The Dave Zirin Interview
Dave Zirin is a lightning rod for trouble. He is a white man who boldly stepped into the arena of sports and race and politics – and took the side of the underdog. He has been attacked by writers like me (dwil) who questioned his conviction, his purpose, and his motives; questioned why a white man would chance the comfort of his skin color’s privilege to champion female athletes and athletes of color. He is still attacked by the other side who question his politics, mistaking his beyond progressive politics for the overly simplistic label of liberal-leftist.
By withstanding these attacks through plainly facing his critics, Zirin stands even taller than most allegedly insightful sports writing peers. What separates him from them is the depth of his understanding of the intersection of race and sports and politics, and society.
Now, he is feared by shallow members of the sports media, respected by thinkers who too see beyond the games into the dark morass of the corporate fray; into the fear-based sickness on which rests the pillars of institutional racism and sexism.
Dave Zirin is one sports writer who is unafraid to place his beliefs before the glare of the sun’s harsh light and unafraid to search moonless nights for hidden truths. In the following interview we explore these beliefs and these truths with him.
DWil: Before we even get to your background: In the last year or so we’ve had the Duke Lacrosse Incident, “David Stern’s Behavioral Modification Program”, the “Outing of NFL Hoodlums”, the alleged “NBA All-Star Ghettofest”, and the Imus Affair. To quote Vince Lombardi, “What the hell is going on out there?”
DZ: What the hell is going on out there is that every commissioner of the three major sports – another thing you can mention is Bud Selig and the anti-Barry Bonds Gate, too, saying that he’s not going to show up for number 756. It’s an outrageous slap in the face not only to Bonds but at history.
DWil: Is he [Selig] really set on not showing up?
DZ: He’s really set on not showing up.
Mizzo: He wants to take his name He doesn’t want to be a part of history…
DWil: I find that interesting because Bowie Kuhn didn’t show up when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record for reasons of racism.
DZ: Exactly. That was completely racist. And what’s so interesting about it is that Selig is a student of history and he is more than aware that relationship between Kuhn and Aaron. It’s also interesting that Aaron himself won’t show up. Aaron and Selig are very close friends – it’s very disturbing to me that Selig would use that history between Kuhn and Aaron and twist it to their own ends.
DWil: I know Aaron was on hand for Bonds hitting numbers 600 and 660 – at least one if not both of those occasions –
DZ: Plus, Bonds did a commercial with Henry –
DWil: Do you think Selig asked Aaron to do his bidding and stay away from Bonds?
DZ: I don’t know the dynamic [between Selig and Aaron]. I do know that Richard Justice (Houston Chronicle) who has various ties to the commissioner’s office said a year ago that there was no way that Selig would allow Bonds to get to 756. He said Selig will use everything from the ridiculous Mitchell Commission to the grand jury in BALCO to stop Bonds.
However, it’s looking more and more, at least from a legal perspective that this is something that Selig is going to be able to do. So instead, he’s trying to do it in a different kind of way. In stead of actually trying to keep Bonds from hitting 756 he’s trying to shame bonds out of the record books.
But let me get back to the, “what the hell is going on here,” question.
DWil: May I just ask you one more question about Bonds….
DWil: Why would Henry, having been through what he went through with racism and knowing that racism is equally insidious today – why would he, as a black man, do this? Do you have a feel for that?
DZ: I don’t because one of the things Aaron has said is that not until it’s all said and done is he actually going to give his comments about why [he’s not actively celebrating Bonds’ impending breaking oh Aaron’s record].
Though things have change somewhat, the most cutting-edge thing Aaron had to deal with were death threats against himself and his family. Yet, that is something Bonds has had to deal with as well. So even if we talk about racism changing, things stay so strikingly the same.
Back to what the hell…. This is something I’ve tried to wrap my head around. It seems like all the commissioners seem to be united in having a Rudyard Kipling complex; “The Commissioner Kiplings” is what I call them.
It’s this idea that they are going to be the people who have this approach that says we are going to civilize these barbaric young, black athletes. And they won’t use those words exactly, they’ll use words like “urban” and “hip-hop” and “gangsta culture.” All that really come down to at the end of the day is that, with the media’s help, they can make sanctifying and “legitimate” racial profiling. It doesn’t matter about the content of these folks character; it’s about how they dress, how they look, how they speak. Basically, they’re saying it’s bad for business and that they’re going to take it upon themselves to be the moral guardians of sports.
