More Power to the Fans: An Interview with Dave Zirin
It's an uphill battle, to be sure. Many fans look on major leagues as the ultimate form of escapism. They represent an oasis, a place to get all worked up over things that don't really matter. Next to figuring out immigration, the economy, race relations, war, and abortion, lamenting a tough playoff loss or your team's lack of a rebounding might as well be comfort food.
Feminists have long insisted that "the personal is political," and met with varying degrees of resistance for it. For Zirin, sport is always political -- whether or not that's a message we want to hear. Go ahead, accuse him of cherry-picking when he spotlights rabble-rousers like Etan Thomas or Josh Howard. When he calls foul on Stern's dress code, or takes issue with Team USA's Republican leadership, tuck him safely away in The Nation, away from the mainstream sports page.
But It's becoming harder and harder to ignore Zirin's perspective. Earlier this year, he was instrumental in fomenting for a boycott of the 2011 MLB All-Star Game in Arizona, a movement that has now been taken up by the players themselves. During the Los Suns saga, Zirin reported that union head Billy Hunter would like to see more in the way of NBA activism.
With Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love, published in July by Scribner, Zirin has made his most ineluctable case for the presence of politics in sports. While it takes great care to excoriate owners of every imaginable stripe, Bad Sports comes down to one simple truth: These people take our money in great gobs, often without our having a choice, and then don't have to answer for it.
They take it to get their stadiums, and then rob us blind at the gate and concession stands. They use their teams as platforms for their political views while discouraging players from doing so, deny fans good product, and threaten to move if they don't get their way.
Why, Zirin asks, are we resigned to this way of doing business? Why the passivity and fear in the face of bullies, charlatans, and folks whose sole qualification is having enough money to purchase a sports team? It's bad enough that owners are inept and infuriating; in large part, they maintain their power because we allow them to. Fandom, instead of being a form of empowerment, has become a burden, a weakness that makes us susceptible to owner demands.
We look the other way, or deal with the unacceptable, because the alternative -- losing a team -- is unthinkable.
More importantly, though, Bad Sports shows you just how inseparable the modern owner is from broader issues of policy, economics, and democracy. It's heady, even scary, stuff. And certainly, many will take issue, perhaps justifiably so, with the idea that fans can literally take a team back from an incompetent owner.
If nothing else, though, Bad Sports will convince you that owners have transformed their position into something that influences society-at-large, not just that part of the week you spend parked in front of the television. And yet fans need to stand up to owners precisely because they care about their sports teams. Otherwise, this attachment will continue to be used against them as, ironically, it atrophies into something unrecognizable.
I spoke to Dave about some recent trends in the NBA, and how they intersect with his far-reaching argument. Fittingly, the Blue Angels were practicing directly over my apartment during our call. The sonic booms ruined a few quotes, and some sort of high-tech weapons interference short-circuited my phone at least twice.
In the end, though, I think we got into some thangz. As a wise man once said, you can't stop the prophet.
Bethlehem Shoals: I wanted to start off by asking you about my latest NBA owner pet peeve. What do you make of teams firing, or low-balling, front office aces like Kevin Pritchard, Steve Kerr, or Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman in Denver?
Dave Zirin: I think it's an expression of a trend I discuss in the book: owners who act like when they buy a team, the fact that they have the funds to do so means that they automatically have some expertise. Not that anything has to go back to LeBron James or anything, but at the end of the day, James did not entrust his future with Dan Gilbert, he did not entrust his future with James Dolan -- he entrusted it with Pat Riley.
You have a very specific situation in Miami, where nobody thinks Mickey Arison runs the team. Pat Riley runs it. Arison is part of a dwindling breed of owners who put the basketball people in charge and say, "have at it!"
BS: I always thought it was strange that, when it came to free agency destinations, you heard precious little about the organizations themselves. The Bulls have coaches and their general managers fighting on the sidelines. And the Knicks ... well, that Isiah Thomas hire is exactly why a player might have had reservations about working for them.
