ease Barriers to Politically Outspoken Black Athletes?

StoryNovember 10, 2008
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Professional athletes, especially African American athletes, have long been rebuked for speaking out on political issues. Could the Obama presidency herald a change? We speak to sportswriter David Zirin, author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The historic 2008 presidential election has seen the world of politics enter the world of sports to an extent not seen in this country in a generation. More athletes are using their national platform to speak out than they have in recent memory. But, as so often happens in sports, athletes are reprimanded for trying to make their voices heard.

Take what happened last week during a nationally televised football game on Thursday night, two days after Election Night. Near the end of the game, Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught the winning touchdown pass against the Cleveland Browns. Marshall’s plan was to then take out a black-and-white glove and hold it up to the sky as a symbol of unity. But his teammates stopped him on the field for fear of risking a penalty that could have cost them the game. Marshall was asked about it afterwards in a post-game wrap up.

    INTERVIEWER: Alright, Brandon, I’ve got to ask you. At the end of the ballgame, I saw you fooling with your gloves or something. You was about to go do something. What did you have in mind?

    BRANDON MARSHALL: Well, I mean, this was a historical year for America. And, you know, when we look at the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, he inspired me, and not just me and my teammates, but the nation. And back in the ’68 Olympics, you know, a couple of our track stars sat on a podium, and they threw up their Black Panther sign just for black power and liberation. But in my own way, I wanted to pay respect to our nation and the progress we made, so I got a white glove painted black half and half. And it’s not about black power, and it’s not about white or black; it’s about USA, red, white and blue. And that’s what I was going to do, but Stokley came and said, “It’s too close of a ballgame. You might get flagged. So put it back in.”

    INTERVIEWER: Where is it? Where is it?

    BRANDON MARSHALL: I got rid of it. Old Vet told me to get rid of it.

    INTERVIEWER: You got that right.

AMY GOODMAN: Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall. He was later criticized by pundits on ESPN and in the sports blogosphere for the planned gesture. But sportswriter Dave Zirin thinks otherwise. He writes: “Instead of derision, Marshall merited our respect — sports fan or not — which should actually be exponentially higher since he was willing to take this risk when the game was on the line. The image of a pro football player raising a black-and-white hand to the skies forty years after Smith and Carlos and two days after the election of a black president in a country built on slavery could have echoed through the ages.”

Well, Dave Zirin joins us now from Washington, D.C., author of many books on politics and sports — his latest, A People’s History of Sports in the United States — a regular contributor to The Nation, and writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”

Welcome, Dave Zirin. Your thoughts, again, on Brandon Marshall?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s interesting, because you hear the kind of camaraderie and laughter when he was describing what he did, but the sports media really came down on him like a ton of bricks.

And I just want to repeat my respect for him for what he did, because, first of all, he was doing it for a team, the Denver Broncos, which actually has a formal policy against bringing politics into the locker room, so a very straitlaced, anti-political, frankly, anti-progressive, atmosphere that tries to stifle free speech among athletes.

And the second thing, I mean, the game was on the line, so you talk about trying to do a political gesture where it actually means something. I mean, I think that could have been something that would have been an educational moment for sports fans.

And lastly, the NFL does not have guaranteed contracts. So you talk about risking something, I mean, he was risking everything. And I think it would have been a great moment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Dave, how difficult has it become for professional athletes these days? I think back to the days when Bill Walton was an antiwar opponent with the Portland Trailblazers. How difficult these days is it for athletes to speak their mind?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s always been difficult, particularly over these last twenty years, when sports has morphed into this trillion-dollar corporate business. But I’ll tell you something. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there has been a real buzz, where athletes are starting to be more political and speak out. And I’ve never seen anything like it with this election season. I mean, that wall between sports and politics hasn’t just been breached, it’s been obliterated. I mean, and I’m not just talking about Barack Obama shooting three-point shots in front of the troops or Sarah Palin dropping the puck at a hockey game and getting booed off the ice, although that was very funny. I’m talking about other things, like people like LeBron James, the basketball star, wearing Obama shirts and holding fundraisers; NBA players Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups holding fundraisers, as well; Carmelo Anthony saying he was going to score forty-four points in a game on Wednesday in tribute to the forty-fourth president; Kevin Garnett writing “vote for change” on his sneakers going out on the court. I mean, we really are in some uncharted territory, or at least territory we haven’t seen for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, when I opened Juan’s paper yesterday, the New York Daily News, I was surprised to see a column by you, and the headline was this question: “Did Tiger Woods Pave Barack Obama’s Path? Are You Joking?”