Mizzo: Are the commissioners being reflective of our society or is this just the individual organizations acting?
DZ: I think it’s very reflective of a part of society. It’s definitely reflective of the sports media which is, despite how diverse some aspects of sports are, the sports media has remained stubbornly white a stubbornly middle class in its outlook. One of the results of that is a lot of resentment that you saw back when there was a young Cassius Clay before he was political. You saw a lot of the media saying, he talks too much. I can’t wait for somebody to button his lip – and actually agitate for Sonny Liston to do serious harm to Clay. I mean this is something that you still see. It’s a common thread and it’s exposed itself so sharply when Jason Whitlock came out so publicly speaking about the “Black KKK” and “we need a new civil rights movement against black idiots.” What you saw after that was some of the white sports columnists in the country, Rick Telander, Bill Simmons, come out and basically say, I am so encouraged by Jason Whitlock and I have so much respect for what he’s saying… I mean Jason Whitlock might as well change his name to, “Jason Whitlock who happens to be black,” because that’s how he is always quoted. These white reporters say, ‘this is from Jason Whitlock who happens to be black but don’t call me racist for talking about a black culture of lawlessness, because I’m quoting Whitlock. ‘
Mizzo: Let me ask this. Honestly, the demographic that spends the most money in this country in terms of sporting events is Caucasian. Could they be protecting that interest?
DZ: Well, yes and no. Now, specifically about the NBA, this is a very tricky balance that commissioner David Stern is getting very wrong. While the majority of ticket-buying fans are certainly white, what is it that gives the NBA its cultural cache? The fact that it is an urban hip-hop sport and that’s where, historically, a lot of cultural trends in our society are started.
That’s what makes the NBA legitimate. The fact that it is raw is what makes it real. You saw that so much in Golden State series. You saw overwhelmingly white fans in that Bay Area gym going nuts for Stephen Jackson. You saw all these middle-class Silicon Valley heads going out to those games to cheer and when Jackson hit three after three and give that, too cool for words scowl they were losin’ their minds through the process of identification. They were yelling, “Yeah, Stephen Jackson! Yeah!”
And all of a sudden the announcers went from saying, “Stephen Jackson needs to go to Guantanamo Bay,” were saying, “Wow, Jackson adds the toughness to this Golden State team that they didn’t have before.”
See, that’s the cultural cache that’s given to that white audience. So if you try to crush that like Stern’s trying to do – well, you’re playing with fire with what makes the NBA matter.
DWil: Do you have any thoughts about the influence of (former Bush administration and conservative political consultant Matthew Dowd, and former consultant to the NBA) on David Stern? It seems as if Stern has gone from being an ultra-liberal to someone reigning in everything around him.
DZ: Yeah, Dowd is very much a reflection of that [playing with fire]. Lets’ remember it’s not like Matthew Dowd was holding David Stern’s pet hostage saying, “You better take a meeting with me or the kitten dies.” Stern sought out Matthew Dowd. Stern sat down with Matthew Dowd. Stern then came out publicly after the meeting and talked about the need to give the league, “red state appeal.” This was Stern being utterly impressionistic and reactive to what was happening in this country around 2004.
Remember all the reaction after the 2004 elections was, “This is red state America; family values, people want bush even though he’s so stupid. And Stern’s thinking, gee, we better make sure we appeal to this base. Now, if you look polls it’s completely different. Bush’s popularity in under 30% and there is a serious majority against the war in Iraq as well as the worst excesses in the criminal justice system. And if Stern is still stuck in this Matthew Dowd mindset – and by the way even Dowd has recently sharply criticized Bush – if I’m going to appeal to white fans I have to be Rudyard Kipling and I have to civilize these young thugs.
DWil: I’d like to take a step back and do “the proper interview thing” and discuss how you got into sports writing – and did growing up in the Washington, D.C. area or in New York City?
