Sports & Resistance

— Peter Ian Asen

What's My Name, Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States
by Dave Zirin
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.
304 pages. $15 paper.

THE TWO MOST famous fists in American history belong to Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In 1968, Smith and Carlos finished gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter dash competition in the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Just months before, the two African-American men, both members of the Olympic Committee to Protect Human Rights (OPHR), had been considering a boycott of the games with their fellow OPHR members.

OPHR, which had been formed just before the ‘68 games, decided against the boycott that some members thought would have best advanced their demands — restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, stripped after his conviction for draft refusal; removal of Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and disinvitation of South Africa and Rhodesia from the games.

Smith and Carlos, however, had decided in advance of the games that they would still lodge a protest. On the trophy stand, the two men pulled black gloves over their hands, went shoeless to symbolize American poverty and, in a moment that many in the Black freedom movement will never forget, lowered their heads and raised their fists in a Black Power salute.

To anyone who knows a little political sports history, this story is commonplace. But the aftermath, which is detailed in Dave Zirin’s significant new book, is less celebrated, if just as instructive. Smith and Carlos were immediately ejected from the Olympic Village, stripped of their medals, and sent back to an America that was still healing from the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just months earlier.

At least in theory, John Carlos believed that the stand he had taken was worth the price. A medal, he said, “might bring you 15 minutes of fame. But what about the rest of your life?”

It would turn out to be an unfortunate question. As the heady 1960s transformed into the Nixon stained ’70s, John Carlos remained haunted by his pariah status. The counterrevolution was complete, if not fully televised, by 1977, when Carlos’ wife committed suicide.

Politics of Sports Activism

In What’s My Name, Fool?, a young writer pens an important history of American sports and resistance.

Stories like that of Smith and Carlos, which fill Zirin’s new book to the brim, have the power to both inspire and depress —  in today’s imperial parlance, to shock and awe. One does not have to be an athlete or even a sports fan to read this book and like it — Zirin’s writing is largely entertaining and accessible.

By the same token, a sports fan who is not interested in politics, and specifically, as the subtitle suggests, traditions of resistance, will find the book far less interesting than this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. (By the way, an SI tidbit from the book: in 2001, the only women to appear on the magazine’s cover were the swimsuit issue ladies — and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.)

Zirin works his forward all the way from the beginnings of institutionalized team sports in the early 20th century, as a tool to pacify the unwashed masses, to the present day, where it is... a tool to pacify slightly cleaner masses.

Well, at least so say spoilsports like Noam Chomsky, whom Zirin is no less willing to TKO than he is (from left to right) E.J. Dionne, John Kerry, Madeleine Albright, John McCain, and Dick Nixon. When addressing Chomsky’s oddly leftist version of anti-sports snobbery, Zirin deftly defends the importance of his book in one swing.

Chomsky’s argument, Zirin argues, “disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance...The story of the women’s movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King’s match against Bobby Riggs. The struggle for gay rights has to include a chapter on Martina Navratilova...When we think about the Black freedom struggle, we picture Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.” (21)

As longtime Communist sportswriter Lester Rodney, who campaigned for years in the Daily Worker against baseball’s color bar, says to Zirin, sports can be a model for progressive change because they are fundamentally about “[t]he idea of people coming together and amazing the rest of us.” Rodney, along with Robinson, Ali, Navratilova, and King [Billie Jean, that is], Carlos, Smith and many others, are the men and women who amaze us in Zirin’s ten chapters.

Our Heroes

Those who Zirin holds up as shining examples were not without controversy, even on the left. Robinson, for example, supported Republicans and ratted out Paul Robeson before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
This led Malcolm X to offer the following reproach, comparing Robinson to the man who would soon be called Ali. “[Cassius Clay] is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known,” Malcolm said, “and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero.”

But in What’s My Name, Fool? they are all our heroes, in all their contradictions. As the story of Carlos and Smith suggests, the heroism of Zirin’s sports rebels is a result not only of their acts but also of the fallout they survive in the aftermath.

The death of John Carlos’ wife is rarely surpassed amongst other resisters, but others certainly suffered: Ali, in losing his world championship; Navratilova, in enduring incredible homophobia (one opponent commented that Martina “must have had a chromosome loose somewhere”); Robinson, with the absurd racism and abuse he tolerated; Kareem Abdul Jabbar, being blacklisted from an NBA coaching job; and even Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) pioneer Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s perpetual reserve clause, shunted into obscurity in spite of Hall of Fame numbers and Hall of Fame political courage.

But there are some who remember, and who respect these achievements. There was the Black man, on his way to the electric chair, who yelled out “Save me, Joe Louis.”

There is Reggie Jackson, the famed slugger and car collector, who said that no one had impacted baseball more than Marvin Miller, the Steelworker organizer turned longtime MLBPA director. There’s even the player who suggested that Alex Rodriguez should be compelled to turn over 10% of his salary to Curt Flood.

Zirin himself, in the very act of writing a history has made an ultimate tribute. Out of appreciation for his work as a whole, one is loath to nitpick at the edges, but here goes.

Zirin is fond of the pithy and triumphal ending to his sections and chapters (“May their blood forever stain every flag that’s unfurled”); he cannot resist the occasional distracting and irrelevant joke (“You could not reproduce a character like George Foreman — unless Madeleine Albright had a love child with Bernie Mac.”)

More substantively, Zirin sometimes finds heroes where I see just another ballplayer. It is one thing to laud Allen Iverson for saying that “none of my heroes wear suits.” It is quite another to celebrate Iverson’s opposition to attending practice as a form of resistance, particularly when one has quoted Lester Rodney on “people coming together and amazing the rest of us.”

I am similarly conflicted about Zirin’s defense of Barry Bonds, who certainly should be applauded for calling Boston out for its racism, but is more complex when it comes to the issue of steroids. And I won't even get into Zirin’s defenses and celebrations of Kobe or Reggie White.

But these are minor concerns in the context of a lengthy, wonderful book. If I agreed with Dave Zirin on every issue, I would wish I had written What’s My Name, Fool? even more than I already do.

What I’m glad I didn’t write — or say — is a quote that Zirin gives us from Olympian Haley Cope, in an issue of Playboy in which she was shown in the nude with other 2004 Olympians: “I vote Republican,” Cope declared, “I worship Martha Stewart and I don't mind being naked.”

As Zirin writes, “And they say politics and sports don’t mix.” The two are mixed so far that we can never unmix them. At least Dave Zirin’s got the spoon, and the left hook. As some people wear the rubber wristbands hawked by Lance Armstrong (or now, by Michael Jordan), we might now wear black gloves and cart around Zirin's book. He will be among our heroes.

ATC 118, September-October 2005