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A People's History of Sports in the United States
By Dave Zirin
Reviewed by Ian Slattery
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in the city were left homeless. Those sheltering in the Superdome were probably there for the first time, as a ticket to see the football team would have cost $90 at least, while a year in the corporate boxes would set you back more than $100,000.
Dave Zirin's book attempts to address not only the modern contradictions of sport, as both a people's pastime and a plaything for the rich, but also chronicles the struggles that sport has exposed, ignored and often ignited.
The chapters on the struggle for black rights are fascinating. Baseball, for example, had an unwritten but blatant colour barrier - an agreement that the professional major leagues would stay all-white - which was only broken in 1947. The efforts of African-Americans in World War Two forced team owners to begin to recognise that they too have 'what it takes' to play professional sports.
Even then, the transition was slow and extremely painful for the initial few players. The 'Negro League' - a professional baseball league set up by the black baseball community with black players - was far more important to the black working class.
Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, long before African-Americans had won many basic rights in the US. To the joy of the black working class, Johnson beat the former champion, and white supremacist, Jim Jeffries - a victory that sparked race riots in almost every town and city.
Other stories in Zirin's book highlight the role that sports stars, given a voice and a platform similar only to actors and musicians, can play in exposing serious political issues.
Many stood out in the anti-Vietnam war protests, perhaps most famously and, in terms of his global reach, effectively, boxer Muhammad Ali. He openly refused to be conscripted early on in the war, before the anti-war movement was at its peak, and took jail and expulsion over a cushy, non-military role. His stand was front page news, sparking celebrations over the refusal to fight in a horrific war.
Unfortunately Zirin does not go far enough in explaining the downside of having sporting figures, or pin-ups of any other type, held up as the saviour for any given situation. This ignores the role of the mass movement necessary in any successful campaign, and puts enormous pressure on an individual to live up to the expectations of millions of people.
With the book's focus on the role of athletes in politics it does, despite the title, gloss over and underestimate the role of the working class. He only fleetingly mentions the Russian revolution, the various uprisings of 1968, the international movement against the Vietnam and Gulf wars. Yet these events, especially the 1917 Russian revolution, were crucial to giving confidence and inspiration to the American working class and helped politicise the athletes of the time.
Zirin focuses on the US but sport has also played an important role internationally. Cricket, to take just one sport not touched on in the book, has been at times a metaphorical weapon against colonialism for the masses of India, Pakistan, the West Indies and other countries.
Zirin's book suffers from a lack of writing on more recent issues, an absence he puts down to a decline of politics mixing with sport in recent years. Yet followers of football in Europe will know that some matches, particularly in Spain and Eastern Europe, have seen a rise in racial tension, while Italian football has sometimes resembled a battleground for the far-right.
However, implicit in A People's History of Sports is the need for an end to capitalism if sport is to fully breathe. Under capitalism sport will continue to be run by the ruling class for the benefit of their bank balances only. Instead, sport must be organised for the benefit and, most importantly, the enjoyment of all.
In The Socialist 28 January 2009:
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