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Dave Zirin on “Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love”

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The world of professional sports is certainly not immune to the heated debates over Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation and the growing calls for a nationwide boycott of Arizona. In New York, a rally is planned tonight outside Citi Field in Queens, where baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks will play the New York Mets. We speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin about his new book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Dave Zirin. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the world of professional sports is certainly not immune to the heated debates over Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation and the growing calls for a nationwide boycott of Arizona. Here in New York, a rally is planned tonight outside Citi Field in Queens, where baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks will play the New York Mets. Demonstrations have already taken place outside ballparks in cities across the country demanding that baseball’s owners move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona. Activists say Major League Baseball has a special obligation to stand up, given that up to 30 percent of its ballplayers are Latinos.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined here in New York by Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. His latest book is called Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what’s happening tonight outside — what’s the corporate name now? Citi Field?

DAVE ZIRIN: It’s now Citi Field, joining such illustrious stadium names as Enron Field in Houston, which is now Minute Maid Park. And it’s really an important demonstration. It’s going to become the fourteenth such demonstration since the summer began. That’s not exactly news you’re going to hear on SportsCenter. And Washington, DC will become the fifteenth city where there will be a demonstration when the Diamondbacks come to town on August 15th. And these demonstrations are so important because what it’s allowed people to do is nationalize the issue and not just have it be an Arizona issue.

And it’s also important — and this relates to the book, because it’s dragged a gentleman by the name of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Diamondbacks, out of the shadows and into the light. Ken Kendrick holds fundraisers for SB 1070-supporting politicians in the owner’s box of what is a publicly funded stadium in Arizona. This is political money laundering, and it happens in our cities around the country. We are underwriting right-wing politicians and right-wing politics through sports.

AMY GOODMAN: The Diamondbacks’ own feelings about what’s happening in Arizona?

DAVE ZIRIN: A couple have come out and spoken against SB 1070. And yet, they have been shut down very quickly by team management and by Major League Baseball, as well. And I’ve spoken to Major League players who have switched from being very outspoken, when SB 1070 came out — I mean, I know Juan has been tracking this. About eighteen players right away came out and spoke against it within hours of the law being passed. After that, when players were asked, you got a lot of different answers. You got answers like, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “How do you think I feel?” or speaking off the record.

Now, we had a mini explosion, though, during the All-Star Game, the 2010 All-Star Game, which took place in Anaheim, where probably the best player in Major League Baseball, Albert Pujols, spoke out very sharply against SB 1070. And that was especially significant because his own manager, Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals, spoke out for SB 1070. So you get this wonderful relationship that’s taking place right now between anger in the locker room, demonstrations off the field, and each one feeding off each other. And I got to give credit to a terrific organization, movethegame.org, which has been tracking this stuff from the beginning and talking about the relationship between protests off the field and dissent in the locker room.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this enormous power, obviously, of the owners —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- you track it in your book Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the [Games] We Love.

DAVE ZIRIN: I couldn’t help thinking about it during your first guests talking about education, because when you think about billion-dollar publicly funded stadiums, $30 billion over the last twenty years being spent on stadiums at a time when teachers are being laid off, I mean, it’s monstrous. It’s socializing debt and privatizing profit, and it’s become a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things that struck me in the book was you talk about an owner who has gotten virtually no attention by the name of Merritt Paulson.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, lovely name!

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about him and his illustrious father?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, Merritt Paulson, his father, Henry Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury, worth $700 million — that’s a low estimate. And, of course, he named his son Merritt. I guess naming him “Legacy” would be too obvious. And — no, Merritt is a family name, but still it’s somewhat comical. It’s Dickensian, if you will. And Merritt Paulson has demanded — and received — hundreds of millions of dollars from the city of Portland. When people think of Portland, they think of the Pacific Northwest and what have you, but it’s actually got incredibly high rates of poverty, very high rates of unemployment, very high rates of child poverty. And Merritt Paulson has taken public money to build a Minor League franchise out there. And it’s — to me, it’s a monstrous process, and that is only like the most obvious and weird example of it, but there are other examples that are even more disturbing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But his father also —-