DZ: I grew up in New York City as just a hyper-obsessed sports fan. Being in New York was literally like living in a sports Disneyland. One of the folks I dedicated my writing to was the 1986 Mets: people like Kevin Mitchell, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and Keith Hernandez. Their life-size posters were in my room all over the place. Not to mention Bernard King,. Oh my god, there’s the New York Knicks “Bomb Squad” with Mark Jackson, Trent Tucker, Rod Strickland, Johnny Newman.
I mean, these were my guys. These were guys I was obsessed with watching. We had cable at my house but no pay stations and I would watch the old sports channel all fuzzy where you could hardly make out the pictures and stuff trying to watch Doc pitch because you knew that anytime he pitched it was a no-hitter waiting to happen. It was just a great time to grow up.
Of course, I had no idea that many of my heroes were into rock cocaine (laughter) but that also gives you an idea of the limitations of the actual influence athletes have on people. I didn’t give a shit about their personal lives. What I cared about is if they captured my imagination when they stepped on the field.
DWil: Where and what did you write initially when you got into the field of sports writing proper?
DZ: Well when I first got into sports writing proper I was writing for a paper called, The St. Mary’s Today in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. And just to give you an idea of the size, the three of us on this phone call would be a good week of readership for the St. Mary’s sports page.
It’s a tiny, tiny paper but it was a great place to make my bones as a sports writer because St. Mary’s county is a place where they have some of the highest drunk-driving per capita deaths in the world. It’s all highway strips with bars along the highway. And I’d be driving around, swerving around drunk drivers in the dead of night going to high school gyms to watch these insane games.
Men’s sports, women’s sports – and just having to write stuff on deadline. And it was also hard for me to ignore that St. Mary’s County is one of the most segregated places I’ve ever seen in my life. It was profoundly segregated except on the sports fields where it was profoundly integrated.
DWil: Where is it in relation to D.C.?
DZ: Oh god, it’s all the way down by the (Chesapeake Bay ) shore. It’s one of those places where the power base is so old that it’s Democrat but they’re Democrats as in the old “Dixiecrats” from back in the day. They’re Democrats who never bothered to become Republicans.
DWil: Can you explain your evolution as a writer, from those beginnings to tackling issues of race-racism and sports?
DZ: Honestly, for me it was when I moved from St. Mary’s to getting a job at the Prince George’s Post. That paper is the only African-American paper in Prince George’s County (Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.).
The thing there is I had an editor who was not resistant to me writing about these issues. His attitude was, well, we’re an African-American newspaper and so better than have you just write columns on what’s happening with Washington (Redskins) football this year you can write about other issues.
My boss there was a good man and he had a policy that you couldn’t write the words Washington Redskins. He wanted full coverage of the Redskins but you had to call them the Washington “football team.”
DWil: How long ago was that?
DZ: That was from 2002 through 2005. So I worked there three-and-a half years writing a column a week every week. And it really started to click for me when Sylvester Croom got passed over for the head coaching job at Alabama and Mike Shula was chosen instead.
Jesse Jackson went down there and raised some stink about it and John Careceno, who
was the big sports columnist over at USA Today just tore Jesse Jackson apart for Jackson having the temerity for saying something about this, like’ how would Jesse Jackson know who would be a better coach and why is he trying to use this for political grandstanding?’
I read that and thought to myself, “You know what, Jesse’s correct here. It’s a simple case of an older, more experienced, more ready coach getting totally jacked by somebody because of what a leading Alabama booster called, Mike Shula’s so-called pedigree.”
So I wrote something in defense of Jackson and as a history major in college I was trying to draw on the actual history of the University of Alabama and the segregation that had occurred and how it had been influenced by the world of sports and Bear Bryant position on integration and segregation. It all had a strong historical legacy on what was happening today. The column got some good feedback and it felt right so that’s what I’ve been doing since. And not just about race and racism but also issues of women in sports, issues of workers in sports, labor unions in sports. Basically anywhere you see the world of sports and politics intersect I like to think of as kind of “my beat.”
DWil: Now, that leads into my next question, is there a theme or thread that runs through, What’s My Name Fool, to your ongoing effort, A People’s History of Sports?
