Dave Zirin: You Can’t Separate Sports and Politics

Dave Zirin

Over the past decade, sportswriter Dave Zirin has had a front-row seat to the upheavals sweeping professional sports. From Colin Kaepernick to the Milwaukee Bucks’ strike for George Floyd, athletes aren’t shutting up and playing anymore.

Eric Reid (left, #35) and Colin Kaepernick (right, #7) of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the anthem prior to a game on September 12, 2016. (Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused induction in the US Armed Forces. The boxing champion objected to the Vietnam War, asking, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”

“[It] reverberated through the whole society,” said civil rights activist Julian Bond of Ali’s refusal. “[Y]ou could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war before began to think it through because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.”

In response, Ali was stripped of his title as the heavyweight champion. In Esquire, former boxing champion Floyd Patterson wrote, “The prizefighter in America is not supposed to shoot off his mouth about politics, particularly when his views oppose the Government’s and might influence many among the working classes who follow boxing.”

Ali’s resistance to the war remains one of the best-known examples of an athlete in the United States taking a political stand, but it is far from the only one. From Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball in 1947, to track star Eroseanna Robinson refusing to stand for the US national anthem at the Pan American Games in 1959, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists as the US national anthem played at the 1968 Olympics, athletes have long engaged in acts of protest.

The cover of Dave Zirin’s new book, The Kaepernick Effect.

Such is the lineage former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick joined when he began kneeling during the anthem in the 2016 season. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said at the time, adding, “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The repercussions were quick: the league was furious, and joined together to shut the rising star out. Kaepernick has not gotten an NFL contract since that season. But his actions reverberated across the country: other athletes began kneeling, and not only professional athletes. As Dave Zirin details in The Kaepernick Effect, high school and college students began kneeling, too, often in defiance of the wishes of their coaches, schools, and communities. In The Kaepernick Effect, these athletes tell their stories: why they did it, what happened afterward, and what they think now. On the occasion of his book’s release, Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke with Zirin.


Let’s start with Colin Kaepernick. What is he up to now, years removed from when he began taking a knee?


First, Kaepernick has fought the NFL for compensation for illegally colluding against him, for preventing him from working.

He’s not the type of figure these days who is on social media, commenting on the latest situation or figuring out where he can speak. He doesn’t really do interviews. The one time he has emerged was to give a statement for Mumia Abu-Jamal last year, which didn’t get nearly the publicity it should have. He’s also become an outspoken abolitionist on the question of prisons and police. He has edited a book about the politics of abolitionism with terrific authors, which will make a big contribution to the movement. He’s also involved in putting out a children’s book about what it means to be biracial and adopted, based on his own life. He’s putting out a series with Ava DuVernay about his life. So he’s got projects to keep him busy.

He still works out six days a week, and he could play in the NFL. He’s still young and could play very easily, but the league is determined to keep him out. It sees more value in making him a ghost story to scare current players, keeping them from speaking out, than in his potential to contribute to a team.

He’s chosen to let the symbolic value of what he did stand for itself. Sometimes people say, “Why doesn’t he do more?” In response, I think about something Dr John Carlos said. When Kaepernick first started kneeling during that 2016 season, John said to me, “I protested once during the anthem at the Olympics, and I’ve carried the weight of that for fifty years. He’s not only protesting once. He’s protesting for four straight months under the brightest lights.” So Colin made his stance, and now it’s up to us to take the baton and do something with it, which is what my book is about. It’s about all the people who took the language, the method of protest, that Colin Kaepernick put forward and put it into practice in their own communities.


And, to be clear, there was a settlement between him and the NFL as well as with Eric Reid, whose story got less attention than Kaepernick’s and who you interview in the book.


That settlement was meant to shut Colin up and allow the league to move on. But he refuses to do that, and the only way to actually move on would be to sign Colin. And, as you said, Eric Reid’s not in the NFL either right now, which is also a case of collusion. I believe that the collusion against Kaepernick and Reid is going to be the equivalent of when we think about Major League Baseball (MLB) and the color line, in that it will be a mark of infamy on the league for decades.


The NFL recently announced that it’s allowing players to choose from one of six slogans to put on the back of their helmets, if they so choose: “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inspire Change,” and “Say Their Stories.” It’s strange, a top-down decree over what kind of speech is allowed in the league.


