Dave Zirin on sports, politics, homophobia & making sports an 'anti-sexist safe space"

USA TODAY Sports

This past week, Dave Zirin of The Nation visited the Bay Area for a few speaking engagements and appearances in support of the San Francisco Giants concession workers. During Zirin's appearances at SoleSpace and on local radio, he discussed mixing sports and politics, homophobia in sports, and the role of women's sports in helping sports culture evolve into an "anti-sexist safe space".

The Oakland Local article previewing Dave Zirin's speaking event on Friday night in downtown Oakland opens with Aristotle's principle that, "...man has the power of speech, a sense of good and evil, just and unjust and a need for community. Without these, he's pretty much a stateless barbarian - a total jerk, if you will."

Well, as an introvert - who draws energy from being alone but isn't afraid of being in public, which can sometimes lead to me being read as a total jerk - that's what I decided to do for my birthday on Friday night.

Zirin was joined by local radio host Weyland Southon and Mary Tillman, mother of former NFL player and decorated U.S. ranger Pat Tillman. With Jason Collins and Brittney Griner coming out recently, I figured that Zirin would mention Griner and thus women's basketball at some point and he actually had more to say about women's basketball than I might have expected.

Southon and Zirin went over most of the major points discussed at Friday's event in Saturday's Father Figures show on KPFA (click here to listen), but the following is just a list of some of the highlights (tangentially) relevant to women's basketball in no particular order.

  • One of the very first things he addressed was the notion that sports and politics somehow don't mix by saying pretty much the same thing he said on KPFA: "It's become ridiculous to say sports & politics don't mix." Simple. But the point he made on Friday night was that sports are in fact political whether it be due to the owners' relationships with politicians or specific ways in which sports culture reinforces attitudes, norms, and values that extend from and/or influence the policies that govern our daily lives. The "mix" only becomes a problem, says Zirin, when people start challenging the status quo politics already at work in sports.

  • As the prime example of the mixing of sports and politics, Tillman's presence put the Pat Tillman story front and center. Having her there to tell her struggle with the U.S. Military just to get the truth about her son while the NFL and sports media either ignored or distorted the story was a powerful, though perhaps extreme, example of how sports and politics do collide but are often crammed into frames that fit the narrative leagues and journalists want to tell. I won't elaborate on that here, but Tillman mentioned Stan Goff as a journalist who represented her cause well and made Zirin blush when she mentioned his advocacy for her family's struggle. For even more on that story, there's also the 60 Minutes story on Tillman.

  • After the event began we were handed fliers about the San Francisco Giants' concession workers' strike and Zirin addressed that early on. Not necessarily related to women's basketball, but the greed of sports owners was a theme throughout the night and Zirin just wrote a piece about that Saturday that reflect the thoughts he shared that night.

  • Some additional food for thought about the Bay Area, money, and pro-sports: With the Warriors moving to San Francisco, the A's threatening to move south of Oakland, and the Raiders returning to the city with a crippling fiscal deal, Zirin said that Oakland has a case for being the city most screwed by professional sports in the nation, adding the caveat that there's plenty of competition for that title. I do have thoughts on the Warriors deal, but I'll save that for a Warriors site somewhere maybe.

  • One of the recurring themes that came up through questions and Zirin's comments was the state of youth sports. Zirin has written about that previously, but I bring that up here because of how he linked that to women's issues: as he said in the KPFA interview, there is a connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. And that starts when kids are young and are made celebrities without any real power, paid in getting girls as trophies, and put on a pedestal by adults behaving like children. That mix of entitlement, hyper-masculinity, and premature power feeds rape culture (which is described well here and here).

