Malcolm's Reviews > A People's History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play

A People's History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin
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May 04, 12

bookshelves: sport-studies
Read from April 27 to May 01, 2012

This book deserves to be widely read – my fairly restrained rating is explained below; bear with me please. The (political) left has, for too long written sport off as a distraction from the real work of politics, as the world of bread and circuses making capitalism and the state safe for those in power – a view that sits somewhere between patronising and a foolish failure to recognise the vital role that the everyday life of working people plays in their consciousness and awareness. We don’t have to go far to hear contempt expressed for the plutocrats who own major sports teams, regret over what wholesale injection of outrageous amounts of money has done to athletes (while recognising that it has allowed many of them to hone their craft), rejection of the corporate circuses that are the global mega-events of various world cups and Olympic games, superbowls and other (to my mind) nausea inducing moments of ostentation. Yet, for the most part, the Left treats sport as a sideshow to the real world of politics – something that may surprise the working people of Atlanta expelled from their homes to build an ‘athlete’s village’ that priced them out of their communities, the people of London’s East End who have lost public space to a corporate enclave that is becoming a security island testing new surveillance technology, the Bangladeshi workers making big label sports clothes and good and who die in sweatshop fires while the labels they work for cream huge profits, and countless others who suffer at the hands of the sport industries and their corporate masters. Although this book has been in my to-read pile for an awfully long time, I was looking forward to this history of US sports by one of the sharpest of the current sports writers (and one of the few openly asserting a political position from well to the left of centre) in a series launched by Howard Zinn, whose ‘people’s history’ series has been consistently impressive.

That said, I may be the wrong person to legitimately pass too much comment on this book – given that I am professional sports historian (yip, that’s my job, as I hear so many chaps out there sigh with envy). First up, this should probably be entitled ‘A People’s History of Sports in the United States during the 20th Century’, given that we reach that period after only 31 pages (leaving almost all of the remaining 230 pages to this period). Now, I accept that, the team sports that are the (not exclusive) focus of Zirin’s discussion here trend to have reached their mature forms in the 20th century, but I was surprised by the absence of, for instance, Tom Molineax – the former Virginia slave turned prize fighter who dominated that sport in Britain in the early 19th century, surely worth a mention in the context of ante-bellum sport.

I accept that all authors need to make really difficult decisions about what stays in our texts and what goes out, and that Zirin is writing for a broad audience – and to his credit the opening line of his acknowledgements recognise the many things that “ended up on the cutting room floor” followed by a call to petition the publishers for a Volume II. What’s more, I do not want to appear as if I am one of those anoraks (sports history nerds – for non-British readers) playing at anachronist shouting ‘but what about’ from the corner, so Dave, consider this a ‘what should be in the next volume plea’. Many of the key things are here – the stories of Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, the 1968 Olympics, the difficult desegregation of baseball and the disastrous effect on the Negro Leagues, the reactionary politics of the US Olympic Committee (especially but not only Avery Brundage in his support for the Berlin Olympics as fascist celebration), the active marginalisation of women.

Furthermore, I recognise the faultline that is the politics of race that runs through US popular culture, the marginalisation and oppression of African-Americans, the conflation of urban injustice, race and class that is encapsulated in so much African American life – and as a result the prominent place that politics of race needs to play in histories of American sport. That said, race often becomes African American, so there are groups whose absence is marked – aside from the great Roberto Clemente, Latinos do not play a prominent part in the book despite the important tales of US imperialism that are encapsulated in baseball farming in the Caribbean. There are, as far as I could see, only two references to Native American athletes (Jim Thorpe & Billy MiIlls) despite the prominent place of Native athletes in early 20th century baseball and the vital role of, say, the Carlisle Indian School’s football team in the development of the game in the early 20th century, or the way the Fort Shaw Indian School ‘girls’ basketball team dominated the game at the St Louis Olympics in 1904 – beating the US National team to become ‘champions of the world’ and the ‘aboriginal days’ and the 1904 Olympics designed to assert a naturalised politics of whiteness-as-logical-dominance. These instances are well known to sports historians, but have become obscured in broader popular discourse, and are, I think, things followers of contemporary sport need to know. It was good to see, however, good treatment of the place of baseball in the camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during WW2 (surely one of the great times of shame in US history).

Women play an ambiguous role in the book, but remain relatively marginal – which in a sense is a fair reflection of the world of sport. It doesn’t however help when slips of the keyboard (I hope) mean that we are told on p199 that Arthur Ashe was “the first person of African descent to win a grand slam tennis title” – the US Open in 1968 – when we already been told on p 122 that Althea Gibson “won both Wimbeldon and the US Open on her way to becoming the first African American women to be named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year”; surely an perplexing definition of ‘African descent’ if it excludes the Harlem born and raised Gibson. That said, many of the key moments in assertion of women in the masculinist world of sport are here – the women’s professional baseball league of the 1940s and ‘50s, the politically savvy organising of one of sport’s highest profile white working class women, Billie Jean King, the complex corporate place of late 1990s women’s soccer, Althea Gibson’s challenge to the class and race politics of 1950s tennis. I suspect, however, that Zirin’s focus on team sports exacerbated the relative exclusion of women from this ‘people’s history’.

More surprising is a seeming exclusion or downplaying of class as a primary dynamic – or perhaps an obvious focus on the white working class; King is the only obviously white working class athlete who plays a major role in the book. This may be the product of a team sport focus, but is also likely to be part of the corporatisation of US sport and distinctive place of college sport in the US sports system.

Finally, Dave if you do get to do a Volume 2, please include a further reading list – there is an awful lot that is out there (so much more than appears in the, sadly, quite limited reference list).

I’m left with two problems in writing a commentary however – the first is identified earlier, I do this stuff for a living as an academic/professional historian of sport and place myself firmly on the Left so much of what I read here I had encounter before leading to the ‘but-what-about’ response. This probably accounts for only ‘liking’ this – not a more effusive response. In other words, I think I was disappointed in part because of my expectation, and in part because I suspect I am not the intended audience, which leads to my second concern. I wonder who the intended audience is; I hope it is widely read by sports fans and by people on the left but wonder how many have/will (all should!).

So, please read this – but remember, as Zirin implies in his acknowledgement, this barely scratches the surface of a(n alternative) people’s history of US sport.
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