DAVE ZIRIN: “Are you joking?” Let me tell you something. The sports world will always try to break its arm patting itself on its back when it comes to progress and trying to say that it reflects the sports world’s progress on issues. A column was written in the Orlando Sentinel by Mike Bianchi that made a very simple argument. It said that because so many millions of white Americans have been cheering for years for people like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, that really paved the way for Obama’s victory. And I thought that was rather ridiculous, and let me say why.

First of all, I mean, whites have been cheering for African American athletic achievement, you know, since the times of slavery. I mean, this was something that happened on plantations, and that didn’t necessarily lead to political progress. Second of all, there’s a big difference between cheering for somebody’s athletic achievement and accepting their political leadership. I mean, it’s night and day, apples and oranges, Sarah Palin and Amy Goodman. These are very different worlds.

And then, lastly, the fact that Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Tony Dungy were held up — Tony Dungy, who’s a very successful African American football coach — was very bizarre to me. I mean, first of all, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are two of the most aggressively apolitical athletes that have existed on the sports scene in some time. They’re the exemplars of the apolitical athlete. And Tony Dungy, while being a man of great respect who’s held in high regard, is also somebody with close ties to Focus on the Family and the anti-gay marriage movement. So you think about why people waited on line for so many hours to vote for Barack Obama, I think it was to move away from a lot of the politics that people like Woods, Jordan and Dungy actually represent.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a connection between the corporatization of sports and the silencing of dissent, Dave Zirin? I also said we were going to have Etan Thomas on, NBA star, plays for the Washington Wizards, but we can’t seem to get him on the line, so we’ll have him on another day. But Dave?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I’ll tell you, I do think that there is a very strong connection. I write for Slam magazine, which is a basketball magazine, and I speak to a lot of NBA players. And what’s interesting is that there are two names that all NBA players seem to know, and those names are Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. And what those two players have in common is that they both took political stands in the 1990s, and they were both drummed out of the league. And they know those names, because their agents, their managers, they say to them, “Look, you are risking the attendant privileges that come with being a professional athlete if you speak out.”

And that’s why, to me, one of the great quotes of this election season was when Baron Davis, the point guard for the LA Clippers, he was doing organizing in the presidential race, and he was told by his manager, “Look, if you do this, you’re going to risk your endorsement deals.” And Baron Davis’s response was, “Like a give a bleep.” And he didn’t say “bleep.” I mean, I’m just making the point that that’s the only way this is going to change, is that if athletes refuse to be brands, refuse to be empty vessels for product placement and start to say, “You know what? I’m not just a robot with legs. I have a mind, as well as a body. I have this hyper-exalted brought-to-you-by-Nike platform. I’m actually going to do something with it.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Dave, of course, all of these athletes were acting within the realm of a political election, not necessarily a social cause, although obviously many see the election of Barack Obama as part of a social movement. How hard is it for them, when it comes to social causes, to be able to speak out?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, that’s what’s going to be very interesting about this. I mean, passion, particularly political passion, abhors a vacuum. And you’ve had so many athletes, as well as so many sports fans, for that matter, devote passion into this election season. It’s going to be very interesting to see where that passion goes moving forward. I mean, people get politicized around all kinds of issues. And in this case, it was a movement to elect the first African American president. Is that just going to die right now, or is it going to move forward? I mean, that is really, to me, an unanswered question. And whether people stay on the frontlines and don’t just say, “Yeah, we elected Obama,” but we actually want results on bringing the troops home from Iraq, on having real aid for working families, and if Obama drags his feet on these issues, if people actually stand up and say, “Wait a minute. You made promises. You promised us hope and change. We’re going to stand for that,” and if that really gets into the world of sports and athletes, that could be a fascinating development.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, we’re going to leave it there. Thanks so much. Among his books, his latest, A People’s History of Sports in the United States.

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