DZ: That's been a big part of this, and one that hasn't been written about enough. Everyone's like,"Oh, LeBron's only 25 years old." No. He's played seven years. He's never been hurt. That's a lot of tread on the tires. And as we're seeing with that first generation of players who went straight from high school to the pros, there's a big difference between being Larry Bird, 23 year-old rookie, and LeBron James, who at 25 already has seven years in the league.
LeBron is saying, "Look, I have five really, really good years left. I'm actually at a point where I actually need to start thinking about whether there are going to be any championship rings at the end of the rainbow."
BS: Exactly, which is why you have to figure he would be interested in every aspect of these teams. You can't really expect him to just take them at their word, can you?
DZ: It will be very interesting to see if the new CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] has stricter rules about so-called "collusion" -- aka restrictions players' ability to even speak with one another.
I hated LeBron's choice to go to the Heat; I hated his choice to go to Dwyane Wade's team; I hated the way he handled that idiotic special on ESPN. But at the end of the day, this is what the legacy of Curt Flood is all about. It's about actually being able to make these choices, not having them made for you. And that still inflames owners -- particularly the ego-maniacal owners who feel like just because they own title on the club, they're entitled to expertise on the sport.
This is something I talk about in the book a great deal: you can't separate that from a much broader corporate culture in our country, where the people running Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, or the games we love, have this sense of entitlement. They're also separated from how regular people actually live their lives and understand concepts like freedom and democracy.
I think this applies to the press as well. After that Rolling Stone expose about General McCrystal, or the recent WikiLeaks thing, you had members of the so-called respectable media basically saying "oh, they abused this terrible trust by doing their job". It's the same way with a lot of sports journalists today. They don't have to deal with the issue of what it costs to bring a family of five to the park, or what it means to have to spend money on a s***y beer that costs eight or nine bucks.
This separation actually hurts the quality of investigative journalism, and of the writing, when they're trying to examine exactly what it is that ails sports today.
BS: There is a notion in this country that some nebulous form of credibility is more important than specialized knowledge. And as you write about in the book with George W. Bush, owning a sports team is a great path to gain all-purpose authority and importance. It's almost too easy. If you're paid, and can show it with a team, all of a sudden you can do anything.
DZ: As I've been doing this book, people always ask me "are there any owners that you like, who do a good job?" And the bar is very low. But I always come back to Mark Cuban.
I don't know anyone else who shows the same kind of discipline -- really, if you think about it, he does show a remarkable discipline. He's flamboyant, and obnoxious. But when it comes time to make those basketball decisions, it's Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle. You can't find another example of someone who is that Steinbrenner-ian in pursuit of press, while at the same time having the courage, almost -- well, that's not really the right word, but certainly the discipline -- to know where the line is. None of these other guys know where that line is.
BS: But Donnie Nelson is content to stay out of the spotlight. Pritchard (by design) or Kerr (because he's recognizable) would have gotten in the way of someone like Cuban.
Not to bring up LeBron again, but I'm wondering what you think the mini-max trend means for owners.
DZ: It's players exerting their power over owners. What the owners are seeing is the flip side of something that for the last several years, they've been pushing David Stern for [in the next CBA]. They wanted shorter guaranteed contacts; the owners think this is the cure-all for things like Ben Gordon's deal in Detroit, where they get locked into something that just looks awful as the years go on. Or Adonal Foyle's deal, to use another example. Erick Dampier. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Yet the flip side of having short-term max deals -- if that's the way of the walk from now on -- is you're going to see more players whose relationships with each other go back further and run deeper than in years past because of the AAU system, trying to figure ways in which they can play together. I think, on a lot of different levels, you're going to see this become the norm. The owners will have laid the groundwork for this and in the next CBA, they're not going to provide incentives for players to actually stay with their home team.
BS: And to think, I've spent two years claiming that these contracts were a way of putting pressure on front offices to do their jobs.
