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John H. McWhorter
All Over the Field
Dave Zirin’s new “sports” book tells us more about the author than anything else.
28 June 2007

Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, by Dave Zirin, foreword by Chuck D (Haymarket Books, 258 pp., $16.00)

It’s not easy to glean just what Dave Zirin’s Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports is supposed to be about. Racism in the sports industry? This would seem to be the link among chapters claiming that the uproar over Barry Bonds’s alleged use of steroids was racist, bemoaning the declining number of black major league baseball players, and recounting Roberto Clemente’s protests against Jim Crow. But eventually the book becomes a smorgasbord: Zirin’s interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal on what he thinks about racism in sports, Zirin’s opinions about the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams (who wasn’t an athlete), former NBA player John Amaechi’s coming out of the closet, how Amaechi feels about Ann Coulter, and so on.

After a while, therefore, it starts to become clear what Zirin’s book is—or rather, isn’t: it is not, properly speaking, a book at all, but a collection of Zirin’s rants on a variety of sports-related topics that tie in to his leftist politics. Fittingly, Zirin is a sports columnist who also writes for The Nation.

Zirin typifies much of the hard Left in viewing himself as a paragon of higher awareness while engaging in the same visceral, unreflective mudslinging that he reviles among people on the right. For him, conservatives are people who casually assume that “injustice is the tolerable status quo,” and David Brooks is a “Republican stenographer,” rather than the almost ponderously reflective soul who writes New York Times columns.

Not even liberals escape Zirin’s ire: Tom Friedman is a “globo-pornographer” (I take it that Zirin intends this as a mammary-related pun directed at Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which is representative of Zirin’s attempts at humor) and the U.S. Postal Service is to be condemned for depicting Paul Robeson and Malcolm X smiling on commemorative stamps.

Not an easy man, this Zirin. Yet if all this invective were in the service of a coherent point, we could say he’s full of the dickens but on to something, à la Christopher Hitchens. Instead, he is the man with a hammer to whom everything is a nail, sacrificing logic and consistency for recreational indignation.

Take his animus against major league baseball for bringing Dominicans to training camps with no concern for teaching them how to make a living if they do not end up having careers in the big leagues. Okay—but then we get a whole chapter excoriating NBA commissioner David Stern’s proposal that basketball players not enter the league until age 20, requiring that they spend their years after high school getting an education to fall back on if their careers don’t pan out. While Stern is proposing exactly the kind of stewardship Zirin sees lacking for Dominican baseball players, somehow it isn’t good enough. Zirin fumes that no one has told Dakota Fanning not to act until she was 20. Faced with a choice between calling people racists and making sense, Zirin prefers the former.

According to Zirin, the reason there are so many fewer black baseball players today than 20 years ago is because black parents can’t afford baseball equipment for their kids. But surely black parents were no more able to afford equipment in the sixties and seventies. And as for Barry Bonds’s being dumped on even in part because he is black, Zirin does not bother to imagine how things might play out if a white player were under the same cloud, and like Bonds, were poised to break Hank Aaron’s home-run record. I can readily imagine public condemnation of such a player, especially if he were as unsavory a human being as Bonds is universally agreed to be.

In his contempt for David Stern’s decree that basketball players stop doing interviews in full “thug” regalia, Zirin exemplifies an old white lefty tendency: believing that Not Being a Racist means exempting black people from basic civic responsibilities. Thug regalia symbolize violence, aloofness, and dismissal, and symbolism matters. Zirin understands this well when it comes to the Confederate flag or Hitler salutes, which he invokes frequently in other contexts.

Stern is hardly a benighted bigot in effectively calling for representatives of a capitalist enterprise to dress for work, especially when polls, some conducted by the NBA itself, reveal that basketball players are increasingly unpopular with ordinary Americans. Last time I checked, even rapper/mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs looked pretty good in jackets and suits. When the Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson pretended not to understand symbolism and said, “You can put a murderer in a suit and he’s still a murderer,” he unwittingly strengthened Stern’s point.

Black people fought for their freedom to be normal, not to be rebels. However, I suspect that Zirin would disagree: he wants black people to practice anti-authoritarianism in order to Speak Truth to Power. But once again Zirin cancels himself out: apparently black people are to channel their inner Malcolm X (not smiling, mind you) even if the basketball industry makes less money as a result—and pays its players (who are mostly black) less.

“If you’re politically active, you’ll love this book,” Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel gushes in a blurb. Note the assumption that “politically active” means leftist, as if other positions were unworthy of the label. But the self-congratulatory rhetoric of leftism, when translated into policy, neglects the very people the leftist claims to be concerned about, or worse, holds them back. Welcome to the Terrordome, despite its good intentions, is an object lesson in how lefties who affect to be looking out for blacks are often looking out for no one but themselves.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Race and Ethnicity. His most recent book is Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America (2006).

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More by John H. McWhorter:
Marrying Out
Do We Really Need Black History Month?
Mr. Mimic
More . . .
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