DAVE ZIRIN: Is a partial owner of the team.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- is a partial owner, right? So we have a —-

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, Henry Paulson is a partial owner of the team. So we are underwriting the sports ownership of Henry Paulson. These are facts that sports fans need to know. I call it the Keyser Söze principle. You know the movie The Usual Suspects? Keyser Söze, it’s like the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making us think that he didn’t exist. It’s like we don’t know who these people are. I do this for a living, and I didn’t know who Ken Kendrick was a year ago, the owner of the Diamondbacks. And yet they exert so much power and take so much public money.

Another man, Phil Anschutz, I’m sure a lot of listeners have no idea who that is. He’s the minority owner of the LA Lakers, the Kings and the Sparks. He’s also the owner of The Weekly Standard. The Weekly Standard is a neoconservative, very right-wing magazine. It operates at a financial loss. It loses money. And Phil Anschutz gets money from the state of California as minority owner of these teams. So, you see, what happens here, it becomes right-wing political money laundering and using sports as a Trojan horse to do that. And as a sports fan, as someone who loves sports, I think we have to say enough is enough.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What are some of these other owners that are in your greatest hits of rogues?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, well, I got to name one, because it connects so much with the terrific work Democracy Now! has done. The owner of the Orlando Magic is a gentleman by the name of Dick DeVos. He’s worth $4 billion. Amy’s smiling, because she knows where I’m about to go. The DeVos family, not unlike old feudal Europe, married into another billionaire family, the Prince family. And Dick DeVos’s son married a gentleman by the name of Edgar Prince’s daughter Betsy. Betsy’s brother -— we see where this is going — Erik Prince, the owner and founder of Blackwater. Dick DeVos is also one of the ultimate funders and underwriters of that right-wing edge of the evangelical movement and of the Republican Party. And he’s also getting a $480 million publicly funded stadium right now. And through his donations to the Republican Party, of course, Erik Prince has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for Blackwater. So you see how this works. I mean, I don’t think a majority of sports fans, when they go see an Orlando Magic game and cheer for players like Dwight Howard or Jameer Nelson, are saying, “I’m also buying a ticket to support Blackwater’s efforts in Iraq!” No, that — and effectively, though, that’s what they have us doing. It’s coercive, and I’m against it.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, what’s the Wal-Mart way?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, the Wal-Mart way is the owner of the Kansas City Royals, a gentleman by the name of David Glass. He was the CEO of Wal-Mart for twenty-five years. He was actually the direct follower of Sam Walton himself. He’s a person who famously, in the early '90s, stormed off the set when he was being interviewed on NBC and was confronted with pictures of child labor, and he tried to argue that they weren't actually children who were doing the labor. He just said, “Well, in other countries, people are just short.” And when he was challenged that that wasn’t really true, he stormed off the set. And he runs the Kansas City Royals basically like Wal-Mart. And one of the arguments of the book — I mean, they’re a team that’s out of contention basically before the year even begins. And one of the arguments in the book is that if owners don’t fulfill basic obligations to field a competitive team, if they take public money but don’t offer tickets that the public can actually even afford, then we should have the right to assert fan ownership, we should have the right to assert public domain, because I think there’s no way we could do a worse job than some of these clowns who are in the owners’ boxes of professional sports.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t ask you about a late owner, George Steinbrenner.

DAVE ZIRIN: George Steinbrenner, I call Big George “The Bridge,” the man who said, “I don’t get heart attacks, I give them,” and, of course, tragically, died of a heart attack. But George Steinbrenner was the bridge. He was really the last of a breed of kind of patriarchal owner who acted like he was the king of the city, and at the same time, he was a bridge to the new kind of owner, the kind of owner who demands public subsidies or says he will move the team, the kind of owner who trades political favors for the benefit of himself and public financing. And that’s the part of the Steinbrenner legacy, honestly, that we need to break from.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, thanks for writing the book and thanks for being with us, sports columnist for The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM, his latest book, just out, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.

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