DZ: The ongoing message is to try to look at times where athletes tried to use their hyper-exalted, hyper-commercialized platform of sports to try to have something to say. That, to me, I find so fascinating because it is a tremendous platform. In a lot of ways it’s an unprecedented platform in our society. Particularly a platform that’s given to people who are from poor backgrounds, who are largely people of color, who are given a platform when in other areas of society they wouldn’t be given that platform.
No one says, ‘gee, I wonder what the black lawyers are saying about this death penalty bill. Now, that’s a very sad, sorry comment about our society, but it’s also an objective fact of our society. And at the same time these athletes are also under tremendous pressure to not use that platform for things other than saying, ‘one game at a time.’ When athletes actually try to use that platform to transgress from who they’re ‘supposed’ to be, that, to me, is so dynamic. That is what I like highlighting and talking about in my column.
My favorite, all-time quote is when Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.”
DWil: On that topic, I gather you’ve talked with a fair number of athletes from the 1960s and 70s….
DWil: What do you see as the differences in their stances and the athletes of today. There seems to be an inability with athletes today to express anything. In the 60s and 70s athletes were eloquent, they had voices on topics. Today we have just a few athletes like that, Etan Thomas, Chris Webber. And that’s about it. Do you see the same thing and if so, what are the differences?
DZ: Yeah, I definitely see the same kind of thing. The main difference is all about what’s the broader social context. In the 1960s and 1970s you had a black freedom struggle, you had a mass movement against the war, and you had a black arts movement that was pretty influential to a lot of these players who we’re talking about.
It’s very interesting to talk to someone like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and find out what he was actually reading in college. He was reading everybody from Amiri Baraka to Nikki Giovanni. People’s heads were trying to get open to the broader ferment that was happening in society. And that broader ferment is the only way to understand what athletes were more political and more in tune.
Muhammad Ali, if you looked at his trajectory, if you don’t have a black freedom struggle, Muhammad Ali’s hero probably would have been Gorgeous George Wagner the pro wrestler. That was his hero when he first came up. He wanted to be just like Gorgeous George. We would remember Cassius Clay as the person who brought flair and showmanship of professional wrestling to boxing. But history itself did not allow him to take that path. So, his hero goes from being Gorgeous George to being Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. And that was all about history.
DWil: The struggles are different today, but they still exist. But athletes today are about their endorsements, their cribs, and their whips and that’s it. Is that reflective of society at large?
DZ: Yeah it is very much. You know, there’s an interesting economic aspect to be raised and that’s that, not only do athletes make tremendous amounts more money now than they did 40 years ago, but the folks they leave behind in the country or in the city make far less money on average, and have less buying power than they did 30-40 years ago. The responsibility now is much more now. We know that paycheck they get is for a group of people who the press often derisively refers to as “posse” or “entourages.” But in the city we know that the star athlete is treated like a person who had the winning lottery ticket and they’re that person who bears a certain responsibility to not leave other folks behind. And so when you have that pressure on you, the idea of risking that becomes something that comes with a lot of danger and a lot of economic insecurity.
One of the things that was so interesting about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was it revealed how many professional athletes actually come from that tiny little scrap of land on the gulf Coast. It’s remarkable. If you think about it – I write about this in my next book, Welcome to the Terrordome – is that it’s quite remarkable how perfect the soil is on the Gulf coast for professional athletes.
You’ve got institutionalized racism, tremendous poverty, and year-round sunshine. You can play sports all year round. And sports is one of the few options that people see realistically as a way out. Of course certain people in out industry would decry that and say, ‘well it’s far more realistic to work hard and go to college, blah blah blah. But just the reality of how people think and who they’re taught o have as role models think wait a minute, playing sports 12 months a year might be a better shot under the circumstance.
Mizzo: Other than your books, you’re everywhere: LA Times, SLAM, The Nation, speaking tours with Chuck D, Which gig do you enjoy most? Is there a least?
DZ: I’m not going to throw a least down (laughter) because I have a two-year old running around me. Honestly, what I do love the most by a mile is getting out there and just touring on the book, speaking to people about these issues because I think the sports fan who is alienated by sports is the fastest-growing and most ignored demographic in the sports world. And sometimes with the events I do it’s only a couple people who show up, sometimes it’s really big but it’s always people who are thirsty for a different way of trying to talk about, explain and understand sports.