It’s the oldest trick in the billionaires’ playbook: the carrot and the stick. The NFL has an overwhelmingly white audience that skews a bit conservative, and they’re terrified of pushing that audience away. NFL franchise owners tend to be very right-wing — just slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. Then you have a league that’s 70 percent black, where a lot of players are fed up with its institutionalized racism — you can count the number of executives and head coaches who are black on two hands, and the number of black owners on zero hands.

As former NFL player Michael Bennett said to me, people think the NFL is an integrated league, but it’s not. It’s segregated between those who work and those who live off their labor. He put it as: “those who work and those who watch. We both get paid, but only one of us has to limp away from the league.” That aspect of this league is one of the things that Kaepernick got people to think about inside NFL circles, about power and control, and why there aren’t guaranteed contracts, and why there are so few black executives. Just by protesting police violence, it raised a host of other questions.

So the NFL has to do the carrot and stick. The stick is keeping Kaepernick out of the league. The stick is the small number of black coaches. The stick is keeping ownership lily-white. The carrot is putting decals on helmets or starting a social justice committee. The carrot is having Roger Goodell, the commissioner and ultimate flak catcher, say, “We should have listened to Colin Kaepernick in 2016.” What they’re trying to do is keep billions and billions of dollars flowing. You have to keep the players somewhat assuaged, and you also have to keep the ownership and a huge section of the fan base assuaged, too.


Where are the unions in these stories? The NFL Players Association (NFLPA), in Kaepernick’s case, but also in other professional sports. In the book, Bruce Maxwell, a former catcher for the Oakland Athletics, says the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) “didn’t fucking help me. I was out there on my own. It took them three months to reach out to me, and it’s because I called [MLBPA president] Tony Clark.”


I write about organized labor and sports a great deal, and the Left makes a big mistake when they ignore sports unions. When people say sports unions can be very conservative, my first response is that unions can be very conservative, and sports teams are part of a broader union culture. The NFLPA is part of the AFL-CIO; these are not distinct entities.

One solidarity strike by the NFLPA could have gotten Kaepernick his job back. But they’re dealing with a league where, if you say “go on strike,” because the average career is only three or so years, you’re messing with some 33 percent of the income that a player may earn over the course of their lives. There’s a level of pressure that comes with that to make sure that you’re a league partner rather than someone who’s acting in opposition to the league. And it’s a league with a 100 percent injury rate, so there’s a lot for the union to deal with when it comes to health and safety, and that’s where their focus is.

I don’t know if it’s right to say that, from the beginning, Kaepernick and the union were at odds, but they were definitely on parallel tracks. I interviewed DeMaurice Smith, the head of the union, at the time, and his response was very general, affirming the right of any player to speak out and opposing any effort to punish that player. That position was pro-Kaepernick, but when it comes to action, you don’t see it. And Bruce Maxwell didn’t even get that level of rhetorical support from the MLBPA.

This is a broader problem. You asked where the unions are in Kaepernick’s story, which is a great question. I’d also ask, where have unions been in the Black Lives Matter movement? There are cases of local unions doing amazing things, and teachers’ unions particularly come to mind. But when you talk about the union movement as a whole, it’s a problem. This has been the largest social justice movement in the last hundred years and, I’d argue, the most important in our lifetimes. When the Milwaukee Bucks players went on strike after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, that spread to other leagues and introduced the strike into the Black Lives Matter movement, but it took the players dragging the union along to do it. That’s a dynamic we see in sports and, unfortunately, in the broader labor movement.


As you said, it was the players leading that action from the biggest possible stage, which then spread across teams and to other sports. Then, famously — or maybe infamously — Barack Obama spoke to LeBron James and Chris Paul, who was the head of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), on the phone. Obama said the strike should end, and it did — I’ll admit I’ve held a grudge against Chris Paul ever since then. How do you understand what happened in the NBA that led to players taking such a bold action, and what has transpired since?


Understanding the culture in the NBA that led to that moment starts with talking about LeBron James. From the beginning, LeBron James wanted to be more than just an athlete. LeBron’s early statements were that he wanted to be a billionaire like Bill Gates and as influential as Muhammad Ali. Those goals are in contradiction with each other: Muhammad Ali is a global icon because of what he sacrificed, not because of the money he made. But LeBron has spent twenty years trying to prove me wrong by becoming incredibly rich and also trying to be socially relevant.

One thing he has done is bend the culture of the league. There was the Michael Jordan NBA, defined by corporate power and money as end in itself. Then comes the LeBron James NBA, which is about: “We have this platform. We, the players, are the ones who built it, therefore we can use it to speak out about whatever the hell we want.”