DZ: Well, past is prologue. Or, to use another cliché, it's easier to do an autopsy than an operation if you're trying to figure out what's wrong with somebody. So if we're doing the autopsy of that first round of mini-maxes, it looks far less like James, Wade, and Bosh were putting pressure on their teams, and more that they had the foresight to say they were putting pressure on their teams while trying to figure out a way to end up in the same place.
Now maybe that place hadn't been decided on yet, but at the very least we know now that the talk was there.
BS: I liked my version better. It was so much less nefarious.
DZ: I've got something in the next Progressive where I defend LeBron not on the basis of what he did, but on that question of choice. It's absolutely, positively his right to choose, and when people have this sense of entitlement regarding individual athletes, you get into some very bizarre, very morally nebulous territory, as if the athlete somehow owes the individual fan, or the organization, something.
Then we see, time and time again, that when the shoe is on the other foot, organizations are ruthless with regard to the way they handle athletes. They ask athletes to be Pollyannas toward their organizations when the reverse is not the case. It's just pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
BS: So what would owner accountability look like? Is there a list that could be handed to, say, George Shinn? Or is public ownership the only possible justice?
DZ: I would say that we need to make sure that owners do a certain group of things, or else there has to be a public debate and discussion about the city or the state putting the team in the hands of fans, or making it a public utility to serve the city. All I'm trying to do with this book is at least start a discussion about changing the terms of the debate here and changing some of these power relationships.
For example, in New Orleans, the city built George Shinn an arena, so tickets should be affordable to the public. You ask the public to foot the bill for these stadiums to socialize all the debt, and then the profit goes straight in the pockets of George Shinn. And people don't even get a chance to go to the games. Little things like that. Making sure that the price of refreshments are affordable for people.
If they can't do these small things we are asking to make sure we can pass these teams on to our kids, pass on these rooting interests, then there needs to be a discussion of how you wrest control away from this person, because they're not fulfilling their duty as a steward of that team. The team is not owned by George Shinn. It's owned in the hearts and minds of the people of New Orleans.
It's interesting, you go to Europe and see the relationship between football clubs and their fans ... they think the way we do things here is crazy. They see passive fans who aren't organized, who just go in and take in the game, and then don't care if they're priced out of their tickets, or don't care if there's a cable package they can't get, or have an NFL game blacked-out that Sunday.
In Europe, the idea that you just shrug your shoulders and take it, would be seen as absolutely asinine and insane.
BS: Isn't that pretty much the political dynamic in this country? There are lots of people in powerful positions doing an incompetent job. But how do you put them in line without half the country calling you a socialist or commie, or screaming about how this is America, not France?
DZ: I think sport provides an incredible opportunity to have this debate and have it out. I'll tell you this -- sports acclimated this country to the idea of socializing debt, corporate welfare, and privatizing profit. I think we've become inured to it through sports.
So if sports was used that way over the last twenty years, as stadium funding became a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country, I think we can flip the script and start having a debate about what fan ownership, what public ownership, really means.
Is this just the right-wing bogeyman of socialism rearing its ugly head? Or is this actually about us being able to do it better than private ownership? [Owners have] so spectacularly failed that it's time for us to step up to the plate. These teams have been run into the ground, destroyed. So it is time to start thinking about this space that is sports so it's not taken away from us. You can't say that the people of Los Angeles couldn't run the Clippers better than David Sterling. You just can't say that with a straight face.
BS: Too bad everyone's hung up on how greedy, power-hungry jerks like LeBron James are ruining basketball and cheapening the sport itself.
DZ: It's hilarious that the press went to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for the final word on this stuff -- without mentioning that Jordan owns the Bobcats; Magic is a minority owner of the Lakers; Bird, the longtime, absolutely hideous, general manager of the Pacers.
They talk to them as the Mount Rushmore of competitive players instead of actually saying "you know why these guys are so repelled by this? Because it shuts their teams out of this action."