It’s the same reason people traffic you website and spend all the time putting all the comments up on The Starting Five is the same reason people come out and pay to get my book or hear me do a reading. I feel like the audiences are very tightly connected because it’s people who, frankly, want to demand more than ESPN, than FOX Sports, than sports radio. They want a different and deeper way of trying to understand how sports affects their lives while not renouncing their rights to be sports fans.
Mizzo: The name of your website, Edge of Sports, seems to say as much about you as it does the subject matter you approach. A two-fold question: Would you write only for a mainstream publication or mainstream sports media outlet and how are you perceived by your white peers?
DZ: That is – the second question is very interesting. On the first one, yeah I would write for anybody as long as the politics stayed true. I mean, one thing about writing for the LA Times they’re big on trying to chop things up 50 different ways and I have no problem with that as long as the politics isn’t changed. If they have objections to certain off-color metaphors I like to throw in there or flowery language that they think is not just what they want or is their cup of tea, I can totally live with that. Like I tell my editors, I’m very coachable in that regard. But the political content to me is what’s sacrosanct in all of this.
Now, as far as white sports writers…. This is very interesting because I’ve gotten just amazing support from some of the older heads – white sports writers. People like Robert Lipsyte being a prime example of that. There’s another guy who is more my peer named Michael O’Keefe who writes for the New York Daily News. These are cats who have political sympathies similar to my own. And Lipsyte, who made his bones writing about Muhammad Ali is somebody who want to see the kind of work he was doing in the 60s not fall by the wayside.
That’s what he’s seen that so upsetting to him is the commodification of sports writing, And so the political in-depth pieces he was championing in the 1960s have become very marginalized in favor of the quick hit highlights or the political Neanderthal approach. You know, the, ‘who is this Floyd Mayweather to talk as if that’s something. And people say, ‘yeah, who is he to talk,’ and just the whole, ‘shut up and play’ approach.
So, from those folks I get a lot of good. But from other folks – I’ll choose not to name names here, although one guy I wrote about three’s no point in me not naming – Tom Knott, the lead columnist for the Washington Times. What’s interesting there is that they can write very reactionary stuff – Whitlock has done this, Knott has done this – that’s highly critical of me, myself, whatever, and what’s interesting though is when I contact them off the record their approach is different when they’re not in the media glare. Their approach is like, ‘look, I’m a ho’, you’re a ho’, we just work different sides of the street so let’s drop the hostility, we’re just dong our thing.
And my response to that is, not actually, this shit is really real to me! If you want to play, we’re just doin’ this dog-and-pony show for the masses like ooooh a debate or something, you can just take that shit to the cleaners because I believe that sports has repercussions on society; this is not a joke to me. They can take that whole approach and tell someone who cares.
DWil: Michael and I have wondered whether or not that’s “Mr. Chitlins” – the TSF nickname for Whitlock – real approach or not.
DZ: I actually do think Whitlock feels very sincere about what he is saying right now. That doesn’t make it good and that doesn’t make it right, but what I feel like he’s doing is so harmful to himself as much as anybody else is that his approach is, ‘I’m gonna say the most outrageous thing possible. I’m not going to try to have discourse, I’m not going to try to force a debate where it’s worth intelligent discussion.’
I’m sorry, but calling Vivian Stringer a “golddigger” calling Jesse Jackson a “terrorist” these are not things that are going to help us understand the situation we’re in as a country right now. The only person who gets served by those kinds of statements is Jason Whitlock.
Mizzo: Can you tall our audience why a dissenting voice in sports is necessary?
DZ: I think it’s beyond necessary. And it has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with politics. I think way too often on this country we view politics as what happens on Capitol Hill or what happens on C-Span. People don’t see politics in the sports they play, the food they buy, the air they breathe, why they don’t have decent health care, why their hospital is in horrible shape, why their kids’ school is in terrible shape. They’re angry about those things, but politics is something that experts in fancy suits do “over there.”
I think integrating politics into what may be called the problems of everyday life, like whether the Golden State Warriors are going to close out the Dallas Mavericks, how Stephen Jackson is viewed, why Pacman Jones just got a year suspension even though he hasn’t been convicted of anything; these are things that also affect our lives.