  • When asked about the significance of Jason Collins and Brittney Griner coming out, Zirin noted that beyond Collins being the first in the four major sports to come out along with Griner coming out is about sports unlearning a century of homophobia. As he's described elsewhere, since the dawn of formal youth sports in the U.S., boys have been encouraged to show masculinity by being someone who doesn't "...show vulnerability, doesn't show pain, and equates any kind of sensitivity with weakness and with being gay. This goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, who popularized the term ‘sissy' for people who didn't play violent sports." By differentiating between powerful/strong male athletes & sissies, that meant a) females are necessarily excluded & b) girls who wanted to play sports were considered to be exhibiting male characteristics. Of course, that leads to something else: if women are acting like men they must be lesbians; if men are acting like "sissies" it's not a leap to call them gay. Given the way that masculinity has largely defined jock culture, Collins coming out does a bit more to blow up some of these enduring gender definitions.

  • All of this points to an over-arching theme of Zirin's talk and radio show interview: "We gotta reclaim sports culture. We have to see sports become an anti-sexist safe space." During his talk on Friday night, he noted that women's sports are a direct challenge to that jock culture-rape culture connection because it turns these entrenched notions of gender on their head. During his radio appearance he mentioned something he didn't on Friday night, borrowing from what Zerlina Maxwell told Fox News host Sean Hannity: "Anti-sexual assault trainings should be underwritten by the NFL, all sports leagues."

  • Not to ignore Tillman here, she had some interesting points related to youth sports that could easily apply to boys and girls: 1) she mentioned how youth sports were more "pure" when her sons were coming up; 2) as a special education instructor, she observed that for many youth dealing with learning disabilities sports can be the one domain where they feel empowered among their peers, despite some of the problems with youth sports that Zirin has observed.

  • Oh, and shout out to DJ Max Champ. I think I dapped him up twice while perusing Sole Space on Friday night.

So why does any of this matter to Swish Appeal?

One of the audience comments that really stood out to me as someone who has been involved with basketball, social justice projects and/or youth sports at various periods in my life were the two separate people who stood up just to say that he appreciated having the space to discuss these issues at once.

And I suppose I wouldn't have bothered spending the night of my birthday (at the best event I've ever been to) at a shoe store if I didn't feel similarly.

We've had the discussion about whether sports and politics mix here at Swish Appeal and sometimes they "collide" suddenly in ways that result in frustration for all involved. That frustration is exactly why some sites around SB Nation and elsewhere on the web simply decide not to mix the two.

And the reasoning behind outlawing even vaguely political talk on sports sites makes sense: to another point Zirin made, those moments of camaraderie, inspiration and pure joy are so rare in our society that sports are valuable to the extent that they offer us spaces to appreciate those unfettered by the weight of the real world. I get that sports talk is often "sanitized" for the explicit, and often escapist, purpose of accentuating similarities over difference (to the point of tribalism, when keeping it similar goes wrong).

But the question should never be about whether to mix sports and politics but whether to willfully separate them when they're already so connected - politics are at work in sports, whether it's a black coach in the NFL, the complex Tillman story, feelings activated by the Magic and Larry dynamic, or a pair of players coming out around the same time. Politics - in the broad sense of the cultural attitudes, norms, and values that extend from and influence the policies that govern our daily lives - are "always already" there.

And as a women's basketball site, it's really silly to try to avoid that connection.

I probably don't have to bring up specific examples of how sports and politics have come together in women's basketball over the last few years, but suffice it to say that I'd think that we - both community members and the mods/writers here - could probably stand to do a better job of engaging those issues as a collective and exchanging perspectives when things do arise. That could include you all posting fan shots to links of things that you find important, us seeking out more interviews on relevant topics, or just doing a better just of being civil and thoughtful in the comments instead of combative and divisive.

We should probably draw the line to some extent at bickering about partisan electoral politics, but this definitely should be a space where people can intelligently discuss gender dynamics, sexuality, race, and just what it means to our society to have a women's professional sports league around for so long.

And I'm not really saying that just because I listened to Zirin talk for an hour or two.

Obviously, we already do some of that - some might say too much ("There's a whole section on it," the apolitical sports fan might say in an exasperated tone). But ultimately, I'd actually like this site to be more of that safe space where we can openly discuss those things and do our part to reclaim some of the positives of sports in our little corner of the internet.

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