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Politically outspoken sportswriter and author Dave Zirin talks about John Carlos ... and Tim Tebow. 

Why are some commended for speaking, yet others are told, in short, to shut up and play?

click to enlarge Dave Zirin visits Pittsburgh to screen and discuss the film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports
  • Dave Zirin visits Pittsburgh to screen and discuss the film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports

Every neighborhood has one: a kid who is always digging in the dirt, never sure what he or she will find, who delights in unearthing and examining the unexpected. Dave Zirin was probably that kid.

Zirin is a sports journalist, one who explores not just the games, but the money, politics and social implications behind them. As a journalist who pokes around with a big stick, he makes some uncomfortable and others downright angry. In the wake of the child-rape scandal at Penn State University, for instance, Zirin assailed State College as "a company town where moral posturing acted as a substitute for actual morality." But as Zirin told CP by phone from his Washington, D.C., home, he gets under the skin of "all the right people." 

Zirin is sports editor of The Nation magazine and the author of books including Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. He maintains a blog and a satellite-radio show, both called The Edge of Sports, and has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC's Morning Joe and ESPN's Outside the Lines. His recurring theme is the confluence of sports and politics. "It's not politics in the abstract," he says. "It's about power and sports." 

On Thu., Dec. 1, in Pittsburgh, Zirin will show and discuss Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports. Zirin co-wrote this new, hour-long documentary about the dovetailing of American sports and sexism, racism and homophobia. The event is sponsored by the International Socialist Organization.

"We're gonna talk about the past, present and future intertwining of politics and sports, and how they continue to reflect and bounce off each other," he says. 

Recently, Zirin teamed with Olympic sprinter John Carlos to write The John Carlos Story (Haymarket Press). Carlos and Tommie Smith were the two sprinters who raised their fists in protest on the medal dais at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Both were vilified at the time, and their protest remains a source of contention even today. The image of Smith and Carlos, medals around their necks, heads bowed, fists raised, remains one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. But over time, the voices behind those images were lost. 

"They were buried for decades," says Zirin. "We wrote the book to correct some misperceptions, but also to tell a story -- the story of a person standing on principle and paying a huge price for it."

According to the book, Carlos and Smith wore black gloves to symbolize their strength, and beads around their necks to symbolize the lives lost to lynching. They stepped onto the podium shoeless to symbolize the poverty of the African-American community. Carlos and Zirin write, "I thought about a world in which I was encouraged to run, but not to speak."

Zirin often highlights athletes like Carlos, who defy convention by speaking out. But though he stands with Carlos (whose story also figures in Not Just a Game), Zirin has, at other times, criticized the mixing of sports and politics. In Bad Sports, he excoriates the Colorado Rockies for using the publicly funded Coors Field to promote fundamentalist Christianity; on his blog, he has criticized the NFL for shamelessly exploiting the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And he has criticized Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow's vocal support of Focus on the Family, for whom Tebow famously appeared in an anti-abortion ad. 

What's the difference between John Carlos using sports as a platform and Tim Tebow doing so? 

"I have nothing against an athlete using their position to talk about what they think, it doesn't matter what their politics are," says Zirin. "But when it comes to somebody like Tebow, I find it incredible that he's outspoken and gets every advantage, every chance to prove he's an NFL quarterback" whereas someone like Carlos is condemned.

The issue is not Carlos or Tebow per se, but how those voices, those men and their respective causes are framed by the media, regarded by sports-world authorities and consumed in mass culture. Why are some commended for speaking, yet others are told, in short, to shut up and play?

"It's about sports and a certain kind of politics, about whether or not they reflect the politics of ownership, and that tends to make a huge difference," says Zirin. "I think it's pretty easily provable that the owners and the execs of sports networks tend to be to the right of the spectrum. It's all very corporate-minded."

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DAVE ZIRIN presents Not Just a Game 7:30 p.m. Thu., Dec. 1. First Thursday Forums sponsored by the International Socialist Organization. Friends Meeting House, 4836 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. $2 suggested donation. isopittsburgh.blogspot.com.

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