Too often we’re taught to segregate and ghettoize the politics out of sports. So, I think website like The Starting Five are very important because they actually connect with sports fans and they also connect with political people who may not be sports fans and bring those audiences together in a common space.
DWil: Sports writing has gone through the early 40s molding of an idealized form of athletes through the Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, David Halberstam substantive era to writers today whose work reads like a 2-minute TV talk segment that brings about the 40s idealized form, whether positive or negative. Do you feel we’ll see a return to the Jenkins, et al. journalism or are we doomed to take in largely sensationalist idealized athlete TV-style writing?
DZ: I absolutely think the wheel is going to turn to a much more thoughtful, much intelligent, and much more political way of understanding sports. I think it’s inevitable – I think there are early signs of it
One sign of it it’s the existence of something like The Starting Five and the fact that I can make a career out of doing what I do. I honestly don’t think the social conditions would have existed for us to do what we do 10 years ago – leaving aside the obvious that the Internet wasn’t what it was 10 years ago. Even if it was the ability to have these sorts of discussions among professionals, I think the wheels have turned. I think part of that is how society has turned.
The fact that we’re in a war that’s lasted longer than World War II, Hurricane Katrina, and you see the way sports intervenes in those things: like Pat Tillman and what happened with him; or like we were talking before about the number of professional athletes come out of the Gulf coast and that a lot of them really did have something to say about it. These are things that make sports and politics very relevant.
Then, there’s the other side of it, too, like the way sports is used to whip up patriotism or the way publicly-funded stadiums become a substitute for anything resembling urban policy in our society. So, I think there’s going to have to be a way for people to look through the prism of sports to be able to understand the society we’re living in right now.
The other phenomenon that I find very encouraging is that you’re starting to see some very intelligent, very interesting sports books begin to find an audience. And I think one of these days it’s going to get through the heads of some of these sports editors that well, gee if the [David] Maraniss book on Clemente or the new book, Pistol, about Pete Maravich, or the book on Sandy Koufax by Jane Levy, or even the book on Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – if these books that try to look at context as a way to understand athletes, if these can actually find an audience, then gee maybe our day-to-day sports coverage should involve more of this as well.
DWil: You’re like a “free radical,” if you will, in the molecular world of sports writing…. Would you rather be there, or would you rather be in the mainstream?
DZ: I’d rather have the mainstream come to me. I want to be mainstream without question. I think any writer worth their salt wants the largest possible audience for their ideas. I mean, what’s the point of writing if you don’t have people to read what you have to say? Like, how would you guys have felt if you posted that Scoop thing and got one comment? You want the friction, that’s what makes it worth doing.
It’s also kind of interesting – what would it mean for someone like me to write mainstream? It would mean that I would write like thousands of other people write, writing about the same thing that thousands of other people are writing. And then it’s like, why the hell would anybody want to read what I have to say when they can read it from everybody from Michael Wilbon to T.J. Simers to Woody Paige, and [Jay] Mariotti. People want that kind of mainstream thing – it’s out there for them to read. The idea is to try to serve and under-serve the audience and think counter-intuitively.
DWil: Most of, or at least many black people feel the tug of being “both-and” in the U.S. We are both black and Americans and in order to navigate through and perceive this society in which we live must maintain a stance of reflexive perception – looking inward while perceiving outward. In sports writing this unique position was most recently manifested on a mainstream level in many of the late Ralph Wiley’s writings….. As a white male what steps have you taken to step away from, at least the perception of white privilege, into that state of reflexive perception?
DZ: Hmmmm, that is – an absolutely fantastic question. Ummmm, that is a really fantastic question; it’s a deep question, too. Especially working at the Prince George’s Post, an African-American owned newspaper, in a county like Prince George’s County (a mostly-black populated county) – I would do general news there, too I would be covering events that were overwhelmingly African-American, and obviously growing up in New York City as well, there’s certain benefits for myself or never having had to grow up in a segregated environment and never having had to grow up in a way that me seeing myself as apart from people of color.