You had LeBron coming into his own in Miami. Then you had the murder of Trayvon Martin, which plays very strongly into my book because all the people I interviewed spoke about Trayvon more than they spoke about Kaepernick when explaining their motivations. It became clear to me that Trayvon Martin is the Emmett Till of my daughter’s generation — if you were ten years old when Trayvon Martin was murdered, it marks how you saw this country. So, in 2012, LeBron and Dwyane Wade organized the Miami Heat to all wear hoodies, and that became the first viral social-media sports protest photo. The players saw the power of what social media can provide to an athlete who wants to speak out, and you had a new commissioner, Adam Silver, who took a step back, recognizing it’s a players’ league. That’s why the NBA and the WNBA have been this platform for the Black Lives Matter movement like no other league.


The number of people in the book who mention Trayvon Martin is striking. The other moment that marks the athletes’ narratives is the George Floyd uprising. How do you see those moments intertwining?


The book changed dramatically while I was writing it. I began writing it at the start of the pandemic, and the goal and thesis were modest. I knew some of these stories of athletes who had taken a knee in different places — in small towns and big cities alike — and had a huge effect on their communities, and I felt like they were being forgotten. I wanted to hear more from the people who did it, more about the fallout and how it affected them, more about how it transformed them. But then the summer of 2020 happened, and the thesis was different. There were many roads that led to the summer’s protests — people came out in the streets for different reasons — but without question, one of the roads runs straight through the athletic fields of the United States.

You can’t see that connection in the same way in the 1960s. I’m not talking about people like Tommie Smith, John Carlos, or Muhammad Ali, but in the 1960s, the jocks were the reactionaries. Take the famous story at Columbia University: when the 1968 occupation happened, the coaches organized the athletes to picket around the building so food couldn’t get in. But here, you have athletes saying they’re fed up and that Kaepernick showed them how to start a discussion in their communities; a key by which they can be heard as athletes.


Just speaking for myself, I definitely have a tendency to dismiss the importance of protest among professional athletes because, oftentimes, these are rich people, celebrities, and I hate so much about the culture of celebrity. Part of me wants to ignore it. But when athletes protest, it reaches people, whether that’s Ali, the NBA strike, or Kaepernick.


Being an athlete in this country provides a unique platform to speak out. Think about how hollowed out this country is: community organizations or recreation centers, public squares or town hall meetings, so much of that has been gutted. As we become more isolated, particularly in small towns, the athletic field is the last communal space. The impact of an athlete speaking out in such a community space is so much more than, say, someone in Hollywood. There’s a different relationship between sports and a community, versus other cultural products under capitalism.


You’ve been writing about sports for around twenty years. From your vantage point, have things changed in sports coverage itself? I’m thinking, for example, about how so many sportswriters referred to the Bucks’ action as a boycott rather than a strike — it was clear that sports media largely lacks the language to discuss much of what athletes, Kaepernick among them, are doing. Have things changed as sports has become increasingly explicitly politicized?


The game has changed dramatically. Sportswriting is as polarized as the country we live in. You have big media entities like ESPN that are hostile to thinking about politics, or that want to present a very homogenized version of it. You also have a right-wing edge of dregs and bottom-feeders who have decided that sports can be a great tool in the culture wars, and they’ll use sports as an instrument of racism, sexism, or homophobia. Look at the way the Right has organized themselves to demonize transgender athletes. The same way that the young people in my book understand the power of sports in a community, so do these very powerful right-wingers. They’ve gone after trans athletes. They go after women when they are sports announcers. Sports as a culture-war hot potato is different from twenty years ago.

But the exciting thing is that, when I started writing about political athletes, it was hard to find. Fast-forward to the present, and there’s so much to write about. Again, that’s because sports have become as politicized and polarized as our society. And there are a lot more people writing about it in that way. That can create challenges, but I’ll take it any day over being a lonely voice in the wilderness.


Is there anything else you want to say about this moment in sports history?


This year, 2021, has been a year of the reassertion of hierarchy in sports. After all the stuff we talked about — from the Milwaukee Bucks strike that spread all the way through sports, to all the athletes who stood with the protests over the summer of 2020, to people like Naomi Osaka wearing face masks with the names of people who were killed by police on them at last year’s US Open — what you’ve seen this year is that part of getting “back to normal,” which is the mantra of corporate America, is a reassertion of hierarchy. They’re saying to these athletes, okay, you had your fun in 2020, and now the boss is back. I don’t know how athletes are going to respond to that, but I do believe that the situation is volatile enough in the broader society that the game is far from over.