It’s made it easier to navigate the world of sports, made it easier to be straight up with people, etc. But yeah, I am very conscious that there are certain opportunities that a lot of times – that you see in the sports writing establishment that those doors get shut in the face of writers of color. So, I just try to do the best I can to be a principled anti-racist.
I think, rather than spend the balance of time in a stance of self-reflection, I try to maintain a posture that’s much more outward and willing to put on the line the problems that happen when you have a largely white vantage point in sports media. If that means in pointing that out I get chewed up because more black writers are having a voice – that, to me, would be a process that would be very healthy.
A lot of it, more than anything is having a strong anti-racist approach just to the kind of writing I want to do. My wife has this poster of Frederick Douglas down in our basement and underneath it says the old phrase, “They separated both to conquer each.” It’s a vantage point that defines both of us in a lot of ways about racism; not as something that exists to destroy only one part of society, but something that has the effect of keeping the great majority of people in this country powerless because we’re too busy at each others’ throats to see who the real criminals are.
DWil: When you’re doing speaking tours what’s the general racial makeup of your audience?
DZ: Wow, it varies wildly from city to city. That’s partly because our country is so segregated. I did a couple spots in LA and I did this one joint at a Latino bookstore and they need to have a translator; it was like 43 people, 38 of them were Mexican or Mexican-American. And then I did a spot on LaBrea and it was like 30 people, 28 of whom were African-American.
And when I was in LA I went to Fremont High School – and this is one of the things that gets me so mad – the same people who Whitlock is calling the “Black KKK” – I mean, I talk to some of these kids and they’re the most beautiful-hearted people I’ve had the chance to sit down in a room with in my life. You know, just talking sports, talking Ali, talking history – and it was just an amazing experience.
The LA tour was a microcosm to answer your question. I did a talk at Occidental College. There were about 100 people there. It was 99% white and I had to stop and explain what the Civil Rights movement was. I was saying to them, “Muhammad Ali was critical of the transformation in this country from Civil Rights to Black Power.” And there’s all this whispering and someone says, “Yeah, my teacher talks about that a lot; what does that even mean?” And I said, “How much a year are you spending on this education?” And they said back, “Oh, about 40 grand.”
Dwil: Looking at these wild swings in demographics, do you feel when you talk with or speak to white audiences? And then, when you speak to black audiences, do you feel like sometimes you’re preaching to the choir?
DZ: Ummm, wow. Once again, a terrific question. I think that, in the broad sense, whether you’re talking about white or black, you’re talking about a crisis of knowing history in this country. So there’s a lot that we might assume people know, but that they don’t know.
Say, even if you have an older African-American audience that is more than aware that Muhammad Ali was involved in the anti-war struggles in Vietnam, what I try to do in those circumstances is quote from the speeches he did on college campuses. Or talk about some of the political debates that were actually happening within the Nation of Islam.
So, some of it is about reading an audience and simply make it worth their time to be there. I mean, they showed up to be there and I’m not going to tell an audience that really knows the issues and tell them something really obvious. But sometimes speaking to an audience white or black you have to do that. I mean, you talk about 1965 and you might as well be talking about 1865! It’s about taking a step back, reading your audience – effective or not effective, that’s just really-really hard to say. Some of that I measure in the one-on-one conversations I get into afterwards.
More than anything, I want people to have a good time. I want them to see history as something exciting and engaging and not something you associate with taking your vitamins.
DWil: have you ever, in a subversive way even, try to recruit white writers to the quote, dark side? Or have you tried to engage white writers in this discourse of race and sports and if so, have you seen any changes in them or their writing?
DZ: Yeah. Writing in the Internet Age is so important in general….
DWil: I’m talking about mainstream dudes…
DZ: Ahhh, mainstream cats. I see, because I’ve tried to do a lot of mentoring about encouraging people to be political, about encouraging people not to check their politics in at the door when they become writers.
DWil: Oh, okay. Feel free to get into that, too.
DZ: The first thing you talked about, about trying to flip a mainstream writer, I mean I gotta be honest with you, it’s like trying to enjoy shoveling sand in the ocean. I mean. I’ll do it but I’m not going to see a lot of results.
Once those guys are ensconced in a certain position, they’re there. I have to think more along the lines of, gee, can we work collaboratively, maybe say something about Jocks for Justice, or something. A lot of time I get writers who are hostile, but like Scoop is an exception. He’s open and will say, “I’m down with what you do.” Most of the times it’s people on the fringes whispering, hey I’m down with what you do. And I’m thinking well alright, that and a token will get me on the train.
What far more interesting to me is going up to College park to UMD (University of Maryland) or the University of the District of Columbia or talking with people over email about the importance of discovering their voice and being heard. Talking about the importance of finding writers who you like and getting in contact with those writers and find out who those writers like to read. Reading everything those writers like to read, and embarking on a process of self-education that doesn’t include reading the books in the syllabus. Then try to integrate that into whole areas of work.
Because not everybody, especially political people, they’re the last ones who didn’t get picked in gym class and they see sports as something that you can take to the cleaners. But you flip it to something like, oh, you’re into music or cars whatever. See if you can write with a sense of history about music or cars.
Mizzo: How do you feel about Scoop Jackson’s assertion that a young black child has a better chance of becoming an NBA player than he or she does a sports journalist?
DZ: Most people didn’t take the care to read Scoop’s explanation about that when he was so criticized. He was making a statement about mainstream media as opposed to saying – this is how Whitlock twisted it – by saying, ‘hey kids don’t try to learn how to write, play basketball.’ And that wasn’t the point of what Scoop was trying to say. He was trying to look hard at statistics and make a statement about white supremacy in the sports office.
Taking a step back from that and looking at it on the merit, as we think about opportunities in sports writing for young people of color and for women particularly, I think that the Internet is the best thing that ever happened. It’s one of those things that’s like, yo, if you feel you have something to say, say it. We’re not living back in the day of the 1970s when sports columnists switched about as often as the Pope, we’re living in a time where you can actually fight to get heard. And I encourage people not to get deterred from that process.
Mizzo: This leads to two obvious questions: What do you feel can be done to change this situation and do you feel you can use your status to positively influence this situation of getting more diverse opportunities for blacks in journalism?
DZ: The main thing that I try to do is use the connections I have when people get in touch with me is to help them get in touch with those folks. Because I don’t own a newspaper or the means by which news is produced there’s somewhat of a limitation, but I’ve never denied anybody who’s like who do you know at The Nation or who do you know at the LA Times an intro. That’s all I really can do. Because I don’t have any decision-making, money-making power, those aren’t the fields in which I play. But if there’s a way I can try to introduce people and get folks to know each other – all I know is that a lot of very good people did that for me when I was trying to figure stuff out. So I just want to keep paying that forward.
DWil: This is an age-old question for black people – that black people ask – where do we go from here?
DZ: The big one. Where do we go from here? I give all credit to Jason Whitlock for making this clear. Where we go from here is understanding that there’s a fight and a very real fight about how to understand the situation in which we find ourselves. And that folks are going to have to figure out which side they’re on and act accordingly. That is the main issue right now.
Do we understand that there are institutions in our society right now that are racist that need to be challenged explicitly, or do we choose to understand that the main problem is the music, it’s the culture, etc., etc. I mean, that’s such an age-old argument. It’s gaining a new life because of who’s manipulating the argument.
I think people have to realize that the era we’re about to come upon is going to be an issue not to find simply so much by the color of one’s skin, but by the power one holds in his heart. That’s been one of the good results of the Civil Rights movement was that it created a movement of economic mobility for African-Americans that didn’t exist before. But with economic mobility comes a serious diversification of ideas, some of which are not in the best interest for the majority of people of color.
But we are going toward the times when we are going to be defined – and I think Dr. King would smile on this, quite frankly – by the ideas that we hold in our hearts and not by the color of our skin.
DWil: To let you go here, man, do you have any final thoughts, or a final thought that you would like to leave people with?
DZ: If I wanted to leave people with one thing it’s support alternative media, support alternative voices, support The Starting Five, support websites that speak to issues you care about because the only way to ensure real diversity in the media spectrum is to fight to have you voice heard and fight to have the people whose opinions you respect have their voices heard as well.
DWil: Nice. With that, we’re done. Thank you Dave.
DZ: Thank you.